[Paranormal China is an ongoing series investigating whether the “paranormal” is as commonly witnessed and as popular in China as it is in the US. This series was inspired by an X-Files DVD-watching binge, but its purpose is not to argue for or against the existence of paranormal phenomena; rather it seeks only to illuminate a little more about China.]
Paranormal China Part II: Hauntings
As long as people have been around there have been reports of ghosts. Indeed, Chinese culture has a long and rich history of belief in otherworldly spirits, especially the spirits of the dead, and the ways they affect the living. These days, many people (Westerners and Chinese) have written off these traditional superstitions, yet science has facilitated the emergence of another group of belivers, whose convinctions are, in the West anyway, based in personal experience but supported by the discoveries of (pseduo-?) scientific ghost hunters who attempt to technology to document paranormal phenonmena. TV shows documenting “real life” hauntings are popular in America, especially around Halloween. Do they share the same sort of following in China?
To investigate, we first tried a simple comparative keyword search. Representing China are Baidu’s results for the Chinese search term “闹鬼事件”, representing the English-speaking West are Google’s results for the Chinese term’s relative equivalent, “hauntings”. We chose to use the plural because “haunting” brings up lots of results using it as a verb in figurative settings that don’t relate to ghosts at all. The Chinese term “闹鬼” actually has a similar figurative meaning, but adding “事件” to the end hopefully filters out many of those results.
A decent percentage of Baidu’s results are somehow connected to the film A Haunting in Connecticut (in Chinese, 《太平间闹鬼事件》), so it seems fairly clear that there is less interest in modern hauntings in China than there is in the West, at least according to the results of our admittedly unscientific search engine test.
What does exist seems mostly to be collections of personal reports with little or no scientific evidence. Many of them are also second or third-hard, and though sometimes they are accompanied by exhortations that “this is really true,” one wonders if these are simply provided to make the stories scarier rather than as a result of any actual belief. We’ve translated a few below so you can judge for yourself:
For example, this site has a number of “real life haunting” stories. One tells of a man, his cousin, and some other family members driving home late one night:
It was already past 10 at night […] at this time, the driver suddenly spotted a headless figure fifty meters ahead floating quickly from left to right. He scared the driver so badly that he slammed on the brakes […] his cousin in the passenger seat asked him what happened, but he didn’t dare to say for fear of scaring the woman and child in the back […] but not long after he starting driving, it happened again, he saw a headless figure fifty meters ahead floating quickly from left to right […] this time he was less scared because he didn’t believe in ghosts, [so he sped up], but when he reached the spot the apparition suddenly disappeared.
Another netizen related the story of a classmate who was frequently sick in middle school:
…At that time, the school’s playing field was built near a cemetery for ‘revolutionary martyrs’. He liked quiet, and at that time he was also quite courageous, so during gym class when the other students were exercising he went to the cemetery to find a quiet spot to sit, always sitting on the first headstone in the first row but never looking at the name on the stone […] but every night when he was falling asleep his head hurt, and in the middle of the night he would see a fat woman standing at his bedside looking at him and laughing. After three days of this, he discussed it with his father […], who taught him a curse for subduing ghosts called the “5 Thunderstrikes Curse” (五雷咒) […] nights [after that], he felt that the fat woman had returned again, and had brought with her a gaunt woman. With the two of them standing before his bed, he began repeating his father’s words, and thus fell asleep. He said when he was sleeping at night, he could hear the woman crying and constantly repeating “I beg of you, release me!” By morning, his hands were numb but his fists were still tightly clenched.
His mother went to ask the Grand Immortal to look into it and said he had offended someone [with the curse] and that he should release them, he just had to go to a crossroads outside down and burn some paper…
Later, he returned to the cemetery to see what was on the headstone where he always sat, and discovered the picture was of the same fat woman in his dream…
These stories are, to say the least, suspiciously similar to any number of poorly-composed ghost stories that get read around campfires worldwide on summer nights. They are generally presented thusly; short stories with no specifics and no real attempt to provide or claim any kind of credibility. Unlike UFOs, which many Chinese seem to be discussing quite seriously, these ghost stories look like they’re probably purely for entertainment.
There are some reports of actual hauntings by netizens, but precious little in the way of information on them (searches lead back to the original question on “Baidu Knows” or to other questions with no answers), and the few that you can track down are quite clearly faked：
This video, one of the most common results of video searches, is somewhat creepy and
potentially authentic totally a hoax (thanks to commenter NickC for the heads up), but it didn’t happen in China. Despite erronious reports that it’s from Shanghai, the footage is from Singapore:
Interestingly, the “ghost” and what it does in this video is very similar to one of the ghosts from what may be China’s most famous horror movie, The Eye (Recently there was a horrible American remake starring Jessica Alba). Regardless, it’s certainly significant that there are so few “real ghost” videos from inside China that people have to re-label hoaxes from other countries in Chinese, whereas English-language Youtube is virtually crawling with ghosts.
The lack of evidence for serious interest in ghost-related research in China was also clear in search results; a search for a variety of ghost-related terms on Baidu’s image search failed to bring up anything resembling a photo of a real life ghost, whereas Google’s results are comparably full of blurry photos and unexplained spots of light (considered by many Western believers as evidence of the presence of ghosts).
Official research sources are also difficult to find. While a quick search turned up hundreds of paranormal research societies in the West, there were no serious looking research groups evident in Baidu’s search results.
Of course, none of this necessarily means anything about what Chinese people really think about ghosts, since the CCP has been known to censor ghost and haunting-related information and entertainment. Since exactly what they’re censoring at any given time can be difficult to pin down, it’s impossible to say whether internet results are really representative of the greater whole. Generally speaking, one can probably assume that at least some censorship is occuring, but “how much?” and “of what?” are harder questions to answer.
It’s also worth noting that belief in this sort of thing is probably much more widespread in the country than it is in cities, and that country people are much less likely to share their experienecs online, so there may well be plenty of people with “real life” ghost stories to tell to those who can make their way into the countryside; however, a comprehensive survey of rural China is beyond the abilities of this blog (for now).
We’re by no means experts, and we may well have missed something (or lots of things), so feel free to drop your China ghost stories (or whatever) in the comments. Also check out the first part of our Paranormal China series: Paranormal China Part I: UFOs.