Four scary Chinese monsters

Chinese folklore and mythology is full of terrifying ghosts, demons and monsters. Here we round up four of the scariest for you! Why four? Four (四 sì ) sounds similar to death (死 sǐ) in Chinese, so it’s only appropriate for this time of year!

Read on to learn more about these scary creatures!

E Gui 饿鬼 (Hungry Ghost)

12th century handscroll from Japan showing hungry ghosts eating sewage. Artist unknown; Tokyo National Museum

Some Buddhists believe that the spirit of a person who has committed the sin of greed is punished after death by being condemned to a perpetual state of insatiable hunger, hence the name ‘hungry ghost’. There are many different types of hungry ghost: some vomit flames, some have massive bellies but mouths the size of a pin-hole so they are never satisfied, others emit toxic fumes. Their suffering can only be alleviated by offerings made by their families. These ghosts likely originated from ancient Indian stories encouraging people to be generous towards those in need.

Hu Xian 狐仙 (Fox Demon)

The story of Daji is mentioned in ‘Investiture of the Gods’ (封神演義), from which this picture is taken. Daji is far right, next to King Zhou.

Also known as 狐狸精 húlíjīng, this shapeshifting fox demon may have started out as an immortal fairy, but as time passed, she came to be portrayed as a demon who could transform into human form. The collection of folktales  Yuewei Cottage Notes includes lots of folklore about the fox demons.
The nine-tailed fox demon is most famous type. Its cries sound like a baby’s and it eats anyone who goes to investigate the cries.

The most famous nine-tailed fox in ancient Chinese myths and legends is Daji. Stories about her have been in circulation since at least the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Daji was the daughter of a duke who married King Zhou, the last king of the Shang Dynasty. Despite her love of watching the kings subjects be tortured, the king became infatuated with her, neglecting his duties, leading to the downfall of the Shang Dynasty.

Jiangshi 僵尸 (Zombie Vampire)

Modern cartoon Jiangshi

Jiangshi are corpses that have come back to life in order to kill 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. They can look almost normal (if the person was recently deceased) or they can have rotting flesh hanging from them (if the corpse was partially decayed). Jiangshi are depicted in popular culture nowadays with a yellow paper talisman (a sealing spell) hanging off the forehead, and wearing a uniform robe and hat characteristic of a Qing-dynasty Chinese official. This may be due to anti-Qing sentiment during the Qing Dynasty.

Jiangshi may originate from the folk practice of transporting corpses. When a person died, their body would be transported back to their hometown for burial because it was believed that their soul would feel homesick if they were buried somewhere unfamiliar to them. Relatives who could not afford a vehicle to have the deceased person’s body transported home would hire a Taoist priest to conduct a ritual to reanimate the dead person and teach him/her to “hop” their way home. The priests would transport the corpses only at night and would ring bells to notify others in the vicinity of their presence because it was considered bad luck for a living person to set eyes upon a jiangshi. In fact, this was not Taoist magic but simply corpses arranged upright in single file and tied to long bamboo rods on the sides, while two men (one at the front and one at the back) carried the ends of the rods on their shoulders and walked. When the bamboo flexed up and down, the corpses appeared to be “hopping” in unison when viewed from a distance away.

Yecha 夜叉 (Agile Demon)

A New Year woodcut depicting a Buddha bringing a female Yecha under his control. The demon is seen here gutting a man. National Library of China

Yecha originated in India but have been gradually incorporated into Chinese folklore after being introduced to China along with Buddhism. Yecha is the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit word Yaksa/Yaksha. The male Yecha is quick and agile but ugly and lives a painful life. Females are also very agile, quick and powerful but they are also beautiful. 

In the novel The Investiture of the Gods, written in the 16th century, Yecha was described as a mighty demon with blue skin and red hair who carried a huge ax and lived under water. In Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (c. 1740), it was depicted it as a demon with sharp teeth and bright eyes. The hero in the story saw Yasha killing a deer with big ax and swallowing it raw. It is often described as the servant of a demon king.

Here’s hoping you don’t encounter any of these scary demons or monsters tonight! Happy Halloween!

What other Chinese ghosts, demons or monsters have you heard of? Let us know in the comments below. We always love hearing your thoughts and insights! 


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