Article by Tim King
I can remember the first time I’d ever heard of jiangshi, the Chinese hopping “zombie”. I was just out of high school; I was hanging out with a couple of friends who planned to go to film school in the Fall. The zombie craze that would become cliché in just a few short years was in its nascent stages and we were debating why zombies had become Olympic-class sprinters. One of them interjected with a fun little factoid.
“You know, in China, zombies jump,” he stated.
“What?” I asked, not really computing what he’d said.
“Yeah, they, like, hop,” he replied. He then put out his arms perpendicular to his body and gave a short demonstration.
“For real?” I still wasn’t buying it.
“For real. Apparently they find it [expletive] terrifying.”
I laughed at the idea—American zombies, though generally shambling, had become undead Usain Bolts in the zombie renaissance of the 21st century. A zombie that hopped seemed unthreatening in comparison; a kitschy idea from a strange culture. It wouldn’t be until fate intervened and I moved to China that I would learn anything more about the reanimated dead I now know as jiangshi.
The jiangshi (僵尸, lit. “rigid corpse”) was first written about by a scholar named Ji Xiaolan in the Qing Dynasty, but is a known entity in many other East Asian cultures: in Korea it’s known as a gangshi, in Japan as a kyonshī and in Vietnam as cương thi, just to name three. One of the more plausible theories I’ve read for the origin of the jiangshi legend involves an apparently Taoist practice of returning a person’s dead body to their hometown. In this scenario, a priest would line up some bodies, fasten them to a bamboo rod and, as his macabre procession went along, the flexibility of the bamboo would make the corpses appear to hop in unison (full disclosure: I found no corroborating source for that, but it sounded good so I went with it).
The “cause” of jiangshi varies depending on the era and the person telling the legend. Much like European vampire lore reflects a society afraid of wanton sexuality and became a vector for Mormonism in the 21st Century, and werewolf lore reflects a fear of “lunacy” (i.e. its original meaning of being driven insane by the moon) and became a cheap ploy romantic rival of Mormon vampires in the 21st Century, jiangshi have evolved as times and societies changed. In some eras, jiangshi reflected a worry that a person’s soul would not be at rest if they weren’t properly buried in their hometown. In others, jiangshi were animated by dark, supernatural arts, or wanted to steal your qi (life force). When the Hong Kong film industry took a crack at it, they seized on an overly simplistic translation of jiangshi as “Chinese hopping vampire” and the monsters began to suck blood and writers incorporated the “viral pandemic” element common to zombie stories.
Many different methods of dispatching jiangshi have been invented over the years as well. The most well known of these is to use a mirror to show the jiangshi what a disgusting creep he or she has become, which will presumably scare them to death. Other possible defenses include talismans made from the wood of a peach tree, nailing jujube seeds into their acupunctural pressure points and, the tried-and-true method of dealing with any abominable crimes against god and nature, setting one on fire.
There are only a couple of things, then, that the jiangshi canon can agree on: firstly, jiangshi are always reanimated corpses; secondly, they hop, though some versions blame rigor mortis for this and others claim funeral bindings make it necessary for them to hop around; thirdly, they’re always dressed like they’re some kind of court official from the Qing Dynasty.
Still not so scary, huh? I didn’t think they were. I’ve openly mocked them as “silly” and generally accepted American zombies as a gold standard for undead terror. But that all changed recently.
We were having a tough production cycle here at Xianease, and I decided I needed to go do something to both blow off some steam and perhaps find some fodder for a new article (mission accomplished, I guess). I found a VR gaming shop near our office, and went to check things out. They employee wanted to start me off with a simple game, as I’d never played VR games before. He pointed at a zombie game.
“This one’s kind of scary,” he said. “It’s got Chinese zombies.”
“Chinese zombies? The hopping ones?” I asked.
“Yeah, those ones.”
Since jiangshi didn’t even register on my scare-o-meter, I confidently replied, “Yeah, shouldn’t be a problem.”
The game booted up, announcing itself as “The Hopping Dead,” which, let’s be honest, is an amazing title. I found myself standing at a banquet table. I was amazed at the fidelity, and how seamless the experience already was. But I didn’t like the way that roasted pig head was staring at me.
Though everything was in Chinese and my fluency level is HSK-Stupid Laowai, I figured out pretty quickly that it was going to be a kind of gallery shooter. I’d stand in place, the jiangshi would come at me and I had to defeat them before they got to me. I had two tools to do that with: the primary weapon was a stack of golden paper (黄纸符), which the player would inscribe with holy symbols (done with a very wonderfully tactile swipe of the left hand) and then throw at the zombies. If that failed, and they got too close, I had a sword that I could stab them with.
I passed the tutorial easily, which was just me throwing the paper at men’s bathroom signs. Suddenly, the sunshiny banquet I was at was replaced with a dark, dingy room; rubble strewn about, gaping holes in all the walls. Anyone who has played a gallery shooter before knows what’s up: all those holes were where my assailants would come from. I Jason Bourne’d my virtual space, counting five points of entry. I picked up a slice of paper, swiped the holy symbols onto them, and waited. A zombie came directly from my 12-o’clock. I threw the paper, it connected and he dissolved in a burst of righteous flames. I picked up and blessed the next paper, then began to impatiently tap my toes back in the real world. This was supposed to be scary? I began to think I’d been bamboozled—that I was going to spend my hard-earned money on a bunch of kitschy VR shovelware (a term to describe cheaply made games that suck). Then, the employee helping me reminded me he was in the room with me.
“You know it’s 360-degrees, right? They can come from anywhere.”
With a certain sense of dread, I slowly turned around to find another jiangshi hopping quickly towards me, decked out in the finest of Qing Dynasty silks, skin green with decay and eyes hollowed out with demonic menace. I deadpanned a word I’m not allowed to print in this magazine, and then I threw the paper and watched as it sailed impotently over his shoulder. He was hopping at me so fast, like he was trying to win some hellacious sack race, that every hair on my body stood on end—it had triggered my brain’s fight-or-flight response. He got really, really close and suddenly appeared to be seven feet tall. I panicked and picked up the sword. No longer having the composure to do my mystical clerical work, and my player-character unable to move from his spot behind the banquet table, I stood there with the sword trying to shank anything that came my way. I was so panicky and eager to get stabby that the game would occasionally manifest a wireframe box to remind me that I was in a game and that said game would only let me stab that which invaded my personal space, no matter how hard I lunged. Then I lunged into a wall. Great success.
“Too scary?” he asked.
“It’s fine,” I lied. “But I don’t really like it.”
That night my dreams were plagued by hopping court advisors hungry for my supple pink flesh. My opinion of jiangshi had finally made the leap from “laughable oddity” to “nightmare fuel.” The hopping and the dated costumes make for a fantastic feint. They’re something seemingly absurd that becomes more unnerving when you see it for yourself, and this masks the most terrifying feature of a jiangshi: their unwavering persistence; the inevitability of your death. So, take it from me. You should definitely fear the hopping dead.
Tim King is the editor-in-chief of Xianease and would probably be better used as bait in the event of a zombie apocalypse. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org