Screen shot from the hugely popular Mr. Vampire series from China
In the third instalment of my Cecil Herbert Woolley, Occult detective, adventure series, I have Woolley, his beloved Clemeny and their trusted ‘man’ Benedict travel the Trans Siberian Express to China; to Shanghai to be specific.
The route is long and arduous, leaving Moscow and running, over the course of seven days, through Yekaterinburg (though known as Sverdlovsk at the time) the site of the infamous Romanov Family massacre, Irkutsk (the Paris of Siberia), Lake Baikal (the oldest and one of the biggest in the world), the Urals, the rolling steppes of Manchuria and through the Great Wall of China before stopping in Beijing (Peking). From there, it is a short 10-hour train ride to Shanghai.
At that time opium ruled Shanghai. It had made the fortunes of so many ang mo kui (slang literally meaning red-haired monsters – a racial slur aimed at foreigners, which, the more I read, seemed apt). England wanted silk, porcelain and tea, had cheap opium from India to trade and demanded access to the Chinese market. Through a series of elaborate trading schemes, which resulted in the first Opium War, English forced the Chinese government to sign the Treaty of Nanking (1842), which opened the way for further opium trade and ceded to England the territory of Hong Kong.
In Shanghai organized crime was so powerful and so sophisticated the city fathers handed over policing of the city to them. The Green Gang, the largest of the secret societies, run by Du Yuesheng (aka Big Ears Du), was so powerful and influential they openly gave money to Chiang Kai-Shek and were often called in to break up union meetings and labour strikes.
This was the 1920s, you did not require a passport to enter Shanghai, making it a destination of the stateless, the criminal, the wastrel, stray and vagabond. They all washed up on their muddy, swamp ridden shores with the hope of sanctuary, and easy access to gambling, opium, drink or the sordid nightlife. To partake, or to be the partaken.
Having never travelled the Trans Siberian, and having only been as far east as Hungary to try and capture much research was needed. You can imagine the daunting task of painting this rich and tragic history as a background to my story without it being in any way tawdry or insulting. Bram Stoker travelled no further than the local library for his facts and a Baedeker served as his own version of Google Street view. So I set out to do the same. For now I would have to sightsee sitting at my desk.
My story deals with the occult, with ghosts and memory. Being ancient, China has a rich and fascinating relationship with the dead. Disney found this out when proposing a theme park and found The Haunted Mansion just wasn’t how an entire population thought of ghosts. I whole-heartedly recommend Yangsze Choo’s magical novel The Ghost Bride for a very elegant primer into the fascinating customs and rituals of death and the dead.
One such tradition that I stumbled upon in my research, and to this day the image of which I cannot get out of my head is the Corpse Herders, or the Hopping Dead. “Herding corpses” is the tradition of bringing corpses back to their hometowns. In Chinese culture it is considered very inauspicious to be buried far from home. A person’s soul, body, home, and land are entwined. If the body cannot go home, the soul is lost forever in the world after death and caused to suffering everlasting turmoil (see The Ghost Bride). To remedy this out of piety, feng shui and ancestor worship, families would hire Corpse Herders, usually a Taoist monk, a master and his student, to go to where their loved one is buried and essentially, walk them home.
There is little written history, but oral stories remains to this day. It is said that the priest first checks the deceased’s date of birth. He begins to utter spells, and waves a peach wood sword to check whether the spirit will obey his commands. Terrifyingly the priest generally doesn’t take just one corpse, but will wait for other similar orders so that they can all leave together. Before they set off on their journey, the priest performs a ritual, sticking a symbolic talisman on the forehead of each corpse and utters incantations. The talisman is yellow paper with red ink depicting characters, images, or symbols that can conjure power and manifest energy. The bodies then rise up and follow the priest. As rigor mortis has set in, the dead can only hop. I cannot imagine a more terrifying image than a series of hopping corpses passing by ones window at night following a dour priest ringing a bell.
You won’t see anything like that is The Haunted Mansion (as much as I love it) in Florida, California, Paris or Tokyo. (But you can get a cocktail, FYI, in the Tokyo Disney)
I’ve been so enjoying the research for my next book I’ve left poor Woolley, Clemency and Benedict stranded at a train station in Shanghai for the last 3 months. I’d best get back to it, I’m sure, no matter how fascinating the landscape, they’re desperate to get the plot underway.
The first two instalments of my Woolley mysteries, The Blood Red Heiress and The Uninvited Guests are for sale worldwide. Do enjoy them. And do please keep in touch!
Toronto, July 1, 2017
p.s. there is an excellent article about this on the very wonderful blog The Order of the Good Death here