In modern Chinese language, the term ghost (gui 鬼) appears very often, although people today may not really believe in the existence of ghosts. We often hear such expressions as “seeing a ghost” (jian gui 见鬼, something incredible or ridiculous happens); or ”ghosts fighting each other” (gui dajia 鬼打架, a messy situation created by incompetent or irresponsible people); or “one’s mind has been beguiled/misled by a ghost” (gui mi xinqiao 鬼迷心窍), or “full of ghost talk” (i.e. nonsense) (guihua lianpian 鬼话连篇), etc.
All these expressions suggest a common perception that the term ghost has a negative connotation, that the ghost is evil, or up to no good. It creates chaos, fear, and anxiety for people, not to mention real harm as a result of the ghostly apparition.
There are, however, also expressions that contain both ghosts and gods, and the meaning there could be more neutral, usually expressing certain awe and wonder. Examples include such expressions as “not even ghosts and gods could predict” (guishen moce 鬼神莫測), or “by the axe of the ghosts and work of the gods” (guifu shengong 鬼斧神工, marvellous work of an artifact), or “appearing like gods and disappearing like ghosts” (shenchu guimo 神出鬼没), etc.
It is significant to note that when “ghost” appears alone, it usually has a negative meaning, but when it appears together with “god”, its meaning is usually neutral and could, in fact, be synonymous with god. It would be interesting to see if any other modern language contains such a rich reference to ghosts in daily use.
But what is a ghost?
There are at least two broadly defined positions in the historical records: one that it is a kind of posthumous existence of an individual, and two, that it is people’s imagination of a kind of posthumous existence of an individual. It is clear that the difference between position one and two is that one is a believer and the other a non-believer.
The Eastern Han philosopher Wang Chong (王充), for example, argues that ghosts are basically illusions of the mind when people are sick or have mental problems. Needless to say, for most people, it could not have been a yes and no answer, as one might change one’s idea according to different life situations and experiences. One could be a firm non-believer one day, a sceptic another day, or a total believer after a certain unusual experience.
According to historical records, ghosts could be:
1. Invisible, formless
2. Just as the person was when he/she was alive.
3. Possessing special features and non-human like figures.
4. Possessing special/supernatural abilities.
How could one recognise a ghost?
Mozi (墨子), the Warring States philosopher who propagated the concept of universal love, takes a common-sense approach to the existence of ghosts and spirits, that is, if it is reported that many people have seen a ghost, then it must have existed. Mozi, in fact, was a promoter of the existence of ghosts, because he thought that if people all believe in the existence of ghosts, then they, for fear of being punished by the revenging ghosts, would not do anything bad. This is an example of “using the way of spirits to teach the people (神道设教)”.
Confucius, on the other hand, would not have agreed with him. He was once quoted saying that although ghosts and spirits are everywhere, we cannot see or hear them. It is clear that Confucius did not deny the existence of ghosts and spirits, but neither did he admit that human beings could be in touch with ghosts, or say how they looked like.
In a story contained in a text recently found in a tomb dating back to the 3rd century BCE, a servant named Dan committed suicide because he had wounded someone, perhaps unintentionally. Three years after his death, his master Xiwu reopened the case and found that he should not deserve death for his crime. Xiwu thus appealed to the Controller of Fate (siming shi 司命史), a netherworld official who kept the roster of human life span.
The Controller of Fate had a white dog dig Dan out from his tomb. Dan stood on top of the tomb for three days, then went with the Controller of Fate to the northern region of Bo-qiu (Mound of Cypress). Four years later, he was able to hear the sounds of dogs and chickens and eat like an ordinary human being, although his limbs were feeble.
Dan said that the dead did not wish to dress much, and that they favoured white rushes or grass-like plants. Moreover, the ghost would be scared away if those who made offerings vomited at the tomb, apparently from eating too much food. They should also clean the gravesite carefully, and not pour gruel over the offering site, and not pour broth over the offering, because the ghost would not eat it.
The three stories mentioned above provide us with some material with which to think about the cultural significance of the ideas of ghosts. It can be argued that people’s experience or imagination of ghosts was informed and defined (at least partially) by the culturally sanctioned interpretations of their experience, in the forms of moral thesis, exorcistic texts, and entertaining stories.
People often could not know a ghost is a ghost simply by looking at its physical body, unless given certain attributes, such as dishevelled hair and nakedness, or other obviously evil doings that are conventionally seen as the doings of ghosts.
Unlike the recognition of normal things, however, there are conflicting records concerning the features and characteristics of ghosts because they did not appear all the time to all the people. The key issue here is that people in different cultural traditions would imagine the kind of posthumous existence according to their respective social and cultural context in which the conceptions of death and afterlife are formulated. And even within a society, such imagination could vary according to different social strata and historical periods.
Moreover, the formation of the concept of ghost is not only related to the issue of imagination, but also experience, since imagination is closely related to experience. In other words, there is a correlation between experience, imagination, and cultural sanction.
People often could not know a ghost is a ghost simply by looking at its physical body, unless given certain attributes, such as dishevelled hair and nakedness, or other obviously evil doings that are conventionally seen as the doings of ghosts. For the invisible ghost, moreover, one’s experience of it would have to be informed by authoritative interpretation. This gives rise to religious personnel who gained the ability and reputation of being able to see, to communicate, and to exorcise the ghosts.
Do ghosts have feelings?
Considering the hypothesis that the idea of ghost is a kind of cultural construction, the imagination of the nature of a ghost would have to be formulated according to a culturally conceivable logical thinking. The descriptions and sightings of ghosts should be seen as part of the collective imagination which formed certain conventional notions about the nature of ghosts. That is to say, the idea of ghost needs to be presented and imagined within a certain cognitive limit. Even with the idea that a ghost could be formless or invisible, there still needs to be certain physical phenomena, such as sound or wind, to enable the human cognitive mechanism to make judgments.
It would therefore not be surprising if ghosts possessed certain human traits just as the living people did, for it would be cognitively unimaginable to conceive of an “existence” without having at least some of the conditions for the human mind to recognise such an existence: shape, weight, physical action, verbal capability, feeling, emotion, even moral sense. Thus although one might not have the experience of seeing a twenty feet tall black ghost that flies, one could have in mind all the concepts (such as a twenty feet tall figure, black colour, ugly face, the idea of flying, etc.) that could construct such an image.
In the story of the resurrection of Dan, mentioned above, we can see that ghosts possessed all kinds of human traits: they did not like to dress much, detested people vomiting, disliked drenched offerings, etc., and of course, had the ability to sense all these. One could make a case that the imagination of the human traits of the ghost in this story makes no distinction between the ghost and those of the living.
In another story, this time from a Six Dynasties collection of strange tales, a certain Zong Dingbo once travelled by night, and met a ghost. Their conversation went something like this:
Zong Dingbo asked, “Who are you?”
“I am a ghost,” the ghost replied. “Who are you then?”
Zong lied and said, “I am also a ghost.”
“Where are you going,” the ghost asked.
“To the Yuan market,” Zong replied.
When the ghost replied that he was also heading there, they travelled some distance together before the ghost said it was too tiring to walk and suggested that they carry each other. Zong agreed.
After the ghost had carried Zong for quite a while, he said, “You are too heavy! Aren’t you a ghost?”
Zong replied, “I have just died. That is why I am heavy.”
When it was Zong’s turn to carry the ghost, the latter was almost weightless. After they took three turns, Zong said, “I have just died and do not know what ghosts are afraid of.”
The ghost said, “The only thing is that we do not like people to spit on us.”
Coming to a stream, the ghost crossed over first, barely making a sound. When Zong crossed over, he made splashing sounds.
The ghost asked, ““Why do you make all the noises?”
Zong replied, “It is because the newly dead are not used to crossing the water. Do not find it strange!”
When they approached the Yuan market, Dingbo carried the ghost over his head and held fast. The ghost cried out loudly in a squeaky sound and asked to be let down, but Dingbo would not listen. They went into the Yuan market, the ghost came down to the ground and changed into a goat. Dingbo thus wanted to sell it. He was afraid that the ghost will change again, so he spit on it. He sold the goat for fifteen hundred coins and left. People then talked about this and said Zong sold a ghost and got fifteen hundred coins.
In the story, the ghost could talk, express complicated emotions, and was even able to carry a person. Thus the ghost was imagined as having similar bodily functions as the humans, although the ghost itself was almost weightless, in conformity with the popular idea that ghost could float in the air.
What could the imagination of the behaviour of ghosts tell us about the relationship between experience and cognition? My assumption is that in the realm of religious ideas, human cognition of a supernatural being such as ghost was informed and conditioned by their own physical and mental experiences, as well as that sanctioned by cultural traditions.
Moreover, we need to distinguish between the nature and function of different accounts of ghosts: for classical texts such as the Mozi and Confucian texts, the concept of ghosts was mostly a tool for moral teaching; their character or nature was imagined according to the prevailing idea of ghost — that they might be powerful, have the desire to revenge and do harm. In the resurrection story, what Dan described about ghosts testifies to a common idea about the nature of ghosts.
On the whole, however, the features of ghosts were described, but not imagined as having a personality and involved with the life of the living in any extensive way. It is in the ghost stories in the Six Dynasties, the writers developed the image of the ghost further into literary characters, complete with all sorts of human feelings and human characteristics. These two strands of ideas persisted down to the centuries, until modern times.