Love After Death: Chinese Ghost Marriage (Abstract)

For my final project, I chose to focus on the tradition of ghost marriage in China. This topic interested me not only because of the implications regarding gender, ancestry, and relationships in Chinese culture, but also because of the seemingly blurred distinction between the living and the dead. My project takes the form of a research article because I felt that this medium would allow me to explore the topic in the most depth. I’ve also used quotes and pictures to supplement my paper when necessary.
Ghost marriage, or “hell marriage,” as it is sometimes called, is the practice of marrying a dead relative to the living member of another family, to ensure that he or she does not become a “wandering spirit,” or a “hungry ghost” without a family to properly take care of them in the afterlife. By protecting their loved one’s soul in the afterlife, the family can prevent misfortune from befalling them. There are records of this practice as early as 200 A.D., not only in China, but also in Sudan, Greece, and Japan. Nobody knows the true origin of this practice, but some sources connect this practice to the idea of “Yuan” in Chinese tradition, which is the idea that there is an “ideal” structure of a family, including a father, mother, sons, and daughters. However, because families do not always turn out like this in reality, and some children die before they can be married off, the practice of ghost marriage began as a way to “correct” these mistakes in the family structure. This gives just a taste of the importance of family systems in China; hierarchy, ancestry, and proper social customs take precedence over nearly everything else.
In this way, ghost marriage seems to adhere to the Confucianist idea of “filial piety,” or respect for one’s elders and ancestors, but the practice has still been criticized by Confucian scholars and condemned by officials in China. One Confucian scholar, Xun Zi, called the practice “delusional.” In 1949, the practice was outlawed, but it’s still managed to flourish among both the noble class and the common people, especially in the Shanxi and the Shaanxi provinces, because of its roots in folk belief. Furthermore, because the Chinese concept of the afterlife seems to mirror real life social structures, being married in when one dies is held to the same importance as being married alive.
There are many different versions of the ghost marriage ceremony, but the most common one is said to begin when a girl who has died in childhood appears to her family in a dream and asks to be married. In some cases, the family is alerted of the need for a ghost marriage through some mysterious illness or misfortune that befalls one or more of the relatives, in which case the family would need to consult a spirit medium. The family then lays “bait” in the form of money concealed in a red envelope on the side of the road, and the first man to pick it up becomes the groom. Later, the actual spirit marriage is conducted similarly to a traditional wedding, except the bride is represented by an ancestral tablet. The two families even exchange a dowry, as in a traditional marriage.
Other forms of ghost marriage involve a marriage between two dead souls, wherein the bride’s bones are dug up and placed inside the groom’s grave. In recent years, this has proven to be dangerous, as there have been cases of grave robbery for the purpose of ghost marriage, as well as one case where a man murdered two women with mental disabilities to sell their corpses in ghost weddings. In 2015 alone, there were 14 cases of stolen female corpses in one village in the Shanxi province.
From a Western perspective, these practices can seem outdated and macabre, but to rural Chinese citizens who still firmly adhere to their folk beliefs and superstitions, ghost marriage is an important and necessary part of their lives. Leaving one’s lonely, unmarried ancestors to fend for themselves in the afterlife is a sure way to cause bad luck, misfortune, and even death. In life or death situations like this, the ancestors have more power and sway over the living, so it’s necessary to appease them.

One thought on “Love After Death: Chinese Ghost Marriage (Abstract)

  1. Liam Sapon

    To say the least I found both your summary, and the concept of ghost marriage itself fascinating. Most notably I thought the idea of marriage being associated with a spirit really interesting. The idea that marriage can bring a wandering spirit to rest seems so out of the ordinary for me, being a non-religious westerner. My common assignment mentions how women are viewed differently from men, and this includes the importance of marriage. In my COR 330 class we spoke about the importance of marriage in an Irish woman’s life, and how having a husband in her life was essential. These both coincide in the importance of marriage across culture lines. In Ireland marriage was a symbol of stability, and here it seems to be similar.


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