A Chinese Ghost Story

A Chinese Ghost Story (Jyutping: Sin6neoi5 Jau1wan4; literal meaning: "The Ethereal Spirit of a Beauty") is a 1987 Hong Kong romantic comedy-horror film starring Leslie Cheung, Joey Wong and Wu Ma, directed by Ching Siu-tung and produced by Tsui Hark.


The story was loosely based on a short story in the Qing Dynasty literature Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio from writer Pu Songling. The movie was immensely popular in Hong Kong and several Asian countries, including South Korea and Japan when released. Most notably it boosted the stardom of Joey Wong, won Leslie Cheung the huge popularity in Japan, and sparked a trend of folklore ghost films in the HK film industry. The film grossed $18,831,638 HKD in Hong Kong.

Plot summary

Ning (Leslie Cheung) is a timid tax collector whose work requires him to travel to rural areas. At a town, the local townsmen are unwilling to pay their taxes. They force Ning into seeking shelter at an abandoned forest temple, claiming that their inns are full. Unbeknownst to Ning, many men have stayed there before, never to return again.

At the forest outside the temple, Ning is caught up in a duel between two master swordsmen. The winner of the duel, the Taoist martial priest Master Yan (Wu Ma), warns him there are ghosts in the temple. When he hears of Ning's firm intention to stay "for a night", he leaves, making it clear that he would take no responsibility for Ning's fate.

Entering the temple, Ning finds that his surroundings are bathed in an eerie mist as he catches the eye of Nie (Joey Wong), an alluringly beautiful girl. He resists her advances when she attempts to seduce him, and Nie falls in love with him. Ning, however, is unaware that she is a spirit, subservient to a powerful and asexual/androgynous Tree Demon.

Having finished rewriting his ledgers in an eventful night, Ning trudges back to town, shocking the townsmen into paying their taxes. Whilst he is in town, he witnesses a funeral parade pass by the main street. Becoming increasingly fearful and superstitious on recalling the night's events, Ning decides to have a spirit-repelling spell written on his back in ink. He goes back to the temple that night and confirms his theory Nie is no human being.

Nie then tells him her story of her family's unfortunate death at the hands of robbers, and how the urn containing her ashes was buried at the foot of a large tree, unwittingly binding her to the servitude of a powerful tree demon. She explains that as long as her urn remains buried there, her spirit is bound to the tree demon. Ning then tells her he will endeavour to free her soul somehow.

As he is no ghost hunter, Ning searches out Master Yan to enlist his martial and spiritual prowess in his mission. Yan fights a battle with the Tree Spirit through the night to salvage Nie's spirit. As morning breaks the next day, Ning and Master Yan ride to the site of the large tree at the base of which Nie's urn is buried. Ning digs up the soils only to find not one but several small urns in the same place.

Later, at a sanctified temple, Ning tries to find out which urn Nie is in; he evokes all the spirit in each urn save Nie's. Master Yan tells him her soul had been taken to the Underworld to be punished as according to the laws of ghosts; by betraying her master, she is sentenced to pain and suffering for eternity. Ning is disbelieving; and in an impressive show of his spiritual skill, Yan opens a temporary portal to the Underworld.

Ning and Yan follow the column of marching ghost soldiers until they reach a desolate structure filled with the writhing bodies of suffering spirits, clinging, grasping, and groaning in a cacophony of pain and anguish. Ning is horrified by it; and even Yan himself is shaken by it, but he tells Ning that with all probability, Nie would be somewhere in the mass of suffering spirits. Just before a host of underworld army headed by the Demon attack them, Yan quickly pulls them out of the Underworld.

Remarkably, Ning stumbles across a brief solution to allow him to see Nie briefly. He opens a small window, allowing a sliver or two of sunlight to weakly shine through onto a table. Placing Nie's urn onto where the sunlight shines, he is finally able to contact her as she is brought out of the darkness into the light - briefly disconnecting her from the Underworld. Although she speaks in a small, weak voice as evidence of her suffering, she tells him that a possible way for him to redeem her spirit is by re-burying it in a more auspicious burial site, as well as constantly burning incense for her. Ning follows her instructions, and after being shown a good place by Yan, he buries her near the crest of a hill. The film then ends with showing him burning a joss stick for her at the same place whilst praying, with Yan standing stoically yet solemnly behind him.

Cast and roles


Name Type
A Chinese Ghost Story Part II Movie Sequel
A Chinese Ghost Story Part III Movie Sequel
A Chinese Ghost Story: The Tsui Hark Animation Chinese Animation
Eternity: A Chinese Ghost Story TV Series from China/Taiwan


  • American director Sam Raimi has borrowed scenes and ideas from A Chinese Ghost Story for use in at least one of the Evil Dead movies and in certain episodes of the television series Xena.


  • The ghost, Nie, plays a qin and she breaks a string (a common metaphor for a troubled heart or being surprised) when the man Ning steps into the pavilion.


External links

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