Episode 44: Do Ghosts Exist?

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Do ghosts exist? Today we are going to talk a short myth about a guy named Ruan Zhan 阮瞻. Ruan Zhan is a real historical figure from Jin Dynasty 晋朝, which is between the year 265 ~ 420. In the real history, he was a peaceful person who didn’t really care about fame and considerate. He liked to spend time alone and reading. He would argue with people about what he believed without too many words but persuasive. He was a man who was skeptical about the existence of ghosts. Every time he argued about he ended up with leaving the others speechless. He died around 30 years old.


What I just said was the real history, however, there is a myth about how he died at such a early age. So as I said, he didn’t believe the existence of ghosts and liked to argue about it with people. I guess because a lot of people believed there were ghosts in the ancient time. In the book In Search of the Sacred 搜神记, it says, one day, Ruan Zhan had a guest visiting him. They chatted and the guest was knowledgeable and good at logic as well. They started to talk about the existence of ghosts. Since they both were talented, the arguments lasted for a while. The guest couldn’t persuaded Ruan Zhan and got annoyed, “ghosts and immortals, are believed by wise people throughout history. Why don’t you believe their existence? To be honest, I am a ghost.” accordingly the guest transformed into a ghost and disappeared. Ruan Zhan got shocked and couldn’t say a word. After about a year, he died of illness.

Of course this is a myth and I am not sure what kind of disease Ruan Zhan really had that led to death. I am curious about the argument between a ghost and a guy who didn’t believe in ghost. Imagine you were a ghost, how would you persuade somebody the existence of yourself besides transforming into a ghost form? It probably would be just as hard to convince somebody that you were a ghost as it would be that you were not a ghost.


搜神记 In Search of the Sacred

阮瞻 Ruan Zhan

Episode 12: The Underworld

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In different cultures, people are always curious about what the afterlife is like and where do our spirits go after our physical bodies deceased. Today we are going to talk about the underworld.

In Christianity, there is the idea of “hell”, which is a little different from the Chinese culture. Since China is affected by Buddhism, Taoism and of course regional culture through thousands of years of history, when we talk about one concept or one tradition, it is a little bit complex and always a long story. Diyu地狱, the closest translation for hell, where di means the ground and yu means prison. However, the differences from hell in Christianity and the underworld in China are diyu is a place everybody goes after death instead of a result of a divine punishment and also the stay in the underworld is not eternal because of karma and reincarnation. From the Chinese culture perspective, I think the better translation for underworld is YingJian阴间. Ying is the Ying in Ying Yang. Jian means space. We call the world we live in YangJian阳间, so the space we live after death is YingJian.

YingJian, the underworld is partly based on the Buddhist concept of Naraka and is depicted a place with various levels and chambers. Diyu, the hell, is part of the underworlds. Before Zhou Dynasty 周朝, which is between 1046 BC to 256 BC, Chinese people already had the idea of HunPo魂魄, which represents the body and spirit. After a person died, the spirit goes to the sky and the body goes to the ground. Since Han Dynasty 汉朝, which is between 202 BC to the year 220, we had the concept of 阴间 from Taoism. Since the underworld is like the world we are in, there are different gods in charge of different chambers and levels.

In Taoism, Dongyue the great 东岳大帝, is in charge of life and death of all creatures. Dongyue means the east mountain, which indicates the Mountain Tai 泰山 in the east of China. Because east represents the beginning where lives are born. Fengdu Emperor 酆都大帝, is one of the assistants of Dongyue the great. He is in charge of the hell, where bad spirits get punishment. Fengdu, a real place in the west south China, is considered as the entrance to the hell. Today you can visit there since it becomes a touristy spot for people experiencing the afterlife.


Since the Buddhism came to China, we had the concept of the “ Ten Courts of the hell” 十殿阎罗 and 18 levels of hell, which is simplified from 134 worlds of hell in the Buddhist text. Sinners get tortures in different level based on the sins like the descipting in the book Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The tortures includes mountains of knives, cauldron torture, burning, ice world and so on. Influenced by Buddhism, YanLuoWang 阎罗王 is the King of Hell. YanLuo is a transcription of the Sanskrit for King Yama. YanLuoWang is probably the most well-known god in the underworld in China. He is portrayed as a man with a red face, bulging eyes and a long beard, which I am sure looks differently from the image in Hindu vedas since he wears a traditional Chinese robe and a traditional Chinese judge’s cap. Similarly to the original Yama god, he is the fair judge of all the dead. The final judgement is also common in different cultures and definitely conveys the meaning to warn people behave well when they are alive. However, in the Chinese version, he has a book listing every soul and death date for every life.

You know the book Journey to the West 西游记, a fantasy novel published in the 16th in Ming Dynasty 明朝. We will tell stories from this book in the future since it is one of the four greatest classical novels in China. The monkey king in the novel just changed the book to change people’s lives. He saw his name that he could live for 342 years and he crossed all the monkeys’ names from the book, which means they would be no longer controlled by YanLuoWang. YanLuoWang’s assistants Ox-head and Horse- face 牛头马 面, two guardians of hell would bring the newly dead to YanLuoWang for judgment. Human with merit with be rewarded good future lives such as born in a rich family. Those committed misdeeds would be sentenced to miserable future lives or to torture. The torture in the hell can be years or thousands of years before reincarnation.


DizangPusa地藏菩萨, a transcription from Ksitigarbha from Buddhism is another god we believe, who is depicted as a Buddhist monk with halo and is regarded as the Bodhisattva of hell-beings.

Maybe it is commendable to be a good person knowing there is no underworld because you choose to be.



阴间 YingJian/underworld

东岳大帝 Dongyue the great

酆都大帝 Fengdu Emperor

泰山 Mountain Tai

十殿阎罗 Ten Courts of the hell

Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

阎罗王 YanLuoWang

King Yama

西游记 Journey to the West

牛头马 面 ox-head and Horse- face

地藏菩萨 DizangPusa


Episode 11: Ghostbusters

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Recently we talked about the myth of year and some traditions people do to get ready for the new year. People always have the best wishes for the future and hope bad luck can go away. One thing Chinese people do is to put pictures of the door gods on the gate. Menshen门神, the door gods, are a pair of guardians of doors in Chinese mythology. In Chinese mythology, on the contrary to one god belief in Christianity, there are different gods in charge of different things. In a household, there are gods in charge of the gate,the kitchen, the well and the land. Among these, the gate is one of most important one since it connects the house and the outside. Good luck can come through the gate to you and of course bad spirits can haunt for you through the gate too. That’s why on the day of New Year’s eve, we like to put paintings on the gate to protect us from bad spirits. Similarly on Christmas Day, people put wreaths on the gate. Unlike the beautiful wreaths, the paintings of gods of door are kind of scary because they look very ferocious. I remember when I was a kid I always got scared when I saw them on people’s gates.

The earliest version of the divine pair are ShenShu神荼 and YuLv郁垒. In the book Classic of mountains and seas山海经,it says in the Sea Cang 沧海, there is the Mountain DuShuo 度朔山. On the mountain, there is a peach tree and the branches are 3000 miles long. In Chinese mythology, peach trees represents immortality. The east-north of the tree is the ghost gate, which is the gate to the hell. That’s where all the ghosts come in and out. At the gate, two gods ShenShu and YuLv are guarding and watching all the ghosts coming in and out. If they catch any ghosts doing evil in the human world, they would catch them with ropes and feed to tigers. That’s why people carve or paint the two gods on peach wood and attach it on the gate. The ancient Chinese gates are mostly double gates so they could attach one god on each gate. Now people just print them on paper instead of on the wood.


But since Tang Dynasty, the deified generals QinChubao秦叔宝 and YuchiJingde尉迟敬德 have been more popular. In the book SaoJiaoSouShenDaQuan三教搜神大全, it says, Emperor Taizong of Tang 唐太宗, who was the second emperor of Tang dynasty ruling from the year 626 to 649, couldn’t fall asleep and heard ghosts screaming outside. So the Generals QinChubao and YuchiJingde guarded outside the door of him room at night and it went back to normal. Since then Emperor Taizong of Tang let people attached the paintings of them to the door to avoid the ghosts. Of course at first these paintings were only used in the palace and later they were used everywhere by normal people. In modern China, other deities are worshiped and served as door gods too including white tiger.


The next god we are going to talk about is another and the real ghost buster. His name is Zhongkui钟馗. People put his picture on the door too or in the house. Even you don’t know him, you probably see him on a lot of Chinese or Japanese paintings. I love paintings of Zhongkui. You can tell it is him immediately since he has a unique look. He is a grizzly guy with a hat and blue clothes. He is supposed to look ferocious too but I just think he look like a nice guy and the paintings are always about him catching ghosts which are much smaller than him. The paintings are kind of cute and cartoony for me. One of the most famous painting is by Wu Daozi吴道子, a famous artist of Tang Dynasty. On the painting, some people wrote that, Emperor XuanZong of Tang 唐玄宗, the seventh emperor of Tang dynasty, got sick from the trip to Mountain Wuli 武骊山. One night he dreamed two spirits, one big and one small. The small one was wearing red clothing and only one shoe. He had a calf nose and running with a sachet and a jade flute which were stolen from the palace. The big one was wearing hat and blue clothes, wearing leather shoes and showing one arm. The big one caught the small one and took his eyeballs out and arm. In the dream, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang asked the big one who he was. He addressed himself as Zhongkui, and said he failed the imperial examination and would help the emperor vanquish the ghosts and bad spirits. When the emperor woke up, he recovered from his illness and told Wu Daozi to draw this dream.


Remember we mentioned Taizong earlier? It seems ghosts always haunt for emperors. Maybe because they killed too many people and were afraid of they would be assassinated one day. I assume politicians find it hard to fall asleep too. Since Emperor Xuanzong of Tang was a Taoism believer, Zhongkui became a god in the Taoism. Besides catching ghosts, he can command 80000 demons too. In the folktale Zhongkui failed the examination because of his disfigured appearance like Pu Songling蒲松龄, the author of Strange stories from a Chinese studio聊斋志异. The imperial examination was partly a beauty contest. In anger, Zhongkui committed to suicide upon the palace steps. After Zhongkui died, the Hell King gave him the title of king of ghosts to hunt and maintain ghosts. His friend Du Ping杜平, who got the top honors in the exam buried him. To repay his friend’s kindness, Zhongkui gave his younger sister in marriage to him. Although Zhongkui was not good looking, his sister was a beauty. There are paintings of ghosts carrying his sister on the way to the wedding in the history.

An interesting fact is that the name of the single engine fighter aircraft used by the Japanese Air Force in WWII against US Air Force Nakajima Ki-44 is called Shoki, which is Zhongkui in Japanese. Maybe they wished their fighters to defeat the US fighters as Zhongkui catching ghosts. Not sure if ghosts exist, but world peace my wish.


门神 Menshen/ door gods



山海经Classic of mountains and seas

秦叔宝 QinChubao


三教搜神大全 SaoJiaoSouShenDaQuan

钟馗 Zhongkui

唐玄宗 Emperor XuanZong of Tang

唐太宗 Emperor Taizong of Tang

吴道子 Wu Daozi

聊斋志异Strange stories from a Chinese studio

Episode 8: The Booze Buddy

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How do you usually make friends? Interests help. In today’s story, the two man became friends because they both like drinking. They are booze buddies and true bros. People make friends in bars but do they make friends in bars with … ghosts?

Before we start the story, I want to mention a book where this story is from. It is called LiaoZhaiZhiYi聊斋志异, strange stories from a Chinese Studio, one of my favorite books. It is weird because I don’t really read or watch any horror books or movies , however, this is a ghost book. It is a collection of stories about ghosts and immortals. I don’t think this book is really horrify to read since the purpose of book is not to scare the readers and there are a lot of love stories between a poor young intelligent man and a beautiful fox spirit. If you know one of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books called the Dream Hunters, you know what I am talking about. Neil said his book was based on an old Japanese folktale by Ozaki. I think Ozaki definitely was inspired this Chinese book since it came out hundreds years earlier. LiaoZhai聊斋in the name LiaoZhaiZhiYi is the name of the author PuSongling蒲松龄‘s study room or studio. In the ancient Chinese, literati and scholars always named their study rooms to represent their spiritual and intelligent interests. PuSongling was a very knowledgeable and talented scholar from Qing Dynasty, between the year 1640 to 1715. However, he wasn’t very lucky in the imperial examination in his life so he couldn’t get a position in the government. He spent his life as a tutor. Some people say the reason he didn’t get a good ranking in the exam is that he was not a very good looking guy and the corruption of the society. So his stories are about ghosts and spirits but not really. He used his stories as a weapon to describe the skewed feudal system and the unfair examination system. The love stories are his fantasies for me. As a poor scholar himself, who doesn’t desire love from a beautiful and pure girl who loves him and helps him overcome difficulties? Maybe not from the reality since it is hardly possible, but a girl who is a fox may make his dream come true. Throughout history, the image of fox spirits is a mixture of good and evil just like human. I love those stories and definitely will talk about more in the future.


Today I am going to tell a cute story about a fox guy. Yeah, in this book, besides fox ladies there are fox guys, fox families, and etc.. There was a guy named CheSheng车生. He could barely support his life expanses, however, he liked drinking. He couldn’t fall asleep without having three glasses of alcohol. Maybe he was an alcoholic and he always had booze at home. One night, he awoke from sleep in the middle of night and found a person sleeping on his bed. At first, he thought it was his clothes which he used as a blanket. And then he touched it and it was very furry. He carefully looked at it under the light and found out it was a fox. He found his empty liquor bottle next to it and smiled and said, “ this is my drinking buddy!” He didn’t even get suspicous or scared but happy. So he went back to bed with the fox. During the night, the fox woke up and CheSheng said, “looks like you had a good sleep.” It turned out that the fox was a good looking young guy. In a lot of Chinese spirits stories, the spirits would change back to their original forms like fox in this story when they are drunk or in bad condition. Other times, they show up as human shapes. The fox guy keeled down and thanked CheShengthat he didn’t kill him. CheSheng said, “ I love drinking and people think I am crazy. But you understand me. If you don’t mind, let’s be drinking buddies. You can come and visit whenever you want.” Apprently, CheSheng already treated the fox guy as his friends. And they went back to sleep again.

The next morning, when Che Sheng woke up, the fox guy already left. He prepared a whole bottle of wine just to wait for the fox. When night fell, the fox guy came. They talked and drank. The fox guy had a pretty high alcohol tolerance and very humorous. They felt like they knew each other for a long time. The fox guy said,” You have been treated me with great wine couple of times. How should I pay you back?” Che Sheng said,” It was just a little bit of wine. Don’t worry about it”. The fox guy kept saying “ You are not very rich and I will help you with the money for drinking.” So the next night , the fox told Che Sheng,” Go to the Southeast direction for 7 miles, you can find money somebody lost on the road. Go and get it as soon as possible.” The next morning, Che Sheng did what he was told and found 2 grands. He bought dishes and wine for the night with the fox. The fox told him again, “ there is money in the basement in the backyard. Somebody hid it. Go and get it.” The fo guy is just like a money detector! Che Sheng never got suspicious and did it again. Of course, he found money again. This time there were thousands of money. Che Sheng was happy and said,” I have money now and don’t have to worry about drinking.” The fox said,” you will spend all of it one day. Let me think of something else.” The next night, the fox told Che Sheng, “ the price of buckwheat in the market now is pretty low. This is good stuff and go and store some.” This fox even has a knowledge of markets and business! Che Sheng bought 40 shiof buckwheat. Shi is an ancient Chinese unit of weight. 40 shi is maybe more than 2 tons of buckwheat. People in the neighbor hood laughed at him. After not too long, it was the dry season, all the wheat and beans were dead in the field. Only buckwheat survived. So Che Sheng sold the seeds of buckwheat and made 10 times of money he invested. From then on, he became a real rich man. He bought 200 acres of fertile fields and followed the fox’s advises about when and what crops he should plant. The fox is an expert of argriculture now! They had been best friends and drinking buddies. The fox had good relationship with Che Sheng’s wife and regarded Che Sheng’s children as his own. After Che Sheng died, the fox guy never came back again. What a great friend the fox is. He was smart and knowledgeable. They were never suspicious of each other and were life long friends. I can definitely imagine the author was drinking in his studio alone at night and wished there was a great booze buddy drinking along. Maybe he did see a fox outside of the window and wrote down this story.


聊斋志异LiaoZhaiZhiYi/Strange stories from a Chinese studio


Neil Gaiman’s Sandman book – Dream Hunters


清朝 Qing Dynasty