The Bewitching World of China’s 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 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.