The title character is a ghoul which disguises itself as a beautiful young woman by fitting into a portrait of a woman drawn on a human skin. It hunts for men and eats its prey's hearts. The original story is the fortieth chapter of Pu Songling's famous short story collection Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio.
Plot of the story
A young scholar named Wang, who lives in Taiyuan of Shanxi Province, meets a charming young woman. She tells Wang she was sold by her parents to the house of a rich noble to be a maid, but she could not stand the abuse from her master's wife and ran away from the house secretly. Wang agrees to take her home and make his house a refuge for the poor girl. However, Wang's wife is not pleased with her husband's decision.
One day, Wang meets a Taoist priest in the market. The priest looks at Wang in surprise, says he has apparently been enchanted by a ghost and asks Wang whether anything strange has happened to him. Wang denies this and leaves. The priest warns Wang that he will die if he does not take the warning seriously.
When Wang returns home, he finds that the door of his studio has been firmly closed. His curiosity having been aroused by the words of the Taoist priest, Wang sneaks to the window and peeks in. He witnesses something horrible. In the studio, there is a hideous ghoul with an ugly green face and teeth like an animal. The ghoul puts a piece of human-shaped portrait on the bed and paints it. The portrait is just like the beautiful woman Wang met. Then, the ghost lifts up the portrait, shakes it like a piece of cloth. Finally, the ghoul hides itself in the portrait, and transforms into the young woman Wang met.
Wang is horrified by what he sees and rushes to the Taoist priest, asking for help. The Taoist priest tells Wang the truth about the monster, and Wang begs him to help him out. The priest tells Wang the way to destroy the ghoul forever. Wang manages to kill the ghoul, with the cost of his life. Fortunately, the priest helps Wang's wife to revive her husband later.
At the end of story, Pu Songling makes comments on the moral lesson of the story, lamenting that some men with lust are foolish enough to fall for some beauties without seeing the evil inside them.
There have been three film adaptations of the story, one from Hong Kong in 1993 and two from mainland China in 1966 and 2008, respectively. The 2008 film spawned a sequel, Painted Skin: The Resuurection which was released in 2012 and a spin-off television series which aired in China in 2011. A TV series called Painted Skin 2 was shown in China in 2013.