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Whatever Happened to Asian Hopping Zombies?

Whatever Happened to Asian Hopping Zombies?

If you, like me, were born in the 1980s, and if you, like me, had a grandparent who was into Hong Kong cinema, you might have vague memories of this guy:

The above is a Chinese hopping zombie, or hopping vampire, as he is also commonly known, though really, he is sui generis. Known as a jiang shi, or “stiff corpse,” in mandarin, a goeng si in Cantonese, and a kyonshi in Japanese, he’s not a zombie, because he doesn’t eat flesh. He’s not a vampire — though he was called one by Hong Kong filmmakers, who thought it would be good for marketing purposes. He doesn’t drink blood (or at least, he didn’t until the influence of Hollywood western vampires made itself felt). Rather, he drinks qi, or life energy.

These guys were legion in the Hong Kong movies of the 1980s and 1990s, from the classic Mr. Vampire and Encounters of the Spooky Kind, featured above, to The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, in which a British film company tried to muscle into the genre. The films were big in Hong Kong — a very earnest academic paper I stumbled across on this topic framed them as a critical response to the pending Chinese handover and the “crisis of modernity” — but they were also popular in Southeast Asia, and across the Chinese diaspora.

The lines between jiangshi and other, more Western forms of the undead grew increasingly blurred over time, as Hollywood influence made itself increasingly felt — in later jiangshi movies, for example, you might see one of these creatures drink blood — but one defining characteristic remained: while western zombies lurched and juddered around, and western vampires moved like normal humans (or, if anything, more gracefully), these Chinese undead always hopped — slowly, rigidly, with arms extended straight ahead (something to do with rigor mortis?).

And then the jiangshi disappeared, almost as quickly as they’d arisen. A Hollywood push into Asia took its toll on the Hong Kong film industry; Asian countries developed a taste for movies like 28 Days Later, and homegrown fare like Tokyo Zombie and Zombie 108 began taking on the tropes of the Western horror genre instead of the weird, wacky kung fu horror/comedy style that marked Hong Kong jiangshi films.

Another victim of globalization

Lately, however, the genre has shown some signs of life. Hong Kong pop star-turned-actor Juno Mak is proudly touting his latest movie, Rigor Mortis, as a tribute to jiangshi movies, while a Japanese show that debuted last year,Haohao! Kyongshi girl, features the jumping creatures and a Malaysia-made game, The Chinese Zombie War,  in which a Taoist priest fights an army of jumping jiangshi in the jungle,appears to be a a hit in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland.

Is this nostalgia? Another critical response to a crisis of modernity? I’ll leave it to the academics to decide. 

Thanks to Matt Mogk at the Zombie Research Society for help on this post.