Closing the Gate on Ghost Month: 7 Facts You Should Know

Closing the Gate on Ghost Month: 7 Facts You Should Know
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Why you need to know

As Ghost Month comes to a close, here are 7 lesser known facts about the 7th lunar month.

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On Sunday, temples around Taiwan will usher the spirits of the deceased back into the afterlife, marking the end of the seventh lunar month – otherwise known as Ghost Month (鬼月).

But ghosts aren't out and about for only one month each year. They're everywhere, often in the form of "wandering ghosts" who roam around and are said to hide in dark corners.

You may have heard of the "taboos" surrounding the ghost month: avoid water, don't get married, and don't hang your clothes outside, to name a few. But these taboos, borne from a fear of the bad luck malicious spirits could bring, are just one part of a month with a long, colorful history.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Taiwanese men throw 'ghost money' to mark the Hungry Ghost Festival in Keelung.

If you've ever found yourself curious about what, exactly, has been going on throughout the last month, let's dive right in and explore its purpose, its history, and its quirks.

1. The Ghost Festival isn't all about ghosts

The Hungry Ghost Festival, known in Chinese as Pudu (中元普度), is the apex of the seventh lunar month's rituals and festivities. Held on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month – August 25 this year – adherents worship their ancestors by preparing food offerings, burning "ghost money," and sending lanterns onto the water to give direction to the ghosts – especially those of fishermen who, over the centuries, were lost at sea.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
A burning floating lantern in the sea off the port of Keelung, meant to appease the spirits of fishermen who have perished at sea.

But the Hungry Ghost Festival is also a celebration of the birthday of Di Guan Da Di (地官大帝), or the Taoist god of earth. One of the Emperors of the Three Realms (三界公), Di Guan wields the power of pardoning the transgressions of mortals.

The festival's origins trace their roots back to Chinese practices of encountering malicious ghosts. Along with its Taoist lineage, it is influenced by the Yulanpen Sutra, an ancient Mahayana Buddhist scripture. Long thought to consist of a discussion between the Buddha and his disciple, some scholars – such as Stephen F. Teiser, Professor of Buddhist Studies at Princeton University – now believe it to be a 5th century Chinese forgery.

2. Ghost month is nothing like Halloween

Western holidays like Halloween in the United States or Day of the Dead in Mexico may involve ghosts and spirits (and, of course, costumes), but while you likely know by now the food offerings outside temples are not Halloween treats, there are other key differences.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
A man waits for the Taipei-Keelung train to attend the Hungry Ghost Festival – but don't get it twisted, this is not Halloween.

Unlike the Tomb Sweeping Festival, held in spring, in which the living pay homage to the deceased, the Hungry Ghost Festival is notable as the deceased are believed to actually visit the living.

The majority of these visits occur during the Hungry Ghost Festival, but at some temples, the gates to Heaven and Hell are opened in a large ceremony at the start of the month – and will be closed, emphatically, on Sunday.

Importantly, the Taiwanese view towards ghosts isn't one of solely fear – it's interlaced with ancestral reverence, as this observance has its roots in worship both of the deceased and of Di Guan, the Taoist god of earth.

3. The Taiwanese folk vision of Hell is similar to Dante's Hell

Taiwanese folk religion unfolded from a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, which yielded the concept of a judgment day preceding the afterlife. Called diyu (地獄) in Chinese, it shares similarities with the vision of Hell shared by Italian poet Dante Alighieri.

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Early Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli's depiction of Hell, as described by the poet Dante.

In Inferno, Dante describes nine circles of Hell, ranging from the first (limbo) to the ninth, and worst (treachery). In the ninth circle, all sinners are frozen in ice – although only the most treacherous make it to the deepest of the Four Rounds, named after the ultimate turncoat, Judas.

Taiwanese folk religion, however, uses the concept of ten courts, or dian (殿), each watched over by a king, or wang (王) – but here, sinners are prepared for reincarnation, either as animals, beasts, or humans fated to live in misery. Evildoers are absolved of memories of their past lives, according to David K. Jordan, Professor Emeritus at the University of California and author of The Minor Arts of Daily Life: Popular Culture in Taiwan.

Upon reaching the ninth or tenth realm, they drink the "tea of five flavors," or wuwei cha (五味茶) offered by the Lady of Forgetfulness, Meng Po (孟婆), which Jordan writes "obliterates all memory of previous lives or of the punishments just suffered, preparing the soul for the innocence of childhood in a new incarnation."

4. It's observed by overseas Chinese communities

Beyond China and Taiwan, the Hungry Ghost Festival is observed in Singapore, Malaysia, and some parts of Indonesia, where it is known for live stage performances called getai (歌台) or koh-tai in Hokkien. Like in Taiwan, which features gezixi (歌仔戏) opera performances, the front seats are reserved for those observers visiting from the afterlife.

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
A Malaysian girl performs at a getai concert. The front seats are reserved for ghosts.

Among non-superstitious Singaporeans, the seventh lunar month may be most notable for being the best time to jump into the housing market. A 2015 Straits Times editorial showed that Singaporeans have enjoyed significant discounts when buying property during the ghost month – and that Chinese Singaporeans over 50, believing the closing of a deal to be unlucky, have largely stayed on the sidelines.

5. The Ghost Grappling Competition has Qing Dinasty roots

The Toucheng Ghost Grappling Competition is held in Yilan's Toucheng Township on the last day of ghost month – although it won't be occurring this year.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Competitors gather around the large tower (kupeng) at Yilan's Ghost Grappling Festival.

In Toucheng, two towers are used. Offerings are placed at the fanpeng (small tower), where a Taoist priest performs a ritual so the hungry spirits can have one last meal before heading back to the afterlife. The kupeng (large tower) is used for the grappling competition. Competitors scale bamboo pillars, snatching offerings and flags to pay reverence to their ancestors.

To make things more difficult, the pillars are greased.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Competitors scale the bamboo pillars at Toucheng's 2012 Ghost Grappling Festival.

The tradition dates back to the Qing Dynasty, but due to the risk of injury or death for participants, it was banned in the early 1900s. Yilan residents added some additional security measures and brought it back in 1991.

In Taiwan, this year's only grappling contest was held in Pingtung on August 25, seeing 32 teams scale 23 meter pillars to compete for a NT$300,000 (US$9,748) grand prize.

While Yilan isn't holding this event in 2018, you still have time to catch one of Taiwan's most infamous religious festivals in October...

6. Ghost month 'taboos' developed over time

Ghost month began as a time to revere ancestors and celebrate the birthday of Di Guan. So how did it become so unlucky?

Some scholars believe that common ghost month superstitions – for instance, avoiding water, laundry, and closing on properties – developed over time as natural responses to ethnic conflict and the unforgiving whim of Mother Nature.

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Photo Credit: Youtube / British Pathé
A resident wades through flooded Taipei after Typhoon Amy struck in 1962.

Taiwan's climate, especially prone to natural disasters, may have accelerated the fear of water during ghost month, which falls during typhoon season.

Natural factors were also the likely origins of the worship of Wang Yeh (王爺) and the sea goddess Matsu (媽祖), for whom millions of Taiwanese participate each year in the 300 kilometer Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage, recognized as a UNESCO living heritage event.

From October 28 to November 4, Pingtung's Donggang Township will host the Wang Yeh Boat Burning Festival. Held once every three years, the Taoist ritual sees protective gods (Wang Yeh) invited back down to earth to chase off disease and bad spirits. It culminates with the burning of a massive boat, which is set atop "ghost paper" and ignited on the beach, taking demonic spirits and sicknesses along with it.

7. On Sunday (and Monday), ghosts will be chased back to Hell

Temples around Taiwan will close their gates to the underworld, marking the end of the ghost month. Keelung's Laodagong Temple holds its ceremony a day later on Monday, September 10, so that butchers busy preparing offerings have the time to pay their last respects.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
The famous gate at Keelung's Laodagong Temple, which will be closed on Monday after the ghosts have returned to the underworld.

Not all ghosts will go back, however. Some "wandering ghosts" stick around and can be found hiding in dark corners and crevices.

But on Sunday, most ghosts will be ushered back to the afterlife – in some cases, the blood of pigs and chickens is used to chase them away.

For the Gate Closing ceremony at Laodagong Temple, held on the evening of Monday, September 10, frequent trains and buses run from Taipei to Keelung. From Keelung Station, it's a 15 minute walk to the temple. More information is available here.

Read Next: ILLUSTRATION: 5 Gods to Worship in Taiwan

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