What Does the Ghost Want : History, Memory, and Zhiguai

Research output: Conference Papers (RGC: 31A, 31B, 32, 33)32_Refereed conference paper (without host publication)peer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press/Filed - 21 Jun 2017


According to A. P. Wolf, the dead in Chinese folklore have three types of posthuman existences: those who die peacefully at home will be worshiped as ancestors on the family alter; those who suffer a bad death will become the despised and feared wandering ghosts, or in rare cases through some exchange of power they may become gods. If ancestors are granted a legitimate position in the official history of a community, then myth is the domain for gods whereas ghosts are denied a place in both, reduced to a symptom of that which is repressed from articulation. While ghosts, gods and ancestors have such differing evaluations in the living’s memory, the boundary separating the three is actually thin due to the contingency in the construction of history, allowing each category to slip into its other. In this sense, zhiguai as a genre retains its initial entanglement with historical discourse for it is a para-history of ghosts and gods that traces these entities’ posthumous endeavor to inscribe themselves on the memory of the living. This paper explores late Qing writer Xuan Ding’s (1832-1880) and Wang Tao’s (1828-1897) invocation of ghosts in their respective zhiguai writing. Whereas in Pu Songling’s classical stories ghosts return to fulfill their desire or settle their grievance, the late Qing writers’ ghosts are more often concerned with community or even national level history. Thrown in a time permeated with a sense of ending, the two late Qing writers cast their eyes on personages who suffered in the violent dynastical history and denied a place in history for their inconvenient identity. The validity and self-mythologizing mechanics of China’s national history are reaffirmed or challenged under the writers’ pen through men and women ghosts seeking a re-entrance into history.