Who Knew the Netherworld’s Bureaucracy Could Be This Adorable?
By Itzel Hsu ∥ Translated by William Ceurvels
Jan 16, 2024

(This article is originally published at Readmoo)

Ebi is a Taiwanese comic artist who specializes in romantic comedy and has also created a line of stickers on the social media app Line featuring her cutesy cartoon alter-ego. She is perhaps best known for her romantic comic trilogy centered around an old apartment complex called “Sunshine Manor”. The cast of characters that inhabit the fictive world of Ebi’s Sunshine Manor all seem to encounter adversity – a beautiful college girl strives to succeed in life but is harmed by her own boyfriend, an enthusiastic young girl is teased for being short and chubby, a male comic artist is haunted by introversion and solitude – but ultimately, under the steady hand of Ebi’s prose, they all grow to find their own form of happiness.   

By introducing elements of folk religion into the familiar romance trope of the “quarrelsome lovers”, My Forty-Nine Days with the Chenghuang presents a breakthrough in Ebi’s oeuvre. Scenes are set not just in the modern world, but also in the netherworld and in a past life of the protagonist, creating a much more complex and fantastical mise-en-scène than in Ebi’s previous works.

The “Chenghuang” mentioned in the title is the Mandarin term for a god that protects over a city and, in this comic, refers to the male protagonist, Chang Liu-Sheng. In Taiwanese culture, Chenghuang temples serve as something like the city halls of the spirit-world, but due to the fact that Chenghuangs are in charge of punishing evil-doers, escorting the dead into the afterlife and exorcising demons, they often evince a stern and severe disposition. Subordinates that appear alongside the Chenghuang are often rendered with ferocious expressions meant to intimidate and deter evil ghosts and demons, and throughout Chenghuang Temples, aphorisms cautioning against evildoing line the sides of doorways. Given the severe and solemn atmosphere that these temples evoke, it would be highly unlikely for the average person to associate them with romance. Yet, in a move that will surely surprise and inspire curiosity in her readers, Ebi has chosen a Chenghuang as the protagonist in her latest romance.

In many East Asian belief systems, the netherworld is thought to have an administrative system not unlike the bureaucratic organizations that govern the world of the living – the Chenghuang is just one small cog in the vast machinery of this system. Indeed, Chang Liu-Sheng, the Chenghuang depicted in My Forty-Nine days with the Chenghuang, is a fairly low-ranking official serving under the Grand Lord Chengchuang. (If we were to liken the Grand Lord Chenghuang to a city mayor, a Chenghuang would be more like a village ward.) Classical Chinese literature abounds with legends of the netherworld – Pu Song-ling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, for instance, satirized the corruption and injustice of Qing Dynasty bureaucracy with a collection of stories detailing the negligence of netherworld officials. Yet, compared with Pu’s depiction of netherworld bureaucracy, Ebi’s seems even truer to life: Teams led by different Chenghuangs compete and bicker and Old Lady Meng whose heady potion helps the departed forget the memories of their past life gets updated as a young stunner who seems to be engaging in extracurricular activities with the Grand Lord Chenghuang. Against this backdrop, it is not such a surprise, then, that the female protagonist Chen Chih-Yao’s love story begins with her mistaken entry into the netherworld.   

Like many other tales of quarrelsome lovers, Chen Chih-Yao and Chang Liu-Sheng’s relationship is born out of conflict: When Chih-Yao finds herself inexplicably cast into the netherworld and realizes her time among the living is not yet up, she gets in an argument with Liu-Sheng’s subordinates “Heipai Wuchang”[1] who had mistakenly taken her in. Liu-Sheng is suspended after protecting his subordinates and, in a fit of anger, casts a spell on Chih-Yao that allows her to see ghosts in the world of the living. From a reader’s perspective with the benefit of hindsight, Liu-Sheng seems almost like a schoolboy who picks on the girl he has a secret crush on – it might have all just been a ploy to get closer to Chih-Yao. When Liu-Sheng returns to the world of the living, he finds an excuse to become the Chen’s houseguest and ensuing hauntings of the Chen’s home become the kindling that fuels Chih-Yao and Liu-Sheng’s budding romance.

Yet, is marriage truly the ultimate expression of a loving relationship? In the opening scene of the comic in which Chih-Yao’s grandmother arranges a meeting for her with a prospective suitor, her total disinterest in marriage is already on full display. Knowing her grandmother is well-intentioned, she stops short of rejecting the whole arrangement outright and instead opts to scare away her potential suitor by arriving late, dirtying her clothes and deliberately making herself look less attractive. Halfway through the comic, we learn that Chih-Yao’s parents got a divorce, a traumatic memory that sheds a deeper light on Chih-Yao’s reluctance to participate in arranged meetings. In an interesting turn of events, as Chih-Yao’s relationship with Liu-Sheng evolves, she begins arranging meetings with suitors for her grandmother and even lends support to her friend who is going through a crisis in his marriage. Perhaps, Chen Chih-Yao’s indifference towards marriage is not entirely a product of deep-seeded fear, but rather a symptom of the importance she places on not acting in ways she’ll later regret. That is, marriage is one way that people can be happy together, but it is not the ultimate goal.

Like many other love stories between the living and the dead, the conclusion to My Forty-Nine Days with the Chenghuang will inevitably leave readers feeling despondent. Ultimately, Liu-Sheng must return to his post as Chenghuang in the netherworld, just as Chih-Yao must eventually choke back Old Lady Meng’s heady brew to wipe her mind clean of any memory of the great beyond. In the final scenes, Liu-Sheng’s new outlook towards his past-life memories presages a possible change of fate: He had always remained in the netherworld serving as a Chenghuang due to his distaste for the brutality of the world of the living and his unwillingness to forget the kind deeds of benefactors in his past life, but what new life will await him now that he no longer despises the land of the living and prepares to drink Lady Meng’s brew and reincarnate?

As for the novel’s conclusion, most readers were quite satisfied with how Ebi chose to bring the story to a close. Whether or not the protagonists ultimately do forget each other, characters like Heipai Wuchang, who turned into cute little dogs, the ravishing Lady Meng prancing along with her parasol, and the stylish Chenghuangs who managed to pull off ancient ceremonial robes and modern tailored suits with the same panache, will certainly live on in the memory of readers. This vibrant cast of characters has injected our conventional understanding of the underworld with new color and perspective.


[1] Often rendered in English as “the black and white ghosts of impermanence”, Heipai Wuchang are two deities in Chinese folk religion that guide the deceased into the netherworld.