The tale, over a century old, starts simply: A researcher asks a former governor why he keeps moving his arms, as if swinging bells.
The answer: vampires.
Dutch demonologist Jan Jakob Maria de Groot was researching China's supernatural history in 1907 when he interviewed "Tsiang," who claimed to be a governor of a town in Pehchihli (most likely modern-day Hebei) that was under siege from a kiang shi, or Chinese vampire—jiangshi ("stiff corpse") in modern Romanization.
These "living corpses" de Groot explains, "break forth from their tombs and satiate their cravings for human blood."
Pehchihli was apparently under siege from a creature "soaring through the air, to devour the infants of the people." Despite people locking their doors at nightfall, children were going missing. The town pooled money for a Daoist magician, who set up his altar on an auspicious day. Tsiang demanded to know how, precisely, he planned to stop this marauding vampire.
"Corpse specters generally fear very much the sound of jingles and hand-gongs," the magician told him. "When the night comes, you must watch the moment when the spectre flies out, and forthwith enter the grave with two big bells." But there were risks: "Do not stop ringing them, for a short pause will give suffice for the corpse to enter the grave, and you will then be the sufferer."
At midday, a crowd gathered and trapped the kiang shi in their midst. As the magician performed his rites, the governor doggedly pursued the vampire, ringing his bell until the crowd had burned the stiff corpse. "Both my arms then remained in constant motion, and they have been diseased like this to this day," he explained to de Groot.
Echoes of legends of the Eastern European vampire did not escape the Dutch researcher (Bram Stoker's seminal Dracula had been published just a decade before). De Groot mused on the similarities, including the fact that both varieties are vulnerable to fire.
The Dutchman was one of several foreign researchers looking into China's menagerie of myth and lore. Throughout the late 19th century, he traveled through China collecting information, basing himself in present-day Xiamen, Fujian province, with a few tours to other regions. A few years later, Henry Doré, a French researcher, would build upon de Groot's work in his writings on Chinese witchcraft and charms, including details on summoning spirits and Chinese concepts of Hell.
De Groot's research became a series of books, The Religion of the Chinese, detailing the evolution of Chinese spiritual practices from the various forms of animism through to organized religious rites, be they uplifting or macabre. Many of his findings were from historical texts; others were based on conversations with Chinese about their beliefs and superstitions. It was from the latter exchanges that many of his best creepy-crawly stories emerge, fodder for Grimm-style fairy tales, albeit with Chinese characteristics and not intended for children.
The vast majority of supernatural creatures were shape-shifting demons; one of de Groot's works has separate chapters dedicated to water, earth, and plant demons, and different types of animal demons such as tiger, dog, insect, and even bird demons. In many cases, these shape-shifters are omens, taking bestial form right before a gruesome death takes place.
Much as wolves and their lycanthrope counterpart stalked the forest, mountains, and villages of European imaginations, Chinese were-beasts took their most fearsome form in the native tiger. The similarities, de Groot notes, are striking: "A wound inflicted on a were-beast is believed in China to be visible also on the corresponding part of its body when it has re-assumed the human shape. This is also a trait of our own lycanthropy," he writes of "tiger-demons," referred to here as chu tu-shi.