These photos are from Taojia Village in Jiading, a district on the outskirts of Shanghai. Depending on who you speak to, Jiading could be a quiet place to raise a family. It could be a run-down side effect of the nearby America-themed amusement park, itself abandoned in 2001. Or it could be the site of unspeakable horrors, and the restless spirits who are doomed to remain here for all of eternity.
Jiading is caught in the space between urban expansion and rural lethargy. The main road out front, like most of the community, is being slowly claimed by plant life. The area’s residents live in unassuming, thatched-up homes, artifacts from some long-forgotten civil development plan. On the horizon looms a battalion of modern high-rise apartments, which will inch closer and closer each year until Jiading, too, is swallowed whole by population and necessity.
Hang around the river and you might run into folks with fishing rods, stopping to catch a quick dinner.
“You can eat the fish here,” says one man. “The water quality is quite good nowadays.”
Another passerby chimes in. “I’ve lived here for over thirty years!” he says. “We work in the factory nearby.”
Looking out at the idyllic scene, it’s hard to imagine the macabre history that’s tied to it.
The municipality is infamously known in Shanghai as the site of the Jiading Massacre, a gruesome campaign of mass murder carried out by invading Qing forces in 1645, when the residents of Jiading refused to bow to the country’s new Manchu rulers. Bandit general Li Chengdong led his troops in a three-part massacre of the town’s civilians, killing as many as 30,000 on the first day.
First-person accounts recall that the sheer number of bodies tossed into the river was enough to stop its flow, while the corpses of other victims were dragged into large piles and set on fire. Soldiers raped the town’s women, nailing their hands to the wall with long spikes. Hundreds of years later, the area continued to be plagued by bandit activity, and then by Japanese soldiers, who carried out a new massacre against the people of Jiading, killing thousands of men, women, and children.
The massacre’s inciting incident was the refusal by the people of Jiading to cut their hair. The Qing rulers had mandated that all men cut their hair as a sign of loyalty, adopting the slogan “Keep your head and cut off your hair, or keep your hair and cut off your head.”
Given Jiading’s dark history, many people believe the area to be plagued by restless spirits.
Shanghai University’s Jiading campus is believed to have been built on the site of a mass grave, where strange occurrences were often reported. The problem become so apparent that the faculty of the school were forced to build a huge bagua — an ancient “energy map” used within Daoist cosmology — over the site in order to contain the dead.
In an Imgur post, filmmaker Justin Scholar details how a music video shoot in Jiading had his crew convinced they’d crossed paths with a ghost:
“I hope to share a bit of candid, first-hand experience with some surprisingly normalized Chinese superstition,” Scholar writes, explaining that his client wanted a nostalgic feel, and had asked for picture frames as part of the video’s motif.
“Here he is. This is the photo that bothers all my friends. Some people have gone as far to curse me for showing it to them. It really does look like a prop for a horror film.
“I noticed him and picked it up right away, saying ‘oh cool let’s get shots of this.’ My all-Chinese crew of four froze, looking at me like I was crazy.
“My business partner comes from a Buddhist family. My assistant is a practicing Daoist, and our fourth was not spiritual, to our knowledge. But every one of them felt something.”
After Scholar experienced a string of bizarre and unfortunate events the following week, including a broken bone and the death of a business associate, he returned to the house with an offering of fruit and cigarettes.
“I was against using the photo as a prop,” admits Ruby Xie, Scholar’s business partner. “If it’s a portrait of the deceased, in Chinese culture we believe that mishandling it could lead to misfortune. Spirits can be resentful, or powerful enough to cause real damage to your life.”
“I was worried about Justin,” she adds. “For real.”
A Daoist symbol of good fortune still hangs over this window. Such imagery remains common in rural China.
In the ‘60s, it was forbidden to practice traditional belief systems like Buddhism or Daoism in China. As a result, despite a deep history of religion, the country is often characterized as non-religious — but the spirituality and tenets of those systems still retain a firm foothold in China’s collective consciousness, particularly in rural areas where, despite the official bans, they never really went away.
The abandoned manor where the portrait was found.
An old-style stove, with hand-drawn design elements. The front face features designs of the Chinese “Good Luck Knot”, not linked to any particular belief system.
Had the Jiading development prospered, the owner of the house would have been living large. The mood-boosting effect of a spacious outdoor deck, ready for entertaining guests, is dampened by an eerie number of personal belongings left behind on the home’s balcony. Children’s shoes and bedding are strewn over the floor as though the family living here had disappeared overnight.
Jiading isn’t so different from other areas of Shanghai, or China, for that matter. The old is being torn down to make way for the new, simple living replaced with modern convenience.
“That house? Well, they’ve been tearing a lot of houses down these days,” offers one local resident when we inquire about the building. “They’re going to build a new commercial center here.”
Usually it’s bittersweet. But for Jiading, maybe it’s alright to let the past slip away quietly. Maybe that’s all the locals have wanted for centuries.
Photos by Justin Scholar
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