2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

The Cult of Female Ghosts in Medieval China

Fu-shih Lin

Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica

Extant sources indicate that, with the exception of the worship of female ancestors by their descendants, before the third century cults to female ghosts were rare. But during the Six Dynasties period (i.e. 3rd-6th century) we can find at least four cases of cults to female ghosts (i.e. Ting-ku 丁姑, Mei-ku 梅姑, Tzu-ku 紫姑 and Chiang-ku 蔣姑) in the chih-kuai 志怪 sources. Most of the devotees of these four female ghosts lived in the Chiang-nan 江南 area. Similarly, all the authors who recorded tales about these cults were born, grew up and took official posts in the same area, especially the capital city at Chien-k’ang 建康(modern Nanking 南京).

The supporters of these cults seem to have belonged to various social strata, and include a number of officials, but most of them seem to have been common people. These four female ghosts were not listed in the ssu-tien 祀典(the national sacrificial canon), and were regarded as “malicious ghosts” (li-kuei 厲鬼) in medieval China. After death they appeared and manifested magical powers, as a result of which, they received attention and sacrifice. Shrines and images were created for them, and shamans (wu ) acted as media between these ghosts and their followers. These cults were probably related to a new trend of the shamanic cult (i.e. the cult of malicious ghosts) in the Chiang-nan area during the Six Dynasties period. Tales about these four female ghosts raise interesting questions concerning gender, for the clear and strong demands the ghosts make are often directed at males. The rise of these cults suggests a change in the social role of women during the Six Dynasties period. Stories about female ghosts also suggest that the criteria that male scholars used to evaluate women in the Six Dynasties were different from those of Han scholars.


Key Words: Six Dynasties, shaman, cult, female ghost, chih-kuai