Women in Pre–1947 Chinese and Indian Horror Fiction and Film11 min read

Resize text-+=

From the beginning women have played a central role in horror fiction and film in India and China — not just as victims, but as protagonists, and even as villains.

Following the introduction of the printing press in the late 18th century and the rapid dissemination of printing presses early in the 19th century, the Indian publishing industry flourished, especially in the Bengal. A variety of genres of fiction and non–fiction were popular, everything from ordinary almanacs to epics like the Ramayana to books on homeopathy to detective thrillers. These publications were cheap in appearance and paid the writers little, but were enormously popular with the newly literate population. Detective fiction and crime thrillers in particular became hugely popular beginning in the early 1870s. As was the case internationally, the boundaries between genres in Indian genre fiction were porous, and a number of detective novels were published with horror elements.

Typical among these were were Panchkori Dey’s two novels, Mayabi (1902) and Mayabini (1928), about the superhumanly–powered femme fatale Jumelia. In the first novel Jumelia is the crafty, vicious partner of Phulbabu, a criminal mastermind, and the pair carry out a series of murders and dismemberments in Hugli district and Kolkata; ultimately they are defeated (and Phulbabu killed) by the Holmesian detective Arindam Bosu. In the second novel Jumelia, now on her own, duels with the Indian police officer Debendra Bijoy Mitra. The horror elements in these novels are pronounced: in the first novel Jumelia and Phulbabu are conscienceless and merciless in their treatment of innocents; in the second novel the horror takes on mystical overtones as Jumelia uses her yoga–given powers to shapeshift, steal, and to (unsuccessfully) seduce Mitra.

Jumelia was popular with readers–understandably so, given her independence from caste rules and her enjoyably ruthless approach to crime–and inspired imitators. Jumelia in fact created an ongoing archetype in Indian detective fiction: the ruthless female master criminal who acts free of the restrictions of Indian society and who will commit any enormity in the pursuit of her prize. A typical Jumelia imitator appears in the the pseudonymously–written “Sorolakkho Hom” stories (1902–1905). Sorolakko Hom is a typical Sherlock Holmes lift, fighting characters both Indian (including an Indian Professor Moriarty) and English. However, the Irene Adler analogue is clearly influenced by Jumelia, including the use of yoga–given magic powers and her attraction to Hom.

More memorable was Junilla, in Devaraju Narayana Rao’s print serial “Vādē Vīdu” (1912). Like Jumelia, Junilla is a femme fatale, fighting a Holmesian detective in Kolkata, and like Jumelia Junilla is spirited, resourceful, intelligent, and capable of a number of dark deeds in pursuit of money. More female characters in the Jumelia mode would appear through the 1920s and 1930s, with the ultimate version of this character appearing, in various iterations, in Swapan Kumar’s famous “Deepak Chatterjee” novels of the 1950s and 1960s.

Of course, not all Indian women in Indian detective/horror fiction were villains. In Arani Kuppuswami Mudaliar’s “Patmācani” novels (1917–1918), Patmācani is an amateur detective who solves various horrible murders in Mumbai.

Although a great deal of Indian popular culture and religious stories have science fictional elements–some quite substantial–science fiction in India did not begin to develop until the late 1870s, when editions and translations of Jules Verne began to be published in India. One notable early example of Indian science fiction is Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s “Sultana’s Dream” (1905). Set in a future, women–dominated utopia called “Ladyland,” “Sultana’s Dream” is about the conflict between the women of Ladyland, who are the scientists of the country, and the men, who rebel against the women and form an army but are defeated by the science of the women and forced to retreat into purdah. A similar utopian sentiment appears in Tekumalla Raja Gopala Rao’s Vihanga Yanam (1910), in which the Indian woman Padmavati designs and creates a technologically–advanced submarine, not unlike Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, and travels to the bottom of the sea. She gathers an enormous amount of wealth from shipwrecks and uses this money to transform Indian into a techno–utopia. Less common, but far from rare, is horror in Indian science fiction, such as Dick Dias’ play Kali’s Daughter (1942), in which the titular femme fatale is the leader of a new cult of Thuggee, this one armed with technologically–advanced weapons. Kali’s Daughter encourages her followers to commit murders for the glory of Kali and to foment rebellion against the English, towards the goal of establishing a Kali–dominated empire in India. (Matters end badly for the Daughter and her fellow cultists).

The Indian film industry began in the 1910s, and by the 1930s was well–established. Despite working in comparatively primitive conditions — outside of the larger cities film distributors went from village to village showing films from the back of carts — Indian film makers showed great imagination in the making of various genre films, and film became an extremely popular medium. During the 1930s adventure films were a popular genre with the Indian audience. The archetypal role for women in film during the decade was not in the role of wife or mother, but in the role of a Zorro–esque costumed avenger. The archetypal example of this figure was Homi Wadia’s Hunterwali (four films, 1935–1942). Princess Madhuri’s father is imprisoned by Madhuri’s frustrated suitor, forcing Madhuri to put on a mask, take up a whip, and become the Robin Hood–like “Hunterwali.”


But not all these films were innocent action–adventure films. Many had overtones of horror. J.B.H. Wadia’s Miss Frontier Mail (1936) has the heroine, Savita Devi (played by Fearless Nadia, the Indian Angelina Jolie), fighting against a wicked masked criminal who terrorizes the west coast of India with his technologically–advanced weapons. Wadia’s Hurricane Hansa (1937) has a merchant’s daughter abandoned after her mother dies and forced to become an Untouchable, suffering the horrors of deprivation before becoming an adult and becoming the costumed Hurricane Hansa, enemy of the wicked. A similar fate befalls the titular protagonist in K. Amarnath’s Minnalkodi (1937), whose female lead, left homeless, takes on the identity of a ruthless, lethal gang leader and exercises a reign of terror in her region. And Saudamini, in Narottam Vyas’ Amar Jyoti (1936), is a princess whose kingdom and son are taken away from her by the machinations of an evil minister, forcing Saudamini to become a pirate not unlike the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Following the first showing in India of the Henry McRae “Tarzan” film Tarzan the Tiger (1929) in 1930, Tarzan and Tarzan–style films became popular in India, with a number of Indian knockoffs being produced. Films with female Tarzans were no less popular than films with male Tarzans; typical among them is Sundarao Nadkarni’s Kalika No Kop (1930), in which a beautiful Indian woman is raised in the jungles of India and falls in love with a prince, who goes native for her. Many of these films had horror overtones; G.P. Pawar’s Mastikhor Mashuq (1932) emphasizes the innocence of the protagonist, Angel, and then her loss of innocence on being exposed to civilization, and Homi Wadia’s Jungle Princess (1942), with a similar plot, emphasizes the danger of the animals to everyone except Mala, the titular princess.

Despite the prevalence of horror elements in the fiction and film of other genres, horror was not a particularly common genre in fiction or in film during this period. However, there were some examples which stand out. R.S. Choudhury’s Neera (1926) is set centuries ago, in a primitive section of India. A wicked Kali–worshiper uses his evil magics to kill the tribals and take their land. The innocent and pure Neera, the daughter of a temple priest, uses her good magics to defend the tribals and fight the Kali–worshiper and ultimately defeat him. Mohan Dayaram Bhavnani’s Zambo (1937), a Tarzan–style film, has a well–meaning Indian scientist transform a gorilla into a human being. Horror and comedy mix together as the gorilla learns to become a human being and begins acting like Tarzan. And Hemendra Kumar Ray’s duology, Bishal Gurer Dhushaasan (1944) and Mohonpurer Shaasan (1947), features two vampires: an Indian Dracula (in both films) and an Indian female vampire, based on J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” (1872), in the second film.


In China, the presence of genres in popular culture is centuries–old, with everything from mimetic fiction to wüxia (martial arts) being published as early as the 13th century. Arguably the first horror fiction in Chinese literature, Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, was compiled in the 1670s (although it was not published for several decades). By the time the Chinese film industry emerged, in the 1910s, horror was an accepted part of the genre landscape, and was a more discrete and articulated genre than in India. But as in India, women played a central role in Chinese horror.

Horror was a more discrete and articulated genre in Chinese popular culture before World War Two than in India during that time period, but as in India women played a central role in Chinese horror. And as in India horror was both a separate genre and the provider of elements to other genres. Horror–comedy was well–represented. Yeung Kung Leong’s film Cha Li Yu Xie Qing Gui (1939), was a remake of Norman McLeod’s Topper (1937) (itself a remake of Thorne Smith’s Topper (1926)). In it two lovers who are separated by their families die of broken hearts. After death they become mischievous ghosts, using their powers to frighten people, including a groom, a policeman, and a man in a dance hall. Only a hapless romantic, Charlie, wins the ghosts’ goodwill, and they use their powers to help him.

Science fiction films as well made use of horror. In the film Patriotism and the Mad Scientist (1935) the titular mad scientist carries out inhuman experiments on innocent civilians in the countryside around Shanghai. However, when the Japanese invade he is convinced by a patriotic Chinese woman to help his country, and the movie ends with him vowing to use his mad science and his technologically–advanced weapons against the Japanese.

Even wüxia films made use of horror elements. In Fung Chi–Kong and Hung Chung–ho’s Shenyna Emei (1940) the Chinese countryside is terrorized by both bandits and corrupt and traitorous government officials, forcing the female monk “Magic Eye” to use her supernatural powers and martial abilities to fight against them.

Most often horror films stayed purely within the horror genre. Following the showing, in China in 1935, of Tod Browning’s 1931 film adaptation of Dracula, Western–style vampires (as opposed to the traditional “hopping” vampires of Chinese legend) became a popular subject in Chinese film. In Yeung Kung Leong’s film Wuyi Jiangshi (1936) a father dies, leaving an unclear will, and his two sons and his daughter fight over the inheritance. The older brother sets a trap and burns the younger brother and his sister to death and then throws the bodies into the sea. The following midnight the pair come back to life as vampires and kill their murderous brother. In the film Sanqian Nian Didi Jiangshi (1939), a three thousand year–old female vampire rules a subterranean kingdom full of demons and sends them out onto the surface world to terrorize and conquer humanity. In Leong Wai–man’s Guiwu Jiangshi (1939) a group of beautiful women vampires roam the streets of Hong Kong, attacking and killing innocent and unwary men.

Other supernatural creatures appeared in Chinese films at this time. In Fok Yin and Wong Toi’s Wanli Xinghsi (1939) a Chinese zombie roams the Hunan countryside in search of beautiful young women who he can sling over his shoulders, take to his lair, and eat. And in Wong Toi’s Guwyu Yuanhun (1939) the Chinese countryside is plagued by a series of ghosts who have escaped from Hell to haunt the living. One of the ghosts tries to rape beautiful women, one suffered from injustice in life and has been released from Hell to gain vengeance, and one of the ghosts is a female suicide out to avenge herself on her faithless husband. (Eventually all the ghosts are returned to Hell).

As with India, not all Chinese horror was of the fantastic variety. Some was mimetic and mundane, if no less horrible. In the film serial Hong Xia (1929) Yun Mei, a beautiful young Chinese peasant, is victimized when a bandit army destroys her village, kills her grandfather, and kidnaps her. The serial rapist chief of the bandits rapes Yun Mei, who is then rescued by White Monkey, a Daoist hermit. White Monkey takes Yun to his cave headquarters in the Emei mountains and teaches her various marital skills and magical powers. Yun Mei uses her abilities to avenge her grandmother’s death and rescue other women threatened with or victimized by rape by the bandit chief. A similar theme appeared in Gao Xiping’s wüxia film Wunu Fuchou (1928), in which five women are raped by bandits and evil men, and learn martial arts and gain magic abilities and use them to avenge themselves.

In Qian Xingcun’s play Mingmo Yihen (1939) Ge Nenniang, a beautiful Nanjing courtesan, becomes involved in fighting against the Manchu forces who are overthrowing the Qing Dynasty. Defeat and brutalization follow defeat, and at the end, when Ge Nenniang is captured, she bites her tongue and spits blood in the face of the Manchu general who has captured her, before her execution. There is no fantasy or science fiction or magical elements in Mingmo Yihen, just a metaphor for the Chinese struggle against the Japanese, and a reminder of the brutalities that Chinese civilians were suffering at the hands of the Japanese.

Indeed, horror was so well–implanted in Chinese popular culture at this time that it anticipated modern American horror films in the use of series and in the use of metafiction and commentar on the genre itself. A series of “spirit of” films appeared in 1938 and 1939, including Yeung Tin–Lok’s Guancai Jing (The Spirit of the Coffin, 1939) and Wang Fuqing’s Saoba Jing (The Spirit of the Broom, 1939). In the latter the Broom Ghost is a malign spirit who every night transforms into a femme fatale and seduces young men and kills them. She is responsible for hundreds of deaths before she is taken down. These films, and the relatively exploitative (for the era) way that they approached horror–purely as amoral entertainment, rather than as films with a positive moral message–led horror movie veteran Wong Toi to make the film Zhong Kui Zhuo Gui (1939). Zhong Kui is an eccentric “ghost catcher” who makes a living by traveling from town to town and catching bothersome or evil ghosts and putting them in his magic sack. Among the ghosts that Zhong Kui captures are the Spirit of the Coffin and the Broom Ghost, in Wong Toi’s commentary and critique on his fellow film makers.

The ultimate in Chinese horror series before World War Two, however, and arguably the best Chinese horror films (with the exception of Ma Xu Weibang’s Ye Ban Ge Sheng (1937), a remake of The Phantom of the Opera), are Wang Fuqing’s two “Lady Ghost” films, Nu Sheqinggui (1939) and Xu Nu Sheqinggui (1939). Lady Ghost is a ghostly killer vigilante. In the first film a man and his daughter are murdered, leaving the wife and mother to mourn. She vows vengeance, but knows that she cannot achieve it as she is, so she goes to a cemetery of unmarked graves and lies in a coffin for forty-nine days to achieve the powers of a ghost. This achieved, she uses her new powers to find and kill the man who murdered her husband and daughter, and then proceeds to give herself up to the police. In the sequel, an adulterous wife and her lover attempt to drive insane and murder the wife’s husband. The lover even attempts to rape the husband’s daughter (by a previous marriage). To save the husband and the daughter, the husband’s servant magically summons Lady Ghost, who promptly kills both the wife and her lover.

Looking for more?

Support Apex Magazine on Patreon

Apex Magazine Ko-fi

$4 funds 50 words of Apex Magazine fiction!