translated by Arthur Meursault

Residents of Qingdao or attentive followers of local news may have heard of the affair I wish to discuss. On the 14th of August 2013, during a routine fire-safety inspection, a worker from the residential committee of Shinan District’s University Road discovered a heavily decomposed corpse by a small building inside the courtyard of Number 5 Longkou Road. After receiving the report, the Jiangsu Road Police Station immediately dispatched a team to cordon off the area and launch a detailed investigation to gather evidence. The preliminary findings of the case were published in the local papers, which are not difficult to find. In sum, the deceased was Lao Mingchang, a 69-year-old resident of the house. The police found no traces of any break-in during their on-site inspection, nor was there evidence of stolen property, so the cause of death was initially determined to be natural. Yet those who have had the opportunity to read the investigation file in detail, or to visit Longkou Road and hear the local gossip, may uncover a few curious inconsistencies.

According to the investigation records, officers found the deceased in the living room on the ground floor, but the foul stench was strong enough to fill the entire building. The circumstances of the scene were perturbing; the corpse had almost completely decayed into a pool of dark mucus. Only by examining the bones could one discern a human figure. Common sense would dictate that such a level of decay could be possible only after several weeks or months, but when interviewed by the police, neighboring residents claimed they had spoken with Lao only a few days prior to the body’s discovery. An autopsy corroborated their testimony: there were no signs of larvae breeding within the corpse, indicating that the deceased’s actual time of death was much shorter than it appeared. The appraisal report emphasized that the atrocious condition of the body made inference of the exact cause of death impossible, and yet bones collected on-site exhibited no signs of external trauma, somewhat eliminating the possibility of violent death.

The forensics doctor also analyzed the mucus collected from the body and determined it to be a mixture of bodily fluids and putrefied organs. This was—unlike the soft dissolving of tissue commonly caused by bacteria—more akin to the result of some rapid chemical or biological process. The conclusions gave the authorities reason to suspect that the results may have been the symptoms of certain malignant diseases. A low-profile investigation of infectious diseases was conducted in the surrounding area, though a rigorous pathological examination determined that the phenomenon had not occurred as a result of any known pathogens—and the neighbors elucidated stranger phenomena than just the body. A mere two nights before the body was discovered, several residents reported hearing a shrill, oddly rhythmic whistle emanating from the building where Lao lived. Others spoke of an unsettling young man who Lao had developed a close relationship with several months previously, yet police were unable to find any footage of suspicious people moving around the compound on surveillance footage from the days preceding the event. Due to the lack of substantive clues or evidence, the police eventually tabled the evidence and sealed the file with a verdict of non-violent death.

Speaking frankly, the deceased was no more than a childless old eccentric who rarely spoke to his neighbors (most of whom dismissed the case as an unfortunate tragedy). According to the will found in the room, Lao’s collection of books, notes, and assorted documents were to be donated to his former work unit, the Shandong Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute. Any proceeds from sale of the remaining property were to be donated to various heritage conservation foundations. Since no legal heirs were forthcoming, the estate sale went relatively smoothly, and things ought to have ended there.

However, it arose that this case indirectly resulted in a series of second-order consequences. Lao Mingchang’s diaries and documents, for example, sparked considerable heated argument upon their arrival at the Shandong Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute, although the pointless disputes never made it beyond a small circle of staff. In February 2014—four months after the bequeathed items had been transferred to the archaeological institute—a number of researchers from the institute returned to the former residence of the late Lao Mingchang, carefully inspected the entire house, and then removed several crates of documents. One month later, the Qingdao Municipal Public Security Bureau mobilized a police squad in a sudden raid on the area—mainly in the neighborhood of Signal Hill Park—but did not comment on the reasons or results of the exercise. At the beginning of April, the Housing and Construction Bureau of Shinan District conducted a comprehensive inspection of Lao’s former home and declared it a hazardous edifice, which revoked the transaction permit for the house, meaning it was no longer available for residence until proper repairs were undertaken.

The reader must make up his own mind as to the reality behind this sequence of events. As a participant who has cross-checked all available evidence and thoroughly analyzed the contents of the surviving documents, I will attempt to give a somewhat complete narrative of the whole affair, based on the protagonist’s first-hand diaries and documents, combined with my own circumstances and speculation.


Although Lao lived in Qingdao, he was born in Chongqing on September 20, 1942, an only child. His father, Lao Chuanlin, had once worked as an aide-de-camp for General Tang Junyao.* Nothing is known about his mother, Chen Yu, other than that she was from Fengtian.** In October 1942, when Lao Mingchang was three years old, his father followed General Tang to Qingdao to begin forcing the Japanese army’s surrender. In February 1946, after the Qingdao Office of the Deputy-Command of the Eleventh Military Region was abolished, Lao Chuanlin tried to find an opportunity to transfer under the leadership of Li Xianliang*** and bring his wife and son to Qingdao. In January 1949, Chen Yu died in an accident. After the end of the Jinan campaign in April, Lao Chuanlin brought his six-year-old son and surrendered to the People’s Liberation Army before settling down in Jinan. Lao Chuanlin passed away from an illness in 1963. During the Cultural Revolution, Lao Mingchang was sent down to the countryside in 1966 to work as a farmer in Licheng and suffered immensely due to his family background. He retook the college entrance examination in 1977 and was admitted to the history department of Shandong University, then joined the Shandong Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute in 1984 after completing his master’s degree, working there until his retirement in 2007.

For health reasons, Lao moved to Qingdao in the spring of 2008 and rented a room in a five-story building on Yushan Road. The small building was tucked away on a hillside situated in the northwest of Xiao Yushan,**** next door to Qingdao Ocean University. I have walked there many times; it is a charming place to live. The surroundings are quiet and peaceful, and few vehicles pass through. The entrance of the building leads onto Yushan Road as it winds down from the top of Xiao Yushan. The cream-colored fence of the university campus, perpetually smothered with creeping ivy, lines the opposite side of the street. Quaint and elegant brick-red campus rooftops in the European style loom over the lush walls, creating an adorable little corner that invites one to explore deeper. Downhill from the narrow Yushan Road, a small bend leads to the main entrance of Qingdao Ocean University. Through the main entrance is a stretch of verdant pine trees and bushes, and once past the bushes there stands a European-style building that was constructed during the Japanese occupation. It has granite walls with a beige-colored façade, a typical European tiled roof in orange and red, chic curved ornamentation, and a flat-topped tower of mixed Eastern and Western architectural style that stands in the middle. After passing through the university gate and continuing along the outer wall, you will arrive at a crossroads. South from the crossroads—past several more modern-style buildings—there is a lively and popular beach; to the east you may follow the quiet alleyways and the sycamore trees, eventually entering an old world filled with tiled roofs, elegant stone arches, rough granite façades, and cobbled streets. It’s a place where time seems to have stood still.

This type of scene, almost unchanged since the early years of the last century, held an even greater meaning for Lao Mingchang. He remembered his father once saying that he and his grandfather Lao Siwei had been born in Qingdao back when the city was still a German concession. Thus, the ancient edifices that had witnessed his ancestors a hundred years previously set his imagination alight. Since he had never married or borne children, a lineage rooted in the hearts of all Chinese people gradually manifested in another manner: he began to become deeply fascinated in his own family history, and increasingly desired to learn more about his ancestors…though this proved a less than easy task. Although his grandfather had been born in Qingdao, when he was five or six years old his great-grandfather had taken him to the northeast, where he had been entrusted to some business acquaintances. Due to the turbulence of those times, his grandfather’s relationship with his family was swiftly disconnected, leaving his grandfather without any knowledge of his family’s earlier generations. In addition, his grandfather passed away at a very early age, meaning that Lao Mingchang received even fewer memories than usual from his ancestors. To this end, he dedicated his time to excavating information concerning his family from the Qingdao Municipal Archives and the Qingdao Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology. In September 2008, he used his work experience at the Shandong Archaeological Institute to land himself a part-time job repairing documents within the municipal archives so that he could access those classified historical documents that had not yet been released for public consumption.

His efforts were not in vain. Lao carefully transcribed all the information he found during this period and compiled it in his own notes: these were the notes that were sent to the Shandong Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute after his death to be sorted out by the relevant staff. Though the majority of these notes are overly detailed or trivial, I still believe them essential to compiling a holistic narrative of the events that unfolded, due to the close connection they have with what happened to Lao.

According to the records quoted therein, the Lao family had settled in the town of Yanguan, Zhejiang Province, as early as the mid-Qing dynasty, at which time they were already respected as a local commercial family. During the early years of the reign of the Emperor Xianfeng,***** one of the family members—the direct ancestor of Lao Mingchang—moved the family to Jimo County within the district of Laizhou,****** Shandong Province. No reliable records exist as to why the family moved, but looking at the accounts of the Lao family themselves, it seemed that the family had accumulated too many enemies in both Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces and so was forced to leave their home. Lao Mingchang’s opinion was that this might not have been the exact truth of the matter.

A variety of historical documents mentioned that the family had a very strange habit: certain members of the family would sail out to sea in two or three boats during the evening and not return until days later, in the early hours of the morning. Although they claimed they were only catching fish, they would often return without any fish at all. Given the enormous amount of smuggling that existed around the coastal areas during the mid-to-late Qing dynasty, Lao Mingchang was almost certain his ancestors were involved in this disreputable profession. Perhaps they attracted the attention of the authorities or entered into a feud with rival smugglers—no matter the reason, they had no choice but to leave Zhejiang for Shandong.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the family quickly integrated into the local community. Many historical documents from both Qingdao and Jimo record deeds related to the Lao family, the most impressive of which recount the extraordinary breadth of their knowledge. Documents tell of incidents where members of the Lao family attracted attention by discussing ancient historical affairs or obscure esoteric concerns unbeknown to common folk. Even more extraordinary, not just one or two outstanding members of the family displayed this mastery of arcane wisdom; whether young or old, the whole family could easily discuss historical stories or legends to a level that the average person’s comprehension wouldn’t even know was true or false. Lao Mingchang had made special note of one extract from Assorted Tales from the Pure Heart Studio, a book that had been left behind by a private tutor named Zhou Yuke. A ten-year-old boy by the name of Lao Hengcai once argued with a storyteller in the street one day over an anecdote about the Ming dynasty general Qi Jiguang. The famous storyteller lost the debate and was left speechless. According to his seniority in the family hierarchy, this Lao Hengcai would have been Lao Mingchang’s ancestor to the sixth generation. From literary essays dating from the Emperor Xianfeng’s reign, to newspapers following the German occupation of Qingdao, similar stories appear frequently and identically in documents of all ages, varying only in their protagonist. It was as if this profound knowledge was encoded in the Lao family’s genes, passed down to each new generation.

Naturally, many people wanted to understand the secret of their erudition, but the reactions of the Lao family were always rather out of the ordinary when faced with such questions. They constantly insisted that there was a way to become immortal in this world, and that they had obtained their knowledge from their immortal ancestors. Although at first people took it for a joke in poor taste, the members of the Lao family all seemed very serious. They would cryptically suggest that not only had the family kept the secret of immortality since antediluvian times, furthermore, every family member was an immortal as well…which was transparently wishful thinking. As a family, they were clearly not immortal; they were not even particularly long-lived. So it came that whenever somebody in the family died, spiteful, jealous types never skipped the opportunity to mock them. In order to save face during these situations, the Lao family never held funerals, their coffins buried in secret instead. Nevertheless, some still believed the Lao family’s claims, though these people were mostly suspicious and gullible peasants from out of town. They would often gather in the house of the Lao family, assisting them in mysterious rituals or exploring ways to attain immortality. These activities naturally drew considerable criticism, but the unfounded speculations are mostly contradictory.

The Lao family moved from Jimo County to the port of Jiao’ao******* in early 1898 under a cloud of criticism, though the motivation for the move was mainly business. Germany had occupied Jiao’ao in November 1897. The head of the family at the time—Lao Mingchang’s great-grandfather Lao Gelin—established a business as a middleman for foreign traders and became a very well-known translator of German. Lao Gelin had many business partners and an extensive network within Qingdao, meaning that his name had been recorded in various archives. Lao Mingchang developed a much more detailed analysis of his great-grandfather because of this; due also in part to the experiences of this particular ancestor being inextricably linked to what happened to Lao later on. When I checked the documents left behind by Lao, I discovered a black-and-white photograph of Lao Gelin. It was impossible to say how old the photograph was, but Lao Gelin seemed 40 to 50 years old. Wearing a light robe and a dark jacket, with a Manchu-style pigtail and skullcap, his face could not conceal the unease and confusion so often displayed by Chinese of that time when confronted with the camera. The image was quite blurry, due to the age of the photograph; yet the man in that photo gave me an inexplicably uncanny feeling, as though he was someone forgotten long ago, and best left that way.

Lao Gelin purchased a small courtyard during that time beside the Qingdao River, then moved his entire family of more than twenty people—one after the other—to their new home to begin a fresh start. Yet even such a long move could not change the family’s old habits. From 1898 to 1905, patrolling German law enforcement would often track down and arrest suspicious persons on the docks at midnight: the archives have more than eight separate records of Lao family members being caught trying to secretly sail their boats out to sea. The Germans also initially suspected that the Lao family was involved in smuggling activities; however, nothing of value was ever found in their boats, nor did the Germans find a secret hiding place of the kind that was often built into smuggling ships. So although German authorities would often detain his family’s fishing boats and the people on board, as long as Lao Gelin paid a small fine as guarantee, there wasn’t too much trouble. In addition, the Lao family also saw a marked increase in the number of people who journeyed to explore the art of immortality, to the extent that they amassed a secret society of considerable size. Sometime around 1903, the group even erected a banner and proclaimed themselves the “School of Longevity,” becoming a semi-public sect.

Amidst this series of events, the most interesting one for Lao Mingchang was the attitude of his great-grandfather Lao Gelin. Perhaps in consideration of the feelings of his business partners—especially those devout German Christians—Lao Gelin would always try his best to maintain appropriate boundaries between himself and other members of the family and the School of Longevity. He participated in guilds and commercial associations, donated to charity, and strived to present himself always as an upstanding member of society. In the summer of 1903, he worked with several other businessmen to raise funds for the construction of a stone bridge spanning the Qingdao River that would aid the passage of cargo and dock workers to the port. The bridge was blown up during a battle against the Japanese, but a German journalist photographed a monument inscribed with the names of the bridge’s donors, and the name of Lao Gelin can be seen clearly. By 1904, his import-export business occupied a considerable portion of Qingdao Port, and he personally served as director for the Qingdao China Business Bureau. Yet in private, Lao Gelin still engaged in occult activities. Surviving letters from that time seem to indicate that Lao Gelin would often ask his business partners to retrieve rare and mysterious books from foreign lands, or assist in the purchase of certain shadowy objects.

Also worth mentioning is something that occurred in 1902. In the autumn of that year, Lao Gelin bought the property surrounding his own small courtyard and hired a group of workers from out of town to expand it. The project lasted nearly three and a half years; and by the spring of 1906 the one-story house had metamorphosed into a high-walled compound. There were a total of three small European-style buildings in the compound, which was laid out in the traditional courtyard style. The entrance led to a spacious courtyard with the main two-story building on the north side and two single-story wings forming a horseshoe. The three buildings were composed of granite from nearby Mount Lao, and rumored to have involved the consultation of a German designer. Many people thought the height of the courtyard walls excessive, hermetically enclosing the entire compound, as if to prevent outsiders from peering in. In addition, a few people familiar with Lao Gelin recounted a very strange phenomenon almost imperceptible to those unacquainted with the family: the earth excavated by Lao Gelin to build his new courtyard seemed far too plentiful. According to their observations, Lao Gelin must have dug an enormous cellar beneath the yard, because the soil transported away by the workers far exceeded that needed for the foundations of the three small buildings. This matter was never settled. First, the walls were too tall to see what transpired within the courtyard during its construction. Second, after the compound was completed, Lao Gelin immediately sent away all of the hired laborers, so there was no way for others to make inquiries of them.

The completion of the new home seemed to mark a new beginning for the Lao family. On the one hand, their surreptitious nocturnal seafaring activities suddenly ceased. Although gossip still persisted about what had taken place in the past, by 1906, the archives of the colonial administration no longer contained any record of the patrol team encountering the Lao family’s fishing boats. On the other hand, the School of Longevity expanded vigorously during this period, turning the new family compound into a major hub of activity and attracting many residents of Qingdao to join them. Many neighbors and night watchmen claimed that they saw suspicious people coming in and out of the family compound during the middle of the night, or heard a strange noise emanating from behind those purposefully high walls, like an unintelligible wild cry spouting forth from a crowd, accompanied by a chaotic musical piping and other instruments, ominously evoking the ancient arcane rituals that circulated among secluded coastal villages. Even during the day, passersby often caught wind of a peculiar odor around the Lao family’s house, or spied workers carrying sealed boxes into or out of the compound. As for what they contained…even the workers knew not.

As head of the family, Lao Gelin appeared to have lost the ability to control the situation. A significant number of German businessmen who had contact with him expressed the opinion—publicly and privately—that he should end the disturbing and outlandish activities taking place within his home. Though Lao Gelin replied in agreement to all of their demands, the strange sounds at midnight did not disappear, nor did the number of shady loiterers lingering outside the compound. Later—between the close of 1907 and the beginning of 1909—the mysterious disappearance of numerous native Qingdao acolytes of the School of Longevity dealt a fatal blow to Lao Gelin’s remaining enterprises. Although the German authorities and the police bureau found no clear connection between the disappearances and the Lao family—or the followers of the School of Longevity—many within Qingdao attributed it to them nevertheless, believing it to be part of some enigmatic series of sacrifices. Enlightened individuals dismissed these rumors as mere folktales based on superstition. Then, in 1908, several intellectuals published an article in the opinion column of the Jiaozhou Daily accusing Lao Gelin and his associates of “Assembling at night…dispersing at dawn…wrongly seeking the secrets of longevity…luring in the gullible, and murdering them for money.”

Under so many burdens, Lao Gelin’s businesses collapsed. Most of his friends distanced themselves from him, and those superstitious neighbors viewed the entire Lao family with even greater disdain. His remaining friends, however, noted that the inscrutable businessman seemed no longer to care about public opinion. He became increasingly anxious and fearful, but never once mentioned anything untoward about the family or himself. He spent more and more money on apparently meaningless endeavors, such as the collection of old occult books from both nearby and abroad, or meetings with peculiar people. The enterprises that ought to have held his concern all fell to the wayside one by one.

In the early months of 1909, just after the Chinese New Year, Lao Gelin confused everyone by doing another odd thing. He entrusted his most beloved son to the care of a northeastern merchant of medicinal ingredients named Wang Zhicheng, who resided in Fengtian. This child, barely five years of age, was the Lao Siwei who would later become the grandfather of Lao Mingchang. Lao Gelin claimed the reason for the move was to allow Lao Siwei to grow up under the tutelage of Wang Zhicheng and learn the art of the medicine business, but this excuse failed to hold up. The eldest son, Lao Siming—who was already studying the operations of the family businesses—and the 16-year-old second son, Lao Side, were both more suitable candidates for the study of medicinal business than a five-year-old child. Idle folk prone to gossip gave their own opinion concerning this irrational arrangement. Most of them thought it was connected to the identity of the boy. Lao Siwei was the son of one of Lao Gelin’s concubines who died in childbirth, so his wife had always desired to send him away. Others thought that Lao Gelin was looking for an excuse to get his son out of town to avoid trouble. No one expected that this incident would be the simple prelude to an even bigger transformation.


  • Tang Junyao (1899–1967): a Republican general born in Liaoning Province. He oversaw the Qingdao area after the war against the Japanese. He moved to Hong Kong in 1948 after Communist advances in the Civil War.

** Fengtian: now known as Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning Province. It is also known by its Manchu name of Mukden.

*** Li Xianliang (1904–?): the Republican mayor of Qingdao from 1945 until he fled to Taiwan in 1949.

**** Xiao Yushan: literally means “Little Fish Hill.” It is a pleasant park in the center of Qingdao overlooking the sea.

***** 1831-1861.

****** Both Jimo and Laizhou are now part of Qingdao city itself.

******* Jiao’ao: sometimes known as Jiaozhou Bay, it is also now a part of Qingdao municipality.


“Black Taisui” is an excerpt from Oobmab’s new short story collection, The Flock of Ba-Hui and Other Stories.