Asia,  China,  ER,  India,  Japan

Ancient Ghost Stories- Eastern Style

The Hungry Ghost Festival Photo Credit- Original image by Mister Bijou. Uploaded by Karen Barrett-Wilt, published on 30 October 2014 under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs.
The Hungry Ghost Festival Photo Credit- Original image by Mister Bijou. Uploaded by Karen Barrett-Wilt, published on 30 October 2014 under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs.

We have discussed the similarities of how the afterlife and ghosts are viewed in the Western World in our previous post. There are also similarities that run through how these subjects are addressed in Eastern cultures, however, there are a few twists that mark them out as different.

As in the West, the ghosts of ancestors could appear to their descendants to give warnings or advice. However, in China this was taken to another level as ancestor worship was widely practiced. The Chinese afterlife was a journey for the soul to cross a bridge over an abyss. There the soul was judged and if it was found worthy, it drank something called Mengpo Soup, which caused it to forget its former life. Some traditions said the soul then went to heaven, others said the soul was then reincarnated. If the soul was judged unworthy, it went to Hell and was not expected to return except on the Hungry Ghost Festival. The Hungry Ghost Festival is held on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the year. It is thought the veil between the world of the living and the dead is the thinnest at this time and the dead can easily cross over. People leave food and gifts for the ghosts so they will return to their own realm and not trouble the living. Unless the ghost was the spirit of an ancestor appearing in a dream, the Chinese believed some evil force must be involved.

There are generally considered to be five types Chinese ghosts and they are directly related to how the person lived and how they died.

Ba Jioa Gui are the spirits of those connected somehow to gambling debts, either through suicide or murder. These spirits appear under a banana tree and are wailing and sometimes carrying a baby. There is a tradition of tying a red string around a banana tree trunk to ask for lottery numbers, but if they get them and do not fulfill the promise to the ghost they will die a horrible death.

If a person committed a sin of killing, theft, and sexual-misconduct, they become an E Gui or hungry ghost. This ghost is condemned to a perpetual state of hunger, but its mouth is too small to ingest food. It’s skin is green or gray. It is also said that if people forgot their duties of respect for a spirit or the victims of murders who had not been caught, those spirits also became E Gui. They could torment the mind of the living or generally behave like a poltergeist.

Nu Gui are female ghosts, and are most represented in modern day Japanese and Hong Kong movies. This is the ghost of a vengeful and angry woman, who has committed suicide or been raped. She returns to take her revenge on the living and appears as a beautiful girl to seduce her victims like a succubus.

Yuan Gui are also ghosts who have been wronged, usually through wrongful death, but they do not have the drive for revenge of the Nu Gui. They are troubled souls who cannot pass onto the next life, but roam the world of the living in constant depression and restlessness. If they are able to communicate with one of the living, and that person can clear their honor then the Yuan Gui can move on.

The Japanese add a few more specific types of ghosts. One is the Shui Gui, or spirits of the drowned. Since their bodies cannot be found and they cannot receive funeral rites, they are unable to find peace. They live at the bottom of lakes or rivers and drag swimmers down to their doom. There is also the Wu Tou Gui or ghosts of those who received the sentence of being beheaded, and Ying Ling, the ghosts of unborn children who died. Stories also tell of the Ri Ben Gui Bing, who are the spirits of Japanese soldiers who invaded China during the World Wars. They are in uniform and carry guns or katanas.

Ghosts in India most closely resemble the E Gui or hungry ghosts of China. They were known as Bhoots and appeared as shapeshifters who appeared with backward feet. The feet are thought to appear backward to show that something has gone wrong. Bhoots appear when a person dies before their appointed time on earth, and because they were cheated of their allotted time try to possess another body. A woman who died in childbirth became a bhoot called a churail. This ghost inhabited the crossroads, much like the Roman Hecate, and tried to either steal children, possess the body of a woman or seduce and kill a man. Once the bhoot reached their allotted time on earth, they had to leave and become reincarnated.


Sources available on request