Inspired by Chinese spirit marriages, Yangsze Choo began to write the story of a young Malaysian woman who is asked to become the wife of a dead man. In this Zola interview, Choo shares the Asian folklores that inspired the wild and surprisingly lively underworld in her novel The Ghost Bride.
Zola: In your novel, a young Malaysian woman in 1893 is pressured by a wealthy family to “marry” their dead son. You were inspired by an old newspaper clipping. How did that transform into this novel?
Yangsze Choo: I was digging around the archives when I came across a brief mention that spirit marriages amongst the Chinese had declined. This was so matter-of-fact, yet oblique that it made me stop short! Then I realized that it must be referring to the folk superstition of marriage to the dead.
I don’t recall that there was much information attached to it, but its very brevity was intriguing. Whose marriages was it referring to? How common was it in the past? And who would be willing to participate such a union in the first place? I was so fascinated that I couldn’t help imagining various scenarios. And the first line of the book occurred to me: “One evening, my father asked me if I would like to become a ghost bride.” I rushed off and wrote the first chapter of this book in one sitting. Then I put it away for a while. It was supposed to be a subplot for another novel that I was working on, but it was so interesting that I ended up writing this one instead.
Zola: What were the lives of actual Ghost Wives like? Do Ghost Brides still exist in the world?
YC: There were many variations of ghost marriages amongst the Chinese diaspora (and they still occasionally occur today) for individual reasons, although they tended to be tied to the traditional practice of ancestor worship. For example, two lovers might be united after death, or someone might have a dream that their deceased relative wanted to get married in the afterlife, and the family was requested to hold a formal ceremony.
Usually, matches were made between two deceased persons, but occasionally, the living were married to the dead. These primarily took the form of a living person fulfilling the wish of a dying sweetheart, or to raise the rank of a deceased concubine or mistress who had produced an heir, to that of a wife. Sometimes an impoverished girl was taken into a household as a widow to perform the ancestral rites for a man who had died without a wife or descendants. This is the case for the main character, Li Lan, in my book.
Zola: In talking about the novel, you’ve said that readers have been inundated with tales of vampires and zombies, and that they might like a tale of the afterlife told from the perspective of another culture. How does the Chinese underworld differ from that of the pop culture undead?
YC: When I was a child, I enjoyed watching Chinese movies and reading stories and comic books that drew on the Chinese literary tradition of tales set in a fantastic world, where swordsmen can fly from one mountain top to another, and foxes transform into beautiful women. The concept of the afterlife itself is not very clear, as Chinese beliefs tend to be a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism, and folk superstitions. Disparate ideas, such as reincarnation, the Courts of Hell, and the belief that burned paper effigies of houses, horses, and servants are actually received by the dead as material objects, all coexist together.
For the purposes of this book, I created the Plains of the Dead to knit these various strands together. When I was writing about it, I was reminded of the vivid colours of the elaborate paper offerings I saw during my childhood. In this sense, it seems very different from Western ideas of vampires and zombies, which are both bloodless undead creatures of the night. The vampire and the zombie are essentially loners who stand on the edge of darkness and isolation. In contrast, the Chinese afterlife seems more like a riotous continuation of the world as we know it, where the bonds that fetter are relationships that continue to demand food, money, servants and even social arrangements like marriage!
Zola: You were researching Chinese folklore for a possible Social Studies thesis at Harvard, but abandoned it for a paper on economics. How much of that early research helped with this story?
YC: Growing up, I noticed that in Asian ghost stories, the most terrifying ghosts were always women. More specifically, women who had died during childbirth or had been betrayed in some manner. I’ve always thought that it was probably a subconscious recognition that women were frustrated and suppressed in a patriarchal society. I thought it would make a really interesting thesis, but chickened out of writing it as I thought no one would employ me and I had better write something more economically minded!
In retrospect, perhaps I should just have worked on something that I thought was interesting, rather than on a mind-numbing dissertation about industrial townships, but many of the observations I had at the time continued to rattle around in my head. I was fascinated by the idea of parallel worlds in this book, and there are echoes of this dichotomy throughout, such as the real world vs. the Plains of the Dead, day vs. night, the Lim mansion vs. the other, ghostly Lim mansion that’s made out of burned paper offerings.
The pace of the book also reflects this, with the first half being slower and more deliberately constructed to reflect the main character Li Lan’s restricted life as a young woman in late 1890s Malaya. Also, I had in mind a lot of late 19th century novels, like Swiss Family Robinson and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which were essentially written for armchair Victorian travelers who would never get the chance to go to a tropical island or descend to the depths of the ocean. This mirrors Li Lan’s real world dilemma. She longs for new experiences, but even her interactions with her suitor, Tian Bai, are somewhat stilted because they don’t know each other at all.
The second half of the book, on the other hand, is a wild ride into the Chinese supernatural world, where Li Lan actually experiences life (or is it death?). She gets to travel, even if it’s to the shadowy border between spirits and humans, make her own decisions, and be responsible for her own fate.
Zola: Class consciousness and patriarchy are deathly and controlling in this book. Is that a reflection of what life really was like for women at that time? Has any of that carried over into the lives of women today?
YC: I think that life for many women in the late 19th century was very restricted, though there was some variation by economic class. Upper class women tended to be more secluded, although Chinese women in colonial Malaya were at least spared the crippling practice of foot binding. Still, a woman’s reputation was extremely important, determining her marriageability and her economic status in society. Women nowadays have far more freedom, which I think is a great blessing!
Zola: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us!
YC: Thank you so much for featuring me – it’s been a pleasure and an honour.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.