Chinese ghosts: over an irresistible terror

Wednesday 17 October 2018: Chinese ghosts: over an irresistible terror, conference by Vincent Durand-Dastès, lecturer at INALCO.

Vincent Durand-Dastès begins by telling an “almost” story of ghosts. In the first decades of the 19th s., Shen Fu, a modest scholar who never made a career, loses his wife to an illness. In the region of South China, where he resides, there is a belief that the soul will return for the last time after ten days. Shen Fu is recommended not to be in the house when the soul returns. Shen instead asks one of his friends to stay in the house with him. The friend, courageous but not reckless, prefers to stay outside to watch the room. Suddenly, the flame of the candle begins to rise and then fall several times, Shen Fu, moved and afraid at the same time, watches until dawn: nothing else happens. The next day, Shen Fu is desperate and broken with pain.

The character gui 鬼 which designates the phantom has been glossed as meaning "the return": of course we think of our "ghost", but this old gloss says that this return is made towards the earth, towards a state prior to life.

The character Gui.

Chinese hells.

The king of the fifth hell, Yanluo.

At the beginning of Chinese civilization, the image of what happens after death is quite chilling, evoking an underground world that is ruled by an administration and bureaucrats who are likely to make the death of painful chores. Then, rather quickly, the idea came that we could perhaps negotiate with this administration by paying tribute or bribing it. Other theories evoke a stay under a high mountain or in a Nordic land, but it is never a pleasant prospect.

It must be added that for the Chinese, the human person is an aggregate of various elements, including a plurality of "souls", which will disperse after death. Some of them, lighter, would rise to become ancestors, others would remain near the corpses and would be likely to cause troubles, especially if the person knew a malemort. In fact all humans are likely to go through the state of guia state which is that of the dead person who has not yet reached another status (by reincarnation, deification, etc.).

If there may be ghosts of the dead, there may also be ghosts of the living. A famous story tells how a young man falls head over heels in love with a girl but her parents do not want to hear about a union. The young man decides to leave in the distance and, as he gets on a boat, he sees the girl running in and joining him. They will live happily and have children. One day, the young woman asks to return to the village. On his return, we realize that, far from having disappeared, the girl's body had remained all that time, in catalepsy, in her room in the parents' house. When the runaway returns to the home of her childhood, the lifeless body that she has left behind gets up and comes to blend with the one who had followed her lover: this is another illustration of the plurality of elements that make up the person human.
With the arrival of Indian Buddhism, the Chinese will adopt the system of an eighteen-story hell. After a course of brutal interrogation and torture, the souls, always considered guilty, will be judged. The underworld is governed by ten tribunals, presided over by ten kings, where the gui will be judged. Souls are summoned by the Wuchang (which literally means Impermanence), a kind of angel of death, who comes to you when your time arrives, presents you with a stop of the kings of the underworld, puts the rope around your neck and takes you away. After the judgment, according to your actions, you will be directed to one of the floors where you will undergo your purgatory until you are allowed to reincarnate.
The gui of those who have died of death badly (execution, hanging, suicide, etc.) can ask the authorities of the underworld for permission to take revenge on those who have made them suffer. Chinese literature and especially the theater are also full of stories of young people who forget their companions or betray them and are pursued by their ghosts. Troubling by their obsession with the infidel, they can also be authorized to attend, if not to participate, in his capture when the hour of death strikes. The story of Wang Kui and Jiao Guiying is a good example. Wang Kui is a wretched scholar was taken in by a virtuous courtesan. When he leaves her to take his exams, he swears to her in the temple of the god of the sea to always remain faithful. However, having passed the exams and tempted by a rich party, he renegs on his promise with a humiliating letter. Desperate, Jiao Guiying hangs herself in the temple itself. The gods, wrathful, allow her ghost accompanied by infernal minions to go and seize her lover alive.

Ghosts of the Malemorts: woman died in childbirth. © Vincent Durand-Dastès.

Guan Yu.

Wang Kui trained in hell by Jiao Guiying, her beloved lover. © Vincent Durand-Dastès.

Some gui can be deified as Guan Yu, historical character of the Three Kingdoms (220 - 265). An extremely loyal and devoted general to his overlord, he committed a strategic mistake and was captured by his enemies. They tied him up and cut off his head, an ignominious death for a warrior. In the following times it was claimed that he was unleashing calamities at the head of an army of demons. Finally after being appeased, he will be promoted to marquis, then duke under the Song (960 - 1127) before receiving under the Qing (1644-1911) the title of "emperor".

A very popular subject in Chinese literature is that of someone who dies before his time and finds himself in a kind of in-between. He can only be reincarnated if he finds a replacement who will have to die in the same way and thus take his place. It is mainly women who are concerned by this theme: drowned, hanged, suicidal after marriage, women dead in childbirth.

The Chronicles of the strange (Liaozhai zhiyi) by Pu Songlin (1640 - 1715) is a collection of stories of wonders, evil spells and metamorphoses featuring foxes and ghosts.
Foxes are often associated with ghosts: living in the same places (they dig their burrows willingly in tumuli) and eventually feasting on corpses, the fox can assimilate to a dead and come to haunt the living. The erotic theme of the seductive vixen becomes omnipresent in the last centuries of the imperial era.

There are also love stories with ghosts. A young man having lost himself in a forest ends up finding refuge in a beautiful house where he is greeted by a beautiful young woman from whom he falls madly in love. At the end of a year, the young woman chases him explaining that his retirement was discovered and that he risked death if he stayed. Indeed, having gone away, he sees a dark storm unleashed above the palace. The next day, instead of the palace there is only one disemboweled grave where there are bloody bones. Having inquired among the villagers, he learns that it is the tomb of a concubine of an old dynasty.
Ghosts are also a theme that appears in literature and art under a satirical exterior. A famous painter from Yangzhou School at 18th s., Luo Ping, invented a personal specialty, ghost painting, according to nature according to him. Spectral pleasures shows strange characters in the ghostly world; through them, Luo Ping mocks corrupt officials and social injustices.

Alice Bianchi compares the representations of ghosts and those of beggars: like the first, the second are deformed and grotesque. Zhou Chen (1460-1535) portrayed beggars and fortune tellers typical of Suzhou streets in a humorous fashion that brings them closer to ghost representations.

Spectral pleasures. Luo Ping. Ink and colors on paper.

Beggars. Zhou Chen. Ink and colors on paper.

Mu Pan Chinese Ghost stories. Ink and colors on paper. © mupan.

After their seizure of power, the Chinese Communists hunt what they call superstitions, foremost among which is the belief in ghosts. In the 1960s, somewhat paradoxically, Mao Zedong asked the writer He Qifang (1912-1977) to write a collection which was to be called "How not to be afraid of ghosts»: He brings together the stories of tradition which show ghosts being duped by humans. It's sort of fighting against ghosts ... using ghosts.

Despite opposition from the authorities, ghost stories are now enjoying renewed interest in China in both literature and cinema.


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