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From Notes on the Subtle and the Strange, 1798.

One day I received a letter that was written in my language but seemed to be written in a foreign one. The thoughts it expressed were odd, confused, and almost impossible to decipher. The letter’s poor quality especially surprised me since my friend Shen Tiechan, who was highly intelligent and highly articulate, had written it. The letter was disturbing too because its tone was nostalgic and sorrowful, as if it was written as a final goodbye—this even though I knew that Tiechan had just begun a probationary post in Shanxi.

Not long after that, I received word that there would be no more letters. Tiechan was dead.

Life is filled with strange happenings that are hard to fit into our understanding of the world. Many we let pass in order to get on with our days. But this was not something I could let pass. I talked to Tiechan’s neighbors and his friends, his family members and his enemies. Slowly, I pieced together what had pushed my friend to his tragic end. This is what I discovered.


That summer, Tiechan went hunting in the Xian mountains to restore his spirits after a long illness. The hunting trip proceeded unremarkably, with one notable exception: something followed him out of the woods.

This something took the form of two orbs in the sky, turning like windmills. No one else could see the orbs. Even Tiechan didn’t see them in the way that one normally sees, which is to say that he could see them when he looked up even if his eyes were closed.

For several days, the orbs silently followed. Then suddenly, without warning, they broke open. From inside two young women emerged, floated down, and delivered a message. Their mistress, a xian nü fairy, wished to meet Tiechan.

Knowing that he could not reject such an invitation, Tiechan agreed to meet the xian nü. Instantaneously, he was transported to a room. It was unlike any he had ever been in. Its dimensions were dizzying, and its massive jade walls were eccentrically decorated with odd purple seashells. The room’s strangeness made Tiechan tremble, but its effect paled compared to the appearance of the xian nü mistress. She was beautiful, yes. But it was not a peaceful kind of beauty. It was the kind of beauty that disturbs because it exceeds limits.

Her words exceeded limits as well. Shocking Tiechan, the xian nü asked him to become her lover.

When he refused, saying that he felt too overwhelmed by his strange surroundings to comply, the xian nü became angry and waved him away. The next thing he knew he was waking up on the road where the xian nü’s servants first approached him.

Tiechan hoped that was the end of the matter. But several weeks later, the two rotating spheres reappeared. So, did the two female servants. They did not ask him to come with them this time. They just took him. But they took him to a new place—smaller, homier, less exotic in furnishing and colors. It was much easier on his mind. So, when the xian nü asked Tiechan if he felt more comfortable now, he had no choice but to say yes. This pleased her, and she declared he then no longer had any reason to reject her. He agreed.

From then on, they met regularly—during both waking and dreaming states. “Tell no one,” said the xian nü.

Tiechan promised not to, and didn’t for a long time—not even when he got sick. But, finally, the severity of his illness convinced him to visit a doctor who specialized in matters of both the spirit and the body. However, it was too late. Tiechan couldn’t keep the red pills the doctor prescribed down, nor anything else. Everything was vomited back up. He died during one of these vomiting fits, and his last letter to me was written during these weeks of illness.


I will not forget Shen Tiechan. His qualities were simply too admirable. He wrote poetry that moved the heart and opened the mind. His calligraphy dazzled. He was witty, fun, and generous.However, no one is without secrets or vices, and I discovered one more fact about  Tiechan during my investigation—one that might provide a clue to how all the weird events began.

In Tiechan’s middle-age, he had begun to mourn the passing of his youthful looks and obsess about death. This launched his pursuit of a formula for immortality. He acquired books of occult knowledge, and sought out alchemists and sorcerers who were rumored to dabble in forbidden magic. It is no surprise then that something inexplicable occurred that ultimately led to his death. However, it is a shame. While spiritual entities of many kinds exist, they usually won’t molest human beings unless a person goes out of their way to make themselves known. Through my investigations, it seems to me that the manifestations of such entities, and the tragedies that follow in their wake, are prompted not by events in the external world but mysteriously conjured  by events in one’s internal world: the desires of the heart and what one dares imagine. If only Tiechan had guarded these inner borders better.


Translators’ Note:

The xian nü (仙女) mentioned in this story is often known as the Chinese “fairy.” Like its Western counterpart, this fairy entity is seen as part of a distinct race of divine beings, typically portrayed as female, who are both humanoid and linked to nature. And like the Western fairy, the xian nü is associated with woods or uninhabited mountain ranges and is said to have magical power over natural phenomena. While there are several different origin stories attached to these beings, nearly all stress these aspects.

This similarity between Western and Chinese fairy lore is interesting in and of itself, but there’s another element in play that makes “Guests from the Sky” even more fascinating. It functions as an early iteration of an alien abduction tale. The connection between classical European fairy lore and contemporary alien abduction tales has been thoroughly explored in such texts as Jeffery Kripal and Whitley Streiber’s 2016 The Super Natural: Why the Unexplained Is Real, and Jacque Vallee’s 1969 Passport to Magonia: From Folklore to Flying Saucers.  But little attention has been paid to the similarity between classical Chinese fairy stories and alien abduction tales, although it is just as striking. Below are some points of comparison between, for example, “Guests from the Sky” and contemporary alien abduction tales.

- Like aliens, the xian nü are often said to come from the sky, or from heaven realms.

- Like modern accounts of aliens, they are associated with strange lights or orbs in the sky, and they transport—often via teleportation— human beings to these orbs/lights which turn out to either be dwellings or associated with dwellings.

- Both aliens and the xian nü demonstrate the ability to paralyze human beings

- Both aliens and the xian nü express a strong interest in having sex/breeding with human beings.

- Finally, encounters with both types of beings frequently result in extreme illness. In alien abductions, this sickness is attributed to radiation exposure. In Chinese accounts about fairies, it’s attributed to occult energies.

Ultimately, one can equally understand classical fairy abduction stories as early alien abduction tales or, conversely, alien abduction tales as contemporary iterations of stories about fairy encounters and abductions. In either case, we’re presented with a phenomenon that has been interpreted through the cultural resources, technological metaphors, and cultural frames of a given age and culture.

 

 



Ji Yun 纪昀 (1724-1805) was an acclaimed Chinese writer, scholar, and politician, who also served as chief editor for the Qing dynasty imperial library. As such, he was charged with censoring texts at odds with the emperor’s intellectual sensibilities. In his later years, he quietly rebelled against this role by writing the five-volume collection, Notes on the Subtle and the Strange. This 1200-piece collection includes Ji Yun’s memoirs about his personal experiences with the supernatural, as well as his investigation of the strange experiences of friends and family members.