Ghost hunters exist in many cultures, with Zhong Kui being the most prominent one in Chinese culture. Unsurprisingly, he has been featured in numerous Wuxia-related media. His popularity extends to other countries such as Japan, and he has even appeared in Western media! We will explore the origins, legacy, and different media portrayals of him.
According to legend, Zhong Kui was once a human who passed the imperial exams with high marks and earned the title of Top Scorer (Zhuang Yuan in Mandarin). Because of his supposed ugly appearance, the emperor stripped his title. Zhong Kui later committed suicide by hitting his head on the palace steps. When the judge of the underworld Yan-lo Wang noticed Zhong Kui’s intelligence, he deified Zhong Kui and bestowed the title of King of Ghosts onto him so he could hunt and maintain order among all ghosts.
Zhong Kui became popular in Chinese culture when the Tang Emperor Xuanzong dreamt of Zhong Kui killing the evil spirit that made him sick. He recovered the next day and had court painter Wu Daozi draw Zhong Kui. He later gave an imperial edict for households to hang paintings of Zhong Kui during the New Year to scare away ghosts, diseases, and other misfortunes. Even today, his image is used to protect expensive goods.
While there are numerous TV dramas and movies about Zhong Kui, we will focus on two noteworthy ones. The Chinese Ghostbuster is a 1994 Hong Kong movie featuring Wu Ma (of A Chinese Ghost Story fame) as Zhong Kui and Lam Ching Ying (of Mr. Vampire fame) as a Taoist priest. This movie is unique in that it is set in contemporary Hong Kong, and Zhong Kui is looking for the perfect husband for his ghost daughter! Another is the 2015 Chinese movie Zhong Kui: Snow Girland the Dark Crystal. This features Chen Kun as Zhong Kui and Li Bing Bing as Snow Girl (both actors starred in Sword of the Outlaw, a TV drama adaptation of Shiao Yi’s novel!). This movie portrays Zhong Kui as an anti-hero, who is set up to steal the Dark Crystal and discovers that his former love Snow Girl has been consigned to the underworld; lots of liberty is taken to make the movie more romantic than any previous tale of Zhong Kui. In addition, the character and creature designs are very Western influenced.
In addition to movies & TV dramas, Zhong Kui is also featured in multiple video games. Known as Shouki in Japanese, he is a summonable demon in the Shin Megami Tensei video game series. Titles featuring him include Shin Megami Tensei IV, Shin Megami Tensei: Liberation Dx2, & Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers. He is featured in the mobile game Smite as Zhong Kui: The Demon Queller, and is a DLC (downloadable content) character in Hunt: Showdown. The last two games are especially noteworthy, as these are western developed games.
While not as well-known as the hopping vampires (Jiang Shi, check out our article on them here) in the West, Zhong Kui’s popularity cannot be denied. It is only a matter of time until his next media appearance, and it will most likely be more accessible to the world than before.