If Western countries have Halloween, then the Chinese have the Ghost Festival, a religious observance of ghosts, spirits, and long-dead ancestors that last for an entire month. The Ghost Festival starts on the 15th month of the seventh lunar month, when it is believed the gates of the underworld are opened and its ethereal occupants are set loose upon the living world. In Taiwan, there are two major ghost festivals – the Buddhist one called Ullambana and the Taoist one called Jhongyuan. Both events are cause to perform religious ceremonies throughout the island, from the burning of paper “spirit” money and offerings of food and drink to monks chanting the necessary prayers to ease the suffering of the dead.
All the rites performed during the Ghost Festival are believed to give pleasure to the spirits as well as help them ascend to heaven; in turn, these spirits will shower good fortune. Many activities are avoided during this month; namely, travel, swimming,Â weddings, and moving to a new house, among others. This is to prevent malignant spirits from doing mischief during these particularly vulnerable times. Some shops are closed to allow ghosts free passage across the streets. On days during the seventh month, feasts are prepared, with dinner tables always having unoccupied chairs in benefit of welcome spirits. Colorful shows are performed, like operas and dramas, with the volume turned on high to entertain these apparitions, as well, with several seats made vacant for their comfort. And incense, a sign of prosperity, is burned in front of every household, as well as street centers where offerings of food are laid out to satiate the appetites of the dead. Finally, paper-mache versions of material items such as cash, cars, houses, and tv sets are burned, their spiritual counterparts being sent off for the enjoyment of ghosts.
One of the most eye-catching events in Taiwan during this time is the Keelung Ghost Festival. The prominent families in this city at the northern tip of Taiwan take turns every year to organize the festivities. The first day of the seventh lunar month marks the start of the festival by opening the doors of Keelung’s Laodagong Temple, inviting denizens from the underworld to come up and enjoy the offerings made by the living. Incense and candles stay alit for the next twelve days, while monks continuously utter prayers while offering sacrifices. Large-leafed bamboos are used for posts along main roads, bus terminals and railway stations for lamps and banners, inviting all deities to observe the religious ceremonies as well as to attract wandering ghosts to share the sacrifices offered to them. Watch the video below for a sneak peak of what to expect.
Video Courtesy of ceciliamu
A religious procession occurs on the thirteenth day, and on the fourteenth day, water lanterns are released to the sea. This is the highlight of the festival, as the lanterns take the shapes of various ships, temples, and houses. They are hoisted on floats as they are paraded throughout the city, prior to being sent adrift in the open waters. These lanterns are a source of competition among families, whose names are inscribed in plaques that are displayed along with the floats they sponsored. Once in the water, the lanterns are supposed to guide the watery dead to the offerings on land; the further they float in the sea, the more fortune will be bestowed on the sponsoring family.
The fifteenth day is marked with a service, as the monks dance to the Ghost God Jhongkuei. All this continues until the first day of the eight lunar month, when the shrine doors are closed as a symbol of the spirits’ return to the underworld.
The Ghost Festival is observed around mid- to late August in Taiwan and other Chinese communities. To catch a glimpse the water lantern festivity, hop aboard a commuter train from Taipei to Keelung or take a non-stop bus from Taipei Railway Station to Keelung Harbor. While wandering around Keelung, you can drop by Miaokou Night Market, which is famous throughout the island for its wide selection of food, especially the baked crabs and fish ball soup. It lies along the lanes and alleys surrounding Dianji Temple near Keelung Railway Station. You can also relax by Lovers Lake by the western part of the city. This mountainside is renowned for its scenic woods and waters. But mind you: watch out for your fellow wanderers of the supernatural sort during the seventh lunar month. They can get a little restless…