Chinese Hopping Vampires: The Qing Dynasty roots behind the Jiangshi legend

Now a cult obsession thanks to Hong Kong horror movies of the 1980s and 1990s, the legend of the hopping vampire was first detailed in a series of supernatural reflections compiled between 1789 and 1798 by Ji Xiaolan (also known as Ji Yun) and collected posthumously in an 1800 volume entitled Yuewei Caotang Biji (閱微草堂筆記) – it’s English-language translation being the rather beautiful Random Notes at the Cottage of Close Scrutiny.

Referred to as Jiangshi (殭屍) – meaning “hard or “stiff”, Jiangshi was a word originally used to mean “corpse” – this cursed soul was stiffened by rigor mortis and unable to move beyond a hop, like some undead pogo stick, with its arms stretched out in front of it for balance.

Their skin was greenish white, often in a state of decay and they were most commonly depicted in the officious uniform of a Qing Dynasty bureaucrat. Held up against the folk terrors of western popular culture, the hopping vampire is closer to a shambling zombie than an erudite castle-dwelling count, but the growing influence of Western horror movies and the enduring home-grown myth of the hungry ghost (餓鬼) introduced bloodsucking to the Jiangshi’s repertoire.

A vampire menaces his prey in 1985's Mr Vampire
A vampire menaces his prey in 1985’s Mr Vampire

As with all folkloric beasties, the Jiangshi accrued a litany of details. They can be repelled by mirrors, the call of the rooster, the hooves of a black donkey, and the wood of the peach tree, while the deceased’s devilish transformation can be caused by improper burial, magical rituals, suicide, or possession.

The real origin story is almost as bizarre. It was common during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) for migratory workers labouring far from their ancestral home to be returned for a proper burial when they passed away, lest their departed spirits grow homesick.

Lacking the funds for transportation, the grieving families would pay a ‘corpse driver’ to do the job with necromancy. This corpse-driver was said to magically bind the wrists, ankles and knees of the cadaver, forcing it upright, and then with a long stick would prod and poke the corpses so that they hopped home under their own steam. Other accounts talk about the rhythmic banging of the drum providing the direction instead.

A Chinese funeral, circa 1910
A Chinese funeral, circa 1910

These hopping corpses would travel at night to minimise the decay, while the priest leading the procession rang a bell to deter onlookers – to gaze upon a Jiangshi was considered bad-luck, even before they took to snacking on human blood.

These rows of the recently deceased were actually transported on bamboo poles, lined up like old shirts on a clothes rack, and carried through the night on the shoulders of two men. The flexing of the bamboo poles as they passed by created the illusion of the corpses ‘bouncing’ when viewed from afar.

Other accounts of corpse-drivers detail a single figure in heavy robes, his face concealed by mourning masks, who carried the cadaver on their backs – a man in front lighting the way with a single lantern and calling out obstacles to the poor chap at the rear.

Already cloaked in superstition and mystery, it’s not hard to see how this peculiar legend came to pass, inspiring ghost stories, horror movies and anime alike.

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  • The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature: From 1375 edited by Kang-i Sun Chang and Stephen Owen
  • The Esoteric Codex: Supernatural Legends by Cedrick Pettigrove
  • The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu
  • The Wobbling Pivot, China since 1800: An Interpretive History by Pamela Kyle Crossley