'The Ghost Marriage' by Andrea Mullaney

Posted on 13/06/2012
By Commonwealth Foundation
Photo Credit: Martinliano (Flickr)
Photo Credit: Martinliano (Flickr)

I did not meet my husband until six years after he died. He comes to me now after dark, speaking only in the poetry he loved when alive:

The beauty of night
The scent of jasmine flowers
Your long hair, unbound.

I have often wondered how those six years might have changed him, whether Chonglin was always the gentle, kind lover that he is now or whether death has smoothed out the imperfections in his character, just as it has left his beautiful face forever unwrinkled. But I do not question him. I sense there are things he cannot say.
He did not come to me on our wedding night; it was almost three months afterwards that he first appeared in my room. Perhaps he felt shy, or was not able to until then – I do not know how he is able to come at all. And, because I cannot ask, I do not know if this is normal with marriages like ours. Perhaps there are many women in Shanghai who are visited at night by their dead husbands. I think, though, that I am the only Englishwoman.
Such knowledge of Chonglin’s life that I have comes from Gao Bohai, my husband’s brother and the one who arranged our ghost marriage. When he speaks of his brother, which is rare, Bohai’s face becomes softer, less fixed and serious than when we talk of business, which we must discuss every day.
He will mention, perhaps, a village the silk boats must pass through and say: ‘Ah, my brother would often go there to fish. He said the waters were very good, very pure.’ Or, perhaps, there will be a letter from a certain merchant, complaining of the quality of our latest shipment, and he will say: ‘Chonglin never liked this man. He said he was like a cormorant who drops the food already in his mouth to pick up more.’
I snatch up his words, eager for the simplest detail to remind me that my husband was once alive. Sometimes I feel that my morning conversations with Bohai are all that keep me from madness.
When Gao Bohai first asked if he might call on me, I had thought only that my father’s young Chinese partner wished to extend his sympathies and, perhaps, to explain some of the legal affairs to do with the dissolution of their trading company. He had dined with us, displaying manners as good as his English, on two polite occasions during the six months I had been living in Shanghai.
When my father died I was already wearing half-mourning and had only to add more, but I did not feel it. He was almost as much a stranger to me as he had been when I arrived, sick and shaking from a difficult sea voyage and still in full black after the death of my mother.
She and I had lived a quiet life; we had no friends, few acquaintances and no other living family. I had been trained for no profession and, being neither sufficiently rich nor beautiful, such suitors as were in prospect were not much agreeable to me. So for want of a better alternative I was shipped off to a man I knew only as an awkward figure to whom I had been briefly presented on his infrequent visits home – a stranger I soon forgot.
To welcome me in China, my father had prepared a room in his house filled with exquisite tapestries and expensive carved screens. But we had been too long apart; he knew nothing of my tastes and was a man too reserved to reach out and bridge the gap between us. And, for my part, I was too proud and resentful to try. Perhaps if we had lived together longer, the distance might have narrowed and we would have come to trust each other.
But we did not get the chance. He had lived through the Opium War and had been instrumental in brokering the treaty agreement which opened up the port to free trade, making him a target for those who resented the British settlement here. But in the end he was killed by a simple infection which flooded his lungs.
I was immediately the subject of attention from the residents of the colony, who came visiting to offer consolation and, with varying degrees of tact, to enlist me for various small commissions at home. They all assumed that I would, of course, be returning to England on the next available passage. As did I, though with no great enthusiasm.
But while I gathered my affairs, I replied to Gao Bohai with an invitation to tea, since I had learned that this was an important social custom here. He arrived promptly and waited with me in the drawing room while the maid carefully prepared the small pot, in the English fashion as I had shown her.
‘I wish, Miss Keswick, to express my sorrow at the death of your father. He was a good man who did much to improve the relations between our empires and to bring prosperity to Shanghai,’ he began, as if reciting a studied speech. ‘I think, perhaps, you do not yet know what you have lost, but that is understandable. You did not know him as I did. He was against the opium smuggling, against the indemnity payment – he did much to lessen the humiliation of our officials here. He was loyal to his country always, but he loved China.’
It was a view of my father I had not thought of, perhaps a fair one, yet I could not help but resent the implication of his words.
‘Indeed, Mr Gao, I can believe that he did. He certainly loved it more than England, or I would have known him a deal better.’
He inclined his head, respectfully, but answered me firmly. ‘I believe that he wanted very much for you to come to understand him. Do you like Shanghai?’
I hardly knew how to answer. ‘I have not seen very much of the city. But – yes. I shall be sorry to leave.’
‘Would you wish to stay?’
‘Perhaps, but that is not possible, Mr Gao.’
‘You have friends in England, you have a place to return to?’
‘No, I have not. But I can hardly stay here alone.’
‘You could stay here if you were to marry. And if you remained, the company would not have to be sold, as there would still be a British director which is required under the Treaty. This would be very good for Shanghai, for our trade is growing very well, and I think that soon the company would be worth far more than it could be at present disposed of.’
I reached for my teacup to try to hide the astonishment which must have flooded my face. It was an extraordinary proposal. I knew it was not a personal one, since I was well aware both that Gao Bohai was a married man and that, unlike some of the more primitive cultures I had learned of in school, the Chinese did not allow polygamy. Several of my British visitors had attempted to inquire whether I had any matrimonial plans – Mrs Nye had even tried to subtly put forward her half-witted son Charles – but I had not come halfway around the world to marry someone for the mere sake of it. If I had wanted to do that, there were half-wits enough at home I could have suffered. For Mr Gao to so openly advise me to marry seemed a wholly unwarranted intrusion.
My feelings must have shown. He leaned forward, anxiously, and continued: ‘Miss Keswick, I hope you will forgive my presumption. I merely make a suggestion, a way that, if you wished, you could remain here in Shanghai with full status.’
‘And whom do you suggest that I marry?’
‘My younger brother, Gao Chonglin.’
‘I was not aware that you had a brother,’ I said, in some confusion. I was sure that my father had mentioned that the entire upkeep of the Gao family, including his widowed mother and his sisters, rested on Bohai.
‘He is not living,’ he said quietly. ‘He was caught in a fire during the occupation and was killed. It would be a ghost marriage.’
Later, when Bohai had left, I found that my hastily-given assurance that I would think over his proposal – a promise given purely to hasten his departure – was, indeed, something I could not avoid. Although it had sounded preposterous and barbaric at first, I was prepared to understand a strange logic to the practice as he had described it among the clans, where in certain situations a young woman would be married to the dead son of another family. It was a business arrangement, he explained, to seal a dynastic truce or contract. Such things could be undertaken with living grooms too, as he understood also happened in the West, but then the young couple were obliged to live together whether their tastes and inclinations agreed or not.
These ‘ghost marriages’ sounded disturbing, but I had to concede that perhaps they were less onerous for the woman than the uncertain potential of a life given over to a husband not of her choosing.
Indeed,’ Bohai had said, almost eagerly, ‘there are many women in Shanghai who work in the silk trade and who wish to live independently rather than take a living husband, so they ask the priest to find them a ghost to marry. Their families are satisfied that she will not die unmourned, as it is the custom that a woman is remembered only by her husband’s family, and they in turn are then able to adopt a grandson to continue their line.’
That, he was quick to add, was not what he intended in offering his late brother as a potential bridegroom; I presumed, though he did not say so, that he himself could continue his family’s line. He understood that our customs were different, he hoped that I would not be offended by his proposal, he wished only to suggest a possibility which might serve both our interests, allowing me to remain here in my father’s house without need of chaperone and allowing him to continue running the company that they had begun together.
It was, of course, ridiculous.
‘Has any Englishwoman ever contracted one of these ghost marriages?’ I had asked. And he had answered that he was unaware of any. Though I had not been close to my father, he was a respectable gentleman and I was his daughter: such an improper undertaking was not to be considered.
And yet the very act of rejecting the idea so decisively meant that I admitted the possibility of accepting it; from there, perhaps it was inevitable that I should slowly admit the desirability of accepting it and within a week, without knowing how, I had made up my mind to do it. In the end, I believe, what finally swayed me was the prospect of another miserable voyage home, with constant mal de mer and nothing to look forward to in England but its cessation.
Once I had conveyed my shift in opinion to Gao Bohai, he acted swiftly. The documents were drawn up, the necessary ceremonies were arranged – most of which, I was glad to find, could be conducted in my absence – and shortly I found myself before an altar, opposite a paper effigy meant to represent my dead groom. Surrounded by solemn Chinese faces, including the entire Gao family and other notables from the city, I went to some pains to maintain my composure, for we were in what they considered to be a temple and I did not wish to give offence. But when a hunched old woman crept forward waving sticks above her head – they swayed like winter branches in a strong wind – I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from erupting in unseemly laughter. She had lit them from a lamp and they issued a strange, sweet scent. I believed she was my new mother-in-law.
Perhaps, if it had not all been so peculiar, I might have dwelt on the situation, or become discouraged: this was hardly the wedding my own mother would have wanted for her beloved only daughter. But she was not here and as it was, it passed in a sort of haze as I was paraded through an event I could not understand.
After the ceremony there was a banquet, with endless rounds of unfamiliar delicacies passing before me and unintelligible talk all around me, and after the banquet Gao Bohai accompanied me back to my father’s house, now truly my own home in law for the first time. At the gate, under the jasmine tree, he paused and offered me his hand.
‘As I am now your brother,’ he said, awkwardly, ‘I would be honoured if you would address me as Bohai and accept my sincere wish that this marriage may bring you what you require.’
It was an odd form of congratulations, but I understood: he could hardly wish me joy. It must, I realised, be strange for him also; this could not have been the wedding that he had once hoped for his younger brother either. I gave him my hand but instead of raising it to his lips in polite salute, he simply raised it towards him and seemed to study it.
It was dusk and the moon was low in the sky; I was fatigued from the day and wished very much to be alone, yet something impelled me to ask: ‘Chonglin . . . what was he like? Did he work with you?’
I could not yet read Chinese faces as easily as Western ones, but the sadness which seeped through Bohai’s staid expression was clear. ‘No. My brother was . . . young. The baby of the family. He had no interest in business. He loved to be outdoors, he loved all things in nature. We thought there was time to . . . indulge him, until he joined the company, so we allowed him to study and to write.’
‘What did he write?’ In truth, I was really asking, who have I married?
‘Poetry.’ Bohai breathed out the word, very slowly. ‘Chonglin had a strange fancy. He did not care for Chinese poetry. He became a student of a Japanese form, hokku. Do you know it?’
I did not. The poetry I knew was Tennyson, Southey, Miss Barrett. But as I wished Bohai good night and retired inside, it comforted me somehow to know that this ghost husband had been a man once, a man who disliked business and liked poetry. It made him more substantial, less alien. Perhaps, in time, I could eventually come to think of him as my true husband, who had died, leaving me a true widow. It might make my peculiar situation feel less of a masquerade.
But as the news began to disseminate, it became apparent that no pretty form of words would alter the case for the residents of the British Settlement, who made it known with varying degrees of subtlety that my paper marriage had put me firmly beyond the pale. Mrs Hamilton averted her head when I passed her on the Bund, the heart of the Settlement; Mrs Nye and Miss Farrell ostentatiously exchanged their seats when I took my place at Sunday service in the consul building; the Reverend Liddell took me aside afterwards and suggested that perhaps the service in the newly-formed American Concession might be more suitable for me. The message was clear: marrying a living Chinaman would have been bad enough, but a dead one was quite repulsive.
Their feelings did not concern me. I had no friends there; I did not miss the tedious chatter of the colony with their fretful complaints about the climate, the inefficiency of the Chinese customs men or the ingratitude of those at home for the sacrifices they were making for the Empire – sacrifices which involved the accumulation of great wealth. With relief I shed the round of visiting which I had felt obliged to adopt since coming to join my father’s household.
I found, instead, that my position allowed me the luxury I had longed for since my mother’s death: to be left alone. My servants were quiet and respectful; my visitors were few. Bohai came every morning for an hour to discuss business matters, a kind formality during which I merely nodded assent to everything. Occasionally his timid sisters or his quiet, pretty wife would pay a call, a courtesy matter I assumed, but with little common language between us, these visits consisted of virtually silent tea-drinking sessions. I found them rather calming.
The rest of the time was my own, to read, to walk in the gardens and, as my confidence grew, to explore Shanghai. I hired rickshaws and, once I managed to convey to the drivers that I did not want merely to be taken to the Bund and back, was carried hither and yon across the city, marvelling at the abundance of people and the makeshift buildings springing up everywhere as trade flourished.
There seemed no part of the city which was not in flux: though I saw no signs of the late war, it was apparent even to my untutored eyes that it was a time of great change. And everywhere, the Chinese, swarming in from the countryside, swelling the population of the city to numbers I had never imagined from the cocoon of the Settlement.
Once or twice I was drawn to the incredible noise and activity of the docks, where the tall masts of the ships waiting to be loaded loomed above like a high forest. Men swarmed around me, carrying what seemed to be tremendous burdens, yet hauled as lightly as if they contained only air. With their identical queues, their womanish, beardless faces and drab costumes, they at first appeared like so many interchangeable ants, intent on their curious business. But as I watched, I began to see the differences between them: one wiry man with a friendly, open face, joking with his comrades as he slipped between them: I imagined he was taunting them for being slow. Another, serious and sad-eyed, but moving as precisely as a cog, efficiently placing himself through the crowd. It was like a dance, a dance of industry, in which each movement led to the next, from the weavers of Nanking all the way to the ladies of London in their silk dresses. I wondered if I would ever see London again.
There were women too: old women, stirring evil-smelling pots from which they offered cups to the men as they worked. And young women, at whom I was careful not to look too closely, offering the men something else. But they also, perhaps, had their place in the dance: I was merely an observer.
I tried to express something of this to Bohai, clumsily, for he was the only person I talked with. We were in my father’s study, a place I went only for these morning consultations, for I felt a fraud sitting behind the large leather desk and nodding uncomprehendingly to his precise reports.
He frowned a little, rubbing the blotter before him with his finger.
‘Miss Keswick,’ he said, in his formal way, ‘I must advise that the docks are not a safe place for you – for any lady. It is a rough place, of rough people; your purse could be taken in the crowd. And then, accidents are common there. I fear that the dockworkers’ lives are cheap and the masters do not have great care for their well-being. I do not think that your father would have encouraged you to frequent that place.’
‘Perhaps not,’ I said – bridling a little at the implied rebuke – ‘but I am quite untouched and indeed, I did not leave the rickshaw. But it does seem a place of danger – I saw a poor man whose foot was quite crushed when a heavy crate fell on it as it was being loaded. He howled in some distress, but the work around him paused only for a moment as they moved him aside and then resumed. I suppose that human sympathy is a luxury in such a world.’
‘That is partly true,’ said Bohai, ‘but such things are the way of any great enterprise and the men are glad of the work. It is their labour which is changing the city, yet so many choose to avert their eyes from its harsher side. Though I do not urge a return visit, I am glad that you have seen something of our trade. Did you find it impressive?’
‘Truly,’ I replied, surprised, yet pleased, that he had called it ‘our’ trade. ‘I had not realised just how vast the enterprise is. It is – I find it almost thrilling.’
‘Your father found it so,’ he said, rising from his seat and beginning to pace around the study. ‘As do I. Miss Keswick, I believe that Shanghai is becoming a great city, a new kind of city which will rival any and which will lead a new China. For too long we have closed ourselves from the rest of the world, secure in our self-satisfied, ancient traditions, but we cannot continue to be bound by them. The world is changing too fast, there are new discoveries, new frontiers of knowledge: China must embrace them if she is not to be left behind.
‘The silk trade is but the start – Shanghai is but the start – we must open ourselves to these new ideas, open ourselves to the world. There is a great future ahead, I am persuaded, and it is my privilege to play some small part in it.’
It was a passionate speech such as I had rarely heard from any man, let alone the reserved Bohai. But he did not seem embarrassed afterwards, as an Englishman might do if his enthusiasms carried him away; he merely smiled.
‘And you, you are part of this change also,’ he said, more gently. ‘It is impossible for anyone to stay the same amid such transformation. You are of Shanghai now; you are of my family and of the company. If it would interest you, I could show you more of what we are doing – indeed, as a partner, it is your right to know all.’
My right! Certainly this was a strange place. I could not imagine an Englishman offering to discuss business with a woman. And yet I did not think it was exactly the Chinese way, either, but merely a curious consequence of the unnatural situation in which I was placed – in which Bohai had placed me.
The thought disturbed me and I gave him no direct reply, merely turning the conversation to other matters, but I could not deny my genuine interest in the subject. In the succeeding days, I began, cautiously, to ask simple questions. He seemed to seize upon them and so he began to teach me about tariffs and profits, trade routes and importers, so many matters that I had never expected could be within my province.
It soon began to seem as if my days were filled with new ideas and sensations; at night my head was too full for sleep and I lay awake in the bedroom, still furnished with my father’s attempts to please his strange daughter, my thoughts running for hours. I felt that I was waiting for something – I knew not what, but something which was coming inexorably. Yet I was not anxious. I felt content to wait, even gleeful, as if I was summoning something by my own power.
And then, nearly three months after my ghost wedding, my husband finally came to me.
I should have been shocked, but I was not even surprised, for I thought at first that it was simply a dream.
It seemed as though I was lying happily half-asleep, listening to gentle autumn rain outside of my open window, too pleasantly warm to close the shutters.
A voice, low and tense, came out of the night and it seemed like the language one hears in a dream, where everything is known and understood and nothing need be explained.
He said:

I have come, my love
I felt a pull from your heart
Do you wish me here?

It was dark in the room but I knew him at once. He was beautiful: his face resembled that of Bohai, but younger and oddly more vital. I was not frightened. He was my husband; how could I wish otherwise? I sat up in the bed, looked at him clearly and named him formally: ‘Chonglin. You are just as I knew you would be. I am happy to meet you at last.’
He started to speak again, but I stretched out my arms to him and, just as in a dream, there was no distance between the time he was there and the time he was here; we were united. There could be no wrong in it. He was my true husband.
When I awoke in the morning, alone in my silk sheets, I knew by certain signs on them that it had been no dream. I had one, brief moment of panic, my throat closing as I thought of a grave, a coffin, of dirt falling. The thought of him leaving me as dawn broke to climb back into a deathly-cold bed was horrifying and I felt I, too, could not live.
But then I remembered his cool hands stroking mine; the fine bones of his face, the delicacy of his brown eyes. If he was a ghost, he was my ghost. I could not truly fear him, nor do anything but pray he would return again.
And so he has, most nights, a faithful spouse whose visits have transformed my life. I am still free to pass my days as before: discussing business in the morning, wandering the city, reading in the quiet gardens.
But the nights, ah, the nights are something outside of it all. They are like a secret space in which I am no longer my mother’s daughter, or my father’s, no longer even an Englishwoman in Shanghai but simply myself. It is nothing like the dull, dutiful marriages I came to China to escape, a life I had known would bury me in misery. As the wife of a ghost, I feel so very alive.
Yet there is still something more to come, I know. A secret to be revealed or a sentence to be spoken, a step in the dance which will change its direction.
I asked him only once how long our time could go on, if he would always be able to come to me, if a ghost marriage could have a future. His answer, of course, was couched in the poetry that thrills yet frustrates me as it veils his true meaning.

Cricket’s life is short
One summer and one winter
But sings many songs

He speaks in English, but still I do not understand him.
Yesterday, I risked asking Bohai about hokku; I reminded him of what he had said on the day of my wedding and asked him why Chonglin had been drawn to this product of another culture. At first it seemed like he would not answer. Then he said: ‘It was a thing I never asked him. Do you not know?’
‘I? How should I know?’
‘I thought, perhaps … perhaps it was the same thing that draws you to Shanghai.’
And perhaps he is right. Perhaps Chonghai, in life, was impelled to escape his country, to find his spirit’s home somewhere else. Then why, I wonder, does he linger here now, instead of going on? Perhaps he is waiting for me to join him. Perhaps he is waiting to be reborn.
This morning, Bohai did not come for our meeting. The rhythm of my day was broken, but he sent a gift to occupy me instead: a little pamphlet in English about the art of the Japanese hokku. I have been reading it in the garden by the jasmine and I have learned so much. The book says that hokku are meant to express a single moment, a revelation in one thought that cannot be said in any other way.
I have been trying, clumsily, to write my own hokku, so that I can speak tonight to my ghost lover in his veiled language and he will tell me what to do. For there is a fearful suspicion growing within me and there will come a time when it can no longer be hidden. And I cannot imagine what will become of me then.
Is it possible that I have been mistaken . . . is it possible that I have allowed myself to be mistaken? No, it cannot be – he is my true husband, he is Chonglin – but it frightens me to think that my mind is not clear, that I am not seeing clearly. Bohai said that there was a line which must continue, he said that I would not die unmourned, he said . . . there are times when he looks so like his brother.
My poem is a poor thing, but it tells what I cannot express in any other way and I hope that by the morning I will have my answer. I will say to him:

After winter, spring
Joy and sorrow of new life
Buds from a dead tree

Read More Prizewinning Stories