This year, August 8th, begins the annual celebration of Ghost Month here in Taiwan and across many Asian cultures.
Ghost Month is celebrated during the 7th lunar month of the year, especially during the first 15 days, although the entire month is designated as such.
This is a terrible time of fear for Taiwanese people and many will act out of that fear for the next month. Let me give you a little bit of cultural background and explanation of what is going on during this time.
What is Ghost Month?
First, a little background. Taiwanese religious culture is varied and diverse. There are many religions and beliefs represented on the island. That being said, the predominant religious belief system is held in the family. It is what we might call Traditional Folk Religion. This belief contains elements of Buddhism, Daoism, and Animism all held over a foundation built solidly on Confucius’ teachings.
The reason it is important to understand this is because out of Confucius teaching came one of the most important and central tenants of Asian life, the idea of “filial piety”. At its inception, this simply meant to honor your parents, grandparents and ancestors. They are the ones who made your current life possible, so you owe them honor and respect. Over time, religion and spiritism mixed with this fundamental belief and out of this was born ancestor worship, which has grown and morphed over time.
Many Taiwanese today believe that when you die, your spirit goes to live in another world which is very similar to this one, the spirit world. This spirit world exists in parallel with this world.
For the dead, your living descendants are responsible (because of the idea of filial piety) to continually offer their ancestors worship, honor and sacrifices (money and things) which provide for them in the afterlife a happy and satisfying existence.
So, in almost every Taiwanese home, there is a family altar which must be continually maintained. At this altar, the ancestral tablets are placed and worshipped every morning and every night by the faithful. On certain days of the lunar calendar, it is very important to observe certain rituals and at times, even enlisting the aid of a shaman or spirit priest to aid in making certain that your ancestors are happy and satisfied.
To help you understand this event, you need to know that most Taiwanese believe that when you physically die, your spirit goes to live in another world which is very similar to this one, the spirit world. 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 happy. The second place is also where spirits who are killed or die apart from family are sent. A type of hell.
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 another chance for some.
Now, what is Ghost Month – and why is it such a big deal in Taiwanese culture.
It is also important to note here that at death, Taiwanese believe that the soul separates into three spirits. One spirit inhabits the ancestral tablet, one spirit stays at the tomb and one spirit lives in the spirit world. When the family gathers to pray and worship, especially at the tomb on tomb sweeping day, they believe it is possible to communicate with their ancestors.
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 them to enjoy themselves and escape the worries of the other world to which they have been banished.
Now, what is Ghost Month – and why is it such a big deal in Taiwanese culture.
Taiwanese believe that during the 7th lunar month, Ghost Month, the demon guards, who keep their ancestors safely locked away in the afterlife, will open the gates and release these spirits for a month long visit back to the world of the living. During this time, it’s possible your ancestors and other spirits may pay you and your relatives a visit.
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 decide to try on the clothes and stay in them which would then make your clothes haunted when you put them back on.
- Don’t lean or walk against walls. – Spirits like walking next to walls where it is cooler.
- Keep away from water. – This is probably one of the best known. When I first moved here, I was quickly told to stay away from swimming pools during Ghost month, apparently because they would try to drown me.
- 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. Don’t even look for homes. And don’t make any significant financial decisions or purchases. The reason behind not buying a home is that spirits might be inside the house and then you would be stuck with a haunted house.
- 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.
- This one is simple – Don’t die. The idea is that if you are killed during ghost month, the ghost who kills you gets to take your place back in the land of the living.
- 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.
- Don’t have funerals.
- Don’t use the word Ghost. In Taiwan, these spirits are called “good brothers”. More on this below…
Now, in order to make sure that spirits and especially your ancestors won’t come into your business and home, almost everyone will place a table outside filled with fruit, oil, alcohol and a variety of other goodies as an offering to the spirits who want to come for a visit. Next to the table they might place a small bowl of water and washcloth. The hope is that if a spirit happens to drop by, they will take their fill of the goodies outside, wash their hands and dry off and then be on their way without coming inside to mess with anyone or anything. I’ve seen many foreigners perplexed and even try to convince families and owners how ridiculous this is, knowing the items will remain 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.
So, why call these spirits “Good Brothers”? It’s because they are family. 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 descendents 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. So, why call these spirits “Good Brothers”? It’s because they are family. 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.
Christians of course don’t believe these superstitions. The Bible tells us in Hebrews and throughout, it is appointed for man once to die and then the judgment. We are also told clearly that there is no passing back and forth between this life and the next. As well, our place in the next life is fixed by our actions in this life. Those who believe and trust in Jesus Christ as the substitutionary sacrifice for their sins will be guaranteed a place in heaven with God. Those who reject Jesus Christ as their savior will be forever condemned to judgment in hell for their sins.
Let’s pray for and love our brothers and sisters who have these closely held superstitions and live fearlessly with loving kindness. Gently challenging them to consider their own relationship with the afterlife and how they will be judged themselves. the Bible says in 1 Peter 3:15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.