Corpse Walkers had one of the most unusual and stressful jobs in China. Who were they and what happened to them?
For a Chinese person, especially one of a traditional cast of mind, being buried away from the home town or village would be a terrible thing. Away from the family, it would be impossible for younger family members to show respect and provide spirit food and drink and burn money for use in the afterlife. During the seventh month, when hungry ghosts separated from their families return to the earth to seek spiritual sustenance and, perhaps, living blood, then what would become of them? They might be subject to the manipulations of a tricksy Taoist priest, clad in yellow robes and armed with inscribed scriptures with which to control the ghosts.
So, there had to be developed a way to return the corpses to their home village and this is the origin of the Corpse Walkers. Two men would act as a team and would take it in turns to mount the corpse on their back to walk across the countryside back to the home village of the deceased. The degree of strength and fitness required for such a job can only be imagined, not to mention the mental fortitude to endure the proximity to the dead for day after day of heavy, sweaty work.
Inevitably, many myths and legends drew up around the work of the Corpse Walkers. Some people believed that they were able to bring the corpse back to some kind of life (or unlife) and cause it to walk along under its own power. Others thought they kept the corpse’s joints limber somehow and actually walked them with their legs tied together like wearing a kind of astronaut suit. Most people preferred to stay away from them altogether, since their association with death made them fey and unpopular and, quite possibly, the recipients of some kind of supernatural power.
Corpse Walking was essentially antithetical to Communism and, so after the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the livelihoods of the Corpse Walkers became threatened and, in some cases, so too were their lives. Under Communism, family attachments are stripped away and geography should not matter. Indeed, attachment to the dead itself might be considered a bourgeois decadency, especially among the weak and poor. And so the practice disappeared. Might it ever reappear, now that money is available to stimulate people to meet demand for consumer goods and services?