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Ghost marriage (Chinese)

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Ghost marriage (Chinese)

In Chinese tradition, a ghost marriage (Chinese: 冥婚; pinyin: mínghūn; literally: "spirit marriage") is a marriage in which one or both parties are deceased.[1]:99 Other forms of ghost marriage are practiced worldwide, from Sudan, to India, to France since 1959 (see levirate marriage, ghost marriage in Sudan, posthumous marriage). The origins of Chinese ghost marriage are largely unknown, and reports of it being practiced today can be found.


Chinese ghost marriage was usually set up by the family of the deceased and performed for a number of reasons, including the marriage of an engaged couple before one member's death,[2]:29 to integrate an unmarried daughter into a patrilineage,[1]:82 to ensure the family line is continued,[2]:29 or to maintain that no younger brother is married before an elder brother.[2]:29

Previously engaged

Upon the death of her fiancé, a bride could choose to go through with the wedding, in which the groom was represented by a white cockerel at the ceremony.[2]:29 However, some women were hesitant since this form of ghost marriage required her to participate in the funeral ritual, mourning customs (including strict dress and conduct standards), take a vow of celibacy,[2]:29 and immediately take up residence with his family.[1]:91 A groom had the option of marrying his late fiancée, with no disadvantages, but there have been no records of such weddings.[2]:29

Women and ghost marriage

Providing a deceased daughter with a patrilineage

When it comes to death customs, an unmarried Chinese woman has no descendants to worship her or care for her as part of a lineage.[3]:127 In every household, an altar is prominently displayed with the spirit tablets of the paternal ancestors and the images of the gods. A married woman's tablet is kept at the altar of her husband's family.[4] However, should a woman of eligible age pass away unmarried, her family is prohibited from placing her tablet on the altar of her natal home.[1]:83 Instead, she will be "given a temporary paper tablet, placed not on the domestic altar but in a corner near the door."[1]:83 Hence, the important duty of Chinese parents in marrying off their children[5]:254 becomes increasingly important for their daughters. Since women are only able to acquire membership in descent lines through marriage,[6]:148 ghost marriage became a viable solution to ensure that unmarried, deceased daughters still had "affiliation to a male descent line"[1]:82 and could be appropriately cared for after death.

Another death custom concerning an unmarried daughter prohibited her from dying in her natal home. Instead, a temple or "Death House"[1]:82 for spinsters was built or families take their daughter to a shed, empty house, or outlying buildings to die.[1]:82

Living, unmarried daughters

Not only did the Chinese customs concerning death greatly burden the family, but an unmarried daughter became a source of great embarrassment and concern. In Charlotte Ikels "Parental Perspectives on the Significance of Marriage" she reports, "Traditionally, girls who did not marry were regarded as a threat to the entire family and were not allowed to continue living at home. Even in contemporary Hong Kong, I was told that unmarried women are assumed to have psychological problems. Presumably no normal person would remain unmarried voluntarily."[5]:254 For girls who choose to remain unmarried, "bride-initiated spirit marriage" (or a ghost marriage initiated by a living bride) was a successful "marriage-resistance practice"[1]:92 that allowed them to remain single while still being integrated into a lineage. However, it did come with some negative connotations, being called a "fake spirit-marriage" or referred to as "marrying a spirit tablet", and a way to avoid marriage.[1]:92–93

Continuing the family line

If a son died before marriage, his parents arranged a ghost marriage to provide him with progeny to continue the lineage and give him his own descendants.[7] "A man in China does not marry so much for his own benefit as for that of the family: to continue the family name; to provide descendants to keep up the ancestral worship; and to give a daughter-in-law to his mother to wait on her and be, in general, a daughter to her."[7] Occasionally, a live woman is taken as a wife for a dead man, but this is rare.[2]:29 The ceremony itself took on characteristics of both a marriage and a funeral, with the spirit of the deceased bride being "led" by a medium or priest, while her body is transferred from her grave to be laid next to her husband.[2]:29

If the family was "suitably rich to tempt a [living] girl,"[2]:29 the ghost marriage might profit them with the asset of having a daughter-in-law. Since a daughter is not considered "a potential contributor to the lineage into which she is born," but rather "it is expected that she will give the children she bears and her adult labor to the family of her husband,"[3]:127 the wife of a deceased son would benefit her husband's family by becoming a caregiver in their home.[5]:255

Once the deceased son had a wife, the family could adopt an heir, or a "grandson",[2]:29 to continue on the family line. The purpose of the daughter-in-law was not to produce offspring, as she was to live a chaste life, but she became the "social instrument" to enable the family to adopt.[1]:100 The family preferred to adopt patrilineally related male kin,[1]:95 usually through a brother assigning one of his own sons to the lineage of the deceased.[8] The adoption was carried out by writing up a contract, which was then placed under the dead man's tablet.[8] As an adopted son, his duties were to make ancestral offerings on his birth and death dates, and he was additionally "entitled to inherit his foster father's share of the family estate."[8]

Requests from the afterworld

Ghost marriages are often set up by request of the spirit of the deceased, who, upon "finding itself without a spouse in the other world,"[2]:29 causes misfortune for its natal family, the family of its betrothed,[2]:29 or for the family of the deceased's married sisters.[9]:141 "This usually takes the form of sickness by one or more family members. When the sickness is not cured by ordinary means, the family turns to divination and learns of the plight of the ghost through a séance."[9]:141

More benignly, a spirit may appear to a family member in a dream and request a spouse. Marjorie Topley, in "Ghost Marriages Among the Singapore Chinese: A Further Note," relates the story of one 14-year-old Cantonese boy who died. A month later he appeared to his mother in a dream saying that he wished to marry a girl who had recently died in Ipoh, Perak. The son did not reveal her name; his mother used a Cantonese spirit medium and "through her the boy gave the name of the girl together with her place of birth and age, and details of her horoscope which were subsequently found to be compatible with his."[10]:71

Other instances of ghost marriage

Because Chinese custom dictates that younger brothers should not marry before their elder brothers, a ghost marriage for an older, deceased brother may be arranged just before a younger brother's wedding to avoid "incurring the disfavour of his brother's ghost."[10]:29 Additionally, in the days of immigration, ghost marriages were used to "cement a bond of friendship between two families."[10]:30 However, there have been no recent cases reported.[10]:30


If a family wishes to arrange a ghost marriage, they may consult with a matchmaker of sorts: In a Cantonese area of Singapore "there is in fact a ghost marriage broker's sign hung up in a doorway of a Taoist priest's home. The broker announces that he is willing to undertake the search for a family which has a suitable deceased member with a favourable horoscope."[10]:29

Others do not use the aid of any priest or diviner and believe that the groom the ghost-bride has chosen "[will] somehow identify himself."[3]:236 Typically, the family lays a red envelope (usually used for gifts of money) as bait in the middle of the road. They then take to hiding, and when the envelope is picked up by a passer-by, they come out and announce his status of being the chosen bridegroom.[9]:140

Dowries and bridewealth

The exchange of bridewealth and dowries between the two families involved in a ghost marriage is quite "variable," and families may exchange both, one or the other, or even just red money packets.[1]:98 There is no standard amount exchanged, but several of Janice Stockard's informants reported that the groom's family provided the bride with a house.[1]:98 In another reported ghost marriage, the groom's family sent wedding cakes and NT $120 to the bride's family, who returned it with a dowry of a gold ring, gold necklace, several pairs of shoes, and six dresses "all fitted for the use of the groom's living wife."[6]:151

Rites of the ghost marriage ceremony

In a ghost marriage, many of the typical marriage rites are observed. However, since one or more parties is deceased, they are otherwise represented, most often by effigies made of paper, bamboo,[10]:71 or cloth.[9]:147

For instance, a ghost couple at their marriage feast, the bride and groom may be constructed of paper bodies over a bamboo frame with a papier-mâché head.[10]:71 On either side of them stands their respective paper servants, and the room contains many other paper effigies of products they would use in their home, such as a dressing table (complete with a mirror), a table and six stools, a money safe, a refrigerator, and trunks of paper clothes and cloth. After the marriage ceremony is complete, all of the paper belongings are burned to be sent to the spirit world to be used by the couple.[10]:71

In another ceremony that married a living groom to a ghost bride, the effigy was similar, but instead constructed with a wooden backbone, arms made from newspaper, and the head of "a smiling young girl clipped from a wall calendar."[9]:147 Similarly, after the marriage festivities, the dummy is burned.[10]:71

In both cases, the effigies wore real clothing, similar to that which is typically used in marriage ceremonies. This includes a pair of trousers, a white skirt, a red dress, with a lace outer dress.[10]:71> Additionally, they were adorned with jewelry; though similar in fashion to that of a typical bride's, it was not made of real gold.[10]:71 If a living groom is marrying a ghost bride, he will wear black gloves instead of the typical white.[9]:149

Most of the marriage ceremony and rites are performed true to Chinese custom. In fact, "the bride was always treated as though she was alive and participating in the proceedings"[6]:151 from being fed at the wedding feast in the morning, to being invited in and out of the cab, to being told of her arrival at the groom's house.[9]:147 One observable difference in a ghost marriage is that the ancestral tablet of the deceased is placed inside the effigy, so that "the bride's dummy [is] animated with the ghost that [is] to be married",[9]:147 and then placed with the groom's family's tablets at the end of the marriage festivities.[9]:148

Portrayal in fiction

In Yangsze Choo's novel The Ghost Bride (New York: William Morrow, 2013), set in 19th century colonial Malaya, a young Chinese woman receives a proposal from a wealthy family to marry their dead son.

In Lisa See's novel Peony in Love (New York: Random House, 2007), set in 17th century China, the protagonist, Peony, dies at 16 and is later the bride in a ghost marriage to a poet she fell in love with during life.

In Season 2, episode 16 of the television series Bones, "The Boneless Bride in the River," a woman is murdered and has her bones sold for a ghost marriage ritual.

In episode 22 of the final season of the television series Without a Trace, titled "Devotion," a young woman was kidnapped and set to be poisoned and ghost married by the traditional Chinese parents of her late ex-fiancé.[11]

In Season 5, episode 13 of the television series Numb3rs, "Trouble in Chinatown," Chinese women are being murdered and then their bodies are buried atop the coffins of unmarried Chinese males. The "ghost brides" are picked out by the grieving parents. Shortly before the murder, a brief traditional wedding ceremony is held so that the dead sons have company in their afterlife. While the character performing the murders portrays this as long-standing Chinese tradition, the writers used the epilogue to point out that the authentic tradition did not involve murder and that the criminals had perverted the practice to their own ends.

An episode of Urban Legends portrayed this practice, with a twist. A man was forced to undergo this with his fiancée, who had recently killed herself.



  • Baker, Hugh D. R. Chinese Family and Kinship. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
  • As quoted by Baker: Ball, J. Dyer, Things Chinese: or Notes Connected with China, London, 1904.
  • Freedman, Maurice.Family and Kinship in Chinese Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford university Press, 1970.
  • Ikels, Charlotte. "Parental Perspectives on the Significance of Marriage." Journal of Marriage and the Family Vol. 47 No. 2 (May 1985):253-264.
  • Jordan, David K. Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors: The Folk Religion of a Taiwanese Village. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1972.
  • The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1973.
  • Stockard, Janice E. Daughters of the Canton Delta: Marriage Patterns and Economic Strategies in South China, 1860-1930.Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.
  • Topley, Marjorie. "Ghost Marriages Among the Singapore Chinese." Man (Published by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland) Vol. 55 (Feb., 1955): 29-30.
  • Topley, Marjorie. "Ghost Marriages Among the Singapore Chinese: A Further Note." Man (Published by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland) Vol. 56 (May, 1956).
  • Wolf, Arthur P. Studies in Chinese Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1978.
  • Wolf, Arthur P., and Chieh-shan Huang. Marriage and Adoption in China, 1845-1945. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1980.

Further reading

  • Bachelors in Remote China Still Find Wives. 5 October 2006. The New York Times.
  • Television Series NUMBERS (in USA on CBS Network) "Trouble in Chinatown". 23 January 2009. Featured fictional plotline involving Ghost Brides in Los Angeles Chinatown.
  • 'Ghost bride' returns to haunt Chinese trio." The Scotsman"Brea, Jen. . 26 January 2007.
  • "Asia: Wet and dry goods; China's corpse brides". The Economist Newspaper. 26 July 2007.
  • Kramer, Michael. "A Day in The Life ...... Of China". Time Magazine. 2 October 1989.
  • "Ghost Marriages." Singapore Paranormal Investigation. 23 May 2005.
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