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

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

As the hot weather of the summer season gradually approaches, the release of many spine-chilling movies will soon follow.

Ghosts have been a long-lasting subject for movies. In particular, female ghosts make an especially strong impression. Imagine a long-haired woman slowly floating towards someone in the pitch dark of night, fiercely staring at them while screaming and reaching out to strangle their neck. In Chinese culture, this has been a popular narrative for women who died a tragic death to return for vengeance as ghosts. In addition to horror, these stories also reflect the oppression women faced in society.

Proving Innocence Through Death: The Injustice to Dou E

The Injustice to Dou E, also known as The Snow in Midsummer, is a famous work written by the Yuan dynasty playwright, Guan Hanqing. It is a well-known story often included in textbooks for senior high school students in Taiwan.

The story is about Dou E, who is sold to the equally impoverished Tsai family as a child bride (or child-raised daughter-in-law), to repay her family debt. Despite many challenges, the couple support each other and live a relatively happy life. However, Dou E’s husband dies of illness not long after, leaving her and her mother-in-law to depend on each other.

Soon after, the two widows are harassed by a village rascal, who later frames Dou E for murder.

The helpless Dou E has no choice but to plead guilty under a forced confession. Before the execution, she vows to the gods that after she dies, her blood will not touch the ground, her body will be buried by heavy snow in June, and that the pure whiteness of the snow will prove her innocence. To everyone’s surprise, her vows seem to be a “superpower” that each materializes into reality.

At the end of the story, Dou E’s innocent spirit finds her biological father, who helps to redress her grievances. However, the punishment of evildoers is still not able to bring back lost lives. Through this story, modern generations can learn about the grief of helpless commoners and the challenges of widows surviving in society at that time.

The Enduring Fury of Chen Shou Niang

In the world of folk legends in Taiwan, Chen Shou Niang is one of the fiercest ghosts. Though her story might not be widely known among Taiwanese people, it has been adapted into comics and other media.

Set in Taiwan over two centuries ago, Chen Shou Niang is a widow who chose to remain in widowhood for the rest of her life according to the social customs at that time. However, Shou Niang’s mother- and sister-in-law refuse to treat her as if she’s a part of the family.

A local official covets Shou Niang’s beauty and attempts to force her to sleep with him. Rejected by Shou Niang, he bribes her mother- and sister-in-law to persuade her to marry him. When things do not go as planned, they abuse the reluctant Shou Niang until she dies. However, the local officials cover up the affair and leave the criminals at large.

The resentful Shou Niang transforms into a ferocious ghostess who not only strangles the official, but also haunts the area, scaring many people. According to legend, even the gods could not initially convince Shou Niang to let go of her wrath. Finally, they negotiate with her based on the condition of “honoring her chastity through temple worship”, and finally put her soul to rest.

Having been abused to death, it was impossible for Shou Niang to earn justice through the law, and the only method was to obtain vengeance as a hateful ghost. In this story, the horror of female ghosts is actually a reflection of the darkness in society.

The comic adaptation of Chen Shou Niang’s story was published in 2019. (Photo source: eslite.com)

The Ultimate Revenge on Heartbreakers: Nâ-tâu-chí — á

Other than the darkness of officialdom, the sinister intentions of people also serve as a “factor” for the creation of female ghosts. The story of Nâ-tâu-chí — á cannot be ignored in the discussion of female Taiwanese ghosts. With “Na-tau” referring to screw-pine trees and “Chi” meaning older sister, this name is an honorific for the story’s female protagonist, who hangs herself on the tree.

Having been adapted into Taiwanese operas, movies, and TV dramas, this story has been quite influential in traditional Taiwanese culture.

The story of Nâ-tâu-chí — á has been adapted into many film and TV productions. This photo is a still from a 1993 TV drama. (Credit: YouTube channel of Taiwan Television Enterprise, TTV)

Originally named Li Zhaoniang, Nâ-tâu-chí — á lived in Taiwan over a hundred years ago. After her husband dies in a shipwreck, Li relies on an inheritance to raise their young child. Chou, a friend of Li’s husband, offers to help take care of them. However, after she starts to develop feelings for him, he cheats her out of the money and flees, leaving Li behind to face a life of hardship. Out of desperation, she ends up committing suicide, taking her child with her.

With hatred in her heart at the time of death, Li would often wander around the screw-pine tree where she hung herself. Out of fear and respect, the local residents build a temple to worship her and give her the honorific of Nâ-tâu-chí — á. Later on, she manages to locate the remarried Chou with the help of a fortune teller. Nâ-tâu-chí — á appears as a ferocious ghost before Chou and drives him insane. In a state of madness, Chou kills his family before strangling himself to death. This is the fierce revenge of Nâ-tâu-chí — á.

Unable to speak up against sinful oppression and useless laws, women in the past were consistently at risk of losing their lives for unjust reasons. As ferocious ghosts, they set out to prove their innocence or seek vengeance.

Examining these stories from a different perspective, we see injured souls under the cruel and ruthless masks of these female ghosts, as well as the tragedies that took away their lives throughout the course of history.

Also in This Issue:

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

The stories of ghostesses could be an inspiration for expanding women’s rights in a traditional patriarchal society.

Author : Hsien Liu

Freelance writer / Graduate student in Journalism

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