Ghost Month, the seventh lunar month, started last week. It is considered an inauspicious time, so prohibitions abound. These proscriptions vary by region, but some that are common in Taiwan include: don’t swim, evil spirits that have drowned may seek to drown you; don’t fly, it is dangerous with all those ghosts out there; don’t make big life changes, marrying, starting a business, surgery, moving, etc., it’s just not a lucky time; do not sing or whistle, it attracts ghosts; and likewise, don’t wear red, it also attracts ghosts. There are many more, but you get the general idea. There are other common beliefs in Taiwan related to Ghost Month. One such belief is that mechanical and electrical devices are particularly likely to break down during Ghost Month, presumably because the ghosts like to play with all the new-fangled doohickeys. This would be an example of a quaint little superstition—if it weren’t so annoyingly true (here).
The entire month is an orgy of Buddhist, Taoist, and folk religion observances. It is that time when the gates of Hell open and ghosts are free to wander among us. Why would beings, released from the ethereal plane, spend their precious freedom among humans? The ghosts that come to earth are hungry ghosts, whose descendants have not provided them with the customary offerings of food and money, necessary for a comfortable ghostly existence. Hungry ghosts have long thin necks, pinched by hunger. The deceased who did not receive proper funeral rituals also return to earth during Ghost Month. As you might expect, these neglected spirits are a bit pissy, and wander the earth seeking food and light entertainment. (Scaring the bejesus out of Grandpa Lui is just the ticket).
To appease these wandering spirits, the Taiwanese make offerings to their ancestors throughout Ghost Month. Different than other festivals, this spiritual largesse extends beyond one’s own ancestors, to include offerings to the wandering souls of those forgotten by their descendants. The offerings take many forms. Families place food and drink on the family altar, in the home, and burn incence for their deceased ancestors. Similar offerings are made at tables placed on the street, in front of businesses. These offerings are aimed at the general ghostly hallabaloo. Likewise, temples overflow with food offerings to the resident gods during Ghost Month. Many types of joss paper are burned as offerings, these include: hell banknotes, so the ghosts can purchase afterlife necessities; along with paper models of various useful items, houses, servants, TV’s, etc. These offerings are made to deceased ancestors and gods throughout the year, but the fires reach a feverish pitch during Ghost Month.
Chinese folk religion is a living breathing aspect of Taiwanese culture. You can be walking down the street, turn a corner, and randomly bump into a temple parade, pilgrimage, shaman, or diverse other fascinating religious practices. It is so vibrant and alive, not part of the past, hermetically preserved in a museum, to be visited on Sunday afternoons by armchair cultural voyeurs. It is a living, breathing part of everyday life here—and I love it.
However, many foreigners who live here hate it. A few may dislike Chinese folk customs, regarding them as backward superstitious claptrap. Such cultural bigotry is generally absent from expat thinking. The reason most dislike these Chinese folk customs is more prosaic. It is the pollution caused by large-scale burning of incense, hell banknotes, other joss paper, and the perennial setting off of firecrackers.
They have a point. I’ve seen paper models of hell-bound daily necessities piled into literal mountains, four or five meters tall, and then set ablaze. The pollution released into the city by even one such bonfire is substantial. On any given day in most temples, lots of hell banknotes are burned along with massive amounts of incense. On a smaller scale the process is repeated in houses and business across Taiwan. This burning is a continual backdrop to life here. During festivals and special days on the Chinese Lunar calendar the smoke raises religion-related smog from background noise to a Death Metal concerto.
Most countries have a distinct smell, noticeable when you first step off the plane. Thailand smells like rotten bananas. Indonesia smells of clove cigarettes. Canada, at least the Vancouver International Airport, hits your olfactory senses with a wall of ozone. Taiwan has the peppery odor of a melange of ritual smoke. The smell has decreased with efforts to clean up some of these traditional practices. Some of the attempts have been comical failures. When I first came to Taiwan there was a move to try to get people to burn a hell credit card instead of hell banknotes. The theory was that the masses of paper being burned by each worshipper could be replaced by a single credit card. Cute idea. It didn’t work. Worshippers simply began burning hundreds or thousands of credit cards for their ancestors. Despite the difficulty of changing traditions, air quality has improved in Taiwan. Thirty years ago the smell of religious observances would hit you like a wall when you arrived at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport. Now the smell is more in the background.
The improvement is partially the result of social changes. Folk religion and folk cultural practices have declined a bit with urbanization. Some temples have proactively tried to reduce their carbon footprint. A good example would be Hsing Tian Kong. The temple has decided to try to be a leader, among religious institutions, in fighting air pollution. The large incense burners at the front and rear of the temple stand empty. The smaller incense pots, placed in front of each god’s effigy, are either empty, or gone. The oven used to burn hell banknotes is closed. It is exactly what most expats have been clamoring for.
I recently visited Hsing Tian Kong for the first time since the changes went into effect—I hated it. The place was pristine, almost sterile in feeling. It lacked the characteristic temple smell. Nor were there glimpses of statues of gods and goddesses mysteriously coming in and out of view from behind a gauze of smoke. Indeed, on that fine sunny day, the temple’s air was annoyingly crisp and clean. The only wisps of smoke in the whole place came from the few burning incense sticks wielded by Taoist lay practitioners conducting exorcisms. It was all just so…so devoid of feeling.
Hsing Tian Kong was once my favorite temple in Taipei. The place where I went for succour, to bai-bai, get a talisman, cleanse my prayer beads, or simply have the demons exorcised. No more—a temple without smoke is no temple. Here is where I part ways with
most expats. My first trip to Taiwan over thirty years ago was to study Chinese folk religion. As much as I have any religion, it’s to the temple and folk rituals that I turn. Perhaps I’ve become a Taiwanese LKK, but gimme that old tyme religion, it’s good enough for me.