We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

The Phantom Heroine

Ghosts and Gender in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Literature

Judith T. Zeitlin

Publication Year: 2007

The "phantom heroine"—in particular the fantasy of her resurrection through sex with a living man—is one of the most striking features of traditional Chinese literature. Even today the hypersexual female ghost continues to be a source of fascination in East Asian media, much like the sexually predatory vampire in American and European movies, TV, and novels. But while vampires can be of either gender, erotic Chinese ghosts are almost exclusively female. The significance of this gender asymmetry in Chinese literary history is the subject of Judith Zeitlin’s elegantly written and meticulously researched new book. Zeitlin’s study centers on the seventeenth century, one of the most interesting and creative periods of Chinese literature and politically one of the most traumatic, witnessing the overthrow of the Ming, the Manchu conquest, and the subsequent founding of the Qing. Drawing on fiction, drama, poetry, medical cases, and visual culture, the author departs from more traditional literary studies, which tend to focus on a single genre or author. Ranging widely across disciplines, she integrates detailed analyses of great literary works with insights drawn from the history of medicine, art history, comparative literature, anthropology, religion, and performance studies. The Phantom Heroine probes the complex literary and cultural roots of the Chinese ghost tradition. Zeitlin is the first to address its most remarkable feature: the phenomenon of verse attributed to phantom writers—that is, authors actually reputed to be spirits of the deceased. She also makes the case for the importance of lyric poetry in developing a ghostly aesthetics and image code. Most strikingly, Zeitlin shows that the representation of female ghosts, far from being a marginal preoccupation, expresses cultural concerns of central importance.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


pdf iconDownload PDF


pdf iconDownload PDF


pdf iconDownload PDF

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. ix-x

It is a great relief after many years to bring this book into the light of day and exorcise its specter for good. As always with a research project of this magnitude and duration, there are almost too many institutions and people to thank. I want to express my deep gratitude to the National Endowment for the Humanities and to ...

Note on Citations and Abbreviations

pdf iconDownload PDF
p. xi

Selected Dynasties and Periods

pdf iconDownload PDF
p. xiii


pdf iconDownload PDF
p. xiv

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 1-12

This is a book about seventeenth-century Chinese literature, but the legacy of the stories, poems, and plays I explore in these pages still exerts a strong grip on the contemporary imagination. The 1987 hit Hong Kong film, A Chinese Ghost Story (Qiannü youhun), directed by Ching Siu Tung and produced by Tsui Hark, is a case in point. ...

read more

1 The Ghost’s Body

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 13-52

Death is not personified in Chinese thought or rhetoric, and consequently death cannot be represented as a feminine figure as it is at many points in Indo-European traditions.1 Yet the prominence of the female revenant and the frequent fantasy of her resurrection or rebirth is one of the most striking features of seventeenth-century Chinese literature. ...

read more

2 The Ghost’s Voice

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 53-86

"Perhaps the most obvious thing about death,” write Sarah Goodwin and Elisabeth Bronfen, “is that it is always only represented.” 1 We can never truly know first hand what it would be like to be dead; we can only imagine it. This chapter is about a fantasy inside view of death. It is not an exposé of the topography or organization or activities of the afterlife, (although ...

read more

3 Ghosts and Historical Time

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 87-130

In the previous chapter I explored how the ghost was used in Chinese literature to stage a confrontation with mortality. Endowing the ghost with a voice capable of expressing subjective emotion, primarily through the vehicle of lyric poetry, opened a window onto the unknowable: what would it feel like to be dead, to be on the other side? Accordingly, these ghost stories represent death as an interior ...

read more

4 Ghosts and Theatricality

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 131-180

The years from 1580 to 1700 witnessed an explosion of ghosts in writings for the stage. In part, this increase stemmed from a general proliferation of new plays, for this was the heyday of the southern drama (chuanqi). As the playwright Yuan Yuling (1592–1674) declared: “There’s never been such a superabundance of plays as nowadays.” 1 ...

read more

Coda: Palace of Lasting Life

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 181-197

Hong sheng’s masterpiece, Palace of Lasting Life, has long been acknowledged as one of the two last great works of the southern drama, representing both the culmination and the virtual endpoint of the literary playwright’s creative engagement with this form of theater.1 Begun ...

Appendix: Selected List of Major Translated Book and Film Titles

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 199-201


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 203-250


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 251-258

Works Cited

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 259-282


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 283-296

E-ISBN-13: 9780824864934
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824830915

Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 256792191
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Phantom Heroine

Research Areas


UPCC logo

Subject Headings

  • Ghosts in literature.
  • Gender identity in literature.
  • Chinese literature -- Qing dynasty, 1644-1912 -- History and criticism.
  • Chinese literature -- Ming dynasty, 1368-1644 -- History and criticism.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access