Late weekend丨How do ghost stories reflect the living conditions of human beings and build an ideal world?

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Regardless of the attitude towards “whether ghosts exist or not”, it is undeniable that the concept of ghosts has entered Chinese culture. Modern Chinese is a clear example, such as seeing ghosts, ghosts fighting, talking nonsense, there are also contemporary descriptions such as uncanny workmanship, ghosts and ghosts, and even childish ghosts, naughty ghosts, and delicious ghosts.

“I regard the concept of ghosts as a historical fact and a cultural phenomenon.” 71-year-old Pu Muzhou said in a video conversation with “LatePost” in his study in August this year.

During the two-hour conversation, his tone, expression and movements did not change much. He calmly and honestly narrated the story of “seeing but not seeing, listening but not hearing”, but “as in it, as in it”. left and right” ghost world.

Poo Muzhou is a professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He began to study ghosts about 30 years ago and edited two books, “Ghosts and Demons: A Profile of Chinese Popular Culture” and “Rethinking Ghosts in World Religions” (Rethinking Ghosts in World Religions) Proceedings. This year, his first monograph on ghosts, Ghosts and Religious Life in Early China, was translated into Chinese and published.


“Ghosts in Early China”, written by Pu Muzhou, translated by Huang Zixuan, May 2023 edition of Xinxing Publishing House.

This new book traces the concept of ghosts in China from ancient times to the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties, and compares them with ghosts in other cultures in the world, revealing the commonalities between the characteristics of Chinese culture and human society.

Pu Muzhou believes that many times people’s activities start from their own beliefs. Regardless of whether this belief is true or not, the belief itself will affect the development of history and culture. If we put aside the question of whether ghosts exist, and instead pay attention to the concept of ghosts or the development of belief systems in society, what kind of cultural and historical results have been caused, it is a fact and phenomenon that can be relatively objectively studied. This is also what is called looking at faith from the outside, not from the inside, discussing things like doctrine.

Man is mortal. Every belief has to put forward a set of views on the afterlife, such as do people still exist after death? If it exists, how does it exist, and where does it go? Therefore, Pu Muzhou believes that ghosts can be regarded as people’s imagination of the afterlife world, which is a part of the development of belief. He wants to explore what kind of social and cultural environment allows the concept of ghosts to exist? What problems does this existence create or solve for society? What is the relationship and nature of ghosts and humans?

“Ghosts in Early China” stated that if we open any book about Chinese culture today, we can hardly find any descriptions about ghosts. The most likely places to find such accounts are in ghost stories as a literary genre, or in works discussing folk beliefs, but there aren’t many pages on ghosts there. Ghosts are the dark side or hidden corners of Chinese culture, shaping the appearance in imperceptible ways. Without understanding ghosts, one cannot truly understand Chinese culture. To this day, sayings such as “you have ghosts in your heart” are still meaningful Chinese expressions.

Pu Muzhou said that in the daily life of ordinary people, especially before modern times, the concept of ghosts has considerable influence. There are a large number of ghost stories in ancient notebook novels, which show that there is such a need in society, and also reflect human values. In modern times, the popularity of various ghost movies shows that this interest or need has not disappeared. However, since ghosts are mostly negative images in various belief traditions and are rejected by ordinary people, few people study them. Existing research on ghosts is mostly done by literary researchers analyzing ghost stories.

“My research is basically based on my great curiosity about beliefs, beliefs and religious phenomena. I also hope to contribute to readers’ understanding of Chinese culture and provide a perspective for thinking about issues related to ghosts and gods.” He said.

Bureaucratic imagination of ghosts and gods in heaven and earth

In 91 BC, Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty left Chang’an, the capital city, to escape the summer heat at his palace, Ganquan Palace. In Chang’an, the favorite minister Jiang Chong designed to dig out a puppet in the palace, and used it as evidence to accuse the prince Liu Zheng of performing witchcraft and summoning ghosts to harm the emperor. The prince was caught off guard, and because he could not get in touch with the emperor who was not in the capital in time, in order to protect himself, he executed Jiang Chong and hastily raised his troops to clash with the imperial guards. Known as the “Witch Gu’s Curse,” the event ended with the prince’s suicide and thousands of deaths.

Pu Muzhou said that although Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty’s obsession with belief in ghosts and gods and mental weakness may be the direct cause of the incident, as later generations often commented, the atmosphere of belief in ghosts, witchcraft and exorcism pervaded the whole society at that time, which largely contributed to this incident. outbreak of such incidents.

Thirty-six years ago, Pu Muzhou discussed the scourge of witchcraft from the perspective of court struggles, and felt that it was necessary to consider the religion and social mentality of the time to fully understand this incident. After writing some books related to ancient beliefs, he began to rethink the disaster of witchcraft, and will publish a new book “Witchcraft and Collective Mentality in Han and Tang Dynasties” at the end of this year.

“Although it is a political event, there is a social mentality behind the event that believes in witchcraft. My book was written until the Tang Dynasty. After the Song Dynasty, there were fewer excuses for using witchcraft as an excuse for political struggle, although there are still legends about witchcraft among the people.” He said.

This belief in ghosts was very common in the Qin and Han dynasties. For example, Lu Sheng, an alchemist trusted by Qin Shihuang, advocated that if immortals are to come, evil spirits must be exorcised; after the death of his favored concubine Mrs. The figure in the distance is Mrs. Wang; during the Eastern Han Dynasty, a ceremony to drive out evil spirits was held in the capital at the end of each year, which was called “Nuo”.

Pu Muzhou thinks that the cosmology behind the exorcism of ghosts is very interesting. Although these evil spirits are full of malice and danger to human beings, they are part of the cosmic order. They can be temporarily expelled from the human world, but there seems to be no way to eradicate them once and for all. So, year after year, season after season, the need to evict them recurs.

In 94 A.D., Emperor He of the Han Dynasty issued an edict to designate the volt day in June as a national holiday. Dog Day is a day when ghosts haunt, so people are ordered to close the gates and not do any production all day long. Some scholars believe that Furi is an early version of the Hungry Ghost Festival that was later celebrated in the middle of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.

Pu Muzhou believes that Furi and Zhongyuan are not necessarily related, but the concept of haunted ghosts is indeed an interesting commonality. The Hungry Ghost Festival may have been only a node of ancient agricultural activities at the earliest. After the Southern and Northern Dynasties, the Buddhist Obon Festival (Sanskrit transliteration, meaning to save the suffering from upside down) began to be valued, and it was combined with Taoist rituals (such as performing rituals and saving souls). Confluence, it gradually turned into the so-called Ghost Festival.

“In modern times, the existence of Ghost Festival is generally regarded as a folk belief. From a positive point of view, it also has something in common with the traditional Chinese Confucianism’s so-called cautious pursuit of the future. It’s just that it has expanded from caring for the ancestors of the family to caring for the entire community. The ancestors, including all kinds of lonely souls and wild ghosts, also had the Mohist spirit of love. It means that Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Mohism have been combined, which is very suitable for the appetite of the Chinese people.” Pu Muzhou said.


Images of gods and monsters on the colorful coffin of Marquis Yi of Zeng. Hubei Provincial Museum, “The Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng: Ritual and Music Civilization in the Early Warring States Period”, Cultural Relics Publishing House, 2007, p. 28.

During the Qin and Han Dynasties, the unified empire was established, and the bureaucratic system was fully developed, which also had an impact on the development of the concept of ghosts. Pu Muzhou said that people began to have a bureaucratic imagination of the spiritual world, the underworld, or the heavenly world, and it became an enduring model of Chinese religious imagination in the following thousands of years.

He explained that people’s imagination of after death is mostly based on the living environment when they were alive. The bureaucratic underworld is the result of bureaucratic society and reflects power relations. Not only in China, but also in other ancient civilizations. British anthropologist Stephan Feuchtwang wrote the book “Metaphors of Empire” and proposed that China’s folk religious belief system is imagined according to the structure of the empire. This is the case regardless of whether it is in the sky or on the ground. For example, in the Mazu belief in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the emperor named Mazu the “Holy Mother of Heaven”, and her existence directly corresponds to the imperial system.

For another example, Taoism is basically an empire, and all the gods in the Tiangong are ranked according to their status, which is a huge bureaucratic system. There is also the city god in folk culture, the city god or the land lord, is a city bureaucrat, corresponding to the county magistrate or local elder in the world, and each belongs to a part of a large bureaucratic system. Influenced by Buddhism, after the Southern and Northern Dynasties, there appeared the Ten Halls of Hades, that is, the ten masters of the underground world, each with a title. These are all imperial organizational models.

Such a story is recorded in “Lie Yi Zhuan” in the Wei and Jin Dynasties. The dead son of General Jiang Ji of the State of Wei entrusted his mother with a dream, saying that he “was born as a descendant of Qingxiang, but now he is Wu Bo of Mount Tai (a small official in the ghost world) underground, emaciated and humiliated, and cannot be said again.” He hoped that his mother would ask his father to find Sun A from Taimiao, and then help him to change to a comfortable job, because Sun A will soon be appointed as the magistrate of Mount Tai (the county magistrate of the ghost world).

Jiang Ji didn’t believe it when he heard about it. The son entrusted the dream to his mother again, describing Sun Ah’s figure and appearance. The wife thus persuaded her husband to try it to verify the authenticity. Sure enough, Jiang Ji found the exact same Sun Ah. Sun A was overjoyed when he heard that he was going to be the Taishan Commander, and agreed to Jiang Ji’s request. Jiang Ji also rewarded him heavily. Not long after, Sun Ah passed away. More than a month later, Jiang Ji’s son entrusted a dream to his mother, saying that he would be transferred as a recorder (a small official in charge of copying in Ghost World) as he wished.

“Since the beginning of the 20th century, the empire has ceased to exist, but in folk culture, this traditional belief structure has not been changed, such as the third prince, Baosheng Emperor, Kaizhang Shengwang, this emperor and that emperor, and this king and that king. , nothing has changed,” Pu Muzhou said.

How Buddhism and Taoism Inherit and Transform the Concept of Ghosts

After the publication of “Pursuing One’s Blessing: The World of Faith in Ancient China” in 1995, Pu Muzhou began to take a closer look at the specific content of ancient Chinese belief activities. He first paid attention to the gods of Taoism and the eminent monks of Buddhism, and later realized that in order to understand the development of Buddhism and Taoism in China, one needs to understand the cultural soil that provides nutrients for the growth of both.

“Buddhism and Taoism inherit and transform the concept of ghosts, I think it is a key issue.” Pu Muzhou said.

Taoism emerged in the Han Dynasty, and Buddhism was also introduced to China during this period. They all use the ghost cognition framework popular among the people to promote education, and gain more believers by claiming that they can “exorcise ghosts”. Although both Buddhism and Taoism claim to uphold justice in the world, they have different views on the origin of ghosts, and their methods of exorcising ghosts also have their own characteristics.

According to Pu Muzhou, in the Taoist world, ghosts are basically the enemy of man. People are unwilling to interact with ghosts, but ghosts cannot be eliminated. There are always countless ghosts in the world that need to be expelled, so that Taoist priests can be continuously employed by the people. Most of these ghosts are crying out for the injustice they have suffered. This inherits the concept of ghosts in early China. It is believed that when people encounter injustice, accidents, diseases, wars and other abnormal deaths, ghosts will return to the world and stalk the living.

However, compared with the ghosts in early historical materials, the scale and number of ghosts in Taoist classics reflect the suffering of the real society and form a new worldview. Ghosts seem to dominate the entire belief system. Because after the fall of the Han Dynasty, disasters such as wars and plagues affected the lives of millions of people, and it was easy to become a source of material for the creation of Taoist classics.

“This description of a million ghost soldiers slaughtering the earth may be based on or inspired by the historical reality at that time. Furthermore, the overwhelming list of ghost names vividly depicts a society torn and destroyed by war and disease “, Pu Muzhou wrote in “Ghosts in Early China”, “Because of the misery of the people, almost all the world is full of ghosts. Not only human beings have suffered a tragic fate, but also official residences, hotels, military camps, house beams, carriages, roads, wells, and stoves. Everything in the world, such as ponds, swamps, etc., was destroyed and turned into ghosts.”

The “Taishangzhengyi Cursing Ghosts” compiled probably in the Six Dynasties period provides a list of ghost names: “Thinking ghosts, corpse ghosts, anal dead ghosts, obscene dead ghosts, old dead ghosts, palace ghosts, military camp ghosts, prison dead ghosts, amazing Ghosts, wooden dead ghosts, fire dead ghosts, water dead ghosts, guest dead ghosts, unburied ghosts, road ghosts, soldier dead ghosts, star dead ghosts, blood dead ghosts, beheaded dead ghosts, hanged dead ghosts, self-stabbing ghosts, fearful ghosts, strong dead ghosts, two-headed ghosts, Riding ghosts, chariot-driving ghosts, mountain ghosts, soil ghosts, Qianghu ghosts, barbarian ghosts, hundred-worm ghosts, phony ghosts… When reciting the scriptures, cursing the names of ghosts, illnesses will be cured, and all directions will be clear.”

Chanting the names of ghosts is part of the Taoist exorcism ritual. Mysterious incantations, charming music, gorgeous costumes, and exaggerated “Yu steps” are all classic parts of Taoist exorcism rituals. Yubu is an ancient ritual behavior, which has already appeared in the exorcism document “Rishu” in the Qin Dynasty. Its characteristic is that the performers follow the pattern of the Big Dipper, alternate feet, and walk one after the other.




Part of Yan Geng’s “Zhong Kui Marrying His Sister Scroll”, created in the Southern Song Dynasty or Yuan Dynasty, is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unlike Taoism, ghosts in the Buddhist world have strong moral overtones. According to Pu Muzhou, it is the hungry ghosts that are most often mentioned in Buddhist texts. Hungry ghosts do not die of starvation, but commit crimes or moral corruption (such as greed, greed, lust, fraud, jealousy, flattery) during their lifetime, and are punished to become hungry ghosts and go to hell to endure pain. Buddhism uses this to persuade people to live a righteous life so as not to fall into a miserable situation.

But before the arrival of Buddhism, the popular Chinese idea of ​​the origin of ghosts had no necessary relation to any strong moral and ethical values. Moreover, exorcising ghosts is just a technique or ritual, as long as you learn it, it has nothing to do with good or bad people.

Similar to Taoism, in order to win followers, Buddhism also exorcises ghosts. Pu Muzhou believes that there are generally three ways of Buddhism, one is to worship the Buddha and Bodhisattva by calling the name of the Buddha and Bodhisattva, or recite the mantra of exorcising ghosts in Buddhist scriptures; the other is to use magic tools or perform some rituals; Monks who master the Dharma can embody the power of the Buddha himself, using their presence to drive away evil spirits.

In addition to exorcising ghosts, Buddhism is good at making them into stories and disseminating them, preaching and preaching scriptures. For example, it is recorded in “Biography of Eminent Monks”: “Yitong Xiaosi of Lanling talked about his wife Liu’s illness, and she was always frightened by ghosts. Shi Yingyan said it strictly. When Yan came to the outer hall, Liu saw ghosts scattered.” This shows that monks who are diligent in Buddhism can drive away evil spirits just by their own appearance, even if they do not cast mantras.

Although the development of Buddhism and Taoism in China has injected moral and authoritative elements into ghost culture, Pu Muzhou reveals a more complex aspect. He believes that, for the general public, spells and rituals are still important to rely on. If we use a pyramid as an analogy, the belief system of Buddhism and Taoism, the topmost level is the principle with strong morality, and eminent monks and Taoist priests have high requirements for moral cultivation.

In the lives of ordinary people in the middle and lower classes, moral issues are second, and spells and rituals play a more important role. What they have to solve is the same old problem: what to do when life is not going your way? Recite a mantra, burn an incense stick, stick a talisman, and various ritual activities to help them solve practical problems.

“This kind of mentality has always existed in China until now. People always hope for solutions, and need external mechanisms to solve problems for them.” Poo Muzhou said.

Therefore, belief in ghosts and gods always has room for survival, but Pu Muzhou emphasized that belief is a very subjective thing, and it is not black and white. It is more like a spectrum. Complete disbelief is rare. “A person’s faith is wandering. This is why Christians must go to church once a week to renew their faith.”

Colorful ghost stories from the Six Dynasties, with themes ranging from justice to morality

Pu Muzhou said that Chinese society has two ways of depicting ghosts, one is that evil spirits must be dealt with, and the other is when people are in a relaxed or suspicious attitude, ghosts appearing in popular novels and stories tend to be more humane, and more The more colorful, full of supernatural powers and mysterious deeds. Ghost stories are not only entertainment literature and spectacle records, but also a reflection of human living conditions and an attempt to build an ideal world.

The ghost literature in the Six Dynasties period is a key node in the development of Chinese ghost culture. During this period, the ghost evolved from a supporting role with few characteristics to a protagonist with a rich image and a mature personality.

Such as willful ghosts. Zongdai, the governor of Qingzhou, is famous for his refutation of the existence of ghosts. One night, a local ghost that Zongdai stopped offering sacrifices to worship appeared in front of him as a scholar, saying that he wanted to take revenge on Zongdai. Similarly, Ruan Zhan wrote an article on the theory of no ghosts. One day, a ghost pretended to be a scholar and asked Ruan Zhan to argue with him about the existence of ghosts, but he couldn’t win. In the end, he had to say that he was a ghost to end the embarrassing situation. “Ghosts are almost claiming to be legitimately defending their right to exist,” Poo wrote.

Another example is the innocent and simple ghost. A naughty ghost keeps disturbing a family by throwing dirty things into their food. The annoyed master finally came up with a plan, saying loudly that he was not afraid of dirty things, but if the ghost threw money at him, he would really explode. The ghost believed it, and then threw money at him, so he quickly made a small fortune.

There is a similar story where Song Dingbo lied to the ghosts that he was also a ghost, and he also used the ignorance of the new ghosts as an excuse to induce the ghosts to tell the secret-ghosts are afraid of people’s spittle. When he arrived at the market, the ghost turned into a sheep. Song Dingbo caught it and sold it.

Pu Muzhou said that these stories may reflect the mentality that people are smarter than ghosts. Even today, expressions like “you’re tricking a ghost” or “only ghosts believe it” suggest that the “ghosts are easier to fool than people” mentality persists. But on the other hand, we can also see these ghost stories as criticisms of social vices—people are sometimes more treacherous than ghosts. The innocence and simple character of ghosts may be what real human nature should have.

According to one study, Six Dynasties Zhiguai told a total of 23 stories about men marrying female ghosts, and only one female ghost harmed a man because her husband married another woman after her death. The remaining female ghosts are generally portrayed as charming and devoted lovers, even if some men end up becoming ungrateful. Another study of fox spirits in Qing novels showed that, in most cases, the personalities and achievements of men who had affairs with female fox spirits or ghosts were not mentioned, suggesting that such information is important to the story. Said unnecessary.

On the one hand, this can be explained as the sexual fantasies of male storytellers, Pu Muzhou said. The Merry Ghost loves men unconditionally, unabashedly, and with all their heart and soul, regardless of their personal accomplishments, moral qualities, or social status. This is attractive to poor scholars who find it difficult to start a family. “The marriage between humans and ghosts solves their yearning for the so-called ideal marriage.”

On the other hand, this can also reflect that compared with the past, women in the Six Dynasties enjoyed greater freedom in social activities. Because Ge Hong of Taoism at that time criticized women for going out freely, visiting temples and friends’ houses; wandering the streets, singing and drinking, not returning home until late at night, and even staying overnight at friends’ houses. This contradicts social reality.

Also, revenge ghosts, such as a person who was wrongly killed by an official, will come back as a ghost to take revenge. Helping ghosts, such as a male ghost who repairs a storm-damaged house for his wife and children; a female ghost who ensures that a poor family has enough food every day. Ghosts in need, such as a ghost asking a man to rebury his coffin so he can be released from imprisonment; a female ghost asking a man to take revenge on her husband’s new concubine for abusing the ghost’s child.



Part of “A Trip to Zhongshan” by Gong Kai, a painter of the Yuan Dynasty, is now in the collection of the Freer Museum of Art in the United States.

In addition to the various types of ghosts, the themes of ghost stories also changed and remained the same during the Six Dynasties. “Justice” is a classic theme in Chinese ghost stories. As early as the pre-Qin period, Du Bo was a famous ghost, warning the rulers who did not act according to justice.

King Xuan of Zhou killed Du Bo, an innocent courtier. Three years later, King Xuan of Zhou gathered the princes to hunt in Putian. There were hundreds of hunting carts and thousands of followers, and the crowds filled the mountains and fields. At noon, Du Bo’s ghost was chasing King Xuan of Zhou in a white horse and plain chariot, dressed in red and holding a red bow. He shot an arrow in the chariot, and it hit King Xuan of Zhou in the heart, causing him to break his spine and fall down on the bow bag to die.

During the Six Dynasties period, such stories abound. For example, Yu Liang of the Jin Dynasty executed Tao Cheng, the son of Tao Kan, on charges of misconduct and conspiracy in a military operation. The deceased Tao Kan was recognized as a gentleman, while Yu Liang was a notorious powerful minister and relative. Tao Kan’s ghost appeared and said to Yu Liang: “The old servant is the king himself. If you don’t want this kind of favor, you will kill his orphan. So I came to ask, what is Tao’s crime. I have to sue the emperor!”, ” Yu couldn’t say a word, so he went to bed and fell ill. He died in eight years.”

According to Pu Muzhou, the story of Yu Liang’s death illustrates how, in the popular mind, storytellers and listeners collectively support ghosts in enforcing posthumous justice. Moreover, the seemingly light-hearted story is closely related to the intellectuals’ attention to court politics at that time.

“Morality” is a new theme in Six Dynasties Zhiguai. For example, when Fei Qingbo of the Southern Dynasty came home, he saw three attendants wearing red turbans. They said to Fei Qingbo, “The officer told you to go.” Fei Qingbo said, “I just came back from visiting him, why did you summon me? Besides, you often wear black headscarves, why are you wearing red ones today?” The attendant replied: “We are not the officials of Yangjian.” Fei Qingbo realized that they were ghosts, so he knelt down and begged for his life. The three ghosts agreed to find another person to catch the job, and asked Fei Qingbo to buy some wine and dinner four days later, but this matter must not be leaked.

Four days later, the three ghosts came to Fei Qingbo’s house for dinner. Fei Qingbo felt that the way they ate and drank was no different from living people. Fei Qingbo’s wife was suspicious by nature, and said to him: “This must be a monster who tricked you.” Fei Qingbo had no choice but to tell his wife the cause and effect. After a while, the three ghosts were whipped and bled. They stood angrily in front of Fei Qingbo and said, “Why do you want to kill us?” After finishing speaking, they disappeared. Fei Qingbo fell ill and died before dawn.

Pu Muzhou felt that this story showed that people should keep their promises, even to ghosts. It also reflects social reality, even in the bureaucratic system of the underworld, corruption is not surprising. But in the end, injustice and immorality must be punished.

In addition to serious themes such as justice and morality, some ghost stories are humorous, ironic or suspicious, and more entertaining. There are also some ghost stories that have become the media of religious beliefs, showing the ability of eminent monks and Taoist priests to control ghosts.

“Ghost stories were popular at the time because their plots were beyond everyday imagination or life experience, and they could solve some problems that couldn’t be solved in daily life. That’s why I say it builds an ideal world.”

Of course, the development of ghost stories is related to the political, economic and ideological atmosphere at that time. Pu Muzhou analyzed that in the split era at the end of the Han Dynasty, the control of Confucianism weakened, and the intellectuals became more open-minded. In the Six Dynasties, there was a custom of “clear talk”. Literati and refined scholars gathered together to chat, and ghost stories spread, and were later collected into books, such as “Shi Shuo Xin Yu” has many. In addition, the rise of Buddhism and Taoism produced a large number of writings about ghosts and gods. Finally, since the Eastern Han Dynasty, paper has been widely used, which is beneficial to the dissemination of historical and literary works.

He believes that after the Six Dynasties, ghost stories became more and more abundant, including legends of ghosts in the Tang and Five Dynasties, “Yi Jian Zhi” and “Tai Ping Guang Ji” in the Song Dynasty, Pu Songling’s “Strange Tales from a Liaozhai Studio” in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, and Ji Xiaolan’s “Yue Wei”. Caotang Notes”, Yuan Mei’s “Zibuyu” and so on. The plots, characters, ghosts, etc. of these ghost stories are richer, both refined and popular, and have higher literary achievements. However, the concept of ghosts in them is not much different from that of the Six Dynasties period, and it is in the same line.









One of the “Eight Monsters of Yangzhou”, a part of “Ghost Interesting Picture” by Qing Dynasty painter Luo Pin, there are many versions in existence.

In modern times, many people come into contact with ghost stories no longer through literature, but movies. Pu Muzhou believes that ghost films have stronger commercial attributes. China, East Asia and the West will all produce ghost films, such as “Happy Ghost”, “Painted Skin”, “The Grudge”, “The Conjuring” and so on. But people who watch ghost movies are basically looking for excitement, just like some people like to watch action movies.

“Ghost stories are interesting, but we also need to see the cultural phenomenon behind the ghost stories. What kind of culture and society allow such stories to spread?” Poo Muzhou said.

Gain a better understanding of each culture by comparing their respective ghosts

Pu Muzhou is one of the few scholars who have made achievements in the fields of ancient Egypt and ancient China, and advocates historical research from a comparative perspective. He said that the last book in this life may be “Imagined Paradise: The Afterlife of Ancient Egypt and China”.

In the last chapter of “Ghosts in Early China”, he roughly compares the ghosts of ancient China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. He feels that comparisons give us the opportunity to locate differences and similarities in the role of ghosts in each society, thereby better understanding the characteristics of many religious systems, and ultimately strengthening our understanding of each culture.

For example, ghosts in ancient Greece do not seem to have the idea of ​​judging the dead like the ancient Egyptians, which played an important role in shaping moral consciousness; nor did they shape the underworld based on the yang world like the Chinese. Ghosts in ancient Rome seem to have only instrumental functions, rather than assume the role of conveying some special information, moral education or other functions. The ghosts in ancient Egypt had no relationship with the living world, unlike the ghosts in China that have nothing to do with the real world.

“Egyptian ghosts are not as free as Chinese ghosts, who can roam around the world, leaving traces or making troubles as they please. The relationship between Egyptian ghosts and gods is unambiguous, unlike Chinese ghosts, whose behavior is unpredictable. Therefore, China’s major religious systems, whether Buddhism, Taoism, or indigenous local religious rituals, are keen on controlling ghosts, which is not the case in Egypt,” Poo wrote.

Pu Muzhou said in the dialogue that there should be no ghosts in Christianity theory, and there is only one God in the world, and no other spirituality exists. But later there were devils in Christianity, which is a legacy of folk beliefs in traditional European societies. To use a metaphor, the reason why Buddhism and Taoism are easily accepted by the Chinese people is because they include the original belief concepts in traditional Chinese society.

The same is true of Christianity, where folk beliefs such as ghosts and witchcraft are gradually incorporated. For example, Halloween is actually All Ghosts’ Day, which comes from local beliefs in Europe. Of course, Halloween is now secularized and has become an entertainment festival; Santa Claus originated from the Nordic folk gods, and it is not a concept that Christianity originally had.




The fragment of “The Complete Picture of Liaozhai”, drawn around the Guangxu period of the Qing Dynasty, is now in the Austrian National Library. These three pictures are “Painted Skin”, “Nie Xiaoqian” and “Continued Huangliang”.

Ghosts in different cultures have both differences and similarities. Pu Muzhou believes that ghosts will come back to find their relatives or enemies because they have unfinished business to deal with. This thinking is common in many cultures. It reflects the collective anxieties of the living, seeking to resolve conflicts within the community, and wishing to ensure a peaceful succession from generation to generation in order to maintain social stability.

He explained, how can conflicts in human society be effectively resolved? Can justice be realized in society? The law is not omnipotent, and grievances often occur, so the ghosts will come back and cry for grievances. One way to make up for the shortcomings is to believe that “it’s not that we don’t report, it’s not time.” If you believe that there will be retribution, your anxiety will be reduced and your dissatisfaction will be alleviated.

“Ghost beliefs, or religious culture, deal with these kinds of things. If the problem cannot be solved within a period of time, then it can be ended by faith. Otherwise, what should we do?” Poo Muzhou said.

And it is worth pondering that the beliefs of various cultures have similarities and differences. Is the same or the difference more important? Taking food as an example, different food cultures feed people of different cultures, but is the taste of food more important, or the nutrition of food more important?

Returning to the question of “whether ghosts exist”, Pu Muzhou believes that this is ultimately the result of everyone’s subjective determination, but this subjective determination is shaped by cultural traditions. Whether he personally believes in ghosts and gods is not important at all. What is important is that as a historian, he needs to study how beliefs in ghosts and gods affect the development of history and culture. This is a historical fact and a cultural phenomenon.

He believes that the universality of the concept of ghosts reflects the basic psychological makeup of human beings. Its origin is similar to that of language and religion, and it develops together with the development of the human brain. What we can observe now is just some recent results after the long-term development of human beings. In the past, when people explained the concept of ghosts, they often looked at it from a psychological point of view, mainly focusing on people’s fear or doubt about the unknown. Because of doubts, I am uneasy, because I am uneasy, I am afraid that something will happen, and the reason why things happen should be that there is some kind of force, something that is working. This kind of thing can be a god or a ghost.

“However, this statement cannot yet explain why people have doubts and fears because of the unknown. Neurophysiologists are studying the development and structure of the cognitive ability of the human brain, and perhaps someone will come up with a more scientific explanation in the future.” Pu Muzhou said.

The source of the inscription picture: a part of “Zhongshan Traveling Picture” by Gong Kai, a painter of the Yuan Dynasty, is now in the collection of the Freer Museum of Art in the United States.

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