Death beyond Death: Jian Spirits in Chinese Popular Belief


  • Elizaveta Volchkova National Research University Higher School of Economics


jian, ghosts, exorcism, netherworld, Chinese folklore, Chinese popular religion


This article examines the origins and development of notions about jian spirits, beings into which, according to Chinese folk tradition, the souls of the dead transform after their demise. An analysis of the few available references to jian in Chinese literature and folklore suggests that the first mention of jian as ‘ghosts of ghosts’ appears relatively late, in the 13th century, as the result of a combination of two independent traditions: the written jian formula used in apotropaic practices from at least the Tang period (618–907), and a complex of ideas about the mortality of ghosts and their posthumous fate that took shape in the early Middle Ages, possibly under the influence of Buddhism. A detailed development of the ghosts of ghosts motif occurs as part of High Qing supernatural discourse in the works of writers Pu Songling and Yuan Mei. By the end of the 19th century notions that had been created by such literary representation were inherited by the popular belief system. The evolution of ideas about jian, which continues to the present, as far as one can judge from the supply on the market of magical paraphernalia and the material of modern supernatural web novels, provides a vivid example of how new concepts of Chinese folk religious tradition emerge and transform.


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