by William B. Guthrie
The geong si, also jiang shr (Putonghua) or kuang shi (Cantonese) are the zombies of Chinese myth. They have physical bodies, but they are not alive, nor have they will or thought. They are closer to Haitian zombies than to anything else in widely-known Western folklore. In modern Hong Kong films the kuang shi is the slave of the character of an evil Taoist priest, who launches platoons of these animated corpses at heroes of kung fu and even gangster movies. This picture of kuang shi in current film does not represent their old form.
There are Chinese still living who say they have seen the kuang shi. Before the Civil War and before World War II, the dead still walked the roads of rural China in parades marching toward their ancestral villages. Buried away from the family, a dead Chinese has no feasts, no paper clothes, slaves, boats, food, or incense burnt to him, since all these things are in the hands of his descendants. Such is the spiritual importance of the Chinese ancestral village. When a Chinese dies away from home, there are several ways to return his body to native earth, but the less-than-rich rural Chinese once used this form of underground railway. A medium or priest, especially a Taoist priest who had toiled in a specialized apprenticeship, would be hired by the village to bring their dead home, walking them along the roads, perhaps as one still sees geese herded down multi-lane highways in modern China.
Spells had a part in this ritual and in controlling the dead when they were made to walk, but there is nothing special or extraordinary about spells in the Chinese world. A wide variety of spells, usually written out on red paper, can be bought at any Chinese paper-goods store (see dzi dzat) which has not been cleaned out by the Chinese government. People have been punished severely for participation in superstition under modern Chinese law. In some accounts of the kuang shi a spell glued to the face of the body is the medicine that makes it move. This method is favored in popular film, since it is visible to the camera, and the viewer can always tell a kuan shi by his label. Traditional accounts do not agree on this point. Others ascribe this phenomenon to a technology of controlling bodies, or maybe some good old-fashioned ethnopharmacology.1 Nevertheless, the kuang shi or jiang shr remains one of the current, tangible, commonly believed myths of old China.