The seventh month of the lunar calendar marks the Ghost Month in Taiwan. During this month, the gates of the underworld are open and spirits are allowed to visit their family, loved ones and or just roam around. The 15th of the month is Zhong Yuan Pudu Festival, or Ghost Festival. While being Taoist, the festival also has Buddhist roots.
Since Ghost Month does mark the month when ghosts can roam amongst the living, this is a month that is often avoided for any wedding or childbirth. However, while in western society spirits are often viewed as malicious, in Buddhist Taoist culture, they are but passed away spirits that have not reincarnated yet. All deceased, good or bad, will become a spirit.
While there are many festivals paying respects to the different deities and spirits, the special bit about the Ghost Festival is that it also pays respect to those spirits without any family. When a person passes away, it is up to the survived family to pay respects and provide food to the deceased. When this doesn’t happen, the spirits will considered homeless and their throats will shrink to the size of a needle. Any food that they attempt to eat will catch on fire in their mouths. During the Ghost Month, the Buddhist Gods will permit extinguish the fire and grow their throats, allowing them to feast.
As a sign of respect, you never refer to the spirits as ghosts (gwei: 鬼), instead they are referred to as good brothers (hao song di: 好兄弟)
Since this is a tribute to all the spirits in the area, typically temples would hold a large gathering having everyone put their tributes on the tables. Then a Taoist or Buddhist priest (depending on the temple) will speak out a mantra and invite the spirits to feast. There is a total for four stages of tribute:
- Tribute to the Earth Palace
- Tribute to the ancestors
- Tribute to the spirits
- Tribute to the Di Ji Zhu
Each has tributes specific to them. Below are some interesting tributes special for the spirits:
A bento box or a plate of typical home cooked meal is offered as tribute to the Di Ji Zhu. This is often times also done for companies (especially factories) to ensure job functions go smoothly and without any accidents.
For the spirits, it is also expected to bring out a basin filled with water, towel, toothbrush and toothpaste to allow the spirits to clean themselves.
Probably the most bizarre are the burlesque shows meant to be entertainment for the deceased. Typically seen only in rural parts of Taiwan, a stage will be set up near the temple and burlesque and pole dancers will perform. The first row will be left empty to ensure the spirits have front row seats.
While Taiwan is known for its sky lanterns during the Lantern Festival, the release of water lanterns is also an age old and gorgeous tradition. There are two types of water lanterns: lily lanterns and house lanterns.
Lily Lanterns come from the Buddhist tradition and is used to guide homeless spirits to the afterlife.
House Lanterns are typically for each household to guide any spirits of a family that have deceased to reincarnate. The family name will often be found on the lanterns.
The lanterns are placed in the water then lit on fire as they go out to the water. The further they go, the more blessings the one offered the tribute will receive. Modern day, there are usually scuba divers around to make sure the lanterns travel out into the water.
Note: The most famous water lantern release is in Japan, called Tōrō nagashi. These are released during the Bon Festival, similarly to guide souls to the spirit world.
Mo Fa Ah Ma (Grandma and Her Ghosts) is a movie made in 1998 that centers around Taiwan’s Ghost Festival. Using it as a vessel to understand the Taiwanese culture and superstitions around spirits. Also, it’s just a cute movie about a young boy and his ah ma.
Video below has the entire movie, but closed caption only in Mandarin.