There’s a rich history of the Chinese ghost — as many as 1,520 spirits have been compiled.
To celebrate the global love of ghosties and ghoulies, here is a collection of 33 ghosts I talked about over this year’s Zhong Yuan, or Ghost Month, to give you a flavor of Chinese ghosts and ghouls and an idea of just how wide a range there is.
A Chinese monster of folklore that causes drought, believed to come from hundred-day-old corpses that don’t decompose, and rise from the earth as Jiangshi (literally “stiff corpse,” or Chinese zombies). Digging up, beating and burning Jiangshi were popular folk customs during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) eras, usually from moist graves in drought areas. This custom continued in areas of Shandong up til the 1960s and features in the Shi Jing, China’s first anthology of poetry compiled by Confucius in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE. In Han mythology, Han Ba is believed to be Pa, the drought fury, the daughter that Huang Di summoned to help him defeat his archenemy Chi You. Pa refused to return to her caves in the mountains and instead wanders the earth.
His name literally means “Singled Horned Demon King.” A very powerful demon whose demonic essence is concentrated in his horn, which is said to be so powerful that no one really knows what it’s capable of. The Chinese literary classic Journey to the West features Du Jiao Gui Wang as a friend to Wu Kong, the Monkey King. In his early years, the young monkey spirit, whose mere existence challenges the boundaries between the worlds of gods and demons, befriended many demons. Later, in his role as protector of Xuanzang at the behest of the gods, some of his demon friends still came to his aid, when he needed assistance on their long and hazardous pilgrimage.
This Chinese demon lives in the mountains, like to roar in the wind and rain, and shoots poisonous darts. Venom from the male demon kills instantly, while that from the female induces swelling and lengthens the agony. The dart of Dao Lao Gui means certain death within a day, unless treated promptly. The demon was documented in Soushen Ji, and still frequents many contemporary video games.
A monster that lives in the mountains. With large teeth and covered in fur , it is super strong and can tear lions and tigers apart with its bare hands. It has a habit of visiting abandoned homes and country dwellings, and is famously depicted on such an occasion in an encounter with a terrified scholar in Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. Shan Xiao come in many guises, sometimes in their true form, other times as irresistible sirens. They like to hurl stones at travelers, lead them astray, and occasionally eat them.
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An ancient horned beast with five tails and the body of a leopard. Very ferocious. The male is called Zheng and the female Ning. The ferocity of the Zheng Ning became so well known that it lent its name to the adjective zheng ning, meaning “malevolent, fierce, sinister.” Modern interpretations of the Chinese monster have really picked up on these aspects.
This ghost lives in the body, in the area between the heart and the diaphragm. It inspires ill thoughts and causes physical illness. It also inspired the Chinese idiom xin zhong you gui, (心中有鬼; literally “to have a demon in one’s heart”), meaning to have dubious intentions.
This Chinese ghost lives in the human abdomen, whispering to victims and causing extreme pain in their internal organs, followed by death. As they both live in the body and their victims rarely survive, the appearance the Gao Huang Gui and Fu Gui remain a mystery.
A monster with a human face, goat body, tiger teeth and eyes near its armpits. It eats humans and likes to lure its prey with infant-like cries. Upon seeing one, it’s best to run, no use walking round its back. Tao Tie is also a Chinese adjective for “gluttonous.” Hoards of these monsters recently starred in Zhang Yimou’s controversial film The Great Wall (2016).
Cat ghosts are believed to be ghosts of deceased old cats, raised to take their targets’ lives and fortunes via the Gu Du rituals (similar to voodoo magic in its application). These rituals were popular during by 6/7th centuries CE. Once targeted, the victim was said to feel as if pierced by needles before Mao Gui consumed their organs. Many cats were apparently sacrificed during the Sui (581-618 CE) era, so their actions could be revenge. In contemporary Chinese RPG imagery, Mao Gui has often been reinterpreted as a cute kitten, but their adorable appearance could be deceptive. An interpretation of Mao Gui serves as the main plot in the fantasy film Legend of the Demon Cat by renowned director Chen Kaige, out in December this year.
Spirits of trees that are hundreds of years old, which are believed to be rainmakers, guardian protectors with healing powers in their leaves and flowers. The leader among plant spirits, the Shu Jing enjoy tributes of food and drink. Old trees are very much venerated in China — it is said that if they are cut, they would bleed. The Shu Jing should not be confused with Pu Songling’s tree demons, depicted famously in Cheng Xiaodong’s film A Chinese Ghost Story.
Their name literally means “boat apparitions.” These are souls of the drowned, said to be active at a beach in Hainan called the Weeping Ghost. Seen by those out at sea from their boats, they appear on the crest of waves and are believed to portend danger and disaster. Otherwise, they are mostly harmless. People out sailing who see them usually feed them rice, turn their ships and head back to shore, grateful for the warning.
Believed to be spirits of deceased foxes that lie unburied. They like to reside in plates, bowls and other domestic objects. These are friendly ghosts, and not to be confused with fox demons. The benign spirits of animals such as weasels, foxes and raccoons (sometimes referred to as Wu Xian, the Five Spirits) were venerated in many places around China. Hu Xian has been the subject of many great stories in Chinese literature, such as the Jin Dynasty collection of supernatural phenomena by Gan Bao (286-336), the Soushen Ji and Pu Songling’s 19th-century compilation Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio.
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These are beings whose heads can detach themselves from their bodies, fly out and wander around while they are asleep, flapping the ears like wings on their wanderings. It’s vital not to cover the neck, or the head would be unable to re-attach itself upon return, causing both head and body to perish. According to texts of the Jin (265-420 CE) era, these beings were a race that lived in the southern lands, where some insects also shared similar head-detaching abilities. The far south of China — known as the Ling Nan regions (Guangdong and Guangxi) — was only accessible when Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) roads were built through the hitherto impenetrable Nan Mountains. Hence China’s historical fascination with the exoticism of the far south.
The Chinese tiger god is a friendly and whimsical being who sometimes appears in human form, other times in a human body with a tiger’s head. Hu Shen likes to tap people on the shoulders from the back and converse with them. Friendly yet powerful, Hu Shen can command tigers. If you’re lost in the woods and run into this being, you’re in luck. He likes to guide lost travelers through woods and forests.
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These Chinese ghouls were believed to be the ghosts of a pair of friends who were in death as they were in life. They were given the task of hunting stray souls by Yan Wang, king of the underworld. There has been, and still is, much love for this pair of ghoulish helpers in Chinese pop culture. If you’d like to read more about them, see my previous article on Hei Bai Wuchang here.
Tailless Black Li is a black dragon without a tail, banisher of floods, venerated in northeastern-most China. Legend says this black dragon was born into a family with the name of Li. When he turned into a dragon, many feared he was a monster, and cut off his tail. But Li Hei still loved his homeland very much. When the white dragon brought on the floods, he subdued them. The villagers severely regretted how they had treated Li Hei, so they named their province Heilongjiang (Black Dragon River). The Bai minority in Yunnan have a similar myth that involves a dragon pearl and a little yellow dragon.
Fierce protector gods who devour ghosts and demons. They come in multitudes. Some live in the human world, others in the heavens. Due to their demon-like appearance, they have often been seen as such in pop culture — vampiric, women-snatching, haunters of the wilderness. The female Ye Cha are generally much better-looking. There are depictions of friendly Ye Cha, such Pu Songling’s account in Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. These creatures are popular with tattooists.
A bird demon that can shed its feathers and turn into a beautiful woman. Her favorite hobby is to snatch children at night. In the old days, children’s laundry had to be taken in before nighttime, to prevent the demon from dotting the clothes with blood to mark her prey. Gu Huo Niao has graced the pages of classical and modern Chinese literature, and continues to haunt computer games not only from China but also Southeast Asia.
Their name literally means “painted skin ghost.” They are green in appearance, with big gnashing teeth. This Chinese ghost eats humans at night, wear their victims’ skins by day, and usually appear as very beautiful women. They are believed to be ghosts of women who were horribly wronged during their lives, the essence of whose spirits have remained in the bones for hundreds of years after the corpses had decayed. That is why they look for skins to get around in. The Hua Pi Gui have been immortalized by Pu Songling in Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, enjoyed many TV and film adaptations for generations within China, and recently starred in a lead role in the globally released Painted Skin I and II. Hell hath no fury!
An immortal who lives in a painting, tied to the painting by the capturing of her image. Sometimes it’s a spirit or ghost in hiding that has possessed the painting. Usually female, she falls for the scholar who stands in front of the painting day and night, besotted by her image. At the end of the story, she is often obligated to return to the painting, causing the painting to change. She is a popular literary and cinematic plot device employed in classical as well as modern works.
The White Bone Spirit is really a pile of bones from an ancient female corpse. She can transform into her original living form, which is beautiful. She is both deadly and wily, and knows the human heart. Bai Gu Jing lives in her cave with her demon minions, and remains one of best loved demons in Journey to the West. Various designs of her appearance, as seen on film and TV since China’s classic TV dramatization of the novel in the 1980s, are excellent illustrations of the Chinese gothic. More recent adaptations, such as Zhang Jizhong’s 2011 TV series, have treated her with more sympathy by providing her with a harrowing backstory.
A nine-headed bird, an inauspicious being in ethnic Han myths. It was said to have had ten heads originally, but one was cut off by a hunter on the orders of Zhou Gongdan, a politician and thinker of Western Zhou (10th to 8th centuries BCE). Blood gushing from its headless neck, the Jiu Tou Niao sucks out the spirit energy of children. In the old days, during the time the bird was believed to appear, lights were extinguished very early and dogs sent out. The Jiu Tou Niao is well documented in texts of the Tang and Song dynasties.
Named after its distinctive cry, this giant crane-like bird is believed to cause, or be the harbinger of, fires. Its myth was first documented in the Classic of Mountains and Seas. Some versions say that Bi Fang stole fire from the heavens and gifted it to humans.
A bird shaped like a magpie with two heads and four claws, believed to have the ability of put out fires. Venerated in households in some regions of China, the Lei is both male and female. At the sight of a fire, it would flap its giant, magnificent wings, and the flames would be extinguished.
A Chinese plague monster with the body of bull, a snake’s tail, and a third eye on its head. It lives on the Taishan Mountains and has been documented in the Classic of Mountains and Seas. Where the Fei appears, rivers and marshes dry up, grass and trees wither, and plagues spread. Considering the similarity of the Fei’s appearance to Pantyhose Taro in the manga Ranma ½, I wonder if someone from China had drowned in Níuhèmànmáorénnìquán?
A bird the size of a quail, with yellow fur and a red beak. Its flesh can cure plagues and parasites.
This is just one of the many kinds of turtle spirits in Chinese mythology. She is a temptress with a beautiful upper body and the lower body of a turtle. It’s a mystery whether she’s friendly or malevolent, as those who glimpsed her true form have tended to run away.
A very wise Chinese creature that could speak the language of humans and understand the secrets of all things and every being. It is said that the legendary emperor Huang Di caught it on his travels, and implored it to record the shapes and forms of all existing demons and ghosts. Bai Ze drew and wrote about everything it had found on a scroll called the Bai Ze Tu. This is how people came to recognize and keep themselves safe from different ghosts and demons. Who wouldn’t love a large, fluffy and very clever white cat!
Said to be active around Hubei. A shape shifter that appears as mist, beasts or people, and likes yellow clothes. He is lecherous, lives on a diet of other ghosts, laughs hideously at those he dislikes, causing death or crippling in the victims. Huang Fu Gui is documented in early Chinese mythology, in the 3rd century BCE to 1st century CE Classic of Mountains and Seas and texts of the Song Dynasty.
Its name literally means “hanging on boots ghost.” This Chinese ghost likes to follow people around at night and play mischievous pranks behind them. So if you’re walking down a quiet alley at night, and you hear strange noises, or feel a creepy breeze on your neck, you might have a Diao Xue Gui at your heels. If you swing round, you won’t find it. Interestingly, in colloquial Cantonese, the term Diao Xue Gui refers to stalkers.
Any compilation of Chinese ghosts and demons would not be complete without China’s ultimate monster, the Jiangshi 僵尸. Originating in rural tales of the strange, Jiangshi have become horror and pop culture favorites in China and elsewhere in Asia. Read more about Jiangshi here and here.
Over the last two or three decades, Halloween has become increasingly popular in China, alongside the revival of traditional festivities such as Ghost Month. Celebrations for Halloween in China occur at the same time as the rest of the world, but the costume choices would not necessarily be entirely of Western monsters. So you might see girls dressed up as sexy spider demons dancing with Dracula at the school horror disco. I hope this has provided you with an interesting, enjoyable read. From all the different forms of the Chinese ghost, maybe you’ve even got some more innovative costume ideas for your Halloween parties.
Find more writing by Xueting Christine Ni at her website, Snow Pavilion
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