Once again, the Ghost Month Festivals has officially begun in Taiwan(on August 19th) and there has been a rush to purchase enough ghost money to last until the Gates of Hell close for another year, on September 16th.
For followers of Buddhism and Taoism, the Ghost Month Festival begins on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. On this day the Gates of Hell are opened and the spirits of the dead roam the earth in search of food, mischief or even the taking of spirits from the living.
Here in Taiwan, Ghost Month is an important time of the year, when departed family members and ancestral lineages are shown extra respect. Many Taiwanese also believe that the spirits of the deceased wandering the earth during Ghost Month also include such segments of the population as local people who died without any family members, travelers, immigrants and soldiers that died here, far from their homelands. Whatever the case, these departed individuals’ spirits roam among us. With an appreciation for long-established cultural traditions and superstitions, all wandering spirits are treated with reverence.
Each family household has a family shrine, which occupies a prominent place within the apartment or house. Ancestors are represented on individual tablets or a large scroll which contain the names, sex and other important information of the deceased. Incense and respectful prayers are offered daily. On the first day of the seventh lunar month, the shrine is thoroughly cleaned. Offerings of fruit, candies, favorite foods and freshly cut flowers, along with two red candles, are carefully placed on the altar of the family shrine, followed by the performing of household ceremonies.
Walking along the streets of Taipei during Ghost Month, it is a common sight to see tables laden with a wide assortment of food items, such as a roasted chicken, cups of wine, large cans of Taiwan Beer, bags of coffee, whole pineapples, oranges and bowls of rice for the wandering spirits. These food offerings are called “spirit food.” Each outdoor table has a special incense pot, in which ignited sticks of burning incense are placed after prayers are offered for the souls of the wandering ghosts.
Many Taiwanese believe in ghosts and feel that it is their duty to provide comfort for the dead: giving them food, clothing and money not only for their yearly visit to earth, but also for use when they return to the underworld.
Tales of dissatisfied wandering spirits and the trouble that they can cause have been handed down from generation to generation. Angry spirits can make the living become ill, take a living person’s spirit from them, destroy their homes in some unexpected manner, or cause trouble with the complacent ancestors within a family. This is why there are so many taboos at this time: avoid going swimming, especially in the ocean (wandering spirits love water), don’t hang your clothes outside (as a ghost may hide inside them) postpone getting married or purchasing real estate, avoid latenight events and (for goodness sake!) don’t whistle, as this sound will attract a wandering spirit to you. No one wants a wandering spirit hanging around them, especially a malicious spirit that brings bad luck.
Spirit or ghost money is burned as an offering to deceased family members and wandering spirits. Each pack of ghost money is made-up of square pieces of paper made from bamboo or rice. Stacks of golden-colored paper money embossed with vermillion Chinese characters are tossed into a special furnace. As the ashes from the paper money rise, it is thought that they will be transformed into money for the celestial bank accounts of departed souls, including those of the hungry wandering spirits when they return to the underworld.
There are three categories of ghost money: silver and two shades of gold.
Jiujin are large paper squares embossed with a gold metallic foil rectangle and Chinese characters. Kanjin only has a gold metallic rectangle, and xiaoyin are smaller paper squares with a silver metallic rectangle.
Jingyi is an interesting form of “gift certificate” with images of things that people use from daily life (clothes, shoes, cups, books etc.) printed on the front of each piece of paper.
There are many customs and beliefs associated with Ghost Month in Taiwan, and whether this is your first or thirty-first experience, there is always something new to learn about the wandering spirits of Taiwan.
By Suzan Babcock
Suzan Babcock is a long-time resident of Taiwan. During her stay here, she has managed four successful careers in education, cross-cultural relations and counseling, although being a mother has been her favorite.
This article was first published in Centered On Taipei Sep 2020.