Hei Bai Wuchang: Soul Hunters From the Netherworld

Wu ChangDuring this Ghost Month, I want to look at a pair of gods who have continued to capture the Chinese imagination through the centuries, 黑无常 (“Hei Wuchang”) and 白无常 (“Bai Wuchang”), “Wuchang” being the Daoist term for god of the underworld.

Whether in traditional paintings, effigies, or modern art, these two are always presented shoulder-to-shoulder, gaunt and ghoulish, in exactly the same robes but reversed in colour from each other. Hei (black) Wuchang dressed in black and Bai (white) Wuchang in white. Sometimes the details in their robes would compliment each other perfectly, white highlights on Hei’s robes and black ones on Bai’s. They would also be wearing tall hats with spell tags at the front. Sometimes one of them is portrayed with an extraordinary long tongue hanging out of his mouth.

According to popular legend, the Hei Bai Wu Chang were once a pair of very close friends, Xie Bi’an and Fan Wushe. Xie was tall, pale and slim and Fan short, dark and stocky. One day the friends were walking near the river, when it started to rain, Fan urged Xie to stay under the bridge and keep out of the rain while he went home to fetch an umbrella. On his way back to Xie, the rain got heavier and heavier, lightening flashed, and thunder struck, turning the rain into a huge storm. The river burst its banks, sweeping the small figure of Fan under and drowning him in its waves. After the storm, Xie beheld the corpse of his friend and was heart-broken. No longer able to stand the grief, he hanged himself from a beam of the bridge.

When souls of Fan and Xie travelled to the underworld, the lord of this realm, Yen Wang, heard their story, and was moved. He dubbed Fan Hei Wuchang, and Xie Bai Wuchang and assigned them to work under the Cheng Huang, the city god. Their task is to catch the wandering souls of the wicked and bring them to justice in the underworld. Traditionally, Hei is usually portrayed holding a ferule and looking terrifying. The spell tag on his hat, 天下太平(Peace Under Heaven) is a testimony to his prowess as a hunter. Bai is usually carrying an umbrella and smiling, even though his tongue hangs out from his mouth. His spell tag “一见生财”(Instant Fortune Upon Sight), reflects the good luck the Wuchang bring by ridding an area of trouble-making souls.

Through the ages, folklore has defined the image of the Hei Bai Wuchang in pop culture by accentuating the characteristics of the once-living persons, evening out their height to give them both the stature that befits grim reapers of the damned, to symbolise the complete harmony between them and eternal reunion of these two friends. Hundreds of domestic MMORPGs and mobile games in China feature reinterpretations of the Hei Bai Wu Chang, also a favourite with artists, graphic designers and cosplayers alike. They have been depicted as well built warrior-wizards, pairs of effete, handsome Wuxia heroes, cute little demon hunters in SD form and because of the closeness that defines them, even as a couple. You can read more about this pair of underworld gods in my books, From Kuanyin to Chairman Mao, and Chinese Myths.

What I love about these two is the dichotomy between their forbidding and ghostly exterior, and the beneficial service they perform to the world of the living. The task of capturing fallen souls is a never-ending one. Today, the Chinese still invoke the aid of these ghoulish helpers. Or perhaps their sad story of ever-lasting friendship have kept generation after generation moved. Or may be their iconic image works so well aesthetically that they are just so fun to draw and cosplay. So amongst other things, I hope you find inspiration here for some new plushie patterns, or a Halloween costume for this year, that is a little different.






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