Cangjie created writing and the ghosts wailed at night

“When Cangjie created writing, Heaven rained millet and the ghosts wailed at night” 蒼頡作書而天雨粟鬼夜哭.

The above cryptic statement comes from the Huainanzi 淮南子, a text compiled during the 2nd century B.C. Since there are very few details regarding the invention of writing in China, it is all the more puzzling to have something that makes so little sense as this. Why were the ghosts wailing? And why did Heaven rain millet? Why millet?

In his book on the origin of Chinese writing, Professor Boltz (1994) collects the available evidence that could help to understand these strange events. He quotes Gao You’s 高誘 commentary from the early 3rd century A.D., which explains that this was because when people knew how to write, they turned away from “the basics and busied themselves with the peripheral… Heaven knew of their impending hunger, and so made it ‘rain millet’ for them. Ghosts feared they would be impeached by written records, so they ‘wailed in the night.'” (tr. Boltz 1994: 132).

Feeling the weak logic in this argument, Professor Boltz goes further and introduces another possible explanation from Anna Seidel’s (1993) work, the bottom line of which is that writing could be used to ward off demons and their malevolent effects by writing down their names.

Whether the authors of the Huainanzi had the same in mind when they wrote that passage remains a mystery. But it is interesting that a similar kind of argument appears in a “ghost story” collected orally by modern ethnographers from informants near Taicang 太倉 in Jiangsu province (Zhongguo guihua 中國鬼話, pp. 507-508). According to this story, Cangjie was instructed by Fuxi, the Great Thearch 伏羲大帝, to teach people how to read and write in order to help them remember things. But this was opposed by Taishang laojun 太上老君 (i.e. Laozi) because if people became too smart, that would upset the tranquility of Heaven. Thus in an attempt to prevent Cangjie from continuing his work, he gathered together the various spirits 神靈 and the ghosts of the deceased 前世鬼魂 and ordered them to scare away the people who studied with Cangjie. So these spirits and ghosts wailed by Cangjie, telling people that Cangjie was going to harm them. In order to continue his task, Cangjie had to create a Yinyang Taiji Bagua Chart 陰陽太極八卦圖 to control the ghosts. So this is the same type of function of writing as mentioned above, although in this case the ghosts were controlled as a way of stopping their wailing. But this was an act for which Cangjie got punished himself, and this is why there is no shrine dedicated to him.

Obviously, this story is part of modern folklore the essence of which based on a literary source (i.e. the Huainanzi). It is unlikely that it preserves any information about what the passage in question in the Huainanzi means, but at least it tells us how people in later times interpreted it.

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3 Responses to Cangjie created writing and the ghosts wailed at night

  1. Hock G. Tjoa says:

    Dear Professor Galambos,
    I am happy to have found your blog as I am not an academic sinologist and do not keep up with the scholarly literature. My current (immediate) interest is in the qian zi wen (千字文). I have found almost no reference to this in scholarly articles and wondered if you could guide me to what you have seen or let me have the benefit of your ideas on this text. Many thanks in advance,
    Hockguan (福源)

  2. imre says:

    Dear Hockguan,

    Thank you for commenting on my blog. As to the Qianziwen, you are right that there are not a lot of things that have been said about it. Yet its role in education and in calligraphy is truly exceptional, it would be well worth devoting a detailed study to its function in medieval China. I have not done any dedicated research on it myself, only keep coming across it in the Dunhuang manuscripts. There are dozens of manuscripts that have either the whole Qianziwen or portions of it, showing that during the 8th-10th centuries it was in common use. There are also a couple of copies written in seal-script (zhuanshu), and these are especially interesting.

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