It is no surprise that China, for many centuries so remote and isolated, should have developed a
ghost lore different from the Western world. Chinese ghosts are not usually the frightening
apparitions so familiar to us. European ghosts frequently appear in the guise of the dead, with
faces of the dead, clad sometimes in grave-clothes, sometimes without their heads, and to the
accompaniment of terrifying noises.
But Chinese ghosts as a rule-for there are exceptions-are not like this. They are often
indistinguishable from the living. They are frequently beautiful maidens who return from the
other world, not to frighten man, but to play with him, tease him, make love to him, or even help
him in the endless and burdensome examinations which the men of Old China had to pass before
they could reach any status in their country.
Chinese ghosts are not the insubstantial wraiths of Western tradition. They are ghosts of
flesh and blood, and they are often ghosts of animals, particularly of foxes, for the Chinese
believe that all creatures have spirits.
A collection of these ghost stories was made by Pu Sung-ling, who lived in the
seventeenth century, and who recorded the incidents from the people who reported them. The
following two stories, which I have broadly adapted from his collection, are typical of these
quaint and romantic tales of the supernatural.
When Yang Shien heard about the haunted house, once the home of a high official, but
now empty and deserted, he decided that he would approach the owner to allow him to live there
as a caretaker, for it was just the sort of home Yang had dreamed that one day he would own.
Yang secured an interview with the owner of the house and put his proposition before him.
At first the high official would not hear of it. 'Young man,' he said, 'no one has been
able to live there for years. The spirits which occupy it are such that they bring trouble to anyone
who stays in the house.'
'I am prepared to risk that. It is a great pity that such a lovely house should be left to
spirits who care nothing if it falls into ruins. I will look after it for you.'
The older man shrugged his shoulders. 'I have nothing to lose, young man. I have
warned you, and seeing that you still insist, you can have the key. But at the first sign of trouble
you must leave. Otherwise I would not want to be responsible for you.'
Yang was jubilant and immediately moved his belongings into his new home. He had to
make several journeys back and forth, carrying everything himself, for he could not afford to hire
a cart, and it was past sunset when he returned with his last load.
Yang's books were his pride and joy, and he had carefully placed them upon a table which
he decided would be admirable for his studies, but when he returned with his last load they were
no longer there. He hunted high and low, but they were not to be found in the house and there
was no sign of anyone having broken in. When however he returned to the room where he had
left the missing books, they were back on the table. Puzzled, but happier now at the return of his
most precious processions, he went to the kitchen to cook some rice for his supper, and when he
returned to his room where he thought he would read a while before retiring, he found his books
had again vanished. He then heard the patter of light footsteps and saw two beautiful young girls
carrying his books in their arms. They were laughing together as they quietly replaced the books
on the table.
They turned round and gazed straight at him, looking so human in the half-light of dusk
that he could hardly believe they were ghosts at all; but knowing that they were, he turned his
head away and would not return their saucy looks. Whereupon they laughed at him and came
Yang's heart bumped against his ribs with fear, as he remembered the warning of the
owner of the house. One of the girls prodded his body with her finger. The other stroked his
face, and they started walking around him trying to make him look at them, touching him and
laughing as they did so.
Yang had now revised his disbelief in spirits, and if he had not seen them with his own
eyes walk right through the door just now, he would not have believed they were ghosts.
However, they seemed as harmless as little children and he decided to treat them as such.
'Get out of my sight, you silly ghosts,' he exclaimed. 'How dare you come here to
disturb me?' He made his voice sound as cross and belligerent as he possibly could. All the
same, he did not expect them to take fright and scuttle away as quickly as they did.
His confidence returned, Yang lit a lamp and began to read, but all the time he was aware
of other presences in the room and conscious of flitting shadows in the dark corners. He tried to
concentrate on his book, but could not quite ignore those now quite but eerie spirits which were
around him. He soon gave up trying to read and got ready for bed.
He was very tired after his busy day, but no sooner had he closed his eyes than he was
disturbed by a tickling sensation on his nose. Many times he brushed away whatever was tickling
him, but it always returned. Eventually he sneezed and in the darkness he heard sounds of
suppressed laughter. He got up, lit a candle and went back to bed again, closing his eyes and
Presently he heard a faint sound and he opened his eyes. One of the girls was coming
towards him with a feather in her delicate hand. Immediately he jumped out of bed and shouted
at her, an she ran away. Eventually he managed to get off to sleep, only to be awakened by a
tickling sensation, this time on his ear. And so it went on all night long. He couldn't get any
sleep for the wretched little ghosts, until cock-crow, and then all was peaceful, and he relapsed
into a deep sleep, not waking until long past noon.
The rest of the day was quiet and normal and Yang did some cleaning, arranging
everything to his liking. Then he settled down to study, realizing that he would probably be
plagued again by his ghostly visitors after sunset. He was reading when he became aware of a
presence, and looking up from his book he beheld his beautiful visitors of the previous night
watching him. He ignored them and continued reading. Then suddenly one of them came up to
him and closed his book.
He jumped up in anger. 'Am I to have no peace in this house?' he shouted. 'I have
important work to do, so go away.'