The Chinese term gui3 (Cantonese gwai, Taiwanese kui2) is often translated "ghost" in English. Since it appears in some pejorative ethnic terms that are becoming better and better known to the world at large, I thought it would be useful to explain what the term actually means in Chinese. English "ghost" doesn't quite capture the malefic flavor of the Chinese word, and "devil" is sometimes used instead.

The best known example is "foreign devil" (Chinese yang2-gui3-zi; the term "white devil", by the way, doesn't seem to have any connection to Chinese). "Foreign devil" can refer to any non-Chinese, but especially to those from overseas. In popular Chinese understanding, the 6 Western states (England, France, Russia, Germany, Portugal, and America) that were involved in the Opium Wars are prime examples of foreign devils, as is Japan. By extension, however, the word can mean non-Chinese from outside of China's borders or cultural area. The Cantonese word gwailo (also spelled gweilo) "devil-man" is common in Hong Kong in the same sense, although given Hong Kong's colonial history, gwailo refers especially to English and Americans.

"Hungry ghost" (e4-gui3) has no such ethnic tinge. In a religious context, this term is especially associated with the Ullambana festival (also called "the Feast of Hungry Ghosts"), at which all wandering spirits are supposed to be appeased. But in ordinary life, "hungry ghost" is a term of abuse, applied to dishonest shopkeepers and officials, bus drivers who don't stop where they're supposed to, and leading members of opposing political factions. In the hierarchical world of Chinese society, an e4-gui3 is someone who harms others by maliciously not behaving as they are supposed to.

During the seventh lunar month, Taiwanese people are especially careful of what they call hao3 xiong1-di4, the "good brothers", who might be out and about. People avoid going swimming (you might be pulled under!), and offerings are made at temples and many places known to be dangerous or associated with deaths. The word gui3 is felt to be so fraught with bad omen that "good brothers" is a more comfortable subsitute. There are other words pronounced gui3 that are sometimes avoided, too.

Ullambana is a Buddhist, that is to say fundamentally Indian or Central Asian, religious rite. But China itself has a long tradition of attention to spirits. One of the central ideas in the conception of the gui3 is that the dead soul is unappeased in death, and still has issues to be resolved with the world of the living. Hence its danger. Gui3 may include anyone who died without being properly buried, such as soldiers and sailors whose bodies were not recovered, the victims of murder or other fatal wrong-doing (such as the young woman Dou E in the famous Yuan dynasty play), and women who have died without giving birth to a son.

This last category may shock you. But it is a central part of traditional Chinese society that a woman's obligation is to bear grandsons for her father-in-law. A woman who dies unmarried, or who marries but does not bear sons, is considered to become a gui3 unless certain rituals are carried out. For a girl or woman who dies before marrying, the rituals may involve symbolic "marriage" to a living man, and the announcement a year later of her having "given birth" to a son in the spirit world, who is then registered as her offspring, entitling her to proper burial. A married woman who dies without a son may be subjected to rituals of spirit-childbirth, or a living boy or man may be "adopted" by her postumously, and after that she is considered to have fulfilled her uxorial duties.

These practices, and especially the underlying ideal of a woman's role in the family, may strike us as creepy. But they have a long history; already in the early Han dynasty, the house of Confucius was insisting that a divorced woman was not entitled to be offered sacrifices by her own sons after her death - by being divorced, she had ceased to be entitled to her rights as mother, and in death had become a gui3.