Monday, December 31, 2012

Ghost Brides -- Two Folktales About Ghosts

(1) The Ghost Wife Pays a Debt of Gratitude (Inner Mongolian)

There was a poor young fellow, a day laborer too impoverished ever to get married.

One day, his neighbor, a very wealthy young widow, asked him over to do some work.

"How can I help you?" he asked.

"Go to the well. I believe I dropped my hairpin down into it. Can you retrieve it for me?"

The young man agreed to retrieve the hairpin for her. Having done so, he left. However, as the young man later heard, the mother of the widow's late husband had accused the young woman and the worker of improprieties. Based on her suspicions, the poor young woman was beaten to death and buried.

That was that. As for the young man, he returned to his life of toil.

Something strange in his life did begin to occur, however. Someone was now preparing wonderful meals for him in his home every night before he returned from a day's work. One night, he came back early to spy through the window and see who had been cooking for him.

It was none other than the young woman--the widow--who had been beaten to death and buried not long ago!

"But . . . how . . . is . . . this . . . possible? Are . . . you  . . . not . . . dead? " he asked.

"No, I'm alive, as you can see!" the young woman replied. "The truth is that I escaped from that house to be with you!"

She certainly did appear to be alive and well. The eyes are not supposed to lie.

They ended up marrying.

The young man certainly did not lack good food, for his bride continued to whip up the same delicious meals for him, which were always waiting for him on the table upon his nightly return from work.

How incredibly fragrant and flavorful these meals are! he thought.

However, one night he must have returned home early, for he discovered the secret that lay behind his bride's cooking secrets. He witnessed his wife standing over the freshly cooked food, dripping blood from her fingertips all over the food!

"What is going on?" he asked. "Tell the truth!"

She stood there, saying nothing. He asked her insistently again and again.

Finally, after the third time, she said, "All right, I am a ghost . . ."

"Yes," he replied, "I suspected as much . . ."

Instead of fleeing from her, he discovered he loved her all the more and was more determined than ever to remain with her as her husband.

Now that he knew she was a ghost, she asked him for a favor.

"Of course. What do you wish?"

"Please go to my grave and dig up my bones and remove them from that place to some other location no one knows about."

He did so, and shortly after, the two of them moved to Horqin (in Inner Mongolia). There, she gave birth to a daughter. The three of them stayed together and lived very prosperously.

Gu Xijia, Zhongguo minjian gushi leixing yanjiu [Research in the types of Chinese folktales], Liu Shouhua, ed. Wuhan: Huazhong Shifan, 2002; pp. 226-227.

What might be interesting to note in this tale and the one that follows is that the living man and female ghost remain together without apparently any ill effects. The previous ghost stories organized into six series (3/26/09; 5/4/09; 7/4/09; 10/1/09; 4/8/10; and 8/16/12) have been literary legends, with "actual" names and locations recorded. The ghosts in these stories, beautiful, charming, handsome or otherwise, have largely been noxious and therefore harmful to human life. The present two stories are folktales, not legends. In this first story, aside from one mention of an actual town (Horqin), no other names, not even those of the characters, are mentioned, as is often the case with folktales, which do not delve into the specifics tied to legends. (Two generic names are mentioned in the second folktale below, but the setting remains unidentified.) These folktales are diachronically presented; they could have occurred during any dynasty or era and are timeless, while legends are often linked to a particular era and location. Whether character or place names are given or not, these two folktales, like other folktales, are simpler and usually relate a poor but deserving individual's rise in status. Moreover, the ghosts in these folktales are not baneful and can, in fact, behave  in time biologically and emotionally much the way a human would. 

Another interesting aspect is in the folktale, unlike the legend, dreams and/or wishes can come true. A poor laborer can marry someone, albeit a ghost, from the upper class, thus breaching class differences, an event that would not normally occur in the ostensibly realistic legend and almost certainly never in actual feudalistic-era life. 

Motifs: D1041, "Blood as magic [herb]"; E363, "Ghost returns to aid living"; cE422, "Living corpse"; E474, "Cohabitation of living person and ghost"; E495, "Marriage to a ghost"; H976, "Task performed by mysterious stranger"; cN831.1, "Mysterious housekeeper." 

(2) Paper Manikin Wife (Han Chinese)

Impoverished young Li Guang lost a sum while gambling, so he went to his uncle to borrow some money.

"I'm getting married and need some money!" he told him. The uncle believed him and lent him the amount he requested.

There was one further matter. "Don't be surprised if one of these days I pop over to see your bride!" said the uncle.

That put Li Guang into a bind. What could he do? Obviously, if his uncle showed up and there was no bride to be seen, that would make Li Guang a huge liar. He wracked his brain for a solution. He finally thought up a plan. He went out and bought a life-sized paper manikin of a woman and propped it up in his bed to await
his uncle's eventual visit.

Finally, the day came for the uncle's visit.

Lo and behold, right before the uncle's eyes, from off the bed came a maiden--a real, live young lady!

The uncle was very impressed; his nephew had indeed married a lovely young woman. He then left.

Li Guang wasn't one to waste an opportunity or look a gift horse in the mouth, so he consented to live with her as his wife and did so for one hundred days.

On the hundredth day, the bride admitted that she was not a mortal but a ghost.

"For us to be together," she said, "there's something you must do."

"Tell me what it is, and I shall do it!" replied Li Guang.

"Go to the Liu family tombs. There, you shall find the freshly dug grave of Miss Liu, who passed away very recently. Dig up her grave and uncover her remains. I shall borrow them as my own to live in this world with you."

"Very well . . ."

And so Li Guang went ahead and did exactly what his wife had instructed. His wife's plan worked, and Miss Liu's body was now inhabited by the spirit of Li Guang's wife. Miss Liu was thus reanimated, and Li Guang married her.

Gu Xijia, Zhongguo minjian gushi leixing yanjiu, p. 227. 

The story implies that the ghost had not originally been the spirit of Miss Liu. 

Motifs: E.474, "Cohabitation of living person and ghost"; E495.2, "Marriage to a ghost"; E726, "Soul enters body and animates it"; and F990, "Inanimate object acts as if living." 


  1. Horray! You're back with more stories. :) Thank you!

    1. Hi, Little Alys! Thank you,and I appreciate you for being among my readers!
      Fred Lobb