The Bewitching World of China’s Ghost Stories

The Bewitching World of China’s Ghost Stories
Oct 25, 2014 By Caitlin Dwyer ,

All over China, leaves are starting to crisp and fall. Trees lift blackened limbs into a chilly sky. It's the season for ghost stories. For Westerners, October calls up Halloween's roll call of creepy-crawlies: vampires and ghosts, witches and zombies. Because it has a Confucian rather than Judeo-Christian base, China does not celebrate Halloween. However, Chinese culture has a long, complex relationship with the dead. Ghosts, monsters and spirits have haunted the Chinese psyche for thousands of years, and their bewitching power continues to entertain in the form of popular cinema. From fox-spirits to ancestral ghosts to jiangshi zombies, China has many of its own spooky stories.

The Bewitching World of China’s Ghost Stories

The popular ‘players'

Chinese ghosts are often depicted as beautiful young women.  Alluring and dangerous, they seek something from the living: revenge, life-force, or sometimes affection. The preponderance of female ghosts springs from a dual history of animism and Confucianism. In Confucian culture, families perform important rituals for deceased ancestors. A young woman who dies unmarried lacks a husband's family or children to tend to her afterlife rituals. She may be unable to truly die, and may return to earth as a ghost.

Fox-spirits can live 1,000 years and attain immortality – but they can also remain on earth, causing mischief and harm to humans. Associated with a fox's craftiness, fox-spirits are deceptive. They can change shape, often appearing in the guise of beautiful ladies, only to return to fox-form later. Many fox-spirits lack a balance of yin and yang; they seek out men, seduce them and steal their yang life-force. As such, they are often associated with sexuality.

Jiangshi (僵尸, literally “stiffened corpse”) are the risen dead. With hideous long nails and rigor mortis-induced stiffness, they also seek to steal life-force from the living.  Without consciousness, they act somewhat like Western zombies. In modern cinema, these monsters have become conflated with Western vampires, and have taken on some of those blood-sucking characteristics.

The origin of ghosts

Ancestor worship has been an important facet of Chinese society for thousands of years.  Confucianism stressed respect for one's ancestors. On Tomb-Sweeping Day (Qingming Festival), families tend to the graves of the dead. During Ghost Festival in July, the barriers between the living and dead dissipate, making communication with ancestors easier.  Families make offerings of food and incense; they also burn paper versions of real-life amenities, which ash into the spirit world and become possessions of the dead. It's not unusual now to see families burn paper iPhones for their relatives.

Souls who are not given proper care may become ghosts. In addition, those who commit crimes or accrue negative karma may find themselves in a sort of limbo, assigned to become the hungry ghosts of the Buddhist cosmology.

Altogether, guishen (鬼神), or spirits, constitute a pantheon of characters – from heavenly gods to skittish, crafty fox-spirits. Their stories evolved over many centuries. In ancient China, scholars wrote zhiguai, anecdotes which recorded oddities and interactions with the supernatural. During the Tang Dynasty, chuanqi (marvelous tales) added to this tradition, recording magic, strange beasts and heavenly intervention as well as ghost visitations and spirits.

Some sample stories

China's Edgar Allan Poe is Pu Song-Ling (蒲松龄), whose Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio set the bar for spooky stories. Drawing on the chuanqi tradition, Pu collected (and invented) traditional tales, merging them together into a volume of short stories.  Characters range from magical Taoist priests to tiny spirits who lodge in men's eyes and blind them. While they incorporate a wide range of scary characters – vengeful ghosts, fox-spirits and plenty of just plain nasty humans – the stories have a focus in the human world. Human behaviour, including greed, weakness and romance, often becomes the true lesson in Pu's stories. Written during the Qing Dynasty, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, or Liaozhai Zhiyi, is China's seminal collection of ghost stories.

One of Pu's most famous tales is Painted Skin (画皮). A man encounters a beautiful woman on the road who tells him she is a runaway concubine. Entranced by her beauty, he brings her home. Then one night, warned by a Taoist priest, he looks in on the girl's room and sees a hideous demon with green skin and fangs. Spread on the bed is a stretched human skin, which the demon carefully paints and then dons – transforming instantly into a beautiful woman. The demon rips out the man's heart, killing him instantly. Only by consulting a priest and a madman can the man's wife finally capture the demon and miraculously bring her husband back to life.

In the story Living Dead, four travellers seek refuge late one night at an inn. Since there is no vacancy, the travellers end up sleeping in a room with the corpse of the innkeeper's recently deceased daughter-in-law.  In the night, the corpse wakes and breathes into the faces of the sleeping men – except for one, who cowers under his blankets. With his companions dead, the terrified traveller flees the zombie. She chases him through town and into the woods, driving her nails deep into a tree in a desperate lunge. He escapes into a monastery, and the next morning the monks retrieve the corpse and send the distraught traveller on his way.

While these stories may seem unfamiliar to Westerners, they are animated by the same spirit of curiosity, fear and wonder about the non-human world. If the witches and bed-sheet ghosts seem a little passé this Halloween, open up a copy of Liaozhai Zhiyi. But you might want to bring a flashlight to bed.

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Keywords: ghosts and demons in China spirits in Chinese culture jiangshi zombies in China importance of ghosts and spirits in Chinese psyche


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I'm pretty sure I dated a fox-spirit once. She sucked out all my yang.

Oct 26, 2014 21:39 Report Abuse



This article is scary.

Oct 26, 2014 09:40 Report Abuse



Great story.

Yep, shining bow, Halloween is certainly a pagan holiday, along with 2 equinoxes, 2 soltices, and 4 other days in between.

Anybody see any of those 'Baby Guei" movies in China? Ive seen at least 4.

I just love those 'baby ghost" movies.

Nov 05, 2011 21:15 Report Abuse