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Jiangshi: The Hopping Dead

Unlike the huli jing (the Chinese fox spirit covered in our article here), the jiangshi is a strictly malevolent creature. Sometimes known as the Chinese Hopping Vampire, the name “Jiangshi” literally means "stiff corpse," which makes sense (it is, at its core, a walking corpse after all). Cultures the world over have told stories of terrifying undead forces which stalk the night, hunting for blood or organs. The jiangshi, in this case, were such a fearsome and awesome concept, that they spawned a cornerstone of the Hong Kong film industry: the jiangshi film.

Even though they’re called the “Chinese Hopping Vampire,” the jiangshi is much more like the western image of a zombie. Their story begins long, long ago, when Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, waged war with nearby states to unify the country. Many men were sent to die far, far from home, at the borders. The family of these deceased soldiers wished to hold funerals for them, but for many it was far too expensive to transport the bodies back. These families turned to Taoist priests for help. In turn, the priests would cast spells to temporarily animate the bodies which were stiffened from rigor mortis, and order them to “hop home”. From there, the priest would lead them home, moving only at night and ringing a bell, warning people of their passage. It was considered bad luck to see a jiangshi.

Despite best efforts, none of these corpses ever returned home to their families. Some thought they may have been reanimated with incomplete souls, leading them to lash out violently and overpower the priests guiding them. Some thought they merely got lost and - following their instincts - the jiangshi simply attacked and hunted whatever was alive in the area. Either way, they failed to bring their families the solace they desired.

Beyond taoist spells, jiangshi are created in several ways. Most commonly, they would be created from an improper burial or a violent death. Sometimes, they might be born from lightning striking a coffin or - if the corpse was left out in the open - they might absorb yang energy from the environment and turn. Not only that, but just like western zombies, there are stories of people being turned into jiangshi after being injured by them.

Also similarly to western zombies, their appearances can vary drastically based on how decomposed the corpse is. Commonly, jiangshi are depicted as having white-green skin - perhaps, some think, inspired by the mold that grows on corpses - and sometimes white hair. Traditionally they’re clothed in burial shrouds or the garb of Qing officials and they often have a talisman stuck to their head.

For a jiangshi, their nails are one of their most powerful weapons. They grow long, hard and lethally sharp. Their teeth also become serrated, and they sometimes have very long tongues, capable of grasping things. Being afflicted by rigor mortis as they are, they’re forced into keeping their arms outstretched and their legs straight, but that doesn’t stop them from using their supernatural strength and extreme leaping abilities.

The ultimate goal of a jiangshi is different from that of a zombie or a vampire. They don’t usually want to suck your blood - although cross-contamination with western media has led to some jiangshi doing that too. Instead, a jiangshi seeks the qi of the living. The qi - or life force - of a person is a key part to their survival and having a jiangshi take that will kill someone pretty fast. They typically sense qi from the breath of the living, so if you ever see one, holding your breath is a key factor to a successful escape.

Much like western folklore, there are many, many weaknesses of a jiangshi based on the specific story that’s being told. Common ones include unsurprising things, like axes or fire. Some suggest that - since a jiangshi is stiff - if you push them over, they have a hard time getting back up. Other weaknesses are a bit more unusual, like the blood of a black dog, glutinous rice or a mirror. A personal favourite of mine is that if you throw - some say coins specifically, others say any small objects - across the floor towards a jiangshi, they will feel compelled to stop and count them (picture the zombies from The Walking Dead, but with severe OCD).

In that vein, they actually carried a lot of appeal in the 80s and 90s as the stars of many horror films, specifically propagating a genre known as "kung-fu horror comedy" as well as the more straightforward "jiangshi film" genre. Not only that, jiangshi are - much like western zombies - kind of all over the place. Outside of Hong Kong, jiangshi have appeared in anime series such as Dragon Ball Super or Shaman King, American cartoon series like Jackie Chan Adventures and have made dozens of appearances in modern video games, as both monsters and seasonal player costumes (and in cases like Genshin Impact, even playable characters).

On the whole, the jiangshi have quite a unique story. Their roots are very macabre, but over time their representation in the media has lightened up significantly. Sure, they might still be the inspiration for horror stories across the world, but never forget that they also helped pioneer the "kung-fu comedy" genre!

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By S. Howie
Immortal Staff

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