What is Ghost Month?
The seventh lunar month, according to the Chinese lunar calendar (which is what most holidays in Taiwan use to determine their dates.) This usually falls anytime from late July to late August, sometimes lasting into September. This month is 30 days long.
It is the month in which people believe the Gates of Hell open, causing ghosts to roam around for an entire month. These aren’t just any ghosts, but ‘hungry’ ones who largely are those who died forgotten and/or did not have any relatives.
Ghosts usually come out to seek food and entertainment, and it is best to appease them lest one invites their wrath.
What are its origins?
Nobody knows for sure. In China people believe it has Buddhist origins, specifically coming from the Ullambana sutra (盂蘭盆), though the aspects of ancestor worship has been a key cultural ingredient in Chinese folk legend as well, which suggests strong syncretism.
The story goes that a monk named Mulien [Maudgalyayana] found out that his mother was reborn in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts after death, because she had been greedy and withheld money from Buddhist monks even though she had been instructed to treat them kindly. Hungry ghosts are so called because although they have large stomachs, their throats are so fragile it is impossible for any food to pass through, hence their constant hunger. (A more appropriate term for modern believers would be 'good brethren' or 好兄弟, which holds more respect.)
Distressed, Mulien asked Buddha what to do in order to ease his mother’s suffering. Buddha instructed Mulien to set out food and bless it in order for the hungry ghosts to be able to eat, as well as offer food and clothes to monks. This way the ghosts were appeased and did not bother anyone.
How is it celebrated?
In modern times, Ghost Month is celebrated in a number of ways, the most important of which is the Ghost Festival (中元節) which falls on either the 15th day of the lunar calendar, although many celebrate it on the 14th.
On the first day of the seventh lunar month, temple gates are opened to symbolize the opening of the gates of hell. People will light candles to lead the ghosts to enjoy blessed incense and light.
On the thirteenth day, a procession of lanterns is held, and people release water lanterns on the fourteenth day as well as offer food and burn spirit money to appease the ghosts. The food will be laid out on long tables in public areas/temples and be blessed by priests, and when the ceremony is over people will take the food home to eat (do NOT eat the food when it’s laid out. That will make ghosts angry!) In the past, most people cook the food that’s laid out, but it is becoming increasingly common to buy food from supermarkets—it is also not uncommon for people to lay out packages of instant noodles, Oreos, and various snack food.
A unique spin on the celebrations occurs in Toucheng, Yilan, where young men climb up slippery, greased poles onto a platform, in an event known as ‘Changgu’ (搶孤, grappling with ghosts.) The first person to climb up will cut down the flag on the top of the pole and will win not only money but recognition from the community as well as the protection of the spirits. This event was once banned during the Qing dynasty for its inherent risk, and people have been injured or even killed before trying to climb up the poles.
Are there any taboos?
I will list some taboos associated with Ghost Month, but this is by no means all of them:
- Do not pee on trees. Especially banyan trees. Trees are believed to have spirits residing there, and peeing on anyone will definitely anger them.
- Do not disturb items offered to ghosts, be it money, food or incense.
- Couples should not get married during the month for it is inauspicious.
- Many operas will be performed during this time to appease the spirits, and the first row of seats should be reserved for them in turn. If a person sits on those seats, they may get possessed.
- Do not go out after dark, because that is when spirits are most active.
- Do not give out addresses to people casually, for a ghost might follow you home.
- Do not go near water. This is probably one of the biggest taboos because water is believed to have much negative energy (yin) and thus be the best conductor for ghosts. Also, since this month falls in the summer when water activities are ripe, there are always much more reports of people drowning than usual, which also lends to the belief.
Funnily enough, Chinese Valentine’s Day/Qixi also falls on this period. It occurs on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month (but there will be another post for that, probably.)
Hope this has been informative! If I’ve made any mistakes, please message for correction :).
P.s. If you can, try to find a copy of Grandma and her Ghosts (魔法阿媽) with English subtitles; here is the link with Chinese subtitles. It’s a great cartoon for learning more about how Taiwanese people view ghosts
AND a great illustration of the generation gap.
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