Chinese Horror

China is one of the biggest and most highly populated countries in the world, so it makes sense that it would be one of the biggest contributors to the global horror culture. Through fictional creations of the genre, dark folklore and haunted places – China has given the world its fair share of fuel for our nightmares.

In History:

Like any country, China has darker points in its history. Here are a few of the particularly troubling events.

Da Ji: Da Ji served as a concubine to King Zhou, and his obsession with her lead him to indulge many of her dark perversions. She had numerous people killed so she could examine parts of them, and was known to love hearing the agonized sounds of those being tortured. She is also credited for the invention of Paolao, a method of torture in which the victim would have to maintain balance on an oily and slowly heating cylinder to avoid falling onto the coals below where they would subsequently burn to death. She was executed after the fall of the Shang Dynasty.

In literature, she has often been described as a malevolent fox spirit. She made an appearance as the primary antagonist in the Chinese novel Fengshen Yanyi (or Investiture of the Gods) written by Xu Zhonglin. The gamers among you might recognize her from a more recent depiction of her in SMITE, where she is one of the playable characters.

Lingchi: You’ve probably heard of this “death of a thousand cuts” but what you might not realize is that this was used as a legal method of execution in China from around the seventh century all the way to 1905, when it was finally abolished.

The method of execution involved the victim being tied to a wooden post where they are cut repeatedly to test their endurance. It is speculated that some victims endured as many as 3,000 cuts in a process that lasted hours – or days. (Warning: This link contains graphic illustrations) (Warning: This link also contains graphic illustrations.) (Warning: This link contains graphic illustrations and photographs)

Persecution of the Falun Gong: Of all my research this week, perhaps the most disturbing thing I turned up was the persecution of people practicing Falun Gong – a type of spiritual meditation. This persecution started in 1999.

Practitioners who were detained were abused in a variety of horrific manners including but not limited to burning, shocking, force-feeding, beatings and sleep deprivation. Many victims died in custody, and many others have been permanently marred by what they endured. (Warning: This list of torture methods links out to accounts of Falun Gong practitioners who suffered the tortures being described. There is incredibly graphic content, including photos.)

In 2006 an investigation was launched to investigate a high number of transplants that had been conducted in China that were “unexplained.” Speculation was that Falun Gong prisoners were being killed and having their organs harvested. Though the charges were denied, Chinese officials failed to provide reliable alternative explanations. Investigative journalist Ethan Gutmann published his report on the topic in 2014 which estimates that over 64,000 prisoners were killed for their organs over a span of eight years.


Yu Lan Festival: On a slightly lighter and less political note, I thought it might be interesting to mention the Hungry Ghost Festival, which is held on the 15th day of the 7th month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar. Restless spirits are said to walk around this time, and the festival is a way of “feeding” or appeasing the ghosts.

In Mythology:

There were so many tales, and if I could have I’d have spent so much more time looking through as much of the mythology as I could get my hands on. Unfortunately, I only had the one week. Keeping that in mind, here are some of the highlights that I stumbled across.

Diyu: This is the land of the dead in Chinese mythology, frequently referred to as “Chinese Hell.” Unlike Hell, all souls pass through Diyu to cleanse the soul of the earthly sins before reincarnation. The punishment and length of one’s sentence depends on the severity of ones sins.

In some legends, Diyu has eighteen levels which include some pretty horrific torments administered by demons from tongue ripping to being sawed in half, and just about everything in between.

Shuigui: These are ghosts of the drowned, said to drown others as a form of revenge. This ultimately produces more shuigui, causing an endless cycle of malevolent spirits.

Ba Jiao Gui: Translating to “Banana Ghost” these are the female spirits of ghosts who live in, under, or around banana trees. The horror from this comes not just from their sudden apparitions, but from temptation. Many believe that if you tie one end of a red string to a banana tree and the other end to your bed, a Ba Jiao Gui will visit you that night and offer winning lottery numbers to you in exchange for help having their spirit released. If you fail your end of the bargain (or take too long) you will meet a horrible death at the hands of the angered spirit.

Yuan Gui: These are vengeful ghosts, often the cause of a person dying in a wrongful way. The spirits cannot move on to Diyu or reincarnate because their need for revenge keeps them tied to this world.

Jianshi: This was my personal favorite in terms of creepy Chinese lore not just because of the creepy imagery, but the morbid origins surrounding the entities.

Jianshi translates to “hard” or “stiff” and is a sort of creature in Chinese mythology, akin to a vampire or a zombie. These are demons that take the form of reanimated corpses of the recently deceased and must drink human blood to sustain themselves. Unlike our zombies however, they must suffer the effects of rigor mortis, like all the other dead bodies. This leads to a distinct hopping movement in the early days of their reanimation.

Where this gets really interesting is in the early days of the myth. During the Qing Dynasty workers who died while away from home were carried back by the living in an upright position, often at night. This lead to a number of incidents where people would see what they took to be corpses “hopping” out on the streets.

In Urban Legends:

Like anywhere in the world, China has a wide variety of urban legends that circulate in the area. Here are some of the best, most popular legends that I have come across and links to some of the different versions easily available online.

Single Braid Road: A woman is on a train with her boyfriend, sneaking out of the city. When she sees that a guard is coming around checking papers, she panics and jumps out the window, but her braid gets caught in the train, ripping the woman’s face from her body and leaving her angry spirit to haunt the road where she died. It is known to this day as “Single Braid Road” and students of the nearby university often claim to see a specter walking upon it with a long, single braid.

Bus 375: A young man, a woman, and two men are on Bus 375, or “The Midnight Bus” heading for Fragrant Hills. Not long into the journey the woman turns around to yell at the boy, violently accusing him of stealing her purse. Not wanting any trouble, the drivers pulls over and asks them to get off. When the bus takes off again, the woman apologizes before explaining that she noticed the two other men on the bus were dead, and she wanted to get them both out of there. In some versions, it is at this point that she noticed the man who got off with her is also dead, and in others they make it home safely just to find out later that Bus 375 no longer exists.

Lotus Pond: A girl and a boy plan to run away together and promise to meet up at ten at Lotus Pond. The boy never shows up and the girl drowns herself in her grief. It’s said that any males alone near lotus pond run the risk of seeing the girl’s ghost. She’ll ask what time they were supposed to meet up. If the man should answer ten, he will be drowned.

Oxtail Soup: A young woman at university lives directly above her boyfriend. Every night she makes oxtail soup for him which she lowers down to his window. The two don’t see each other for nearly a week prior to finals because of the long hours studying, but the boy receives his soup every night. When he goes to pay his girlfriend a visit, her roommates tell him that she has been dead for days.

Little Finger: A man at university sees a small girl in the same hall every night on the way back to his dorm. While describing the girl to one of his friends, he learns that she looks like the deceased daughter of one of the teachers, who lost her little finger and her life in a car accident the year before. Approaching the girl that night he sees that she, too, is missing her little finger.

In Media:

And now, the part I’m sure that you have all been waiting for – what direct contributions has China made to the horror genre?

Although China doesn’t have the same level of popularity in America as some other Asian countries (such as Korea or Japan) there is a thriving horror community in both mainland China and Hong Kong.

 The Door, Painted Skin, and A Lonely Spirit in a Dark Building are some of the more popular titles over here in America  – but there are tons of Chinese Horror films. For complete lists, check out the links below:

And as for books, I highly recommend you guys check “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio” written P’u Sung-ling.  Not only does it host some of the most well-known tales of the paranormal, but it served as the inspiration to many Chinese horror films, including “Painted Skin.” You can find the pdf text translated here:

Thank you guys for taking this trip with me to the darkest parts of China. I hope that you’ll all join me next week for my coverage on Canadian Horror.


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