Taiwan: The Hungry Ghosts of Isla Formosa

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The hungry ghosts of Taiwan are currently haunting this beautiful island. Yes, you read that right! And they’re going to continue haunting the island for the entire seventh month of the lunar calendar.

Don’t stay out late after dark. Ghosts usually roam the earth at sunset and at night.

This means a number of things for residents of Taiwan. For one, there is a lot – and I mean A LOT – of paper burning and alter worship happening in temples and on the streets right now. The Taiwanese are a naturally superstitious people, and this is particularly evident during Ghost Festival, also know as the Hungry Ghost Festival. (Ghost Month typically occurs in August, but in 2017, for example, Ghost Month in Taiwan falls in September.)

The custom originates from China, but it is also celebrated by Buddhists and Taoists in other Asian countries and in Asian communities around the world. The most important day of Ghost Month is known as Ghost Day, and it falls on the 15th night of the festival. Taiwanese believe that this is the time of year when spirits and ghosts are nearest to our realm of existence, thus the living are likely to be visited by the dead – unless they are appeased.

Ghost Month Offerings (4)

This may sound similar to another article that I wrote about Qingming Festival, which is also known as Tomb Sweeping Festival. The difference is that Tomb Sweeping Day pays respect to older generations of ancestors, whereas Ghost Festival pays respect to all the deceased.The ghosts that emerge during Ghost Festival are believed to be the ancestors of families who forgot to pay homage to them after they died. It is believed that these ghosts are coming straight through the gates of hell, where they are free to walk the earth to seek pleasure and food.

This time of year is very auspicious for the people of Taiwan. Alter lamps are lit on the 12th day, paper money and incense are burned, and offerings of food and drinks are made to appease the spirits, keep them happy, and prevent them from visiting private homes. Every year in Banciao, for example, our building complex always hosts a big party in the lobby. With five towers of residents contributing food, drinks, and incense, it’s easy to imagine how busy (and smoky) it gets during the celebration.

There are always at least 20 tables loaded with fruit, vegetables, packaged foods, beer, and other goodies, all strategically spread out with sticks of incense poked in various nooks and crannies for good measure. A make-shift altar is set up at one end of the building complex, and this is where residents can burn incense and joss paper, and offer their blessings. Many families pray to their deceased relatives, but they also offer prayers to other wandering souls so that these ghosts don’t intrude into the family home to wreak chaos.

Ghost Month in Taiwan

Standing under a tree at night or visiting a graveyard during Ghost Month is a bad idea.

There are many taboos associated with Ghost Month:

  • Don’t stay out late after dark. Ghosts usually roam the earth at sunset and at night
  • Don’t whistle at night. That’s a sure way for the ghosts to find you!
  • It’s never a good idea to make large purchases during Ghost Festival.
  • You shouldn’t have surgery or get married
  • Important events are usually avoided during the month to avoid bad luck
  • If someone taps you on the shoulder or calls you from behind, it’s best not to turn around. This is an easy invite for ghosts to possess you!
  • Travel plans are best avoided
  • Do not wear red or black. Ghosts are attracted to these colors.
  • Don’t move house during Ghost Month
  • Don’t go swimming. Spirits like to hide in the water
  • Don’t spit, stare at fire, or open an umbrella at night
  • Don’t look under the alter table during prayer session

During Ghost Month in Taiwan, it’s typical to:

  • Offer prayers to deceased relatives and other lost souls
  • Offer food and drinks
  • Burn joss paper and hell bank notes, which are believed to have value in the afterlife. It’s not uncommon to see people burning paper replicas of things like cars and houses to please ghosts
  • Hold a large feast for ghosts on the 14th day of the seventh month
  • Throw a live performance, such as a Chinese opera or a burlesque show. If this happens, the first row of seats are always left empty so the ghosts have somewhere to sit
  • Buddhists and Taoists often hold special ceremonies in the afternoon and at night
  • Burn incense in the front doors of homesteads and businesses.
  • On the 14th day, people traditionally float water lanterns outside their homes so ghosts can find their way back to hell. These lanterns generally look like a lotus flower on a paper boat
  • It’s not uncommon to see people praying by roadsides or crossroads. That is because these areas are believed to be areas that attract ghosts.
  • Throw a big feast on the 15th day of the month to bring good luck to your family
 I’m not a naturally superstitious person, but it’s easy to get caught up in things when you’re constantly being warned about evil spirits. What about you? Do you believe in ghosts? (For this article’s purpose, I am writing specifically about practices that occur in Taiwan, but keep in mind that practices vary from country to country.)


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