Chinese Religious Folk Belief on Life after Death and Spirits

This folk belief was collected from my Father. My father was born as a farmer’s son into a veteran’s family in Taipei, Taiwan. His father and mother ran away from China to Taipei during the Chinese Civil War. Many of his cultural practices and beliefs are taken from mainland Chinese culture. Because of his background, he is considered a “mainlander” in Taiwan (Chinese in Taiwan are divided into Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese or indigenous). My father graduated from Iowa University with an MBA. His B.A was obtained in Taiwan.

When we were having our regular telephone session, he told me the the following recollection on the phone (in Chinese):

(This is not a direct transcription or translation. It’s based off what I remember him saying)

“I was at your grandmother’s house the other day and during the course of our conversations she remarked how Grandpa’s spirit hadn’t visited the family at all after his death. Because of this, she began wondering if Grandpa was doing okay in the spirit world. I chatted with her a bit more and she then told this story:

‘Your great grandmother used lived in a province called Fujien in China. She was married into the Lian family at around 8 or 9 and stayed at the Lian household to be raised into an ideal wife. At the Lian’s household, your great grandmother was one your great great grandmother’s favorites (your great grandmother’s mother-in-law). They were so close, they even slept in the same bed together–like mother and daughter. So in your great great grandmother’s old age, when she felt death looming, she told your great grandmother that after her death, she would come back as a spirit and protect your great grandmother. Thus, she told your great grandmother not to be afraid if she heard or saw things at night when her spirit came to visit. Now, when the time came and your great great grandmother passed away, supernatural occurrences actually began to happen in the Lian household. Late at night the drawers would rattle, floorboards would creak and places your great great grandmother frequented would shake–your great great grandmother’s spirit had, as she promised, come back as a spirit to visit the house she was so used to and to say her final goodbyes before moving on. Naturally, all this supernatural activity scared the wits out of your great grandmother’s aunt. She would be so scared she wouldn’t go to the bathroom at night and resort to peeing on the bed! But, knowing that it was only your great great grandmother’s spirit coming to visit, your great grandmother continued her late night activities with indifference and she was happy to know that her great great grandmother was doing well in the afterlife.’

Later, I asked her why Grandpa’s spirit hasn’t visited, to which she replied that it was probably because a) in a modern cityscape, it’s not dark enough. There are too many lights, which scare the ghosts away. And b) they had moved too much and Grandpa couldn’t find their new homes.”

When I asked my father what the significance of this family legend was, my father said that he said the pre-dominant belief (even to this day) in Chinese culture was that the spirit or the soul of a person stays on earth for a week before it moves on to heaven. And during this week, the spirit often visits loved ones and goes to places he or she was used to going when they were living.

While my father said the significance of this legend was the folk belief that “a spirit stays on earth for a week after death”, I want to point out a few other folk beliefs and practices revealed in his story. First of all, we can see a sexist or patriarchal society structure in China about four generations ago. My great great grandmother was married around the age of 8 to be raised as an ideal wife. From this tidbit, it would seem that the only role a woman had in life was to be a wife. Second, we see a firm belief in the supernatural. My great grandmother and my grandmother never questioned the supernatural occurrences in this family legend–to them it was normal and commonly accepted that there were spirits living around them. Adding to that, the recollection implies that this belief in the supernatural is passed from generation to generation through word of mouth. Because of this, my father believes in the supernatural and even I, being an atheist, believe in these folk beliefs about the supernatural as well. Also, similar to other folk beliefs, this family legend reinforces the idea that ghosts only come out at night (in this case, the reason provided is that ghosts fear the light).

Most importantly, in this legend, a great significance is given to the family. Where in the folklore of other cultures, ghosts and spirits may come out to scare or devour humans, in this legend, the spirit returns to give condolences to its family–giving spirits a much more homely feeling than other folk legends and superstitions do. This emphasis on family reinforces the importance placed on the values of family and community that so many of our contemporary scholars have found in Chinese culture.