|Filing Number:||178 - Ghost Marriage|
|Lost & Found:|
|Tags:||ghosts; spirits; phantoms; marriage; folklore; China|
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. Other forms of ghost marriage are practiced worldwide, from Sudan, to India, to France since 1959 (see Levirate marriage, Ghost marriage in Sudan and 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, to integrate an unmarried daughter into a patrilineage, to ensure the family line is continued, or to maintain that no younger brother is married before an elder brother.
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. 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, and immediately take up residence with his family. A groom had the option of marrying his late fiancée, with no disadvantages, but there have been no records of such weddings.
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. 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. 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. Instead, she will be "given a temporary paper tablet, placed not on the domestic altar but in a corner near the door." Hence, the important duty of Chinese parents in marrying off their children becomes increasingly important for their daughters. Since women are only able to acquire membership in descent lines through marriage, ghost marriage became a viable solution to ensure that unmarried, deceased daughters still had "affiliation to a male descent line" 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" for spinsters was built or families take their daughter to a shed, empty house, or outlying buildings to die
Living, unmarried daughters
See also: Spirit tablet, Veneration of the dead and Chinese folk religion
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." 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" 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.
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. "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." Occasionally, a live woman is taken as a wife for a dead man, but this is rare. 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.
If the family was "suitably rich to tempt a [living] girl," 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," the wife of a deceased son would benefit her husband's family by becoming a caregiver in their home.
Once the deceased son had a wife, the family could adopt an heir, or a "grandson", 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. The family preferred to adopt patrilineally related male kin, usually through a brother assigning one of his own sons to the lineage of the deceased. The adoption was carried out by writing up a contract, which was then placed under the dead man's tablet. 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."
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," causes misfortune for its natal family, the family of its betrothed, or for the family of the deceased's married sisters. "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."
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."
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." Additionally, in the days of immigration, ghost marriages were used to "cement a bond of friendship between two families." However, there have been no recent cases reported.