Ghosts of China


Temple dedicated to the goddess of the Sea. Located on Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Photo by Shawn Smallman

Every year I do at least one post about international folklore, such as a haunted house in Hong Kong, because I love the mysterious. This year, since I am studying Mandarin, I want to explore the idea of the ghosts in this language itself. The idea of the ghost is key in Chinese culture. One of the nation’s major holidays is the Hungry Ghost Festival (中元节) on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. It’s a date to honor your ancestors, while also being careful to propitiate any wayward spirits. But what kind of ghosts might you fear meeting?

Note: for anyone who is curious to learn more, the notes are at the bottom.

伥鬼 Chāng guǐ (note: this colored text is not for a link) This ghost is literally someone who was eaten by a tiger, which now seems an uncommon way to create a ghost. But this story has a twist. Rather than seeking revenge upon the animal that killed it, this spirit now serves the tiger by seeking out new victims. The term is now long outdated in Mandarin, but the concept is not. In Brazilian Portuguese, there is a term (based on a popular comic from the 1940s) Amigo da onça, which literally means a friend of the jaguar.” This person is someone who feigns friendship, in order to manipulate situations to their advantage. While perhaps less terrifying than the chāng guǐ, I wonder whether the term may have a similar origin in Brazilian folklore. There are many sayings in Chinese that refer to the danger of tigers, such as a “lamb in a tiger’s den” (yáng rù hǔ kǒu). For one version of this story, please see Hung & Yu (2010). 

吊死鬼 Diào sǐ guǐ This is the ghost of a person who was a suicide or victim of an execution. These ghosts were also predominately female. One can recognize them because they have a long, sinuous tongue that hangs out of their mouth. This is an aspect of their portrayal has become a trope in Chinese opera (Huntington, 2005, p. 32), where they became a popular figure long ago in Imperial China (Theiss, 2004, p. 521). As Rania Huntington (2005) has described, one of the most terrifying aspects of these spirits was that they would try to persuade the living to kill themselves in turn, which would allow the ghost to be reborn. This malevolence or selfishness echoes that of the chāng guǐ. To me, one of the most interesting lines in Huntington’s article (Huntington, 2005, p. 2) was this: “The means of death believed to produce this kind of ghost are hanging (as suicide), drowning (sometimes a suicide), and death in childbirth. These ghosts are an acknowledgment that certain kinds of death do not simply destroy the body, but malform the soul as well.” As Theiss (2004, 521) described, such a ghost “could torment her attacker, the local community and even her own family, seeking revenge for years to come.”

Chinese Garden at the Montreal Botanical Garden, Canada. Photo by Smallman

游魂野鬼, Yóu hún yě guǐ This spirit is someone who has died far from home, or who has no relatives to mourn for them. In a book chapter (Harrison et al., 2010) that refers to this concept, the authors talked about the spectral spaces in South Africa, where 65,000 Chinese workers were brought between the Boer War and 1910. The government later sent all these workers back to China, but their memory remains in these places much like the yóu hún yě guǐ. There were many mass movements of Chinese workers, such as the Chinese workers in the U.S. railroad industry, or the Chinese labor corps in World War One. So the yóu hún yě guǐ might be found in many distant nations, and perhaps reflects the experience of collective loss that some Chinese felt as their family members left.

冥婚 Mínghūn. This refers to a ghost marriage between the living and dead, an idea that also haunted the Japanese folklore that inspired the American writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). If you are looking for a chilling story, read Hearn’s (1971, 71-13), “A Passional Karma” in the collection In Ghostly Japan. You can also find an example of such a story in Hearn’s book Chinese Ghost Stories. While I love Edgar Allen Poe, it’s strange to me that whereas Poe has become an icon, Hearn is almost forgotten. As Hearn himself made clear, his short story “A Passional Karma” had its roots in the Chinese tales of the mínghūn. If you want to read more, I talk about the classic work of the Chinese supernatural, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, in an earlier blog post for Halloween.

餓鬼 èguǐ These were hungry ghosts, condemned to starve for all eternity, because of the greed that they displayed in their lives. In some cases these people had failed to share food with people who were starving, but in other cases they had become so consumed by greed that they harmed others. These figures somewhat remind me of the Windigo, an evil spirit in Algonquian belief in the United States and Canada. These people would be transformed by hunger and greed into cannibal monsters. These tales were used as a way to warn of the evils of greed. More recently, Indigenous authors, directors and video game makers have used this figure to critique modern capitalist society. You can hear an interview in which I talk about the Windigo here. I also have my own book on the topic called Dangerous Spirits.

Ghosts were so terrifying in Chinese mythology that were two Gate Gods to control them, Shentu and Yulu:

“They had the responsibility of supervising all the ghosts. Evil or harmful ghosts would be bound with reed rope and fed to tigers. Being inspired by that, the great mythological emperor Huang Di started and promoted a ritual that was held regularly. He taught people to paint the figures of Shentu, Yulu, and a tiger on door frames, place a statue made from peach wood beside the gate, and hand a reed rope on its top. By doing this at a specific time, all evils might be driven away from people inside the house” (Yang, An, Turner, 2005, pp. 200-201).

A simplified version of this tradition has endured for a long time in China.

I couldn’t end this blog post without also mentioning Layne Vandenberg’s recent review of Korean zombie thrillers. Personal tip: Kingdom is a wonderful series for anyone who is interested in history, and subscribes to Netflix. It also has good character development, wonderful sets, and an interesting plot.

Tomb guardian. Note the sleeves.

Chinese ghosts, Korean zombies and Algonquian windigos aside, on Halloween the greatest danger that most kids face is a car. To my readers in the United States and Canada- if you are going out trick or treating with children this Halloween, please remember reflective tape and glow sticks. And if you are a driver, on this night please slow way down.


Harrison, P. & Gotz, G. & Todes, A. & Wray, C. & Ahmed, P. & Badenhorst, W.(2010). Changing Space, Changing City: Johannesburg after apartheid. Wits University Press. Retrieved November 30, 2018, from the Project MUSE database.

Hearn, L. (1971) In Ghostly Japan. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1971.

Hung, E & Yu, H.S. (2010). Chinese Ghost Stories. Hong Kong: Commercial Press.

Huntington, R. (2005). Ghosts Seeking Substitutes: Female Suicide and Repetition. Late Imperial China 26(1), 1-40. Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved November 30, 2018, from Project MUSE database.

Theiss, J. (2004). Female Suicide, Subjectivity and the State in Eighteenth‐Century China. Gender & History, 16(3), 513-537.

Yang, L., An, D., & Turner, J. A. (2005). Handbook of Chinese mythology. Abc-clio.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

Statue of a foo lion located before the Temple of the Goddess of the Sea in Hong Kong. Photo by Shawn Smallman
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