Vam­pires, ghosts, and were- beasts: How for­eign de­mo­nolo­gists cat­a­logued China’s home­grown hor­rors外国传教士眼中的中国神怪大观和民间信仰

The World of Chinese - - MADE IN CHINA - BY DAVID DAW­SON

The tale, over a cen­tury old, starts sim­ply: A re­searcher asks a for­mer gover­nor why he keeps mov­ing his arms, as if swing­ing bells. The an­swer: vam­pires. Dutch de­mo­nolo­gist Jan Jakob Maria de Groot was re­search­ing China’s su­per­nat­u­ral his­tory in 1907 when he in­ter­viewed “Tsiang,” who claimed to be a gover­nor of a town in Pe­hchihli (most likely mod­ern-day He­bei) that was un­der siege from a kiang shi, or Chi­nese vam­pire— jiang­shi (僵尸, “stiff corpse”) in mod­ern Ro­man­iza­tion. These “liv­ing corpses” de Groot ex­plains, “break forth from their tombs and sa­ti­ate their crav­ings for hu­man blood.”

Pe­hchihli was ap­par­ently un­der siege from a crea­ture “soar­ing through the air, to devour the in­fants of the peo­ple.” De­spite peo­ple lock­ing their doors at night­fall, chil­dren were go­ing miss­ing. The town pooled money for a Daoist ma­gi­cian, who set up his al­tar on an aus­pi­cious day.

Tsiang de­manded to know how, pre­cisely, he planned to stop this ma­raud­ing vam­pire.

“Corpse specters gen­er­ally fear very much the sound of jin­gles and hand-gongs,” the ma­gi­cian told him. “When the night comes, you must watch the mo­ment when the spec­tre flies out, and forth­with en­ter the grave with two big bells.” But there were risks: “Do not stop ring­ing them, for a short pause will give suf­fice for the corpse to en­ter the grave, and you will then be the suf­ferer.”

At mid­day, a crowd gath­ered and trapped the kiang shi in their midst. As the ma­gi­cian per­formed his rites, the gover­nor doggedly pur­sued the vam­pire, ring­ing his bell un­til the crowd had burned the stiff corpse. “Both my arms then re­mained in con­stant mo­tion, and they have been dis­eased like this to this day,” he ex­plained to de Groot.

Echoes of leg­ends of the East­ern Euro­pean vam­pire did not es­cape the Dutch re­searcher (Bram Stoker’s sem­i­nal Drac­ula had been pub­lished just a decade be­fore). De Groot mused on the sim­i­lar­i­ties, in­clud­ing the fact that both va­ri­eties are vul­ner­a­ble to fire.

The Dutch­man was one of sev­eral for­eign re­searchers look­ing into China’s menagerie of myth and lore. Through­out the late 19th cen­tury, he trav­eled through China col­lect­ing in­for­ma­tion, bas­ing him­self in present­day Xi­a­men, Fu­jian province, with a few tours to other re­gions. A few years later, Henry Doré, a French re­searcher, would build upon de Groot’s work in his writ­ings on Chi­nese witch­craft and charms, in­clud­ing de­tails on sum­mon­ing spir­its and Chi­nese con­cepts of Hell.

De Groot’s re­search be­came a se­ries of books, The Re­li­gion of the Chi­nese, de­tail­ing the evo­lu­tion of Chi­nese spir­i­tual prac­tices from the var­i­ous forms of an­i­mism through to or­ga­nized reli­gious rites, be they up­lift­ing or macabre. Many of his find­ings were from his­tor­i­cal texts; oth­ers were based on con­ver­sa­tions with Chi­nese about their be­liefs and su­per­sti­tions. It was from the lat­ter ex­changes that many of his best creepy-crawly sto­ries emerge, fod­der for Grimm-style fairy tales, al­beit with Chi­nese char­ac­ter­is­tics and not in­tended for chil­dren.

The vast ma­jor­ity of su­per­nat­u­ral crea­tures were shapeshift­ing demons; one of de Groot’s works has sep­a­rate chap­ters ded­i­cated to wa­ter, earth, and plant demons, and dif­fer­ent types of an­i­mal demons such as tiger, dog, in­sect, and even bird demons. In many cases, these shape-shifters are omens, tak­ing bes­tial form right be­fore a grue­some death takes place.

Much as wolves and their ly­can­thrope coun­ter­part stalked the for­est, moun­tains, and vil­lages of Euro­pean imag­i­na­tions, Chi­nese were-beasts took their most fear­some form in the na­tive tiger. The sim­i­lar­i­ties, de Groot notes, are strik­ing: “A wound in­flicted on a were-beast is be­lieved in China to be vis­i­ble also on the cor­re­spond­ing part of its body when it has re-as­sumed the hu­man shape. This is also a trait of our own ly­can­thropy,” he writes of “tigerdemons,” re­ferred to here as chu tu-shi.

A typ­i­cal tale be­gins with a man out chop­ping fire­wood late at night, un­der a waxen moon. “Over­taken by the dark, he was pur­sued by two tigers,” de Groot re­counts. “As quickly as he could, he climbed a tree, which was, how­ever, not very high, so that the tigers sprang up against it, but with­out reach­ing him.

One tiger went to fetch an­other, “leaner and longer, and con­se­quently pe­cu­liarly fit­ted to catch prey.” The pro­tag­o­nist, seem­ingly doomed, strikes back: “The moon was shin­ing brightly that night…just when the brute grabbed at him again, he dealt it a blow and hacked off its fore-claw. With loud roars the tigers ran off one af­ter the other, and not un­til the morn­ing the man went home.”


Later, the wood­chop­per re­lated his tale to a group of vil­lagers, who man­aged to track down a lo­cal who had “wounded his hand” and was “in bed.” The pre­fect of the dis­trict or­dered his un­der­lings to arm them­selves with swords, be­sieged the dwelling, and set fire to it: “The chu tu-shi sud­denly rose from his bed, ran about, changed into a tiger, and charg­ing upon the men es­caped; and it is un­known whither he went.”

Tiger-demons could also as­sume fe­male forms, which were ap­par­ently far dead­lier then the male, de Groot writes: “The most hor­rid spec­i­mens of the tiger-de­mon class, which Chi­nese fancy has cre­ated, are those who as­sume a woman’s shape with ma­li­cious in­tent, and then tempt­ing men to marry them, devour them in the end, and all the chil­dren in the mean­time pro­duced.”

These an­i­mal demons are a re­cur­ring theme through­out Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture, par­tic­u­larly snakes. One of China’s most beloved fairy tales is the Leg­end of the White Snake, first recorded in Feng Men­g­long’s col­lec­tion Sto­ries to Cau­tion the World《警世通言》( ) in 1624, about a fe­male snake spirit who lurks in Hangzhou’s West lake. Yet the ser­pent’s role in Chi­nese mythol­ogy is not as malev­o­lent as it is in a lot of West­ern lit­er­a­ture. As de Groot notes, “ac­cord­ing to at least as many sto­ries, ap­pari­tions of vipers and ser­pents have proved to be pro­pi­tious.”

In­deed, en­coun­ter­ing a su­per­nat­u­ral crea­ture can have pos­i­tive ef­fects. Take the “Black Calami­ties” (黑眚 h8ish0ng) that struck China in 1119, 1126 and, “most calami­tously,” in 1476. These were nat­u­ral catas­tro­phes, caused by specters act­ing as “re­tribu­tive agents from Heaven,” and some­times tak­ing the form of an an­i­mal such as a tor­toise or don­key shrouded in black mist. The most calami­tous types were de­scribed as re­sem­bling “black va­pors” or “rains of sand, ink or black peas,” and were of­ten seen as har­bin­gers of doom brought on by a rul­ing dy­nasty that was not ful­fill­ing the Man­date of Heaven (in­deed, quot­ing from the of­fi­cial His­tory of the Ming Dy­nasty, de Groot de­tails the ef­forts of one Ming em­peror to fore­stall dis­as­ter, ap­pear­ing at an al­tar within the For­bid­den City to of­fer prayers, con­fess his sins, and send out en­voys “to ex­am­ine the cases of pris­on­ers through­out the em­pire”).

Omi­nous as they sound, the end re­sults of the Calami­ties weren’t nec­es­sar­ily bad. Take the dis­as­ter of 1476: Black Calami­ties had been strik­ing by night, wound­ing guards in “the west­ern city.” The em­peror, fear­ing panic, is­sued a gag or­der—the su­per­nat­u­ral in­ci­dents were ef­fec­tively clas­si­fied top se­cret, and guards were tasked with catch­ing them.

His sec­re­tary of state had a dif­fer­ent so­lu­tion, and is­sued an eight-point de­cree. The power of the Dalai Lama was curbed and fron­tier armies boosted, while the king, too, was sub­ject to new mea­sures. “Ex­cept the cus­tom­ary trib­ute from the four quar­ters of the world, no valu­ables should be ac­cepted by the Throne,” the de­cree, as com­mu­ni­cated by de Groot, reads. “Peo­ple of ev­ery class and rank should be al­lowed to re­port the truth per­son­ally to the au­thor­i­ties.” En­voys were once again sent to ex­am­ine pris­on­ers, “in

or­der that jus­tice might be done to the wronged and op­pressed.”

The de­cree’s se­cu­rity mea­sures were ef­fec­tive in fight­ing cor­rup­tion—which was likely their pur­pose. Fear of ghosts, de Groot points out, “may in China im­pose upon em­per­ors the in­tro­duc­tion of im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal mea­sures and im­prove­ments of the sys­tem of gov­ern­ment.”

Where de Groot re­searched crea­tures that went bump in the night, Doré fo­cused pri­mar­ily on su­per­sti­tions regarding the dead. Much of this fo­cused on Hell, or the Chi­nese con­cept of it—sum­mon­ing spir­its, en­sur­ing their safe pas­sage to the nether­world, and even “in­form­ing the ruler of Hades of the ex­em­plary life of the de­ceased.” It’s im­por­tant to note here that this was the Bud­dhist King of Hell, who was no Satan. Rather than a Faus­tian pact, the sum­mon­ing might be bet­ter viewed as pe­ti­tion­ing a heav­enly bu­reau­crat for a fa­vor, in re­turn for wor­ship.

But if its ruler ap­pears in­nocu­ous, Hell it­self is just as hor­ri­fy­ing (and spe­cific) as the Chris­tian ver­sion. Doré re­counts a dozen dif­fer­ent courts, each with a mul­ti­tude of dun­geons to pun­ish sins as di­verse as mur­der and open­ing some­one’s mail: One court doles the pun­ish­ment of making sin­ners stum­ble down a street strewn with oily beans, an­other has sin­ners’ eyes gouged out.

The first vol­ume of Doré’s multi-vol­ume Re­searches into Chi­nese Su­per­sti­tions (which ref­er­ence de Groot ex­ten­sively), pub­lished in 1911, lists charms that can res­cue peo­ple’s souls from the many mis­for­tunes that may be­fall them in the af­ter­life. There was a school of be­lief that stated each man has two souls—one born of the earth, and one that comes from the cos­mos. The earthly soul, known as kwei, returns to the earth or be­comes a ghost, while the lat­ter passes on to the nether­world (Con­fu­cian­ists of the time ar­gued it just dis­ap­peared at death) where it may en­counter all man­ner of strife.

One could make ap­peals on be­half of a rel­a­tive’s shen by buy­ing charms, or “pe­ti­tion tal­is­mans,” a racket sim­i­lar to the Catholic sell­ing of in­dul­gences. Al­most any un­timely or dis­tress­ing death could al­low the shen to suc­cumb to evil spir­its: Peo­ple who com­mit­ted sui­cide or were as­sas­si­nated; vic­tims of un­just law­suits; peo­ple who died in prison, were drowned, or poi­soned by a doc­tor’s pre­scrip­tion—ev­ery un­for­tu­nate cir­cum­stance had its own unique charms to en­sure bet­ter treat­ment in the af­ter­life, and en­sure the in­fer­nal bu­reau­cracy wouldn’t make any mis­takes.

Women who died in child­birth were some­times trapped in a hor­rific hell known as the “bloody pond” from which only a cer­e­mony by witches could re­lease them; there were also pe­ti­tions for “wan­der­ing and vagabond souls” that might have risked fall­ing prey to malev­o­lent demons. Aside from bu­reau­cratic bungling and lost souls, the nether­world was just as prone to earthly prob­lems like cor­rup­tion and theft: One could burn and send a “pa­per safe” for dead relatives to store their valu­ables.

And this in­tan­gi­ble spir­i­tual ma­te­rial was most def­i­nitely valu­able in cold, hard, earthly cash. In cases where an in­her­i­tance was dis­puted, a claimant might lit­er­ally bring the soul of their rel­a­tive in an en­ve­lope to prove they were the right­ful heir to the fam­ily for­tune; the monks, also, were making for­tunes through sell­ing such charms.

Some of these su­per­sti­tions sur­vive, al­beit in to­ken form. On Tomb-sweep­ing Day, many Chi­nese prac­tice a range of re­gional customs to honor their an­ces­tors, and it’s not un­com­mon to see small fires on the city streets at night, as the be­reaved burn pa­per charms for the de­ceased. In­stead of just money, though, to­day’s mourn­ers are just as likely to burn a pa­per iphone or Audi. It seems even the nether­world keeps up with the lat­est trends.

A “Chi­nese uni­corn,” or qilin, said to ap­pear when sages are born

A pass­port to the nether­world, ef­fec­tively a let­ter to the bu­reau­cratic ruler of hell. Col­lected in Henry Doré’s 1914 re­print of Re­searches in­tochi­nese Su­per­sti­tions.

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