The Strange Tale of How China Lost Its Ghost Stories
If you ask the average person in China for their favorite ghost story, their answer will almost certainly be Pu Songling’s 300-year-old classic “Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio.” But push just a bit harder — which of Pu’s stories are their favorite, and what other authors do they like? — and you’ll likely be met with an embarrassed shrug. Although ghost stories were among the most popular genres of Chinese literature for nearly two millennia, contemporary Chinese are almost wholly estranged from this literary tradition.
The state of contemporary horror is little better. Although adaptions of ghosts, gods, and demons from traditional literature have become reliable box office fodder, the film industry remains bound by an unspoken rule: Nothing supernatural is allowed to happen after the founding of the People’s Republic.
The roots of this taboo predate the PRC by several decades. While literati in imperial China often used ghost stories to teach Confucian morality and defend the social order, early 20th century intellectuals and reformers saw China’s longstanding fondness for the supernatural as an obstacle to modern, scientific development. Between 1917 and 1918, some of the leading pioneers of China’s New Culture Movement, including philosopher Hu Shi, future co-founder of the Communist Party of China Chen Duxiu, and the writer Zhou Zuoren, all published essays in the influential New Youth magazine that drew a firm line between the world of the living — characterized by modernity, democracy, and scientific progress — and the backward, superstitious realm of the dead.
In Zhou Zuoren’s essay “Humane Literature,” he lists nine kinds of nonhuman topics to be avoided, including gods, demons, and ghosts. Even universally beloved classics like Pu’s “Strange Tales,” “Investiture of the Gods,” and “Journey to the West” are singled out for criticism.
Of course, not everyone agreed with the New Culture Movement’s firm stance against ghosts. The mid-1930s witnessed a brief resurgence in essays and stories about the supernatural. But this renaissance proved short-lived: After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, socialist realism was enshrined as the country’s official literary theory and ghosts once again were exorcised from popular literature.
Unlike the New Culture Movement, however, China’s new rulers still saw value in deploying ghosts for political purposes. His contemporaries noted that Mao Zedong was a studious reader of Pu’s “Strange Tales,” citing it on numerous occasions and using the stories “Xi Fangping” and “The Wolf” as political allegories for the darkness of officialdom and class struggle, respectively.
If China’s early 20th century literati sought to expel ghosts from literature for being “nonhuman,” Mao’s reading went in the opposite direction. Ghosts in literature were not manifestations of the supernatural, but metaphors for various real and very human political enemies. To defeat literary ghosts became an allegory for frightening off your political enemies.
In 1959, as China was descending into a period of international isolation, Mao instructed He Qifang, the director of the Institute of Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, to select classic stories of humans defeating ghosts and compile them together into a new book: “Stories About Not Being Afraid of Ghosts.” After decades of official and unofficial suppression of ghost stories, the book, which contains 70 tales of the strange from the Six Dynasties period (222-589) all the way up to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), became a phenomenon. More than 200,000 copies were published; it was used in cadre training courses, and at Mao’s order was translated into several languages, including English.
The stories He selected give an idea of how the compilation was intended to be read. The opening piece, “Song Dingbo Sells a Ghost” from the “Record of the Search for Spirits,” bears a startling resemblance to Oscar Wilde's humorous short story “The Canterville Ghost”: Song Dingbo meets a ghost at night, fools the ghost into thinking that Song is actually a newborn ghost, takes advantage of the spirit, and tricks it into telling him its weakness. Song then carries the old ghost to the market. When the ghost turns into a sheep, Song spits on it to prevent it from changing back and sells it for a large sum.
The ghost is hardly the villain of the piece; indeed, as in “The Canterville Ghost,” the ghost in “Song Dingbo” can be seen as the victim of human mistreatment. To ensure readers took away the correct message, He Qifang’s preface to the compilation makes it clear that ghosts are to be outsmarted, not feared. Only if “we are cowards and do not emancipate our minds,” He writes, will China’s enemies be able to haunt it.
At the same time, the use of ghosts in literature was strictly policed. In 1963, the central government launched a “no-ghost drama” campaign targeting Meng Chao’s ghost-centric opera “Li Huiniang” and the intellectuals who had backed it. In 1966, the People’s Daily published an editorial titled, “Sweeping Away All Ghosts and Demons,” inaugurating the decadelong Cultural Revolution. For the next 10 years, declaring one’s enemies as “ghosts” was a common political tactic.
Yet, just as Sigmund Freud noted, the repressed always returns in some strange yet familiar form. The 10 years of the Cultural Revolution not only suppressed feudal superstition, but also alienated the Chinese people from their traditions. By the 1980s, when Chinese went searching for what they had lost, a decade of pent-up interest indirectly contributed to the return of ghosts to the world. As “root-seeking” literature eschewed the tropes of revolutionary discourse in favor of forgotten totems and beliefs, a wave of adaptations of literary classics were filmed. According to scholar Luo Hui, in the 1980s and ’90s, nearly 60 different adaptations of Pu’s “Strange Tales” were filmed.
So, have ghosts and other tales of the strange made a comeback? If we only look at published literature, the answer is mixed. There are shades of ghosts in serious literature, such as Mo Yan’s reincarnated narrator in “Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out,” but “human literature” remains the default.
However, if we turn to online literature, the situation looks very different. Alongside other long-shunned genres like fantasy, the short ghost story has shown signs of recovery. Take Ma Boyong’s “New Chronicles,” for example. Consisting of 10 “Strange Tales”-style short stories published online between 2015 and 2016, it offers a glimpse of what Chinese ghost stories might look like in the internet age.
In Ma’s “The Ghost of Wuhan University,” published shortly after news outlets reported that officials in the central city were spot-checking citizens to see if they could recite China’s 24 “core socialist values,” the Taoist priest Bao Shu catches five wandering ghosts chanting sutras and disturbing patrons of the Wuhan University library. When Bao asks why they are disturbing people, a ghost replies they’re tired of hearing residents constantly repeat the same 24 words, and went to the library to hide. When Bao asks why they themselves have started chanting the phrases, the ghost’s response is even curiouser. “If a person recites this sutra, they can exorcise ghosts; if a ghost recites this sutra, they can exorcise people.”
In the words of Zhou Zuoren, “I don't believe that people die and become ghosts, but I believe that, behind people, there are ghosts.” For as long as ghosts are still useful as political allegories, the battle between ghosts and humans in Chinese literature will carry on.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: Details from “Zhongshan Goes on an Excursion,” by Yuan dynasty artist Gong Kai. From the Freer Gallery of Art)