The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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Search the Dark City: The Culture of Ghosts in Early China

Principal Investigator

POO Mu-chou

Total Fund Awarded


Funding Source

RGC General Research Fund

Abstract of Project

         One of the central concerns of any religious system is the need to explain the destination of life. Is the end of life the end, or is there something more to it? For those belief systems that postulate a life beyond this one, a certain form of existence, be it called soul, phantom, or ghost, has to be assumed simply because the human cognitive faculty usually could not imagine an existence without any attributes. Once this is done, ghosts became a real entity in society and profoundly affected the growth and development of human culture. It would be somewhat inappropriate to say that ghosts affected the development of religion, since ghosts are part of the religious phenomenon. Yet without an understanding of how ghosts functioned in a religious system, we may not be able to comprehend the system, nor the society in which religious beliefs were nurtured. Ancient China is a place where ghosts thrived. Where did they come from? How did they look like? How did people recognize and treat the ghosts? How did they affect people’s lives? How did people imagine their relationship with human beings? What was their role in the belief systems? How did they affect literature, art, and transform people’s idea of the world? By asking and answering these questions, this project intends to offer an alternative view of the religious culture of ancient China, when most studies concentrate on Confucianism, Daoism, ancestor worship, ritual, or divination. Methodologically, this project will use textual and archaeological evidence to portray the development of the phenomenon of ghosts in ancient China, beginning from the Shang Dynasty and down to the Six Dynasties period. Within each sub-period, I shall articulate a theme that could characterize the nature of the development. I shall discuss how a discourse on ghosts emerged in early China, how the imperial government sought to regulate the activities of ghosts, how ghosts became prominent in literary representations, and how, in the Six Dynasties, the taming of ghosts became the contesting ground for Daoist and Buddhist advocates. Finally, I shall make some comparison with ghosts in other parts of the ancient world, to show the universality and particularity of the phenomenon of ghosts in human society. The goal of this study is to produce a book that could provide a fresh understanding of ancient Chinese religion and society, one that walks the path that is less traveled.

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