Last week marked one year of my life in Taiwan. When I arrived last year, I was vaguely aware of Ghost Festival 中元節 and how people believe that the spirits, humorously called “good brothers” 好兄弟 come back around this time of year. I used to visit Taiwan in the summer, so this wasn’t news.
But… this year I actually saw some festivities in action! I went back to my grandparents’ for the weekend and then looked deeper into its fascinating origins.
Basically, during Ghost Month, it’s believed that the spirits come back the realm of the living. This includes your ancestors, who you welcome, but also other less desirable spirits, who you want to appease to ward off any ghostly mischief.
On the morning of Ghost Festival, my grandparents gave offerings/prayed to their ancestors. (I didn’t see this part in action.) In the evening though, we went to the local temple together:
Grandma Chan jokes that she brings the offerings to the temple so the hungry ghosts come here instead of lingering in front of the house. But many put offerings both at the temple and in front of their home.
If you zoom in you can see the crowd of people waiting to enter the temple to pray and leave their incense in the incense burners. A lot of kids really wanted to go 湊熱鬧 but were held back by their parents so they wouldn’t get lost in the crowd. Grandma Chan and I also stayed behind while Grandpa Chan did “the honors”.
Everyone in the crowd is holding a handful of incense sticks. Before this, everyone lit their incense:
Above, someone is lighting a particularly thick stick of incense with a blowtorch. (Thanks to Alice and Bowen for reminding me of the name of this device!) You stick this one into your box of offerings for the hungry spirits. Apparently the smoke leads the spirits to your food. I hadn’t noticed these thick incense sticks before, but saw it at a temple today, in the outermost incense burner.
Anyways, here’re boxes of offerings to the ghosts:
The boxes above are all individually prepared. But if you don’t feel like preparing one yourself though, you can pay a company to do it for you. Here are some company-prepared boxes:
These offerings are then donated (to those in need I suppose). If you want to take home the offerings, the company prepares a nicer selection:
Here’s my grandparents’ box:
“You can put whatever you want to eat” joked Grandma Chan. You leave them out for 2.5hrs and then bring them back home. Kinda interesting as it means the hungry ghosts only get during that window of time to eat.
Bags of rice are also left as offering. My aunt jokingly wondered if the ghosts have rice cookers.
Notice the water bottle? They didn’t put that there. A political candidate’s staff distributed these:
The credentials say “England PhD program” though we don’t know in what or from what school or if they even graduated. Another’s candidate’s staff passed out plastic fans to everyone. See those in action here.
Where Did Ghost Festival Come From?
This being Taiwan, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were aboriginal influences on the festival, but haven’t had a chance to look into this yet… so for now let’s just look at its agricultural and religious origins–
The origins of this festival are diverse. I guess this goes for any traditional holiday. Halloween was also a fusion of Celtic, Roman, and Catholic traditions popularized in the US by Irish immigrants. Let’s look at the origins of Halloween first:
“Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth,… causing trouble and damaging crops” – History.com
Like Halloween, Ghost Festival is related to harvest. Farmers at the end of summer / beginning of fall give thanks to the farming gods and their ancestors for the harvest. Then where do the ghosts come in? Cue Buddhism.
The appeasement of the hungry spirits has Buddhist origins and the term “hungry spirits” 餓鬼 is a Chinese translation of the Sanskrit “preta“. Preta didn’t originally mean “hungry ghost” but simply the “deceased”. Buddhists appropriated the term for their six possible states of rebirth though, and that’s how it made its way into Chinese.
- Sidenote 1: the six possible states of rebirth are “hell”, “hungry ghost”, “animal”, “human”, “demi-gods” and “gods”. My aunt’s dog, Wawa, is always down to eat, so the joke is that she was a hungry ghost before being reborn as an animal.
- Sidenote 2: For you Japanese speakers out there, ガキ, a modern-day slang for “brat” originated as the Japanese transliteration of 餓鬼!
Buddhists apparently also refer to this holiday as 盂蘭盆節 or a transliteration of “Ullambana Festival“. Again, if you speak Japanese, you’ll notice the 盆 — the origins of お盆 So the etymology of “obon” is Sanksrit!
Ullambana is the Sanskrit name of a sutra about a disciple of Buddha 木蓮 who learns in a vision that his parents are suffering in the afterlife. Through his Buddhist powers, he sends them food, but finds that they erupt in flames before they can eat it. He turns to the Buddha for advice and the Buddha says that his parents had become hungry ghosts due to the sins during their lifetime, so they cannot be helped with his power alone. The combined power of many Buddhist masters though could.
This festival is commonly known as 中元節 in Taiwan — the “middle yuan festival”. In Taoism, there are three “yuans” or essences: the earth, the water, and the sky. There are also three corresponding deities.
Each of these gods has a birthday in the middle of a lunar month: the Sky God (天官) on 1/15, the Earth God (地官) on 7/15, and the Water God (水官) on 10/15. These dates are called the “upper” “middle” and “lower” yuan 上元 中元 下元, though personally I’ve never heard of the upper and lower yuans, at least not referred to in that way.
The upper yuan corresponds to the 15th day of the lunar new year, when people eat soup mochi 湯圓, though in Taoism it’s believed that that’s the day the Sky God descends to the human realm and delivers blessings. Similarly, it’s believed that the Earth God comes to earth and forgives the sins of the dead on his birthday.
Festivities celebrating the advent of the Earth God however don’t seem to be a thing anymore. Buddhist ceremonies take front and center. But apparently people do pray that their ancestors’ sins be forgiven.
- Sidenote: Japanese speakers may recognize 中元 from お中元 – the name for boxed gifts you send to business partners in the summer (as an excuse to keep in touch with them). This custom originates in the Buddhist offerings to the spirits though retains the Taoist name: 中元. Never realized any traditions in Japan were influenced by Taoism. #mindblown
Looking into the origins of Ghost Festival transported me back in time to ancient China and India, modern-day Taiwan and Japan. Can’t wait to see what other cultures/religions become illuminated through discoveries here in Taiwan!