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A Brief Note on Chinese “Zombies”

Reanimated corpses of people who have died seem to be a feature of frightening tales around the world. In English we tend to distinguish between vampires (where popular understanding was much influenced by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula and countless films derived from it) and zombies (associated with Haitian folklore of sorcerers resurrecting the newly dead as slaves.)

In China such monsters are usually referred to as jiāngshī 僵尸, literally “rigid corpses.” Revealingly, the officially preferred character , “rigid,” which has “person” as the radical, is popularly written instead 殭尸 with the radical dǎi , “evil.” And reanimated corpses (or parts of corpses) are inevitably regarded as dangerous to the living, typically through violent physical attacks. (Ghosts, in contrast, are thought to cause subtler or more gradual damage, but often are not dangerous at all. Merely creepy.)

Jiāngshī, being stiff, are frequently considered to ambulate by bouncing, and tradition holds that they used to be herded in small flocks by “Daoist” specialists who drove them home from places of death, a mode of transportation which people argue (with little conviction) used to be cheaper than alternatives.

Animated only at night, they were stored in the daytime, and they were kept under control by the use of paper charms, but could be dangerous if they somehow got loose, one is told. It is unclear whether anyone actually believes all this, or ever did, but I have met people who found it plausible. However, many Chinese supernatural tales represent all sorts of demons as capable of flight, often only in straight lines, and jiāngshī are sometimes so represented as well.

Most Chinese today know about jiāngshī principally from movies, usually C-grade horror-and-martial-arts comedies set in ambiguously “dynastic” times, and rarely providing a coherent representation of earlier folklore, but rather simply borrowing selected motifs. The jiāngshī tradition has merged in modern Chinese pop culture with European zombies and vampires, a process almost certainly promoted by movies. (A forthcoming study by Marc L. Moskowitz will provide a needed analysis of this phenomenon.)

Most Chinese today know about jiāngshī principally from movies, usually C-grade horror-and-martial-arts comedies set in ambiguously “dynastic” times, and rarely providing a coherent representation of earlier folklore, but rather simply borrowing selected motifs. The jiāngshī tradition has merged in modern Chinese pop culture with European zombies and vampires, a process almost certainly promoted by movies. (A forthcoming study by Marc L. Moskowitz will provide a needed analysis of this phenomenon.)

Insofar as I know, the most prodigious writer about Chinese zombies and vampires is J.J. M. de GROOT (1854-1921). DeGroot wrote his remarkable work, The Religious System of China (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1892-1910) —only a third of which is known to us today— in defense of a proposition that most or all of traditional Chinese religion was ultimately related to the cult of the dead and to the related “war on spectres.”

De Groot accordingly includes a great deal of ghost lore, including vampire/zombie lore, including countless stories. He introduces the topic in his first volume in connection with coffins. He notes that considerations of the interaction between horoscopes and fēngshuǐ 风水 may result in encoffined bodies remaining unburied for a considerable time. If the coffin is not tightly sealed and protected from the elements, rays of sunlight or moonlight may

find their way to the coffin and perhaps change the corpse into a so-called kiang si or kiong-si [Hokkien; Mandarin: jiāngshī] 殭尸, a corpse which does not decay, a horrible and ferocious spectre fond of catching and killing passers-by, more malicious than iothers because, having the body at its service, it possesses more strength and vigour than other disembodied ghosts.

Such kiang si are obviously parallels of the living corpses styled vampires, which during the preceding century excited the whole of Europe, and were believed to leave their graves to prey upon the blood of the living. In China a vampire generally breaks out of its coffin during the lnight, as the powers of evil spectres are paralysed by daylight. It commonly kills its prey by sucking the blood out of the body, a proceeding which it completes in a few seconds. Its body is said to be covered all over with long white hair, and its nails are exceedingly long, which reminds us of a belief, also prevalent amongst Europeans, that the hair and nails continue to grow after death. For the rest, the description answers pretty well to that of spectres in general. … People say that the only way to render a kiang si harmless is either to destroy everything, coffin and all, by fire, or to take the corpse out and fry it in a big iron pan, but we have never heard of such an expedient being actually resorted to. … (vol 1, pp. 106-107)

(De Groot alternates between the spellings kiang si / kiong si, which are still correct for romanized Hokkien, and the spelling kiang shi, an obsolete romanization for Mandarin jiāngshī. He also shifts between two interchangeable writings of shī, “corpse”: and . The former is official today.)

In volume 5 De Groot treats us to many tales of the mischief done by reanimated corpses. He observes (vol 5, p. 743) “These tales amply suffice to teach us how extremely ferocious corpse-spectres are. Even powerful gods do not always come off uninjured when they interfere between those demons and their victims.” By way of illustration, he inserts a story included separately on this web site (link). Then he continues:

The name under which corpse-spectres mostly appear in books, is kiang shi [jiāngshī 僵屍 or 殭屍], corpses lying flat or rigid . A very common term is also shi kwai [shīguài 屍怪], apparitions of corpses or corpse-spectres . We have seen (Book I, pp. 106 seq.) that they greatly occupy credulous and superstitious minds in Amoy. We may recollect that there and in the surrounding country they are deemed to be produced by the sun or the moon shining on encoffined human remains still unburied.

This idea involves nothing strange when we remember that the light and warmth of the universe constitute universal vitality. We have stated also (Book I, page 127) that the dead are especially prone to become kiang shi when a long postponement of their burial inspires them with bitter rancour: a powerful warning to the living to not unduly delay burials. The fact that, nevertheless, the empire is actually studded with unburied human remains, on the other hand, greatly nourishes the inveterate belief in those spectres.

There seem to be parts of China where, merely for fear of kiang shi, the natural decay of corpses is accelerated on purpose by exposing them in the open air. We infer this from the following note of Sui Yuen [Suí Yuán 隨園 ] [= YUÁN Méi 袁枚]:

West from Fung-siang (in Shensi pr.) [Fèngxiáng 凤翔 in Shǎanxǐ 陝西 province], common people who die are not buried immediately, but in many cases exposed in the open air until the blood and flesh have entirely decayed; after this process is finished, they perform the burial. Otherwise, it is said, the dead will give rise to evil (hiung) [xiōng ]. 凤翔(今陕西凤翔)以西,其俗人死不即葬,多暴露之,俟其血肉化尽,然后葬埋,否则有发凶之说。
Fèngxiáng(jīn Shǎnxī Fèngxiáng) yǐ xī, qí sú rén sǐ bù jí zàng, duō pù lù zhī, sì qí xuè ròu huà jìn, rán hòu zàng mái, fǒu zé yǒu fā xiōng zhī shuō.
鳳翔(今陝西鳳翔)以西,其俗人死不即葬,多暴露之,俟其血肉化盡,然後葬埋,否則有發凶之說。
If burial takes place before decomposition, and the corpse obtains breath from the earth, it will after three months be overgrown entirely with hairs. If these are white, it is called a white evil. And if they are black, a black evil. It then enters houses to cause calamity. 尸未消化而葬者,一得地气,三月之后遍体生毛,白者号白凶。黑者名黑凶。 便入人家为孽。
Shī wèi xiāo huà ér zàng zhě, yī dé dì qì, sān yuè zhī hòu biàn tǐ shēng máo, bái zhě hào bái xiōng. Hēi zhě míng hēi xiōng. biàn rù rén jiā wéi niè.
屍未消化而葬者,一得地氣,三月之後遍體生毛,白者號白凶。黑者名黑凶。 便入人家為孽。

We have now to pay attention to yet another point, also touched on already in this work…: kiang shi [= jiāngshī] are anthropophagous and prey on human blood. They are therefore correlated with east-European vampires, or living corpses which break forth from their tombs and attack the living to satiate their cravings for human flesh and blood. Tales about blood-sucking kiang shi have not been found by us in Chinese literature anterior to the eighteenth century, the Tszӗ puh yü [Zǐbùyǔ 子不語, “What the Master Didn’t Discuss” [by YUÁN Méi 袁枚] being for the present the only work we know that has them. [Click here for a note on Yuán Méi.]

To this de Groot adds a provocative footnote:

Is this coincident with the vampire-panic (the first known in Europe?) which infested Poland and Polish Russia in the last years of the seventeenth century, spreading rapidly over Bulgaria and Servia [sic], and occupying the minds of scholars and theologians of Europe in the first quarter of the next? (vol 5, p. 744)

DeGroot was as much an ethnographer as he was a devourer of old texts, and his work reflects what he saw and what he was told as much as what he read. His inclination was to assume that the most elaborate form of a practice or belief was somehow the base from which variants were simplifications. This perspective led him to seek sometimes quite remarkable documents and accounts and to watch and describe very grand rituals. Arguably, the opposite approach makes more analytical sense, and we should take the simplest form of a practice or belief as incorporating what is culturally basic or psychologically essential, with more complex variants being cluttered elaborations. But deGroot’s method approach was impressively fecund.

The Religious System of China, available in countless university libraries under the Library of Congress number PL2628 .C473, is not always an easy source. It is awkwardly indexed and its written sources sometimes difficult to trace, both because of his occasional use of popular pamphlets now long lost and because of the way he has organized bibliographic information. And De Groot’s Mandarin spellings are quaint (although his occasional Hokkien ones —he lived in Amoy/Xiàmén 厦门— are essentially modern and even include tone marks).

A singularly valuable feature of this monumental (if apparently unfinished) work, as also of his earlier Les Fêtes Annuellement Célébrées à Émoui (Amoy) (1886) and Sectarianism and Religious Persecution in China (1903) is that he provides characters when he cites a Chinese word, and his many Chinese translations, often from unusual sources, are inevitably accompanied by the Chinese texts. In this he was far ahead of his (and our) time, and because of this it has been possible to provide some interesting texts in bilingual format on this web site.

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