Luo Ping ghost painting
On Chinese ghosts Yale historian and China expert Jonathan D. Spence, wrote in New York Review of Books, “The English word “ghost” is not really adequate to catch the range of the Chinese term gui that it is meant to encompass demon, ogre, monster, and goblin, as well as the souls of the dead and their apparitions to the living.”

The Chinese generally recognize three kinds of ghosts: 1) “orphaned ghosts,” who left no descendants to make offerings to them; 2) “vengeful ghosts,” who have died in an accident or have been angered by some perceived injustice and need to be appeased; and 3) “hungry ghosts,” who have been condemned to their ghostly form for some misdeeds they have done. They usually have huge bellies but small mouths and are so named because they are perpetually hungry because they can never get enough food to satisfy them.

Most ghosts are regarded as women because women have traditionally been more likely to be mistreated during their lives on earth and want to seek revenge against the men that mistreated them from the otherworld after they are dead. Even today many suicidal women put on red underwear before they kill themselves because they believe it will help them seek justice from the otherworld.

Many Chinese believe that ghosts reside among the living. The writer Amy Tan wrote that her father’s ghost ‘sat at our dinner table and ate Chinese food. We laid out chopsticks, and a bowl for our unseen guest at every meal.” She said there were other ghosts. “I could sense them. My mother told me I could.”

Good Websites and Sources: Traditional Religion in China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts; Deities Worshipped by Farmers China Vista ; Mazu China Vista ; Video: “Ancestor Worship, Confucian Teaching, featuring Myron L. Cohen Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Feng shui Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Feng Shui Crazy ;Skeptic’s Dictionary on Feng Shui ; Qi Gong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classical text sources ; Qi Gong Institute ; Qi Gong association of America / ; Skeptic’s Dictionary on Qi Gong

Folk Beliefs and Superstitions: Chinatown Connection ; New York Times on Earthquake superstitions ; Old Book on Superstitions or Old Book PDF ; Five Elements chinatownconnection ; I Ching Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; China Vista ; Robert Eno, Indiana University;

Funerals and Death: Chinese Beliefs About Death ; Death and Burials in China ; Grief in China Culture ; Chinese Funeral Customs China Vista; Lucky Numbers Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times article ; China View article ; News in Science ; Symbols Chinese Symbols. Com ; Chinatown Connection ; What’s Your Sign

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; Articles on Religion in China ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations ; Brooklyn College ; Religion Facts; Religious Tolerance ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; Academic Info ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies

Books: 1) James Watson and Evelyn Rawski, eds., “Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China” (Berkeley, 1988); 2) the chapter by Maurice Freedman in “The Study of Chinese Society,” ed. G. William Skinner (Stanford, 1979), pp. 296-312; 3) Laurence Thompson, “Chinese Religion” (Belmont, 1979), Chapter 3; 4) C. K. Yang, “Religion in Chinese Society” (Berkeley, 1961), pp. 40-43, 52-53; 5) Henri Doré (1914-1933), “Researches into Chinese Superstitions,” trans. M. Kennelly, 6 vols. (Shanghai), vol. 4, pp. 417 ff.]; 5) Addison, James Thayer. “Chinese Ancestor Worship: A Study of its Meaning and its Relations with Christianity” (London: The Church Literature Committee of the Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui, 1925); 6) Graham, David Crockett. “Folk Religion in Southwest China” (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution, 1961); Hsu, Francis L. K. “Under the Ancestor’s Shadow” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971); 7) "The Way of Qigong" by Kenneth Cohen (Ballantine Books); 8) "Astrology: A History" by Peter Whitfield (Abrams, 2001). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link:

Ghost Month in China

Ghost Month, or Hungry Ghost Month, begins on the full moon of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, usually around mid August, and lasts for 15 days to a month. It is a time when some Chinese believe spirits get a "summer vacation" from the other world and return to the mortal world to cause mischief and enjoy feasts, performances of Chinese opera and other activities. Firecrackers are set off to scare away dangerous ghosts while ancestors are welcomed with bonfire offerings and recitations of Buddhist scripture.

Chinese go out of their to be nice to ghosts and go about their activities with more caution than usual. Many people avoid traveling, moving into new homes, opening businesses, or getting married because ghosts associated with these endevours could cause mischief. People who die during Ghost Month are sometimes stored and buried when Ghost Month is over.

Businessmen dread Ghost Month because people are often reluctant to buy anything; partiers stay home; wives orders their husbands to come home straight form work; and tourists stay away from beach resorts out of fear of being captured by ghosts in the water. The ghost month in 2006 was particularly nasty because it was a calender year with two seventh months, when the gates of hell open and the dead walk among the living twice.

Spirits are placated with k’o t’ous (bows), prayers, offerings of chicken, pork, rice spirits and wine, and banquets and operas. Buddhists sutras are chanted to transfer merit to the dead and 2.5-meter candles are lit to honor them. After sunset many people make small fires and burn incense, paper televisions, paper Rolexes, paper cell phones, paper Mercedes Benzes and wads of “hell money” to appease the ghosts and encourage them to bring about good fortune. An old saying goes: "The bigger the flame, the better your luck will be."

The offerings and burnings can take place at the graves of ancestors but are usually directed towards ‘soul tablets” of the deceased in homes and temples. Buddhist monks and Taoist priests are hired to conduct special rituals to placate “hungry ghosts.”

Operas featuring ghosts are fixtures of Ghost Month, especially in Hong Kong. Explaining the purpose of an opera for ghosts one Hong Kong theater owner told Reuters, "This show is for the gods and the ghosts, but humans can come and watch too...What we're doing is telling the ghosts to leave us alone, not to create trouble or frighten our neighbors and kids." Empty chairs are set out for ghosts.

Ghost Month is a Chinese holiday celebrated mostly by Chinese in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong although it is making a come back in China even though it has been denounced by the government as foolish superstition.

Renderings of Chinese Ghosts

20111025-Lou Ping gho.jpg
Luo Ping ghost painting
Luo Ping was an 18th century Chinese artist who specialized in rendering ghosts. Spence wrote: “Luo Ping was not only innovative in “portraying” his ghosts with such specificity, he kept the element of surprise constantly to the fore...In the third section of his Ghost Amusement portrayed an absorbed amorous couple in unmarred human form, gazing into each other's eyes, while a man in the tall white hat of the underworld's guardians prepared to lead the couple into the netherworld. The woman's bared red shoes offered the viewer a signal that was, for the times, shockingly erotic. After four more panels of the magically displayed ghost figures, the eighth and final panel would have come with a startling force to the unprepared viewer---as two complete skeletons were portrayed standing tall and opposite each other in a clump of bare trees, dark rocks, and wild grasses. The precisely delineated specificity of these figures did not convey an auspicious message, but instead closed the scroll on a somber more than a mysterious note.” [Source: Jonathan D. Spence, New York Review of Books, in connection with Eccentric Visions: The Worlds of Luo Ping (17331799): an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, October 6, 2009 January 10, 2010]

In one series of Luo Ping scrolls he art historian Yeewan Koon wrote: “Half naked with bald pates and small swollen stomachs, the two figures also recall the world of hungry ghosts, one of the Buddhist realms of existence. But the human emotions on the faces of Luo's ghosts place them in a gray consciousness that lurks between the real and the otherworldly. In this painting, Luo has created an ethereal existence by making his ghosts both strikingly familiar, through their human pathos, and evocatively strange,through their physical deformities. [Ibid]

Koon wrote: “The second leaf is a contrast of types: a skinny, bare-chested ghost with an official's hat follows a fat, bald ghost in tattered clothes against an empty background. The oscillation between specificity of types and ambiguity of situation allows room for a range of interpretations; some viewers were prompted to read this scene as phantasmagoric social commentary. [One scholar], for example, a Hanlin academician and playwright, described the figures in leaf 2 as a “slave ghost” and his master, whom he then compared to corrupt Confucian officials. [Ibid]

This “urge to rationalize the ghosts as allegories of human behavior,” adds Koon, “is derived in part from the theatrical immediacy of the images,” and in this sense the ghost paintings catch the tensions and contrasts that were coming to dominate this time in China's history---as well as the layers of religious euphoria that lay behind the alternate reading of the scrolls title as a “realm of ghosts,” a literalness of interpretation that Luo Ping deliberately fostered by his repeated claims that he had seen the ghosts in person on many occasions. This claim, writes Koon, was a part of Luo Ping's “invented persona as an artist who saw and painted ghosts,” a persona that ‘set him apart in a capital teeming with talent.” [Ibid]

Ghosts and Pearl S. Buck

20111025-Lou Ping portrait of M. Mbamboo Hat, Shanghai musuem.jpg
Luo Ping ghost painting
In her biography Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth Hilary Spurling wrote: Pearl Sydenstricker was born into a family of ghosts. She was the fifth of seven children and, when she looked back afterward at her beginnings, she remembered a crowd of brothers and sisters at home, tagging after their mother, listening to her sing, and begging her to tell stories...The siblings who surrounded Pearl in these early memories were dreamlike as well. Her older sisters, Maude and Edith, and her brother Arthur had all died young in the course of six years from dysentery, cholera, and malaria, respectively. Edgar, the oldest, ten years of age when Pearl was born, stayed long enough to teach her to walk, but a year or two later he was gone too (sent back to be educated in the United States, he would be a young man of twenty before his sister saw him again). He left behind a new baby brother to take his place, and when she needed company of her own age, Pearl peopled the house with her dead siblings. “These three who came before I was born, and went away too soon, somehow seemed alive to me,” she said.” [Source: Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth by Hilary Spurling (Simon & Schuster, 2010)]

“Every Chinese family had its own quarrelsome, mischievous ghosts who could be appealed to, appeased, or comforted with paper people, houses, and toys. As a small child lying awake in bed at night, Pearl grew up listening to the cries of women on the street outside calling back the spirits of their dead or dying babies. In some ways she herself was more Chinese than American. “I spoke Chinese first, and more easily,” she said. “If America was for dreaming about, the world in which I lived was Asia. I did not consider myself a white person in those days.” Her friends called her Zhenzhu (Chinese for Pearl) and treated her as one of themselves. She slipped in and out of their houses, listening to their mothers and aunts talk so frankly and in such detail about their problems that Pearl sometimes felt it was her missionary parents, not herself, who needed protecting from the realities of death, sex, and violence.” [Ibid]

‘she was an enthusiastic participant in local funerals on the hill outside the walled compound of her parents' house: large, noisy, convivial affairs where everyone had a good time. Pearl joined in as soon as the party got going with people killing cocks, burning paper money, and gossiping about foreigners making malaria pills out of babies' eyes.” [Ibid]

Chinese Spirits

Spirits of five planets
The writer and dissident Liao Yiwu met one man in prison who was there because he burned is wife alive, convinced he was possessed by an evil dragon. The man converted to Christianity and prayed everyday, “hoping that evil dragon will not come back and harm people again.”

Some villagers say that ghost no longer exist because Mao got rid of them in 1957. Even so, to hedge their bets perhaps, they wear charms with clusters of old coins. “The more coins the more you can avoid unclean ghosts,” one village women told the writer Amy Tan.

Many Chinese believe in animals spirits. The fox spirit is particularly well known. So too are the rabbit and snake. Some people protect their house from the fox’s influence with a circle incense.

Many Chinese believe that certain people have the ability ro see the spirit world. Clairvoyants are called mingbairen, “those who understand.” They were discouraged in the Mao era but have made a comeback in recent years.

Chinese Ghostbuster at Work

Describing a Chinese ghostbuster at work in Singapore, Philip Lim of AFP wrote: “The corner looked empty...”There's an old woman standing there, wearing an old blue dress, and she has curly hair,” professional exorcist Chew Hon Chin told his stunned client in the brightly-lit living room. “Let's ignore her for now. Let me clear your house of dirty stuff first and I'll move her out later,” the 64-year-old Chew told housewife Zhang Qiao Zhu, who hurriedly led him to one of the flat's bedrooms.” [Source: Philip Lim, Agence France-Presse, February 12, 2011]

“Inside, the stern-faced Chew produced a pair of metal rods bent at a 40-degree angle, stared at the black balls swaying gently at each end and finally pointed to a closed cupboard. “There is a blue towel with a striped pattern inside,” Chew told Zhang in Mandarin. “Take it out and remove it from the room.” Zhang, 56, complied meekly, not questioning Chew's pronouncements or his apparent ability to peer through closed wardrobe doors to identify "tainted" objects within.” [Ibid]

“Chew exorcises ghosts and repels curses for a living, and the word "Ghostbusters" is spelled out in English in a red sign with gold lettering above the entrance to his shop. Zhang called him when she sensed there was something strange in her neighbourhood, or more specifically her house, after feeling someone---or something---choking her every night whenever she tried to sleep.” [Ibid]

“On a another house call, Chew used his metal rods to pinpoint what he said was the spirit's location, then flung coarse salt into a small bronze urn filled with burning charcoal. A helper tossed in onion skins to produce an acrid burst of smoke. “Ghosts are afraid of this smell, when the salt crackles it's like an explosion to ghosts and they will run,” Chew said confidently.” Later he took his clients to a quiet clearing in suburban Singapore, where he lit a ring of fire around them and instructed them to step over it. After the ritual, the clients were soaked in a tub of herb-spiced water. “Fire burns away all the evil from your body, water cleanses the soul,” Chew said.” [Ibid]

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Luo Ping ghost painting

China Ghostbuster’s Story

“Chew---a BMW-driving former nightclub owner---said business was good in predominantly ethnic-Chinese Singapore, where religion and superstition remain deeply rooted despite mass affluence. Chew, who says he handles three to four cases a day, offers services from "luck enhancement" costing 88 Singapore dollars (68 US) to "deceased appeasement" at "100 dollars per soul"---although more difficult spirits command prices reaching into the thousands.” [Source: Philip Lim, Agence France-Presse, February 12, 2011]

“Chew said he acquired his skills after being cured of a curse placed by a vengeful former employee whom he had sacked. He vomited blood, mosquitoes and metal filings for more than 10 years, Chew claimed. After his recovery, Chew said the supreme Taoist deity known as the Jade Emperor visited him, made him a "godson" and told him the secrets of divining and exorcism, which entailed 108 days of meditation on a deserted island in neighbouring Indonesia.” [Ibid]

“Today he says has a kind of sixth sense. "I have the eye of the heavens---when you come into my office I can immediately see the bad things behind you," the devout Taoist told an AFP reporter, pointing to the supposed location of a "third eye" on his forehead. Chew said this enhanced vision allows him to detect malevolent energy emanating from specific items which he describes in painstaking detail to customers visiting his shop.” [Ibid]

“Chew's shop, situated in a shopping mall a 15-minute drive from the financial centre, also doubles as a ghostly jail, with sealed plastic "cells" containing objects discovered during his work lining a wall beside an elaborate altar to the Jade Emperor. Vials containing dark liquids, macabre finger-sized dolls and wooden carvings of faces beneath an ominous sign saying: “Nice to see, fun to touch. Once broken, more business for us!”[Ibid]

Chew was sanguine about his close proximity to the spirit world, "As a policeman or soldier, I should not be afraid of criminals or war. As a ghostbuster, I should definitely not be afraid of ghosts, in fact ghosts should be afraid of me!" [Ibid]

20111025-Lou Ping ghost paint, ressel fok.jpg
Luo Ping ghost painting

Ghost Marriage in China

In Chinese tradition, a ghost marriage (in Chinese "spirit marriage") is a marriage in which one or both parties are deceased. Chinese ghost marriage was usually set up by the family of the deceased and performed for a number of reasons, including: the marriage of a couple previously engaged before one member’s death, to integrate an unmarried daughter into a patrilineage, to ensure the family line is continued, or to maintain that no younger brother is married before an elder brother. Other forms of ghost marriage are practiced worldwide, from Sudan, to India, to France since 1959. The origins of Chinese ghost marriage are largely unknown, and reports of it being practiced today can still be found.[Source: Wikipedia]

Ghost marriages are often set up by request of the spirit of the deceased, who, upon "finding itself without a spouse in the other world," causes misfortune for its natal family, the family of its betrothed, or for the family of the deceased’s married sisters. "This usually takes the form of sickness by one or more family members. When the sickness is not cured by ordinary means, the family turns to divination and learns of the plight of the ghost through a séance."

More benignly, a spirit may appear to a family member in a dream and request a spouse. Marjorie Topley, in "Ghost Marriages Among the Singapore Chinese: A Further Note," relates the story of one fourteen-year old Cantonese boy who died. A month later he appeared to his mother in a dream saying that he wished to marry a girl who had recently died in Ipoh, Perak. The son did not reveal her name, but his mother used a Cantonese female spirit medium and "through her the boy gave the name of the girl together with her place of birth and age, and details of her horoscope which were subsequently found to be compatible with his."

Because Chinese custom dictates that younger brothers should not marry before their elder brothers, a ghost marriage for an older, deceased brother may be arranged just prior to a younger brother’s wedding to avoid "incurring the disfavour of his brother’s ghost." Additionally, in the days of immigration, ghost marriages were used as a means to "cement a bond of friendship between two families." However, there have been no recent cases reported.

Ghost Marriage of a Woman in China

According to the ghost marriage custom upon the death of her fiancé, a bride could choose to go through with the wedding, in which the groom was represented by a white cockerel at the ceremony. However, some girls were hesitant since this form of ghost marriage required her to participate in the funeral ritual, mourning customs (including strict dress and conduct standards), take a vow of celibacy, and immediately take up residence with his family. A groom also had the option of marrying his late fiancée, with no disadvantages, but there have been no records of such weddings. [Source: Wikipedia]

When it comes to death customs, an unmarried Chinese woman has no descendants to worship her or care for her as part of a lineage. In every household, an altar is prominently displayed with the spirit tablets of the paternal ancestors and the images of the gods. A married woman’s tablet is kept at the altar of her husband’s family, however, should a woman of eligible age pass away unmarried, her family is prohibited from placing her tablet on the altar of her natal home. Instead, she will be "given a temporary paper tablet, placed not on the domestic altar but in a corner near the door." Hence, the important duty of Chinese parents in marrying off their children becomes increasingly important for their daughters. Since women are only able to acquire membership in descent lines through marriage, ghost marriage became a viable solution to ensure that unmarried, deceased daughters still had "affiliation to a male descent line" and could be appropriately cared for after death. Another death custom concerning an unmarried daughter prohibited her from dying in her natal home. Instead, a temple or "Death House. for spinsters was, or families take their daughter to a shed, empty house, or outlying buildings to die.

Not only did the Chinese customs concerning death greatly burden the family, but an unmarried daughter became a source of great embarrassment and concern. In Charlotte Ikels "Parental Perspectives on the Significance of Marriage" she reports, "Traditionally, girls who did not marry were regarded as a threat to the entire family and were not allowed to continue living at home. Even in contemporary Hong Kong, I was told that unmarried women are assumed to have psychological problems. Presumably no normal person would remain unmarried voluntarily". For girls that did in fact choose to remain unmarried, "bride-initiated spirit marriage" (or a ghost marriage initiated by a living bride) was a successful "marriage-resistance practice" that allowed them to remain single while still being integrated into a lineage. However, it did come with some negative connotations, being called a "fake spirit-marriage", or referred to as "marrying a spirit tablet", and a way to avoid marriage.

Ghost Marriage of a Man in China

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Luo Ping ghost painting
If a son died before marriage, his parents arranged a ghost marriage in order to provide him with progeny to continue the lineage and give him his own descendants. "A man in China does not marry so much for his own benefit as for that of the family: to continue the family name; to provide descendants to keep up the ancestral worship; and to give a daughter-in-law to his mother to wait on her and be, in general, a daughter to her". Occasionally a live girl is taken as a wife for a dead man but this is rare. The ceremony itself took on characteristics of both a marriage and a funeral, with the spirit of the deceased bride being “led” by a medium or priest, while her body is transferred from her grave to be laid next to her husband. [Source: Wikipedia]

If the family was "suitably rich to tempt a [living] girl," the ghost marriage might also profit them with the asset of having a daughter-in-law. Since a daughter is not considered "a potential contributor to the lineage into which she is born," but rather "it is expected that she will give the children she bears and her adult labor to the family of her husband", the wife of a deceased son would benefit her husband’s family by becoming a caregiver in their home.

Once the deceased son had a wife, the family could adopt an heir, or a "grandson"to continue on the family line. The purpose of the daughter-in-law was not to produce offspring, as she was to live a chaste life, but she became the "social instrument" to enable the family to adopt. The family preferred to adopt patrilineally-related male kin, usually through a brother assigning one of his own sons to the lineage of the deceased. The adoption was carried out by writing up a contract, which was then placed under the dead man’s tablet. As an adopted son, his duties were to make ancestral offerings on his birth and death dates, and he was additionally "entitled to inherit his foster father’s share of the family estate."

Arranging a Ghost Marriage, Doweries and Bridewealth

If a family wishes to arrange a ghost marriage, they may consult with a matchmaker of sorts: In a Cantonese area of Singapore "there is in fact a ghost marriage broker’s sign hung up in a doorway of a Taoist priest’s home. The broker announces that he is willing to undertake the search for a family which has a suitable deceased member with a favourable horoscope." Others do not use the aid of any priest or diviner, but believe that the groom the ghost-bride has chosen "[will] somehow identify himself."Typically, the family lays a red envelope (usually used for gifts of money) as bait in the middle of the road. They then take hiding, and when the envelope is picked up by a passer-by, they come out and announce his status of being the chosen bridegroom. [Source: Wikipedia]

The exchange of bridewealth and dowries between the two families involved in a ghost marriage is quite "variable," and families may exchange both, one or the other, or even just red money packets. There is no standard amount exchanged, but several of Janice Stockard’s informants reported that the groom’s family provided the bride with a house. In another reported ghost-marriage, the groom’s family sent wedding cakes and NT $120 to the brides family, who returned it with a dowry of a gold ring, gold necklace, several pairs of shoes, and six dresses "all fitted for the use of the groom’s living wife."

Ghost Marriage Ceremony in China

In a ghost-marriage, many of the typical marriage rites are observed. However, since one or more parties is predeceased, they are otherwise represented, most often by effigies made of paper, bamboo, or cloth.

For instance, a ghost-couple at their marriage feast, the bride and groom may be constructed of paper bodies over a bamboo frame with a papier-mâché head. On either side of them stands their respective paper servants, and the room contains many other paper effigies of products they would use in their home, such as a dressing table (complete with a mirror), a table and six stools, a money safe, a refrigerator, and trunks of paper clothes and cloth. After the marriage ceremony is complete, all of the paper belongings are burned to be sent to the spirit world to be used by the couple.

In another ceremony that married a living groom to a ghost bride, the effigy was similar, but instead constructed with a wooden backbone, arms made from newspaper, and the head of "a smiling young girl clipped from a wall calendar." Similarly, after the marriage festivities, the dummy is burned. In both cases, the effigies wore real clothing, similar to that which is typically used in marriage ceremonies. This includes a pair of trousers, a white skirt, a red dress, with a lace outer dress. Additionally, they were adorned with jewelry; though similar in fashion to that of a typical bride’s, it was not made of real gold. If a living groom is marrying a ghost-bride, he will wear black gloves instead of the typical white. Most of the marriage ceremony and rites are performed true to Chinese custom. In fact, "the bride was always treated as though she was alive and participating in the proceedings" from being fed at the wedding feast in the morning, to being invited in and out of the cab, to being told of her arrival at the groom’s house. One observable difference in a ghost marriage is that the ancestral tablet of the deceased is placed inside the effigy, so that "the bride’s dummy [is] animated with the ghost that [is] to be married," and then placed with the groom’s family’s tablets at the end of the marriage festivities.

Ghost Wedding Revival Fuels China Body Trade

Leo Lewis wrote in The Times, “A gang in northern China has been caught trying to re-sell and re-marry a girl who had been sold and married a few days earlier, despite being dead on both occasions. The lack of pulse, however, was not something that troubled the girl's first husband or groom-in-waiting, who were also both dead and, according to superstition, in need of a spouse with whom to share the afterlife. [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times, February 24, 2012]

The arrests in Hebei province have shone a light on the country's revival of the tradition of "ghost marriages" for men who die young and unwed. Chairman Mao Zedong tried to stamp out the practice after the communists took power in 1949. Yet, in 2012, experts say, the strength of the corpse bride market has generated a complex web of players - from cadaver brokers and matchmakers for the dead to bent morticians and grave-robbers.

The trade has also evolved its own mix of price-fixing, inflation and corruption. A few years ago, a dead but reasonably fresh bride commanded about 14,000 yuan ($2200); now a body can fetch more than twice that. The increasing sums of money involved have even prompted some to commit serial murder. One man, Song Tiantang, explained after his arrest in 2007 for strangling and selling six women that "killing people and selling their bodies is less work than stealing them from graves".

Ghost weddings are most common in northern provinces with coalmining industries, where many women have migrated and left bachelors working in dangerous jobs. The latest incident in Hebei province began earlier this month when a family, surnamed Wu, sold their recently deceased daughter for 35,000 yuan to a man, Mr Liu, who saw her as the perfect match for his recently deceased brother. A spirit wedding was conducted and the two were buried together.

Mr Liu later found that his brother's grave had been raided and his inanimate sister-in-law had vanished - a disappearance that police discovered was a planned elopement with a corpse groom from another town. The gang of five was caught attempting to sell the girl for 30,000 yuan, the discount reflecting several days of mild putrefaction since her previous nuptials.

Image Sources: University of Washington; United College in Hong Kong; Luo Ping ghost painting from the Met in New York, Nelson-Atking Museum, Ressel Fok collection; Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2012

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