Chinese folklore: monsters, ghosts and demons of the traditional Chinese culture
The five- thousand-year Chinese culture, over the centuries, has produced hundreds of legends about monsters, ghosts, demons, and spirits.
Many of these demons and ghosts influenced Japan, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore folklore. Let’s see below some main demons of Chinese mythology.
Table of Contents
- 1 Diyu, the Chinese hell
- 2 Meng Po, the Lady of Forgetfulness
- 3 Huli jing, Fox spirits
- 4 Daji
- 5 Mogwai/Mogui
- 6 Yaogui, Yaoguai, Yaomo, Yaojing
- 7 Bai Gu Jing, the White Bones Demon
- 8 Pipa Jing
- 9 Shen (clam-monster)
- 10 E Gui, the hungry ghost
- 11 Jiangshi, the Chinese vampire (Ch’iang shih or zombie)
- 12 You Hun Ye Gui, Wandering Souls in the Intermediate State
- 13 Ba Jiao Gui, Female Banana Tree Ghosts
- 14 Di fu ling, Earth-bound spirit
- 15 Diao si gui, Red Tongue Ghosts or Hanged Ghosts
- 16 Gui Po, the Old Witch
- 17 Nü gui, the Feminine Ghost
- 18 Ri Ben Gui Bing, the spirits of Japanese soldiers
- 19 Heibai Wuchang, The Impermanence Guards or Black and White Impermanence
- 20 Niu Tou Ma Mian, the Guards of the Underworld
- 21 Shui Gui, the ghosts of the drowned
- 22 Wu Tou Gui, the Beheaded Ghosts
- 23 Yuan Gui, Ghost with Grievance
- 24 Ying Ling, the spirits of dead fetuses or Infant Spirit
- 25 Jian, the Ghosts of Ghosts
- 26 Ao 鳌
- 27 Ao Ping
- 28 Ao Yin
- 29 Bao Xiao
- 30 Ben
- 31 Bibi
- 32 Chan Chu
- 33 Changbi
- 34 Changcheng
- 35 Changfu
- 36 Changgu
- 37 Changyu
- 38 Chenghuang
- 39 Chen-Yang
- 40 Dai
- 41 Di
- 42 Dong Dong
- 43 Fei
- 44 Fei Huang
- 45 Fei yi
- 46 Fei yu
- 47 Fei Lian
- 48 Fei Shu
- 49 Fen chu
- 50 Related
Diyu, the Chinese hell
Diyu or Naraka in Sanskrit. It’s essentially based on the Indian Naraka with elements derived from Chinese life after death folklore traditions.
In the two traditions, it has been widened and reinterpreted countless times. The Diyu is generally depicted as an underground labyrinth divided into 18 circles where the soul of sinners receives the right punishment of retaliation.
Similar to Dante’s hell, dead souls are suffering the burdens of their sins. Once dead, the soul returns to its original state and starts again the torture. This circle of torture, death, rebirth, takes place forever or until the soul makes amends for sins and finally is able to reincarnate.
Related: Chinese Black Magic, Amazing Paintings of Demons and Mythological Creatures of the Chinese Folklore, Hungry Ghost Festival images, Traditional Paintings of Chinese Dragons and other legendary creatures
Meng Po, the Lady of Forgetfulness
The Old Lady Meng carries out its tasks in Diyu, or the Chinese hell, in the 10th court. It is her task to make sure that the souls who are ready for reincarnation do not remember their previous lives or their stay in hell. The Old Lady awaits the dead souls at the entrance of the ninth round (Fengdu).
To this end, she collects herbs that grow around ponds and streams to prepare her Five Flavored Tea of Forgetfulness. The drink is made to drink the souls before leaving hell. Its ingestion leads to immediate and permanent amnesia. Once purified, the spirits are reborn and the cycle begins again.
In Chinese tradition, there are legends of miracle births, where a newborn is able to speak because the soul of the baby didn’t drink the Five Flavored Tea of Forgetfulness.
Huli jing, Fox spirits
Fox spirits can be compared to European fairies. They can be both evil and good. In Chinese mythology, it was believed these beings were capable to acquire human form. If they received sufficient energy, they became immortal and magical creatures, thanks to the Moon or Sun essence. They were generally female spirits and often depicted as young and beautiful girls.
One of the most wicked fox spirits was Daji portrayed in the Chinese novel Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen Yanyi). They are also present in Korean traditions (Kumiho) and Japanese (Kitsune). Daji was the favorite consort of King Zhou of Shang – the last king of the Shang dynasty in ancient China – and the daughter of Su Hu. In the early chapters, she was killed by a thousand-year-old vixen spirit who possessed her body before becoming a concubine of King Zhou.
“King Zhou became extremely infatuated with Daji and started to neglect state affairs in order to keep her company. He used any means necessary to ingratiate himself with her and to please her. Daji liked animals so he built her a zoological Xanadu with several rare species of birds and animals. He also ordered artists to compose lewd music and choreograph bawdy dances to satisfy her musical taste. He gathered 3000 guests at one party to indulge in his “pond of wine” and “forest of meat”. He allowed the guests to play a cat and mouse game nude in the forest to amuse Daji. When one of King Zhou’s concubines, the daughter of Lord Jiu, protested, King Zhou had her executed. Her father was ground in pieces and his flesh fed to King Zhou’s vassals. Daji’s greatest joy was to hear people cry in physical torment. Once, she saw a farmer walking barefoot on ice and ordered his feet cut off so she could study them and figure out why they were so resistant to low temperatures. On another occasion, she had a pregnant woman’s belly cut open so it satisfied her curiosity to find out what happened inside. To verify an ancient saying that “a good man’s heart has seven apertures”, she even had the heart of the minister Bi Gan (King Zhou’s uncle) dug out and subjected to her futile scrutiny. Daji was best known for her invention of a method of torture known as Paolao (炮烙). A bronze cylinder covered with oil was heated like a furnace with charcoal beneath until its sides became extremely hot. The victim was made to walk on top of the slowly heating cylinder and he was forced to shift his feet to avoid the burning. The oily surface made it difficult for the victim to maintain his position and balance. If the victim fell into the charcoal below, he would be burnt to death. The victim was forced to dance and scream in agony before dying while the observing King Zhou and Daji would laugh in delight.”
The mogwai is a demon who seeks to harm a human. They reproduce sexually with the arrival of the rains, which symbolizes abundance and fertility. The term “Mo” is derived from the Sanskrit Mara and means “evil” (the word “Māra” comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *mer meaning to die). In Hinduism and Buddhism Mara is a tempter and personifies unwholesome impulses, unskillfulness, the “death” of the spiritual life. Mara causes people to sin and self-destruction. In modern cinema, these creatures inspired the Gremlins of the homonym movie. The term “Gui” simply means deceased spirits or souls of the dead (not necessarily demonic spirits). In modern Chinese folklore, the term refers usually to ghosts that may take vengeance on humans. In order to repent their sins, people sacrifice fake paper banknotes so that gui can have funds to use in their afterlife (Chinese afterlife is regulated by a complex bureaucracy). Wikipedia claims the modern use of mogui as “evil” is a consequence of Western influences as Chinese-language biblical texts translate Satan in the Book of Job and the Greek term ‘diabolos’ as mogui.
Yaogui, Yaoguai, Yaomo, Yaojing
Yaogui spirits are malevolent animal spirits or fallen celestial deities who acquired magical powers through the practice of Taoism. The wicked ones are called Gui or Mo (literally “demons”). Their goal is to gain immortality and subsequent deification. In the famous “Journey to the West“, demons try to pursue their purpose through the kidnapping and the consumption of a holy man (Xuanzang). Not all Yaojing are demons: Bai Gu Jing, for example, was a skeleton who later became a demon. Many Yaojing is fox spirits or pets of deities. Yaogui kings command lesser demon minions.
In Chinese folklore, they populate Di Yu. Much of the Chinese demonic pantheon is influenced by the Indian and there are also similarities with the Japanese yōkai or mononoke.
Bai Gu Jing (the white bones demon) is a yaogui of Journey to the West which appears to Sun Wukong and his company as an innocent girl who has left the parents in search of food. The Magic Sun, due to its nature, is capable to see the actual appearance of the monster and kills the girl. The episode will lead to a first break between the monkey and Xuanzang (or Xuanzang). The second appearance of the monster is in the guise of the murdered young mother. Again Wukong recognizes the deceit and kills her. This event will lead to a second rupture between Xuanzang and Sun because of the vehemence of the monkey. According to Xuanzang all beings deserve salvation.
Pipa Jing is a yaogui changed from jade pipa (the Chinese instrument) and is a literary character of the omnipresent “Investiture of the Gods”. It was one of three female ghosts (Pipa Jing, Daji, and Splendour) under Nu Wa to throw into chaos the Shang Dynasty.
Shen is a shapeshifting dragon or a sea monster believed to create mirages, and it is associated with funerals. There are at least three types of sea monsters that can change shape: a que, a “sparrow” transforms into an “oyster” (Ge or muli) after 1000 years; a yān, “swallow” transforms into a hǎigé after 100 years; and a fulei or fuyi, a “bat” transforms into a kuígé after it gets old. Anyway, considering all the many variations, this type of monster is always capable to create illusions.
E Gui, the hungry ghost
It is believed that the spirit of a person who has committed a sin of greed is damned with punishment for retaliation: after death, the ghost is condemned to a perpetual state of insatiable hunger. But the mouth is too small to ingest food. Its skin is green or gray. It infests especially kitchens and streets, always looking for offers or decomposed food. They feed on everything. There are different types, some can spit flames and others are skeletal. They occur during the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts.
Jiangshi, the Chinese vampire (Ch’iang shih or zombie)
The “rigid bodies” are a cross between a zombie and a vampire. They are corpses back to life with the sole purpose of killing the living to absorb their vital essence or qi. They resurrect when the soul of the deceased can not leave the body because of induced death or for misconduct. Much like the Pocong Malaysian, the Korean Hangui, and Japanese Kana. By day he remains in his coffin or hides in the dark, in the caves. During the night it walks like zombies, with stiff arms. According to Ji Xiaolan, during Qing Dynasty, the Jiangshi can be classified into two groups: those just dead returning to life, and those who have been buried for a long time but which still have not decomposed.
The Jiangshi are Chinese spirits who have the power to breathe life into corpses, and also to build a body with bones or rotten flesh. They have red eyes, sharp claws, and greenish skin.
How to create a Jiangshi according to Ji Xiaolan:
- The chemical composition of the soil where the corpse is buried is hostile: the bacteria are not present and can not help the process of composition. On the body continue to grow hair and nails, there are no obvious signs of decomposition. (this is an illusory effect).
- The use of magical arts to resurrect the bodies
- Spirit possession of the corpse
- A corpse that has absorbed too much yang qi (vital essence, or the negative yin qi, dark and feminine) during mortality
- A person controlled by three hun and seven little (the hun leaves the body after death, but little remains and takes control of the body).
- The corpse was not buried even after a funeral ceremony has been held. The corpse is revived when it is hit by a sudden strong light (like Frankenstein creature), or when a pregnant (black) cat gets too close.
- When the soul of a person is unable to leave the body, due to a violent death, suicide, etc.
- A victim of premature burial, or when buried alive.
- A person injured and infected by a Jiangshi (just as Western zombies)
They may be in different states, from those newly deceased to those decaying. The skin is often pale or grey. Following Western influence, the Jiangshi has taken some of the characteristics of the vampire, like sucking blood. They have been depicted in a number of Hong Kong horror movies, such as Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980) and Mr. Vampire (1985).
You Hun Ye Gui, Wandering Souls in the Intermediate State
Bardo in Tibetan, which means “intermediate state” or “transitional state” indicates the period between two lives in the Buddhist concept of reincarnation when a person is ‘dead but still not’ born again. For many Buddhist schools, the duration of the intermediate state generally lasts seven days or more (to describe this amount of time Buddhism uses mostly the number seven, for example, seven weeks, or 49 days). But if a person dies by an unnatural death and if the dead had violent or upsetting feelings, this person is likely to become a You Hun Ye Gui, delaying the reincarnation or risking even remaining trapped in the intermediate state forever. Gui Diao You, Shui Gui, and Gui Yuan are You Hun Ye Gui, ghosts trapped in a state of undeath.
Ba Jiao Gui, Female Banana Tree Ghosts
They appear wailing under the tree at night, sometimes carrying a baby. In some traditions from South Asian countries (Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia; similar to Pontianak/Kuntilanak) greedy people ask them lottery numbers. To invoke them, they have to tie a red string around the Banana tree trunk, fixing it with sharp nails and then they tie the other end of the rope to their bed. The consequences are often disastrous: if people do not fulfill their promise to free the ghost once they get the lottery win, they will suffer a horrible death.
Di fu ling, Earth-bound spirit
Ghosts bounded to specific locations on Earth, such as their place of burial or a place they had a strong attachment to when they were alive.
Diao si gui, Red Tongue Ghosts or Hanged Ghosts
The spirits of the hanged, the people who committed suicide, or those sentenced to death. They are usually depicted with their long red tongues lolling from their mouth.
Gui Po, the Old Witch
A ghost who takes the appearance of a friendly old man or woman. They are the ghosts of the servants in wealthy families. They return to help their teachers with the housework or to care for the master’s children. Some seem like a witch, similar to those of fairy tales; not always they are a positive character. It’s a popular demon in Japan as well.
Nü gui, the Feminine Ghost
The ghost of a vengeful and angry woman dressed in a long white dress is probably the image that most influenced Japanese and Hong Kong horror cinema in the last two decades. In tradition, it refers to the red-dressed ghost of a woman who committed suicide. Generally, it is linked to injustice, such as rape or moral unfairness. She returns to take revenge. In tradition, the red color in the ghost stories symbolizes anger and revenge. In some variations, the ghost manifests itself as a beautiful girl who seduces her victims to suck their Yang essence. The male variant, Nan Gui, is rarely depicted. This type of female ghost is similar to the Succubus, demons in female form that appear in dreams in order to seduce men, usually through sexual activity. The male counterpart is the Incubus.
Ri Ben Gui Bing, the spirits of Japanese soldiers
The ghosts of the dead Japanese soldiers who had invaded China during World War populate some stories after the war. They are ghosts in uniform and carry guns or katanas, the fearsome Japanese swords, in the case of officers.
Heibai Wuchang, The Impermanence Guards or Black and White Impermanence
The Black Guard Impermanence (Wu-jiu Fan) and the White Guard Impermanence (Xie Bi’an) are the guardians of hell, whose job is to conduct the souls of the spirits in the world of the dead. They are benign entities. They are respectively in charge of Good and Evil. They are venerated in some Chinese temples and are colloquially called Da Ye Bo and Er Ye Bo. They wear tall hats and long robes that cover their whole body. On the palm of the right hand, they bear seals, and on the left sticks with pieces of clothes attached. In some legends they appear during the Hungry Ghost Festival, rewarding the good with gold. In temples, they are often depicted with monstrous and ferocious faces, with long red tongues. They chase away evil spirits. They are also called General Fan and General Xie, or the seventh and the eighth master.
During their life, they were two guards. One day while they were transferring a prisoner, the prisoner escaped. The two split up and gave an appointment under a bridge. Because of heavy rain that flooded the area, Xie Bi’an could not arrive in time. Fan waited a long time without daring to move away because he wanted to keep his promise. Fan eventually drowned. When Xie came and found him dead, he hanged himself. Once dead, the Emperor of Heaven, the Jade Emperor, considering their loyalty honored them appointing them as guardians of the Underworld. There are other accounts that say that they had different backgrounds.
Niu Tou Ma Mian, the Guards of the Underworld
Ox-Head and Horse-Face. Similar to the Impermanence Guards. They originated during the Song Dynasty. In Journey to the West, they are sent to capture Sun Wukong, but he overpowers them and scares them away. They have a head of a bull and the other the head of a horse and both have the bodies of men.
They have pitchforks and chains to imprison the ghosts. In Japanese folklore, Ox-Head and Horse-Face are known as “Gozu” and “Mezu”.
Shui Gui, the ghosts of the drowned
The water ghosts, or the spirits of the people who drowned. They live in the bottom of lakes or rivers, and when the victim is swimming haul him to take possession of his body. Sometimes the body of the spirit adapts to new marine conditions. The spirit of the victim replaces the old Gui Shui.
The cycle is repeated constantly. It’s a common ghost also of the Japanese Ghost stories.
Wu Tou Gui, the Beheaded Ghosts
Headless ghosts who wander aimlessly. They are the spirits of those sentenced to death by beheading.
Yuan Gui, Ghost with Grievance
They are the spirits of persons who died wrongful deaths and their roots can be traced to the Zhou dynasty and were recorded in Zuo Zhuan. Their troubled souls are not able to find the peace they need for reincarnation. They continue to roam the world of the living, in a state of constant depression and restlessness. In some stories, they try to communicate with the living to find some clues to understand why they were victims of injustice. The living person tries to help them to clear their honor. Finally, the soul can find peace.
Ying Ling, the spirits of dead fetuses or Infant Spirit
Ghost of Japanese origin. They are the ghosts of unborn persons or fetuses and they are linked to abortion, spontaneous or not. The idea of such a spirit was probably imported in Taiwan during the 50 years of Japanese rule.
Jian, the Ghosts of Ghosts
The ghosts are terrified by Jian ghosts or ghosts who can not reincarnate. The general idea of Jian comes from Taoism, where in the past some practitioners drew talismans with supernatural powers, Fu or Shenfu, able to summon lesser gods and spirits or to exorcise demons or to create a miraculous medical potion.
In Chinese mythology, Ao is a gigantic sea turtle, and it carries the Earth upon his back. Its main food consists of fire. In some legend, the turtle “lived in the South China Sea during the time of the formation of the world. When the goddess Nuwa, creator of mankind, was repairing the sky after a disaster, she chopped off Ao’s four legs and used them as supports” [Wikipedia].
Ao Ping is the son of the Dragon King Ao Kuang. He was challenged to a duel by the hero Nocha, who had the best and decided to manufacture with the tendons of the monster an extremely durable belt. Ao Kuang, terribly offended by the insult of the hero, decided to avenge the death-defying No-cha. Even though Ao Kuang had to bend to the hero’s strength and to avoid death was forced to turn into a small blue snake.
No-cha promptly captured it and put it into the sleeves, holding it since always with him.
In Chinese mythology, it is a white bull with four horns, always looking for people to feed himself.
In Chinese legends, it is a fantastic animal that has the body of a ram, a lion’s head, the sharp fangs of a tiger, human nails, and the unique physical characteristic of having eyes in the armpits. The Bao Xiao eats only men, his verse is similar to the cry of a newborn.
Ben is a fearful white magpie with three eyes, six legs, and a glittering red tail.
Bibi is a winged fox, whose cry sounds like the quacking of wild geese. Its presence often heralds a long period of drought.
Fantastic animal of Chinese legends. It is a white horse with a black tail, a horn on his forehead, sharp teeth, and powerful and dangerous tiger pawns. It feeds on tigers and leopards, who revere him particularly. Furthermore, it also seems that eating his flesh protects from wounds inflicted by sharp weapons.
Fantastic animal of China. According to legend, it was once a beautiful maiden who then as punishment was turned into a frog with three legs and sent to live on the moon. Even today you can see his face on the surface of the moon.
A fabulous population of China, whose members have several meters long arms to catch fish. According to tradition, they are descendants of a mythical character called Zhang Hong. Similar to the Japanese Tenaga.
Changcheng is a genius in the mountain Luomu. He has a human form, but with a leopard tail without the typical spots.
It is a rooster with three heads, six eyes, six legs, and three wings.
Fantastic people of Chinese legends. They have long messy hair and a pair of legs that measure 6 meters. Similar to the Japanese Tenaga and Changbi.
It is a macaque with four ears, whose sound resembles a human groan. When you see it around announces an impending flood.
- Similar to a fox with numerous horns on the back, forming a sort of toothed ridge. 2. The term also indicates another Chinese fantastic animal, with the horse’s body and dragon wings.
Giant goat of Chinese folklore, with a ponytail. According to a popular belief, its fat can be used to get a good skin cream.
In Chinese legends, Dai is an owl with three eyes and three ears. Its scream resembles very much that of a deer. Those who eat their flesh can not drown.
In Chinese folklore, it is a fabulous nation whose members are characterized by a fish body and human head.
In Chinese legends is a fantastic animal, a hybrid between a ram and a unicorn, with a single eye behind one ear.
Fei is a bull, with a serpent’s tail, a white head, and one eye on the forehead. It is an evil creature; it is said that wherever steps, nature dies, the plants wither, the land becomes barren, the rivers dry up. His appearance is for this sign of impending misfortune.
Fei Huang is an ancestral fox with a horn on its back.
Snake with 4 wings and 6 legs. Seeing a Fei Yi is of bad omen because it is said that it announces drought. Fei yi is also a snake with two bodies and one head.
An ancient mythological animal with the body of a pig, covered with red spots, the head and the fins of a fish. Eating its meat offers protection from lightning, and cutting weapons.
In Chinese mythology, Fei Lian is the god of the winds that keep locked in a leather bag, like Aeolus, the Greek god of the wind. It is depicted as a dragon with wings, the head of a deer, and the tail of a snake.
The fantastic animal of the Chinese legends has the appearance of a flying hare with a mouse head. Fei Shu is also a flying rat.
In Chinese legends, rat by the sheer scale. For him the contact with light is deadly, for this comes from the caves in which dwell alone in the nights of the new moon. The name means “hidden mice.”
Topic: folklore demons, Chinese monsters, Chinese ghosts, Chinese spirits, Chinese folklore
CHINA-UNDERGROUND. Matteo Damiani is an Italian sinologist, photographer, author and motion designer. Matteo lived and worked for ten years in China. Founder of CinaOggi.it and China-underground.com.