Goblins and Ghosts and Gods, Oh My!

Yesterday, when the DE queue was cleared and y’all didn’t notice, I started to work on this post that I’ve been planning to make for some time now. In short, for our non-Chinese readers, there are some basic terms about monsters and that we’ve translated in various ways that I thought it would be helpful for you to get a deeper understanding into; I think this will help you appreciate/understand these stories more! There are six terms that we are going to look at; the first four come in a set, and the latter two as well. They are: 妖魔鬼怪 (Yao, Mo, Gui, Guai) – Monsters/Demons, Devils, Ghosts, Freaks, and 神仙 – Gods, Immortals.

妖魔鬼怪 – this is actually a set term in Chinese, and when used by itself, it’s meant to refer to all sorts of monstrosities and supernatural creatures.  There’s some overlap amongst the various categories, and when combined with compound words, they can mean other things, but in short, you can view supernatural creatures in China as being divided into four categories.

1 – 妖 – Yao.  This is by far the widest category; this is sometimes translated as ‘monster’, such as in Desolate Era, or ‘demon’ such as in ‘Tales of Demons and Gods’ or in ‘I Shall Seal the Heavens’; the mc of the latter, Meng Hao, is a Yao-Sealer.  Some old translations of ‘Journey to the West’ translates it as ‘goblins’.  This is, for me, actually the hardest term to translate, and if I could start all over again, I’d probably leave it untranslated, because it appears often enough that I think readers would learn to memorize it.

In Chinese stories, especially Daoism-heavy stories, as you may have noticed, there is energy (aka ‘qi’) in all things, including animals, trees, mountains, etc.  Sometimes, that energy takes on sentience and self-awareness, bringing great magical power to these creatures, who are often (but not always) evil.  The Kyuubi of Naruto is considered a ‘Yao’, based on the so-called ‘Nine-Tailed Fox Yao’ from Chinese myths; the famous 1987 movie ‘A Chinese Ghost Story’ has a ten thousand year old ‘Tree Yao’ as the main antagonist, and all of the various talking/magical animals (mythical or otherwise) in almost all of the stories would be considered ‘Yao’.  In stories like Coiling Dragon, the term isn’t explicitly used for the magical beasts, but that’s essentially what they are; ‘Yao’.

Dragons, due to their exalted statuses in Chinese mythology, are sometimes classified as Yao (such as in Stellar Transformations), but are often considered ‘separate’ and a stand-alone race of divine creatures.

2 – 魔 – Mo.  This is the closest analogue to demons and devils in Western mythology, and is translated as ‘Fiend’ in Coiling Dragon and in Desolate Era, and as ‘Devil’ in Stellar Transformations.  These are creatures and spirits that are of tremendous power and generally are quite violent and bloodthirsty.  (Note – 魔 can also simply mean ‘magic’, and when used in that context, such as 魔兽, ‘magic beast’, they somewhat lose the evil connotation).  There are definite, evil undertones to a 魔, and evil people will often be described as ‘Mo’.  This is the word used in Chinese translations for ‘Satan’ or ‘demons’ of Christian scripture.

3 – 鬼 – Gui.  This literally means ‘ghost’, and this is the character used for ‘Pill Demon’ (丹鬼), who could also be called ‘Pill Ghost’.  This usually refers to exactly what the word ‘ghost’ refers to in English; supernatural spirits and souls of the deceased.  Fun fact – When the Chinese first met Westerners, one common nickname for them was variations on 鬼子, ghost-man, because of how white they were ;).  Fun fact 2 – Gui is also used as a perjorative, much like how you would use the word ‘damn’ or ‘freaking’ in English; one might talk about a wicked child’s ‘gui’ ideas, or how terrible this ‘gui’ weather has been, or what the heck this ‘gui’ thing is that you don’t recognize.

4 – 怪 – Guai.  This literally means ‘weird’, and as a term, it can stand for any aberrations that don’t classify well into the above categories.  There are very few standalone ‘Guai’; it’s usually used as an add-on to one of the above three categories, to add additional emphasis that the monster is bizarre or freakish.

For those who have played Fallout 3, the term ‘yao guai’ comes from the combination of ‘Yao’ and ‘Guai’ (and is a term used in Chinese as well).

5 – 仙 – Xian.  This is translated as ‘Immortal’.  This is a term that is used almost exclusively in Daoism-based stories, and is the ‘Xian’ in ‘Xianxia’, and in Renegade Immortal, 仙逆 (Xian Ni).  This refers specifically to a person who has, through Daoist practices or powers or energy or enlightenment, been transformed into a being of great power and Immortality, who is untouched by time, who can fly about, etc. etc.  In Chinese mythology, there are usually two types of ‘Xian’; Earthly Xian and Heavenly Xian.  Earthly Xian are those who remain within the world, while Heavenly Xian are those who have surpassed it and transcended it.  These are translated as ‘Earth Immortals’ and ‘Celestial Immortals’ in Desolate Era.

The character 仙 itself is composed of two different characters; one for ‘man’ and one for ‘mountain’, a reference to those old ascetics who live and train by themselves in seclusion in the mountains and eventually achieve Xian-dom.  This is -strictly- a term used in Daoism; Coiling Dragon, for example, has no ‘Xian’ because there is no Daoism in it, and neither does Against the Gods (so far).  Thus, to be strict about it, neither of these two novels are considered ‘Xianxia’; they would be Chinese fantasy novels.

6 – 神 – Shen.  This literally means ‘God’, but it is more of a catch-all phrase to describe beings of tremendous power; it’s a much ‘looser’ term than ‘Xian’, and in fact can be combined with it and many others.  Coiling Dragon has ‘Shen’, while Desolate Era has Fiendgods (神魔 Shen Mo), and Stellar Transformations has ‘Shen’ in some realms.  Because there is not much of a ‘do not take the Lord’s name in vain’ thing in China, ‘Shen’ is often used as an adjective; for example, one might describe a master archer as a ‘Shen Jianshou/Godly Archer’.

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62 thoughts on “Goblins and Ghosts and Gods, Oh My!” - NO SPOILERS

  1. Now i know why that translator in ‘world of cultivation’ decided not to translate the word ‘Yao’ and ‘Mo’. Turns-out the author’s way of writing was extremely complicated. For ex. There is that Soul fiend in there which not means they’re Mo. Another thing was that when Yaomo were to be translated then it will become devil fiend which will be confusing.

    1. Bhahahahahaah!
      That got me laughing,mostly because I instantly recognized it as soon as I said it aloud.
      I think its “Yu” not “Yao” though…

      “Evil demons and malevolent spirits, be gone!”
      Good old Uncle…

  2. Cool, thanks; this is pretty interesting XD

    That said, considering how, in Coiling Dragon, the people eventually gain enlightenment and power to become deities/immortals, isn’t it still Xianxia because of that? And they have to use these enlightenment to reach the higher realms and follow the paths…

    And for ATG…. well, we don’t know much about the higher cultivation realms yet (though considering how things work, seems still like a Xianxia, minus immortality… but, they aren’t even at the half-way point in cultivation yet for that one…

    1. ATG seems to be ISSTH in cultivation levels, but having each level be broken into two halves, so the gradation between each step within a level is much closer in ATG than in ISSTH (and that is reflected in the stories, where multiple steps within a cultivation level are required before domination would occur). Chi Cultivation would be Elementary and Nascent Profound Realms; Foundation Establishment would be Nascent and True Profound Realms; Core Formation would be Spirit and Earth Profound Realms;
      Nascent Soul would be Sky and Emperor Profound Realms; Dao Seeking would be Tyrant and Sovereign Profound Realms; and Immortal Ascension would be the Divine Profound Realm, which has its own further rankings amongst the immortals themselves, no doubt.

      1. You forgot that beyond Divine Profound Realm there are Gods and beings above gods… for example Jasmine she presumably is a god, but there are ppl like her brother who’s stronger than a god.

  3. Thanks for sharing. I love this stuff. It would’ve been interesting to see the etymology of the term commonly translated as cultivator too. Also heaven.

    It’s surprising to learn about 鬼, since in Japanese it’s usually related to oni / a fearsome or threatening monster e.g. vampire or (in a fantasy setting) ogre.

      1. Tian,天?I think in the Taoism(or Daoism?),most Tian means 道(Dao),a will to maintain the rules of a world. Moreover,Dao can classify into two type,the one which I told above call 天道(Tiandao),another call 大道(Dadao),I don‘t know how to explain their difference……As a result,I think you can understand them as Gaia(will of Earth) and Araye(Aggregate of primates’ thought) in the world of Type-Moon.They are similar
        And……I‘m sorry about my poor English……

        1. In addition,most of Chinese can’t separate thier difference. You can ignore that……although some webnovels separate them,they are very very little amount in general.
          Therefore,ignore it……
          Too bad……Did I misinterprete it?I‘m not sure now……
          Ignore it……Please

      2. The original meaning of Tian(天) is sky. Chinese belives that the sky has its own thoughts and masters the rules of the universe. Tian, therefore, is the real God in the eyes of Chinese(‘Lao Tian Ye 老天爷’ as we call it). Sometimes you may think Tian equals universe according to Chinese philosophy.
        So it’s derived from the word ‘Tian’ lots of meaning such as heaven, god, universe, Tao, the creator and so on.

    1. Depends on the exact character (hanzi), there are many other “mo” in Chinese. Meaning unless its written 魔, a “mo” does not necessarily translate as evil or devil/demon and the like.

  4. Thank you for the enlightenment.

    Is there some place to get a better understanding of the Gods and Demons used in the novels? Also I would like to have more understanding about the Magical Monsters used as well like the Amethyst Winged Lion used in btth, which should be a lioness since they normally take care of the young in nature right? Etc…

    Does these story’s follow the five Chinese elements or is there a Daoist version I’m unaware of?

    I’m still confused about the time skips as well, like in btth he has a three year fight date that started when he was fifteen or sixteen but he doesn’t fight until in his twenty’s? or going to the academy, etc… days pass, months pass, years pass… missing weeks.

    Confused reader thx for clearing up some of the things that were bugging me.

  5. Yeah, the ghost thing happens sometimes nowadays too, an ex-housemate of mine had a chines girlfriend who’s family nickname for him was ghost-boy…. I couldn’t contain my drink the first time I heard that!!

  6. Coiling Dragon is mix with our religion (Christianity) first one become a saint, then one become a Demigod (and angel), then a god (a cherub), then a high god (and archangel), then a sovereing (a world creator), then a god king (a ruler over all living things), then an exalted celestial (a universe “remember Nuwa or our god? (Jesus Christ)” and living being creator) and last a being called (Hong) who’s in control over the cosmos.

  7. I have a small question. What’s the word people always shout/scream/yell when they “Break” something?

    They are always saying this before they “break” an opponent’s technique, formation, or shield.

  8. Chinese webnovel went aboard……ok……I ‘m happy about that because It let me can improve my poor English here……
    Alternatively,how about 梦入神机(Meng Ru Shen Ji)‘s books?For example,佛本是道(Fo Ben Shi Dao or Buddhism is Taoism?),阳神(Yang Shen or Great Yang God?).In the past,he enjoy equal popularity with I Eat Tomatoes,Tang Jia San Shao,Chen Dong and Tian Can Tu Dou in the famous webnovel website”起点(Qidian)“ in China. However, he is writing on “纵横(Zhongheng)” now.
    Whatever,I did’t see any books are written by him in this website. Therefore,I want to point out these if you dont know it……
    Finally,I’m sorry about my poor English……Please forgive me if the comment cause you unhappy……

  9. I am a native Chinese speaker of the Min-Nan (Amoy/Xiamen/Hookien) variety. I can also speak Mandarin Chinese. Growing up, I listened to my Dad tell us some Wuxia Stories, which are serialized in Chinese Daily newspapers in Southeast Asia.

    For the 妖魔鬼怪 Yao, Mo, Gui and Kuai words, used by themselves alone have different meaning when used in combination with other words. I would like to share some of my understanding, for English speakers (who understand Western Literature).

    The word Yao 妖 usually references Yao Kuai (妖怪). The closest I can think of is the word WERE in English. For example; WEREwolf, WEREtiger, WERElion, WERErat, WEREfox etc.

    However, these creatures are the opposite of the WERE creatures. Whereas a WEREwolf is a Wolf and Human, normally in Human form, and transforms into the Wolf form (voluntarily or involuntarily), a Yao(Kuai) creature is an Evolved Creature. Example is Sun Wu Kong (The Monkey King) who evolved from listening to Buddha’s Prayers for 500 years (or more). The Fox ladies (Yao) creatures, which are popular in Chinese literatures, are also evolved from foxes.

    The common theme is that these are normal creatures (mostly from the animal kingdom) who have lived for a long time (usually hundreds of years) and evolved into the highest form, which is the Human Form, and gained intelligence and understanding and reasoning powers (like humans). We can call them WERE creatures (as they can transform between human and animal forms) or EVOLVEES. It is more difficult to classify them as MUTANTS. Calling them by the Chinese word YAO is probably the best and easiest to read/write.

    As for Kuai 怪, the word FREAK is most appropriate for creatures referred to as Kuai. The word itself 怪 could mean – strange, unusual, eerie, abnormal, freakish, etc.

    The other explanations are pretty good and detailed enough, that I do not need to add to. Just wanted to share my 2 cents worth, and add to the confusion that is the Chinese Language.

    1. ” Jing Guai(精怪)“ means those plants or non-living things can do as ”Yao Guai“,so we call them ”Yao Jing“ for a general term.In addition,this word also means sprite or fairies.
      Actually,we dont need to explain too much because the boundary of them are not clear in webnovels. There are different settings in different worlds.Therefore,they don’t require too much details,understand they are different is enough.
      Absolutely correct answer has never been appeared.

  10. Since the New Year, I’ve been redirected from this site several times on mobile. My phone vibrates, I get a notification saying a virus has damaged my battery or that I’m being DDOSed or something. I ignored it because I figured it was spam, but my phone battery has been noticeably worse since and It even gets pretty hot now. I havnt actually looked at the sites it directs me too since I’m busy trying to get out of them, but it says something about Zeroredirect in the history if that helps you finally stop this.

  11. Also since I’m here, I’ve always look at Xianxia as meaning “Magic Martial Arts” or “Heavenly Martial Arts” to fit the theme better, while Wuxia would be “Earthly Martial Arts”.

    Personally I cant really take the term “Immortal” all that seriously. My view of immortality has always been that its just undying, it doesnt come with strength itself. I also havnt come across a Xianxia where the protag purposely pursued immortality, it was just a side effect of becoming strong. Obviously Chinese Mythology seems to disagree with my view, but at the end of the day I think Heavenly and Earthly Martial Arts seems to illustrate the main difference between the two in a more efficient manner.

  12. -妖- Yao

    is Also Evil , Biological instinct led they want to eat, while Humans are one of their types of food

    this normal and ‘monster’ Binding (妖怪/妖兽) monster = 怪兽/怪物

    ‘妖’ this is sometimes and ‘魔’ Joint action, So there is (妖魔) word

    ‘妖’ this is sometimes Used to describe A man’s wisdom (大智近妖) beyond human imagination wisdom

    魔,鬼,怪,神

    RWX said nothing wrong, I do not need to explain the

    Excuse me for my English is poor..^^

    I hope you can understand

  13. A Chinese Ghost Story ! That unexpected reference. One of my favourite film of all time xD
    I always find your posts on translation very interesting, thank again Ren !

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