Ced earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.
Flying heads, murderous demons, and a zombie that never gives up. These are but some of the ghastly ghosts and demons found in Liaozhai Zhiyi (聊斋), the classic compilation of Chinese ghost stories.
Referred to in English as Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, “Liaozhai” markedly differs from most other medieval Chinese writings too, be it in story structure, tone, or content. Found within its near 500 tales are also some of the most horrific supernatural creatures ever written for the zhiguai (志怪) i.e. supernatural genre.
Even today, these ghoulish beings will surely still send chills down your spine.
1. The Water-Spitting Hag
From Penshui (喷水). Translated as “water-spewing.”
The story of the water-spewing hag is as macabre as it is inexplicable, as it is chilling. The latter because the hags’ victims are totally innocent.
A man named Song buys a manor. One night, two female servants are awakened by splashing sounds and on checking, they discover a hunchbacked hag pacing about the courtyard. The hag also spits water non-stop.
Frightened, the servants wake up Song’s mother, and together, the trio continues to spy on the strange creature. Regrettably, they are soon noticed and the hag lunges to the window the trio is hidden behind to spit at them.
Song’s mother and a servant are immediately killed. The lone surviving servant is subsequently revived but only after much effort.
Inconsolable, Song then orders other servants to excavate the courtyard. They soon unearth the corpse of an old woman. Horrifically, when hacked, the corpse is found to be full of clear water.
2. The Unrelenting Zombie
From Shibian (尸变). Translated as “zombification.”
In a nutshell, Shibian is the medieval Chinese version of The Walking Dead. Or more accurately, the pursuing dead.
Four travelers are forced to spend the night in a room with a newly deceased woman i.e. a corpse, as local accommodations are full. In the middle of the night, one traveler witnesses the reanimation of the corpse. The female zombie then kills the other three travelers by breathing onto them.
Terrified, the lone survivor feigns sleep. He also holds his breath when it is his turn to be breathed onto.
What then follows is a harrowing and almost comical escape sequence, as the female zombie refuses to give up on its prey. She soon returns with her killer breaths for another go at the survivor. After the survivor flees from the room, she pursues him all the way to the grounds of a temple.
Cornered, the survivor hides behind a large tree, dodging and sidestepping as the undead monstrosity feverishly swipes at him. Incensed, the zombie screams hideously and lunges. However, it misses and its nails stab deep into the tree trunk. At this point, the surviving traveler faints.
The next day, the female zombie is found inert at the tree. Several men are also needed to tug her hook-like nails from the trunk. In the words of the original text, the holes left in the trunk resembled those left by saws.
3. Painted Skin
From Huapi (画皮). Translated as “painting skin.”
Like Nie Xiaoqian (see below), Huapi is one of the most famous stories from Liaozhai. It is also one of the longer ones, adapted several times for Chinese television and movies.
Furthermore, it is one of the scariest and most macabre stories in the whole collection. With an ending that is best left unmentioned.
In short, a man named Wang encounters a beautiful but distressed young woman. After inquiring, he learns that she is fleeing from an abusive household. Out of pity, Wang invites the young woman to take refuge at his home.
Days later, Wang encounters a Taoist priest and is told that evil has befallen him. Suspicious that it might be related to the woman he brought home, Wang spies on her and is horrified to discover that she is actually a hideous demoness. Her deceptive, beautiful appearance is also the result of a full-body human skin that she drapes over herself. Every night, the demoness carefully maintains this skin by “touching-up” parts of it with a paintbrush.
Terrified, Wang rushes back to the priest, and together, they attempt to drive the demoness away. However, their efforts fail and poor Wang is gruesomely disemboweled. His heart is also stolen.
The priest and Wang’s younger brother later succeed in subduing the demoness. However, to revive Wang, his wife suffers a most disgusting ordeal. Ine that involves a beggar’s phlegm.
As an allegory for the deceptiveness of appearances, there are few Chinese ghostly stories more brutally unforgiving than Huapi.
4. The Three Aberrations of Quzhou
From Quzhou Sanguai (衢州三怪). Translated as “the three freaks/demons of Quzhou.”
One of the shortest entries in the collection, Quzhou Sanguai describes three dangerous Chinese ghosts of Quzhou city.
- The Horned Ghost of the Bell Tower: An ogre-like monstrosity that leaps down from a bell tower to pursue passers-by. Those who manage to flee would still die of illness later.
- The Pond Ghost: A cloth-like monster that emerges from a certain pond in Quzhou. Those who attempt to pick up the cloth would be dragged into the pond.
- The Duck Ghost: Any who hears the quack of this wicked being will die of illness.
Notably, Quzhou is in today’s Zhejiang Province, and tales of horned demons and malicious duck spirits long existed.
Liaozhai is also celebrated by historians for its social commentaries, more so than as a folkloric compilation. One thus wonders why author Pu Songling included these three creatures in his masterpiece. What allegory/satire did he had in mind?
5. Nie Xiaoqian
From Nie Xiaoqian (聂小倩). The title is the name of the female protagonist.
The most famous female ghost from Liaozhai, Nie Xiaoqian is the name of a kindly female ghost forced by older ghosts/demonesses to kill innocent men.
Asian movie lovers would also remember her as the female protagonist of the Hong Kong movie, A Chinese Ghost Story. Famously depicted in 1987 by Taiwanese beauty Joey Wong.
As for the original Xianqian, lovely as she is, she is utterly terrifying when she reluctantly does her work. The original text describes her as having two modus operandi.
- Lecherous men who succumb to her sexual temptations would lose consciousness. The female ghost then drills holes in the victims’ feet and drains them of blood. (The blood is for consumption by her masters)
- The greedy who succumb to Xiaoqian’s offer of a gold ingot would be disemboweled. According to the original text, the ingot offered isn’t real gold but the demonic bones of Yakshas. (No further elaboration was given)
In the movies, Xiaoqian was unable to seduce the upright/goofy Ning Caishen. Ning, with the help of Swordsman Yan, then liberated Xiaoqian from servitude.
The original story largely follows these developments, although there are no magical battles. Instead, Ning “brought” Xiaoqian home after freeing her. He later also made her his second wife.
Incredibly, after being around humans for years, Xiaoqian became human too. She even bore Ning children. What Pu Songling intended with this bizarre ending is anybody’s guess.
6. The Headless Corpse, and the Disappearing Heads
From Fushi (负尸). Translated as “corpse carrying.”
Of note, many Liaozhai ghost stories are tersely written, greatly similar in format and tone to modern-day flash fiction. Pu Songling’s matter-of-fact delivery, in turn, imbues these entries with a thick layer of dread.
In this short tale, a woodcutter on his way home suddenly finds his carrying pole impossibly burdened. Looking back, he is shocked to see a headless corpse draped over his pole.
The corpse disappears after the hysterical woodcutter flays at it. Later, after fleeing into a nearby village, the woodcutter sees a bunch of men hunting for something on the ground. On asking, he is told that a human head had earlier dropped out of the sky, but disappeared before anyone could take a closer look.
As the whole lot heatedly discusses, another villager carrying a basket walks past. Cries then echo for yet another head is spotted within the carried basket. But of course, like the ones before, this one abruptly vanishes too.
7. The Obese Woman With Endless Intestines
Chouchang is hands down one of the goriest and most macabre tales in Liaozhai. Made worse by how Pu Songling provided absolutely no explanation for the horror witnessed.
So the story goes, a man is resting in a hut during daytime. Suddenly, an obese woman and a man rush in. The woman also undresses, while the man takes out a knife.
Completely oblivious to the resting man, the one with the dagger then stabs the obese woman and disembowels her. He also tugs out her intestines and drapes these all over the hut. Eventually, he even dumps some atop the resting man, near suffocating the latter.
What’s more, while the obese woman is clearly in agony, she does not die.
The resting man ultimately gathers his wits and flees from the hut. However, his feet get entangled in the mess of intestines everywhere and he falls, knocking himself out cold.
After regaining consciousness, he finds nothing but bovine innards all over him. There is also not a trace of anything within the hut. However, a lingering stench of blood persists in the hut for several days thereafter.
8. The Scorpion Master
From Xieke (蝎客). Translated as “scorpion traveler/master.”
Another flash fiction-like entry, Xieke is the terse story of a Southern merchant, one who specializes in selling scorpions. While in an inn one day, he experiences an unnerving omen and immediately begs the inn-owner for refuge. When the inn-owner asks for details, the merchant claims that a ghost of scorpions is hunting him to enact murderous vengeance.
After the inn-owner hides the merchant in a large urn, a yellow-hair, ferocious humanoid indeed appears. To the inn-owner’s denial of the merchant’s presence, the humanoid glances about and sniffs several times. However, it soon departs.
Minutes later, the inn-owner uncovers the urn and nearly faints. There is no cowering merchant within. All that remains is a mess of blood and flesh.
9. The Alcoholic Parasite
From Jiuchong (酒虫). Translated as “alcohol/wine worm.”
One of the strangest stories in Liaozhai, and one that’s said to be laden with socio-political commentary, Jiucong tells the weird tale of a very rich and grossly obese landowner. One with an insatiable thirst for Chinese wine.
One day, he is warned by a lama that he is supernaturally ill. Following the lama’s advice, the landowner then instructed his servants to tie him up under the sun, and with a dish of superior wine near him.
Before long, an awful creature crawls out from the landowner’s throat. A worm-like entity described by the original text as flesh-colored, and with eyes and a mouth. The lama then takes away the creature, claiming that it could be used to create wonderful wine simply by immersing it in water.
Interestingly, with the “parasite” expelled, the landowner’s fortune rapidly dwindles. He also develops a great hatred for wine and loses much weight.
Literary critics thus speculate on the true nature of the parasite. Could it be a vague reference to corruption? (Feed the officials, and you’ll be enriched too) Or is the creature actually a boon, with the true intention of the lama no more than to claim ownership of it?
The Strange Tales from Liaozhai
A terse explanation of why Pu Songling’s magnum opus is considered one of the Four Great Classical Novels of China.
From Liaozhai Zhiyi – Words Without Borders
English versions of two of the longest Liaozhai stories, the second one being Painted Skin.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Ced Yong (author) from Asia on March 21, 2021:
Hi Elyn, thanks for commenting. These Liaozhai stories are indeed scary, but for most of them, there's a certain dark comedic feel too. I also enjoy these the most as there seems to be some sort of satire at work..
Elyn MacInnis from Shanghai, China on March 21, 2021:
These are scary stories! Of course, if you like scary things, they are very good. Thanks for sharing!