Today is an important day in Taiwan’s lunar calendar: the mid-way point of ghost month. Ghost month falls annually on the seventh month of the lunar calendar. This year, the dates are almost a month apart from the Western, solar calendar (i.e. the main celebration takes place on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, which falls on 14 August).
In Taiwan, people believe that the spirits of those who die without descendants to worship them are doomed to an unhappy afterlife. They come out from hell during the ghost month and roam the earth. The best way to appease them is to provide a sacrificial banquet of food, incense and paper money (ghost money). And for the living, it is best to avoid certain auspicious ventures and beginnings such as travel, moving house, buying property or getting married. According to the lunar prophecy published in my local paper, today is a bad day for all auspicious matters — but good for placing a body in a coffin, breaking ground for graves or burials, which pretty much sums up the tone of the month. Many people also believe it is best not to go swimming, either, notwithstanding the sweltering heat. Amy, the cultural guru from the Community Services Centre, gives a detailed description in the latest edition of Centered on Taipei magazine.
There are numerous colourful activities during Ghost Month throughout Taiwan, of which the most elaborate is arguably the Keelung Ghost Festival. But you can mark Ghost Month, especially the 15th of the month, through partaking in more local forms of worship. In fact, nearly every business or residence will put out sacrificial tables of food and beverage, light incense and burn ghost money in a ritual known as zhongyuan pudu (中元普渡). And so it was that I got to participate in my work building’s zhongyuan pudu ceremony.
My office is in a modern building in the commercial hub of Xinyi District, within shadow-fall of the iconic Taipei 101 building. Most of our local staff are Westernised, with the majority having studied or immigrated overseas before returning to work in Taipei. Yet there was no scepticism or hint of ‘I’m too cool for this superstitious nonsense’. Instead, Taiwan society has managed to retain a wonderful mix of ancient tradition and progressive modern thinking — linking the best of both worlds.
Our office manager bought a bunch of supplies on behalf of those who wanted to participate, we purloined a table, wheeled it downstairs and joined the fray. Our contributions of congee (red bean and peanut), pork-flavoured instant noodles, green tea, snow biscuits, corn chips and ghost money were more modest than some of larger companies in the building. Many of the other tables were already stacked high with boxes and adorned with prayer flags, flowers and incense holders. It was a jolly event, with people from nearly every company in the building coming down for the ceremony.
The short ceremony kicked off with a long speech in Taiwanese. I could just make out an explanation of the purpose of the event, and description of the building’s address and occupants (unfortunately, I don’t speak Taiwanese but sometimes I can make bits out). Representatives from each building then bowed several times, praying to the ‘good brothers’ (好弟兄). (It is impolite and unlucky to refer to the spirits as ‘ghosts’.) Then the rest of the crowd filed past with their incense sticks and bowed in prayer to the good brothers. Meanwhile, people lit incense sticks and placed them on top of their offerings.
Then came the fun bit, burning ghost money. The government tries to discourage people burning ghost money out of environmental concerns. But old habits (and superstitions) die hard. Many Chinese people believe that in the afterlife, spirits need money to attain a better standard of living in the afterlife. (And maybe even bribe a corrupt officials or two). So they burn colourful pieces of yellow/gold paper in the belief that it will find its way to those who need it in the underworld. The organisers of the event set up temporary wire baskets on the sidewalk so that people could burn their ghost money.
And what happens to the food and drink after it has been blessed? Well, we got to take it home afterwards. Hubbie was very happy to have a packet of corn chips. And I just finished one of the cans of congee this afternoon. Hopefully it will bring me peace.