Jiangshi: The terrifying Chinese hopping vampires
There are only a few ways to escape the cold grip of the Jiangshi.
The world is filled with monsters, both real and imaginary. Common beasties such as ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and zombies have existed in the human imagination for millennia. But some creatures are more obscure than others. While those from China, Taiwan, Japan, and other Asian nations may be familiar with the lore of the Jiangshi, many Western audiences are dangerously ill-informed.
The Jiangshi are undead humans that have hunted, fed from, and infected the living for thousands of years. They are unique in that they do not walk, stumble or stagger. They hop. Now, a hopping vampire might seem absolutely hilarious, but the Jiangshi are excellent jumpers.
This means that they can suddenly appear before you, or behind you. If you’re someone who hates surprises, then you’d hate to meet a Jiangshi.
Surprisingly, these creatures aren’t the result of ancient evil forces. Rather, they were created by the same people who came to fear them. This story begins over 2,000 years ago, before the unification of China.
An unforgettable origin story
Jiangshi literally translates into “stiff corpse.” These living dead seemed to be pretty innocent, at least at first.
Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, was still in the process of conquering the Chinese states when the Jiangshi were born. It is entirely possible that without Qin Shi Huang’s war of unification, these hopping vampires would have never come to exist. You see, the Jiangshi were once living, breathing, thinking human beings.
Warriors deployed to maintain state borders and fight off Qin Shi Huang’s forces often traveled far from home. Many died in battle. Their families could not afford to have their bodies sent home, which was extremely stressful. To attain some kind of closure, and possibly the body of the lost loved one, the common people turned to Taoist priests.
These priests would perform a sacred ritual to contact the body and soul of the deceased. They would then give the dead person a specific set of instructions to allow them to return home. Because of rigor mortis, which causes the body to become very stiff and inflexible, these priests encouraged the dead to hop their way back to their loved ones.
In fact, Jiangshi literally translates into “stiff corpse.” These living dead seemed to be pretty innocent, at least at first. So, how did they become vampires?
It’s highly unlikely that any of the original Jiangshi ever returned home to their families. Grieving families who had placed their trust in local priests didn’t lose faith after their loved ones remained lost. Instead, they assumed that something had gone terribly wrong during the ritual. In their eyes, the dearly departed family member had reanimated, but they had lost the good part of their soul.
An undead creature that has lost all of its kindness and grace can only be pure evil. Consequently, the vampire-like Jiangshi that we know and fear today was born. Only able to move around during the night, these beings represented the fear of death, the unknown, and the dark. They could be created through a violent death or suicide, an improper burial, or a late burial.
Unlike the vampires of Eastern Europe, Jiangshi could not escape from their graves. Instead, they were the product of neglect. One can only imagine how many corpses lined the early roads and fields of ancient China during Qin Shi Huang’s wars.
These poor souls that remained unburied transformed into Jiangshi during the night. This was accomplished through energy absorption. Moonlight or starlight shining down on an unburied body would become vital energy that the body would consume, allowing them to reanimate.
Jiangshi fashion and appearance
A strange, glowing green mold seems to take hold of many Jiangshi, allowing them to glow slightly. In a few accounts, the monster kind of looks like Gene Simmons of the rock group KISS.
Now you know how these hopping vampires were created, and why they hop, but would you recognize one if you saw one? Chances are, you wouldn’t. The description of a Jiangshi’s appearance varies greatly. However, there are a few commonalities across all sightings.
Jiangshi tend to retain their human form, but they have pale white-green skin. Some may even be able to transform into floating balls of light that help them lure victims, much like an anglerfish uses bioluminescence to lure prey.
A Jiangshi’s hair may be white or green, just like their skin. Their mouth is full of sharp, serrated teeth, like a shark. Some are said to have long, thick fingernails that cannot be broken or split. These nails may also be sharp enough to cut, stab, or impale a victim. A Jiangshi’s breath is so horrifically bad that some believe a single breath in your face can kill you.
A strange, glowing green mold seems to take hold of many Jiangshi, allowing them to glow slightly. In a few accounts, the monster kind of looks like Gene Simmons of the rock group KISS. It has a long tongue, big bulging eyes, and a gaudy costume. Of course, instead of black leather or spandex, the Jiangshi is known to wear clothing that dates back to the Qing Dynasty.
How to avoid hungry Jiangshi
Though the Jiangshi is well-equipped for murder, it doesn’t often cause immediate or noticeable physical harm to their victims. Unlike vampires, it does not subsist on blood. And unlike zombies, it has no craving for human brains or flesh. Instead, the Jiangshi feeds on energy. Qi, also referred to as “chi” in many Western countries, is a person’s vital life force. Without it, a person immediately dies. Naturally, it a Jiangshi’s favorite snack.
Luckily, being dead isn’t the only way to avoid contact with a ravenous Jiangshi. There are a handful of methods that can help you survive an encounter, and some seem easier and more convenient than others. For example, you could decide to drop a bag of solid-gold coins on the floor to escape a Jiangshi’s grasp.
The shiny coins that scatter across the ground will cause the hopping vampire’s OCD to flare up, and it will have to stop and count the coins. However, this is an expensive solution. An easier and more efficient solution is to hold a Taoist symbol to one’s forehead. As long as the symbol is held against the head, the Jiangshi will be unable to hop away.
But perhaps the most practical way to avoid an encounter with a Jiangshi is to avoid walking the streets late at night. This is also a great way to avoid getting mugged, assaulted, or worse. In fact, the Jiangshi may simply be a kind of cautionary metaphor for the criminal acts that often occur on dark, poorly-lit streets and country roads.
There are hundreds of American and British films about vampires. Similarly, there are tons of Chinese films about Jiangshi. Perhaps the most popular of these is the Mr. Vampire saga, which consists of five films. Still, there are more than thirty movies that focus on the legend and terror of the Jiangshi. One of the most recent ones, Rigor Mortis, was released in 2013!
Truly, these undead monsters make for great horror films. And the fact that more and more Jiangshi movies continue to come out proves that these creatures are never too far from the Chinese subconscious.
Jiangshi in literature
There’s a good reason why Jiangshi are often dressed in ceremonial Qing Dynasty costumes. The first stories ever published about these beings were released during the Qing Dynasty. One of these stories tells of how a Jiangshi kills three people by vomiting on them. Not only is this absolutely disgusting, but it may also be a misunderstood account of an ancient virus that spreads through contact with bodily fluids.
Either way, the Jiangshi have become a staple for modern horror novelists, especially those from Southeast Asia. Their ability to mutate, their ever-changing appearance, and the mystery surrounding their power continue to interest new generations of readers.
But while people may find these living dead creatures endlessly interesting, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they believe in their existence. As with ghosts, proof or belief is often left in the hands of the individual.
They don’t walk, they hop. And they don’t want to eat your flesh or drink your blood. Instead, they’d rather consume your qi.
The Jiangshi don’t drink blood and they’re not beautiful. They tend to hold their arms out before them, and they show clear signs of bodily decay. So, are they vampires or are they zombies? The most honest answer is that they are neither. They share many characteristics and qualities with vampires and zombies, but Jiangshi are totally unique.
They don’t walk, they hop. And they don’t want to eat your flesh or drink your blood. Instead, they’d rather consume your qi. The belief in a soul is a very European idea, but qi and soul are nearly synonyms. So, essentially, a Jiangshi is a soul-eater that can infect you and turn you into the hopping dead.
A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:
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- 5 Fascinating mythological creatures – History 101
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