By Katrina Chen
Have you ever wondered why female ghosts are often more terrifying than male ghosts?
Why do the images of traditional female ghosts always appear sad, full of resentment, and possess tragic stories from their past lives?
What is the connection between many historic ghostly tales and gender equality?
Professor Shu-Chun Yu is an expert in gender studies and folk beliefs in Taiwan. She has studied the influence of folk traditions, religions, and legendary female images on modern gender equality for many years. As a strong advocate for gender equity, I am deeply intrigued and interested in her research.
So, I asked, “Professor, did you also grow up in a traditional family?”
Prof. Yu immediately smiled and replied: “I came from a very traditional family—a typical patriarchal family that values boys more than girls.”
I felt the instant connection with Prof. Yu as we delved into a conversation about our families. She shared that she grew up in a family with four girls and one boy. During family dinner, her elder brother always occupied the most important and central position as the only boy. Even at Prof. Yu’s Ph.D. graduation ceremony—such an important achievement and milestone—her father still reminded her to “fulfill her social responsibility” by getting married.
Why must traditional women be married to be considered “responsible”?
I believe that many girls who grew up in Taiwan have heard sayings such as “a woman is like a rapeseed—you settle wherever the wind takes you” or “a woman’s life is determined by her husband’s status”. Prof. Yu said it took generations for these traditional sayings and practices to be handed down through history.
While women in earlier times might not have read the “Three Obediences and Four Virtues”, a set of moral principles and social behaviours for traditional women in East Asian Confucianism, many of them still adhered to these traditions through cultural inheritance.
“Because they have internalized this external ‘ought to be’ into their own ‘must be’, these expectations become a code of conduct that they are compelled to follow,” said Prof. Yu.
Whether through traditional operas, dramas or legends, the portrayal of traditional Taiwanese women is often consistent: they are bound to follow their fate from birth to death. As the saying goes, a woman should “marry a chicken, follow the chicken; marry a dog, follow the dog”. A woman without a husband is expected to remain chaste for life, much like the legendary woman “Wang Baochuan” who waited for her husband’s return for 18 years.
Prof. Yu also highlighted the historical significance of chastity. She pointed out that women who lived in chastity could bring honour to their families in the old times. Some were even awarded a chastity arch to instill pride in their families. During the Ming Dynasty, some families even had their taxes reduced or their men exempted from military service when they had a woman in the family who was recognized for her chastity.
In addition, women needed to bear sons to attain a higher status. Women who did not have a son would choose to secure their position through adoption or by letting their husband father a son with other women. Even after a woman’s passing and becoming a “ghost”, those with sons held a higher status than those without.
“Ancestors are ghosts with descendants,” said Prof. Yu.
Traditionally, Taiwanese women could only be listed on their family ancestral tablet when they had sons and grandchildren who could worship them after their passing. Only women with sons capable of passing on their family name could become “ancestors”.
What about unmarried women or girls who died young?
“Then, they would become so-called ‘lonely and wandering ghosts’,” Prof. Yu said.
Prof. Yu explained that this is why there are “Girls’ Temples” in Taiwan, specifically dedicated to praying for female ghosts who have never been married. In the Taiwanese convention, unmarried women and girls are not included in the ancestral tablets of their original families. This is also the reason why there is the old practice of “ghost marriage” in Taiwan—to find a husband and a home for deceased unmarried women.
What happened to the three famous ferocious female ghosts: “Sister Lintou”, “Lu Ancestral Temple Burning Joss Paper”, and “Chen Shou-Niang” in Taiwan?
Professor Yu used the real story of Chen Shou-Niang, known as “Taiwan’s most powerful female ghost”, as an example to further explore women’s rights in traditional culture.
Shou-Niang was widowed at a young age and insisted on maintaining her chastity in honour of her late husband. She resisted being coerced by her money-grubbing mother-in-law and sister-in-law to be with another man. Tragically, she was brutally abused and tortured to death.
After Shou-Niang’s death, she became a ferocious ghost seeking revenge. She appeared and frightened many people in Tainan in southern Taiwan. Legends even tell of battles between her and gods. Ultimately, her reputation was restored, and she became the first ghost to be worshipped at the Tainan Confucian Temple’s Shrine of Fidelity and Piety. A memorial tablet for Shou-Niang still stands today.
The story of Shou-Niang deeply reflects the struggles and inequities faced by women in the earlier times. When Shou-Niang was alive, she followed the traditional norms and expectations for women. Sadly, she still tragically fell victim to abuse and perished due to the prevailing mistreatment of women during her time. It was only after her death that she gained the “abilities” to reclaim her innocence and seek justice.
This is why Prof. Yu will specifically address how these female ghosts could only become empowered and visible after their death during her free seminars at TAIWANfest in Toronto and Vancouver. (Times and dates are listed at the bottom of this article.)
“Ghosts are invisible, but Shou-Niang is visible. Her memorial tablet is still in the Confucius Temple.”
Prof. Yu shared that in Western culture, there are also “visible” literary works and stories that depict the confinement of women and the presence of gender inequalities in traditional societies, such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.
From many Taiwanese historic ghostly tales, we can see the immense challenges women faced in their daily lives in the past to break through traditional norms. Often, it was only in moments of becoming “crazy” or transforming into “ghosts” in uncontrollable situations that they could finally acquire the ability to confront the influence of patriarchal society and truly be free.
I asked Prof. Yu: “If Chen Shou-Niang hadn’t insisted on maintaining her chastity for her deceased husband, had chosen to remarry, or hadn’t turned into a ghost to restore her innocence, would there even be any stories about her?”
Professor Yu agreed that these traditional stories consistently confine women to a certain image, thereby reflecting many historic gender inequalities.
However, Prof. Yu also remarked, “Taiwan’s ghosts are always evolving.”
From Shou-Niang to the more contemporary figures like the “Little girl in the red dress”, “Moo-sin-a spirits”, and the “three-year-old chair girl”, the focus and the depictions of female ghosts have changed over time. Prof. Yu pointed out that many male-led traditional religious activities have gradually opened up to women’s participation due to factors like declining birth rate or reduced interest in conventional religious practices. Gradually, women have gained an increasing number of options. For example, aside from becoming a “ghost” after passing, women can also choose to transform their spirits into higher forms such as becoming an “immortal” or a “deity”.
Prof. Yu stated that whether a woman becomes an ancestor, enters a ghost marriage, joins a Girl’s Temple or evolves into an immortal or a deity, it all underscores the importance of “having a choice”.
Taiwan elected its first female president in 2016, and became the first in Asia to legalize same-sex relationships in 2019. These milestones all represent critical progress and positive changes.
“Consciousness is paramount. If I let her be aware that she is being treated unequally, she gains the opportunity to effect change.”
This shows the importance of education. Whether it is through culture, stories, dramas, legends, arts, and other media, society perpetuates and modifies traditions at the same time.
Prof. Yu employs traditional female ghost stories to encourage us to think about the importance of gender equality. While we are still influenced by many conventions, life’s various factors also drive our ongoing growth and evolution. Through consciousness and awakening, women can persist in shattering traditional constraints and expanding our choices.
Everyone can make different choices, but “being yourself” should be a fundamental human right.
I hope women can all be ourselves without having to become ghosts.
Katrina Chen is the NDP MLA for Burnaby-Lougheed and the former Minister of State for Childcare. Follow her on Twitter @KatrinaCBurnaby.
TAIWANFEST Toronto will present Unveiling Women: Ghostly Tales from Taiwan by Shu Chun Yu at 4:30 p.m. on August 27 at the Lookout.
At 2 p.m. on September 2, Vancouver TAIWANfest will present Unveiling Women: Ghostly Tales from Taiwan by Shu-Chun Yu. Her event will take place at 2 p.m. on September 2 in the Montalbano Family Theatre at the Vancouver Public Library Central Branch in partnership with the Vancouver Public Library. More information is available on the festival website.