Hippity hoppity: the Jiangshi

Adios, 2020! This year sure has sucked. Speaking of sucking, it’s time to pay another visit to a monster we know and love: the venerable vampire.  I do try to cover lesser-known monsters on this blog, but seriously, variations of the vampire are everywhere (see here and here and here and here and here). This Chinese iteration is well-known in the East, but less so out here, so I figured we’d give it a shot.

Also, it’s hilarious. And terrifying.

Hop to it 

You’re probably wondering about all the hamfisted word plays on hopping. Thanks to good old rigor mortis, the Jiangshi (僵尸 or 殭屍, literal translation “hard corpse”) wakes from its eternal slumber to find that its legs are too stiff to walk. So instead, it makes due by moving around via little, pogo-stick-like hops, arms outstretched for balance, grasping for its victim’s face. 

Typical Jiangshi attire, sans the mold.

Though that image is hardly intimidating, the Jiangshi’s calf power is something to be feared.  It can hop very quickly and be on you in a moment. And you don’t want it anywhere near you. In varying states of decomposition (not unlike a Western zombie), a Jiangshi is often covered in fuzzy green or white mold. Its nails are long, curved, and black, its tongue wild and impossibly long. Its eyes bulge hungrily from its skull, serrated teeth stretching forward like that of a shark. A single breath from it will kill you dead.

Though often dressed in fancy Qing official attire,* Jiangshi have lost all humanity. They cannot speak and operate on base instinct, ravenous beasts hunting for prey.** Similar to the Edimmu and other vampires of old, the Jiangshi traditionally feed not off of blood, but qi–a person’s life force. Though blind, they can sniff the living out, or jump on them by detecting their breathing. Like other vampires, they operate only in darkness, hopping out of their hiding places in caves and other abandoned places to haunt the night. 

It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump…to DEATH

The Jiangshi was formed independently of the Slavic vampire, first showing up in written records during the Qing Dynasty in scholar Ji Xiaolan’s Yuewei Caotang Biji (閱微草堂筆記, c. 1789 – 1798).  Ji Xiaolan notes that as with many undead creatures, there are multiple ways a Jiangshi can be created. These include but are not limited to:

  • Neglecting a corpse, especially if it is left out to absorb the yin energy of the moonlight;
  • Having a funeral but failing to bury the body, leaving it open for lightning to strike it or a pregnant cat to leap across its coffin;
  • Death by unpleasant means;
  • Transmission of the Jiangshi “virus” through biting;
  • Sorcery; and 
  • The deceased just being kind of a dick who doesn’t want to leave this earthly plane.
Quick, grab the virgin piss!

With so many paths to Jiangshidom, it’s a wonder the world isn’t vibrating under the force of a million hops. Fortunately, just like there are multiple ways to create Jiangshi, there are multiple ways to keep them at bay. Some of these are even incorporated into day-to-day life, like the feng shui convention of nailing a 6-inch panel of wood along the bottom of a house’s threshold, preventing any Jiangshi from getting inside (I guess they don’t hop very high). My other favorite countermeasures include:

  • Glutinous rice, which I kept seeing on Jiangshi-warding lists without elaboration. I finally found something that indicates that since sticky rice is used as a way to draw poison out of the living, it can also be used against Jiangshi (or maybe a living person turning into a Jiangshi). No word on how to encourage someone whose main diet is human lifeforce to eat a ball of carbs…fortunately, some lists have it that throwing a ball of rice at the vampire will suffice.
  • Tacking a piece of paper with a spell written on it to the Jiangshi’s forehead. Watch your fingers!
  • Dropping a bunch of coins on the ground, turning the Jiangshi into Count von Count
  • The urine of a virgin boy (presumably in a squirt gun).
  • Holding your breath.
  • “Broom.”  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Bounce, baby out the door

The Jiangshi is fun in its own right, but what I love most about this vampire myth is that it’s based–just a little–in reality. 

The story goes that the original Jiangshi were created by accident. Way back when, families of migrant workers who died far away from home used to pay “corpse drivers” to bring the bodies of their loved ones back for burial. It’s said that for convenience’s sake, the drivers would bind the hands, knees, and ankles of a batch of corpses and then animate them with magic, teaching them to hop themselves home. The driver would then shepherd them under the cover of night, synchronizing their hopping to the beat of a drum. He’d ring a bell at intervals, warning the living away from the bad luck of setting eyes on the unholy undead.

You’d think that was a wild story, but it’s not far off from the truth. There really were corpse drivers who brought deceased workers the long way home under cover of night. But they didn’t (to my knowledge) animate them with magic. Instead, they tied a row of corpses upright along a pole strung between two men’s shoulders–one at the front, the other at the rear. The men would then ferry that load. Naturally, the pole would bounce under the weight of all that flesh, giving the corpses the appearance of hopping when viewed at a distance. It must have been almost as much of a sight to behold as would a Jiangshi itself.

These days, the Jiangshi can be found not only on dark roads, but in movies and anime and cosplay conventions around the world. The 1980’s Mr. Vampire comedy-horror series ensured their place in our collective memory for generations to come. 

That is, if a broom doesn’t get them first.

Man jumping
Count yourself lucky I don’t come after you with a Roomba.

With all that calf work, how does a new Jiangshi avoid shin splints? Share your theories in the comments below. 

*The common depiction of Jiangshi as Qing officials may have originated with said officials’ reputation (at least among the Han Chinese) for being kinda bloodthirsty.

**At least, traditionally. Most of what I’m covering here is the more traditional Jiangshi–more recent movies have taken inspiration from your Twilights and such, making Jiangshi occasionally into more romantic, blood-sucking figures. But I digress.

IMAGE CRED: Wikimedia Commons for the Qing official; Anna Toss for the impassioned attack; Steve Halama for the exuberant hop.

Hungry Enough to Eat His Own Arm: The Nachzehrer

Photo courtesy of Guliolopez (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Welcome to our first full moon MONSTER MEET, and to the 11th post on this site! Now that we’ve covered some creatures that you’ve probably never heard of, I’d like to celebrate this occasion by discussing a variation on a more traditional monster: the vampire.

Meet the nachzehrer, whose name roughly translates to “after devourer” and who has had people pooping themselves for centuries. Though often classified as vampire, the nachzehrer bears little resemblance to the wealthy, well-dressed, highly sexualized characters we know and love/throw up over today.  Some argue that it might better be called a ghoul or revenant, but I’d like to stick with the term “vampire” for now, if only as an educational tool–we are so removed from what vampires meant to us originally; it might be nice to remember what terrified us all those years ago.  

To begin with the simplest definition, the nachzehrer is a German revenant born of a person who committed suicide or died a particularly nasty accidental death. It should be noted that “accidental death,” in this case, even extends to dying of a plague: rumor had it that after his burial, the first victim of disease would wake up underground and begin his hellish life anew, bringing sickness, rot, and death to the community he left behind. In general, this was the the nachzehrer’s purpose: to destroy its family and the people it had known best. And what a comprehensive job it would do!

After opening its eyes to dirt and worms, the first thing a newly minted nachzehrer did was to writhe until it could get its mouth close enough to begin chewing off and eating its burial clothes. Once those were disposed of, it would move on to savagely devour chunks of its own flesh. The more it ate, the sicker its family became. So voracious was in the nachzehrer in its task that people told tales of walking through an empty, quiet graveyard, only to hear grunting and snuffling noises coming from under the ground as the creature tore against muscle and tendons. One can only assume that any listener would have done well to turn and run; once the nachzehrer ate enough of itself, it would move on to the bodies around it, and then–in some versions of the legend–to physically devour what family it had left alive. At any rate, it was not something you wanted to run into once it climbed out of the grave.

Once it was out, the legends diverge as to where and how the nachzehrer went about its business. Some said that it transformed into a pig to attack its family, biting them and snorting up their blood with its squishy, piggy snout. Others told of how it would dart up into the church tower to ring the bells; if you heard them ring, you would die (in this case, I suppose the best advice for people at the time would be not only “ask not for whom the bell tolls” but “worry deeply about who tolls the bell.”). Less common stories warned against letting the nachzehrer’ shadow touch you–if it did, you would drop dead (though, as mentioned above, if the creature was close enough to cast a shadow on you in the first place, you were probably dead, anyway). Unlike other vampires, the nachzehrer “disease” was not communicable if it bit you and you escaped, but also unlike other vampires, the nachzehrer was not interested in reproducing so much as it was mindless, merciless destruction.  

If you’re thinking that this sounds like a nightmare people would try to avoid, you’re correct. Villagers took many measures to try and avoid the creation of nachzehrer, from cutting the nametags off of burial clothes (it was rumored that leaving the deceased’s name on their cloth might bring them back to life), to shoving coins and even bricks into the mouths of their loved ones before burying them deep underground. But these precautions were not always enough, and when they failed, the creature had to be hunted and killed in order to keep it from destroying entire neighborhoods. The only way to manage this was by somehow getting a coin inside its mouth (this was said to render the nachzehrer immobile), and then beheading it. Never mind how difficult this would be were the challenger to catch the revenant outside its grave; even when under the ground, the nachzehrer never really slept. Villagers would dig up suspected trouble-makers only to find the corpse flush with blood, dirt collecting in its self-inflicted wounds. It was said to always rest with its left eye wide open, thumb cradled in its opposite hand.

It seems that legends of the nachzehrer are a thing of the past; I was unable to find any modern tales of the creature, though that’s not to say they couldn’t exist. As with other vampires, some attribute the old stories of flushed corpses and the spread of disease to our predecessors’ poor understanding of the processes of decay and communications of viruses and bacteria. The chunks missing from the nachzehrer’s clothes and flesh might be explained away by rats; the sightings of the creature as a pig or in the bell tower might come from mere uneducated fancy.

They might. Or, we might be so afraid of possibility of the nachzehrer that we’ve hurried to explain it away.  

Happy blood moon, everyone.

Have you ever been hungry enough to eat your own clothing? Do you think the nachzehrer is actually a form of retribution for all those excessive bacon-eaters out there? Share your story in the comments below.