If fears have a basis in fact, if the stories we tell by campfires and in hushed tones by torchlight speak to secret truths, unveiling the mystery of the Huíshēng is key.
As the home to one of the oldest contiguous civilisations on the planet, it is perhaps not surprising that a deep delve into China's myths and legends reveal some of the earliest encounters with entities and phenomena that can be linked to later accounts of things that might otherwise be more inexplicable than they are. Despite changing political climates, the careful control exercised over information and the destruction of such materials as detract from their official histories, it is possible to find and gain access to sources which elucidate on some of the most ancient mysteries. Among these are the Huíshēng, which literally translates to ‘echoes’, whose existence is obscured by their inclusion in a category with other apparitions with whom they share similarities but for which there is no equivalent or explicit proof. Namely, ghosts.
The idea of ghosts, their properties and purposes, every aspect of their ephemeral nature, are described in almost every extant and extinct human cultural and religious tradition with such a profound variance that unpicking the truth from the fabrications is extremely difficult and, in some cases, proves to be more impossible than the most outlandish of all the things I have seen and studied. It seems doubtless the case that at least some other phenomena are, like the Huíshēng and the Blackbone Martyrs, entangled in this mire of misinformation, with a more concrete existence than scepticism allows for. Perhaps early encounters with them and other such liminal figures provided the initial impetus for the creation of the very stories that now often see them dismissed, incorrectly, as things that are only believed to be real by the credulous and simple-minded?
Regardless, it is easy to see how the Huíshēng have formed a central pillar in the creation of the larger ideas of ghosts and how some part of our humanity survives the death and decay of our physical vessels. Their forms are unmistakably human and their faces, which are uniformly somewhat maudlin in set (as though a terrible pall has been cast across them), appear to those who witness them first-hand as familiar, even familial. Part of this ambiguity comes from our neurological propensity for pareidolia, enhanced by the gloomy, translucent miasma in which they wreath themselves, but given the discrepancies described when multiple people have encountered a single Huíshēng it seems likely, given the effect caused by making physical contact with them, that this may be a limited telepathic ability, perhaps evolved as a defence or to quiet the fears of those to whom they appear.
If the sight and sense of the Huíshēng implies a warmth and familiarity, it is a misconception that is unravelled by any touch intent on seeking further succour. Even the most hesitant, faltering contact causes a sudden shock, like gripping a live wire, leaving one unable to pull away or to break contact. Whilst this only lasts a second, it is more than enough time for them to impart the snarled knots of memories, regrets and the long-past bittersweet dreams that make up the substance of their being. These aren’t solitary lives, not unique and individual souls returned to haunt the living, despite how they might appear. Instead the Huíshēng are like pearls, with tens of souls and all of the joys and sorrows that they experienced in life coalesced around some unknown speck of grit, some irritant which vexes the afterlife into creating something haunting and unearthly to smother and salve it.
There are many experiential accounts from people who have had direct contact with Huíshēng and, in the folly of my younger, more reckless days, I myself sought this out. Although the visions can be harrowing, emotionally devastating, and have led to cases profound psychological trauma (including instances of depression, catatonia and even suicide) they do not cause direct physical harmful, nor do they seem inherently or intentionally designed to inflict injury. In point of fact, Huíshēng make no attempt to reach out and make physical contact with those who encounter them, much less give chase or pursue those who turn tail at the sight of them. My own experience, which was leavened by joyful moments in some of the lives I caught a glimpse of, was intense; with even those happy moments wrapped up in mordantly morbid flashes, somewhat deadened by the tragedy of their passing.
Whether or not they are able to share these memories, which are both their being and their burden, a Huíshēng’s presence in our world is always fleeting. From the slender tendrils of the wan fog that draws together in a rippling haze and merges to give them their form to the abrupt dissipation of the same, all the available evidence suggests that they are both created and dispersed within a period of less than ten minutes. The brief span of their observable existence tells us again that these are not the spectres of our fiction: None of the plausible or proven accounts demonstrate that Huíshēng make repeated appearances, let alone regularly haunt any place or places in particular, at least not on any timescale that we are capable of observing. Furthermore, there seems to be no consistent or relevant experiences where the memories imparted can be linked with local deaths (either recent or historical) or extant descendants.
Indeed, the presence and prevalence of Huíshēng has waxed and waned throughout human history, at least as it is recorded in the various chronicles of esoterica. Sightings come in clusters as often as they are isolated cases, and have shown no marked increase or decrease in the face of war, famine or plague. They are paradoxical things: echoes of life born out of death that flock or cleave to neither and, whatever their secrets, it seems clear that the role of chance in their appearances hinders our opportunities to study them. We don’t even know, and we must consider this as having greater import than the similar but sophomoric philosophical standard, whether they even appear if there is no-one there to observe them: Given the brevity of their visits it is possible that they are far more common than we could ever account for. Perhaps, in the silence of empty homes and the stillness of sleeping households, the spaces to which we are insensible are teeming with the Huíshēng.