Chinese Religious Folk Legend – Unjust Deaths and Vengeful Spirit Women

This folk legend 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. Much 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. During one of our telephone sessions, he mentioned the following superstition that he learned in his childhood from his parents. I’m paraphrasing and translating it here to the best of my memory:

“When a young unmarried virgin dies an unjust death because of a man…like if they were attacked or if they commited suicide because a man rejected them or cheated on them… the women needing a soul to reincarnate, they…as spirits… sit at the riverside as ghosts and transform into seductive women who are brushing their hair to punish and entrap lusty men. The vengeful spirits wait at the riverside, of course, late night, for lusty men to come and flirt with them. When the lusty men do come, the spirits take the men to their spirit homes, drink wine, talk, and have sex. However, the men, waking up the next morning, find themselves next to a pile of bones, leaves or decaying forest matter…and because of this…the men usually get so frightened they fall into a great illness and die.”

When I inquired my father on the truth of this superstition and his own beliefs in it, he said that he wasn’t sure if it was true or not, but he definitely believed in the riverside spirits. Furthermore, he said that when he heard this story in his childhood, his mother cited several relatives of neighbors in her village who drowned to death because of these vengeful spirits and one neighbor in particular who passed away because he fell to a great sickness after meeting one such vengeful female spirit. But, ultimately, my father thinks that parents tell their children this story to warn them against being too lusty or perverted; however, he reiterates that he doesn’t doubt the existence of these vengeful female spirits. While the belief in the supernatural and the implicit moral lesson (control one’s lust) taught to children is important in this item, I think the values the item attributes to men and women are more important. The superstition portrays women as weak individuals who are unable to fend off sexual attackers or “evil” men and because of this, fall to their demise. However, they come back as strong, powerful and vengeful beings to prey on their previous attackers. This suggests a belief in some sort of latent evil or vengeance in women. On another note, the item portrays men as lusty sexual predators who are unable to control their instincts and who lose their lives because of an uncontrollable lust. That is to say, the item also suggests and attributes an animalistic or predatory quality to men. Yet, this predatory quality seems to be frowned upon based on how this story is put to use–it’s a cautionary tale that tells its audience to restrain their lust. So we can infer that perhaps, in Chinese culture, a more idealized version of man is one who is in control of their sexual tendencies.

Interestingly, the vengeful spirit women in this item seem alike to the Banshee of Irish folklore and even the La Ilorona of Chicano folklore.