Friday, September 02, 2005

Ghost Month celebrations

About a month ago I wrote an entry about the opening of the 'Gates of Hell'. Today, one month later, at midnight, Hell's Gates are due to close again. I know of no other place which takes this Seventh Month in the Lunar Calendar as Taiwan. Probably because traditions have been kept alive, and at times encouraged, since time immemorial...but together with Taiwanese people's love of celebrations, of eating and drinking, as well as that spirit of remembering and honouring the deceased, and the sub-conscious fear of displeasing evil, each year around this time offers colourful and fascinating insight to Taiwanese culture. Some even joke that ghosts from other countries love to come to Taiwan in this month, because of the abundance of food and fun to be had...!

So the month begins with the opening of the Gates of Hell, which reputedly releases all the hungry and bored ghosts out into our world. For one month, they roam our world, which also results in people becoming catious in whatever they do, out of fear of 'unexpected encounters'. There are of course many 'dos and don'ts' (see previous blogs). Celebrations are held daily, especially at temples, big and small.

The 'Big Worship’(普渡, literally 'aiding the passage' (of spirits from one world to another)), falls on the 15th of the Seventh Month in the Lunar calendar. Always a terribly busy and hectic day everywhere, with every household and business setting up table-fuls of food, beverages and dishes to ‘sacrifice’ to the ghosts that roam the world at the moment. Firecrackers, prayers, flower wagons and parades cruise the streets, while men and women, old and young busy themselves with traditions that have been kept alive and passed down from generation to generation.

The main gist of the festival is to remember those who have ‘already gone’, especially relatives and ancestors. So cooking a good ten dish meal, together with rice, soup and fruits is a must. From early in the morning I started to prepare, and didn’t finish until late in the afternoon. There were so many places to go, so many to pray to…the ancestral plaque (公禡) is located at my grandmother’s place, and there I did most of the cooking and worshipping. Not only the ancestral plaque is basically a piece of wood with the family name written on it. It is said that when a member of the family dies, the spirit will continue to reside in it, and that small ancestral wood, which is contained inside a beautifully carved box, is passed down the male line. The ‘Land Lord’ (地基主), is another must-worship in every household, as he (and his wife) are the guardians of the household. It is said that they reside in the kitchen, underneath the stove. Then there are the ‘worldly ghosts’, who only come out to ‘play’ in this seventh month of the Lunar calendar. They must be carefully worshipped with treats and sweets, delicious food and drinks, and a wash basin must also be provided for them to wash after having ‘eaten and drunken’ the treats.

Then, the month is rounded off with the closing of the Gates of Hell. Which is today. For one last day, people bring out all they have to offer the spirits and ghosts, as this may be the final feast before they leave this world and enter the 'other world' . Again, the usual tableful of freshly cooked foods, fresh fruits, cookies, drinks, deserts, as well as paper money and 'equipments' are laid out on a table outside. Incense sticks are put on each item, so that the ghosts will know where to go, and what to eat and use. Further, as this is the last day of the Ghost Month, tradition holds that one must burn 12 incense sticks, and walk around the house with it. In every room, one must 'invite' everyone to come out and feast... This is done because it is feared that some 'naughty ghosts' may hide in the house and refuse to go back to where they came from... even ghosts may be reluctant to go 'home' after a month of hard feasting and play.
Similarly, a mixture of rice wine, salt, herbs and rice is sprayed into each room to ward off bad things.

After the incence sticks have reached around half their originally lengths, it may be time to pack up and start burning paper money and effects. But we must ask the spirits before we do so. And to ask, tradition holds we take two coins and flip them into the air. We must ask the spirits whether they have eaten, and whether they have eaten well. A head and a tail means yes...any other combination is a definite no-no, and we must wait a few more moments before asking again. Some say this is just about probability, about chances...but I've come across (personally) times when a head and tail does not appear, even after ten or twenty throws. This, people say, may be because the spirits are angry or unhappy about may be because the proper procedures have not been followed, or maybe because not everyone in the household is present, or maybe because a drink is missing.

Anyways, today I was lucky and quickly got a reply. The spirits were satisfied.
Time to send them off then. To do so, we burn the heap of paper money and effects, so that they may be accompanied with much to take along for them journey 'onwards'. The entire ceremony should take about one hour or so; all of which you can see in the pictures.

Tradition keeps a people alive, while culture maintains the health of a civilisation.
I try to follow these traditions whenever I can. It doesn't mean I'm superstitious, but just means I feel these are important rituals and rites which say something about me and where I come from. Such elaborate celebrations and festivals may be seen as wasteful and excessive, and indeed sometimes the money spent may be put to better use. Some people commit wrongs, and think by throwing big celebrations and burning heaps and heaps of paper money will take away their sin. That's not the way.

Do good, live well, and honestly, and there is no need to fear either gods or ghosts.
That, at least, is what I've been taught.
Ghost Festival: a mixture of rice wine, water, salt, rice, and herbal leaves with powers to ward off 'evil'. This mixture is spread around the house, in each room, and will 'cleanse' house of evil things (even bugs dare not come any more...) Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival: by throwing two coins, and waiting for 'one head, one tail', we can tell whether the spirits and ghosts have finished feasting... Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival: after burning all the paper money and effects, the rice wine used to worship the ghosts is pour in a clockwise direction, once around the 'furnace'. This 'rounds' the celebration off, and is supposed to balance elements of fire and the household will be stable and have good fortunes Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival: smoke rising to call the spirits and ghosts Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival: such big fire symbolises wealth and a healthy household Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival: burning paper money for the ghosts Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival: close up of 'equipment' for the deceased-- there are shirts, jackets, pants, combs, shoes, and fans (in case it gets hot in hell...). More elaborate celebrations at temples even burn entire paper houses, cars... Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival: Paper money, and other equipment for the deceased Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival: the wash basin in front is filled with water, with a piece of towel draped on's for the ghosts to wash before feasting Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival: fully laid table; fruits, a pack of rice, as well as canned foods are added Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival: offering of three kinds of meat: chicken, squid and salmon (fish) Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival: offering of dried goods, cookies, sweets and drinks Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival: table laid for the 'good brothers (and sisters)' to feast. Notice the paper lotuses and three wine cups Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival: Offerings to our ancestors; various fruits and drinks
 Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival: Offerings to our ancestors; various cooked dishes, fruits and drinks Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival: Offerings to the Kitchen Lord (and his wife) Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival: Chiayi on the 15th of the Seventh Lunar Month...offerings to the ghosts Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival: Huaxi Street offerings
 Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival: Huaxi Street offerings Posted by Picasa
Ghost Festival:�@Huaxi Street celebrations by Daoist priest Posted by Picasa

Thursday, September 01, 2005

This is Formosa again

Typhoon Talim left Taiwan in a huff, and is now heading towards China.
Damages seem not so terrible as predicted, though news is still pouring in about floodings and destructions all over the island.

This indeed is a magical island.
As the goliath Talim approached, she was beaten back by the mountain ranges in the centre. It was as if she hesitated , changed course as she approached the coastline and turned a ninety degrees angle, and then found the quickest way across the island out to sea again. Most unusual of all, because of the high mountains, Talim was split into two, and her destructive forces were dramatically reduced. Her main body hurtled west-wards out to sea, as her 'evil' twin waned and died on the east coast...
And as if the Typhoon Nabi behind her realised the awesome resistance of the island, she too changed course, and may not be coming here.

Thanks to this land, the people of this land have less pain to endure.
Should we then not appreciate what gifts nature has given us?
Should we then not stop scaring our land with pollution and construction?
Talim trajectory Sept 1 2005 Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Stormy, stormy night...

It's two thirty in the morning.

Typhoon Talim has officially made landfall, and is slowly sweeping across the northern part of Taiwan. For the past two hours the fierceness winds and rain were truly incredible. Record amounts of rain have fallen on parts of the country, especially in the mountain areas. In one area, 200mm of rain fell in under an hour...and rain is expected to fall until at least Thursday. Been watching the news channels, as they beam back live images of the destruction and deadly silence on streets in and around the island. Those crazy reporters will do anything to cover 'good' news. CNN reported this typhoon outblowing Hurricane Katrina, with recorded speeds of up to 241km/hr. While a storm in Europe tops force 12 at most, this typhoon is reaching force 17, and may even grow fiercer as it hits land.

Typhoon night, restless night.

I cannot sleep because of the howling noises, the banging of our roof which has been partly ripped off, and the my worries about how the rest of the country is doing. I braved the storm at various moments, in order to clear leaves which have gathered around the drains, out of fear that a blockage main lead to flooding, and therefore leakages. The windows have been taped, to prevent strong winds shattering the glass. Earlier in the day I used heavy bricks to build a sort of water barrier to prevent the garden overflowing. I further busied myself moving furnitures, plants and books away from windows, as water slowly seeps through the windows. Every hour or so I must go around the house and wrinse soaked towels into bucketfuls of water.

Endless rain, whistling winds...
Trees have been uprooted, cars overturned, buildings shaken, crops ruined, as rapids of mud and rock roll down scared mountain tops. My beautiful home is once again turned into an unrecognisable, weather-beaten wreck... But unlike in the US, there is no chaos, no looting, no lawlessness and no utter breaksdowns government and society here.

The morality and strength of a nation are tested in such perilous times.
Typhoon Talim makes landfall at Ilan coastline (TVBS News) Posted by Picasa
Typhoon Talim: empty streets at night (Formosa News) Posted by Picasa
Typhoon Talim engulfs Taiwan (Much TV) Posted by Picasa
Typhoon Talim: billboards blown off of buildings (CTI News)Posted by Picasa