One of my English-language students called me a 'cow-ghost' the other
day. Everybody laughed but then they wouldn't tell me what was funny.
I have also been labeled a 'cigarette-ghost.' What's up with all these
beasts and phantoms?
Dear Foreign Devil,
Back in the '60s, we used to chant: "Down with cow-ghosts and snake-spirits!"
(dadao yiqie niugui sheshen). This slogan, popular during the (1966-77)
Cultural Revolution, is a recent example of the kind of bestial deprecation
that has been common since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Vituperative descriptions of people as monsters and demons go back as
far as the Song Dynasty (960-1279). But in recent times the quasi-Christian
Taiping rebels (1851-1864) used such language, as did the Righteous
Harmonious Fists or Boxers (1898-1900), and then the Republican revolutionaries
in the early years of this century. All three groups were opposed to
the Manchu regime of the Qing Dynasty who were still perceived by many
Chinese as barbaric foreigners, even though they had been assimilated
to the point where almost no one in the Manchu court even spoke the
"Down with cow ghosts and snakes spirits!" was first used in Communist
China in 1957 to demonize bad and lawless elements in the countryside.
The slogan was revived and used in a 1966 People's Daily editorial entitled
'heng sao yiqie niugui sheshen' (sweep away all monsters and demons).
The bovine haints and reptile spirits included 'landlords, rich peasants,
counterrevolutionaries, bad elements, and rightists who have not thoroughly
Nobody has ever been able to adequately explain what the cows did wrong,
but even your superstition-smashing ayi has to admit to a gut-feeling
that ghosts and spirits are at least as evil as capitalists, landlords
and running dogs.
Traditionally, Chinese ghosts are extremely ugly. They lurk in dark
places and cast no shadow. They cause diseases and natural disasters.
Some come back to the mortal plane seeking revenge against people who
wronged them in life. Others are sent by deities to punish evildoers.
They have also been known to snatch children.
Ghosts spend a lot of time hanging around in Hell, where there is no
sun, no heat and no love. Despite the lack of amenities, Hell does have
a cold-blooded ghost government complete with lots of corrupt officials.
The King of Hell is Yama but it is his prime minister, Pan Guan, who
deals directly with ghosts in his capacity as the Judge of Hell. Pan
Guan has a hideous face with a matted beard. He holds a giant calligraphy
brush in his hand, using it to note down the names of evil human beings.
Pan Guan has two lackeys named Niutou (Cow Head) and Mamian (Horse Face).
These two spectral apparatchiks inform Pan Guan every time a bad person
dies so that he can decide on an appropriate way to torture them in
their new infernal work unit. Cow Head and Horse Face sometimes make
mistakes-good people are mistaken for evil and vice-versa. Clever peasants
try to confuse the Cow Head and Horse Face by giving their sons girls'
names and using other tricks to make it more difficult for the terrible
twins to locate family members. This proves that the spirit world is
just like the material word: never register with the authorities unless
you absolutely have to.
Ghosts are also monitored by a character called Zhong Kui who was a
very ugly student in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). He passed the imperial
examination and became a Number One Scholar. But the emperor and other
jealous officials thought he was far too ugly for this honor and campaigned
against him. Zhong Kui was angry and hurt: he punched the officials
and then committed suicide in front of them. The emperor tried to make
up for the bad treatment by conferring the post-mortal title 'Ghost
Monitor' on Zhong Kui. His duties are to catch and punish bad ghosts,
so he is usually on the side of humans. Even now, people paste Zhong
Li's image on their doors at Spring Festival to ward off malicious spirits.
Two other anti-spectral warriors are the celestial generals, Wei Chigong
and Qinqiong, whose image s are also pasted on many doors in China.
A famous collection of ghost stories is Liao Zhai Zhi Yi (Conversations
with Ghosts) in which the author tells hundreds of phantasmagoric yarns.
The book was published in 1870, 155 years after the death of its author,
Pu Songling. Many of Pu's stories are about foxes and fox spirits, traditionally
female. Foxes, like ayis, are extremely clever. The ancestor of the
fox was a lewd woman named Zi, who was transformed into a fox as punishment
for her vices.
Foxes are responsible for causing mischief particularly in love affairs
throughout Chinese literature, but they do occasionally help cure diseases.
Shrines dedicated to fox spirits are still found in the countryside.
The most recent incarnation of a fox spirit in Chinese political life
was Mao's wife Jiang Qing, whose true identity became apparent to all
the moment the Chairman died.
Nowadays, many people don't believe in ghosts and immortal foxes. Instead
they have faith in more logical things, like the ability of the number
eight to make you rich and the number nine to give you a long life.
All your ayi has to say about the matter is to quote this old Chinese
pearl of wisdom:
xin ze you, bu xin ze wu
It exists if you believe it; and doesn't if you don't.
And finally a 'cigarette ghost' (yan gui) is someone who smokes too
much, a close relation of the 'booze ghost' (jiu gui) who spends too
much time on the sauce. Both types of ghost are often also 'foreign
ghosts' (yang gui) or 'devils from across the sea' of which you, Gwailo,
are a perfect example.
Ayi wishes to thank Mr. Mwah Mwah for his help in seeking truth from
Got a question for Ayi? Email your quest for enlightment to