Every culture has some sort of vampire-like creature in its repertoire. The classic characteristics are creatures that return from the dead (revenants) who must sustain themselves with the life energy of the living (blood, milk, semen, breath). With the arrival of the Twentieth Century and that wonderful medium we call film, the Western European vampire (based, of course, on the Eastern European tradition of the vampire) took center stage. Many cultures have adapted traditional folkloric figures along more Hollywood lines. Despite the borrowing of Western European imagery, the ethnic vampires maintain culturally specific traits.
Chinese vampires are based on the hopping ghost stories of Chinese folklore. Honoring the dead is an important cultural practice in China, and improper respect and service to the dead may result in the dead coming back to do more than simply haunt you. They may demand retribution.
The chiang-shih, or hopping ghost, is actually a revenant and not a ghost at all. The soul (po) does not depart from the body as it should and resorts to its basest instincts for survival. The po reanimates the body, and the body goes in search of sustenance. Like the Eastern European vampire, the chiang-shih also seeks out its own family, but it is quite willing to munch on anyone else along the way.
I’ve asked several people — people familiar with Chinese folklore, Japanese horror fans, and fans of Asian horror — why Chinese ghosts hop and I’ve yet to receive a definitive answer. My guess is I probably won’t. Best explanations yet: the tradition of burying the corpse in a standing position suggests that it would hop. Some people believe that it’s the nature of the burial garments (usually of the Qing — also known as Ching — Dynasty) that essentially bind the legs together making it impossible to walk. Some people believe that it’s because rigor mortis has set in and the joints have lost all flexibility making a hopping motion the only possible option for mobility. Others maintain that the hopping motion is symbolic of the ghost’s attachment to the physical plane and the inability of the soul to move on. Really, what it all boils down to is this: more often than not, Chinese vampires hop.
Chinese vampires can’t see. They rely on the ability to sense the breath of their prey to track them. Although tradition says that Chinese vampires suck the breath out of their victims, in the movies they’re just as likely to use incredibly sharp teeth to chomp their victims, suck their blood and eat their flesh.
There are many ways to keep Chinese vampires at bay. Religion is important. Taoist and Buddhist magic are primary fonts of anti-vampire paraphernalia, including death blessings that must be stuck to the forehead of the vampire. This can be tricky as it often means that when being chased by a vampire, you’ve not only got to whip up a quick blessing, but you also have to get within arm’s reach of the creature to attach it to its forehead. Makes for great slapstick humor in many of the Hong Kong vampire films that make up a chunk of the genre. Taoist mirrors (feng-shui mirrors), glutinous rice (purity), straw and chicken blood are all part of the Chinese vampire hunter’s arsenal.
What causes someone to become a vampire? A curse can do it. So can being buried in the wrong (inauspicious) spot (again a feng shui notion), dying far from home and not being returned for burial. Dying far from home means that your body did not receive proper preparation for burial and your family is unable to pay you proper homage as a deceased ancestor. Having a family that fails in its obligation to bury you properly or pay you the proper respects as a deceased ancestor, a delayed burial or having your grave disturbed will also cause the return of the dead. Murder victims, suicides, and disappeared people were all likely to become vampires because of the violent nature of their deaths or the inability to trace the body for proper burial in the case of disappearances. Yin shock — a shock to the system caused by the dark and mysterious nature of yin energy — can also cause the corpse to come back as a vampire.
How to get rid of the vampire? Employ a priest to intercede. Return the body to its rightful burying place and ensure proper ancestral worship. Release the spirit. Use magic (usually Buddhist or Taoist mysticism) to bind the body to its coffin. Burn the body, although I suspect this is a last resort.
There seems to be two types of vampire films in China: those heavily influenced by Hollywood’s aristocratic vampire (Dracula) and those heavily steeped in Chinese mythology. The Dracula-style vampires share many of the qualities of their Eastern/Western European counterparts. The chiang-shih-style vampires have an unusual array of superhuman powers, again a product of cross-fertilization. Chinese mythology and folklore is populated by demons and gods much like the Greek and Roman pantheons. They have multi-faceted relationships and are as likely as humans to be petty and spiteful. They also have unusual gifts that are a great source of special effects in many Hong Kong films. Among them are: powerful, gale force breath; sword-like fingernails; incredibly long eyebrows that can be used to lasso or bind an enemy; shape shifting; and the ability to fly. These are all traits that are often associated with the vampire, although shape-shifting tends to be more a ghostly trait (i.e., Bride with White Hair) than a vampiric one.
A Japanese friend who is a vampire fan and former editor/publisher of the Japanese edition of Fangoria magazine told me that the aristocratic vampire found some popularity in China, Taiwan, and Japan after World War II when some American films began being distributed throughout these countries (of course, in some more than others). He insists, however, that the true source of the modern Chinese vampire is the popularity of the much-criticized Hammer Horror film, The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (a.k.a. The Legend of the Seven Golden Samurai, Seven Vampire Brothers, and more), a western-style (as in the Old West) martial arts vampire film that takes place in Hong Kong (hey, can’t be any worse than Billy the Kid vs. Dracula). The film, while popular in Hong Kong, was considered a disaster and for many signaled the death knell of Britain’s premier horror movie studio. A number of films were made in Hong Kong using the vampire as inspiration, the most well known and possibly most popular being the Mr. Vampire films of the 1980’s, Saturday afternoon matinee style horror comedies à la Abbot and Costello.
Since most of the current films dealing with Chinese vampires come from Hong Kong, it will be interesting to see what happens as social conditions change there and Hong Kong films gain popularity in the U.S.
You might also want to check out “Chinese Hopping Vampires,” my article on Squidoo.