Chinese Kung-Fu Movie Magic

I posted a thread about this before once, but I never really got any answers. In movies like Chinese Ghost Story, there are Taoist and Buddhist monks who use various types of magic. For example, a monk lights a magical paper on fire, then puts it in someone’s mouth. They also seem to have these magical spikes that can harm ghosts. Their favorite mantra is “Po-Yeh-Po-Lo-Mi”. What is the significance of these things, and where do they come from?

I’d just venture a wild guess here and say “4,000 years of Asian culture and mythology”?

I’m not familiar with the movie you mention, but it sounds like they draw upon traditional Chinese folklore and mythology. You’ll see similar things in, for example, Journey to the West, a very old (it was set in it’s current form in the 1500’s, though the story itself is much older than that) and well known classic Chinese mythological novel.

So, if I were unfamiliar with Christian doctrine, and I asked a question about a Christian movie involving the significance of the cross and the Eucharist, you’d reply, “2,000 years of Christian culture and mythology”? I know it comes from Chinese mythology, thank you very much, rjung. What I want to know is what it means!

  1. What is the significance of the phrase “Po-Yeh-Po-Lo-Mi”?

  2. What are those magical papers called in Chinese and what is the significance of lighting them on fire and sticking them into someone’s mouth?

  3. What are those magical anti-ghost spikes called?

Look, I don’t know enough about Chinese culture to even venture a guess, but your Christian Doctrine example doesn’t quite cut it. You do have a point, but I don’t think anyone can explain the significance of cross and the Eucharist in less than a couple of pages. I realize that a shorter explanation could be given of the significance of these two Christian symbols, but it would probably be an inadequate discussion of themes that are connected to them.

The cross: a symbol of the Crucifixion of the man known as Jesus Christ by the Romans some time in the early first century AD.

The Eucharist: a ritual in which believers are said to be partaking of the flesh and blood of the aforementioned Jesus Christ.

Do you know how much more I could add to those definitions and still not come close to covering everything? I’m not even a theologian, heck, I don’t even go to church.

That said, I am interested in the short answer to the significance of the magic powers in these movies.

I’m something of an addict of Chinese and Hong Kong cinema so my WAG is (also backed by my Chinese best-friend)…

There is no more significance to the magic and mysticism there than there is in western movies such as Conan, Excalibur, Superman, or Dracula. The original answer was essentially right, it is based on centuries of culture, legends, and mythology. As such, it is purely subjective how much significance and symbolism you want to read into Buddhist monks throwing fireballs. There are people that have written entire texts deconstructing what they see as the symbolism of Superman and its insight into American culture and psyche, for example. My opinion is stuff like that is a subjective useless waste of time and pointless self-creation of complexity and symbolism that doesn’t exist. The Supe is simply a cool hero that flies and is indestructible, that’s it. Similarly, kung fu heros that fly and monks that kick butt are just colorful entertainment using bits and pieces of religion, legend, and culture–not for the intention of saying anything profound about the Chinese culture and psyche, but because the stuff looks cool and people find it entertaining as all git out.

Not a deliberate dump on anyone searching for their own private significances…

I believe the real question here is not, “What is the significance of killing vampires with stakes?” but “Did Bram Stoker come up with the stake thing because he thought it was cool, or is that a traditional part of vampire lore?”

A Chinese Ghost Story comes from an old (17th century?) book of ghost stories named, IIRC, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (I’m mangling the name, but the name I know was probably changed slightly in translation anyway.) The basic plot (student sleeps in temple, is seduced by ghost, and Taoist sorceror/swordsman fights the ghost-Madam) is more or less the same, as I remember, but the phrase “Pao Yeh Pao Mo Li” doesn’t appear, nor do the spikes. Some of the stories in the book have ghosts repelled by reciting the sutras or waving a copy of the sutras like waving a Bible at a vampire (think of the copy of the sutras accidentally printed on the student’s back in the Tsui Hark movie.) One thing that struck me was that things I assumed were purely cinematic were echoed in the book. The sorceror, for example, has a magic chest/box which opens up and shoots out a strip of silk to zap ghosts, and it reminded me a lot of that guy from “Iron Monkey” (the one with Wong Fei Hung as a child, not the other movie of the same name) who could shoot his sleeve out at people.

I found some links on this stuff- let me check and I’ll see what I can find. The book is available from Dover in translation, under the name “Strange Tales from China” and “More Strange Tales from China.”

This should get you started:


There’s this, too:


Speaking of which, am I the only one who can’t help but giggle upon seeing the name Iron Monkey?

Interesting question. I don’t know about the Chinese Movie things you ask about, but it’s pretty clear that Stoker did invent some “vampire lore”, and stole some from his predecessors. He didn’t invent the stake in the heart – that had been used in “Varney the Vampire” and in Sheridan le Fanu’s “Carmilla”. But he did invent the bit about vampires not being seen in mirrors, and I think he’s the one who gave us garlic as an anti-vampire charm, and wolfbane. He didn’t invent the bit about vampire evaporating under sunlight – Dracula actually walks around London in the daytime in his book.

See Leonard Wolf’s “The Annotated Dracula” and “The Essential Dracula”, and David Sklar’s excellent “Hollywood Gothic” and “V is for Vampire”.

I think I know which specific movie you are talking about; it wasn’t Chinese Ghost story–I think it is Comet, Butterfly and Sword. I think the “magician”-warrior in that one was supposed to be a daoist monk. Very odd buddhist-magic stuff shows up in Warriors of the Mountain Zu (spelling)-- the giant demonic anti-buddha. I’ve also seen the sutras used as weapons/ defense in a few of those movies-- sort of like how a christian cross is supposed to save you from vampires. I assume that when they write something it is a buddhist seed-syllable or daoist phrase that holds power or something along those lines. Remember of course that Buddhism was nearly wiped out in China a long time ago and after a few years of secularism this century these movies likely reflect chinese religion in as much detail and ecclesiastical accuracy as I could explain Haitian Santeria or something (i.e not terribly well)

I’m not sure I’ve seen the movie in question (there are several with similar titles listed at, but such movies are generally based on similar beliefs. Could be from “Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio” (Liaozhai zhiyi/Liao-chai chih-yi, by Pu Songling; see also “Strange Tales from Make-Do Studio”, “Selected Tales of Liaozhai”), but there are many similar stories & beliefs as the Sinorama link shows.

  1. The phrase is unintelligible to most native speakers of Chinese. It doesn’t mean much to the average Chinese movie-goer other than religious (Buddhist/Taoist) exorcist mumbo jumbo. Like Latin out of a priest’s mouth to the average American, except you’re not likely to find this in any dictionary.

  2. In Mandarin those charms/talismans are called Fu2 (bamboo radical with person radical & “inch” underneath). The Chinese burn offerings to the dead, but in some of these movies, you just stick them unlighted onto the ghost. The writing they often have on those charms is usually special Taoist symbols that don’t mean anything to the average person.

  3. WAG: Dracula influence.

I believe the Chinese title for the Chinese Ghost Story series is Sinnui Yauman.

In Chinese Ghost Story I, this is the first phrase in the “Diamond Sutra”, which is said to be written in Sanskrit, not Chinese. In Chinese Ghost Story II, the subtitles read “Prajna paramita”, which may be a more accurate rendering of the Sanskrit.

It is true that when these talismans are used to attack ghosts in these movies, they are not lit. It’s when they’re used on people that this seems to be the case. For instance, in Chinese Ghost Story I, Swordsman Yen lights one and sticks it in Ning’s mouth to make him visible to ghosts in the spirit world. In Chinese Ghost Story II, Autumn lights one and sticks it in Windy’s mouth to exorcise her when she’s possessed.

Possibly, but Dracula is only harmed by wooden stakes to the heart. These seem to be made of metal and have an enchantment that can harm a ghost no matter where you stick them.

Anyway, I have a few more questions if anyone is still interested:

  1. What is the symbol Autumn writes on his hand when using the “freeze” spell in Chinese Ghost Story II? I assume it’s a Chinese character meaning “freeze”, but I only know a handful of characters.

  2. Are there any native Cantonese speakers out there who can tell me what exactly Swordsman Yen is singing in his famous “Taoist rap song” in Chinese Ghost Story I? I have a feeling the subtitles are a bit inadequate to translate his rapid-fire singing.

I think its the Prajnaparamita (heart sutra) with a different transliteration (spelling)

… because they say “eff you too” to ghosts?

What do you get when you cross a ghost with a zombie?

Now I so want to see Swordsmen 1,2 and 3 and Deadful Melody.

The incantation (from the heart sutra as mentioned above) is used in a lot of movies in essentially the same way as “abracadabra” or “Klaatu barada nikto” would be. As an example it activates the time machine in A Chinese Odyssey.

Burning is a method of transmutation to the spirt world, common in Chinese culture. Inhalation is a method of incorporation, but not something I am familiar with outside this context. In the Indian/Tibetan tradition charms are normally ingested, for long term effect, rather than inhaled, for short term effect. Regardless, the effect is clear in this context: the charm is transmuted and incorporated.

You think Tony Stark would put on that armor without trying it out on a test subject first?