Ghost Blows Out the Light

Original text by Zhang Muye

Despite the apparent lawlessness of their profession, there are nonetheless certain rules that even grave robbers are obligated to observe. Each and every time they venture into a tomb, they must light a candle and place it in the southeastern corner of the sepulcher; only then may they set to work.

The most precious items in a tomb are usually found on the body of its occupant. The corpses of some high-ranking nobles have had their mouths filled with pearls, their whole bodies covered in gold and jade, their breasts adorned with protective talismans, and their hands clasped around jeweled scepters — even their bowels have been stuffed full of precious gems.

Those who wish to plunder such riches must never damage the remains of the deceased. They must work gently and carefully over every part of the body, and, as a final gesture, leave a few valuables behind for the inhabitant of the tomb. If ever the candle in the corner goes out, they must replace all their would-be spoils exactly as were found, kowtow thrice with the utmost reverence, and depart whence they came.

— Volume I, Chapter 10, The Man with the Golden Tooth

In Translation

Summary

Ghost Blows Out the Light tells the story of a pair of soldiers turned grave robbers in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. Starting from humble origins in 2006 as little more than a series of blog posts, it grew into China’s best-selling online novel, and has since spawned a vast array of books, TV shows, games, and more. Strangely, there do not appear to be full English translations of any books in this series; perhaps I’ll improve that situation eventually!

Note that this translation is based on the original web version, which, unlike the print version, accurately represents the author’s original intent, and is unquestionably the better of the two. The Chinese government’s ban on “superstition” in popular media means that all mention of supernatural phenomena had to be removed before the series could be officially published in print. As one might imagine, the results of that process do not make for a very good ghost story.

For students

I strongly recommend Ghost Blows Out the Light as reading material for advanced students of Chinese (or extremely determined beginners armed with Pleco Reader and a lot of patience, as was the case with me when I read the first book in the series). While it’s certainly a work of fiction, the events and locations it depicts are, for the most part, based on actual Chinese history — real history writ large, as it were. A diligent student of Chinese, especially one with some background historical knowledge of ancient and 20th-century China, will get a lot more out of these books than just reading practice. In addition, reading the series is a great springboard to watching the various movies and TV shows based on it.

Be warned, though: Ghost Blows Out the Light contains a fair amount of specialized terminology and some light eye dialect at certain points. If you see a word that doesn’t show up in your dictionary, don’t worry! It might well be a grave robber code word, Feng Shui jargon, or just something the author made up — just try to get the gist of what’s being said and you should be fine. Some of this terminology might even be unfamiliar to native speakers, in which case the narrator will usually give some background. When all else fails, just Google the phrase you’re confused about; you’ll probably come across Tieba or Zhihu posts in which native speakers are asking the same question.