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In China, Ghosts Demand Finer Things in Life

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There’s a pretty clear, well-defined set of traits that make up a ghost in the Western world—from the mushy green slimers of Ghostbusters to translucent, pudgy Casper to the myriad diaphanous denizens of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. They’re immaterial, legless floaters that often care little for the material concerns of the living. It’s mostly a reflection of the Western conception of the afterlife, as place above (or below) the living world. But ghosts in other parts of the world can be rather different. In China, for example, ghosts experience the same desires and, quite literally, appetites of the living. And it’s in our best interests to give them what they want.

“The traditional view of death in China is different from the traditional view of death in the West,” says Nick Tackett, an historian from University of California, Berkeley, who studies traditional Chinese death rituals, especially those from Song and Liao periods. The spirit of the deceased separates into two parts, which one might call two souls. One of which resides—and ideally remains—in the tomb, and one of which resides in the ancestral tablet,” a plaque kept in shrines in homes or temples. After burial, souls need to be fed constantly, Tackett explains. “Regular offerings at the ancestral altar and periodic offerings at the grave helped satiate the souls of the deceased.”


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