Love, Death, and Ghosts in the Chinese Underworld
In a dilapidated temple deep in the woods, a solitary male figure — a scholar, by the looks of him — reads by candlelight. Suddenly, the temple’s window is thrown open by an eerie gust of wind, and a beautiful woman in floating white robes appears in the room.
With all the wisdom and self-restraint commonly attributed to lonely bookworms, the man promptly yields to the mysterious woman’s advances, and they have passionate sex right there in the temple. Ecstasy soon turns to horror, and the man’s orgasmic gasps become his death throes.
The famous opening scene of the 1987 Hong Kong film “A Chinese Ghost Story” is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of the Chinese supernatural. The film, adapted from the classic short story “Nie Xiaoqian” in Qing dynasty (1644-1912) writer Pu Songling’s “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio,” checks all the boxes: a great beauty appears, instantly satisfies the sexual needs of a hapless young man, and then murders him right at the climax of their encounter.
Chinese ghosts exist in a state analogous to that of the vampire in Western literature. The allure of both is otherworldly, a fact they use to prey on the morally weak and vulnerable. But the two are not exactly alike. The most significant difference is that Chinese ghosts, unlike vampires, are almost always female. And their love, if they are capable of it, is invariably given to a living man, rather than a fellow supernatural being.
To understand why, we first need to understand the roots of Chinese supernatural literature. To start, what do Chinese mean when they talk about ghosts?
Confucius had little interest in the subject. “The Analects” records that he never discussed “extraordinary things, feats of strength, disorder, and spiritual beings.” Nevertheless, according to the practices of Confucian ancestral worship, it was important to ensure a person dies a good and natural death and that his posthumous needs are properly looked after by his descendants. In these cases, he will become an ancestor on the family altar instead of a ghost. Only those who die a bad death, whether in war, by murder, or far from home, will become ghosts.
The choice of pronoun above was intentional. Confucian ancestral worship is strictly patrilineal and patriarchal, meaning women could only earn a place on a family altar as someone’s wife or mother. In this situation, any girl who dies unmarried will almost certainly become a ghost. She is an outsider and can claim no descendants to look after her posthumous affairs. Nie Xiaoqian — the eponymous heroine of Pu’s story — is just one of many female ghosts left to wander the pages of Chinese storybooks due to a lack of a husband and children.
That explains the preponderance of female ghosts, but not how they became objects of romantic love. Indeed, historically, ghosts were beings to be feared, not loved. According to traditional belief, ghosts were beings of yin; by their very nature they posed a threat to living creatures, who are beings of yang, or life. Yet, over the centuries, male literati found ways to project their sexual desires and fears onto female ghosts, associating them with the sexual satisfaction and intelligent conversation provided by courtesans.
The scholar Patrick Hannan once described the “Chinese gothic” story as composed of four parts: the meeting, the lovemaking, the intimation of danger, and the intervention of an exorcist. Ghost stories were cautionary tales, and female ghosts practiced a sort of sexual vampirism, robbing men of their precious yang essence through the act of sex. Like courtesans, ghosts could use their sex appeal to attract men — and titillate readers — but they could not truly love.
It wasn’t until the late Ming (1368-1644) and early Qing dynasties that female ghosts shed their malignant reputation and became not just subjects of love and affection, but their ultimate embodiment.
The “cult of love,” or qingjiao, that emerged in literature from this period was a continuation of the philosophical “school of the heart,” which arose in reaction against the excessive rationalism of neo-Confucianism. The literary cult of love celebrated individual freedom and the power of spontaneous subjectivity. The Ming dynasty dramatist Tang Xianzu, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, summed up the movement’s ideals in the authorial preface to his most celebrated play, “The Peony Pavilion.” “It is not known whence love originates, yet once it begins, it goes deep,” he wrote. “The living can die for it and the dead can be revived for it. If the living cannot die or the dead cannot be revived (for love), then it is not supreme love.”
“The Peony Pavilion” is itself a ghost story, and its heroine, Du Liniang, the apotheosis of the supreme love espoused by Tang. After dying for want of love from the faraway scholar of her dreams, Du returns as a ghost to haunt his nights until his love revives her. If “Romeo and Juliet” testifies to the power of love to make even death appealing, “Peony Pavilion” argues that love is powerful enough to break the bounds of life and death altogether.
Writing in the early Qing, Pu Songling would have been influenced by the cult of love and works like “The Peony Pavilion.” His innovation was to transpose the “scholar and beauty” literary trope into the “strange tales” genre, with its ghosts and goblins. In the process, he made the beautiful, loving, and resourceful female ghost a hallmark of the Chinese ghost story.
To Pu, love with a ghost is love in the purest sense, capable of transgressing social convention, reason, even the laws of life and death. His story “Liansuo” seems a concerted effort to refute the belief that a ghost’s yin essence is necessarily harmful, in part by arguing that the power of love can conquer all. The story opens with the typical trope of a lonely man at night, yet instead of lust, it is a shared appreciation for poetry that kindles the love between the young ghost-poetess Liansuo and the scholar Yang, whose nightly rendezvous with the ghost do not involve sex.
Then one day, Liansuo asks Yang to have sex with her. She does so, not out of base desire, but because she requires the yang essence and blood of a living man to complete the process of rebirth — a process that started with Yang’s attentions to her. Yang readily accepts, despite Liansuo’s warning that doing so could be fatal for him. After Yang recovers from a ghost-borne disease contracted during their sexual resurrection ceremony, he opens Liansuo’s tomb to find his beloved, all flesh and blood, waiting for him.
Of course, not all lovers are as fortunate as Yang and Liansuo. If life and death were easily transgressed, love would have no stakes. In “Zhang Aduan,” one of the most melancholic of Pu’s stories, the scholar Qi enters a claustrophobic relationship with his dead wife and another female ghost called Aduan in an abandoned mansion. (Many Chinese of the era practiced polygamy, and there were no qualms about a man loving two women simultaneously.)
Qi first meets Aduan when he is mourning for his recently deceased wife. Moved by Qi’s lasting love, Aduan, who had been abused by her own husband before she died, helps him to bring back his wife’s ghost. She then prolongs their reunion by bribing the underworld officials in charge of dispatching the wife to her next incarnation. With this stolen lease on “life,” Qi and his two ghost lovers turn the candle-lit pavilion of a haunted mansion into their exclusive haven, a place where they can enjoy their love day and night without a care for the outside world.
If other tales of supernatural romance reunite lovers in the world of the living, “Zhang Aduan” creates a heady, eerie, and surreal space for love, one shrouded in death and which resolutely defies life. Perhaps such a love was too powerful even for Pu, and he felt he must check it with a tragic ending. One after another, Aduan and the wife are taken away from the loving scholar. Aduan dies when her former husband, who has become a jian — a supernatural being feared even by ghosts — kills her. Afterward, Qi’s wife is finally summoned away for her next incarnation. Left alone in the pavilion, Qi is haunted, not by ghosts, but by their absence.
In her literary form, the female ghost has always represented the marginalized other of the patriarchal social order. At first, she embodied in death what China’s Confucian literati feared most in life. In her later incarnations, she became the object of their greatest desire. Confucius famously dismissed all talk of ghosts; his heirs longed to be haunted.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A still from the 1987 film “A Chinese Ghost Story.” From @GunGun on Douban)