Chinese Zombies: Why Do The Jiangshi Look Like Qing Officials?

Have you ever seen a Chinese horror film with zombies in it? I should like to clarify that by Chinese zombies I mean those stiff, lugubrious bluish green things that hop on two legs, with arms stretched straight out in front that so often get mixed up with Chinese vampires in the West. Have you ever wondered why these zombies tend mostly to be dressed in Qing official uniforms?

Well, there are several factors. 
Outfits from other historical periods, such as the Han, Tang and Ming, are flowing robes. Qing official uniforms tended to compliment the stiff and dour attitude adopted by a Chinese jiāngshī 僵尸, literally “stiff corpse”.
And Chinese film studios have more Qing dynasty costumes than any other period. The same goes for English studios having more Victorian costumes than any other period. We are always preoccupied with the age that came before ours. Some of these costumes would have been worn out from use, and therefore perfect for zombie movies. Typical Chinese resourcefulness.This explains why LeiLei from the video game Darkstalkers, is designed the way she is.

You might also ask, which is the chicken, and which the egg? 
The horror genre often expresses the fears of any society, and the Qing era had an abundance – governmental corruption, the rule of the conquerers, colonisation by foreign powers, just to name a few. There are arguably more legends, folklore and literature on jiangshi from the Qing period than any other period in Chinese history.

It was said that manual labourers at the time could find work moving the dead back to their home towns to be buried. People began to talk about 训尸人 “xùnshī rén“, those who practiced zombie craft, the art of moving corpses. One is reminded of Voodoo. In Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974), the character of Hsi Ching is very much based on this folklore.

It is Chinese belief that hundred year old corpses are not yet old enough to become demons. You have to have been dead for more than 500 years to become a demon. To become one as terrifying as the tentacle-stretching tree demon from Chinese Ghost Story, you would need to have been eating people for at least a thousand years. Corpses that are only between 100 and 500 years old, are therefore, doomed to wander the earth.

I would love to see more people cosplaying as Chinese zombies on World Zombie Day or Halloween, if you’ve got a costume, send me some pics!

First published on Xanga, October 2012

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