Confucius in Manhattan

The Well-Documented 1926 Encounter Was Far Beyond Easy Explanation

Dr. Neville Whymant, a British professor of linguistics, was surprised when he found out the real reason he was invited to a dinner party at the New York City, Park Avenue home of Judge and Mrs. William Cannon. But what he experienced that night during October 1926 went far beyond mere surprise. It left him awestruck. Some believe it is perhaps the most intriguing contact with the spirit world on record. As related by Whymant, first to the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) and then in a 1931 book, Psychic Adventures in New York, the story exceeds even the boggle threshold of many ardent Spiritualists.

Whymant, who taught Oriental literature and philosophy at the Universities of Tokyo and Peking before teaching languages at Oxford and London Universities, was in the United States to study the languages of the American Indian when he received the invitation from the Cannons. But it was not until after he arrived at their home that Mrs. Cannon informed him and his wife that a séance with medium George Valiantine would take place after dinner. She explained that their sittings with Valiantine had been going on for months and that they had heard from many spirits of the dead. Most of the voices had come through in English, but some were in Italian, French, and Portuguese. Recently, there was a voice that no one in their circle could make out other than that it sounded like Chinese. Knowing that Whymant was conversant in some 30 languages, including several dialects of Chinese, the Cannons hoped that he would be able to interpret, but they feared that he would decline the invitation if he knew what was to take place.

Whymant told the Cannons that he was not particularly interested in “Spiritualism,” although he had experimented in the Orient with some of their seemingly paranormal phenomena and had authored a book the prior year titled Psychical Research in China. However, he remained very skeptical toward mediums.

In addition to his academic credentials, Whymant served as Far East editor of the New International Encyclopedia and was on the editorial staff of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Later, from 1947 to 1950, he was a foreign correspondent for the London Times and an adviser to the embassy of the Republic of China in London. Among his other books were Chinese and Greek Philosophical Parallels (1917), The Psychology of the Chinese Coolie (1920), and China (1923). Clearly, he does not seem to have been a man to be easily duped or to put his reputation on the line by telling a story that he knew most rational people would consider absurd.

Before the sitting at the Cannon home got underway, Whymant had a talk with Valiantine and wrote that he impressed him as “a typical example of the simpler kind of country American citizen,” adding that Valiantine made amusing blunders in speech and misconception. He appeared as a “fish out of water” among the high society New Yorkers there, including a prominent physician.

Having heard there were many charlatans posing as mediums, Whymant made a careful inspection of the room, including looking under the carpet for trap doors. “There was no appearance or suspicion of trickery,” he wrote, “but I mention these things to show that I was alert from the beginning, and I was prepared to apply all the tests possible to whatever phenomena might appear.”

In the so-called “direct-voice” mediumship of Valiantine, the medium exudes a mysterious substance called ectoplasm, out of which the spirits are said to form an artificial larynx or voice box. An aluminum trumpet, used to amplify the voices, usually floats around the room and stops, suspended in the air, in front of the person to be addressed. Unlike trance-voice mediumship, in which the voices come through the vocal cords and mouth of the medium, the direct-voice phenomenon is independent of the medium’s body, seemingly emanating several feet above him or her. Early investigators assumed that such mediums were talented ventriloquists, but testing ruled that theory out with many of them, including Valiantine. In fact, Whymant observed Valiantine carrying on a conversation in “American English” with the person next to him while foreign languages were coming through the trumpet.

As the medium can be seriously injured if the ectoplasm is exposed to light, darkness is required. But there apparently was enough light for Whymant to observe Valiantine and to take detailed notes. As soon as the lights were turned off, the group recited the Lord’s Prayer and then sacred music was played on a gramophone, a common practice to establish the harmony necessary for good phenomena.

Voices came through for other sitters, some of them so intimate that Whymant felt like an eavesdropper. Suddenly, an Italian voice came and spoke with Whymant, complaining that a member of the circle who spoke Spanish had failed in her promise to learn enough Italian so that they could effectively communicate. “Speaking at first in pure and clear Italian, the voice soon dropped into a Sicilian dialect of which I knew nothing,” Whymant recalled, adding that the voice then sang a Sicilian ballad.

Among the English-speaking voices was that of Mrs. Whymant’s father, who spoke in his characteristic drawl, reminiscent of the West County of England. Whymant was impressed as he doubted that Valiantine could have done enough research to know from where his wife’s father came and then to simulate his voice.

The group then heard the “sound of an old wheezy flute not too skillfully played.” It reminded Whymant of sounds he had heard in the streets of China. When the flute-like sound faded, Whymant heard the word “Confucius” in Chinese, but it was not pronounced as an American would. The last syllable of the name came with an elusive sound. “To make that little sibilant sound with the tongue against the teeth was one of the great problems in learning Chinese,” Whymant explained, adding that in addition to the name being pronounced perfectly, the tone was right, as well.

Whymant asked for the voice to identify itself. The voice repeated, “Confucius.” Whymant then asked the voice to give his real name. “My name is K’ung; men call me Fu-Tsu, and my lowly style is Kiu,” the voice answered in an ancient Chinese dialect. “I wasted more than three score years and reached the end of no road. Peace upon thy house. May I know thine honorable name and illustrious style?”

Suspicious, though he could not imagine a trickster knowing such pure Chinese, especially an ancient dialect, Whymant played along. “My humble name is Wang, and men call me Wen-tsu,” he replied in the more modern Mandarin dialect. “My despicable style is Wen-Tsu-Tsang. I have thrown away two score years in folly and I lack understanding. Will the Master teach me words of wisdom?”

As the voice continued, Whymant struggled to understand the ancient dialect. “Then it burst upon me that I was listening to Chinese of a purity and delicacy not now spoken in any part of China,” he wrote. “…I realized that the style of Chinese used was identical with that of the Chinese Classics, edited by Confucius two thousand five hundred years ago.” It was, he said, as dead colloquially as Sanskrit or Latin. “If this was a hoax, it was a particularly clever one, far beyond the scope of any of the sinologues now living.”

Apparently, “Confucius” recognized that Whymant was having a difficult time understanding the ancient dialect and gradually assimilated his speech to that of Whymant’s, all the time keeping his own accent and intonation. Whymant wondered how he could test the voice and remembered that there are several poems in Confucius’s Shih King which had baffled both Chinese and Western scholars. He recalled the first line of the third ode of one of the poems but could not recall the rest. The voice then took up the poem and recited the remaining 15 lines.

The voice put a new construction on the verses so that the poem now made sense to Whymant. It was, the voice explained, a psychic poem. The centuries-old mystery was solved. But Whymant had another test and questioned the voice about a difficult passage in Lun Yu, one that had also puzzled scholars. As Whymant started to recite the passage, the voice carried the passage to the end and explained that the copyists were in error, as the character written as sê should have been i, and the character written as yen was an error for fou.

“Again, all the winds had been taken out of my sails!” Whymant wrote, pointing out that the telepathic theory—that the medium was reading his mind—would not hold up since he was unaware of the nature of the errors.

Whymant continued to ask questions and noted that answers came without any pause or fumbling, so rapidly that he had a difficult time keeping up and had to ask the voice to repeat some answers. The voice became stronger as they talked. When Whymant told “Confucius” that he had many more questions to ask him, the reply came, “Ask not of an empty barrel much fish, O wise one! Many things which are now dark shall be light to thee, but the time is not yet, they shall yield to thy touch in a time which is not yet born.”

There were several additional exchanges between Whymant and “Confucius” before the power began to fade. Whymant attended 11 additional sittings, dialoguing with the same voice in several of them. At one sitting, another voice broke in, speaking some strange French dialect. Whymant recognized it as Labourdin Basque. Although he was more accustomed to speaking Spanish Basque, he managed to carry on a conversation with that voice. The voice said that he had lived in the village of Ezpeleta, in the French Basque country. A satirical song was chanted by the voice, but Whymant did not recognize it.

“Altogether fourteen foreign languages were used in the course of the twelve sittings I attended,” Whymant concluded his book. They included Chinese, Hindi, Persian, Basque, Sanskrit, Arabic, Portuguese, Italian, Yiddish, Hebrew, German and Modern Greek.

Upon returning to England in 1927, Whymant called upon Sir Oliver Lodge, a distinguished physicist and psychical researcher, to tell him of his experiences. Lodge then arranged to have Valiantine examined by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London. However, the SPR researchers heard only “whispers,” some of which sounded like Chinese to report, pointed out that Valiantine probably learned a little Chinese from the many “Chinamen” living in America, enough to make Whymant think that he was hearing Chinese and he subconsciously filled in the blanks. It was an explanation implying that Whymant was a fool. The theory further suggested that Valiantine learned enough of 13 other languages, including Sanskrit, to further dupe Whymant and also that Valiantine memorized the poems of “Confucius,” or Whymant just imagined he heard the “voice” recite two lengthy poems. And Whymant further imagined that “Confucius” explained the mistakes in one of them.

According to other observers, Valiantine, like most credible mediums, had his good days and his bad days. Objective psychical researchers had found that a medium’s good days, when the power was strong, usually resulted from harmony among the sitters and a sympathetic link, as Whymant seems to have provided. Bad days, when there was little or no power, were said to be the result of negativity or extreme skepticism among the sitters. Moreover, when the power was weak, low-level or “earthbound” spirits were more likely to communicate or to interfere with the communication from spirits operating from a higher vibration, since low-level spirits were closer to the earth plane vibration. While such an explanation was seen by researchers intent on debunking the medium as a very self-serving and pathetic excuse, it was, nevertheless, observed to be the case by a number of distinguished researchers. There were indications that, as a result of conflicts with H. Dennis Bradley, Valiantine’s biggest supporter, SPR researchers were hostile toward Valiantine, and this may have resulted in poor phenomena when they observed him. Bradley had criticized the strict controls of SPR researchers, such as tying and gagging the medium, claiming that it stifled the medium and defeated phenomena, while the SPR saw it as unscientific if they did not.

Valiantine’s reputation suffered a severe blow in 1931, when an attempt was made to fingerprint a spirit claiming to be the recently deceased Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the Sherlock Holmes series. As it turned out, however, the print obtained was that of Valiantine’s big toe. Valiantine claimed that he had no idea how his toe became imprinted in the plaster cast. It was surmised by Valiantine’s supporters that devious, low-level spirits interfered and had a good laugh, but debunkers saw it as evidence that Valiantine was a fraud, even if the direct-voice phenomenon could not be so easily dismissed.

If Valiantine was a genuine medium, as many other observers receiving evidential messages concluded, can it be assumed that it was actually Confucius speaking? “It does not seem necessary to assume the actual presence of the great Chinese Sage himself,” Lodge wrote in the introduction to Whymant’s book, “but it is possible that some disciple of that period may be exerting himself, as so many others on that side are exerting themselves, to give scholarly proof of survival, and to awaken our dormant minds to possibilities in the universe to which we are for the most part blind and deaf.”

As Lodge and a few other researchers came to understand, superior spirits, such as Confucius, Jesus, Socrates, and Swedenborg must be, while preserving their individuality, have no need to be identified with their teachings; but because humans seem to need an identity in order to fix their ideas, elevated spirits who identify with the teachings of those superior spirits and belong to the same “soul group” may take that famous name to appease us, as it is the teaching, not the teacher, that is important. In some cases, the communicating spirit would say that it was not one spirit talking but rather several of them offering a group essence based on the teachings of the superior spirit.

Whatever took place in the home of a respected New York judge that October and November of 1926 was very convincing to the distinguished professor and others in attendance, and we are left to wonder if a “simple” minded American could have been so stupid as to think his toe print would match up with another’s thumb print, yet so brilliant as to learn more than a dozen languages and to have memorized the poems of Confucius, and even to have corrected an error that had baffled scholars for centuries.

By Michael E. Tymn