Haunted Beijing: Getting acquainted with the city's spooky side
At first glance, Beijing doesn't seem like the kind of place one would go in search of the uncanny.
At ground level, the city completely lacks mystery.
Old buildings and streets are continuously bulldozed to make way for dramatic steel and glass skyscrapers.
But despite the lack of abandoned cobblestone streets or creaky, haunted cathedrals, China’s capital has a rich history of spooky stories -- mostly involving imperial intrigue and traditional superstitions.
China-based Newman Tours explores some of these tales with its recently launched Beijing Ghosts tour, the only English-language excursion for people wanting to explore the city’s eerie side.
“We introduce [tourists] to all of the local ghost stories and folklore and try to scare them a bit while we’re at it,” says Daniel Newman, managing director of Newman Tours.
Guide Christopher Pegg starts the evening tour from the Beihai metro station, leading visitors through two dozen stops in the winding hutongs –- narrow, maze-like alleys -– near Houhai Lake and around Prince Gong’s Mansion for two hours of fright and fun.
Traditional hutong homes and the stunning, enormous Prince Gong’s Mansion provide the perfect backdrop for bone-chilling tales.
The restored historic site may look cheery during the day with its gardens and bright colors, but it has a dark back story, says Pegg.
Death from a thousand cuts
Heshen, a renowned official during the Qing Dynasty, built Prince Gong’s Mansion in 1777.
"The Qianlong emperor at the time greatly favored Heshen and allowed him to get away with whatever he wanted," says Pegg. "Heshen loved to increase people’s taxes and take the extra for himself; he was rumored to have millions of ounces of silver – a percentage of the national income.
"When Qianlong was very young, he went to play a trick on one of the concubines. He pulled on her hair, and she spun around and she smacked the little child.
"But you’re never allowed to hit the prince, so she was promptly beaten and demoted and, because she was shamed by all of this, she decided to kill herself."
Emperor Qianlong was mortified by her death.
"He was so distraught that he bit his thumb and left a bloody mark on the girl’s neck because he wanted to be able to identify her in the next life," says Pegg.
"Heshen was born the same year the concubine died and he looked a lot like the concubine -- he even had a red birthmark on his neck.
"They say Heshen had Qianlong’s favor because he was a reincarnation of the concubine. Of course, eventually Emperor Qianlong died and Heshen was not so popular any more and they promptly decided to execute him by slow slicing -- death by a thousand cuts."
According to the legend, afterward bloody footprints were later outside Heshen's home -- he'd supposedly returned to look for his silver.
Heshen’s gruesome end sets the tone for the tour, as visitors weave through paths around the apparently haunted home of this poor soul.
Getting hitched with a ghost
Tourists also learn about the twisted past of the Ming Dynasty’s most notorious and murderous ruler, Emperor Yongle, and other horror stories from Imperial China’s ruthless leaders.
The most intriguing part of the tour is the chance to interact with Beijing’s spirits -- and even marry them if desired.
Pegg conducts ghost weddings, a tradition in China that allows unmarried spirits to tie the knot with the living. Brave participants can join a ghost in holy matrimony in a traditional Chinese ceremony.
“The main ceremony is honoring ancestors,” Pegg says.
“The head ancestor in heaven is the Jade Emperor; we have a picture of him so people can bow to him and it’s great fun when people bring their parents -- you’re supposed to honor them, as well.”
Sometimes a scarecrow is used as a stand-in for the ghost, but Pegg says often local ghosts are summoned, usually spirits called Mr. and Mrs. E.
“'E' means hungry in Chinese,” says Pegg. “The hungry ghost is a type of Buddhist ghost with a mouth that’s pencil-thin so they can’t eat anything in the afterlife -- we invite these starving ghosts to the wedding.”
Other activities on the tour include burning paper offerings, including money or paper clothes, for ancestors to use in the afterlife.
Pegg also shows participants an example of traditional Chinese medicine for cuts, known for its popularity with headless ghosts who bang on pharmacy doors asking for medicine for their wounds.