The protagonist of They All Say I’ve Met a Ghost, a grad student in Ideological and Political Communication, is a staunch materialist who refuses to believe he’s entered an urban fantasy plot. Shen Jianguo has had it with these motherfucking ghosts on this motherfucking mortal plane. The only spectre he acknowledges is haunting Europe, and the real monster is being told you’re simultaneously both under and overqualified for all the job postings you apply for.
Shen Jianguo offers us exactly the vibe of Iida Tenya from BNHA serving a tour of duty as the protagonist of an urban fantasy danmei, and not realising that’s happening. The joke, for a good chunk of the novel, is that this Scully-ass bitch refuses to take the paranormal hint. It’s the same joke every time, and it’s a good jokeevery time. Shen Jianguo’s well-intentioned, absolutely unembarrassed Hall Monitor energy is consistently as fun as it is lame (and it is terminally lame). Shen Jianguo’s In Defence of Virgins (Of Which, I Am One) speech, “while you were getting laid I studied the blade/Marxism, and I THINK YOU’LL FIND—”, is unparalleled:
“So what if I am?” I was very angry. I hated these kinds of personal attacks. “During school, I was focused on my studies, I wasn’t about to pick a partner at random based on physiological impulses. I wouldn’t play with people’s feelings that way. It would be irresponsible towards myself and others. What’s wrong with being a virgin? Do I have to have gone through hundreds of partners to be a man? Even though I’m a virgin, my spirit is still indomitable, and my conscience is clear.”
Mr. Saw must not have expected that I wouldn’t be humiliated like some self-important guys, but instead would forthrightly defend myself. He was struck dumb by my words and could only stare at me.”
Shen Jianguo. Sweetie. This ghost just tried to chainsaw your legs clean off: I don’t think you owe him this kind of explanation?
The poor ghost’s introductory intimidation started off badly—basically, “My name is MR SAW!!!” “Huh. Unusual! Are you a member of an ethnic minority?”—and the situation has not greatly improved since:
“Truthfully, I hoped Mr. Saw wasn’t a chainsaw-wielding maniac who had injured people. He was short and lacked self-confidence. His life was hard to begin with. If he really had committed a crime and had to go to prison, his future would be even more difficult.”
I mentioned BNHA because the book does have an intensely anime-inflected or light novel adjacent energy. It feels like it’s coming from much the same place as Mob Psycho. Desperate jobseeker Shen Jianguo reads a terrible, haunted-ass ‘graphic design is my passion!1’ email (the visual equivalent of Reagan’s psychic website in the aforesaid anime). He then trips and falls into a position as a teacher and social worker, does not understand he’s actually been hired to do exorcisms, but is great at them nonetheless.
At this point, I understood what kind of students this training institute was tasked with teaching.
It seemed to be people on the edge of society, like Mr. Saw, who suffered from mental illness due to his short stature, or like Li Yuanyuan, who had special hobbies and problems communicating with others.
For these people, the most important thing was to acquire the skills to integrate into society and to receive psychological counseling. Some subjects that appeared on exams weren’t so important.
And it was no wonder that Principal Zhang had said that I could just say anything. She’d probably hired me because she’d liked my ideological and political education credentials and hoped I could help these students establish a correct world view.
To think of the establishment of such a training school, Principal Zhang really must have been a kind-hearted person. While Teacher Liu, patiently teaching these students to communicate with ordinary people, must also be very kind. I had really wronged him before.
When he’d warned me not to meddle in their business, he must have been worried that I didn’t understand the significance of hurting these sensitive people unintentionally.
I grasped Liu Sishun’s hand, brimming with apology and sincerity. I said, “I misunderstood you before. Teacher Liu is a moral teacher who cares for his students, an example that I should learn from. This is my first job. I’m really lucky to meet a teacher like Teacher Liu.”
Liu Sishun trembled and said, “If-if you have something to say, just say it, don’t paw at me.”
He must have been frightened by my earlier public announcement of my sexual orientation. Teacher Liu looked like he was in his 40s. I supposed it would be hard for him to accept that my sexual orientation was different from other people’s. It was a matter of course that he would be afraid of physical contact.
I let go of Teacher Liu, bowed to him, and said in a loud voice, “I apologize for my rude behavior before.”
Teacher Liu trembled again when he heard my operatic intonations.
Labouring under this misapprehension, Shen Jianguo commits to the bit with relentless earnestness. “I spent an afternoon preparing. I consulted an introduction dealing with the psychology of special groups, to make appropriate changes to the curriculum.” I mean, they’re murderous ghosts, so. God bless.
Apparently, this sort of shit has been going on for a while. Shen Jianguo reminisces about a time in university career where a building was ‘haunted’. His peers did not handle their brush with the beyond with conspicuous grace:
Asked what he saw, my roommate said that he saw a pair of blood red eyes. Then he and his girlfriend held each other and wailed, like a pair mandarin ducks fallen on hard times.
Shen Jianguo was pure gay frustration, FDA certified, at his classmates’ irrational and unscientific conduct, and so went to yell at the not ghost (absolutely a ghost) himself about dorm etiquette. In the course of the novel, Shen Jianguo gets fired from a part time gig for helping unearth evidence that his boss murdered his girlfriend (thus having proved himself too honest, and an inconvenient liability), and then delivers a passionate speech on the necessity of income tax. Like. What a lad.
Either it’s a little opaque to me, or we never actually learn exactly why Shen Jianguo is so filled with yang, and thus amazing at exorcising ghosts? He’s got an auspicious birthday and he’s very upright, but the actual cultivation sect leader he deals with hints that something more is going on him, which we never end up being told. (Is it just his Holy Fool energy?) I wish the balance of the novel had been shifted somewhat to prioritise more long term teaching or mentor relationships between Shen Jianguo and the students of his ghost class. This wouldn’t have been a hard rewrite, and would have fleshed out the project, rendering the texture of it somewhat less procedural. I was, however, rather surprised and impressed that the writer gave Shen Jianguo a decent personal reason to be so insistent ghosts aren’t a thing, and so attached to the quasi-parental role ideology plays in his life.
The book’s love interest, Ning Tiance, is the actual exorcist called in to deal with this school full of ghosts, who Shen Jianguo unwittingly displaced. Ning Tiance has no idea how Shen Jianguo is getting results and is incandescently annoyed both by Shen Jianguo’s skepticism in the face of blatant supernatural activity and Shen Jianguo’s complete, stubborn ignorance of the mortal peril he exposes himself to on the daily. He is, however, eventually won over by Shen Jianguo’s relentless Niceness (and similarly relentless gay thirst).
Ning Tiance could be slightly better characterised. I know his job and background, but that’s about it. His narration in the extras uses at least two chengyu in a very short space of time (which means he’s probably employing more I didn’t spot, because I only know maybe thirty total, and translation will also shake some chengyu into unfamiliar formulations). This might be a shorthand way for the author to convey that Ning Tiance is quite classically educated, which would fit with what we know of his upbringing. Beyond that, Ning Tiance is overly serious, genuinely nice and hot. I can’t say a lot more about him.
As I believe Mari said, you wouldn’t read this book for the romance, exactly. It’s cute, but it’s hardly the stuff of acrylic charms and standees. So why was this marketed as danmei rather than as a light adult urban fantasy novel with a gay lead? What marketing considerations and readerships led to that call?
The most entertaining element of the romance plot is without a doubt Shen Jianguo’s enthusiasm to get down. Due to picking up a part-time job temping for his friend with a real job, Xia Jin, who helps manage a mall, Shen Jianguo and Ning Tiance run into one another in a mundane setting after a couple of a confusing mid-exorcism clashes. Unfortunately Shen Jianguo is wearing a promotional mascot bear suit at the time, and Ning Tiance attempts to exorcise this hideous beast. But Shen Jianguo is an active, dauntless protagonist: not even this level of humiliation can slow his mighty and inexorable roll:
I looked at Ning Tiance with my head to one side. He looked much better in these [modern] clothes. His legs were very long. Why did he have be on the path of feudal superstition?
At first Shen Jianguo characterises his interest as a mission of mercy—an attempt to save a fine specimen from the grip of the Four Olds (and presumably, to substitute his own grip):
I had to guide him to the right path and make him a young man who believed in science and worked for the benefit of the country and society.
When I had sworn this, another strip fell off my clothing. I picked it up awkwardly and blushed in the night with no one to see.
Shen Jianguo starts his missionary effort, as it were, with a will:
“How about we add each other on WeChat, and I’ll send you any information about breaking free of feudal superstition I come across in the future. Of course, if you believe you can persuade me, you can also send me videos about evil spirits and ghosts.”
I’m incandescently mad this works for him. As Mari says, this is MLM as in Moron Loving Moron.
It’s hilarious how thoroughly Shen Jianguo’s friend Xia Jin has his number regarding his thirst for the ghostbuster, and how little he credits Shen Jianguo’s claims that he’s simply trying to convince the man that supernatural creatures aren’t real. ‘And if that involves sacrificing my virginity on the altar of Maoist thought, it is a sacrifice I—’
Xia Jin shops Shen Jianguo to his crush at absolutely the first opportunity going. ‘My home boy wants you to bust his ghosts, if you know what I mean. Now, I may be a heterosexual in an long term relationship, but I hear busting makes you feel good, so you know, consider it!’
Shen Jianguo and Xia Jin’s dynamic is generally fun, and it’s refreshing to see a danmei lead who has good relationships with straight dude friends. One of the book’s more affecting, funny ‘slice of life’ moments arises from their homiehood:
“When I was in university, I’d [had] a crush on a very handsome senior who played basketball. At the time, I wasn’t very physically fit. In order to get close to him, I spent every day on the basketball court. Later, I led my basketball team to defeat the senior’s team. He took some people to help him corner me at the school’s back gate to beat me up, and instead they got beaten up by me. From then on there was an irreconcilable feud between myself and that senior I’d had a crush on. The only time my heart had been moved, that had been the outcome.
After that, Xia Jin drank with me every night for around a month to relieve my wounded feelings. I had been poor even since university, so at that time it was Xia Jin buying 2 yuan a bag Baijiu, which tasted very bad, was very difficult to drink and gave you a headache the next day. I had never forgotten this demonstration of brotherly feeling.”
At one point, Xia Jin gets briefly possessed by a succubus: Shen Jianguo has to free him by wrestling him to the ground and delivering “a fist full of Socialist friendship.”
Copying out individual lines of this book doesn’t give you a good impression of how funny they are in situ. A lot of the comedy is highly situational, and it’s hard to encapsulate what about the book is so winning without sounding banal. They All Say is so solid, in terms of both quality and a kind of groundedness, and that really works for it.
They All Say I’ve Met a Ghost is, like SVSSS, to a degree about genre fiction as a mode, ideological disillusionment, the millennial job market, purposiveness and class in modern urban China. The appeal of the books’ treatments of these themes resonates outside that particular social positionally, the sympathetic vibrations travelling along the lines of anxieties held in common. To a degree, middle-class millennials face the same problems the world over. Romance is often a fantasy about personal fulfilment and a stable future, in this financial and sexual elements commingle. After the decline of the serial novel romance as a genre remained deeply interested in economics, but via a grammar of fetishised inadmissibility. Here, the protagonist’s unashamed economic anxiety and his ‘bitch better have my money’ pragmatism are frank, funny and not incompatible with his moral focus:
Xiao Ning said solemnly, “As the Sect Leader’s Chief Disciple and the future Sect Leader of the Maoshan Sect, I have always been deeply concerned for the political literacy of the Maoshan Sect’s disciples. Young people these days are too flighty. Sometimes when they see a ghost, they scream even louder than the victims of the haunting. Taking them out really is a little humiliating. We urgently need a political teacher who knows the internal situation, isn’t afraid of ghosts, has excellent theoretical knowledge, and has a postgraduate degree or better, to teach them to arm themselves with thoughts in line with the current of the times, and foster a heart that is just and firm, fearing neither ghosts nor gods.”
Eh? Somehow it seemed that the requirements Xiao Ning had mentioned… fit me perfectly!
“How much is the monthly salary?” I asked immediately.
They All Say is interested in illustrating less middle-class economic anxieties, but perhaps less capable of reconciling them via the mechanics of its narrative structure. It does give time to the mother of a rural girl who came to the city for work and was murdered there, but perhaps misses a trick with the elevator ghost. Essentially, the mall Xia Jin helps manage is haunted by the disgruntled spirit of a construction worker who died building this shiny capitalist temple to a neoliberal New China.
The three of us left the restroom and walked to the elevator. Ning Tiance stopped us in front of the elevator door. He said with a serious face, “The Yin energy is very dense. Was there an accident during the installation of this elevator?”
“There was,” said Xia Jin, “I started investigating as soon as I got to work today, and indeed I found that when the elevators were being installed in this building, the equipment broke down and a worker fell and died. The family members came to make trouble, but the developers ran out on their debts, leaving the window and orphan without a pension. It’s a sad story.”
“So that’s how it is.” Ning Tiance took out an old wooden disc engraved with symbols. “He became a demon out of concern for his family. His resentment is very strong. It will be hard to deal with.”
The problem this presents illuminates the clash between Shen Jianguo’s political ideology training as to how a communist country ought to work and a reality that logistically can’t accommodate him (either by bearing out his education, in a world haunted by both ‘feudal superstition’ and modern greed, or on anyone’s payroll: what is a communist worker who’s not given the opportunity to work?). Shen Jianguo and Ning Tiance exorcise the ghost, but honestly, the ghost didn’t need banished, he needed restitution. The issue might have been resolved more satisfyingly by their working to obtain a pension for his survivors, and then assuring the ghost that they’d done so. It’d be one thing if the story acknowledged why that route is closed off to them and let this be a source of live tension in the plot, but instead the necromancers employ a quite traditional, dehumanising response. It sits oddly with Shen Jianguo’s gentler treatment of his pupils, which is predicated on seeing their issues as first and foremost human social problems.
This is very likely down to my limited perspective as much as anything, and what gets translated, but I’ve never heard of any webnovels that are even metaphorically interested in rural China (except as a fantastic xianxia setting), migrant workers or ethnic minorities. The novels I’ve heard of that touch the latter aren’t—offering a Good Touch. So while there’s a certain economic focus to this text and some of its contemporaries, and of course an interest in currently quasi-criminalised urban middle class male homosexuality (almost certainly as a quasi-proxy for female queerness), there are also limits to the problems these books are interested in and the solutions they’re willing to propose.
A lack of mediation from formal publishers has allowed web novels toreach audiences in immediate, intimate, responsive ways; you might struggle to interest a traditional UK or US publishing house in quite this sort of novel. That said, big webnovel publishing sites are vertical integration nightmares. While they offer authors very different working conditions, I don’t want to promote the web novel as it exists now a as read-made, ideal solution to Anglophone publishing’s severe labour and content moderation issues: ideologically-laden western capitalism is often a more effective censor than government intervention could ever dream of being. I do wonder how much urban fantasy gets published in Chinese SFF—it’s not something I’ve heard much about. Does my lack of knowledge represent anything about the shape of their market, though, or only the interests of the translated media circles I run in?
At times, my lack of subject knowledge regarding Chinese folklore strained my reading. I expect I missed out on a central pleasure of the book by not knowing anything about what types of ghosts these characters were, not clueing into that where the protagonist’s worldview doesn’t allow him to, and not appreciating the authorial cleverness with which the ghosts’ particular threats were unwittingly countered. I was unable to anticipate the form of danger the protagonist was in in a given scene, and I expect the pantomime ‘he’s behind you!’ is an effect the text is structured around.
This lack of familiarity also led me to more mundane comprehension issues. The ghost Tan Xiaoming, for example, is carrying a damp ‘bed plate’ on his back. Oblique references from other Chinese texts make this seem as though it might be a platform for a mattress, but I’m not sure of that. (Helena says “You sleep directly on the bedplate, maybe with a little cushion — this is basically a poor person’s bed.”) At one point the lead couple discusses ‘invisible yang shoulder lamps’, and mention that turning quickly might extinguish these. At least in this book, logistically negotiating these small flames seems to be a key part of attack and defence in a night hunt. I suspect that if I was more familiar with the genre as a whole, I’d be nodding along. As it was, I never grasped this element. At one point, Ning Tiance also says “you nearly knocked out one of my mortal forms.” What does that mean? (Helena says it’s a reference to the seven parts of the po.) Is he talking about the lamps again? (And how do you even say ‘Tiance’? Is it like ‘Beyonce’, or like ‘affiance’? (Helena says the latter, but not entirely.))
The final extra, Spa Day of Evil, made a very sound end point for the story. I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys a Diana Wynne Jones SFF vibe, Mob Psycho, or School of Rock style inspirational teacher narratives. You can read the book in English here. This site also has a lot of good information about how to find the book in the original Chinese. I’m very grateful for E Danglars work: they’re one of the best fan translators I’ve seen working in the field. (As a quite minor point, the translated pdf is set up in such a way that the text can’t be resized on my ipad at all. The pages, styled like those of a word document rather than those of a book, meant that I had to zoom in and out on every page to read the book. This was somewhat annoying, and I wished the font was bigger. Helena advises me that if you use the DW version of the translation, you can reskin it more easily.)
– Teacher Liu is wearing a ‘Zhongshan’ suit, which apparently is this.
– “He really was a paper tiger, fierce on the outside but weak on the inside. He had just been imposing, but as soon as I struck the wall with my fist he turned cowardly.” Stop accidentally kabedoning ghosts, please sir!