Wednesday, December 8

‘Not Open for Humans’: Covid Changes East Asian Ghost Month, But Free Spirits Remain | Taiwan


OROn the 15th day of the Month of Ghosts, when the gates of hell are believed to open and spirits walk the earth, Taoist masters are invited to the Zhupu Altar, a massive temple built on the side of a hill in Keelung. , in northern Taiwan. Teachers hold a ceremony to help the spirits of those who died without family or friends to pray for them, known as “hungry ghosts,” but commonly known as good brothers and sisters to avoid offense.

The ghost month is marked across all of East Asia, including Hong Kong, southern China, Indonesia, and Malaysia. In Taiwan, Keelung is an important site, with a history of violent disputes during the Qing Dynasty, and is home to the most important events on the island. The ceremonies often draw tens of thousands of spectators from afar, but these are Covid times.

After a 15-minute walk to the gate, visitors are greeted with barriers that block the entrance and the police ask the cars to leave. An officer says: “This year the ceremony is not open to humans!”

Asked who is inside, he responds: “They are the staff and the good brothers.”

Around the world, religions that have built their observance around mass gatherings have had to rewrite traditions to avoid becoming widespread events.

The pandemic has brought additional meaning to the traditions that revere the deceased. Taiwan lost more than 800 people in the past three months, with an untold number more among the large diaspora community in countries much more affected by the virus.

“One of the really interesting aspects of thinking about ghosts and the ghostly this last year and a half for me has been the two temporalities of being in the US with my family in Taiwan,” said Eileen Chengyin Chow, teacher of Asia and Middle East. Studies at Duke University, which lives between the United States and Taiwan, which had no cases for more than 250 days last year.

“While I was very excited to be in a space that felt safe and untouched and life seemed to go on as usual, I actually felt inexplicably sad. Because the United States at that time had been many, many months of pain and absence. “

Pilgrims burn and throw a water lantern into the sea during the Hungry Ghost Festival in Keelung, Taiwan.  The lanterns are placed in the water and lit with fire to guide the spirits to reincarnation.
Pilgrims burn and throw a water lantern into the sea during the Hungry Ghost Festival in Keelung, Taiwan. The lanterns are placed in the water and lit with fire to guide the spirits to reincarnation. Photograph: Billy HC Kwok / Getty Images

Taiwan is nearing the end of its worst Covid-19 outbreak, but many, including those at Keelung temples, are not ready yet. On Sunday, Zhupu Altar put on a light show, lit firecrackers and prayed for the gods, ghosts and an end to the pandemic, but those who were still mortal had to watch online.

In Taoist, Buddhist, and East Asian folklore, the month of ghosts refers to the seventh month of the lunar calendar when the gates of the underworld are opened and spirits are released to search for food, or perhaps innocent lives to occupy their place and allow them. go ahead.

Across Taiwan, households prepared offerings of food, alcohol, candles, flowers, basins, and towels, in prayer for their ancestors and gods, and to appease hungry ghosts. The crowded streets will smoke as they burn paper money, gold for the gods and silver for the ghosts, in small metal drums.

There are lists of taboos: do not swim at night in case drowned ghosts drag you underwater, do not whistle or hang up your clothes at night, do not turn to someone who calls you by name. It’s also a bad month to buy a new car or home, but many will tell you that if you’re not superstitious, it’s a good time to make a deal.

The Hungry Ghost Festival runs from August 10 to September 7 with traditional operas, puppet shows, and concerts hosted by believers to appease wandering spirits.
The Hungry Ghost Festival runs from August 10 to September 7 with traditional operas, puppet shows, and concerts organized by believers to appease wandering spirits. Photograph: Pichi Chuang / Reuters

Traditions Adapt to the Times: In Singapore, residents reported people burning paper vaccines by their ancestors. In Taiwan, many more people seemed to be ignoring the taboo against swimming, perhaps because Covid’s summer-long swimming pool ban had just been lifted.

“The last generation believes in these taboos, but today they don’t believe much anymore,” says Zhang Ru Song, director of Keelung Qingan Temple. “The last generation is more sensitive to the old and traditional concepts of gods and ghosts. Today, we just remind ourselves to try to avoid water activities. “

Generally, people use this time to remember their ancestors and to remember where they came from, says Zhang. “And help those ghosts who have no one to pray to them, to keep everyone safe.”

Some suspicions are still common among the younger generations. TO recent survey of Taiwanese office workers found that a third of respondents avoid working overtime during Ghost Month. The survey found that 40% of office workers had reported strange encounters in the past few hours. Over 70% reported “creepy sounds” in office corners, while others said they heard footsteps, saw windows open by themselves and elevators reached their floor without being called, or heard toilets flushing in a bathroom empty.

In Keelung, Zhang says there were fewer households praying this year. The events were much simpler with the communities sending representatives to participate on their behalf, to reduce the risk of Covid.

“We kept up the tradition and celebrated the events, and their sincere hearts kept praying for the same.”




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