After the Chinese nobleman Tu Po was betrayed by his own king and fellow nobles, he became a vengeful ghost, or Hungry Ghost as it is known as in Buddhism. Even in his afterlife he sought revenge on those who betrayed him and fought to restore his honor.

The concept of a ghost with unfinished business is found around the globe. In the eastern part of the world they are often known as Hungry Ghosts and they are deadly.

China has such a varied an long history, diverse culture, with different regions, religions and traditions as most ancient countries has. The tales and beliefs changes according to the ebb and flow of time and the legends of the hungry ghosts are many and varied.

Read More about: Chinese Ghosts and Haunted Places

The Hungry Ghost in Chinese Mythology

Before delving into the legend about Tu Po and how he was betrayed by his own king, let us have a closer look at exactly what a Hungry Ghost is.

As much of Chinese folklore and mythology comes from Buddhism, there are many similarities to other Buddhist countries. In any case it has been believed that every living person will become a ghost when we die known as a guǐ 鬼. It will then weaken, and fade away, dying again for a second time.

As mentioned earlier, the Hungry Ghost is not only a Chinese phenomenon, but a Buddhist as well as Asian one. Ghost stories of vengeful ghost can be found also in Japan with the Onryo or Korea with the Virgin Ghost for example.

This concept of the spirit of the deceased weakening before disappearing is seen as only natural and how it is supposed to be. The ancestors are honored, given sacrifices and held in esteem, thinking they have a part in the world as much as the living. Ancestral worship is the original basic of Chinese religions, and it is a core belief there is an existence after death. A deceased person’s soul is made up of yin and yang parts called hun and po. They are not immortal, and need offerings before going to the underworld for eternal rest.

When Revenge is more Important than Peace

The trouble with ghosts however is when that spirit is driven by anger and malice rather than a peaceful afterlife. This is called a Hungry Ghost (餓鬼 èguǐ and quỷ đói) and only happens on rare occasions as most spirits only wants to be at peace.

File:Hungry Ghosts Scroll Kyoto 6.tif
The Hungry Ghost: The concept of hungry ghost is found throughout Buddhist traditions. This is from the Sixth section of the Japanese Hungry Ghosts Scroll located at the Kyoto National Museum. The scroll depicts the world of the hungry ghosts, one of the six realms of Buddhism and contains tales of salvation of the hungry ghosts. This particular section shows Ananda, a disciple of Shakyamuni, teaching an incantation to achieve salvation to a hungry ghost who continuously belches flames from his mouth.

The creation of a Hungry Ghost happens when a person’s death has been exceptionally violent or unhappy. The ghosts are often given quite animalistic traits in the ghost stories and records. Although there are different categories and types of hungry ghosts, one common trait among them are that they are seeking a type of revenge of those who wronged them, or simply those who got in the way.

Although most accounts of Tu Po doesn’t give him animalistic traits like a monster, he definitely sought his revenge on those who wronged him like most vengeful ghosts are looking for, and therefore given the title of a Hungry Ghost.

Before becoming a Ghost – Tu-Po the Emperor’s Minister

Before becoming an ancient ghost, Tu Po used to be an important man in ancient China. The nobleman Tu Po 杜伯 is sometimes translated as Du Bo and he was the Duke of Tangdu. This was a Dukedom situated west of State of Yi Lin around were the Shaanxi province in northwest of China is today.

According to legend, the Tangdu people were descendants of the people living in the State of Tang, a Dukedom destroyed by Zhou Gong Dan that now ruled the empire. They were allowed to form a new State of Du, and became known as Tangdu or Du shi (杜氏).

Tu-Po was not always remembered as a hungry ghost, but was a prominent minister to King Xuan of Zhou (also known as Emperor Hsuan) who reigned from 827-783 B.C. Emperor Hsuan was the eleventh king of the Chinese Zhou Dynasty in a time were the kings words were the law and his minister Tu Po had to pay the ultimate price.

map of Jin (Tang) state during the spring and autumn period.
The empire: Map over the Jin (Tang) state during the late Spring and Autumn period as it was called, around the time of Tu-Po’s death and after. This is were he, and his ancestors resided and ruled.//Photo: Hugo Lopez – Wikimedia Commons user: Yug

The king is mostly remembered for fighting the ‘Western Barbarians‘, most probably Xianyun, an ancient nomadic tribe that invaded the Zhou empire on the Huai River. He also meddled in debacles of successions in States of Lu, Wey an Qi and was, according to history, not a popular one. Sima Qian, considered father of Chinese historiography, said: “From this time on, the many lords mostly rebelled against royal commands.” And the way the king ended his reign, is rumoured to be the work of the hungry ghost of Tu Po.

So Tu Po was from a stately and very powerful family and not afraid to speak up for what he believed in, even to the most powerful man in the dynasty. And this would cost him his life and make him a hungry ghost, haunting the earth and seeking revenge.

The Fall From Grace and Becoming a Vengeful Ghost

There are not very many sources detailing what happened before the haunting of Tu Po’s hauntings started. But according to one account, this is what happened.

The Chinese ghost story about the vengeful ghost of Tu Po, a nobleman's haunting quest to restore his honor.
King Xuan of Zhou (827-783 B.C). Formerly known as Emperor Hsuan or King Suan.
The King: King Xuan of Zhou (827-783 B.C). Formerly known as Emperor Hsuan or King Suan.

On the ninth year as King, King Xuan of Zhou called all the lords of his empire into a meeting that would seal the fate of Tu Po to discuss an oncoming attack.

A rumor was out that a woman was about to become a danger of the town of Jiangshan for some reason, and the King ordered a mass execution of women. Exactly how this one woman could be considered a danger to an entire town is not really explained.

No matter what the reason behind this mass execution of women, it was seen as a truly horrible act that Tu Po disagreed with. Tu-Po publicly opposed to the order he was given and he spoke against his king in a time when the kings word was the law and anything else considered treason.

This final act of opposition would cost him his life as King Xuan ordered his execution for this as he saw this act of opposition as treason.

Before Tu Po was executed however, King Xuan of Zhou was warned that Tu Po’s ghost would stay in this world even in his afterlife to haunt him as Tu-Po himself said:

“If my majesty kills me without reason, the dead may not know, well that’s it. However, on the other hand, I will avenge myself on him, within three years.”

But despise the warnings, King Xuan went through the execution. Even though he was considered innocent of treason by most, Tu-Po was executed around 786 B.C. But this would not be the last time he was seen.

The Revenge of the Hungry Ghost

Weather Tu Po’s final words were taken seriously, is not mentioned. Three years after the execution however, the King brought his dukes to hunt on his own hunting grounds. There were hundreds of chariots, thousands of escorts following them as well as a ghost that promised he would return for revenge.

The Chinese ghost story about the vengeful ghost of Tu Po, a nobleman's haunting quest to restore his honor.
Red lotus shaped Chinese lanterns under the ghost festival
Ghost festival: Lotus-shaped lanterns are lit and set afloat in rivers and out onto seas to symbolically guide the lost souls to the afterlife.

At noon, Tu-Po appeared as a ghost, riding a white horse and a cart, wearing a red coat with a red bow and arrow in hand. He took up the chase of King Xuan and shot the king in the heart and broke the king’s spine. At the time, it is reported that no one saw the killing and no one heard it. No matter what the real situation was like, The king fell and Tu Po got his revenge.

If King Xuan really died of an arrow is today a bit unclear. In some accounts it is said that King Xuan died of something else after dreaming that Tu Po shot him to death with an arrow.

In both cases, the innocent and wronged minister got his revenge and King Xuan’s son, was the last of the western Zhou to lead.

The story has gone down in traditional legends, ever since. The Chinese philosopher, Mo Zi (470-391 B.C), said this about ghosts and about Tu-Po’s revenge:

“If from antiquity to the present, and since the beginning of man, there are men who have seen the bodies of ghosts and spirits and heard their voices, how can we say that they do not exist?

If none have heard them and none have seen them, then how can we say they do? But those who deny the existence of the spirits say: “Many in the world have heard and seen something of ghosts and spirits. Since they vary in testimony, who are to be accepted as really having heard and seen them?”

As we are to rely on what many have jointly seen and what many have jointly heard, the case of Tu Po is to be accepted.”

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