Religion and belief in Taiwan are a mish mash of Buddhism, Taoism and traditional Chinese folklore. From what I’ve learned so far, some of the things that play a big role in traditional Taiwanese beliefs are ancestral worship, luck and ghosts. Like everywhere else, the younger generations are slowly letting go of a lot of the older beliefs, but Taiwan still has a lot of people who hold on to the traditions that they’ve grown up with. One such thing is Ghost month.
The seventh month of the lunar calendar is Ghost month. This year it’s from Aug 7 to Sept 4.
During Ghost month, the gates of hell are opened, and spirits from the underworld are let loose on Taiwan’s expectant public. Legend has it that the guardian of hell’s gates, the god Tikuan, celebrates his birthday (gods have birthdays?) on the 15th day of the 7th month (lunar calendar). To celebrate this, he eases up and gives all the souls under his dominion a free pass for the month to go upstairs and terrorize us mortals.
It must be noted here that not all ghosts are evil – like us, a few bad apples give the rest a rotten name. Some ghosts are unhappy in the afterlife, and have the ability to influence living people’s lives by giving them bad luck. The Taiwanese believe that it’s these “hungry ghosts” that cause all the problems and have to be appeased when they enter the realm of the living.
I’m not totally positive, but sometimes a “hungry ghost” is created because of a lack of devotion from their descendants. Ancestral worship is a very important thing, but if a family ignores giving worship to it’s dead, then the spirits get grumpy. A grumpy ghost is a VERY bad thing during ghost month.
Unrelated, but also causing “hungry ghosts” are the spirits of women who didn’t get married. They are a potent source of “yin” energy – the feminine energy which is also “dark” and “passive”. And here I always thought that bachelors usually posed more of a threat to society. I guess it’s the opposite in the underworld.
So, to appease these ghosts and thus prevent them from giving one bad luck, Taiwanese perform a ritual called “bai bai”. This involves preparing elaborate food offerings that are left on tables outside their houses for the ghosts to consume:
and burning Joss paper – paper money for those in the afterlife in big barrels:
It’s believed that doing this will please the visiting spirits, and they will refrain from leaving bad luck at your doorstep.
Funny thing that bears mentioning – even though Ghost month is a scary time, Taiwanese Valentines Day falls on the 7th day of Ghost month. So go celebrate with your honey, but don’t get married!
The main event of Ghost month occurs on the 15th day. This is the actual Ghost Festival where everyone goes to temples to pray that the spirits will safely (and DEFINITELY) find their way back to the afterlife. The biggest celebration of Ghost festival in Taiwan takes place in Keelung (north). One of the more aesthetically pleasing aspects of the festivities in Keelung include letting go of water lanterns to guide the spirits home:
Do’s and Don’ts
Because this is a precarious time with spirits wandering everywhere, there are a bunch of rules that one has to follow to minimize bad interactions with ghosts. Let’s go over the Do’s first:
- Leave food offerings
- Leave incense
- Burn paper money offerings
- Visit a local temple to pray for the ghosts who have no one to pray for them
And now the Don’ts
- Start a new business
- Get married
- Move into a new house
- Travel long distance
- Have an operation
- Swim (the ghosts will pull you into the sea)
- Leave clothes out overnight (ghosts will wear them)
- Sleep with messed up hair (ghosts have messed up hair, so they might mistake you for one of their own and cuddle up)
- Wear black clothes (ghosts are attracted to black)
- Say “ghost” (will attract their attention)
- Whistle, especially at night (will also attract their attention)
I’m sure that there are more, but this gives you a taste of how to behave during Ghost month.
In my town, Ghost month is taken very seriously. Based on what my students and local friends say, ghosts are very real to them. This isn’t anything like Halloween, where it’s all fun and games, but a scary time for these people.
I’ve never taken anything supernatural seriously, so seeing this level of belief and comittment has been a little weird for me. Needless to say, I’m not about to comb my hair every night, or stop whistling when I drive home from work, but it’s very interesting to see almost everyone around me doing everything they can to ward off evil spirits.
Whatever the reality of it, Ghost month is deeply imbedded in the Taiwanese belief system. It’s here to stay, so might as well enjoy it!