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  • China's ghost weddings, a practice that may send a chill down your spine: All you need to know

China's ghost weddings, a practice that may send a chill down your spine: All you need to know

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China's ghost weddings, a practice that may send a chill down your spine: All you need to know

What is a Ghost Marriage?

Mary McMahon

Ghost marriages are legally-binding marriages in which one or both parties are deceased. They take place in many areas around the world, including China, Sudan, France, and the US, among others. Since they occur in such geographically diverse areas, there are many different purposes and ceremonies associated with them. There are also related practices in which widows and widowers are ceremonially married to family members as well.

Areas of Practice

A person burning a facsimile of ancient Chinese money for a deceased couple.

Many different countries allow ghost marriage, but China, India, and Sudan are three areas that are particularly known for them. Despite this, the practice is not widespread in any of these areas in modern times, though it does still occasionally occur. Several of these types of marriages have taken place in France, the US, Korea, and Germany, among other places.

China is one country that allows ghost marriages.

There are many different purposes for a ghost marriage, but most have to do with societal expectations and family patterns, cultural history, and love or emotion. Sometimes they are performed when one partner in an engagement has died; other times, it's done to provide a widow with a caretaker. In these instances, the widow usually is cared for and has children by a stand-in — often a brother of the dead husband — but is still considered married to her original husband. Ceremonies may also be performed when a person believes that a ghost is requesting a spouse. A family might also have this type of ceremony performed for an older son so that a younger son can get married.

Ghost marriages take place in Sudan.

Some women choose to enter such a marriage as a means of allowing themselves to remain unmarried to anyone alive. This is more common in areas where remaining unmarried is seen as socially unacceptable. In cultures where being married allows a woman to control her own property or that of her deceased husband, women may also use this practice to retain independence. The marriages are sometimes also arranged for dead men so that they can have descendants to care for them after death. In this case, the dead man is usually joined to a widow who already has children. Sometimes, a woman with no children is chosen so that the family of the dead man can have a daughter-in-law to perform domestic tasks.

A ghost marriage may occur in order to provide a widow with a caretaker.

Many people also enter a ghost marriage for love, or to show their devotion to a deceased partner. This is fairly common in France and is often related to situations in which a long-term partner or fiance dies suddenly. Though the living spouse does not necessarily receive any inheritance from the dead one, his or her children will be considered as belonging to the dead spouse as well. Additionally, these marriages are sometimes performed for religious reasons, as some religions give preference to spouses in the afterlife.

Posthumous marriage ceremonies vary widely according to culture. In French of American versions, the widow or widower generally stands next to a picture of his or her deceased spouse at the front of a church, and the typical wedding vows are often said in the past tense. In China, a formal wedding ceremony may be held in a temple, complete with the burning of offerings so that the partners have objects to use in the spirit world. Paper stand-ins are used for the deceased bride or groom, with these stand-ins being burned at the end of the ceremony along with the rest of the offerings. In cases where both partners are dead, their bones may be interred together.

Related Practices

Widow inheritance or Levirate marriage is somewhat similar to this tradition. In this tradition, a widow's marries a male relative of her dead husband, who then cares for her and all of her children. This is usually done for social reasons, and so that the children of the widow will be adequately provided for. It is practiced in various parts of Africa, Central Asia, and Indonesia, among other places.

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

Very interesting. Ghost marriage is a taboo thing for America. They should make documentaries of every culture that has ghost marriages.

With a ghost marriage, you are wed to the deceased in name only. You have the actual marriage relationship with his brother.

That just sounds so twisted to me. I don't understand the thinking behind this, but then again, I didn't grow up in a culture or religion that recognizes ghost marriages.

@cloudel – It is a sad thing to me. I don't know anyone who has married a dead person, but I do know a widow who continues to consider herself married to her deceased husband.

He was the love of her life. They met as teenagers, and there could never be another for her.

He died at the young age of 35, and I truly don't believe she will ever remarry. She still calls him her husband, and she wears his wedding ring on a chain around her neck. She hasn't taken her own wedding ring off, and it's been nearly two years.

They had three children together. The kids only have their mother to take care of them, because their father had no brothers.

I live in America, and I've never heard of this. While I get why someone would want to marry into a family of a deceased individual to have people to care for them and to consider family, I still don't think I could tie myself to someone who was dead.

What if I found love again later in life? There would be no way to get a divorce. I would lose all the relationships I had made with the dead husband's family.

I think a ghost marriage is a terrible thing, because it keeps you living in the past. You will never feel fully alive if you are married to a dead person.

No, Chinese women never had the freedom to divorce when alive, much less after being dead.

There is much to admire in Chinese culture, but its misogynistic aspect is not part of that, and there are few more misogynistic cultures. Past that, ghost marriage makes much sense to we who are traditional in our non-majority cultures.

Interesting. Therefore, can you have a Ghost Divorce?

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History of Yesterday

Ghost Marriage: The Chiense Tradition Of Getting Dead People Married

The history of ghost marriage.

by Andrei Tapalaga | Apr 26, 2023 | Culture

ghost wedding definition

History and Origin of Ghost Marriage

Ghost marriage is an ancient and mysterious Chinese tradition that has been practiced for centuries. It is believed to have originated in ancient China thousands of years ago, with the practice then spreading throughout Europe and Asia. This practice was traditionally seen as a way to ensure that the deceased had a partner in the afterlife . In fact, Confucius himself was known to have mentioned this practice in his writings.

The traditional Chinese belief was that a ghost marriage could help restore balance between two families who had lost a child. The idea was that by joining two families together through marriage, both families would be able to benefit from the union even if one of their members had died. This idea has been around since ancient times and still holds true today in some parts of China.

Another reason why ghost marriages are popular is due to superstition and fear of bad luck or misfortune. Many people believe that if they do not perform a ghost marriage ceremony for their deceased family member, it may bring bad luck upon them or their family. Therefore, performing this ceremony can be seen as a way of protecting yourself from bad luck or evil spirits.

ghost wedding definition

Finally, there are also religious reasons for why people may choose to perform ghost marriages. In some cases, it can be seen as an act of piety towards one’s ancestors or gods and goddesses associated with death and rebirth rituals such as those found in Taoism and Buddhism.

Ghost marriages are still practiced today in many parts of China , although they are not as common as they once were due to changing cultural attitudes towards death and mourning practices over time. Despite this shift in attitudes, this mysterious tradition still lives on because it offers comfort to those who mourn for their loved ones and helps them keep their memories alive forever through this special ritualistic ceremony.

Reasons for Ghost Marriage

Since ancient times, Chinese people have practiced ghost marriage as part of their culture and religious customs. The belief that ghosts are in need of companionship is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture, leading to the practice of ghost marriage in order to provide the deceased with a life partner in the afterlife. Performing such a ceremony also allows families to keep ancestral connections alive and maintain their traditions .

In some cases, ghost marriages were also carried out as a way of preventing unmarried daughters from becoming “hungry ghosts” in the afterlife; this was done out of fear that she would be doomed to wander endlessly without rest or peace if she did not have someone to accompany her into death. It was believed that unhappy spirits could bring bad luck and misfortune upon those who had wronged them during life, so marrying off single women was seen as a way of avoiding potential disasters.

Religious reasons for performing ghost marriages exist as well; these acts are sometimes used as offerings for gods or goddesses associated with death and rebirth rituals. In addition, ceremonies can be performed out of piety towards ancestors or deities related to ancestor worship or traditional funeral practices.

Ghost marriage has been an important tradition among Chinese people for centuries, but its prevalence has declined today due to evolving cultural views about death and mourning practices. Despite this shift however, the reasons behind it remain unchanged—to provide comfort for ghosts so they may pass peacefully into the afterlife, avert misfortune caused by hungry spirits on earth, preserve familial ties and honor religious beliefs related to ancestor worship or funeral rites.

Types of Ghost Marriages

Ghost marriage is an ancient custom practiced in China, where two families exchange money and goods as a sign of respect for the deceased. Usually, this occurs either before or after the actual nuptials take place. The bride’s family pays a dowry to the groom’s family or receives payment from them in return for her labor or services. Additionally, the groom’s family may provide a dowry to the bride’s family if they are unable to pay for her services.

The goods exchanged during these ceremonies vary, depending on region and religion. Rice, tea, sugar cane, incense sticks and candles are common gifts given by the bride’s family in some areas while clothing or jewelry may be offered in others. Others incorporate religious customs by exchanging items thought to bring good luck and protection from evil spirits.

Families arrange ghost marriages for various reasons, including protecting unmarried daughters from becoming “hungry ghosts” – spirits believed to haunt young women who die without being married or bearing children – as well as providing companionship for those who passed away. It is also often done to restore balance between two families through marriage following a tragedy like losing a child.

Over time, cultural attitudes towards death have changed leading to fewer ghost marriages taking place today; however its purpose remains largely undiminished within Chinese society – honoring ancestral deities and offering comfort during times of grief and loss.

Contemporary Practices

Ghost marriage continues to be practiced in China today, although the practices have changed from their ancient roots. Modern ghost marriages often involve an exchange of money or goods, as well as a ceremony, and are still popular in rural areas as a way to keep families connected. In contrast to historical traditions, modern ghost marriages are more likely to be between two deceased people rather than one living person and a deceased person.

Some people also practice ghost marriage out of respect for their ancestors or bridge the gap between two families. This can include uniting two families who have lost someone close, such as siblings marrying each other’s spouses after death. There are now laws in place that regulate who can be married in a ghost marriage, such as the requirement that both parties must have been dead for at least three years before the ceremony takes place.

Despite these regulations, there is still some controversy surrounding modern ghost marriage due to its association with illegal activities such as human trafficking and forced labor. In addition, some argue that it violates traditional Chinese values by disrupting familial hierarchy and disregarding filial piety towards ancestors.

Nevertheless, contemporary practices of ghost marriage exist alongside more traditional methods of honoring those who have passed away or connecting two families through ancestral lines. It is an ever-evolving tradition that continues to shape Chinese culture today despite changing attitudes towards death and mourning practices over time.

Cultural Implications

Ghost marriage has been an important part of Chinese culture for centuries and continues to shape modern Chinese society in subtle ways. In traditional Chinese culture, the practice was seen as a way to ensure the deceased had an afterlife and proper burial, as well as a way to negotiate or reaffirm power dynamics within family networks.

In recent years, there has been a shift in attitudes towards ghost marriage in China, with some viewing it as a violation of traditional values while others embrace it as a unique cultural tradition. This divide is largely due to the changing legal status of ghost marriage in China; while it is not illegal, there are laws regulating who can be married in this capacity.

The potential implications of ghost marriage on future generations are also worth considering. It is likely that intergenerational transmission of values associated with the practice will depend on how families view it today – whether they view it positively or negatively could determine whether these traditions are passed down through the generations.

Ultimately, although ghost marriage is no longer widely practiced today and its role in modern Chinese culture is somewhat unclear, this ancient tradition continues to shape our understanding of life and death and influence our views on family relationships and societal norms. As such, studying the history and current practices associated with ghost marriage can provide us with valuable insight into how modern-day Chinese society works.

Andrei Tapalaga

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Ghost marriage.

  • Last Updated: May 19, 2023
  • Read Time 6 mins

What is Ghost Marriage?

Ghost marriage is a rare type of posthumous marriage between a living and a deceased person or a ghost . In some societies, marriage can even occur between two deceased persons [3] . A ghost marriage typically occurs when a man died before he had the chance to continue his lineage. In such a case, the ghost of the man would have a marriage or more of a spiritual union with a woman, who would then bear his children [2] . Ghost marriages were customarily performed in the interest of a man who either remained unmarried or died without a son to pass on his name. [1]

ghost wedding definition

Examples of Societies that practice Ghost Marriage

The neur of africa.

The Neur is a pastoral society in Southern Sudan that was thoroughly studied by English anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard. In a Nuer society, if a man passes away without leaving an heir, one of his brother’s wives will marry the ghost of the deceased man, and the children they bear will be the deceased brother’s heirs. Additionally, a deceased person’s cattle is passed on to his son or his brother, in cases where he doesn’t have a son. However, this cattle is supposed to be used as a form of bridewealth for acquiring a new bride for the ghost of the deceased person [3]

In other variations of ghost marriage, a childless kinswoman may assume the role of a man and take a wife. In this situation, all children born to the wife will be regarded as the “children of the ghost” [3] .

The Atuot of Africa

The Atuot is a pastoral society in Southern Sudan that was studied by anthropologist John W. Burton. [3] . The Atuots practice a form of ghost marriage which is known as cuong [1] . Identical to the Nuer, the Atuot performed a ghost marriage for a man who died unmarried or without an heir, and any children the woman might have were treated as the deceased man’s legal heirs [3] . Burton also points out that if a man has a living daughter, the daughter might assume a male role and subsequently have a wife to leave the deceased man a future heir. The children born from this form of union, are called “the children of the ghost” [1] Burton also notes that children born out of this marriage face some stigma as they are frequently referred to as “orphans’ ‘. [3] .

According to Burton, a ghost marriage can be defined as a marriage union that takes place for the exchange of bridewealth cattle between the kin of the deceased person and the bride [1] . However, the Atuot themselves do not acknowledge the economic benefit of the exchange of cattle [3]. According to them, a ghost marriage simply serves to preserve the lineage of the deceased man [1] .

The Singaporean Chinese

Yin Ch’u (Ts’u) [Yinqu] or ghost marriage is a practice that belongs to the Singaporean Chinese [4] , which was studied by Marjorie Topley. The practice is common among the Cantonese, who also happen to be more open-minded about it. This occurs during a ceremony or series of ceremonies where two deceased people, or, less frequently, a living person and a deceased person, are wed. Whether the deceased kin was a man or a woman, these marriages typically take place in the home of the family, though occasionally a temple is used. Topley notes the following reasons why a ghost marriage takes place among the Chinese:

If a family is successful in finding a living wife for their unmarried deceased son, the family can acquire a grandson to ensure the continuity of the lineage [4] , as well as a living daughter-in-law who can assist in household duties [3] .

A Chinese custom states that the unhappy spirit of a deceased man may bring misfortunes to his brothers, regardless of their marital status. In such cases, a ghost marriage may help appease the spirit. Additionally, in Chinese culture , a younger brother should not marry before his older brother. Thus a family may arrange a ghost marriage to allow a younger brother to marry without incurring the anger of the departed brother’s spirit [4]

Ghost marriages among the Singaporean Chinese also helps strengthen familial bonds [4] . Topley observed that while ghost marriages to create social links were significantly more widespread in the past, he was unable to locate any examples of them at the time he conducted his study [3] .

The Japanese

Unlike the other instances of ghost marriage mentioned before, the Japanese practice takes a completely distinct shape. The spirit marries a doll rather than a living person. These dolls are referred to as “bride dolls”, however, there are also “groom dolls” that can be married to the spirits of departed women. In such unions, the living spouse was typically compensated financially. While there is a cultural concept that if a departed person’s spirit develops overly connected to a live person, the spirit may decide to call that living person’s soul into the spirit realm, the prospective bride deemed the cash reward extremely valuable. Additionally, such unions also served as a coping mechanism for the family and kin of the deceased, since it allowed for an exchange between the living and the dead. Offering a bride also attempts to comfort the deceased’s soul and guards against the spirit growing hostile of the living and inflicting disease and bad luck on their living kin [3] .

The idea of ghost marriage seems to be quite close to an old Greek custom called epikleros . During this type of marriage, a relative of the deceased man would hold in for him as the provisional owner of his assets until the woman who was married to his ghost gave birth to a son who would serve as his successor [3] .

[1] Burton, John W. “Ghost Marriage and the Cattle Trade among the Atuot of Southern Sudan.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 48, no. 4, 1978, pp. 398–405. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1158804. Accessed 18 Feb. 2023.

[2] Levirate and Sororate. (n.d.). https://laulima.hawaii.edu/access/content/user/millerg/ANTH_200/A200Unit2/LevirateSororate.html

[3] Schwartze, L. J. (2010). Grave Vows: A Cross-Cultural Examination of the Varying forms of Ghost Marriage among Five Societies. Nebraska Anthropologist. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1059&context=nebanthro

[4] Topley, Marjorie. “Ghost Marriages among the Singapore Chinese.” Cantonese Society in Hong Kong and Singapore (2011): 97- 100. https://www.academia.edu/49501210/ Ghost_Marriages_among_the_Singapore_Chinese

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Ghost Marriages – When ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ Isn’t Enough

Published Thursday, Mar. 10th, 2022

Written by Jessica Levey

3 modern examples of ghost marriage and the haunting history of marrying the dead, including posthumous marriage in China, France, and the Mormon Church here in the US. Learn about current traditions, including how a wedding with the deceased can create a family heir, unite spirit followers in the Celestial Kingdom, and more.

ghost wedding definition

F or some cautious souls, the looming commitment of marriage sends shudders down the spine. Staring into the eyes of another person, repeating a promise to love and honor them ‘until death do us part,’ is almost too much responsibility to bear. 

For others, a single lifetime together is but a beginning, a drop in the bucket of eternal love. These passionate souls want more than earthly marriage. They want forever . 

Then there are those souls who never have the opportunity to say ‘I do’ at all, for one reason or another. Those who are still alive sometimes find comfort in the incorporeal arms of another. And those who have died sometimes decide to haunt the mortal realm until they finally meet their perfect mate. 

Luckily for all of these die-hard romantics, there’s ghost marriage. 

What is ghost marriage?  ‘Ghost marriages’ are symbolic weddings held between two deceased people, or between a deceased person and a living partner. These spooky ceremonies can be legally binding, spiritually binding, or both, and are arranged for a number of cultural, religious, and legal reasons.

To give you an idea of how it works, here are 3 modern examples of marrying the dead, from China, to France, to right here in the United States. 

3 Sweet & Spooky Examples of Ghost Marriages 

1. ghost marriage in china – practical to paranormal.

Marrying the dead has a long history in China, and the arrangements can vary from practical to paranormal. These ceremonies are similar to those between the living, including gifts, decorations, and a wedding officiant. While ghost marriages are less common in China than they once were, there are a few stories of modern ceremonies (and more than a few corpse thefts). 

In some regions, daughters who remained unmarried for too long were considered an embarrassment to their parents. These aging brides were frequently married off to the spirits of suitable men to spare them the unbearable fate of spinsterhood… This also benefited families who wished to continue their lineage despite the death of a male heir.

In other areas, tradition insisted that an older brother must marry before a younger brother, even if the older brother happened to be dead. Families would often marry these deceased siblings off to a suitable bride so that the younger men could get on with their courtships and nuptials. 

But Chinese ghost marriages aren’t only practical, sometimes they’re sweetly supernatural, too. When the spirit of a dead man contacts a medium (someone connected to the spirit realm) asking to marry, the medium can arrange a symbolic ceremony with a living bride… 

Proving, perhaps, that there’s always more time to find the love of your life… err… death?


2. France’s ‘Postmortem Matrimony’ – Love Cut Short 

Postmortem matrimony, also called posthumous marriage, became legal in France in the 1950s, following a terrible accident that killed the fiance of a would-be bride before the couple could wed. When the distraught woman confronted the local government, asking to marry her deceased lover, they agreed. 

The tradition of posthumous wedlock continued over the years, with hundreds of mourning partners petitioning the French President for the right to marry by proxy. For the wedding to take place, a couple must have been engaged before the death, and the President must forward the request along for approval by local officials and the family of the deceased. 

A graveyard cemetery at night, in moonlight with dark clouds above

3. Mormon Ancestral Sealings – Keys to the Celestial Kingdom  

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the LDS Church or Mormon Church, also practices a type of ‘spirit marriage,’ to offer believers a chance to spend eternity in the Celestial Kingdom. Here’s how it works…

The LDS Church views marriage as an eternal bond, meaning that when two people decide to marry in the eyes of the Church, their souls are ‘sealed’ together forever. What’s more, joining with another in marriage is an essential requirement for getting into the highest levels of the Celestial Kingdom of Heaven – if someone isn't sealed to another, they can’t get in, and won’t be able to spend eternity with their family in Heaven. (Mormon sealings are a big deal!)

Unfortunately, not all couples have the opportunity to have their union sealed in their lifetime. That’s where marriage for the dead comes in: As a solution, younger generations perform posthumous sealings for their parents and other ancestors, offering them a ticket to a blissful afterlife.  

These posthumous sealings don’t just unite the couples, they also unite the entire family line. Temple sealings (marriages within the Church) bind generations together, too, connecting ancestral lines throughout the centuries.

Heavy stuff! 

To learn more about Mormon weddings for the dead:  Weddings for the Dead -- A look at Mormon posthumous sealings and proxy baptisms

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ghost wedding definition

Lead Staff Writer & Illustrator

Jessica loves exploring the history and magic of ritual, the connections between people and places, and sharing true stories about love and commitment. She's an advocate for marriage equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and individuality, and is an ordained Minister with AMM. When she’s not writing or illustrating for AMM, she enjoys city hikes, fantasy novels, comics, and traveling.

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ghost wedding definition

ghost marriage

English [ edit ].

ghost wedding definition

Noun [ edit ]

ghost marriage ( plural ghost marriages )

  • Marriage with a dead person or between dead people.

ghost wedding definition

Locations of d emand and supply

On the supply side, the provinces with the highest supply of corpses were also Shanxi and Shaanxi (32.6% and 24.4%, respectively), followed by Henan (18.6%). Shanxi and Shaanxi topped both supply and demand lists. In terms of GDP, these two provinces were the poorest ethnic Han provinces. Although Inner Mongolia and Ningxia are also poor, they are ethnic minority-run self-autonomous regions. They are not ethnic-Han dominated, and thus the culture of ghost marriages may not be implanted into the culture of the ethnic minority groups.

Another observation is that quite a large number of crimes (18.6%) were committed in Henan; however, this area did not have a high demand for corpses, probably because Henan is a highly populated province that neighbours Shanxi and Shaanxi, the two provinces with a high demand for corpses (Table 5 ).

Locations of Buyers

When we investigated the specific locations of buyers, we found that approximately two-thirds came from villages (62.5%) (Table 6 ).

Prices of Corpses and Victims

Matching for the dead used to be free, but it costs more now than matching the living, ranging from several thousand to ten thousand RMB due to the lack of supply (Liu, 2009 ). Overall, our data reveal that the prices differ greatly among the corpses, ranging from RMB1,125 to RMB135,000, with an average price of RMB23,913. For living persons, the prices ranged from RMB14,000 to RMB70,000, with an average price of RMB 26,333 (Table 7 ). Interestingly, the fact that the average price for a living person is approximately the same as for a corpse suggests that perhaps majority of consumers may not favour living persons as this involves a highly serious crime: murder. As reported by Liu ( 2009 ), in the ghost bride market, the prices of the goods (corpses) are also dependent on age, whether they are dried or wet goods, and body type, such as wounds, intact or missing parts, or being in a state of decomposition. Among the 254 corpses and victims, 22% were resold by one buyer to another buyer (Table 8 ), indicating that they were treated as a commodity in the business market.

Case Study 1

To clarify the criminal business network of the ghost bride market, the GWC case is used as an illustration. As reported by Liu ( 2009 ), on 14 November 2006, a family in Nanzhuang Village spent RMB14,000 (see Fig.  2 ) for a ghost bride for a companion burial for their 53-year old son, GWC, who died from a car accident. The incident became involved in the case of serial killing. The killer, MUR, was a farmer. Between March and December of 2006, in order to sell corpses, MUR killed six individuals. The ghost bride of the GWC family was the fourth victim. This case exposed the market for ghost brides and a long supply chain. In this case, the ghost bride is the fourth place in the chain as the body had been resold twice.

figure 2

Criminal business network of case 1

The ghost bride was eventually delivered to the GWC family by GM1 for RMB14,000. Once GM1 heard that GWC family was looking for a ghost bride, GM1 was initially planning to sell the “dried good” (a body that is long dead, likely stolen from a grave) to the GWC family for RMB5,000 but the family declined, because it would be unfitting for their child. GM1 agreed to continue searching and to deliver a corpse by the day of the burial. GM1 got a “wet good” (fresh corpse) from another matchmaker, GM2, for RMB8,500 and managed to deliver it on time. GM2 bought the “good” from MUR, the killer, for RMB3,700. The person that connected GM1 with the GWC family was their nephew, NN, who received RMB1,000 from GM1 in return, as a referral fee (Fig.  2 ).

As reported by Liu ( 2009 ), MUR has been in the upstream portion of the “ghost bride” chain for the past 10 years. The ghost brides that he initially provided came from grave robberies. In 2006, MUR strangled a mentally handicapped female in the woods around the outskirts of the village by luring her with food. He brought the body home in a bag and buried it under a dog ranch in the dark. The other murder cases were committed in similar ways. Moreover, the ghost matchmakers originally worked as normal matchmakers, but after they discovered the new market for “ghost brides”, they changed occupations (Liu, 2009 ). As shown in Fig.  2 , ghost matchmakers are situated at the central nodes of the criminal business networks. For instance, GM1 and GM2, utilising their social capital gained from the market, found the required “ghost bride” provider and the buyer.

Case Study 2

The crime occurred in a family in Shaanxi Province, which had adopted a baby girl many years ago. In 2013, the victim’s (i.e. the girl’s) mother asked her uncle to help her find a partner. The victim was aged 19 years at the time and was physically and mentally handicapped. The victim’s uncle asked matchmaker 1 to help him, but was unsuccessful. Matchmaker 1 asked matchmaker 2, who asked matchmaker 3 to help the victim get married. Matchmaker 3 asked leaders 1 and 2 for help. Leader 2 asked matchmaker 4 for help. At the same time, a family in Shanxi Province wanted their deceased son to ghost-marry and contacted matchmaker 4. The family indicated that wanted to offer RMB60,000 for the ghost marriage. Leaders 1 and 2, matchmakers 2, 3, and 4 all worked together to plan the ghost marriage.

Matchmaker 4 explained that the deceased’s family wanted a “dead body from the morgue” with an ID card, and a death certificate or other authorisation documents. Leader 1 approached a local hospital to make a fake death certificate and leader 2 was asked to raise money for the transaction (Fig.  3 ). He managed to raise RMB30,000 from various sources. Leader 1, and matchmakers 1 and 2 brought the victim’s identity documents to the hospital. Matchmaker 1 lied saying that she was the victim’s grandmother, and bribed hospital worker 1 and a doctor, so that the doctor would issue the death certificate. Hospital worker 1 told the doctor that his friend’s son had passed away and that he needed a death certificate. Leader 1 went to the doctor to give the victim’s identity documents and lied that he was the victim’s family member, and that the victim had passed away and needed a death certificate. The doctor did not check whether leader 1 was telling the truth and just issued the requested death certificate. For ease of work, hospital worker 2 stamped and authenticated the death certificate without checking. Both hospital worker 1 and the doctor received RMB1,000 as a service fee.

figure 3

Criminal business network in case study 2

Matchmaker 3 prepared a transaction agreement for the ghost marriage. Leaders 1 and 2 and matchmakers 1 and 2 visited the victim’s family in Shaanxi Province. The victim’s uncle received RMB30,000 from the criminals and gave RMB20,000 to the victim’s parents, and RMB10,000 to the criminals as an agent fee. The victim’s father signed the agreement, implying that all involved parties agreed on the wedding. The victim was taken away by the criminals to the hospital in Shaanxi Province (Fig.  3 ). On the way, leader 1, assisted by matchmaker 2, unsuccessfully attempted to kill the victim. Leader 2 and matchmaker 1 simply did not participate in the killing. When the criminals arrived at the hospital, they wanted to place the victim temporarily in the morgue but hospital worker 1 refused. The criminals continued onward to meet the deceased’s family in Shanxi Province for the ghost marriage, but they were caught and arrested on the way. They were found guilty of various offences and were sentenced in court as shown in Table 9 . The following is a reflective summary of their roles in the ghost marriage.

Leaders 1 and 2 received the most severe punishment, indicating that they were the mastermind and linchpin of the entire crime operation, respectively. They had intimate understanding of what they had to do to complete the ghost marriage. Based on the swiftness of the initial hospital visit, it is likely that they harnessed fraud and bribery as the main tactics to commit their crime. Their use of bribery and providing convincing actors in their fraudulent act highlights their knowledge of playing the game. However, leader 1’s failed murder attempt and leader 2’s insistence not to participate in the murder show that they likely did not have much experience committing violent crime.

Matchmakers 1 and 2 were specialised in arranging ghost brides. As matchmaker 1 enlisted the help of matchmaker 2, it is likely that they had a mutual understanding around operating their agency. Based on their role in the hospital visit operation, it is clear that they were willing to go to any lengths to commit the crime, even if it was fraudulent. Matchmaker 2’s willingness to help murder the victim exacerbated his motivation for the monetary gain they were to receive for a successful job. The duration of their sentence, which was comparatively longer than that of the other matchmakers involved reflects their criminality.

The initial communication between matchmakers 3 and 4 and the two leaders shows the existence of social capital among them. The two matchmakers limited their participation in the operation only to the legitimate side, suggesting their unwillingness to be involved in the crime. This was confirmed by their non-participation during the transfer of victims. However, the punishments they received demonstrate their sense of naivety in the risk faced by the ghost bride market.

The victim’s parents’ role in the crime is reflective of their desperate need for money and inability to take care of the handicapped victim anymore. The fact that the victim’s mother asked her uncle to organise a courtship for the victim suggests that he had large social capital and connections with local people. That the victim’s family knew that they would be selling their daughter, who was alive, into a ghost marriage solidifies the idea that ghost marriages survive in conservative areas of rural China.

The hospital workers were able to issue an official death certificate without authenticating the identity or the death of the deceased. This highlights the bureaucracy and corruptibility prevailing in the hospital system. Though they received the bribe and falsified the documents, the fact that their criminal sanctions were waived by the authorities exhibits tolerance of such misbehaviour in the medical field.

Entrepreneurial opportunities for the ghost bride market are created through the interaction of regional, cultural, and economic factors, as well as the availability of a social and business network that facilitates the exchange of information on supply and demand. It occurs in a region where traditional Chinese folklore is still widely practiced in rural areas. Ghost marriages have been practiced for centuries, but the trading of corpses to serve this end occurred only in recent decades when the Chinese economy prospered. Thus, the operation of ghost bride market is financially and culturally driven. Ghost bride–induced crimes meet the definition of market-based crimes (Naylor, 2003 , p.85) that consist of several elements: production and/or distribution of illegal goods and services; multilateral exchanges between producers, distributors, and retailers on the supply side, willing consumers on the demand side, an underground network; difficulty defining a victim; income earned by suppliers; cash transfers; fair market value; and ambiguous morality.

Ghost bride–induced crimes start with a demand in a culturally specific market—rural areas in Central China, where its economy is rising but still under-developed when compared with the coastal region. As the trading of corpses is absolute contraband, only a black market, not a parallel market, exists. The black market is institutionally and legally condemned but culturally supported. It serves as a venue where supply meets demand or vice versa, and prices are set according to market forces (Spapens, 2010 ). Sometimes, the quality of the corpse, such as fresh or dry bodies, determines the price. Within this black market, the acquisition of products (corpses or victims) involves different illegal means, including kidnapping, murder, bodily harm, tomb robbery, and corpse stealing. The products are then transferred across cities and provinces through various means.

Based upon this study, the criminal groups that supply corpses are relatively small in structure. Occasionally, only individual criminals were involved (34.5%, Table 2 B). Thus, the market can be described as a business network of individual entrepreneurs and independent, smaller criminal groups, but not Triad-type criminal organisations (Lo & Kwok, 2013 , 2014 ). The profits involved in trading are modest and widely dispersed among network participants. Within the small criminal groups, the ring leaders work with a small number of unskilled criminals to assist in the crime. Once the corpses are acquired, trading is facilitated by brokers or other agents, such as the clients’ relatives and neighbours. The finding that about a quarter of the identified corpses’ grave or residence was in the same neighbourhood as the criminals’ residence suggests that ethnicity and neighbourhood play important roles in collaboration between criminals and brokers (Ianni & Reuss-Ianni, 1972 ). The nature of these small criminal groups makes them highly adaptable to the dynamic and ever-changing market environment. This finding is in line with previous research on Asian human smuggling and prostitution gangs which are characterised by a small organisational structure and independent and strong ties with local communities (Chin & Finckenauer, 2012 ; Zhang & Chin, 2002 ) (Table 10 ).

The operation of the ghost bride market is created as a result of market forces, with element of human connections (Fiorentini and Peltzman, 1995 ; Spapens, 2010 ). Within the networks, there is no restriction in membership, and economic relations precede social relations. Members’ participation is more likely to be opportunistic and financially driven who may not share similar criminal attributes and skills as shown in the two case studies. The criminals are entrepreneurs aiming at maximizing their financial benefit but not seeking other influences (Spapens, 2010 ).

Consisting of both legal and criminal operators, the network is facilitated by brokers, or ghost matchmakers, with market information and entrepreneurship. On the demand side, the information suppliers can be any ordinary person, such as the clients themselves, their relatives, neighbours, or hospital workers who pass on the supply information (e.g. someone passed away in hospital) to the matchmakers. On the supply side, however, they are criminals who are engaged in kidnapping, murder, or tomb robbery. It is interesting to know that the local hospitals’ morgues have become a supply platform for the trading of ghost brides. As reported by Liu ( 2009 ), a weird phenomenon at the funeral homes occurred, where most of the bodies that were cremated were males. Since women’s corpses can be sold, few were brought in for cremation. Based on the data collected, we suggest that the structure for a “one-stop service” may be available for ghost marriage—the service begins from the second the death is pronounced, the information flows from hospital support workers, to the unit managing the funeral, to the brokers or ghost matchmakers, and then to the family in need (Liu, 2017 ).

There are no fixed boundaries for business networks that can cross cities and provinces. A female victim may be kidnapped and murdered or a female corpse may be dug out from a tomb in one province and transferred to a buyer in another province. Within the networks, ghost matchmakers usually have abundant knowledge of the males and females within the villages nearby, and they match both the dead and the alive. By acting as brokers, they fill the structural holes (Burt, 1992 ), connecting otherwise disconnected networks. In other words, they connect criminals and clients. Situated at the central node of the network, they have the greatest connectivity to other partners and thus have access to most information on supply, demand, and pricing. They cooperate with each other but may or may not directly or actively participate in the crime. However, since the trading of corpses is illegal in China, the brokers are also criminals.

Chinese criminals are exceptional in developing entrepreneurship using guanxi (Jiang et al., 2012 ; Lo & Kwok, 2017 ). The present study demonstrates how a ghost bride market is created as a result of established historical culture and takes place in specific geographical regions of China. Ghost marriages have existed for a long time and have a direct relationship with folk sorcery, which is not uncommon among rural people who believe in the existence of ghosts and spirits. The sorcery is promoted by ghost matchmakers, who use feng shui and other fortune-telling methods to settle the occurrence of disasters and indirectly maintain and spread the mysterious and spiritual culture. When they discover the death of a male in a household, they bring together and promote ghost matching, profiting from the ghost bride business. The existence of these brokers and their numbers depend on the demands of the rural market (Huang, 2009 ). The present study confirms Skinner’s ( 1964–1965 ) classical research that considers geography and history in the establishment of trading networks in rural China. It also supports previous research that culture can shape economic behaviour and institutions, and that a market is an interaction between economic and cultural factors (Gudeman, 1986 ; Halperin, 1988 ; Lie, 1997 ). In addition, the ghost bride market can explain the actual social and economic lives in China’s rural areas. The present study shows that ghost bride–induced crimes often occur in poorer provinces, as reflected by their relatively lower GDP. Most importantly, the majority of those used in ghost bride marriages were women. While ghost marriages create a market of supply and demand in booming rural China, the market also indicates income and gender inequality behind the crime.

In traditional Chinese beliefs, the problem of malign wandering spirits is attributed to both males and females, but the study found that gender distinction exists. Considering the continuing patriarchal systems in rural China, ghost marriages favour males. Death of an unmarried and childless male cuts off his family tree, resulting in the loss of his family’s property. After his ghost marriage, his family can adopt a child to become their new heir, continuing the family line. Therefore, the ancestral tribute and property inheritance system of the village community is the root of the custom of ghost marriage favouring male (Chen and Chen, 2012 ; Huang, 2009 ), which sparks a market of ghost brides.

Interpretations of research results should be tempered by the methodological limitation in which only aggregate court records were used for analysis. As a result, the court data do not allow us to conduct scientific social network analysis, such as the calculation of network density and network stability. Since no field interviews were engaged with a view of teasing out the grip on people’s mind of the folklore notion, the existing court data may limit our socio-cultural interpretations of the ghost bride market in the emerging economic market of rural China.

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This work was supported by the Hong Kong Research Grant Council under the General Research Fund No. CityU 11607319.

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Lo, T.W. Ghost Brides and Crime Networks in Rural China. Asian J Criminol 17 , 371–389 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11417-022-09367-6

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