If you’ve ever been to China or Taiwan or read about Chinese society, you’ve probably come to realize that Chinese culture abounds with the most unusual and macabre customs and rituals. There are, for example, men who hit themselves with axes on the skull for spiritual healing purposes, to shooting fireworks on people to scare away disease-spreading ghosts. Traditional Chinese rites and ceremonies are always certain to shock, and the Ghost Festival in Taiwan is no exception!
Would you ever have said that? If you were in Taiwan, at this time, you would be living the Ghost Month! Religious events related to the Chinese Ghost Festival are held at various temples in Taipei, Taichung, Kaohsiung, and in other cities throughout Taiwan during the entire month. The most important celebrations are held in the following Taiwanese cities: Keelung in the north, Toucheng on the east coast, and Hengchun in the southern part of Taiwan.
The Chinese Ghost Month (鬼月), observed in the 7th month of the lunar calendar, this year is celebrated from August, 14 to September, 12. It also falls at the same time as a full moon, the new season, the fall harvest, the peak of Buddhist monastic asceticism, the rebirth of ancestors, and the assembly of the local community.
During the festival the gates of hell are opened and all of the hungry ghosts are released to the world in search of food, money, entertainment, and other pleasures of life. According to tradition, a “hungry ghost” is a being that has been sent to the underworld to suffer an eternal state of hunger for his misdeeds or for not having a proper burial. Once a year, they are set free from hell and are given the opportunity to satiate some of their cravings and perhaps gain some good karma for a reincarnation into a better life with the help of their family members.
Family members offer prayers to their deceased relatives, offer food and drink and burn hell bank notes and other forms of joss paper. Joss paper items are believed to have value in the afterlife, considered to be very similar in some aspects to the material world, and people burn paper houses, cars, servants and televisions to please the ghosts. Joss paper are sheets of paper or papercrafts made into burnt offerings common in Chinese ancestral worship. Joss paper, as well as other papier-mâché items, are also burned or buried in various Asian funerals, “to ensure that the spirit of the deceased has lots of good things in the afterlife.”
Families also pay tribute to other unknown wandering ghosts so that these homeless souls do not intrude on their lives and bring misfortune. A large feast is held for the ghosts on the fourteenth day of the seventh month, when people bring samples of food and place them on an offering table to please the ghosts and ward off bad luck. Lotus-shaped lanterns are lit and set afloat in rivers and out onto seas to symbolicly guide the lost souls of forgotten ancestors to the afterlife.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, here are some handy tips to avoid any misstep or gaffes with the phantoms during this month!
1. Don’t go swimming
This restriction seems to have the widest consensus among those who observe the traditional Ghost Month. It is considered highly dangerous to go swimming because it is believed that evil spirits that had drowned may try to drown the swimmer to gain a chance at rebirth. However, the upside for non-believers is that the beaches are pretty much empty for the whole period!
2. Don’t go out alone at night
Expecially children and young should avoid going out alone after dark as it is believed that wandering ghosts can more easily possess young people.
3. Don’t whistle, especially after dark
It seems that whistling attract evil spirits and once they’ve been lured in, they may follow the person around for long periods of time, bringing ill fortune.
4. Don’t sit in the front row of Gezaixi shows
This is probably one of the biggest pitfalls for newbie foreigners during month. Beware that the front row of Gezaixi (that is a Taiwanese opera) shows performed on the streets should be avoided at all costs because it is strictly reserved for spectral spectators only….
5. Don’t pick up money on the street
People are admonished not to pick up real money or take it home, because it will bring them bad luck. Picking up a bank note is considered an insult to the spirits and a bad omen as well!
6. Don’t just turn your head around if someone pats you on the shoulder
It is believed that the living have two protective flames, one on each shoulder. If a ghost pats you on the back and you only turn your head, you’ll snuff out that protective flame, thus making you vulnerable. To avoid this, turn the whole body at once instead of just the head.
7. Do not kill rare insects in your house
Some believe that their ancestors come to visit their families in the reincarnated form of a rare insect. Even if the definition of “rare”is debatable, basically a type of insect that has rarely if ever been spotted in your house before such as butterflies, grasshoppers or moths. Roaches, are probably not considered “rare.” But I’m not sure.
8. Don’t hang clothes outside to dry
The thinking with this is that devious spirits will wear your clothes as a way to sneak into your house!
9. Don’t lean against the wall
Ghosts apparently like to stick on walls because they’re cooler, so don’t push your luck: you could lean against one of them during the month, and of course he would not be happy!
10. Don’t pee on a tree
Apparently, soldiers in the field know well that urinating on a tree could anger tree spirits which will seek vengeance upon you.
Some other important things to avoid doing during the month include anything that you wouldn’t want having bad juju associated with such as a new business venture, moving into a new house, buy a new car or getting married. Don’t hang wet clothes at night. Dry ones are okay, though! Don’t open an umbrella in your house, don’t buy puppets, sculptures, or dolls and you should avoid standing under trees or under bus stops at night. Moreover, avoid wearing an outfit that is uniformly black, white or red and drive extra safe because ghosts that died in car accidents will be trying to encourage you to take their place. Don’t tell ghost stories or talk about ghosts in general during this period. Finally, even if it seems like a no-brainer, definitely avoid disturbing any of the offerings made to the spirits in any way. If you do so inadvertently, apologize profusely to both the living and the dead.
On the other hand, people are encouraged to:
1. Go to a temple and make offerings
Make food offerings and burn incense and ask for protection of the deity at a nearby temple.
2. Burn hell notes
Burn joss paper on the sidewalk in front of your house throughout the month as an offering to your ancestors. On the 15th day of the month, known as Hungry Ghost Festival, you can burn joss paper for lonely, wandering spirits in a gesture of good will.
3. Consider a vegetarian diet during the month
People of the Buddhist faith practice vegetarianism in this month in order to transmute and absolve the sufferings of the deceased. Luckily, it seems that Taiwan has a variety of tasty vegetarian restaurants all over the island to choose from. But, if like me, you hate vegetables, then this could be really an immense problem…
4. Wear a protective amulet
In order to hedge you further, you can wear an amulet depicting Chung Kwei, the Taoist deity who specializes in subduing and slaying demons and evil entities. Other protector deities that can be worn include Guan Yu.
5. Contribute to charity
Donate to charitable organizations and do good deeds to build up more positive karma.
If you’re in the right place at the right time, you might witness an “Eight Generals” (Bajiajiang) performance or parade. The Eight Generals are a kind of spiritual police force that ward off, nab, and punish evil spirits. They are portrayed by troupes of young people with colorful costumes and makeup to depict specific generals. However, the most important thing is to keep a respectful distance from them and don’t cross their protective line.
At the end of the Ghost Month, it’s pretty much the same thing: people pray, burn some stuff, offer food and drinks on tables just before the gates of hell close, to make sure all the ghosts are happy, well-fed and prosperous…until next year!
A last curiosity? According to my brother’s local friend, the first day of the Chinese Ghost Festival is also called “National Pollution Day” because of the massive amount of “ghost money” (joss paper) that’s burnt around Taiwan!
Images from web.