The Weird History of A Chinese Ghost Story Franchise: Horror Comedy at its Wildest

A Chinese Ghost Story was produced by Tsui Hark, who spearheaded FantAsia with his Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain four years prior to A Chinese Ghost Story, and followed with many other FantAsia classics like The Swordsman, Once Upon a Time in China and Green Snake. Ching Sui-tung directed all three A Chinese Ghost Story films and continues to deliver FantAsia films like The Sorcerer and the White Snake, but Tsui is the undisputed father of the genre. 

The Chinese Twilight Zone from the 1800s

A Chinese Ghost Story retells a beloved Chinese tale of star-crossed romance. All these Chinese Ghost Story films are titled Qian Nu You Hun in Chinese, which translates into “beautiful woman dark spirit.” This is the story of Nie Xiaoqian, drawn from a 1740 short story compilation titled Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling. These were stories of the supernatural world with covert social commentary, akin to The Twilight Zone today.

Tales from Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio have been depicted in countless Chinese films and TV shows, most recently in last year’s CGI-drenched FantAsia flick The Knight of Shadows: Between Yin and Yang where Jackie Chan played Pu Songling. Nie Xiaoqian’s tale is a favorite having been retold in over a dozen TV shows and the films mentioned here.  

In the original tale, Nie is a beautiful ghost, doomed to haunt an abandoned temple and hunt for souls for a demon that has enslaved her. She tries to capture a milquetoast travelling scholar, Ning Caichen, who manages to free her from her curse and takes her home to help his sickly wife. After Ning’s wife dies, he marries Nie and redeems her. In Chinese folktales, supernatural beings often strive to become human. It’s a device to analyze what being human means, akin to the journeys of Data, Seven of Nine, and T’Pol in Star Trek

There was a notable adaptation of Nie’s tale in 1960. For that film, Qian Nu You Hun was translated as The Enchanting Shadow and was Hong Kong’s submission for Cannes and the Academy Awards. In the lead roles were two of the most popular actors of their generation. Nie was Betty Loh Ti, who died tragically to an overdose at just 31. Betty was a classic beauty, perfect for Nie, and this was her most celebrated role. Ning was Zhao Lei who enjoyed a long career of over a hundred films from the early 50s to the late 80s.

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