I was writing a piece on Jade Empire this week and I ended up talking a fair bit about traditional Chinese conceptions of the afterlife and how I felt the game handled those concepts. The afterlife in traditional Chinese culture is interesting, not least because of how much it differs from Western assumptions of an afterlife dominated by the dichotomy of salvation and punishment. Those concepts are there, largely thanks to the fusion of Buddhist, Taoist and indigenous spiritual ideas that informed Chinese spirituality from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) onwards. However, Buddhist and Christian (and therefore Chinese and Western) manifestations of hell and salvation differed significantly and at any rate, an intricate network of indigenous Chinese spiritual beliefs long predate the arrival of Buddhism into the country.
For centuries before the growth of Buddhism’s popularity in China in the second century AD, Chinese communities practiced ancestor worship and engaged in a spiritual culture that stressed the continued role of individuals in the corporal plane after passing into death themselves. Early Chinese civilizations sought to earn the favor of such figures and believed they held a direct role in the fertility of farmers’ fields and the fortunes of kings’ armies. By the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) local gods and ghosts attached to specific communities operated within a hierarchy in the afterlife. Some ghosts were superior to others and many held office, including official positions and titles recognized by the Ming government itself.
All of this feeds into popular perceptions of the afterlife in Chinese culture that ascribe a much broader set of functions and proclivities to ghosts and ghouls than merely scaring the living daylights out of the living. Chinese ghost stories are not necessarily works of horror and are in fact just as likely to be romances or morality tales. Indeed, a “ghost story” by the strictest definition (or at least the Western definition) merely has to feature a ghost, and plenty of Chinese fiction does this. The trope gathered popularity in the Tang Period and became a mainstay in Chinese literature. Echoes remain today. I got a chance to mention one of my favorite Chinese language films in the Jade Empire piece: My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, a moralistic rom-com/ghost story wherein a bereaved trophy wife makes term with her grief thanks to a friendly and mischievous specter.
Overall I think I prefer the idea of ghosts with needs and ambitions comparable to our own here on the material plane. A ghost seeking to be lord over his fellow apparitions or seeking love is more interesting to me than an undead creature obsessed with haunting an old house. To be fair, there is plenty of example in western tradition of ghosts having more nuanced motivations but the traditional Chinese afterlife is more than a loose collection of lost souls, it’s an entire society unto itself existing parallel to our own as well as intertwined with corporal existence.