s someone who had previously associated ghosts with horror movies and Halloween, it was fascinating to see that in Taiwan they are, for many, a normal part of everyday life and local custom. Respect is shown through festivals and offerings, while stories passed down through the ages outline how to avoid their unwanted attention.
One of my first encounters with such local superstitions came about shortly after my arrival on the island, when my Taiwan friends bought a new apartment. After a busy week of sorting out furniture-related logistics, we’d made plans to go and take a walk in the mountains outside Taipei. However, we never made it to the mountains, as shortly before we were due to leave I received a call from my friend saying that they were still busy with the “exorcist,” who was at that time visiting the new home to check for supernatural activity.
It emerged that as well as bringing in painters, decorators, electricians and plumbers to deal with the material side of fixing up a new home, it is common in Taiwan to call around a feng shui master, who adopts the role of what Westerners might understand as an exorcist or spirit master. These specialists will check for ghosts in the new dwelling place, and if necessary perform the customary rites to dispel them. It emerged that, in the case of my friends, the rites were indeed a necessity. Apparently, the previous occupant of the apartment had been a doctor, and the apartment was now haunted by the restless spirits of three patients who had died under his care.
This intrigued me, and so I asked if I could attend the ceremony.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, my imagination conjuring up a combination of scenes from The Exorcist and Ghostbusters. However, the reality was far from either of these. I arrived on the day to find a sweet old lady pacing around the apartment with an air of purpose, clutching an intricate instrument which had the appearance of a complex compass, which I later learnt was used for feng shui-related matters. A shrine was built in one corner of the house, and a rich assortment of food placed out for the gods and ancestors. This was followed by a substantial amount of chanting, led by the stout old lady clutching a small, battered prayer book in her hands.
Rather than anything remotely sinister, it seemed very much more of an occasion for prayer for good fortune in their new home. I sat down with the family’s four-year-old, who was playing with the dozens of quartz stones that had been brought to contribute to the feng shui of the house. He later told me that his grandmother had come to play with him recently, in the garden of their old house. The chill I felt when I learnt that his grandmother had died before he was born was soon dispelled by the assurance of his mother that this visit was a good, happy occurrence, as it meant that his grandmother was at peace and watching over their family.
I would continue to learn more about this “ghost culture” as I traveled around Taiwan. Several of my Chinese teachers and friends informed me that, before staying in a hotel room, one should knock on the door and, on opening it, take a step back, and utter a quick “sorry to disturb you, I will be staying here tonight,” to show respect to any resident spirit and avoid angering them. According to a specialist in local customs I befriended on my travels, the more practical function of this is to avoid entering the wrong hotel room, while the step backwards is not just to let any ghosts pass, but also to allow any stale air to escape.
Similarly, on a hiking trip in the mountains in the island’s central region, our guide warned us against calling people’s full name in wild areas at night, as in so doing you reveal your identity to ghosts who can then come and find you. Most importantly, we were urged not to turn around if we then heard our name called from behind us.
These kinds of customs are especially respected during the Hungry Ghost Festival, celebrated in many parts of Asia. One of the most well-known taboos during this time is that of going to the seaside, lest you be drowned by ghosts. In the tropical heat of the summer, I found this one as difficult to accept as the common aversion among locals to drinking cold water. I suppose this leaves nice, uncrowded beaches for tourists though. Other taboos apply throughout the year, such as that of whistling at night, which is said to summon ghosts.
As my Taiwan friends told me, not everyone believes in these traditions. And not everyone has even heard of them: sometimes one is taught them by their parents, some are passed around through friends, and different areas have different customs. For me, it was another fascinating addition to the rich and colorful tapestry of Taiwan’s traditional beliefs and customs.