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No Dracula classics but local incarnations: Why there are no vampires in East Asia

No Dracula classics but local incarnations: Why there are no vampires in East Asia 1
Lee Joon-gi "The Scholar Who Walks the Night".

Myths about vampires – dead or mutated people who feed on human blood, exist in almost every corner of the world, except East Asia. Despite the fact that the East Asian culture is rich in ghosts, demons and spirits, there was no place for vampires in the pantheon of local evil spirits. 

Asia does not have most of the factors under the influence of which the myth of vampirism was formed in non-Asian countries.

Religion, climate and lifestyle did not allow the East Asian people to imagine the dead as evil and merciless bloodsuckers. 

The dead and attitudes towards death

In Europe and the countries of the northern hemisphere, when opening graves, sometimes undecomposed bodies were found. The dry and cold climate with freezing and quite deep soil did not contribute to rapid smoldering and sometimes even led to the embalming of corpses. Such finds frightened people, gave rise to myths about the dead rising from their graves.

In Asia, due to the warmer, and most importantly humid climate, the discovery of such bodies happened much less frequently. In addition, there is a myth in East Asian countries – an ancestor in the grave can transform into a dragon and punish the enemies of his kind or the family itself, if he is guilty of something. If the undecomposed body was still found, it was mistaken for the dragon’s “embryo”.

Joseon Dynasty Dragon - 19th century.
Joseon Dynasty Dragon – 19th century.

In addition, Buddhism and Confucianism looked at the death of a person in a special way. If it is very simplified, death is rest following a tormented life. According to the Koreans, Chinese and Japanese, the dead cared for and helped their descendants as much as they could. They did not have regrets for the lost life, but sympathized with the living.

Perhaps, almost the only dissatisfied deceased, in the Asian view, was a girl who did not have time to get married. The spirit (but not the bloodthirsty body) of the deceased could wander the earth, causing all sorts of trouble, but this problem was solved by a posthumous wedding. A restless spirit is a problem of a person’s failure to fulfill his earthly destiny, and not a desire to take revenge on the living.

Cheonyeo gwishin (처녀귀신) - the ghost of a girl who did not have time to get married.
Cheonyeo gwishin (처녀귀신) – the ghost of a girl who did not have time to get married.

Rabies

Another factor supporting the vampire myth in non-Asian countries is the prevalence of the rabies virus. A person infected with rabies was considered a vampire. In many ways, it was this virus that shaped the idea of ​​ghouls and their distinctive features: photophobia, compulsive disorders, increased aggression, and hydrophobia. 

In the end-stage of the disease, the infected could throw themselves at people and even bite. The sick also became infected through an animal bite or from a person. Inflamed wounds were found on patient bodies, which spurred the imagination of the townsfolk. They were infected most often from domestic / stray dogs, less often from rats or when meeting with a wild animal.

In the East Asian region, infection with the rabies virus occurred much less frequently. Keeping domestic dogs was not welcome, and the arrangement of houses – a kitchen separated from the main premises, storage of supplies in separate buildings, a floor raised above the ground – did not contribute to the spread of rats. Rare cases of infection were attributed to spirit possession.

Animals

The myth of vampires among Europeans was also served by the fear of bats and wolves – it was believed that ghouls could turn into them.

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The vast territories of Eurasia and the American continents contributed to the development of cattle breeding, which made wolves one of the main problems for farmers. No wonder there are so many fairy tales about gray wolves as people wrote about what worried them. Bats were simply feared because of their appearance and nocturnal lifestyle.

But in East Asia, even these animals did not work out. There were enough wolves in the regions of China and Korea, but animal husbandry was poorly developed. The presence of these predators in the forests was of little concern to people, they were much smaller than the man-eating tigers that make their way into the villages in search of human flesh. Wolves hardly entered East Asian folklore and they were not given any magical abilities.

With bats, everything turned out even more interesting. Bats were depicted on the walls of houses, vases, coins, clothes. In Chinese, the character for bat (蝠) has the same sound as the character for happiness (福) – “fu”. Five bats personified five human joys: health, luck, longevity, wealth and peace. If the bat settled under the roof of the house, it was impossible to wish for better omens for yourself. Thus, the devil’s accomplice and terrible bloodsucker in Europe was considered a symbol of good luck and domestic happiness in China. Well, the influence of the Middle Kingdom on the whole of East Asia is difficult to overestimate.

As we can see, there was no place for vampires here either.

Five bats and the hieroglyph "fu" in the center.
Five bats and the hieroglyph “fu” in the center.

“Vampirism” came to Asia after the Second World War and adapted in every possible way. As a result, it found its niche in cinema and comics literature but the difference between “traditional” and Asian vampires is enormous.

Lee Joon-gi "The Scholar Who Walks the Night".
Lee Joon-gi “The Scholar Who Walks the Night”.

Interestingly, Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is jokingly called the most unsuitable place for vampires as in Korea there are many sunny days and dishes with garlic are popular. The Kan River flows through the center of Seoul, and red-lit church crosses burn above the city.

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