Horrified! Learn about the intriguing, age-old customs still practiced in China.
Many traditional customs in China have stood the test of time, such as Hangging Tet couplets and Tet cakes. However, there are some customs that are not only strange but also quite scary. Let’s explore some of these eerie customs that are still practiced or known in China today.
One such custom is “Stop the Exam” in Xiangxi. Known as “can thi” in the local language, this custom belongs to the Miao ethnic group and is considered a form of secret art, a small branch of witchcraft. The name itself evokes a sense of mystery and fear, but only a few people are familiar with the specifics of this custom.
If you’ve watched zombie movies, you might be familiar with the image of a robed Taoist monk wielding a sword, leading a group of corpses. Interestingly, this image originated from the practice of stopping the exam in Xiangxi.
Xiangxi is located in the northwest region of Hunan province, characterized by its rugged terrain of rivers and mountains. The Vo Lang mountain ranges run from west to east, with the Van Quy plateau in the west and mountains in the north. Lan Ngac lies to the southeast, while Tuyet Phong mountain is situated in the east.
The tradition of blocking competitions is mainly confined to the Tuong Tay mountain region, extending to Lang Chau in the north but not reaching Dong Dinh lake in the east. In the west, it stretches to Tinh Chau, while in the southwest, it only goes as far as Phu Chau and Vu Chau before reaching Yunnan and Guizhou.
According to legend, these are all ancestral lands of the Miao ethnic group, and crossing the boundary would lead one to encounter the wrath of the zombies, making it impossible for even the most experienced person to survive. This custom is said to be most prevalent in Nguyen Lang, Lo Khe, and Than Khe.
In the folklore of Tuong Tay, there has long been a profession and customs related to contests. It is rumored that this practice is connected to the martial art of armor release, a mystical subject of Taoism that is divided into two sub-systems: magic and divination. It originated from the calculation of the nine signs.
In the past, the concept of fallen leaves returning to their roots implied that after death, individuals should be brought back to their homeland to rest in peace. However, due to limited transportation in ancient times, the only available means of travel were waterways or roads. Yet, people had a strong aversion to transporting the deceased, and no boat or vehicle would agree to carry the bodies. This gave rise to the mysterious profession and custom associated with the exam obstacle.
However, many records suggest that the exam obstacle actually involved carrying the body. In reality, the body would be dismembered, preserving only the limbs, and a special medicine would be applied to prevent decay.
A person in charge would carry these limbs, donning a black suit that covered their entire body, including the face. Another person would impersonate a Taoist, halting the exam and leading the way by throwing banknotes, ringing bells, and indicating the direction to the person carrying the body. They deliberately created an atmosphere of terror to deter anyone from approaching. If the distance was too far, the two individuals would switch roles every day.
With the development of society and the convenience of modern transportation, this custom has nearly disappeared, leaving behind only legends and rumors surrounding this unique profession and custom in Xiangxi.
The Essence of Society
Social media refers to traditional folk games, which are popular activities during the Chinese New Year celebration. These games encompass various activities such as stilts walking, lion and dragon dances, folk dancing, and singing. Each local region may have its own unique names and ways of conducting these games.
This festival is highly anticipated by everyone, as they enjoy the amusement and spectacle of the pantomime. Actors and participants move around in designated areas, allowing the audience to identify the characters through their makeup.
The Blood Social Fire, as the name suggests, involves elements of bloodshed, but it is also synonymous with entertainment and pleasure, falling under the category of social fire. While some cities in China still observe this tradition, the most authentic version is found in the Blood Fire Commune in Chisha Town, Buuji City, Shaanxi Province.
In Xich Xa Town, the Blood Social Fire revolves around the story of Vo Tong avenging Vo Dai Lang by killing Tay Mon Khanh. The performance includes scenes of hammering, stabbing with knives, scissors, sickles, and awls targeting the antagonists, particularly Mon Khanh and other villains. These scenes make the performance both bloody and intense, earning it the name Blood Social Fire or Pleasure.
The term Pleasure holds two meanings: firstly, it originates from the location in Thuy Hu known as Khoai Hoat forest, and secondly, it signifies the intention to provide enjoyment and fun, serving as a means to eradicate evil. The essence of this social bloodshed is purely to encourage people to distance themselves from wickedness and engage in virtuous acts.
However, as the game spread to other provinces, it lost its original meaning and transformed into a blood festival in certain regions.
The Wise Ritual
Minh Kiss, also known as Yin Kiss, refers to the practice of finding a spouse for a deceased person, which sends shivers down one’s spine upon hearing it. This custom arose from the unfortunate circumstance where an engaged couple would experience a fatal accident before their marriage.
Elderly individuals believed that unless a replacement husband or wife was found to complete the marriage, the spirits of the deceased would be unable to rest and would linger on the dark side, causing instability within the family. Therefore, a ritual was performed to appease them, and eventually, both individuals were buried together in the same place, allowing them to be united as husband and wife even in death. This ritual also aimed to prevent the two sides, the man and the woman, from becoming solitary graves.
The accompanying photograph was taken in Guangdong between 1930 and 1933. The girl on the right was born into a wealthy family and was their only daughter. The young man was a well-known figure in the village due to his elegant appearance. Despite his family’s modest circumstances, they sought the matchmaker’s assistance in organizing a wedding ceremony for their daughter after her untimely passing. The man came forward and stayed with the family, ultimately inheriting their wealth through marriage to the girl.
According to traditional customs in China, the deaths of unmarried young men and women were considered inauspicious. Wealthy individuals would arrange for someone to live with and marry their children, while poorer individuals would seek out someone who had already passed away to arrange a posthumous wedding for both parties.
This photo, initially circulated on the Internet depicting a staged scene with the bride’s body on display, was later confirmed to be false. In reality, the individuals in the picture are a couple residing in Son Tay. The photo was misused by a Chinese geographical magazine to illustrate Shanxi feng shui.
The marriage ritual has never been a formalized custom. While the act of kissing may sound amusing, it is actually a blend of wedding and funeral rituals. The specifics of the ritual largely depend on the preferences of the individuals involved.
In ancient times, the rituals surrounding marriage were quite distinct. A matchmaker would initiate the process, and the families would exchange business cards, verify ages to determine the wedding date, and proceed with the exchange of the dragon phoenix card and engagement gifts. The groom’s family would present gifts to the bride’s family, consisting of silk, rice, oil, gold, silver, cloth, clips, clothes, and two brocade boxes containing paper jewelry such as earrings, bracelets, rings, and brooches.
The betrothal gifts were traditionally offered at midnight, after which they were either burned in front of the bride’s house or at her grave. The groom’s family would also provide goose cages, wine, phoenix cakes, spring rolls, and other tangible items. However, the clothes and decorations were made of symbolic paper.
The bride’s family would later return the dowry, typically made of paper. Upon arrival at the groom’s house, the dowry would be displayed in front of a tablet or photograph of the “spouse” for half a day. Subsequently, the wedding gifts would be taken around the house, led by the groom, and then burned at the nearest square.
While these rituals can be simplified, the wedding ceremony itself remains essential. During the day, there would be a reception for friends, and a palanquin would be placed in front of the house. Inside the wedding room, guests would pay their respects. Opposite the bed, a small table would hold photographs or tablets of the bridegroom, along with two trays of peeled apples and biscuits. Additionally, a tasseled red flower would signify the groom.
The bride’s family would also place a tablet or photograph of the “new lady” and arrange a similar table, complete with red flowers for the bride.
After the festivities, the palanquin would be carried from the groom’s house to the bride’s house. The matchmaker, holding the tablet or photograph of the bride, would place it on the palanquin. At this point, the bride’s parents would cry and chase them out of the house, similar to a customary wedding tradition.
The palanquin would then be transported to the groom’s house, and the matchmaker would place the bride’s photograph or tablet parallel to the groom’s. The two would be tied together with a red string and hung on red and yellow strings. Following the red thread ritual, the matchmaker would offer incense as a form of worship, signifying the union of husband and wife with heaven and earth.
Finally, the families would present appropriate wine, children’s cake, longevity noodles, and the couple’s photograph or tablet. If either party had younger siblings, they would call out and bow to the newlyweds. The families would congratulate each other, marking the joyous occasion.
After completing the aforementioned rituals, the two families will select an auspicious day based on the zodiac calendar to open the grave and perform the bride’s house ceremony. At the designated time, they will remove the coffin lid from the bride’s family’s house, pour a bowl of clean water, and throw two apples onto the ground. Simultaneously, two friends will hold up red flowers and banknotes. The groom’s family will take a portion of the left side of the bride’s grave and await the arrival of the woman’s coffin. Once it arrives, they will allow the groom to enter the grave and perform the funeral rite. After the burial is complete, they will immediately offer fruits, wine, and burn red paper as part of the funeral ceremony. Parents and friends from both sides will shed tears and offer their congratulations. At this point, the entire ceremony is considered concluded.
Burial, along with cremation, no burial, and other ancient burial practices, is an ancient burial ritual. Burial involves burying the deceased’s ashes under a designated tree or scattering them on the ground and planting a tree on top as a memorial.
In ancient times, burials did not involve constructing graves or using urns susceptible to wear and tear over time. At the site of the burial ritual, a stone would simply be placed, a coin placed on top, and the name, date of birth, and death of the deceased might be inscribed, or a commemorative wooden board squeezed onto a tree. There were no graves or gravestones, and the land was not occupied. Today, cremation is considered one of the earliest ideas in burying the dead.
Furthermore, burial has an even more ancient form, where the deceased’s body would be placed in the deep forest or on large trees in the wilderness, even if it decayed over time. Later, a slight change occurred, and the body would be placed in a pre-built tent.
Due to the exposure of the body in the wilderness, various forms of burial emerged, such as wind burial, water burial, cremation, no burial, or burial without a grave. Burial also reflects the settlement patterns of ancient civilizations and serves as a marker of ancient civilizations.
There is also a relatively rare method of burial, prevalent in Tibet, reserved for infants under one year old. This burial method involves conducting burial rituals for infants who have never experienced any evil in this world and still possess pure souls. It is believed that through this burial, the souls of these children will reincarnate and have healthy bodies like giant trees.
Additionally, in Indonesia, certain places still practice a traditional form of burial. Infant bodies are placed inside tree trunks. Locals wrap the children’s bodies in cloth and dig a hole in the middle of the tree to place them inside. It is believed that the babies are absorbed by nature.
Turning the Bed of Thorns
In Zhanjiang city, Guangdong province, an ancient ritual called “turning the bed of thorns” is still preserved to this day. This ritual involves wrapping the bed with hemp rope, and brave individuals in the village would lie naked on the bed and flip and rotate several times. Often, these participants would have injuries all over their bodies after the ritual ends.
There are two types of thorn beds. One uses a solid wooden plank covered in glue and filled with sharp nails, resembling a bed of pain. The other type uses mats as a base and is covered with plants that have angular veins, such as wild cow’s head plants, creating a bed of thorns. Participants would lie naked on the bed and flip over, while someone drums and cheers beside them.
This ritual is performed to demonstrate that an individual is protected or bestowed with strength by the gods. After completing the ritual, if the performer remains unharmed and without any bleeding, they will be revered and respected by the people, considered as sacred as a god.
Among all ancient customs, one of the most detested practices is foot binding. This tradition persisted from the Ming Dynasty until the Republican period in China. Throughout its history, foot binding was initially regarded as a fashion trend, eventually becoming an expected norm. If a girl from a poor family did not undergo foot binding, she would face social disdain, and might even find it difficult to marry or be looked down upon by her husband’s family after marriage.
Foot binding involved tightly wrapping cloth around girls’ feet to compress and reshape them into small, pointed forms. This practice was known as the “three-inch golden lotus” and served as a symbol of beauty in ancient China. However, the exact origins and reasons behind this name remain unknown. Fortunately, this custom has now been completely abolished.
Nevertheless, there is a saying associated with foot binding that illustrates its toll on the girls’ well-being: “Bind a pair of feet, cry a river of tears.” The allure of the three-inch golden lotus, no matter how aesthetically pleasing, came at the cost of the girls’ health and blood. The age at which foot binding was performed varied across different regions, typically taking place around 4-5 years old in Tianjin. The process itself lasted around 3-4 years, with the feet reaching a preliminary shape by 7-8 years old.
According to historical records of the process, before binding the feet, girls would soak their feet in hot water. While the feet were still warm, the toes, except the big toe, would be folded under the soles, and alum would be applied to the toes. The arches of the feet would be pushed up and held in this position while being bound. This practice resulted in bent legs and shorter leg length.
The pain endured during the foot binding process was indescribable. Every time the cloth was removed and rewrapped, the girls would cry bitterly. However, in ancient times, girls had no choice but to endure this pain.
Cultivating Ancient Poisonous Insects
Legend has it that the Miao people in Xiangxi possessed extraordinary ancient skills, wielding generous divine powers. Even a tiny worm from their repertoire could drive people insane or cause their entire bodies to rot. Cultural records have documented various ancient species and their different uses.
So, how does one cultivate these insects?
There were certain individuals who specialized in raising these ancient poisonous insects. It was believed that these insects needed to be gathered together on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. On this day, the strongest poisonous gases in the atmosphere would aid in the insects’ growth and strength.
When practicing Thong Chi, it is believed that one must utilize a hundred different types of poisonous insects. In certain locations, only 12 types of poisonous insects are used. Prior to raising her, the practitioner must thoroughly clean the house, and the entire family must bathe, light incense, and show sincerity. The ritual begins with worshiping before the ancestral tablet and praying to the gods for protection. Then, in the center of the house, a large hole is dug, and a jar is buried inside. The jar must have a wide belly and a small mouth for easy closure. Additionally, the jar’s mouth must be smooth. On the fifth day of May, it is customary to venture into the field and capture 12 types of reptiles, preferably poisonous ones, such as snakes, eels, centipedes, frogs, scorpions, worms, greenworms, mantises, and others, excluding flying and four-legged species.
These 12 types of poisonous insects are then placed in the jar, and the mouth of the jar is closed. The entire family must pray every night before going to bed and pray again upon waking up without interruption. It is essential to keep her presence and the rituals a secret from outsiders, as it is believed that if they find out, witches will take her away, resulting in the death of the entire family.
Over the course of a year, the reptiles inside the jar will eliminate each other, with the stronger ones devouring the weaker ones. Eventually, only one reptile will remain alive. After killing and consuming the other reptiles, this survivor will undergo a transformation in shape and color.
According to the legend associated with the specific poisonous insects placed in the jar, they are categorized into different types. The main classifications are an ancient dragon, resembling a dragon-like creature, with the final transformed form being a famous snake, centipede, or long-shaped reptile. The other type is an ancient unicorn, resembling a unicorn-like creature, likely influenced by frogs, lizards, or other legged reptiles.
After a year, when the process is complete, the owner will dig out the jar and store it in an enclosed, dark room. It is said that she enjoys consuming raw chicken eggs, pork fat, and rice. After being raised for 3-5 years, she will grow to over ten meters. The owner selects an auspicious day to open the jar, allowing her to emerge.
Once she is released, some of them transform into fireballs that soar through the mountains and forests, while others become black shadows, traversing the village. Her magic is said to be most potent at dusk. Whenever she returns home, she will still reside in the jar. If she has already consumed food outside, the owner no longer needs to feed her.
Rumors suggest that raising her is not for the purpose of stealing things for the owner’s benefit, but rather to harness her aura to bring good fortune and prosperity to the owner’s household. Furthermore, if someone discovers that the owner is raising her and invites a teacher to intervene with a spell, the entire owner’s family will be killed by her.