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Luo Ping ghost painting
In China, a ghost marriage ( "spirit marriage" in Chinese) is a marriage in which one or both parties are dead. It is usually set up by the family of the deceased and performed for various reasons, including: the death of an engaged person before the wedding, to integrate an unmarried woman into a patrilineage, to allow a younger brother to get married and to ensure the family line is continued. In China it is often done so an unmarried man is not alone in the afterlife or to to ensure the family line is continued. Other forms of ghost marriage are found in Sudan, India, and France since 1959. [Source: Wikipedia]

The marriage is often prompted by a dream and some other perceived communication with the dead person. In "Ghost Marriages Among the Singapore Chinese:" Marjorie Topley, relates the story of a 14-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."

Websites and Sources: Marriage: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinatown ConnectionChinatown Connection ; Travel China Guide ; Agate Travel : Dating Chinatown Connection Chinatown Connection

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, take a vow of celibacy, and immediately take up residence with his family. [Source: Wikipedia]

In accordance with traditional Chinese beliefs, 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. If a single woman of marriageable dies, 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." If she is married in a ghost marriage she receives a tablet kept at the altar of family of the man she is married to in the ghost marriage. In this way ghost marriage is a way for unmarried, deceased daughters to attain "affiliation to a male descent line" and could be appropriately cared for after death.

Traditionally, not only have Chinese customs concerning death caused great stress and burden to a family, an unmarried daughter was a source of great embarrassment and concern. In "Parental Perspectives on the Significance of Marriage", Charlotte Ikels wrote: "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

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

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joss sticks
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 Marriage in the 19th Century

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “It not infrequently happens that the son in a family dies before he is married, and that it is desirable to adopt, not a son, but a grandson. There is however, to the Chinese, a kind of paradox in adopting a grandson, when the son has not been married. To remedy this defect after the boy had died unmarried would, to the practical Occidental, appear impossible, but it is not so to the sentimental Chinese. To meet this exigency they have invented the practice of marrying the dead, which is certainly among the most singular of the many singular performances to be met with in China. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“In order to keep the line of succession unbroken, it is thought desirable that each generation should have its proper representatives, whether they really were or were not links in the chain. It is only in families where there is some considerable property that this question is likely to arise. Where it does arise, and where a lad has died for whom it is thought desirable to take a post-mortem wife, the family cast about to hear of some young girl who has also died recently. A proposition is then made, by the usual intermediaries, for the union of these two corpses in the bonds of matrimony! It is probably only poor families to which such a proposition in regard to their daughter would be made; to no others would it be any object. If it is accepted, there is a combination of a wedding and a funeral, in the process of which the deceased “bride” will be taken by a large number of bearers to the cemetery of the other family, and laid beside her “husband”! The newly adopted grandson worships the corpse of his “mother,” and the other ceremonies proceed in the usual way.

“The writer was personally acquainted with a Chinese girl who after her death was thus “married” to a dead boy in another village. Upon being questioned in regard to the matter, her father admitted that it was not an entirely rational procedure, but remarked that the girl’s mother was in favor of accepting the offer. The real motive in this case was undoubtedly a desire to have a showy funeral at the expense of another family, for a child who was totally blind, and whose own parents were too poor at her death to do more than wrap her body in a mat.

“The practice of marrying one dead person to another is very far from uncommon to China. Its ultimate root is found in the famous dictum of Mencius, that of the three lines of unfilial conduct the chief is to leave no posterity. This utterance is one upon which the whole domestic life of the Chinese seems to have rested for ages. It is for this reason that those Chinese who have not yet married are accounted as of no importance. When they die, they are, if children, “thrown out” either literally or figuratively, and are not allowed a place in the family graveyards. These belong exclusively to those who are mated, and occasional bachelors must expect no welcome there. The same principle seems to be applicable to those who have died, and whose wives have remarried. It is for such cases that the strange plan of marrying a living woman to a dead husband has been invented. The motive on the part of the woman could be only that of saving herself from starvation, a fate which often hangs imminent over poor Chinese widows who do not remarry.

Revival of Ghost Weddings Creates a Demand for Bodies

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.

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Luo Ping ghost painting

Corpse Brides in China

On a surge in the illegal trade of “corpse brides” in China, Elizabeth Shim of UPI reported: “Chinese villagers are willing to pay as much as $26,000 for female corpses they can bury with dead unmarried male relatives. The practice of "ghost marriages," where Chinese pay their respects to the deceased with a gift of a "bride" in the afterlife, persists in rural areas despite the exorbitant costs to families. The Chinese Communist Party banned the practice in 1949, but in recent years the tradition has returned, and with it a surge in "corpse bride"-related crimes and tomb raids, the South China Morning Post and Xinhua reported. [Source: Elizabeth Shim, UPI, April 5, 2017]

“Trade continues because criminals can make a fortune in finding and selling dead bodies, sometimes by murder, according to the report. In 2015, a man was arrested in Liangcheng County, Inner Mongolia, for killing a woman so that he could profit from the sale of her body to a family seeking a corpse bride. In April 2016, three men were arrested in the slaying of two women with mental disabilities. Police in northwest China said one of the men wanted to sell the bodies for "ghost weddings."

“Most of the trade in corpses takes place in north China. In Hongtong County in Shanxi Province, 27 female bodies were reported stolen since 2013. But more bodies could be missing because of underreporting, according to the Post. “Families who elect to purchase a corpse bride for burial are also not safe from theft. Zhang Gainong, a Hongtong County resident who paid $26,145 for a young girl's body, said he has to check his dead son's tomb to make sure tomb raiders have not stolen the body to be resold. Going with a dummy body is not an option in some villages, where elders tell families that such a practice would "set a bad example" for children, said another resident.

Image Sources: except 1890s phot0, University of Washington, wedding procession, Xinhua, and studio and park photos, Nolls China website

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 September 2021

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