Black Shroud of Corpses

Black Shroud of Corpses – Chapter 1, Ancestral Grave

| Black Shroud of Corpses |

Translator: Silavin


It was late autumn of 1975. At the foot of Nanshan Mountain in Wuyuan, Jiangxi. Under a tall old Pagoda Tree, a group of villagers gathered, looking up at a notice pasted on the tree trunk.


The notice reads: ‘According to instructions from the County Reformation Committee, all graves located on the path to Linggu Cave must be relocated within fifteen days. Any graves not moved by then will be considered ownerless. They would be levelled by the Town Revolutionary Committee’s militia. We hope the revolutionary masses will enthusiastically cooperate with us.’


The notice was signed by the Wuyuan County’s Nanshan Town Revolutionary Committee, with a bright red seal at the bottom.


Hansheng squeezed out of the crowd and hurried home.


Zhu Hansheng was 20 years old this year. Each day, he was under the apprenticeship of his Father, who was a ‘barefoot doctor’. This meant doing tasks like gathering herbs in the mountains and grinding medicines. Though introverted, he was honest and kind-hearted, with all the village Elders liking him.
(Silavin: Barefoot doctors are doctors that undergo very basic medical training and work in rural villages.)


His home was a three-room thatched house at the east end of the village. Some Chinese herbs like Codonopsis and Bupleurum were planted in front of the door. There was also a large yellow dog lying lazily at the entrance.


“Dad, the people from town posted a notice. It says we have to move the Ancestral Graves within a few days!” Hansheng shouted before even entering the courtyard.


“Oh?” Came a response from inside.


His Father, the village barefoot doctor, had average medical skills. Nevertheless, he upheld great ethics. Relatives from the surrounding villages within ten kilometres all came to him for treatment. They would choose to go to him instead of heading to the Town Clinic for minor illnesses.


The room was dimly lit. His Father sat in a chair, holding a stone pestle, grinding medicine in a mortar. The earthy smell of plant roots and stems permeated the air.


“Dad, why do all the graves in front of Linggu Cave need to be moved?” Hansheng asked his Father.


His Father shook his head. “Our Zhu Family’s Ancestral Graves have been buried near Linggu Cave for many generations, right?”


“Yes, they’ve been buried there for so long. We can only trace back to your Great Grandfather’s generation. Let me see, tomorrow is the day of Gengxu, suitable for digging up and moving graves. Let’s go at seven in the morning,” his Father said, calculating with his fingers.


Hansheng’s Mother had passed away early. His Father had raised him alone with great difficulty, barely getting by on some inherited medical skills. Traditional Chinese doctors in the old days often dabbled in Feng Shui. His Father used to do grave site selection for others, but was later criticised during the Cultural Revolution for ‘feudal superstition’. Since then, he never mentioned such things to outsiders again.


“It would be nice if there was something in the graves,” Hansheng muttered to himself.


“Our family is poor. What could there be in those graves besides a pile of bones? Don’t let your imagination run wild, it’s disrespectful to our Ancestors,” his Father glared at him.


That night, Hansheng tossed and turned in bed. Digging up an old grave was an unusual event, and the thought of it kept him excited.




In the early morning, birds chirped nonstop in the courtyard. Hansheng got up early to prepare the fire and cook up some sweet potato porridge. Times were tough, but he added an extra handful of rice to the pot, since today was different from usual.


After eating, he and his Father set out, carrying hoes, shovels, umbrellas and two cloth bags.


Wuyuan was one of the six counties of ancient Huizhou Prefecture. It was also the hometown of Zhu Xi, the famous philosopher of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). Looking out, one could see endless pine and bamboo forests, interspersed with white-walled, grey-tiled Ming and Qing Dynasty buildings with eaves and upturned corners. Wisps of smoke rose from chimneys. It was so quiet, it was like a landscape painting.


Climbing to the top of a hill and looking back towards the southwest, one could see the twenty-four ancient Giant Sequoia Trees (symbolising the 24 filial exemplars) that Zhu Xi had personally planted when he returned home to sweep his Ancestral Graves. Over 800 years had passed, yet they still stood silently on Wengong Mountain.


“Keep up, it’s almost 7. We can’t miss the auspicious time,” his Father urged from ahead.


Hansheng reluctantly turned and followed. [No wonder people said Wuyuan is China’s most beautiful countryside. It’s undoubtedly true.]


Ahead was a green bamboo forest. Passing through it, they would reach the famous Linggu Cave. The mountains in this area were all made of limestone. With the abundant rain in southern China, many karst caves had formed through erosion. Linggu Cave was the largest. It was said no one had ever reached the bottom. Just standing at the entrance, one could feel a cold wind blowing out. It was so scary, children dare not approach, since legends state that the dark cave mouth would suck people in.


Scattered graves could already be seen in the bamboo forest. Some tombstones were tilted, pushed over by bamboo rhizomes running wild underground. The Zhu Family Ancestral Graves were further ahead, not far from the entrance of Linggu Cave.


*Caw caw.* Two crows stood on an overgrown grave mound, watching them.


“We’re here. This is your Great Grandfather’s grave,” his Father said, putting down the hoe he was carrying. The tombstone was also tilted.


Hansheng shouted, scaring away the two black crows.


“Hansheng, remember to hold your breath when you open the lid of the coffin. There’s rotten corpse gas in sealed coffins, breathing it in will make you sick.” his Father advice while he raised his hoe.


“Does corpse gas have colour?” Hansheng asked.


“Yes, but ordinary people can’t see it.”


“What colour?” Hansheng asked with interest.


“Well, usually pale grey, sometimes black like thick smoke. It’s very strange. The most terrifying is red. There’s no saving you if you’re exposed to that,” his Father explained.


Hearing this, Hansheng felt a wave of fear run through him.




Mist swirled in the bamboo forest. Swarms of Tiger Mosquitoes flapped their wings, eyeing these two warm-blooded humans hungrily. Hansheng shuddered involuntarily. These mosquitoes bit silently, leaving small but intensely itchy bumps. They itch so bad, one would want to dig out their flesh to stop the itching.


His Father dug at the soil with his hoe, sweat beads forming on his forehead. Hansheng handed him a towel and took over the hoe. Being young and strong, he worked much faster.


His Father sat down and lit a cigarette. As the smoke spread, the mosquitoes retreated back into the bamboo forest.


Hansheng dug vigorously. Mounds of earth had already piled up around him when suddenly he felt something different. With a *thunk*, the hoe sank in. He twisted his wrist and pulled hard, yanking out a dark brown wooden board.


“There’s black gas! Get back!” A shout came from behind as his Father leapt down, grabbing Hansheng and pushing him up.


Hansheng looked back to see his Father’s body swaying. He took out a pill from his pocket and swallowed it. It seemed like his Father had come prepared.


Hansheng hid outside the pit, peering in carefully, but he could not see anything.


His Father continued clearing away the loose soil. After prying open the coffin lid, he immediately jumped out, gasping for air with his mouth open.


“Dad, I can’t see any black gas,” Hansheng said, supporting his Father.


“Of course not. You haven’t learned the techniques for Qi Perception yet, so naturally you can’t see it,” his Father replied.


Hansheng stood on tiptoe to look into the pit.


“Wait until the corpse gas dissipates before going down,” his Father said, lighting another cigarette.


“Dad, why would black gas come out of Great Grandfather’s coffin?” Hansheng asked in confusion.


His Father sighed and explained, “Your Great Grandfather was also a doctor. He probably put Toad Mandrake Powder inside to prevent grave robbers.”


“Toad Mandrake Powder? That can produce poisonous corpse gas?” Hansheng asked.


“This medicine only has anaesthetic effects, but combined with the decomposition products like corpse gas, it can produce highly toxic black corpse gas.”


“Then what about the most powerful red corpse gas? How does that form?” Hansheng was hearing about these strange things for the first time and found it increasingly thrilling.


“I’ve never encountered it in my life. So, I would not know.” his Father said.


It was now 8, with a slant of sunlight shining down into the pit.


His Father jumped up, grabbed an umbrella. He made it stand on a mound of earth, and opened the umbrella up to block the sunlight.


“Remember this, bones of the deceased can’t be exposed to sunlight, Hansheng. Okay, the corpse gas has dissipated. Go down and gather your Great Grandfather’s bones,” his Father encouraged.


Hansheng took a cloth bag and bravely jumped into the pit.




A scattered yellowish-brown skeleton lay quietly in the coffin. The smell of damp soil and plant roots filled his nostrils.


Hansheng frowned, scanning the inside of the coffin. He did not find any burial objects. Just some very fine dust on the bottom of the coffin partially covering the bones. He muttered to himself and crouched down to start gathering the bones. Since it was his first time climbing into a coffin, he felt nervous and uneasy.


He placed the bones one by one into the cloth bag. The connective tissue between the bones had long since disappeared, so the joints were all separated and easy to pick up. Finally, he carefully lifted the skull and stuffed it into the bag.


“Dad, I’ve finished gathering them,” Hansheng called out.


The weather in southern China was unpredictable in late autumn. The sun had been shining just moments ago, but now, dark clouds covered the sky and it began to pour.


“Hansheng, it is already past 9. Let’s go back,” his Father said, looking up at the leaden sky and shaking his head.


“What about the other graves?” Hansheng asked.


“We’ll choose another auspicious day,” his Father said, grabbing Hansheng’s hand and pulling him up.


The Father and Son retraced their steps. By the time they reached their home, which was at the east end of the village, their clothes were soaked through.



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| Black Shroud of Corpses |

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