August, the seventh month of the lunar calendar is called “Ghost Month” in Taiwan.
To understand what this month is about, it’s good to start with understanding the worldview of spirituality in Taiwan. For those who believe and practice traditional Taiwanese religions, the spirit world consists of three types of beings:
1. gods – highly respected spiritual beings that have various powers
2. ancestors – family members who have died and get their resources for the spirit world through the ongoing offerings of living relatives.
3. ghosts – spirits of people who have died but are not being sufficiently supplied by the offerings of their living relatives. This group includes the spirits of those who died far from home, without an heir or in tragic circumstances.
During Ghost Month, it is believed that ghosts are released from Hell to roam the earth. These ghosts are thought to be ‘hungry’ because they aren’t getting the offerings they need. They are able to do bad things to people 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.
Origins of Ghost Month
The origins of Ghost Month come from a mixture of Buddhist traditions, Confucian ethics and Daoist ideas:
1. In Buddhist practice rites for the dead carried out on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month (普渡) are intended to relieve the suffering of those in hell and help them to move on towards reincarnation. This has its roots in the Chinese Buddhist story of Mulien, a monk who tried to rescue his mother from the realm of the hungry ghosts. To achieve this, the story goes, Mulien was instructed by Buddha to offer food and gifts to monks and monasteries on on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month.
2. Confucian ethics stress the importance of filial piety and ancestor worship
3. In Daoist belief on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month it is believed that the Daoist ‘Official of the middle origin’ (中元地官) was to judge the souls that were released from Hell.
4. Popular traditional religion added the idea of ghosts being released to roam the earth freely
During Ghost month there are a number of traditional customs to follow and certain behaviours to avoid. These are intended to avoid giving the roaming ghosts any reason to cause harm. Traditionally, during ghost month people do not want to go swimming for fear of being pulled under water by ghosts. People also do not want to go through a big event such as moving house or getting married. It is feared that doing so during Ghost Month would bring bad luck.
Many Taiwanese view Ghost Month as simply a tradition to take part in and would not fully believe in the spiritual description given above, though for others it is a very serious matter.
For Taiwanese Christians, this month can provide opportunities to share the good news of Jesus. There are two ways that Taiwanese Christians can share: though their actions of abstaining from offerings and through the words they speak.
In a collectivistic culture like Taiwan, people closely observe the behavior of others. For someone used to treading carefully during Ghost Month, seeing a Christian living freely can make a big impression. Christians do not need to fear ghosts because the love of Christ has cast out all fear. Therefore, when temples, companies, or households set out tables of food and drinks to offer to these hungry ghosts because they don’t want to ghosts to do anything bad to them, Christians do not need to participate. It is a witness that the gospel has brought peace to their lives.
If a Christian is questioned about this, it is an opportunity for witness. They can share how peace rules in their life because he is a child of God. This can be a bridge that leads to deeper gospel conversations.
OMF missionary in Taiwan
Will you pray?
- Pray for opportunities for Taiwanese Christians to share their faith during ghost month.
- Pray for Christians’ words and actions to be a witness to friends, family and neighbors around them