The Chinese ghost story about the vengeful ghost of Tu Po, a nobleman’s haunting quest to restore his honor as a hungry ghost.

China has such a varied an long history, diverse culture, with different regions, religions, and translations. Most ancient countries has. Sometimes things change over time, like in this case with Chinese ghosts, and how they are perceived. The tales and beliefs changes according to the ebb and flow of time. In any case it has been believed that every living person will become a ghost when we die, a 鬼 guǐ. It will then weaken, and fade away, dying again for a second time.

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.

This is 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.

The trouble however is when that spirit is driven by anger and malice. This is called a Hungry Ghost (餓鬼 èguǐ and quỷ đói) and only happens on rare occasions. It happens when a person’s death has been exceptionally violent or unhappy. They are given quite animalistic traits and often in search of revenge of those who wronged them, or simply those who got in the way.

This 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. And perhaps this is what happened to Tu-Po, the nobleman that turned into a vengeful or hungry ghost.

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Tu-Po as the minister to the emperor

Tu Po (杜伯), sometimes translated as Du Bo, was the Duke of Tangdu, situated west of State of Yi Lin Shaanxi province in northwest of China. According to legend, the Tangdu 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). So he was from a stately and very powerful family and not afraid to speak up for what he believed in. And this would cost him his life and make him a hungry ghost, haunting the earth and seeking revenge.

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

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

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The Fall From Grace and Becoming a Vengeful Ghost

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 his ninth year as King, he called all the lords into a meeting that would seal the fate of Tu Po. 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. A truly horrible act that Tu Po disagreed with. This is what Tu-Po opposed to and spoke against his king. This would cost him his life as King Xuan ordered his execution for this as he saw this act of opposition as treason. The king was warned that Tu-Po’s ghost would 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, 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

Three years after the execution, the King brought his dukes to hunt on his own hunting grounds. There were hundreds of chariots, thousands of escorts following them. At noon, Tu-Po appeared, 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 his 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.

It is not the only version of how Tu-Po got his revenge though. In another version, it is said that king Xuan died 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. And 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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