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August 17, 2017

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Taiwan's Ghost Month is here again

Today, July 29, is the first day of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar. In local folklore, it is the beginning of the Ghost Month, when the gates of the underworld are open and ghosts are free to roam among the living, in search of food to live on for the rest of the year.

To many people in Taiwan, except for funeral rites, no major personal events are to happen during the thirty days of Ghost Month. Weddings, inaugurations, moving house and other big occasions are shunned, for fear of bad luck. Potentially life-threatening activities, such as medical operations, long-distance travel and even swimming are also avoided at all costs, if possible.

Instead, to appease the wayward ghosts, offerings of food and incense are made to them in temples throughout the island. Gold and silver paper symbolizing money is burnt to allow the ghosts to live well. Families also make offerings of food to their ancestors at their places of interment. And for the lonely spirits who have no one to worship or feed them, people go to temples to pray that they return to the underworld contented, and not remain on earth to wreak havoc. These events take place throughout the thirty days.

Meanwhile, the central event of Ghost Month is the Chungyuan Pudu (mid-year) festival, also called Ghost Festival, on the fifteenth of the lunar month, or Aug. 12 this year. At Buddhist and Taoist temples, plenty of worshippers chant verses from scripture, light incense sticks and burn symbolic money to help the ghosts successfully make the journey to the living world.

This "bai bai" ritual is unique to Taiwan, as the tradition of observing Ghost Month originates from the mainland forebears of many residents who migrated to the island centuries ago during the Ching Dynasty. To put a stop to the violent feuds that often occurred between families of landowners and other settlers, it was agreed upon that a special festival would take place every year to honor the dead. Different families would take charge of organizing ceremonies each year.

The choice of the fifteenth day is due mainly to the melding of Taoist and Buddhist customs among the settlers. In Taoism, the fifteenth day is when the Earth God (Tu Di Gung) comes down to earth to judge good and bad people, while Buddhists make offerings on that day to save Buddha's mother from the Sangha spirits. The combined significance of the Chungyuan festival makes it one of the three major spiritually linked festival events in Taiwan, along with Lunar New Year and the Ching Ming grave-sweeping festival.

Of the various mass observations of the Chungyuan festival around Taiwan, the most popular is the one held in the northern port city of Keelung. In addition to the rituals noted above, worshippers release a horde of water lanterns into the sea to guide the spirits of the dead. It is believed that the farther that the lanterns float, the safer the ghosts will be and the luckier worshippers will become in the coming year.

In 2003, Ghost Month will end on Aug. 27. On that day, the underworld spirits are to leave the living world. Before life returns to normal on the next day, the start of the eighth lunar month, temple monks symbolically "chase" the ghosts back to their world and close the gates of hell.

Despite the stigma attached to Ghost Month, it is not a particularly unlucky time of year, according to local astrologers. In fact, Taiwan's version of Valentine's Day falls on the seventh day of the lunar month, or Aug. 4. Plus, Chinese Father's Day (Aug. 8) is simultaneously the eleventh day of this year's Ghost Month.

Meanwhile, certain Buddhists view Ghost Month as a lucky time of year. Also, a minority of lovers has bucked the trend in recent years by getting married during the period.

However, given the longstanding significance that these thirty days have on many families in Taiwan, Ghost Month and the Chungyuan Pudu are likely to remain a major annual event on the island for quite a while.

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