Chinese Corner

Hopping Zombies2 min read

Undead with Chinese Characteristics

Are you still looking for a Halloween costume? It’s not too late! Just grab your bathrobe and your mandarin’s cap and you’ll be a jiāngshī – a Chinese zombie, that is.

Jiāngshī aren’t quite the same as the brain-eating undead of the West. In Mandarin, jiāngshī literally means “stiff corpse,” in reference to rigor mortis. They are reanimated corpses, either ancient and undecomposed or freshly undead, but with Chinese characteristics. For one, they wear the outfits of Qing dynasty officials: robes and domed hats. If they catch up with you, they suck out your life energy, your , instead of your brains. Their limbs are stiff, so they move by …hopping. George Romero wasn’t consulted on this point.

A corpse can become a jiāngshī when a dead person’s ethereal yáng soul, their hún, departs, but their corporeal yīn soul, their , remains behind. Jiāngshī bear some resemblance to “hungry ghosts,” so called because a sinful life or unhappy death has sentenced them to starvation and thirst in the afterlife, or else  because they have no ancestors to make food offerings to them. Jiāngshī may also have a connection to the old custom of “corpse walking” to bring the souls of the deceased back for burial when they have died far from home. Daoist priests might even rope three or more of the departed together and keep them at bay by tying mantras in front of their faces. Now jiāngshī are part of the cultural mainstream, the stars of countless films and comics. Additions from Western mythology have been incorporated too, including vampiric fangs.

For the gentleman Chinese zombie hunter, jiāngshī have a few useful vulnerabilities. Mirrors are one: they are terrified of their own reflection. Anything made of peach wood will also do the trick, as will the blood of a black dog, the hoof of a black donkey, jujube seeds, glutinous rice, a trigram sign, or a rooster’s call. Or if you just want to run away – well, it can’t be that bloody hard, they’re only hopping, right?

Not so fast – they may catch you unawares. In Taiwan, statues of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek have come alive to feast on unsuspecting children and mainland tourists. Just see for yourself in this exclusive report from Next Media. And if your mandarin cap isn’t handy today, just dust off your Mao suit for a seasonably frightening look. ∎

Also check out Radii China’s long list of Chinese ghouls and ghosts.
An earlier version of this post appeared on The Anthill on October 28, 2014.