China, Vampires in

China, Vampires in

(pop culture)

When Western scholars began to gather the folklore of China in the nineteenth century, they very quickly encountered tales of the chiang-shih (also spelled kiang shi), the Chinese vampire, generally translated into English as “blood-sucking ghost.” Belief in vampires partially derived from a Chinese belief in two souls. Each person had a superior or rational soul and an inferior or irrational soul. The former had the form of the body and upon separation could appear as its exact double. The superior soul could leave the sleeping body and wander about the countryside. For a short period it could possess the body of another and speak through it. If accidents befell the wandering soul, it would have negative repercussions on the body. On occasion the superior soul appeared in an animal form.

The inferior soul, called the p’ai, or p’o, was the soul that inhabited the body of a fetus during pregnancy and often lingered in the body of a deceased person, leading to its unnatural preservation. When the p’ai left, the body disintegrated. The p’ai, if strong, preserved and inhabited the body for a long period and could use the body for its own ends. The body animated by the p’ai was called a chiang-shih, or vampire. The chiangshih appeared normal and was not recognized as a vampire until some action gave it away. However, at other times it took on a hideous aspect and assumed a green phosphorescent glow. In this form the chiang-shih developed serrated teeth and long talons.

The Origin and Destruction of the Chiang-shih: The chiang-shih seems to have originated as a means of explaining problems associated with death. The chiang-shih arose following a violent death due to suicide, hanging, drowning, or smothering. It could also appear in a person who had died suddenly, or as a result of improper burial procedures. The dead were thought to become angry and restless if their burial was postponed for a long time after their death. Also animals, especially cats, were kept away from the unburied corpse, to prevent them from jumping over it, lest they become vampires themselves.

The chiang-shih lacked some of the powers of the Slavic vampire. It could not, for example, dematerialize, hence it was unable to rise from the grave, being inhibited both by coffins and the soil. Thus their transformation had to take place prior to burial, an added incentive to a quick burial of the dead. The Chinese vampires were nocturnal creatures and limited in their activity to the night hours. The chiang-shih had trouble crossing running water. The chiang-shihs were very strong and vicious. Reports detailed their attacks upon living people, where they ripped off the head or limbs of their victims. This homicidal viciousness was their most often reported trait. They usually had to surprise their victims because they had no particular powers to lure or entrance them. Besides their homicidal nature, the chiang-shih might also demonstrate a strong sexual drive that led it to attack and rape women. Over a period of time, the vampires gained strength and began to transform to a mobile state. They would forsake the coffin habitat, master the art of flying, and develop a covering of long white hair. They might also change into wolves.

In general, the vampire began its existence as an unburied corpse. However, on occasion there were reports of unburied body segments, especially the head, being reanimated and having an existence as a vampire. Also, reports have survived of the ever-present Chinese dragon appearing as a vampire.

People knew of several means of protection from a vampire. Garlic, an almost universal medicinal herb, kept vampires away. Salt was believed to have a corrosive effect on the vampire’s skin. Vampires were offended by loud noises, and thunder would occasionally kill one. Brooms were handy weapons with which a brave soul could literally sweep the vampire back to its resting spot. Iron filings, rice, and red peas created barriers to the entry of the vampire and would often be placed around a vacant coffin to keep a vampire from taking it as a resting place.

If the vampire reached its transformative stage as the flying hairy creature, only thunder or a bullet could bring it down. In the end, the ultimate solution was cremation, the purifying fire being something of a universal tool of humankind.

The Chiang-shih in Literature: The chiang-shih was the subject of numerous stories and folktales. In the seventeenth century, the vampire became the subject for one of China’s most famous short story writers, Pu Songling (1640–1715), author of the 16-volume Liao Choi. His story “The Resuscitated Corpse,” for example, concerned four merchants who stopped at an inn. They were housed for the night in the barn, where, as it happened, the body of the innkeeper’s daughter-in-law lay awaiting burial. One of the four could not sleep and stayed up reading. The corpse, now bearing fangs, approached the three sleeping men and bit each one. The other man watched frozen in fright. He finally came to his senses and, grabbing his clothes, fled with the vampire hot on his trail. As she caught up to him, he stood under a willow tree. She charged with great speed and ferocity, but at the last second the man dodged, and she hit the tree with full force, her long fingernails imbedded in the tree. The man fainted from fright and exhaustion. The next day the innkeeper’s staff found the three dead merchants and the body of his daughter-in-law lying in her place but covered with blood. She was as fresh as the day she died, as she still had her p’ai, her inferior soul. The innkeeper confessed that she had died six months earlier, but he was waiting for an astrologically auspicious day for her burial. (There is a vague possibility that Pu Songling was influenced by European sources via Russia, as the vampire is a relative late-comer in Chinese ghostly tales. A variety of his stories have been made into English and a complete edition into German was made by Gottfried Rösel and published in five large volumes 1987–1992.)

Hungry Ghosts: The modern idea of the vampire in Chinese culture is also tied to the notion of the hungry ghost. The idea has roots in both Buddhism and Taoism, which posit that neglect of one’s ancestors can lead to the emergence of hungry ghosts. The Buddhist Avatamsaka or Flower Garland Sutra, for example, suggests that evil deeds can cause a soul to be born in one of six possible realms. Serious evil deeds such as killing, stealing, or sexual misconduct will cause a soul to be born as a hungry ghost, while desire, greed, and ignorance effect such rebirth as they are motives for people to perform evil deeds. Many legends speak of a greedy woman who refused to share food becoming a hungry ghost in the next life.

Each summer, the Chinese celebrate Ullam-bana, the festival of Hungry Ghosts, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar (usually in August). The fifteenth day of a lunar month is the full moon. The Chinese believe that during the seventh month, the gates of hell are opened up and hungry ghosts are free to roam the earth seeking food and making mischief. These ghosts are the forgotten, people whose living descendents no long offer homage. They have long thin necks and large empty bellies. At this time, people will burn specially printed currency popularly called “hell money” which the ghosts can spend in hell to make a more comfortable life for themselves.

People will acknowledge the wandering ghosts at this time to prevent them from making mischief and/or bring bad luck. This acknowledgement will take the form of a feast on Ullam-bana in which food is offered to the ghosts.

Modern Vampires in China: The Chinese vampire was given a new lease on life by the post–World War II development of the film industry in Hong Kong and to a lesser extent in Taiwan. Actually, at least three vampire movies had been made in Hong Kong in the 1930s, prior to World War II—Midnight Vampire, Three Thousand Year Old Vampire, and Vampires of the Haunted Mansion. Several more would appear in the 1950s, such as Vengeance of the Vampire (1959), however, the late twentieth-century explosion of vampire movies really begins with two Hong Kong-based firms, Catay-Keris and the Shaw Brothers, which began making vampire films in Malaysia using Malaysian themes in the 1950s, but were rather late in developing Chinese vampire movies. Among the first Chinese vampire movies was Xi Xuefu (Vampire Woman) produced by Zhong Lian in 1962. Like many first ventures into vampirism, it was ultimately a case of mistaken attribution. The story concerned a woman who, after she was found sucking the blood out of her baby, was accused of vampirism and was executed by burning. Later it was discovered that the baby had been poisoned, and she was only trying to save it.

The vampire theme in Chinese movies was really launched a decade later with the first of the vampire-martial arts movies, Vampire Kung-fu (1972). Then two years later a combined Shaw Brothers-Hammer Films production, variously titled The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires and The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula, became one of the great disasters in horror film history. The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, directed by Roy Ward Baker and starring Peter Cushing, transferred the Dracula story to China where Abraham Van Helsing was called to protect a village from a band of vampires who had learned martial arts skills. The film was so bad that its American distributor refused to handle it. In the 1980s, the Hong Kong filmmakers rediscovered the vampire horror genre. Among the best known movies was the “Mr. Vampire” comedy series that was started in 1985 by Golden Harvest and Paragon Films. Drawing on several aspects of Chinese folklore, the films featured what have come to be known as the hopping vampires—loose-robed vampires that hopped to move around—a character developed from a character in Chinese mythology, the blood-sucking ghost. The first film was so popular it spawned four sequels, a television series in Japan, and a rival production, Kung-fu Vampire Buster (1985). A second very successful movie was Haunted Cop Shop (1984) concerning vampires who took over a meat-packing plant and were opposed by a Monster Police Squad. A sequel appeared in 1986. Other notable Hong Kong films included: Pao Dan Fei Che (The Trail, 1983), Curse of the Wicked Wife (1984), Blue Lamp in a Winter Night (1985), Dragon Against Vampire (1985), The Close Encounter of the Vampire (1985), Love Me Vampire (1986), Vampire’s Breakfast (1986), Vampires Live Again (1987), Toothless Vampires (1987), Hello Dracula (1986), Vampires Strike Back (1988), Spooky Family (1989), Crazy Safari (1990), First Vampire in China (1990), Spooky Family II (1991), and Robo Vampire (1993). As might be perceived by the titles, many of these movies were comedies, a few unintentionally so. Taiwanese films of the same era included The Vampire Shows His Teeth I, II, and III (1984–86), New Mr. Vampire (1985), Elusive Song of the Vampire (1987), and Spirit vs. Zombie (1989).

With the hopping or jumping vampires, a different mythology about dealing with vampires evolved. They could be subdued with magical talismans, usually wielded by a Taoist priest, who became a staple character in vampire cinema. Holding one’s breath would temporarily stop them. Eating sticky rice was an antidote to a vampire bite. By creating a separate vampire myth, the Chinese movies have built a new popular image of the vampire in the Orient much as the Dracula movies created one in the West.

Interest in the vampire continued in Hong Kong through the 1980s, but appeared to decline significantly through the 1990s. Only a very few, such as Vampire Combat (2001), Tsui Hark’s Vampire Hunters (2002), My Honey Moon with a Vampire (2003), The Twins Effect (2003), Twins Effects II (2004), Shaolin vs. Evil Dead (2004), Shaolin vs. Evil Dead: Ultimate Power (2006), and Dating a Vampire (2006). Over 100 vampire movies have been made in Hong Kong.


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The Vampire Book, Second Edition © 2011 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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