Posts Tagged ‘taiwanese 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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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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According to today’s almanac, it was a good day to move houses.

When I arrived, preparations were still in progress at Tudi Gong’s new home.

The woman below wrote a Taoist fu (符) on a mirror, which she then placed facing outwards on the altar.

One man hung flags with the name of the ritual – entering the temple and settling the place great ceremony – while another filled the base of the incense burner with sand.

The ritual master pasted more fu on the lintels and then took a live white chicken into the shrine. He recited something and then brought the chicken back out and held it near the fu as he dotted them with red ink. He repeated this process with a live white duck. Before you worry, both animals remained alive during the whole ceremony.

Local government representatives and city council members paid their respects and had their photo-op moments.

Then, the priest put on his robe and hat, called everyone’s attention, and began ringing a bell and playing a suona.

The priest then circled the temple site, continuing to sing.

Placing the first incense in the burner:

Near the end of the ceremony, a new statue of Tudi Gong (I’ll get a picture soon, I didn’t want to compete with the crowds today) was taken from the table set up outside and placed into the shrine. It’s my understanding that statues are infused with power by being passed over or through the incense burner of the temple. I’m pretty sure that the video below shows the neighborhood chief attempting to pass the statue over the incense burner and then realizing that with the incense standing in it burning, it won’t fit. It seems that holding the statue over the incense before giving it back to the priest was considered a good enough second option. Throughout this, the assembly is shouting “chin ho (真好)” in Taiwanese, which means “very good.”

After situating the statue, the neighborhood chief was instructed to ask Tudi Gong, via divination blocks, if he was pleased with his new home. Receiving an affirmative answer on the first throw of the blocks, the crowd burst into excited conversation about their Tudi Gong’s decisiveness and responsiveness. It seemed like a good sign to all gathered that their new shrine would be an effective force for the neighborhood.

At the close of the ritual, one of the neighborhood leaders made a short speech about why they decided to build Tudi Gong a larger temple. He said that the small shrine often flooded in heavy rain, which made the neighborhood look bad and disrespectful of its protector spirit. He acknowledged that the new temple isn’t particularly large, but said that it’s probably safer that way too. He hopes that the community can gather at this new space on the second day of the second lunar month every year to celebrate Tudi Gong’s birthday.

It ended with the crowd lining up to each bow before the statue with the incense they’d held through the ceremony. The incense then went into the burner, after which the crowd began to disperse and my camera battery conveniently died.


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Part 1

In February, I wrote that our local Tudi Gong (土地公) had been moved from his tiny, charming shrine, pictured below, into a shed pending the construction of a new temple.


In March, the schematic diagram below appeared on the side of the shed, allaying my fears that something horridly neon and gaudy would replace the shrine.

Construction was nearly finished when I walked past again last week.

Tomorrow morning, I’m heading out to watch the ritual and celebration that will move the statues from the wooden shed into the completed temple. I hope to get some good photos and get a sense for how this neighborhood feels about its Tudi Gong.

I know about the ritual because there’s a poster on the front door of every building in our neighborhood, proclaiming the neighborhood chief’s support for the occasion and thanking the Wang family for their donation of land to the new temple structure.

Tudi Gong, the poster goes on to explain, is the protector of our land. He’s like the god of wealth and the god of fortune. but even more so is the protector god of our neighborhood, one who protects the peace and health of its residents.

I just found a really interesting sounding book at the library yesterday called Place and Spirit in Taiwan: Tudi Gong in the Stories, Strategies and Memories of Everyday Life. I plan on reading as much as I can of it today in preparation for tomorrow morning.

Photos, stories, and explanations soon!

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