On visiting Edinburgh, top of my to-do list was a ghost tour of the ancient streets and castles; there were dozens of companies to choose from. I always wondered why–a city where most streets pre-date the oldest of Scotland’s castles–has it taken so long for someone to embrace the spooky history and murderous past of Beijing. Walking around Houhai Lake, you are more likely to be thinking about how to find that perfect hidden café you were told about than whether or not a ghoulish Chinese zombie is trying to make you his wife. However, things might just be changing. Newman Tours are finally here and have set out to remind people that Beijing is not just old but probably, no, definitely haunted.
Starting at the entrance to Beihai North subway station, we met our guides Christopher and Daniel who–armed with their Apple products–showed our group a video of a mysterious girl in a red dress riding the subway. With animated enthusiasm, our guides explained that the Beijing subway system is known to be haunted between the hours of 11 pm and 3 am. From 1965 when construction began, countless numbers of people have died deep underground while building the intricate system of tunnels. Thousands of years worth of bones and bodies were also disturbed during the construction. All of these lost lives have resulted in lonely ghosts who travel back and forth on the trains and follow the tracks around Beijing, haunting late-night travelers, maintenance workers and security guards.
From the subway station, we begin our spooky journey through the maze of alleyways on the west side of Qianhai and Houhai lakes. Our guides stops every few hundred meters or so in front of important landmarks and tell us about ghosts, murders, sadistic historical figures and gruesome legends, which haunt the ancient buildings. China’s violent, seventh century leader, Empress Wu Zetian, was the only woman in China’s history to rule China in her own right. She is rumored to have reached her position of power by poisoning her own husband, Emperor Gaozong. Empress Wu was a cruel and evil woman who murdered and tortured without remorse. We heard how she killed her own infant daughter and later her son. Despite the endless, violent stories that surround Empress Wu, she is still considered China’s greatest female politician and a magnificent ruler–the parallels with Margaret Thatcher are obvious.
Less admired and even more terrifying was the concubine Daji, who is portrayed as an evil Hu Lijing, one of the nine tailed fox spirits that are so central to Chinese myth and folklore. Daji loved nothing more than the sound of a tortured human screaming and was insatiably curious. She once had the feet of an old man chopped off , simply because she saw him walking on ice and wished to examine how his feet withstood the freezing temperatures. Her inquisitive and heartless nature also saw her demand a pregnant woman’s belly be cut open and a man’s heart to be removed, both simply for her to explore the inner workings of these innocent victims. Daji famously invented a torture device where people were forced to dance on an oily hot metal drum over burning coals, purely for her amusement, before dying a slow and painful death, while she watched and laughed. Nice.
It’s gruesome stories like these that inspired Daniel Newman and his partners to add regular ghost tours to their list of more conventional trips to the Great Wall and The Forbidden City. The Beijing ghost tour is something that can be appreciated by even the most seasoned expat. Having lived here for all of my adult life, I was skeptical about how much new information I could possibly gather while being led around Houhai in a group. But I quickly forgot that I was in the middle of modern Beijing and was completely sucked in by the history and mystery of it all. We often overlook the fact that these cute little streets, which are lined with bars, restaurants and trendy clothing boutiques, are really 900-year-old historical remnants from the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Our guides stopped at important landmarks, ancient residences, haunted buildings and specific alleyways where ghosts have been seen or murders committed. Their endless knowledge and stories are enhanced by photos and videos available on their tablet screens. Without giving away too many surprises, there are parts of the tour where things get more interactive. Occasionally stories about ghostly women stalking narrow alleyways suddenly become in-your-face realistic. One of the highlights for many in our group was the zombie wedding. In this part of the tour, an unsuspecting “volunteer” finds themselves being forced to marry an undead soul in order to send him into the afterlife happily and with the wedding gifts he desires to satisfy his ghostly needs. If you have ever seen a Chinese movie with vampires or zombies, you would have wondered why they hop or bounce with their arms outstretched in front of them. On the tour, it is all explained along with more tales of evil rulers, poltergeists who won’t go away and even the occasional good guy ghost who saves drowning children.