Saturday, October 3, 2009

Dao of the Undead

With Halloween at the end of the month people will once again be finding themselves confronted by a seemingly never ending barrage of witches, ghosts, werewolves, Frankenstein monsters, and, of course, vampires. However, with the success of such book series – and now TV and movie series – as Stephanie Myer’s "Twilight" saga and Charlaine Harris’ "The Southern Vampire Mysteries" it may seem as if one has been dealing with blood suckers all year long.

I certainly don’t need to tell anyone that the vampire is without a doubt one of the most malleable mythological archetypes of all time, a fact which has guaranteed their survival and success right down to today. Storytellers of all stripes are constantly reimagining the vampire in a wide variety of ways; from gothic aristocrats hailing from foreign countries to katana swinging trench coat wearing warriors to baseball playing teens with sparkly skin.

However, one variation on the myth of the vampire which I think has failed to get more exposer here in the west is that of the Jiāng-Shī, sometimes referred to as the Chinese vampire. Back in the fall of 2008 I wrote my final paper, Dao of the Undead, for Introduction to Eastern Religions on the Jiāng-Shī and their context within the Taoist religion.

What follows is an abridged version of that same paper. I’ve removed much of the paper that dealt with the nuances of the Taoist faith’s perception of the body and soul. Suffice to say what one needs to know before continuing is that according to the Taoist faith, in particular the Shangqing school of the 4th-Century C.E., every human has two souls; an upper soul or cloudsoul (hun) composed of yang qi (chi) and a lower soul or whitesoul (pò) composed of yin qi (chi). When a person sleeps their souls travel outside of their bodies, the cloudsoul towards heaven where it communes with enlightened spirits and various deities; this being the cause of pleasant dreams. Whitesouls, on the other hand, travel down into the earth where they copulate with the dead and demons causing nightmares and sexual dreams. Keep this in mind while reading the following as such terminology will be used throughout...

Tales of the undead have been with humankind for thousands of years, whether they be Arabian ghouls, Slavic vampires, or Haitian zombies all cultures have some conception of the unquiet dead who refuse to stay in their graves. Chinese myth, legend, folklore, and film also have their own quirky, wholly original variation on this theme called the Jiāng-Shī[1] (pronounced Geungsi in Cantonese), a term which literally means “stiff corpse.”

According to Matthew Bunson, author of The Vampire Encyclopedia, the Jiāng-Shī of Chinese myth and legend are cadavers that return to life when their pò souls fail to leave the deceased’s body due to improper death (such as suicide) or burial (allowing an animal to jump over the body or moon/sunlight to fall on the corpse). Upon returning to life Jiāng-Shī will hop about with its arms out stretched (due to rigor mortis) causing trouble such as draining the life sustaining qi (pronounced chi) out of people. The skin of a Jiāng-Shī will often be discolored (usually green) as a result of mold which has accumulated on the body of the corpse.

A nearly identical report to Bunson’s is given by early 20th-Century religious historian J.J.M. de Groot who describes the Jiāng-Shī as; “a corpse which does not decay, a horrible or ferocious specter fond of catching and killing passers-by, more malicious than others because, having the body at its service, it possesses more strength and vigor than other disembodied ghosts.” Groot also comments on the physical appearance of the Jiāng-Shī describing it as being “covered all over with long white hair, and its nails are exceedingly long.”

It is not uncommon for scholars (and filmmakers) to compare the Jiāng-Shī to the western concept of the vampire. Even Groot, writing at the end of the 19th-Century, comments on the parallels between the Jiāng-Shī and the European vampire; “In China a vampire generally breaks out of its coffin during the night, as the powers of evil specters are paralyzed by daylight. It commonly kills its prey by sucking the blood out of the body, a proceeding which it completes in a few seconds.” However, Groot also notes that while tales depicting Jiāng-Shī as anthropophagi (man-eaters) are not uncommon, stories depicting them as blood suckers do not appear in China until the 19th-Century, a fact which undoubtedly betrays a western influence possibly even that of acclaimed 19th-Century horror author Bram Stoker himself whose classic novel “Dracula” was given the title of “Blood Sucking Jiāng-Shī” when first printed in China.

Folktales featuring Jiāng-Shī abound and both Bunson and, especially, Groot have collected numerous examples. One story from 1741 tells of a shepherd who took refuge, along with his sheep, in an old temple which was allegedly haunted. Around midnight the shepherd awoke to strange sounds. Gazing around he caught sight of a terrible green skinned cadaver with “eyes like lighting” rising from a grave located beneath three statues. The man attacked the Jiāng-Shī with a whip only to find that the weapon was useless. Fleeing for his life the shepherd took refuge in a tree where the Jiāng-Shī could not reach him. In the morning the Jiāng-Shī returned to its grave and the shepherd alerted the local authorities who immediately traveled to the temple where they unearthed the corpse and burned it “despite a putrid black vapor, the cracking of its bones, and the blood, which gushed forth from the remains.”

Another folktale recounts how a Jiāng-Shī once frequented the village in Ngan-cheu where it would come “soaring through the air, to devour the infants of the people.” In great need of assistance the villages contacted a “Taoist doctor, proficient in magic arts” who, after being showered with money and gifts, instructed the villagers to have the bravest man in town hide in the grave of the Jiāng-Shī with “two bells” which he should ring once the ghoul attempts to return home. The ringing of the bells, explained the Daoist, will paralyze the monster as they “generally fear very much the sound of jingles and hand-gongs.” Trapped outside its own grave, and unable to fly away due to a spell cast by the Daoist, the Jiāng-Shī is then ambushed by the villagers who fight with the corpse until dawn when it falls down dead once more at which point the villagers burn the body.

How dose one become a Jiāng-Shī? Traditionally, there are four ways that one can be created: “a violent death, an improper burial, a need for revenge against the living, or simply a desire to create mischief (sometimes of a sexual nature).” Another way in which a Jiāng-Shī can be created is “improper burial.”

According to Peter Nepstad, of The Illuminated, proper burial is an extremely important facet of the Taoist faith…

“Taoist funerals must be carefully conducted in order to keep the dead happy and at peace. Improper burial procedures may anger the spirit of the deceased and cause ruin or even death to one or more generations of the family. When a person dies, it is believed that the spirit separates from the body, but stays nearby until the body is buried. At the time of death, a Taoist priest is often summoned to the home to oversee the careful ritual preparations needed to ensure the burial is ritually correct. When the body is placed in the coffin, children of the family put the deceased's favorite things in with it. A banquet is prepared, and special charms are written on slips of paper. The charms are burned to send them to heaven and new charms replace them. The burial day is determined by a Taoist priest according to calendrical considerations. The site is also determined by the priest, using feng-shui. The priest must accompany the coffin to the cemetery, chanting and ringing bells. This is an important part of the priest’s duties to the community.”

Groot also confirms this and has dedicated much of his six volume series The Religious System of China, to the subject of death and burial. One way in which a burial can be botched, says Groot, is if sunlight or moonlight is allowed to fall on a corpse, an act which will transform the deceased into a Jiāng-Shī. This metamorphosis, says Groot, is the “natural consequence of the conception that light, fire, warmth, Yang in short, are identified with life.” Bunson also confirms this by noting that “direct sunlight or moonlight” is “capable of infusing the corpse with a supply of yang (a positive force), thereby fortifying the lower soul.” To prevent this, buildings which are used to store coffins must be without windows or cracks, least moon or sunlight spill inside.

Other ways in which a funeral can go so wrong as to wake the dead include burying the body in foreign or unfamiliar soil; which would sometimes happen if the person died while away from home. Also, according to some traditions, allowing an animal to jump over the body before burial will also solicit the ire of the dead since it is thought to literally block the soul’s accent out of the body.

Also according to Groot it is important to allow a body to decompose slightly before burial; “If burial takes place before decomposition, and the corpse obtains breath from the earth, it will after three months be overgrown entirely with hairs; if these are white, it is called a white evil, and if they are black, a black evil. It then enters houses to cause calamity.” Three months, not exactly a speedy process.

With so many things to potentially go wrong and wake the dead Daoist priests were constantly on standby and developed numerous incantations and rituals to deal with these troublesome corpses. This is another important aspect of the legend of the Jiāng-Shī for in none of the stories to we read of either Buddhist monks or parishioners of Confucianism arising to thwart these horrors.

Some of the methods by which a Jiāng-Shī could be stopped or thwarted include things as simple as holding your breath. Because the Jiāng-Shī is usually blind they have to find people by listening to the sound of them breathing, so holding your breath will confuse them. Other tricks involve blocking the Jiāng-Shī’s path as they are not very mobile, being confined to hopping in a straight line. Installing a threshold approximately 15 cm (6 in) high along the width of the door at the bottom can prevent a Jiāng-Shī from entering a household as it is apparently not possible for a Jiāng-Shī to hop that high. Other means of thwarting a Jiāng-Shī include scattering grains, rice, beans, seeds, and other small objects in the path of the Jiāng-Shī who will then have to count them before proceeding. Sticky rice is also believed to draw the evil spirit out of the Jiāng-Shī.

By far the most iconic method of confronting a Jiāng-Shī is to use a paper talismans typically made from strips of yellow paper with words written in chicken blood mixed with ink (or alternatively red ink). These talismans have the power to open celestial gates as well as paralyze evil spirits in their tracks. Today modern representations of the Jiāng-Shī often depict these ghouls with such talismans attached to their foreheads, a sign that they are under a priest’s divine charge.

Beginning in the 1980s movie production companies throughout Hong Kong began producing films featuring Jiāng-Shī as the monster of choice. These films were often a mix of horror, fantasy, comedy and kung-fu, two of the most famous of which were Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980) and Mr. Vampire (1985). Both films stared actor Lam Ching-ying as a sort of Chinese Van Helsing and were highly successful at the Chinese box office, Mr. Vampire so much so that it inspired five sequels and numerous spin-offs. One of the more recent Chinese films to feature Jiāng-Shī (albeit in a supporting role) was 2004's Shaolin Vs. Evil Dead which stared Gordon Liu of Kill Bill (03-04) fame.

Visually, these films tend to depict Jiāng-Shī with blue skin and dressed in the clothing of a Qing Dynasty official from Manchuria; a not-so-subtle social critic on the Qing Dynasty which is widely considered amongst the Han Chinese to have been a bloodthirsty and inhuman rule. Mr. Vampire was also the first film to give Jiāng-Shī fangs in conjunction with the visual aesthetics of Western vampire movies.

Jiāng-Shī have also become popular in other East Asian countries such as Taiwan and Japan. Jiāng-Shī can be found hopping about in numerous Japanese cartoons, comics, and video games most notably Capcom's Darkstalker series which encompasses not only a series of video games, but also Japanese and American comics and cartoons and features an as-kicking female Jiāng-Shī by the name of Hsien-Ko (see center image).


  • Blofeld, John. Taoist Mysteries and Magic. Bolder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1973.

  • Bokenkamp, Stephen. Early Daoist Scriptures. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

  • Bunson, Matthew. The Vampire Encyclopedia. New York: Gramercy Books, 1993.

  • de Groot, J.J.M. The Religious System of China. 6 vols. (published with a subvention by the Dutch Colonial Government)., 1892-1910.

  • Nepstad, Peter. “Taoist Priests and Hopping Vampires

  • Whitney, Ian. “Horror, Humor and Hopping in Hong Kong

  • Hopping Mad: A Brief Look at Chinese Vampire Movies” at

  • Mr. Vampire. DVD. Directed by Ricky Lau. Screenplay by Ricky Lau, Chuek-Hon Szeto, Barry Wong, and Ying Wong. New York: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment,
  • _____________________________________________________
    [1] Though I will be using the spelling of Jiāng-Shī throughout this essay I have discovered that nearly every authoritative source out there offers its own variation on how to render these revenant’s name; author Matthew Bunson calls them “chiang-shi or kiang-si” while sinologist J.J.M. de Groot refers to them as “kiang si or kiong si.” Ian Whitney at calls them “Gyonshi” as well as Jiāng-Shī and Penny Blood magazine labels them as “Geung-Si (or Chiang-Shih, or Jiangshi).” Another term which I have also come across is "Kyonshi" which means "hopping spirit."


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