Written by Dakota Wang
I am wondering if you guys have watched Hongkongese movies featuring necromancy? The folk stories which are called “dead body running” (raising a corpse and controlling it) in some of these movies originate from Xiangxi (my hometown). Officially, dead body running is a part of witchcraft culture, also known as Yiling. In the Qing Dynasty, the rumor of “corpse chasers” in Western Hunan was widespread, that is, the corpse chasers used “secret skills” to bring back the corpses of people who had died in a foreign land far away from their hometown and let them live in peace. So what are those skills? How does that process work?
In ancient times, there were countless riots and wars in China. Therefore many people were sacrificed or died in places other than their hometown. Traditionally speaking, Chinese have strong feelings of family and home — ”fallen leaves return to the roots” (落叶归根) which means people who live in other places will finally return to their hometown. Besides, Xiangxi is located in a closed and poor area with high mountains and twisted roads which made it difficult to transport anything by carriage from other places. So, this special job for transporting corpses was created. If one wants to engage in this career, one has to meet four basic requirements as following:
- Height of more than 180 cm
- Boldness and bravery
- Ugly appearance
- Mastering the secret skills of dead body running
In the meantime, the corpse chasers can’t accept all types of tasks. There are three types of corpses that they won’t drive:
- People who had died because of aging
- People who had committed suicide
- People who had died by thunder or lightning
Once they accepted these tasks, they would be condemned by the mighty moods (supernatural beings). In other words, they can only chase the corpses of people who were forced to die in strange places.
In the Hongkong corpse movie, the Taoist paste Taoist Talisman in the forehead of the corpses, casting a spell to them like 急急如律令 (which may be loosely translated as “abracadabra”), later the corpses will jump like bunnies following the Taoist (according to Dyami Millarson, there is also a scene featuring this scenario in the Korean film “Zombie Detective” which he reviewed in 2020, albeit in a jesting or humorous fashion). In real life, the corpse chasers wear Taoist robes and straw scandals whilst holding a ring to alter night walkers to keep distance from them. On the road, there are special hotels that are open to them every day. The corpse chaser stays in the hotel during the day and travels at night. But when it is raining, they will rest in the hotel for several days. Many people have tried to uncover the truth of the chasing dead bodies in Xiangxi. However, it remains a mystery.
I have read and heard different stories about this. The most credible two stories are as follows:
- The rugged mountain roads in Western Hunan bring inconvenience to transportation. The chaser tied the corpse’s arms flat on two bamboo poles. In this way, five or six bodies can be transported at a time. In order to preserve the body, the driver of the body drove at night. The light is dim, and the body undulates with the terrain. The body seems to be on the road.
- The corpse chaser dismembered the body and used preservatives. They don’t carry the whole body to their home. They put some of the dismembered parts in their rectangular bamboo baskets. Many people will surely wonder what happens if the family members of the deceased see the dismembered body? The family members of the deceased are not allowed see the body, and the whole process of encoffining is completed by the corpse chaser. As soon as they arrive at their destination, they put the body in the coffin and seal it. Therefore they don’t have a chance to see the dead.