Monday, August 18, 2008

The Gates of Hell are Wide Open!!

Ghost month offerings outside my apartment complex. Offerings are made at temples, schools, stores, banks, residences and just about everywhere else around here.

Happy Ghost Month, everyone! According to Daoist tradition, the gates of hell open this (lunar) month to let the ghosts of dead relatives visit their families. On the first day, middle, and end of the month, people make offerings for the ghosts' safe passage into this world. The time is ripe for the mid-month offerings, and I've been privileged enough to witness and/or participate in the following Ghost Month ceremonies:

1. The first time I encountered this holiday was at the school where the Fulbright office is located, Sanmin Elementary School. The school principal, Principal Lin, brought us down to give offerings to the school ghost (who knew we had one?) while she prayed for us to become healthier, smarter, and more beautiful with each passing day (her wishes for us, not mine though I'm not opposed to either of these things). We learned to properly pray to the ghost, or bai, which involved holding a stick in incense between two hands and bowing three times. Then the principal instructed us to leave the incense in the food offerings. Each food represents a different wish for the school, though I can only remember that apples represent peace since they're called pingguo in Chinese which sounds like ping'an, the Chinese word for peace. Like a good liberal, I left my incense in the apples...

2. The next day, three of my friends and I encountered another offering ceremony outside a temple while rooting around the city for food. Technically, we encountered many offerings, since most stores will have a small bonfire to burn symbolic money for the ghosts. The ceremony of note, however, was huge. Unfortunately none of us had cameras with us, and it would probably be rude to photograph an actual religious ceremony. They set up a tent that took up half of the 2-lane street with tables full of food and made a huge bonfire in the middle of an intersection to burn a gigantic pile of symbolic money. Seriously, the pile of money was as big as a couch.

This is not a photo of the giant pile of money. It's a small pile from the ceremony outside my apartment. I just wanted to assure the more financially conscious that Taiwanese people aren't actually burning real money in a time of economic crisis (or ever).


We stood on the other side of the street and watched as they chanted, lifting and lowering their arms in unison. When they finally noticed us standing there, they gave us little red slips of paper saying it would bring us good luck. We folded them and slipped them into our pockets. They fed us a sweet, cold soup that tasted like licorice and was unbearable after the first 3 bites, but we finished it anyway because we were guests and leaving scraps seemed rude.

3. More of the same went down in the lobby of my apartment, except apparently the apartment ghost has a taste for American food....

5 comments:

Michael said...

Cool! It sounds like what my family does for Chinese New Year and the Harvest Moon Festival. My paternal grandfather is conveniently memorialized on a plate we put at the head of the offering table.

The Chao said...

How does your grandfather feel about being covered with food? ;)

Chengchen said...

Just a note for you. Burning money is actually against the law in Taiwan.

Chengchen said...

"but we finished it anyway because we were guests and leaving scraps seemed rude"

BTW, in tradition, guests suppose to leave a little bit food/drink in the dish/cup to show that we have enough food/drink. And yes, if you finish all, that means you need more. The tricky part is: if you leave too much, the hosts will consider you don't like their food/drink offering. This is considered rude.

A tradition is a tradition. If you really like the food but don't need more, go ahead to finish it and simply tell the host that you are fine. Not to waste food is a virtue nowadays.

Chengchen said...
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