by Virginia Carraway Stark
“Tell me your name, so you are not a nameless ghost after you are slain.” -Ancient Chinese Saying
The Chinese pantheon of spirits has many types of beings that may be classified as ‘demons’ by western terms. This is a cultural error as many of the spirits in Chinese mythology may be mischievous or occasionally evil but are more complex than the concept of a western demon and includes spirits and ghosts as well as fallen celestial beings.
Many ‘demons’ were once animals who have gained magical powers through good or evil works and through Taoism. Animals and other beings practice magic in order to obtain immortality or deification and the result can be good or evil. The range of stories is varied by Western terms: animals, skeletons, rivers, streams, trees, ghosts… nearly anything is capable of taking on supernatural proportions that can be interpreted as demonic.
Although there are many types of beings there is one generic term that translates roughly into ‘evil’ and it is a term applied to many spirits when the person who encounters them doesn’t know how to define them as anything else. Most spirits have genres and classifications.
There are the fox spirits who are usually female spirits who are attractive as they are mischievous. They can assume human form and who like to wreck up happy homes. Calling a woman a ‘fox’ is considered an insult equivalent to ‘home wrecker’ in western terms. There is another ‘demon’ that’s name translates essentially into ‘full figured women. The assumption being that at the time food was so scarce and there were so few full figured women that it could only be a creature of evil who could attain such a figure.
Many of the Chinese demons are women as women were often mistrusted and much of the culture was a misogynistic one. Calling a women a demon was an easy way to dispose of an unwanted or opinionated wife.
It wasn’t only women who were targeted as demons. The Chinese had a deep seated belief in zombies as well and believed that curses, sometimes from demons could cause someone to be turned into a ‘slant eyed, stiff limbed being with no thought of their own’. It was said that an emperor’s son was once cursed in this way.
Generally there were ‘demons’ everywhere. There were demons in springs that had to be appeased, demons of waterfalls, demons with nine tails, really if there was a place or a purpose there was a demon associated with it. This shows a society of fear. Much of feudal China lived not knowing from one day to the next if they would be raided, if their wives or families would be taken from them, if their crops or homes would be burned and this bred fear into every aspect of life.
In addition to demons, ghosts were often confused with demons. It was believed that warriors who were killed and whose names were unknown would become evil spirits. Any suicide became a hungry ghost that would haunt those who wronged them in life and anyone else they came into contact with. Anyone who died and was forgotten could become lost in the spirit world and become evil, in this way the Chinese idea of demon is much different as Western philosophy tends to dictate that a being is either good or evil.
This is a reminder that the spirit realm is a place of the unknown. That our ideas of how things are can in no way be considered definitive or proven. There are many ways of looking at the world and getting caught into the idea of demon=evil is short sighted when the rest of the world sees the concept as more of a kaleidoscope and less of an obvious choice of good versus evil.