By Todd Blackhurst
This year, the annual celebration of Ghost Month in Taiwan will begin on August 11th. Ghost Month or Gui Yue in Pinyin is celebrated during the 7th lunar month of the year, specifically during the first 15 days, although the entire month is designated as Ghost Month.
What is Ghost Month? Although there are some variations on this event, here is a brief guide to what you can expect to see over the next month along with some important cultural information.
First, a little background. Taiwanese religious culture is varied and diverse. There are many religions and beliefs represented on this pluralistic and religiously diverse island.
That being said, for many Taiwanese, the core religious belief system is held in the family. It is what we might call Traditional Folk Religion. Some families practice Buddhism, others Daoism while others might draw from both and add some elements of animism.
For those who hold to this traditional system, the belief is held that when you physically die, your spirit goes to live in a spirit world which is very similar to this one. Those that have done good go to a place of rest and happiness, those that have done bad, go to a place that is not peaceful. The second place is also where spirits who are killed or die apart from family are sent. This group also includes those with no family to worship and honor them, such as those killed in major disasters. This group of spirits must go through some process to work their way towards the other spirit world where they can finally rest. This may include reincarnation and/or another chance for some.
In many Taiwanese homes, there is a family altar. At this altar, the ancestral tablets (after a person dies they are given an ancestral tablet) are placed and worshipped every morning and every night by faithful family members.
On certain days of the lunar calendar, it is very important to observe certain rituals and some families will even enlist a shaman or spirit priest from time to time in order to make certain that their ancestors are happy and satisfied. For many, this is one of the most important acts that a good Taiwanese family does to make sure their ancestors stay in a state of happiness and do not turn into Hungry Ghosts.
Now, what is Ghost Month – and why is it such a big deal in Taiwanese culture.
Taiwanese, along with many Asian people, believe that during the first 15 days of the 7th lunar month, those spirits which have not achieved the place of happiness are released. This is their “holiday”. It is a time for these wandering spirits to enjoy themselves and escape the worries of the other world to which they have been banished.
Taiwanese people who subscribe to this belief will place an offering in front of their home and/or business for these spirits. They will also burn “hell money” and offer worship, the purpose being to aid these wandering spirits, often called “good brothers” in the hope they will be able to leave the place of torment and finally achieve a place of rest and happiness in the afterlife. Next to the table will be placed a small bowl of water and washcloth. This must be a new washcloth and it can never be used again after this time, otherwise it will bring bad luck. The hope is that if a spirit happens to drop by, they will eat their fill of the offering outside, wash their hands and then be on their way without coming inside.
I’ve seen many foreigners perplexed and even try to convince families and owners how ridiculous this is, knowing the items will stay on the table, not ever being consumed. Taiwanese people don’t expect it to “disappear”, they believe it is a spiritual act, so don’t bother.
In addition, over the years, Taiwanese have developed a set of cultural taboos that they hold to fairly closely during Ghost Month. Most of them are related to night. The reason behind these taboos have been lost to many people, but if you dig deep enough you can find out the origins. If you are close to Taiwanese people, you may here these things talked about, mentioned or they may even urge you to abstain from certain behaviors. Here is a brief list of some of the main taboos:
- Don’t hang your clothes to dry at night. – The reason for this is that wandering spirits might think you have left them these clothes to try on and the next morning your clothes will be gone.
- Don’t lean or walk against walls. – Spirits like walking next to walls where it is cooler.
- Keep away from water. – Spirits that died in water will try to drown you. This is a particular taboo and has its roots in the idea that if a spirit can cause your death, it can return to the world of the living.
- If someone calls your name or taps you on the shoulder at night … Keep walking.
- No whistling or tapping of any kind. – This behavior encourages wandering spirits to come and visit you.
- Don’t buy a home. – The reason for this is that buying a home is a celebratory act. During this month, you should avoid all types of celebrations. This is the spirits time to rest and celebrate. You are to lay low.
- Try not to take the last bus home. – This is when the spirits are coming out at night and you might be stuck on a bus with them.
- Keep away from hospitals.
- Don’t take pictures outside at night. If you happen to catch a picture of a spirit, it is very unlucky.
- Don’t get married. – Related to the idea of celebrating above.
- Don’t have funerals. – Again, because of the large gathering of people associated with a funeral, it is like a celebration. This one generally applies to the first 15 days.
- Don’t use the word Ghost. In Taiwan, these spirits are called “good brothers”. More on this below…
So, why call these spirits “Good Brothers”? The idea is to create a good feeling, you don’t want to do anything that would create enmity or anger between you and the departed. The one thing traditional Taiwanese fear almost more than anything else is being left in the afterlife with no one taking care of you in this life. Hence the term “Hungry Ghost”. If your descendants in the land of the living don’t pay attention to you in the afterlife, then your spirit turns into an angry and vengeful ghost. This is one reason why ancestor worship remains such an important part of everyday Taiwanese life.
There are three very important days during this month when there will be a great deal of incense and spirit money burned. Of course there will be plenty of burning going on the whole month, but you can expect a great deal more on these three days. These are the 1st, 15th and last day of the 7th lunar month.