Resistance Even After Death: How Female Ghosts Fight Against the Patriarchy and Take on the Challenge of Self-actualization

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This article is part of the 35th issue of LEAP — Voices of Youth e-letter. Subscribe now.

Female ghosts often appear in Taiwanese folktales. Most of them were miserable in life, bullied by men and the law. After they died, they would return to exact brutal revenge on their tormentors.

Why is that female ghost stories share such a similar context? How common were the tragedies suffered by these women? In recent years, many gender-related works have highlighted these topics.

Why do women become female ghosts? The paradoxical “exchange system”

“The more miserable she is, the stronger she becomes.” This statement reflects the innate sadness in Taiwanese female ghost stories. It is also the title of an article collected in the book Reading Sexualities: The Many Faces of Gendered Literature in Taiwan by Yi-An Hsieh, a Taiwanese writer specializing in folktales.

According to Taiwanese folklore, people enter the cycle of reincarnation after they die. Those who perform good deeds in life may become a Buddha, a concept similar to ascending to Heaven. In contrast, people who died from an accident or murdered injustly may become ghosts who linger in the human world.

In folktales, male ghosts typically have ambiguous appearances, manifesting as a two-dimensional force of evil or a powerful monster. On the other hand, female ghosts often have distinct, three-dimensional appearances according to Hsieh. This contrast reflects the clear level of violence and oppression imposed on women in traditional society.

According to legend, how women are treated in life becomes the source of their magical power after they die. It is a bizarre exchange system, the more hardships women endure in life, the more magical powers they are granted in the afterlife, becoming a more powerful ghost in the underworld.

“In life, women must obey a myriad of regulations. However, those regulations do not apply to female ghosts. Therefore, they can finally rise above social conventions and enact their vengeance,” wrote Hsieh. This imagination reflects a voice of rebellion in an era of gender inequality.

The Human Environment Behind the Female Ghosts

Given that the image of female ghosts is inherently connected with the experiences of women, what kind of society did women actually live in during these bygone eras?

Female Ghosts in Taiwan: The Image of Female Ghosts in Folklore by Hsiu-Hua Chen is a rare academic book in Taiwan that focuses on the topic of female ghosts. This book also analyzes the circumstances of the historical period behind these female ghosts.

The book mentions how Taiwan was originally an agricultural society requiring large amounts of labor. Due to their innate physicality, most men enjoyed an advantage in society. In addition, the traditional division of labor — “men lead outside and women lead inside” — relegated women to the work of unpaid household chores. As a result, a woman’s value was severely underestimated.

Moreover, traditionally, local religions were patriarchal. Only men and married women were worshiped by their living family after death. Thus, passing down the family name and maintaining family honor were considered the responsibilities of men. Women were severely discriminated against. A woman must marry into her husbands’ family to make her life complete. If they were divorced or remained single their whole life, they would end up having no one to worship them after death, eventually becoming lost ghosts. This was a great source of anxiety for traditional women.

Under these circumstances, women held an extremely low status in traditional patriarchal society. If they were abused in their marriage and ended up losing their marital status, they could not be worshiped after death. This unresolved sorrow became the impetus for them to avenge themselves after death.

Self-actualization? Rebelling against the patriarchy? The meaning of gender in female ghost stories

In the past, women’s values were limited to family and never associated with economy, politics, or any public realms. However, through the magical powers female ghosts possessed, they discovered their voices and manifested a power stronger than women and even men alive. The fear and respect felt for female ghosts were exactly what women were unable to obtain in life.

Although the portrayal of female ghosts as scheming and hysterical were still based on a stereotypical understanding of women, Chen maintains that the actions of female ghosts could be seen as an aspiration for expanding female rights.

“During life, the female protagonists yielded because they had internalized patriarchy and made it an irreversible consciousness. After they died, they realized that they were overtly oppressed, neglected, deprived of the inalienable rights they deserved, and long blinded by illusions,” wrote Chen.

In her book, Chen also maintains that the vengeance of female ghosts on men can be considered a resistance against the patriarchal system as they achieve self-actualization.

In Taiwanese folktales, Chen Shou Niang and Nâ-tâu-chí — á seek justice after death for how they were wrongly treated in life, demonstrating how they were no longer people lacking a voice in a patriarchal system but subjects with the power to pursue their own rights and desires. Nevertheless, we still see their anxiety about not being worshiped in death. And, both local people and gods alike attempt to convince them to stop wreaking havoc by offering to build temples in worship of them.

While it is hard to verify the truth behind these folktales, they still record important information about the background of the era.

In famous female ghost stories, we see how women were unequally treated in the past, restrained by traditional marriage and religious concepts, and unable to seek justice when they were wronged. When they became female ghosts, they discovered their voice and realized what women could not achieve in reality. The tragedies inflicted during the eras of female ghost stories are not only terrifying, but also provide critical insight into gender oppression.

Also in This Issue:

The Misfortune of Women in Life, The Power of Women as Ghosts: Examining the Abuse of Women Through Folk Legends

Three folklore legends are selected to demonstrate that the power of ghostesses can reflect on the misfortune of women when they were alive.

Author : Hsien Liu

Freelance writer / Graduate student in Journalism

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