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Wicked Witches of the East

Vengeful insects, brain-eating worms and haunted meat: black magic throughout Chinese history


Wicked Witches of the East

Vengeful insects, brain-eating worms and haunted meat: black magic throughout Chinese history


While Halloween may not be widely celebrated in the East, Chinese folklore is still full of the uncanny and macabre. There’s no shortage of witchcraft or black magic, which has bubbled just below the surface for most of China’s history, rising up from time to time to take its toll. Expect fewer broomsticks and black cats than are found in western witchery—though these won’t be entirely absent—but just as much mystery, malevolence, and misogyny. So, if any one of these sparks your curiosity, join us on this grisly tour of all things hocus pocus.


The Wrath of Gu

While there are no precise Chinese translations for the word witchcraft, the character, gu () covers lots of bases, with a cauldron-load of creepy, witchy connotations. The main source in English on this subject is still an article from 1935, called the ‘’Black Magic in China known as Gu (Ku)’’, written by H. Y. Feng and J.K. Shryock at the University of Pennsylvania. This reads like a Gothic horror tale.

The authors explain that gu is an ancient Chinese character, and highlight several of its cheery definitions, including “a worm eaten vessel,” “an evil spirit,” and “a grain which molders and blows away.” In the dark arts, gu refers to a kind of poisonous supernatural entity used against ones enemies, to take revenge on them or get their money. The authors quote a  medical text from the Sui Dynasty (581-605), which explains that:

‘’People sometimes deliberately prepare gu. They take worms, insects, snakes, and other poisonous creatures, and put them together in a vessel. They allow them to eat each other until only one is left, and this survivor is the gu… It comes and goes without one’s knowledge, and eventually appears somewhat like a ghost. Those who have seen it, die.”

In other words, one insect, snake or other creature out-poisons all its rivals, and then absorbs their venom—transforming it into a pretty nasty specimen with supernatural killing powers. Next we have a quote from the Sui Dynasty’s official history that sounds very similar to the plot of this year’s celebrated horror flick, It Follows:

“When the person dies, his property is moved by the gu spirit to the house of the keeper of the gu. If for three years the keeper does not kill a man with the gu, the keeper himself is killed by it. It is handed down from generation to generation, and is given to a daughter as a dowry.”

What a lovely gift! Read further in this article, and you find accounts of “worms eating the brains of men” and cursed meat that “when eaten, comes alive again, living in the victims stomach, and eventually killing him.”


Witchcraft and Women

Unsurprisingly perhaps, people were petrified of gu, and often acted in less than rational ways to protect themselves from it. As in Europe, it was mostly women, and minorities, who bore the brunt of accusations and of persecution. De Groot, and Feng and Shryock note that black magic was regarded as prevalent among  ethnic ”barbarians” and—say Feng and Shyrock—particularly the women. Brett Hinsch, academic and author of Women in Early Imperial China writes that ‘’the Han elite assumed that women had special access to dark magical forces’’ and that ”witchcraft terrified potential male victims.”

Some of Chinese history’s most infamous and bloody witch-hunts erupted in the Han Dynasty (221–207 BC). Ultimately, witch hysteria consumed the court of Emperor Wu, when Wu’s opponents accused his daughter, and then his wife, Empress Wei (129-91 B.C.E) of gu and other dark arts. Since it was usually associated with women, says Hinsch, witchcraft proved a very handy tool for ousting them and their allies from the court.

In The Religious Systems of China, published in 1892, Dutch scholar, Jan Jakob Maria De Groot tells a much later story with similarly misogynistic themes: Using her “darling cat,” and a “thin bamboo pole” an “old aunt” magically transforms herself into “a woman of seven or eight feet high, on horseback with a spear in hand.” One family, who suspect her of causing harm to their child, accuses the aunt of witchcraft; then, once their suspicions are confirmed, deprive her of foods and water til she dies, and ”beat her cat to death.” De Groot remarks that the story “reminds us vividly of our European witches.’’ How’s that for tragic, parallel development?


Defense against the Dark Arts

Taoist and Buddhists were often employed to counteract black magic—acting something like the Christian priests of European history; so too were “wu,” translated as shaman or witchdoctor, who have been seen throughout Chinese history as diviners of the future, interpreters of dreams and healers of diseases. In many cases, they were accorded great political and social respect, which is to say that, as in lots of other cultures, Shaman were and are the good guys.

In the case of De Groot’s “old aunt” it is a “wu” who the family call upon to find the culprit. Tellingly, for Feng and Shyrock, who were writing before 1949, wu means ‘’white magic.’’ Sometime since, however, the term has become swamped in negativity, and now evokes many of the same associations that does witchcraft in the West; namely evil and “backward” superstition (at least before Harry Potter and modern Wicca lightened up its image).  For example, Chinese academic, Xinsheng Hu, of Shandong University, apologizes for the subject matter of his recent book, Ancient Chinese Shamanism (中国古代巫术) , which he repeatedly derides as ”vulgar,” ”lowly” and ”repulsive,” among many other chirpy adjectives.  Shamanism is, he goes on to lament, evidence of the backwardness of religious consciousness in China.

Take an outdated academic concept of religions, dating from the 19th century west: a hierarchy with Christianity and, say, Confucianism at the top, and “primitive” traditions at the bottom. Throw in a dose of Marxist-Leninism, and “double double, toil and trouble,” you have views like these. But our main concern at this time year is not with academic rigor: but rather that without a wu, Hu and other scholars of a similar perspective will have no defense against the supernatural—the ghosts and ghouls and, of course, the witches. What will they do for Halloween?


Want more on the macabre traditions? Check out What Happens When You Die 

Cover Image from Unsplash