Houhai Lake is a popular haunt for local families, but you are probably unaware of just how literal that is. The area’s historical attractions are hundreds – if not thousands – of years old, so it should come as no surprise that Houhai has its fair share of ghosts. We met up with Daniel Newman from Newman Tours for this special Halloween edition of What’s Fun In. He gave us a taste of the company’s very own Beijing Ghost Tour, which uncovers the ghastly stories behind quiet hutong life and genteel imperial courts.
Start your spectral journey at Beihai North (北海北) subway station on Line 6, exit B. Upon exiting the station, you’ll see a small street called Sanzuoqiao Hutong (三坐桥胡同) that runs north to south. Walk north on it for about 50m until you spot a large red door on your left at 13 Sanzuoqiao Hutong. Though the following story didn’t take place behind this particular door, it’s a good place to set the scene for the rest of the night.
In the early 1930s, there was a policeman who moved from Shandong to Beijing. Upon arrival, his wife fell so ill that she started coughing up blood; at one point, her heart even stopped. She soon recovered but started behaving very strangely. She became very aggressive, yelled at the neighbors, and spoke in tongues in her sleep. The husband also noticed there was blood in her food.
He sought out a Daoist monk, who told him that his wife was likely possessed by an evil spirit. They went back to the house together and pasted pictures all around the walls. Upon coming home, the wife screamed, ran out the house, and dropped dead. The husband was devastated. “My wife is dead!” he exclaimed. “Your wife was already dead,” replied the Daoist monk. “She died when her heart stopped beating and an evil spirit moved in.”
The pictures they posted were of Zhong Kui, the ghost hunter. According to legend, Zhong Kui failed the imperial exam as a mortal and reacted by committing suicide. In the afterlife, he took it upon himself to keep ghosts in line. While we’re scared of things that go bump in the night, the things that go bump in the night are scared of Zhong Kui.
Keep walking down Sanzuoqiao Hutong until you reach Qianhai Xijie (前海西街). Turn left and walk for 50m until you reach Prince Gong Mansion. You may choose to pay admission or simply stand outside the imposing Gate 1 for this second story:
In the 1860s, Prince Gong was a contender for the imperial throne. However, the eight people who were in charge of the country wanted to appoint his younger, dumber, and more easily manipulated brother. Prince Gong sought the throne by soliciting the help of the most powerful person in China: Empress Dowager Cixi. When she took full control of the country, she demonstrated “her own particular brand of mercy” by only executing three of the eight people who stood in Prince Gong’s way.
Her most famous victim was the Pearl Concubine, Emperor Guangxu’s favorite and a notorious liberal. She encouraged the emperor to introduce reforms, brought photographers into the Forbidden City, and – scandalously – wore trousers. The latter proved to be too much for Cixi, who ordered her eunuchs to throw the Pearl Concubine down a well. Years later, the family of the Pearl Concubine finally persuaded Cixi to return the body to them. When the corpse was pulled out of the well, it was found to be in perfect condition, complete with “peach soft skin.” Some say she was possessed by a spirit and came back for revenge, for it wasn’t long after that Cixi herself passed away.
There is a story, famous among the guards, about a securty man who opened up Prince Gong Mansion with his son one morning. The little boy wandered off to explore and suddenly heard music. When he found the source, he glimpsed women in beautiful robes crying, their makeup running down their faces. When he opened the door, they all turned to look at him. The little boy ran back to his father, terrified:
“Daddy, there are people inside!” “What do you mean? There’s no one here,” replied the guard. The boy is all grown up now, but insists still that he saw a room full of grieving women at Prince Gong’s palace.
From Gate 1, follow the outer wall of Prince Gong Mansion until you curve around to Liuyin Jie (柳荫街). One evening – on a street much like this one – an old woman noticed a girl wearing a long red dress standing in the doorway of her hutong with hair covering her face. The old woman hurried past her. When she turned around, she was horrified to find that the girl looked exactly the same from the other side of her head. The old woman collapsed; when she woke up, she was so unintelligible that she was sent off to a mental institution. It is said that the girl in the red dress can still be seen in the hutongs around Houhai. In the half-light of a chilly October evening with nothing but the sound of swaying willows all around you, it doesn’t seem so implausible.
However, not all ghosts are unfriendly. Keep walking down Liuyin Jie until you see Yuan Mandun’s Memorial (袁满囤烈士纪念碑) on your left. You’ll recognize it by the marble bust portraying Yuan Mandun, a young member of the People’s Liberation Army. He was patrolling Houhai Lake when he saw some students falling
through the ice. Without hesitation, he ran to the center of the lake and dived in, pulling out one student after another. However, he succumbed to the cold and ended up drowning in the lake. The entire saga is depicted in a series of illustrations on the electrical boxes behind the marble bust.
When you’re done here, keep walking down Liuyin Jie until you spot the people’s gym to your right. Turn left into Daxinkai Hutong (大新开胡同) and turn right when you reach Songshu Jie (松树街). You’ll soon come across the very modern-looking Shichahai Shadow Art Performance Hotel (什刹海皮影主题文化酒店). It’s worth looking inside; you’ll find tasteful furnishings and a light-filled performance hall, where non-guests can catch weekly shadow puppet shows.
What does shadow puppetry have to do with ghosts, you ask? Everything, it turns out. During the Han Dynasty, there was a ruler called Emperor Wu. He was devastated when his favorite concubine died, so he ordered his eunuchs to bring her back somehow. Terrified, they thought night and day about a way to grant his impossible request. They gathered 200 pieces of donkey leather, stitched them together, dressed the creation with the concubine’s clothes, and set up a silk screen in front of the throne. When the emperor was sitting down, they moved the pieces of leather around behind the screen and simulated the concubine’s voice. For a moment, it seemed she’d returned to the world of the living again; Emperor Wu was thrilled.
At this point, you may need a place to take a quick breather. Walk to the end of Songshu Jie and cross Yangfang Hutong (羊房胡同) into Houhai Park (后海公园). Rest in the pavilion or people watch down the ramp. On clear evenings, old men can be seen pouring their hearts out in front of a portable karaoke machine. Just beyond them, you can usually find one of the bigger mass dance gatherings around these parts.
Last but not least, there’s one of Houhai’s most famous local ghost stories. Make your way to the edge of the lake by taking a slight right after going down the ramp at Houhai Park. In the distance, you can just make out the edge of the Bell Tower. Commissioned by Emperor Yongle during the Ming Dynasty, the Bell Tower was built between 1406 and 1420. During an inspection, the emperor deemed the bell too small and commissioned a much larger bronze bell. The bell makers were alarmed by the dimensions, but didn’t have a choice; with Emperor Yongle, a deadline was “literally, a deadline.” If it wasn’t ready in time, they would lose their heads. One of the bell maker’s daughters decided to make the ultimate sacrifice. She threw herself onto the furnace’s flames in order to produce enough heat for the massive bronze bell. Her father wasn’t quick enough to stop her and managed to grab only one shoe. Now when the bell sounds, the locals say it goes “xie, xie, xie” – but it’s unclear whether the girl is saying “thank you” or asking for her shoe back.
For more spine-chilling history, join Newman Tours’ Beijing Ghost Tour, which takes place every Saturday and Sunday from 7-9pm. The tour is recommended for ages 8 and up, but can be tailored to younger kids upon request. To reserve, call 138 1777 0229 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more, visit www.newmantours.com.
Prince Gong Mansion 恭王府
RMB 40. 7.30am-4.30pm (Mar 16-Nov 15), 8.30am-6pm (Nov 16-Mar 15). 17 Qianhai Xijie, Xicheng District (8328 8149) www.pgm.org.cn 西城区前海西街17号
Shichahai Shadow Art Performance Hotel 什刹海皮影文化主题酒店
Shadow puppetry performances every Sat at 8pm, RMB 100/person. 24 Songshu Jie, Xicheng District (8328 7846, email@example.com) shadowarthotel.wordpress.com (VPN required) 西城区松树街24号
photos by KEN
This article originally appeared on p32-35 of the beijingkids October 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com