Their portrayal as vampires had everything to do with marketing to the West.
In the 1980s and ’90s, a series of Chinese horror films became a worldwide cult sensation.
Like other great monster flicks before them, so-called jiangshi 僵尸 movies focused exclusively on one character: reanimated corpses dressed in Chinese court attire.
They usually came in groups, were controlled by Taoist priests, and their distinguishing feature was that they hopped. (The explanation was that their legs were stiff from rigor mortis.)
(Read more: Why do Chinese vampires hop and suck your soul?)
If the West needed any comparison, the jiangshi were closest to zombies—in the way they moved, the way they looked, and the menacing way in which they survived: by absorbing the life force of others.
But instead, producers marketed them as vampires, the most notable example being the 1985 Hong Kong film Mr. Vampire.
A brief history of the jiangshi genre
Unlike many horror staples, the jiangshi are actually benign creatures. In some films, they’re even depicted as friendly, such as in Mr. Vampire 3, where the jiangshi are a pair of bumbling affable brothers.
The jiangshi’s appearance in Chinese folklore is based on the real-life tradition of transporting corpses back to their homelands for burial. Their distinct hopping is said to be derived from the way corpses appeared to bounce when they were carried in sedan chairs.
Thus in most film interpretations, the jiangshi are corpses under the care of Taoist priests, who are responsible for delivering them back to their homes. A common trope involves an inept priest who has to round up his jiangshi after they run amok and start wreaking havoc on the public.
Then why were they called vampires?
Early portrayals of jiangshi mimicked the look of Dracula. They often had pale skin, long nails, and fangs, and wore robes that resembled a vampire’s cloak.
There was little reason for this portrayal other than to capture the Western market, where vampires have long been a cinematic staple. Dracula is said to be one of the most-portrayed characters in film, second only to Sherlock Holmes.
So when the breakthrough jiangshi movie Mr. Vampire was released in 1985, it was the obvious cultural reference for people who were unfamiliar with Chinese folklore.
The vampire comparison persisted through the 1980s and ’90s. Mr. Vampire spawned four more sequels with the same title, and later jiangshi films even depicted them together with vampires from the West.
But with the explosion of zombie films today—from Shaun of the Dead to The Walking Dead—one wonders whether jiangshi movies might have been marketed differently if they came out in 2019.
There are signs that the language is shifting. Online memes showing jiangshi often refer to them as “Chinese zombies.” One of the most recent portrayals of jiangshi, in the 2013 film Rigor Mortis, runs closer to the visual conception of zombies.
It just goes to show that even stories considered ingrained in a culture can shift and change when they hop across borders.