This is a tale that my mother often told me and my sister when we were children. Tales like these are common especially during the Hungry Ghost Month or Ghost Festival. The Ghost Festival takes place on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar and is a time to pay respect to one’s deceased ancestors. The term ‘jie’ refers to my elder sister.
The following is transcribed from a conversation between me, (M), and my mother, the interviewee (I).
M: Can you tell me the ghost story that you always tell jie and me when we were younger?
I: Which one?
M: The one I hated the most.
I: Yes. So, you used to get a lot of bruises on your arms and legs when you were younger.
M: Why did I get so many bruises?
I: You just ran around a lot I think. But so, I used to tell you that whenever you get a bruise and you don’t know why, it’s because you did something wrong that day, and there’s a ghost living under your bed that comes out during the Hungry Ghost Month and pinches you in your sleep. And you get one pinch for every wrongdoing.
M: That’s terrifying. Why did you tell jie and I that story?
I: It was funny, you girls always get so scared. It also wasn’t real, and I didn’t think you girls would believe me.
M: What things would we do wrong that would warrant the story?
I: Small things like picking up your clothes or finishing your food.
This story has always frightened me as a child, but today I can look back and laugh at the tale and also understand where this myth comes from. The myth of a ghost pinching children at night for their wrong behavior is to encourage good behavior. The behaviors that were encouraged were never significant things of not hurting someone or not lying, they were often smaller things like finishing all the food of your plate or learning to tie your shoelaces properly. I think with smaller behaviors, it’s often harder to justify because there isn’t huge moral reasoning behind it. And thus it can be easier to come up with a myth and use fear to get children to behave well.