Who Let the Ghosts Out?

Origins and Practices of Taiwan's Feeding of the "Good Brethren"

Tex / Mark Caltonhill
Photos / Tourism Bureau, Vision Int'l
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Visitors to Taiwan around this time of year may be astonished to see huge banquets laid out on tables in the open air, to which nobody comes to dine; or boats slipping out of harbor late at night not to go fishing but merely to release beautiful lanterns onto the ocean; or teams of young men shinnying up greasy poles tens of meters into the air.

"Why, what, how?"they must wonder.

The seventh month of Taiwan's lunar calendar is better known as "ghost month". Various precautions and prohibitions are followed, and numerous festivals, rituals and banquets are held to ward off or appease the potentially malevolent spirits of the dead, which are believed to wander the Earth at this time.

Origins

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Though the precise origins of ghost month are now lost, the related traditions are rooted in Han Chinese beliefs about the afterlife and the central role of ancestral worship in their religions. Taiwanese believe that a person's spirit continues to exist after the death of the physical body, either in a parallel realm or separate hell. Since they are capable of affecting the lives of the living, spirits need to be induced to act benevolently rather than malevolently. Daily offerings are made to ancestral spirit tablets on family altars, and to temple deities, many of whom are historic figures promoted to divine status after benevolent or heroic careers.

Certain categories of spirits can be particularly troublesome, however. Women who died before marriage are said to be potent sources of yin - as opposed to yang - which need careful channeling for communal good. (According to ancient Chinese philosophy yin forces are more dark, passive, and feminine, while yang forces are more light, active, and masculine.) People who commit suicide or die by drowning are also considered risky, but perhaps most worrying are those "hungry ghosts" who do not have filial descendents making offerings to them.

Euphemistically known as "good brethren", it is common to invite priests to hold ceremonies and make offerings to them whenever a new building or business is opened. Nevertheless, from the opening of the gates of hell on the first day of the seventh lunar month, to their closing on the last, this is everyone's concern.

Taboos

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People will rarely start a new business during this period; many do not even operate those already up and running, and a great many people follow the prohibition not to swim, because they fear to be drowned by ghosts living in the water.

Other taboos routinely followed include not leaving clothes outside overnight (hungry ghosts like to wear people's clothes), and not sleeping with disheveled hair (ghosts can be recognized by their disheveled hair, hemless garments, lack of shadow, strange voices, red glow, and shortsightedness), since ghosts might mistake you for one of their own. Black clothes should not be worn, as ghosts are attracted to black.

Even though many young people may no longer wish to follow the traditional prohibition on marriage in Ghost Month, with parents footing the bill, weddings are rare. It is, of course, a good time for "spirit brides and grooms"(those who died in childhood or before marriage) to be "married"by means of temple ceremonies.

People are advised not to have babies (which requires self-restraint around the 10th lunar month), not to celebrate a person's birthday (which just seems mean), and not to conduct funerals (as there are malevolent ghosts around who might influence the rebirth of the dead person) during Ghost Month.

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Above all, one should avoid using the word "ghost"(hence the euphemism "good brethren"); even ghost month is more commonly called "folk custom month". Similarly, with ghosts all around, it is advised not to use any language carelessly, lest they should take you at your word.

Ceremonies and Activities

As mentioned above, the origin of ghost month is unclear. It can probably be traced back to a Buddhist ceremony, known in Chinese as Pu-Du ("universal ferrying"), which is now the name of the feast for "hungry ghosts"held around the middle (full moon) of the month. Normal food is said to turn to fire on the lips of ghosts, so they are offered special foods prepared while reciting sutras. This food is laid out on long tables, sometimes with individual settings. No one will sit down to eat but, when priests or monastics have ascertained through divination that the ghosts are full, local people will take the food home.

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While Pu-Du, or the Buddhist "Water and Land Ceremonies", can be found at every temple and in every community, a few townships around Taiwan have evolved quite unique rituals. At the fishing community of Bisha near Keelung City on Taiwan's northeast coast, for example, after parading through the city's streets on decorated floats, people quietly launch floating lanterns onto the sea. (This year this photogenic event will take place at 11 p.m. on August 7.)

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Even more remarkable is the "grappling with ghosts" event held at Toucheng in Yilan County. Here teams of young men compete to climb greased tree trunks, swing themselves over an elevated platform, and then scramble up bamboo lattices to be the first to cut down a flag. In addition to winning the town's admiration and prizes in cash and kind, victors sell the flags to fishing boat captains who believe they will protect their boats and employees through another year in what has always been a perilous profession. (This community event takes place in the last three days of the seventh lunar month; the exact date is released to the outside world shortly beforehand.)

This year ghost month begins on July 25 and ends on August 23. In fact, in a slightly complicated mathematical twist, there will be a "leap seventh month" in 2006, starting on August 24 and ending on September 21. Leap months are used to keep the "agricultural calendar" in time with the solar one, for which reason Taiwan's traditional calendar is actually a lunisolar, rather than lunar, calendar.

While consecutive ghost months might sound like bad news, look on the bright side: with swimming out of favor with locals, visitors will find Taiwan's beaches, riverbanks and even pools a lot less crowded for sixty of this year's hottest days.