Violent Waves Can't Stop Keelung's Midsummer Ghost Festival

Violent Waves Can't Stop Keelung's Midsummer Ghost Festival
Photo Credit: Syrena Lin

What you need to know

Once a year, spirits from the underworld are released into the world for a monthlong "summer vacation."

Keelung, a rainy port city in Taiwan, is in the limelight at least for one month every year, usually between August and September.

The Covid-19 pandemic did not prevent enthusiastic visitors from joining an evening-long ceremony on Tuesday. Crowds filled the streets of Keelung and its seaside for an elaborate parade and a sacrificial rite that involved releasing water lanterns against violent waves.

With a festive spirit similar to Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, in which families gather to remember the dead, Taiwan’s Midsummer Ghost Festival (中元祭) is about extending compassion even to complete strangers.

While Ghost Festival sounds spooky and there are plenty of taboos, locals take joy in celebrating the month with spectacular performances. Legend has it that on the first day of Ghost Month, the gates of the underworld are opened for ghosts to roam around earth.

“It’s like they’re released for one month of summer vacation,” said Ting Lee, a Keelung local and senior tour guide at MyTaiwanTour.

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

Photo Credit: Syrena Lin
Chupu Altar in Keelung, Taiwan was built specifically for Ghost Month sacrificial ceremonies and offerings

The Keelung Midsummer Ghost Festival, which takes place each seventh lunar month, finds its origin from a deadly battle in August 1851. Over a hundred lives were lost in a brutal fight between two immigrant factions from Fujian, China. Suffering from tremendous losses on both sides, the leaders finally agreed to drop their weapons and came together in peace.

Family clans were established based on their last names. Today, Keelung has a total of 15 clans, some of which are a combination of various last names that have fewer members. These 15 clan associations alternate to host an annual religious ritual that would rescue the wandering souls of the dead and relieve them from suffering.

During the month, Taiwanese avoid mentioning the word “ghost.” Instead, they refer to wandering spirits as “good brothers” for a more positive spin. More recently, Taiwanese have adopted a more playful name — “floatie” (阿飄) — to imagine souls floating around seeking for fun or food.

Photo Credit: Syrena Lin
During Ghost Month, Keelung City is lined with thousands of lanterns donated by local clan associations.

Releasing of the water lanterns

Countless festivities take place during Ghost Month, but one highlight that draws a big crowd is the releasing of water lanterns in the middle of the month. This happens on the evening of the 14th day, when the family clans show off their decorative floats in a parade before releasing their own water lanterns into the ocean.

Built in the shape of a house, the water lanterns are meant to illuminate a path for wandering ghosts in the ocean, inviting them ashore for a feast the next day. “The farther the lantern goes, the better luck the family will have in the coming year,” Lee said.

Photo Credit: Syrena Lin
Water lanterns to be released into the ocean

This year, the Pai and Tong families are responsible for hosting the festival. One committee member from the clan association told The News Lens that the preparation work started long before the pandemic. All the colorful details, from the massive paper boat to the temple decorations, cost millions of Taiwanese dollars.

A team of divers was ready to place the paper lanterns against crashing waves. For the first time, a crane was deployed to lift a gigantic paper boat into the sea because of high tides and post-typhoon ocean currents.

A Kuomintang-sanctioned holiday?

Before the 1950s, the releasing of water lanterns used to take place later on the 25th day when the tides were lower, Lee noted. But the Kuomintang government wanted to preserve resources by regulating religious rituals and moving this particular date earlier.

Ritual observances had previously taken place throughout the year, involving entire communities in activity that wasn’t seen as economically productive. The KMT saw this and vast expenditures on sacrifices as wasteful and at odds with its economic planning. In 1952 the government standardized the celebration into one festival and placed limits on sacrificial offerings.

Ghost Month celebrations in Taiwan have nevertheless carried on for over a century. Despite harsh waves, spectators kept their spirits high and cheered on for the divers as they tried to push each lantern as far out as possible.

Photo Credit: Syrena Lin

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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