China ‘ghost marriages’: discover the dark secrets of love in the afterlife

Traditional Chinese beliefs say that when a person dies their being continues in the afterlife.

This realm is thought to mirror the living world, where money, housing and even marriage exist.

While material wealth can be sent to the deceased through the burning of paper money, paper houses and other items, the arranging of a marriage for the deceased is a much more intricate process.

In China, the practice is known as a “ghost marriage”.

The Post takes a closer look at this eerie custom.

Origins

Mainland scholars believe ghost marriages date back to the pre-Qin period (221-207 BC), and have a history stretching back 3,000 years.

Chinese folklore expert Huang Jingchun said they persist to satisfy the emotional needs of the living.

“Whether it is out of longing and compensation for the deceased or for their own interests, the ones who truly seek comfort and relief from anxiety are the living,” Huang told Chinese digital media outlet, The Paper.

Another reason for the longevity of the practice is people’s fear of the dead.

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“Ghost marriages” take different forms, but all of them venture into life after death. Photo: Shutterstock

Some elderly Chinese still believe that if people die without fulfilling their wishes, such as getting married, they will not rest peacefully and will return to haunt the living.

Ghost marriages are also influenced by China’s ancient patriarchal system, which sees wedlock as vital for the continuation of the family bloodline.

The right match

The practice is most prevalent in northern China, in provinces like Shanxi, Shandong and Hebei.

There are typically two types of ghost marriage in these regions.

One involves couples who died before they were engaged or after being engaged, and their parents, out of love and longing, organise a wedding ceremony and bury them together.

The other involves individuals who were not betrothed and did not know each other in life, but are matched posthumously through a matchmaker.

Parents seek a suitable partner for their deceased offspring, inquiring about the other person’s family background, occupation, age and requesting photos.

A wedding is then held, and the bodies are exhumed and buried together in a new grave.

In some cases, one partner in a ghost marriage is alive.

The living person participates in a ghost marriage ceremony, using the deceased’s photo and clothing to represent them. The ceremony follows traditional wedding customs.

Dark side

It is often difficult for parents to find partners for their deceased children, so matchmaking services have emerged.

A matchmaker with three decades of experience told the China News Weekly that the market has long thrived in China.

In the 1990s, arranging a ghost marriage cost about 5,000 yuan (US$700), rising to 50,000 yuan in the 2000s. By 2016, the matchmaker added, that had jumped to at least 150,000 yuan (US$21,000).

Dead bodies and ashes of young women have become commodities bought and sold in ghost marriages.

In 2016, a man from Gansu province in north-central China murdered two women who were suffering from mental health conditions and sold their bodies for ghost marriages. He was sentenced to death in 2021.

In 2019, the ashes of Fang Yangyang, a woman in Shandong province in eastern China, were used in such a ceremony after she was tortured to death by her in-laws.

Then, in 2021, funeral home staff in Shandong stole the ashes of a female internet celebrity and sold them to a local family for a ghost marriage.

China has been making efforts to clamp down on such incidents.

Anyone who steals, rapes or destroys a corpse can receive a prison term of up to three years.

Local governments have also issued warning notices and launched crackdowns.

Modern practices

The custom is also practised in Chinese communities outside of mainland China and across Southeast Asia.

In Taiwan, ghost marriages are known as qu shen zhu, which means “marrying the spirit tablet”.

When a single woman dies, her family places red envelopes on a road which contain cash, paper money or the deceased’s hair or nails, waiting for a man to pick them up and become the groom.

Refusing to marry the ghost bride is believed to bring bad luck.

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Many “ghost marriages” mirror those which take place in the here and now. Photo: Shutterstock

In June 2015, ETtoday reported that a married man in Taiwan picked up an envelope containing a dead woman’s hair and was intercepted by a matchmaker. He found an excuse to refuse and fled.

The custom of qu shen zhu is also reflected in many modern art forms.

The 2022 Taiwanese comedy film Marry My Dead Body tells the story of a detective forced into a ghost marriage with a gay ghost.

This tradition is not limited to China.

Last December, a man in Thailand held a ghost marriage with his girlfriend, who had died of leukaemia.

The bride was represented by a photo and a mannequin dressed in traditional Thai wedding attire. The man expressed his commitment to their love in the hope of comforting her spirit.

In May, a Malaysian Chinese couple who died in a car accident had a ghost marriage ceremony arranged by their families, ensuring that the couple could reunite as husband and wife in the afterlife.

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