A few days ago the Chinese lunar holiday called Ghost Month or gui yue began. I happen to be in a particularly religious section of Taiwan so this holiday is observed with some gusto. Ancestor worship, or at least reverence, is big deal here in TW. As I stated in a previous post, most houses have an area for a shrine where they burn incense and leave bottled water, fruit, tea, etc for their ancestors to eat in the afterlife. Paper money is also burned in large iron drums outside of houses and shops (I have been seeing these around Pingtung with more frequency lately because of the holiday). There are tons of stores that sell fake money for this purpose. At the end of Ghost Month, lanterns are sent out on the water with directions back to the underworld painted on them to guide the ghosts back home.
It was our Chinese teacher who first described Ghost Month to us meiguoren. In her usually peppy fashion, here is what she told us about it (my account is pretty much verbatim):
“Ghost Month is the time when the gates of hell open and all the ghosts are released. The rest of the year ghosts can not eat because the food turns to fire on their lips. So this month they are very hungry. Some ghosts do not have a family so they are the lost ghost who will wander around looking for food. People leave out offering of food for their family’s ghost. Some people believe that the ghosts like to be in the water at night so they do not walk near the river at night because the ghost will take over their body. Also we do not sing or dance this month because it will attract the ghost. Hahahhaha! ”
Half the class was frozen with terror. The “gates of hell opening” is not something we would celebrate in the West, not usually anyways. All of us TUSA students will be performing in a talent show tomorrow that includes much singing and dancing. Additionally, I have been quite fond of taking night strolls near and around the river. Why the hell didn’t they tell us about this Ghost Month business earlier? I am not a particularly superstitious person, but I have watched enough Japanese horror movies and read enough Chinese ‘hungry ghost’ stories to be sufficiently freaked the f*ck out by this. How could our teacher be so cavalier about the gates of Hades being flung open?
What I find most interesting about Ghost Month is the Chinese concept of hell and what it says about their culture. Hell is not filled with fire and brimstone, as we might think of it in the West, where one gets poked with sharp sticks through all of eternity. Hell in Taiwan is a place where you can not eat for 11 months out of the year. Food here is that important and a lack thereof defines being in hell. Wish me luck with not waking up to a hungry Chinese ghost drooling on my face… that’s if I ever fall asleep here again.