Hopping Vampires

Posted by Katarzyna Ancuta on November 29, 2007 in Dr Katarzyna Ancuta, Guest Blog tagged with

Jiang Shi (Mandarin Chinese), also known as Geungsi in Cantonese, Gangshi in Korean, and Kyonshi in Japanese can be best described as a reanimated hopping corpse feeding on the life essence, or qi, of the people it kills.Thanks to the influence of the Western movies, in the twentieth century popular imagination Jiang Shis have also acquired flesh-eating and blood-drinking qualities that have earned them the name of Chinese zombies or vampires.

A still from Mr Vampire (1985). Pacified Jiang Shis ready to begin their last journey.

In popular Chinese beliefs, human souls are frequently depicted as dualistic, or even multiple. Similarly to the entire cosmos, the soul is supposed to consist of the passive (yin) and active (yang) elements. The yin soul, known as po, is usually described as more material, and therefore it remains linked to the body and the grave after death. The yang soul, known as hun, is more spiritual and goes on to be reborn after death. As the hun soul is linked to the ancestral altar or tablet kept at home, and frequently to several of such tablets, this suggests a possibility that one human soul can contain several hun. Other theories, speak also of several po.

Spiritual protection for the needy. Apparently ancestral tablets can be used to counterattack hopping vampires. Or so we learn from Hong Kong movies. A still from Mr Vampire 3 (1987).

Such a division allowed the ancient Chinese to convey their highly ambiguous attitude to the souls of their ancestors. Ancestor worship was a widespread form of cult that in a way allowed the Chinese to overcome the fear of death by retaining earthly links with the departed family members and treating them as if they were still alive. As the po part of the soul was naturally bound to the decaying body or its ashes, and by extension to graves, temples and cemeteries, it was frequently seen as capable of all forms of supernatural mischief. Still, by keeping the ancestors’ hun pacified with offerings, one could avoid the wrath of their po and even win oneself spiritual guidance and good luck in business.

Jiang Shis ready to hit the road. Or would that be "hop" the road… A Taoist priest shows the direction. A still from Mr Vampire (1985).

The importance of proper burial rites for the dead was so great in ancient China that according to local folklore when people died far away from home and their body could not be properly honoured by their relatives, the bodies would be reanimated by specially trained Taoist priests and transported in a rather unusual way. The Taoist priests, sometimes referred to as the “corpse shepherds,” would reanimate the dead body by attaching a scroll of yellow paper with a spell on it onto its head.

A procession of Jiang Shis with scrolls of yellow paper containing reanimation spells attached to their foreheads. A still from Mr Vampire 4 (1988).

The corpses (as usually the priests would wait until they had a larger number of customers) were then arranged in a line, sometimes even with their hands resting on one another’s shoulders, and the whole uncanny procession hopped in unison following the sound of the priest’s bell. The sound of the bell also acted as a summoning call for all the dead bodies the priest might have missed on his way.

A Taoist priest leading a group of Jiang Shis to their home town. The bodies were supposed to be transported by night so as not to upset the living.

Sceptics say that the corpses never really moved by themselves but they were rather transported in an upright position bound by long bamboo poles, which created an illusion of movement. Still, I have also met a few people quite convinced that they have seen the hopping corpses and their shepherds with their very own eyes, so there you go.

As Jiang Shi is a creature that originated in folklore and has been upgraded to its today’s form mostly thanks to Hong Kong cinema, there exist a number of theories, beliefs and superstitions aiming at explaining every possible aspect of their existence. Put together, most of these theories sound ambiguous to say the least, but here is what I’ve learnt so far.

Sticky rice is the absolute winner on the list of anti-vampire remedies in China. Even one grain can do.

Jiang Shis are said to be created when po refuses to abandon the body after death. Sometimes this may be connected to the manner of death – violent or suicidal, at other times it may happen because the person has a troublesome nature.

Two Taoist priests ready to use their magic on Jiang Shis. As usual in Hong Kong movies, there is little difference between magical rituals, exorcisms and kung fu.

Jiang Shis have greenish-white skin. In fact, most Chinese ghosts seem to have greenish-white skin. I have always associated this fact with the rather cheap special effects used in early HK horror movies, but other theories claim that the colour is supposed to represent fungal growth or mould on the body after death. Jiang Shis are sometimes said to hop because their life energy does not agree with the life energy of the ground and they are literally pushed away every time they try to stay still. Kind of like bringing two positive or two negative poles of the magnet together.

A group of Jiang Shis hopping in unison. The outstretched arms are supposed to be stiff with rigor mortis.

In the movies, Jiang Shis are usually depicted as wearing Qing Dynasty imperial clothes which corresponds to a common stereotype of the bloodthirsty dynasty and their officials who showed little regard for human life. When you attach a scroll of yellow paper with a spell on it to their heads they seem to freeze and go to sleep. Obviously this must be a different sort of spell than the one that reanimates them.

Putting a Jiang Shi to sleep. Notice the period clothes and the deathly pale complexion of our vampire. A Still from Mr Vampire 2 (1986).

For some reason you can combat Jiang Shis with sticky rice, but all other types of rice are useless. Other methods include such versatile collection as chicken blood, herbs and roots and even pee of a male virgin, although as you can imagine most of those are inventions of Hong Kong film makers.

For some reason splashing a Jiang Shi with chicken blood is supposed to confuse him. Well, I guess anybody would be confused.

Since Jiang Shis became associated with vampires, they have also acquired a power to turn humans into Jiang Shis with their bite, but this process can sometimes be reversed. Jiang Shis are very often thought to be blind. At the same time, they have an excellent sense of smell and they find humans by smelling their breath. One way to avoid being seen by a Jiang Shi is to hold your breath. You will become invisible for as long as you can hold it.

A Jiang Shi sniffing around for a snack. Hold your breath…

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