On Chinese Zombies

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 quite flowing and ethereal. Qing official uniforms however, tend to compliment the stiff and dour attitude adopted by a Chinese jiang shi 僵尸, literally “stiff corpse”.
The Chinese film studios have more Qing dynasty costumes than any other period. I suppose 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. And no doubt some of these Qing period costumes would have been worn out from use, and therefore perfect for zombie movies. Typical Chinese resourcefulness.This also explains why LeiLei from the video game Darkstalkers, is designed the way she is.

One may also ask, which is the chicken, and which the egg? 
The horror genre often expresses the fears of any society, of which people of the Qing had an abundance – governmental corruption, rule of the Manchus, colonisation by foreign powers, just to name a few. There seem to be more legends, folklore and literature on jiang shi from the Qing period than any other period in Chinese history.

Some say that manual labourers at the time would find work moving the dead back to their home towns to be buried. People began to talk about 训尸人 “Xun Shi Ren“, those who could practice zombie craft, the art of moving corpses. Haitian voodoo springs to mind. In Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires 1974, the character of Si Tian An is very much based on this folklore.

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

I would really like 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

Posted in Culture