European and North American folklore is rife with beloved horror stories of werewolves, vampires, goblins and demons. Yet China has a rich history that has spanned thousands of years of civilization. And with that legacy comes amazing monster legends. In this account, we discover the monsters, legends and lore of ghouls, beasts and devils important in folk accounts from China. We delve into stories including the legend of the feared Nian that inspired certain Chinese New Year practices designed to ward off the legendary man-eating beast, discover the awful tales of Jiangshi and the hair raising story of an eerie giant snake that was said to hunt elephants.
Vampires and zombies may be a staple of Western horror fiction, but Chinese legend contains eerily explicit accounts of a haunting creature that could be reasonably said to combine the most fearsome elements of both entities. Called a vampire but much like a zombie in its mannerisms and actions, the Jiangshi is said to dress like an entity from the Qing Dynasty. The monstrous thing lives by sucking qi, the “life force” of living creatures, causing them to die, at night. In the daytime, the entity retires to lurk in dark cavities in the forest, often under the roots of a tree, or eerily, rests in a coffin.
Due to its horrific corpse-like stiffness, an attribute which the term “jiang” speaks, as it literally means “stiff” the Jiangshi is forced to move with a hopping action, when it is active and hunting for prey. Such movement overcomes the stiff entity’s inability to flex or bend due to rigor mortis. The Jiangshi may be in varying states of decomposition when it appears, and is defined by long, scythe-like fingernails and a bizarrely elongated tongue in some cultural depictions. According to Ji Xiaolan, a scholar of the Qing Dynasty, the Jiangshi may come as an ancient corpse that remains in good condition, or as a recently killed body that has suddenly sprung back to life.
A dreadful monster of Chinese legend, the Nian was a nuisance and, sometimes, a man-eater that became firmly embedded in psyches and inspired many fanciful accounts. Said to be a beast that often came down from mountains when it struck, at times devouring very young people, the flesh eating Nian is credited with inspiring some Chinese New Year rituals designed to exhaust the creature and render it harmless. Said to enjoy scaring people, the monster known as Nian took pleasure in scaring its victims, excitedly anticipating the coming of the Chinese New Year just so the opportunity to scare people would be once again available.
After this went on for some time, a villager clothed in red had the effect of frightening the Nian right back when the Nian came for him. When the Nian ran away, people came to the conclusion over time that wearing red, which was seen as synonymous with luck, and also setting off fireworks and using noisemakers could be an effective way to ward off the Nian and other wicked spirits. Being prepared is a matter of importance, and thus, New Year’s Eve is just the time for these activities to head off any visits from the Nian.
Chinese legends are awash with stories of dragons, and amongst legends of various dragons and other giant reptiles, some honorable and representing royalty, there are also the purely horrific in nature and conduct. While feared in many cultures, and not without a reasonable basis given the existence of potentially man-eating constrictors around the globe, the image of the snake of unearthly proportion finds itself well represented in Chinese mythology. And elephants be warned! A gigantic and monstrous elephant-hunting reptile, the Bashe or Pa Snake is a mythical beast said to lurk in waters where an elephant may come to try and drink.
Upon locating such giant prey, the Bashe was said to swallow the elephant and, three years later, throw up its bones. The behaviors of real giant constrictors and the legends as they are passed around the world may have led to exaggerated accounts of python biology. Claims of size in these serpents have reached the likes of 90 feet, while the colors of the creature might vary according to where it lived, specimen by specimen. The accounts remain something of a mystery – could large constrictors live in regions and remain relatively unknown? Or have folktales not only been greatly exaggerated, but also transported into regions where constrictors are not known to occur and inspired accounts of their alleged local presence?
Revenge may be a double-edged sword, but sometimes, which side of a sword you are standing beside can make a difference in survival, according to legend. On one hand, speaking the truth could put one in danger, but lying, trickery and cunning could also land one in hot water, or beside a sharp blade. A liar-hunter and honorable, yet eerily swift, dispatcher of proven wrongdoers according to standards of fair justice, the mythical Xiezhi of Chinese legend was famed in the Tang Dynasty as a bizarre and deadly beast that came from the wild resembling a mix of goat and unicorn.
Able to distinguish the guilty from the innocent, the disturbing but revered “beast of justice” was said to armed with a single, sharp horn, coupled with fears jaws, and gore the accused to death or simply chew them according to legend, while protecting those deemed innocent from harm, appearing to declare their right to freedom. If someone was wrongly accused, the Xiezhi would appear to appeal for their release, but if one were on the wrong side of justice, the arrival of this beast ended hope. The legendary creature was said to belong to the Chinese Magistrate by the name of Gao Yao and continues to adorn courtrooms in carved form.
6. Jiu Feng
Worshiped as a deity by ancient denizens of Hubei Province, the Jiu Feng was best considered as a proto-phoenix, but the unearthly and distressing creature stands out among all bird myths for one reason. That is, the legendary bird was depicted and at times greatly feared in the writings and traditions of ancient China for having 9 heads. The bird was revered as a mystical creature during the times of 475-221 BC in what was, at the time, the Kingdom of Chu, viewed as a totem creature.
The weirdly capable bird would have no problem watching humans go about their tasks, and given its superpowers and the human-like faces on each of the 9 necks carried by this feathered life form, not only respect but a fear of being observed and reported to other mystical creatures might have crept into many an imaginative mind. The creature has held prominent positions in the mythology of China over its history. The Classic of Mountains and Seas, dating to the 4th century BC, contains significant discussions about the “Nine Phoenix.” In biological reality, all but malformed birds have one head, yet the mystery of how this creature came into popular belief in ancient times persists.
A feared yet honor-based creature of the dragon category, the Zhàyu eats evil humans – a creature made purely from Yin, and devouring adversaries through warfare based upon standards of energy and spiritual conduct. The creature was of importance to Taoist belief and lived in this physical world, made of Yin, which was said to rank below the world of Yang, or the world of light. Thus, the mysterious Zhàyu was supposed to help people to recall the importance of virtue.
Yet, the beast was a monster with a penchant for eating human flesh – though the twist was, you would only get eaten if you are evil. Thus, the monster was itself a creature of virtue and honor. Those who were “virtuous” would be spared. The dragon was said to warn the Emperor if he was straying from the right path, or Dao. It is popular to ask “Who will guard the guards?” but in the time of the Ming Dynasty, a statue was placed in the Rear Garden of the Palace, requiring the Emperor to pass by the statute regularly. It is also said that new statues of the beast were installed among the Forbidden City structures in Qing Dynasty times to address this matter, creating accountability as they watched the Emperor.
Poisonous snakes, spiders, and plants may be as familiar as the sun and moon in popular imagination, but a poisonous bird is outside of many people’s span of consideration. The mention of such a concept is bound to raise a few eyebrows across much of society, but the poisonfeather bird or Zhen is a fascinating and bizarre staple of Chinese legend. Reputed to have the general appearance of a wild goose and to reach the size of an eagle, the mythical poisonfeather bird was said to be a creature colored with brilliant and eye-catching purple, green and red markings.
Said to dine upon snake meat, the bird was reputed to have highly poisonous feathers, serving as an effective weapon for disposing of enemies. The male was said to be “revolving sun,” while the female was seen as “Yin shade.” So toxic was this mystery bird that a single feather placed into a drink could cause death. The poisonfeather bird remains a world mystery as to how it became a cultural concept. The first of the 5 Shanhai jing books, believed to date to the Third Century B.C.E. titled Classic of Mountains discusses the appearance and occurrence of the strange creatures and the danger they could present. The work goes on to describe a significant portion of the bird population of a certain area as being comprised of poisonfeather birds.
3. Zhong Kui
A fearsome but revered creature, the imposing Zhong Kui has played an interesting role in the mythology of China as a creature that hunted down and consumed demons. Depicted in a variety of ways throughout history, the Zhong Kui has been popularized as a ferocious humanoid monster equipped with hammers as weapons with which to dispatch demons. Said to have once been an erring human who devoted himself to a form of exorcism after physical death, the Tang Emperor Xuanzong is said to have been aided by a Zhong Kui who put out the eyes of a demon that was attacking him in his bed, and then went on to simply eat the demon.
Later depicted in the Song Dynasty as a partially humanoid yet almost gorilla or sasquatch-like beast with a massive face and long shaggy hair, the demon fighter developed something of a cult following, being depicted on talismans and door guarding likenesses, though short of being seen as a deity himself. Zhong Kui killed and ate countless demons including those afflicting humans with ailments, being known for putting out the eyes of the demons, attacking them with hammers in some cases and then using them as food. While a demon’s worst nightmare, Zhong Kui also had certain demonic servants according to legend, who were portrayed as porting him while he sat in a chair.
2. Xing Tian
It may be said “do not lose your head” in reference to maintaining one’s composure, but in one startling Chinese mythological context, the literal loss of the head did not stop a legendary creature from soldiering on, keeping up the fight. Xing Tian might be seen as the Chinese answer to the minotaur but far more dreadful in appearance and origin. The bizarre mythological headless creature was once a normal human fighter. But the creature had challenged the Yellow Emperor and was decapitated in the conflict, yet refused to give up and suddenly “evolved.”
Soldiering on, the strange entity was said to have used its nipples as eyes and bellybutton as its mouth. The great Chinese literary work Shan Hai Jing, or Classic of Mountain and Seas, completed over time by multiple authors, stated that Xing Tian had been in a fight with the Yellow Emperor, who had cut of the head of Xing Tian. The head was then left in the Changyang Mountains, while the now headless Xing Tian kept fighting back. While grotesque in appearance, the entity can well be considered a symbol of tenacity and brave perseverance.
1. Yuan gui
More clearly having standing as creatures to be truly feared than aimlessly wandering ghosts often described in Western accounts, the Yuan gui are allegedly disturbed entities which were once humans who suffered wrongful deaths. Therefore, they have a vendetta and want to fight back. And while a ghost is more eerie than a flesh and blood adversary, a ghost with a vendetta might be the worst enemy to have on your tail of all. Wandering the world as what their name literally translates to in English, “ghosts with grievance,” the Yuan gui date back to the Zhou Dynasty and continue to grip imaginations in China.
While being attacked by “ghost with grievance” is an immediate fear that may affect those hearing about this ghost, the story, like many others, is an example that still waters run deep and the outcome may be more complex than expected. Rather than simply attacking a target of vengeance, the ghosts are said to, at times, seek out a living accomplice or helper who will assist the ghost in gathering evidence to prove their “case” of wrongful death. Potentially, the ghost will follow up by seeking either redress or to restore honor to their name if lost under their circumstances of death.