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13 August 2019

Fire, Food & Fizzy Drinks: A Personal Experience of Ghost Month in Taiwan

The Hungry Ghost Festival starts in Taiwan on Thursday.
In Ghost Month, the seventh month of the lunar calendar, it’s believed the spirits of ancestors who aren’t fully provided for in the spirit world roam the earth looking for food and resources. It’s also believed they have the power to harm those who don’t provide for their needs. Offerings of food and drinks are made for them at the beginning, the middle, and the end of this month.

Lucy grew up in a traditional Taiwanese family that marked the festival. She became a Christian through attending English classes run by missionaries. Later she met David who came from the UK to serve with OMF in Taiwan in 1992. They were married at the end of David’s first term of service and have served in Taiwan with OMF for over twenty years.

Here Lucy remembers the ‘Ghost Month’ of her childhood and reflects on how things have changed in recent years:

“As a child I looked forward to Ghost Month as a special time filled with treats.

We did not use the term “Ghost” at that time referring to the month as ‘Zhong Yuan Pu Du’ (中元普渡), a combination of its Buddhist and Taoist names. The Ghosts were always called by the title of “good brothers” (Hao Xiongdi 好兄弟). During this month, but particularly on the 1st, 7th, 15th and last day of the month my mother and all of our neighbours would set out tables of food offerings to the good brothers.

In those years, people were not so well off in Taiwan, but for Ghost Month families would often buy more expensive food to put outside their houses as offerings. We would put the food on the table and light incense sticks then burn paper money. When the incense stick had burned down we believed the good brothers had eaten their food. After the offering had been made we got to eat all the special food that we did not normally have. My brother particularly remembers the fizzy drinks. We rarely got to drink sodas the rest of the year as they were expensive, but all through Ghost Month, usually one of the hotter parts of the year, we got to drink sodas because bottles of drinks such as lemonade and Sarsaparilla are usually on every offering table. As well as extra food, there was paper money to be burned. During this time we were allowed to burn the paper money, something my brothers and I thought playing with fire was great fun.

I especially liked the offerings on the 7th day of the month, which is known as Qi Xi (七夕). On this day Chinese remember the story of two lovers, the cowherder and the weaving girl, who are doomed to be separated except once a year on the seventh night of the seventh month when all the magpies of heaven form a bridge across the Milky Way allowing them to briefly be together. On this day we would burn special paper offerings printed with pictures of cosmetics and a mirror to help the girl to prepare to meet her lover. We believed when it rained on the 7th day it was due to the weaver girl, Zhinü’s tears.

So for me, Ghost Month was not something that was particularly frightening. We were taught to think of the Ghosts as more like poorer relatives who we would provide for now so that we would get favour with them. Later, the tables would turned and after death we would be hungry ghosts dependent on the living who would be reincarnations of the ghosts we had fed when we were alive.

We were taught to think of the Ghosts as more like poorer relatives who we would provide for now so that we would get favour with them. Later, the tables would turned and after death we would be hungry ghosts dependent on the living who would be reincarnations of the ghosts we had fed when we were alive.

The only fear associated with ghost month for us as children was that this was also a time when evil ghosts could become more powerful. Ghosts of those who died tragically, such as by drowning, were thought of as being stuck where they died until they could find another soul to take their place. For this reason, parents would not allow children to play near water or go swimming during this time or they might be grabbed by Ghosts in the water and drowned. There would also be no significant changes such as moving house, starting a new business or getting married during Ghost Month.

Today’s children in Taiwan may have a different view of Ghost Month. Especially in the countryside the offerings are still made by every household but society is much more prosperous so the food offered is now eaten every day. More fireworks are used and big temple activities take place but children rarely participate. You will still see country children looking excited as they help to burn the paper money for the offerings so some things never change – children will always like to play with fire!”

Will you pray for The Task Unfinished?

  • Pray for OMF missionaries like Lucy and David as Ghost Month brings opportunities for good conversations and friends and neighbors
  • Pray for Taiwanese Christians to shine brightly for Jesus in this time.

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