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Taiwan Culture: The Ghost Festival

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During my time in Keelung, I met so many people and saw many places related to the Ghost Festival, an event closely tied into Taiwan culture. If I had to put into words everything I learned about this festival, I think I could write a thesis; I will try to only share with you a brief version.

The Ghost Festival is the most famous festival in Keelung. It’s was imported from China at the time of Chinese colonization in Taiwan, and it has even more ancient origins. It started as a celebration to the ancestors, the ghosts and the saints. It’s an old cultural festival that became part both of Taoist and Buddhist tradition. In Keelung, not only those who have faith in Buddhism or in Taoism join in this festival, because it is now part of the tradition and Taiwan culture of this place for everyone.

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The Bye-Bye ceremony

The heart of the festival is the so-called “bye bye.” This is the formal greeting of Keelungers for their ancestors and all the ghosts walking in the area after the gate of hell is opened every year on the first day of the seventh lunar month. After the celebration of the opening of that door, another celebration takes place in Laoda temple. All ghosts have access to our world, and after a year they need to wash, and they need food, clothes, and money. All these things are provided not only by individual families celebrating the “bye bye” but also by companies (it doesn’t matter if it’s a supermarket or a liquor store or an electronics company).

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I have personally witnessed this ritual several times and talked to the Taoist priest and exorcist who celebrate it. It takes part outdoors, where people put various foods on a long table. On one side of the table, there is a tub that the ghost who just arrived from hell can use to wash himself (sometimes there is even toothpaste and toothbrush). The Taoist priest invites the ghosts to take part in the banquet, and he then reads the names of the beloved deceased people present, who bow when they hear the name of their relative. After this, each person holds burning incense and puts it in a censer in front of the tub for the deceased.

taiwan culture

Meanwhile, other people put the burning incense in every kind of food placed on the table, and the priest continues his ceremony entirely in the old Taiwanese language, not used in modern Taiwan culture, which can be difficult to understand even for locals. The celebration proceeds, and it is punctuated by the sound of a bell rung by the priest himself.

After a series of songs, the priest goes in a circle around the table and sprays water on the food to bless it and make it pure. Finally, he tells the deceased to get back on the road toward home and the ceremony ends. People burn any useful paper thing they can find for the deceased: paper money, clothing, lanterns, and boats. Note that all of these things are made of paper, and each has a totally different shape from the one you would normally imagine. This is just one of the many Taoist processions that take place during this period, which is filled with symbolism and cultural meaning.

Don’t forget to come back to learn more about Taiwan culture in part 2 of The Ghost festival.

(Learn more in the second part of this article)!

Il Ghost Festival (per gli italiani piu’ pigri: La festa degli spiriti) e’ il festival piu’ famoso di Keelung, un evento molto legato alla cultura taiwanese. E’ un festival importato dalla Cina al tempo della colonizzazione dei cinesi arrivati a Taiwan ed ha origini ancora piu’ antiche. Durante questo periodo, ho conosciuto tante persone e visto tanti posti legati a questo festival. Se dovessi descrivere tutto penso che mi ritroverei a stilare una piccola tesi, quindi ve ne daro’ solo un breve assaggio.

Il Ghost festival nasce per celebrare gli antenati, i fantasmi e i santi. E’ una festa antica che e’ diventata parte sia della tradizione taoista che di quella buddista. A Kellung, non sono solo i fedeli buddisti o taoisti a rispettare questo festival, ma anche i non credenti, perche’ e’ diventato parte della tradizione taiwanese e della cultura di questo luogo.

La cerimonia Bye-Bye

Cuore del festival e’ il cosi’ chiamato “bye bye”, cioe’ il saluto formale degli abitanti di Keelung ai propri antenati e agli spiriti passanti di li’ dopo l’apertura della porta dell’inferno che si tiene ogni anno nel primo giorno del settimo mese lunare. Dopo l’apertura della suddetta porta, celebrazione che a Keelung avviene nel tempio di Laoda, tutti i fantasmi hanno accesso al nostro mondo, e dopo un anno come minimo hanno bisogno di lavarsi, di mangiare, di vestiti nuovi e di soldi. Tutte queste cose vengono fornite non solo da ogni famiglia che celebra il “bye bye” ma anche da ogni azienda (che sia un supermercato o un negozio di liquori o una compagnia di elettronica).

Ho assistito personalmente a questo rituale diverse volte e parlato con il sacerdote/esorcista taoista che le celebra. Si fa all’aperto, su tavoli piu’ o meno grandi sui quali si poggiano cibarie varie. Ad un lato del tavolo c’e’ una tinozza per far lavare lo spirito appena arrivato (a volte gli si forniscono perfino dentifricio e spazzolino), dall’altro il sacerdote taoista che invita i fantasmi a prendere parte al banchetto, poi incomincia a fare i nomi dei cari defunti dei presenti e questi si inchinano al sentire il nome del loro parente defunto. Ognuno tiene in mano degli incensi roventi e alla fine li mette in un incensiere di fronte alla tinozza per i defunti. Nel frattempo altre persone infilano gli incensi in ogni genere di cibaria collocata sul tavolo e il sacerdote continua la sua funzione interamente in taiwanese antico, non piu’ usato nella cultura taiwanese. La celebrazione e’ cantata ed e’ scandita dal suono di un campanello suonato dal sacerdote stesso.

Dopo una serie di canti, il sacerdote passa in circolo intorno al tavolo e schizza dell’acqua sulle cibarie, per benedirle e purificarle. Infine invita i defunti a riprendere la strada verso casa e la funzione finisce. Tutti gli altri, si affrettano a bruciare ogni sorta di cosa utile per il defunto: soldi di carta, vestiti, lanterne, barche. Da notare che tutte queste cose sono fatte di carta e sono totalmente diverse da cio’ che uno potrebbe immaginare essere dei soldi ecc.

Questa e’ solo una delle tante processioni taoiste che avvengono in questo periodo e sono cariche di simbolismi e significato culturale.

Non dimenticate di ritornare per scoprire di piu’ della cultura taiwanese nella 2a parte del Ghost festival.

(Scopri di piu’ nella seconda parte di questo articolo)!

Ghost Festival

Follow SilviaBaggiani:
As sinologist and passionate of Chinese culture i like to learn about all the culture, especially the one of my specialization. I like to travel and after three years in China i decided to join the Keelung-residence program who let me know more about this city's places&culture. The ceremonies, the dedication of people for them, the traditional music, the hidden historical places showed me a new attractive world.

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