Posts Tagged ‘chinese religion’

Hau defends construction fatalities online database

Taipei Deputy Mayor Chang Chin-oh (張金鶚) said the latest version of the map can serve as a reference for homebuyers to identify whether a property is “haunted” before purchasing it.


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Propitiate v. 1. trans. To make well-disposed or favourably inclined; to win or regain the favour of; to appease, conciliate. OED

Today is the first day of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar. In popular religious culture, this marks the opening of the gates of purgatory/hell, from which ghosts are released to roam the world for the month’s duration. The culmination point is on the 15th day of the month, the full moon, when the gates are at their widest point and grand rituals are held all over to feed the ghosts and save them from their suffering. After that climax, the gates will slowly close until they shut at the end of the month, and the world is safe from most wandering spirits for another year.

Roughly speaking, all the spirits of the deceased are allowed to roam the earth for this month. This isn’t so bad if it’s the spirits of one’s ancestors to whom one makes offerings to normally anyway. These ghost know where home is, they know where to go once released.

The problem is that the ghosts who do not fit into the system of offerings to ancestors (those who died unmarried or without descent, or those whose families have forgotten them) remain starving in purgatory for most of the year. Also, those who died in unfortunate accidents or murders might harbor grudges against the living. These hungry ghosts wander. Therefore, fear is a real part of this month-long festival for those who believe in its occurrence. Offerings of food, special paper money, and incense can help to ease their starving souls and placate their anger and sadness.

Propitiation comes in because if these ghosts aren’t placated, they are supposed to cause all kinds of mischief and disaster over the course of this month.

The roots of this festival go deep into traditional Chinese culture. It transcends Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism to encompass all practitioners at once. Over this next month, I hope to go into some aspects of this month – both historic and contemporary means of marking its passage.


For further reading:

Teiser, Stephen. The ghost festival in medieval China. Princeton UP, 1988.
Teiser, Stephen. The Scripture on the Ten Kings and the Making of Purgatory in Medieval Chinese Buddhism. University of Hawai’i Press, 1994.

Jordan, David K. “Gods and Ghosts” in Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors: Folk Religion of a Taiwanese Village. University of California Press, 1972.
-The entire book is available on his delightful website, where he has other resources for the study of Chinese religion and culture as well.

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A silly little connection was just created in my head thanks to an article on filial piety I’m reading this afternoon.

The author wrote: “People speak, for example, of “the eight virtues” (bādé 八德)…” at which point I thought, “yes, just like the street in Kaohsiung!”

Thanks to the streets in my hometown, I “know” that there are sets of things in Chinese culture that are numbered. I just can’t tell you what each of those things are.

But the list goes:
一心 – One heart
二聖 – Two Sages
三多 – Three Manys (Many whats? Turns out it’s three blessings: Much luck, long life, many sons)
四維 – Four Pillars
五福 – Five Blessings
六合 – Six Togethernesses
七賢 – Seven Scholars
八德 – Eight Virtues
九如 – Nine Likenesses (如 might be better translated as “as,” but you try using “Nine Ases Road” without giggling.)
十全 – Ten Complete (I’ve always thought this is complete just because it’s the end of the list. Like, 10/10 roads have names. Childhood explanations, these.)

“Know” is in quotations because thirty seconds with google took me to this Kaohsiung teacher’s website and I learned, for example, that 九如 is an idiomatic felicitous phrase, not actually a list of nine 如s. And that Six Togethernesses actually implies that Heaven, Earth, North, South, East, and West are six things that encompass the cosmos.

Anyway, back to those eight virtues.

What came next in the article actually made my jaw drop: “[Eight Virtues] universally remembered in the order in which they occur as names of streets in Taipei.”

Those four streets:
忠孝 – Loyalty, Filiality
仁愛 – Benevolence, Love
信義 – Sincerity, Righteousness
和平 – Harmony, Tranquility.

We have three of those roads in Kaohsiung, albeit one is just a lane, really. They never made much impression on me, although I remember my parents’ place of work was on 仁愛街 (Benevolence Love Lane) from the time when I was a baby until I was about 5.

Picture 7

In Taipei, these are major thoroughfares. 仁愛路 (Benevolence Love Road) and 信義路 (Sincerity Righteousness Road) come together into a broad boulevard (Ketagalan Road, named for an aboriginal tribe that once lived in this area whose language is now extinct) which ends at the Presidential Office. Commentary could be made about this, but I won’t be the one to do so.

Picture 8

I definitely won’t forget the eight virtues now. I guess my time in Taipei has taught me something after all.

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About a month ago, as I was reading 三茅真君寶卷, I came across an unfamiliar term that seemed particularly interesting: 西洋景. Literally, it translates to “Western Ocean Sight.” Googling it, since my default basic dictionary yielded no results, led me to this fascinating image:

I know so little of film history, but the caption on the website claims that this photo was taken in the 1870s in Beijing. The text I was reading was an 1877 reprint of a text with its earliest extant edition from 1873, placing it in the correct time period for such an early piece of “motion picture” technology.

The text, by the way, warns against spending money on such things since they often show lewd contents which inspire their viewers to lewd activities. Unsurprising, given the nature of the stuff I research.

Why am I writing about this, aside from the neat reference to emerging technology in my conservative text?

Because tonight, when I went to my Google books collection in search of a different book I have stored there, I had a sudden moment of recognition when I saw the cover of Peeps into China, a saccharine book about the experience of pious missionary kids visiting their father in China*.

Though I doubted that the ebook cover was representative of the original cover, here’s the first image in the book:
Picture 10

Not at all useful, but a surprising connection!

* As a missionary kid myself, this book is particularly funny.

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Seen outside the Taipei Hero Hotel, a hotel for military personnel.


The large orange text on the right reads: Military might is the greatest faith!

The image shows a set of Buddhist prayer beads; a Taoist charm packet with a saluting soldier on it and the words, “Everyone’s national defense. Safe residences, happy industry;” and divination blocks with an outline of a saluting soldier.

In white, to the left of it, reads: It’s up to you and me to defend the nation’s safety. Believe in our troops, support national defense! Only coming together in consensus on our people’s national defense is the best faith!

I’m not sure how effective this kind of appropriation of popular religious images is as propaganda, but it sure is affective. I’m affected with discomfort and a little horror, for starters.

It also forms a bizarre contrast with poster next to it: happy looking young people in a military vehicle driving along a beach.

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June 12th was Dragon Boat Festival (端午節 Duanwu Jie). [1]

Duanwu jie falls on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month of the Chinese calendar. According to Wine For the Gods[2], a book on Taiwanese popular religion, “The Dragon-Boat Festival takes place at a time which is just between spring and summer, a time in which evils may lurk around every corner, so this month is called the ‘month of poison’. In order to expel ghosts, avoid poisons, and preserve health and happiness, there are many popular customs.”

These customs include making bamboo wrapped rice “dumplings” called bazang, the famous dragon boat races, sacrifices to ancestors[3], and the employment of a variety of charms.

Pictured below is a bundle of leaves that appeared on a neighbor’s door, and on the doors of many homes around the area. It’s funny, I can’t remember this as a part of Duanwu jie from my neighbors in Kaohsiung, but the likeliest reason is that I just wasn’t paying much attention. I had to go back to Wine For the Gods to find out what the leaves meant.


Each family binds up calamus leaves, bitter herbs, and banian branches into a bunch with a red ribbon, and then hangs it outside the door. The reason for this lies in the fact that calamus leaves are shaped somewhat like a sword, so are believed to dispel evil. Also, the Taiwanese word for bitter herbs is pronounced like he word for good health, so they are used as a means of ensuring bodily fitness. Thirdly, the significance of the banian branch is also to dispel evil influences.”

[1] I’m actually terribly unsatisfied with the English name for the day, which has to do with a lot more than dragon boat racing. But duanwu 端午 doesn’t lend itself to an immediately obvious English rendering, so unless someone can suggest one to me, Dragon Boat it will have to be. I’ll use the Mandarin pinyin for the festival throughout this entry, however.

[2] This out of print book, published in 1976 in Taiwan, was co-written by an Australian woman and a Taiwanese man . It’s entirely unfootnoted and I’d never use it as a source for research, but it’s a great handbook for day-to-day use. Its narrative style is rather quaint, for example, regarding the Australian author: “although Miss Coutanceau’s Mandarin is fluent, the intricacies of the Taiwanese tongue are as yet a garden unexplored for her.”

[3] Around noon, it seemed like everyone in our neighborhood burnt paper money at the same time – leading Gene and I to feel mildly poisoned from smoke inhalation for the rest of the day, even though we’d had our windows and doors closed. Ugh. Normally I’m not bothered by the biweekly offerings to Tudigong, but I think that’s because fewer people do them.

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The primary sources with which I work, 19th Chinese morality literature, tend to look, from the outside, like this:

Sometimes, a previous reader has scribbled something across the cover, which makes matters slightly more interesting.

Not particularly exciting. Who would guess at that entertainment AND edification await within?

Last spring, I spent a delightful hour or so in the Regenstein Library at UChicago looking at 19th century morality literature from Great Britain and the US. Judge their contents by their covers!

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