Monster of the Week: The Wutong Shen

The Wutong attack. Maciej Toporowicz, NYC/Moment/Getty

"The southern Wutong-spirit is somewhat like the northern fox-spirit. But whereas the northern fox's evil force may be exorcised in a hundred different ways, the Wutong of the Yangtze region is much more vicious and intractable. It possesses and ravishes the beautiful wives of innocent citizens at will, wreaking havoc in the hearts of all. Whole families live in fear and trembling of this powerful and pernicious spirit." - Pu Songling, "Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio"

While the incubus and succubus are western creatures, their kin exist throughout the unnatural world of myth and folklore. As such, Chinese tradition provides us with the haunting Wutong spirits, literally "the five penetrating ones."

As with all things folkloric and ancient, the origin of the Wutong is murky. By some accounts, they descended to Earth in a blaze of fire, swiftly assuming the human form of five brothers. Here, like the western incubus, they function as demonic seducers. Yet while the incubus exploited a female victims' sinful nature, the Wutong preyed upon the innocent, traumatizing them with nightmarish sexual assaults. Their form ranged from that of a handsome youth to a one-legged monster, just as their nature varied from demonic enemy to a god of wealth.

Cult of the Wutong Shen

You might not expect humans to worship such a spirit, and yet the presence of Wutong cults date back to the Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.). The Wutong acted as a diabolical god of wealth and greedy individuals venerated the Five Penetrating Ones with hedonistic excess. Yet to seek Wutong's golden rewards was to court personal disaster. A man would enter into a pact with the Wutong, suffer the seduction (or rape) of his wives and daughters and finally lose all his ill-gotten wealth through additional calamity. It's easy to see the parable in all of this, yet Wutong temples certainly existed in Jiangsu province until their state-ordered destruction in 1685 [source: Von Glahn].

Taoist exorcism manuals of the 12th century identified the Wutong as shanxiao spirits -- a sort of catch-all for nefarious supernatural entities. Numerous tales detailed their defilement of female victims, often resulting in madness and monstrous pregnancies. As the above quote from Pu Songling illustrates, exorcism of a Wutong spirit was a troublesome task, but could be accomplished through the use of potent magical ritual -- or, as in Songling's tale "Sunset," by castrating the intruder.

Sleep Paralysis & Prenuptial Anxiety

It's impossible to read such accounts of nocturnal invasion and sexual trauma without invoking the modern explanation of sleep paralysis: a condition experienced by 25-50 percent of the general population. Normally, a dreamer's body remains in something of a full-body lock down. This keeps our dreaming actions from transitioning into movement. In a case of sleep paralysis, however, the dreamer wakes while the body remains in a state of paralysis. Not only is the physical experience frightening (often described as a feeling of being crushed or pinned by invader's body), but the mind emerges into the hallucination-prone hypnopompic state betwixt sleep and wakefulness. Existing cultural tropes of demons, alien abduction or Wutong spirits informs the shape of the "encounter."

Prenuptial Anxiety might also factor into Wutong spirit encounters. In traditional Chinese society, women were particularly vulnerable and powerless before and after the consummation of marriage [source: Minford]. Often times, their spouse was a complete stranger and a Wutong attack served as a "culturally accepted strategy employed by women to avoid sleeping with their betrothed husbands or to escape conjugal obligations altogether" [source: Von Glahn].

So what was the Wutong spirit? A lecherous demon? A trickster god of fortune? Something of both? Other accounts even paint the entity as a benevolent healer of the sick, so perhaps its exact nature is as amorphous as any folkloric creature to exist across such a wide swath of time.

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.