On Chinese Horror Part II: the Ancient Jiang Shi

In honour of World Zombie Day, this week I am writing about Chinese zombies, which had existed for 900 years before the movies.

s7052774In Chinese, zombie is 僵尸 (“Jiang Shi”) or “Stiff Corpse”. The term had existed in literature ever since the Han Dynasty, as early as Sima Qian’s “Records of the Grand Historian”, which described the aftermath of a battle ordered orchestrated by Qin Shi Huang (China’s first emperor), as“strewn with a thousand Jiang Shi”. At this time Jiang Shi was merely used to describe corpses.

As the undead, the Jiang Shi were most often portrayed in ancient tales of strange happenings in remote rural terrain, between the Song and the Qing eras (10th -19th century). Song writer Hong Mai’s book of strange tales told the story of a Taoist priest who gave an official named Liu Zi Ang some spell tags, spotting an evil aura around his person. The official’s concubine severely reprimanded him for hanging them outside the door. Lured by her charms, he gave in.  Upon seeing Liu again, the priest was shocked by the state of his aura, and insisted on sprinkling holy water in his house. They discovered that the water could barely wet the floor, digging up the floor boards, and found a corpse lying in pristine condition, a Jiang Shi, Liu’s concubine.

During the Ming and Qing periods, many parts of China were plagued by nightmarish droughts. Out of anxiety and superstition came the god of droughts, 旱魃(“Han Ba”)who was responsible for these disasters. We know now that lack of moisture would naturally slow down the rotting of corpses, but at the time, people who came across an un-rotten corpse when digging for water, believed it was an extremely ill omen and a manifestation of the Han Ba.

The water disappearing properties of the Jiang Shi had carried on evolving, even into 20th century films like Lam Ching Ying’s “Vampire v.s Vampire” 1989, with dramatic effects of a storm starting just as a Jiang Shi is being dug out of a long barren land.

Moreover, the ancient Chinese believed that the lack of decomposition of the body after death was due to strong, unresolved ties to the living world, especially deep grudges. Stories abound in sensational tales of the Song, Ming and Qing eras, of Jiang Shi coming back to the living world, disguised as a human, to tempt women with their burial jewels, intact corpses nailed to the walls of thousand year old abandoned houses, strange gusts of wind leading court officials to guilty monks and the location they buried the corpses that have turned into Jiang Shi, Jiang Shi emerging from the grave to tell the tales of their murder.

More bizarre ancient beliefs include those of the famous poet Dong Yuan Du, corpses that are mutilated, as an ancient form of corporal punishment on criminals who died before being convicted, would become Jiang Shi.  Intact corpses found by soldiers and grave robbers, were sometimes treated as an elixir to immortality, and carved up (literally) between them.


So what did the ancient Jiang Shi look like? The Qing scholar Qi Xue Qiu described them as “covered in white fur, with eyebrows and nails five to six inches long”, an image of the Jiang Shi that was continued in the much more recent works of novelist Sima Zhong Yuan.  The traditional Jiang Shi also had sharp teeth, which coupled with Western influenced blood sucking abilities of some Hong Kong movie zombies, is one reason why the West often mistake Jiang Shi for vampires. The hairiness didn’t make it into the movies, which seemed to favour the hairless blue green complexion of the ghoul.

As the product of a culture so rich and experimental in the culinary arts, the Jiang Shi of course, did not miss out on the zombie delicacies. Some Mid-Qing era stories feature nocturnal encounters with brain eating Jiang Shi in lonely graveyards and derelict temples. After piercing open the head with their sharp teeth, they would, in delicate Oriental fashion, suck out the brains of their victims, favouring children’s brains in particular.

The Jiang Shi can be pretty powerful too, in the work of Manchurian writer He Bang E’, the pale skinned and red eyed female Jiang Shi can control lightening with her handkerchief.  As a rule of thumb in Chinese horror, if you decided, for whatever reason, to go to an unkept graveyard or deserted monastery, alone, in the middle of the night, with no means of getting away quickly, the Jiang Shi would have it in for you.

So we can see that the Jiang Shi have some similarities to zombies, especially in their choice of provisions.They arose out of the ancient Chinese imagination through a mixture of climatic, social anxieties and a desire for justice. Their ancient appearance sometimes bore more resemblance to actual aged corpses than zombies and their presence more intangible, intentions more mysterious.

Next, I’m writing about Jiang Shi films.




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