An (Ancient) Chinese Ghost Story

By Rukman Singh, Gina Ng & Keane Lim

Hey guys!! We are writing about a rather spooky yet an interesting topic nonetheless. Here’s our blog about ghosts and the stories related to them in ancient China. Much like today, where there are some people who laugh at the idea of ghosts and others who are deeply superstitious, before 1600-1046 BCE, the Chinese held some interesting views on "gui" (ghost) and the afterlife.

In early China, the people often spread, via word of mouth, paranormal sightings that would seem creepy to us even today. Such stories flourished as the written word was invented, and people became interested in reading ghost literature. In modern times, the concept of "gui", or ghost, rarely affect us, unless we've "seen" them, or we believe that they exist OR... well... during one of those nights when we bravely solo watch ‘The Conjuring’ (and are constantly fearing the appearance of something out of nowhere... haha!!). BUT! The same couldn't be said for people living in early China. Superstitions and beliefs of ghosts have guided the people's way of life, and of course, ancestor worship. One thing also worth noting is that beliefs in ghosts grew rampantly after the spread of Buddhism, which explains why there are some Buddhist (and Confucian) values deep set in classic ghost stories!

As you read further, we will explain the inception of the early Chinese outlooks on the concepts of “ghosts” and their opinion of karmic sense, through the famous stories of Soushenji (“In Search off the Supernatural”) by Gan Bao. Get ready to be spooked!

So... what do people in early China think about ghosts?

To understand why the concept of "ghost" is significant, we should consider the word itself. The Chinese word for ghost: “鬼” (“gui”) is a pictographic character.

Chinese radical # 194 (ghost). By Zhongguo Shufa Da Zidian. Beijing: Shijie Tushu Chuban Gongsi [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Chinese radical # 194 (ghost). By Zhongguo Shufa Da Zidian. Beijing: Shijie Tushu Chuban Gongsi [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Based on oracle bone inscriptions, which document early Chinese ghost stories, the character depicts a deformed head on top and a “人” (“ren”, which means human) at the bottom. “Gui” is often associated with superstition, ghosts and spirits, and it has largely negative connotations in our Chinese language, like “furtiveness” (“鬼鬼祟祟” “gui gui sui sui”) and “to be on death’s door” (“鬼门关” or “gui men guan”). Understanding the origins of the term “gui” is important because it suggests that people in ancient China think of “encountering spirits” as mostly a bad omen, and it is important to have the deceased rest in peace.

Chinese oracle bone. Originally published/produced in China, 16th-10th century B.C.; held and digitised by the British Library, and uploaded to Flickr Commons [CC0 1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.  

Chinese oracle bone. Originally published/produced in China, 16th-10th century B.C.; held and digitised by the British Library, and uploaded to Flickr Commons [CC0 1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
 

In the Shang Dynasty, c. 17-11 century BCE, oracle bone inscriptions provided the evidence for our understanding of the early concepts of ghosts. These inscriptions often talk about the ghosts of deceased ancestors who caused certain diseases, especially to kings and nobles. This is significant because the ancient Chinese beliefs of ghosts are actually not that different from our modern take on spirits and the supernatural. Even though ghosts do not have a form, they are thought to be beings that could exert some form of autonomy and influence on the living. Grudges, retribution, or on the positive side, repayment of debts of kindness... ghosts were believed to be unable to pass on when they have remaining desires in the living world.

In "Soushenji", you may notice certain recurring Buddhist and Confucian themes, such as karma and filial piety. The idea, “you reap what you sow” is a large part of what constitutes the interaction between the living and the dead. For the fun of it, we will also be including short stories from the books, so read on~   

Soushenji ("In Search of the Supernatural") by Gan Bao

Before ghost archetypes, like the hungry ghost and jiangshi, were developed and popularized, ghost stories were often told as part of the zhiguai (‘strange tales) genre, notably in the book “In Search of the Supernatural”. The author, Gan Bao was a historian at the court of Emperor Yuan of Jin, in 4th century CE, and this book served to record strange people and events that he had heard or seen throughout his life..

Soushenji often documented sightings of the paranormal, as well as spirits’ interactions with the living. These tales often deal with grudges or unfulfilled desires, which may hinder them from passing on to the afterlife. Let's look at one excerpt, no. 395, which talks about the virgin Lady Qin’s wish for marriage in death.

Soushenji No. 395: The Escort Commandant

Xin Daodu, from Longxi Commandery, was travelling to further his education, and arrived at a place about four or five li away from Yangzhou. There he saw a large dwelling, with a woman wearing dark clothes standing at the door. Daodu went to the doorway to request a meal, and the woman went inside to tell Lady Qin, who ordered for him to be brought in. Daodu hastened inside the building, where Lady Qin was sitting on a couch near the west wall. Daodu announced his given name and family name, and after the formalities had been expressed, he was instructed to sit on a couch by the east wall.
A meal was prepared promptly. After eating, Lady Qin addressed Daodu: “I am the daughter of King Min of Qin, and I was betrothed to be married to [a member of the royal family from] the state of Cao, but unfortunately I perished without a husband. It’s now twenty-three years since I died, and since then I have lived alone in this house, but today you came here and it is my wish that we become husband and wife.”
After three days and three nights had passed, Lady Qin spoke of her thoughts: “You are a living person, yet I am a ghost. Because it was fated that we would sleep together, we have been able to spend these three nights with each other, but you cannot stay for long, otherwise misfortune would fall on us. These few nights have not been enough to learn about each other intimately, yet it is already time to separate. What can I give you, my husband, to express what has passed these last few nights?” She promptly had a box taken out from behind the bed, and opened it, taking out a golden pillow. This she gave to Daodu as a memento.
Once the tearful separation was over, she ordered the dark clothed woman to see Daodu to the gate. He had not taken more than a few steps when the residence could no longer be seen; there was only a burial mound. At that moment, Daodu rushed out of the tomb, but the golden pillow held against his chest had not changed in any strange way.
He made for the state of Qin, where he went to a market to try and sell the pillow. It just happened that he met an imperial concubine of Qin, who was travelling in the East. She saw that Daodu was selling a golden pillow, was suspicious, and asked to be given it to scrutinise. She questioned Daodu about the place he had got it from.
He told her everything. The concubine listened, was grief-stricken to tears and could not bear it. She was still doubtful of what she heard, and dispatched some men to exhume the grave and open the coffin to inspect it. Of the things that she [Lady Qin] was originally buried with, only the pillow could not be seen. When the body was disinterred and looked at, it did seem as if there had been intercourse. Only then did the imperial concubine of Qin believe it. She sighed, saying “My daughter is a great sage - even having been dead for twenty-three years, she can still interact with the living. This means that you’re my real son-in-law.”
Accordingly, the title of Escort Commandant was bestowed upon Daodu. He was granted gold, silk, chariots and horses, and instructed to return to his own city. This is why, ever since then, people have called a son-in-law an “Escort Commandant”. Today’s royal son-in-law is likewise the Escort Commandant!

 

Did you find it interesting? This story is a classic example of a spirit unable to pass on due to her unfulfilled desire for marriage. As the main character Daodu showed the spirit compassion, he was shown to be rewarded; hence the saying: be nice to others, and a good act will be rewarded; be evil, and you will incur vile recompense.

These concepts were not limited to humans, as animals were described to also appreciate kindness and to repay the debts of gratitude. In one story of the Soushenji, a man saved a struggling king ant from the river. Subsequently, when he was held prisoner by bandits, the ants ate through the cage and saved his life. This is somewhat similar to the texts found in Buddhist scriptures. For example, the monk whose life was prolonged because he saved a colony of ants.

We’ve also understood that, based on what we have learned in class, the Chinese hold filial piety in high regard. With that, let's look at another story, the tale of Guo Ju’s thoughtfulness for his mother, such that he would sacrifice his son.

Guo Ju Buries his Son and Obtains Gold

Guo Ju, of Long Lualso said to be of Wenin He Nei, was one of three brothers, who lost their father when young. When the funeral was finished, two of the brothers sought their share. Taking the twenty million in money, two of the brothers each took ten million, and (Guo) Ju lived independently with his mother in a guest house, where he and his wife hired themselves out as labourers in order to support his mother. After they had lived there a short while, his wife gave birth to a son. He worried immensely that a son would hinder him in serving his mother; firstly, when old people get food, they like to share it with their children and grandchildren, secondly, reducing their own food. So, he dug into the earth in a field, intending to bury his son, but found a stone lid, and underneath there was one gold ingot, upon which was red writing that said:
“To the filial son Guo Ju: one gold ingot, is bestowed on you.”
Because of this, his name was known across the empire.

 

The story may be rather extreme, but the ideas of filial piety and self-sacrifice is clear. From these stories, we can infer that the Chinese believe: not only do spirits have the ability to interact with the living, but the actions of the living are also constantly watched over by the deceased ancestors. This could be a reason why the Chinese place great importance in burial and rituals for the dead. Whereas the Buddhists believe in reincarnation, the Confucians believed their ancestors dwell among the Gods and could give the living assistance and protection. Whichever case it is, the Chinese believe that if burial and funeral service were not done well, the souls of the deceased would return to earth the haunt the living. Moreover, the actions done in the present life could incur retribution or karma, so it is important to live life properly.

Ghosts in Ancient China and... Modern Singapore

In summary, the Chinese ghosts stories of the past have taught us many things, among them filial piety, the concept of karma, as well as a need for due respect for the dead. These stories have blended into mainstream culture, and today, they form taboos and rituals that we must commit to to avoid the wrath of “gui” or ghosts, or as values we should abide to to avoid punishment and retribution in the afterlife. These ideas persist till today, and is a part of Singapore's Chinese culture. For example, you can visit Haw Par Villa to actually gain an understanding on the Chinese concept of Hell, and its eighteen levels which dictate different punishments for different sins committed in the mortal world.

Lava pit, Hell, Haw Par Villa, Singapore. By Jpatokal (Singapore) (Own Work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Lava pit, Hell, Haw Par Villa, Singapore. By Jpatokal (Singapore) (Own Work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

We also have the Hungry Ghost Festival, a festival for the ghosts, which takes place on the seventh month of the Lunar calendar. During this festival, the gates of the netherworld are opened for spirits and ghosts to roam the living world. People who adhere to the Ghost month would lay out food offerings and joss sticks for the ghosts, as well as burn incense and paper effigies for their deceased ancestors so they could live well in the afterlife. Even though the Ghost month for 2016 is over, let’s end off the post with some taboos and things to watch out for during this month~

  1. Put your house renovations and constructions on hold, as you may incur the ire of any residing spirits (the noise may bother the spirits).

  2. Do not place your shoes or sandals facing the bed because ghosts will take that as an invitation to sleep with you.

  3. Do not hang up freshly-washed clothes towards evening because ghosts will try them on, and this brings bad luck to whoever wears them next.