Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Searching for the Bodies of the Drowned: A Folk Tradition of Early China Recovered

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Searching for the Bodies of the Drowned: A Folk Tradition of Early China Recovered

Article excerpt

In early writings about pre-Eastern Han (25-220) China, documentation on attempts to find drowned bodies is non-existent. The most well-known drowned figure in early history is Qu Yuan [??] (ca. 339-ca. 278 B.C.), loyal minister of the state of Chu who supposedly drowned himself in despair at being misunderstood and banished by his ruler. However, early records, such as the Shiji [??] and Wang Yi's [??] (ca. 89-ca. 158) commentary on the Chuci [??] anthology, recount nothing about searching for the body of Qu Yuan. Legends relate that "people of the Chu state felt sorrowful for it [i.e., Qu's suicide]," and that people threw into the river rice wrapped with five-colored strings, lest water dragons eat the remains of Qu Yuan. (1) But there was no effective method for finding the drowned body; this seems to have been the case before Eastern Han. (2)

The earliest known record of corpse-searching sounds as if it was mantic art. It required an object, the identity of which was highly controversial and shall be discussed below, to be thrown into the water where the drowning took place. This object was used rather as a "navigator" to locate the missing drowned body. To our astonishment, this magic is still practiced today in southern China. Most likely owing to the scantiness of relevant information and the lack of a scientific basis, the practice has not drawn due scholarly attention. This unfortunate negligence has resulted in some misreading of relevant classical texts.

The present paper is a textual and cultural study of the subject. Through a comparison of various records of the tale of a fourteen-year-old girl known as Maiden Cao (Cao E [??], d. 143), who succeeded in finding the body of her drowned father, I shall reconstruct and examine the earliest sources of the tale that records the search method. This reconstruction offers solid grounds for determining which variants in certain disputed texts make the most sense. With these findings, we shall be in a better position to understand how this old ritual was performed and how it worked, and therefore to correctly construe relevant historical records that were previously misunderstood.

Despite the doubts surrounding the authenticity of relevant materials, their dates of composition, and interpolated elements, the corpse-searching episode is surely worth serious study. First, the narrative illustrates particular values of the time, namely, (1) finding the body of the drowned person and (2) dying alongside one's father or husband. The second significance of the present research is the reconstruction of the search method itself, which has been widely practiced up to our time. Anachronistic as it may seem, the versions contaminated by amendments and/or interpolations construct a picture that shows people believing in the effectiveness of this method since the early medieval period in China. Enhanced elements in adapted versions of the tale make it the first record of a search for drowned corpses in Chinese history.


The central issues for examination in this essay are derived from a variant in textual accounts of Maiden Cao. In the earliest version, there is no mention of her casting an object into the river in an attempt to locate her father, who had drowned and whose body was missing. This version is preserved in a stele inscription written in the Eastern Han by a young man named Handan Zili [??] (hereafter "Inscription"). Although the actual stele is not extant, the "Inscription" is said to have been transcribed on a piece of pongee, allegedly by Wang Xizhi [??] (303-61 or 321-79), the most renowned calligrapher in Chinese history. Below is my translation of the beginning, i.e., the relevant part, of the story from this text:

"A Stele Inscription on the Filial Daughter Maiden Cao" [??] (3)

  The filial girl Maiden Cao was the daughter of Cao Yu, a native of
  Shangyu district. The ancestors of this Cao family had the same
  antecedents as the [royal] Zhou clan. … 
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