It’s sometimes joked about that “after the founding of the PRC, no one was allowed to become an immortal.” Certainly, the Communist Party’s stance against superstitious beliefs in the populace have limited how supernatural topics can be presented in media—to the extent that homegrown horror films or TV often end with the character waking to discover it was all a nightmare, or the director of a scary movie-within-a-movie yells, “Cut!”
This tendency has become a goldmine for comedians, especially web-users known for delivering duanzi (段子), humorous anecdotes that lampoon aspect of Chinese society. In Part 1 of our Halloween tribute to Chinese urban legends, we explored some modern Chinese tales that are told with the intent to spook—in Part 2, we take on another set of ghost stories, with the Chinese characteristic of duanzi.
The Phone Call
This story is a twist on both the “suspiciously cheap apartment (likely the site of a grisly murder)” and “mysterious phone call (it’s coming from inside the house!)” sub-genres of urban legend, and proves that ghost jokes have been around since at least the era of the rotary phone. The story doesn’t work quite as well with today’s technology, but the part about the terrible rental housing market is still relatable:
Mr. Li is a programmer who’s just moved into the city, and found he had limited housing options unless he wanted to pay a sketchy broker or commute an hour each way. One day, he views an apartment that is fantastically cheap for the location, but has been empty for years. His landlady admitted that she had a hard time finding a tenant because the phone number was 4444 – 4444—that number being terribly unlucky in Chinese culture. Still, Mr. Li said he’d take it.
One evening, as Mr. Li was lounging at home, the phone rang. He picked it up, and a voice rasped: “Is this 4444 – 4444? Can you call me an ambulance? It hurts…it hurts….”
Mr. Li broke out in a cold sweat and hung up. Then the phone rang again, “Is this 4444 – 4444? Can you call me an ambulance? I can’t hold on much longer…this is the only number I can call.”
The only number they could call? Mr. Li felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Was it a ghost? A message from the underworld? The phone continued ringing. He was afraid to pick it up; but more afraid to let it ring. He picked up the phone.
“Is this 4444 – 4444? Hurry up and call me an ambulance! My finger is stuck on the number 4.”
The Vanished Hitchhiker
This one is an update on another Chinese urban legend, in which taxi drivers who pick up young women near the cemetery find next day that their fare was paid in the same paper money that relatives burn for the deceased. Must be a ghost! It’s a favorite among comedians from Dongbei, whose professional ethics all but require them to say the woman’s lines in a thick regional accent:
A taxi driver was driving by the cemetery on a stormy night. A woman dressed in white flagged him down. The driver had heard many stories of otherworldly passengers trying to hitch a ride from drivers here at night, but he felt bad for the woman, so he stopped.
With the passenger in the back seat, the driver continued to drive past the cemetery. At its gate, he glanced in the rear-view mirror and to his utter shock, there was no one in the back seat. He slammed on the brakes and turned his head; the woman was sitting in the shadows.
He drove on, but his unease at what he saw (or didn’t) in the mirrors, plus the atmosphere of the pelting rain and silent tombs, was gnawing at him. He had to know. He lifted his eyes to the mirror again and there was no one there.
The driver slammed on the brakes and swung himself around in the seat. There, sitting on the seat, was the woman, with blood streaming down her face. He screamed; the woman seemed to be saying something.
“Brother, stop slamming on the brake. You keep doing it every time I want to tie my shoelace, and now my nose is bleeding from hitting the back of the seat.”
A variation of this story has the driver pick up the woman on the way to the cemetery. As he stops to let her off, he’s shocked to find the back seat empty and nobody outside the car. Just as he is about to panic and drive off, the woman stands up right outside his window, her face full of blood. He screams.
“Brother, next time don’t stop right next to a ditch.”
The Ghost Dumplings
Another tale from one of China’s indigenous ghost festivals:
It was the night of the Hungry Ghost Festival, and a customer was hurrying home from a famous dumpling shop in the city. As the proprietor served up a box of ten juicy dumplings, he joked, “Now be sure to hurry home, so the smell doesn’t attract hungry ghosts.”
The customer laughed along, yet he realized the road was unusually dark and cold as he hurried home, the wind whistling weirdly in his ear. The proprietor’s words echoed in his head…it was ridiculous, of course; all the dumplings were safe and sound inside the box. He subconsciously lifted the lid and peeked in…and there were only eight dumplings inside!
The customer broke out in goosebumps. He ran down the street, ducked down the alleyway, and looked again. Five dumplings. He was panicked now, but there didn’t seem to be anyone else in the street, or any sound at all except for the wind. He ran all the way home. Before he went inside, he checked the box again and there were only two dumplings left.
The man went into his house and locked all the doors, shaking uncontrollably. When he was satisfied he was the only person in the house, he lifted the lid wide open. There was not a single dumpling left.
He started violently, threw the box away from him, and fell down upon the floor. As he recovered his breath he saw the open box lying in front of him. All the dumplings were stuck to the lid.
Stay safe this Halloween, and try not to psyche yourself out…