The Elusive Gui of China

Article by Kristen Mullen

The monsters of Chinese folklore haunt the underworld Dì Yù 地狱, the backyard during the rainy season, and everywhere in between— including your stomach. Here in China, ghosts and goblins in fables fuse the bizarre into scenes of normalcy. Ancient fables often show the beasts as the “other”, exposing the shortcomings and paradoxes of human nature. The monsters cross the bounds of living and dead, intruding and upsetting the lives of humans. These creatures have become bound to Chinese tradition and are infused in regular phrases such as ”ghosts fighting each other” guǐ dǎjià 鬼打架, used when irresponsible people cause an unfavorable situation, or “full of ghost talk” guǐhuà liánpiān 鬼话连篇 when someone isn’t making sense. Often in ancient Chinese stories linked to Taoism and Buddhism, monsters exist in alignment with gods and nature. In the lost book of Bái Zé Tú 白泽图, the strange and clever white cat Bái Zé once recorded for the emperor Huáng Dì over 11,500 different mythical creatures to look out for! Here are just a few examples taken from history.

Most commonly, ghosts are depicted as fantastical beasts, but there’s usually a more sinister or dark side to their story. For example, the fierce horned Zhēng Níng 狰狞 with a leopard body and five tails. Or, the Páo Xiāo 狍鸮, a monstrosity with a human face, goat-like body, armpit eyes, and tiger teeth that cries like an infant to lure its human prey. Fēi 蜚 is a bull-like creature with a snake tail and a large third eye who brings misfortune to any land he touches. The È Guǐ 饿鬼, or hungry ghost, is a spirit who has done a grave wrong and in death is always hungry with a mouth too small, presenting like a worm. Other ghosts can be found inside the body, like the Fù Guǐ 腹鬼 and the Gāo Huāng Guǐ 膏肓鬼 who exist in the abdomen, causing pain, illness and sometimes death.

The Yāoguài 妖怪, who perhaps represents the biggest group of ghosts, are former spirits who acquire energy through their time with humans and transform into something more powerful. Here we find the Yāojing 妖精, or “the seducer”, a fox ghost, which sometimes hides in the form of a lovely woman, beckoning unsuspecting men into her game. Another is Yāomó 妖魔, or “strange demon”, which reproduce with the arrival of rain and cause mischief and terror. They even inspired the 1980’s Hollywood movie The Gremlins. Dú Jiǎo Guǐwáng 独角鬼王, horned demon king, derives power from his horn, and can be seen in Journey to the West alongside his friend, the Monkey King. Bā Jiāo Guǐ 芭蕉鬼, or banana tree ghost, are ladies who appear after being summoned with a red string around the trunk of the tree with the other end tied to the bed. They can predict the future and are often used for lottery winnings, but it can have dire consequences if you do not free them afterward. Guǐ Pó 鬼婆 are old witches who are usually kind, helping servants of the rich. Their malevolent looks don’t reflect their peaceful intent. Huà Pí Guǐ 画皮鬼, painted skin ghosts are women who suffered misdoings in their lifetime. They eat victims at night and wear their skin by day. And finally, there are the Nǚ guǐ 女鬼, faceless women ghosts, popularized in Asian horror films with long black hair. They are usually out for vengeance, those who look for their face won’t live to see the truth!

Luckily, some spirits are looking out for us humans. The Yè Chā 夜叉 devour ghosts and demons who escape from the underworld. Hēi Wú Cháng 黑无常 and Wú Cháng Bái 无常白 are two best friends who stick together in the afterlife, catching restless souls and bringing them to justice. Throughout history, it should be noted that most of those who encounter a ghost are not aware until the spirits begin to act mischievous or odd. Rarely do the stories even question the existence of ghosts. Instead, they explore what we do should we encounter such a creature. So, what would you do if you come across a guǐ 鬼 on a dark, rainy night?

For more on Chinese ghosts:

Peng Yi’s children’s book Yaoguai Mountain (2014), Pu Songling’s Penguin Classic Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (2016), Jackie Chan’s movie Knight of Shadows: Yin and Yang (2019) or the classic A Chinese Ghost Story (1987).

Kristen is a literature lecturer at Xi’an Jiaotong University. In her free time, she’s a devotee to horror movies and Shaanxi street food.