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What Does Pudu Mean to the People of Keelung?

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How did I get to Keelung and heard about Pudu?

Six months ago, I decided I wanted to travel to East Asia. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, but with a newly earned bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies and an interest in conducting research, I knew I wanted to immerse myself in a culture I had never experienced before, and then wait to be inspired.

My studies indicated that Taiwan has one of the most diverse cultures in all of East Asia. After some planning, I decided I would travel to the seaside city of Keelung. I knew very little about the place, the people, the culture, or traditions—but I knew I wanted to learn something. Fortunately, my timing couldn’t have been better.

Unbeknownst to me, I arrived in Keelung just two weeks prior to the most important festival of the year: the Ghost Festival. At the outset, I was lost for two reasons as to how I should properly immerse myself in this local culture: although I studied Chinese in college, I discovered I could speak very little Chinese; and even with the help of Google Maps, I was unable to navigate the winding roads without getting lost.

Despite this, I knew I had to try, and through my efforts I came in contact with Keelung-for-a-Walk—a local walking tour group that seeks to unveil the hidden gems of this rainy, often forgotten city.

Long story short, due to a bit of luck and perseverance I landed a volunteer position at this amazing community-inspired project. I wanted to know everything I could about Keelung and its history and its people. Hence, the Ghost Festival was the perfect opportunity to dive in. I asked a few Keelungers (who spoke English) what they thought was the most important part of the Ghost Festival and their overwhelming response was “Pudu.”  

Not knowing what Pudu was, I set out to do some digging on the Internet to see what I could learn. Strangely, if Ghost Festival was the most important event of the year and Pudu was its most important tradition, there was little available information that adequately explained this practice.

The English information I did find was vague. More thorough explanations seemed to be in Chinese. I figured I’d just ask those around me to explain it and be done with it. But not so fast! I came to realise that their explanations, in comparison to what I found online, were all unique. I had stumbled onto the research opportunity I had been hoping for: to research what Pudu meant to the Taiwanese people, in the context of Taiwanese history, culture, and society.   

What better way to learn about Pudu than to ask those who practice it? So that’s what I did. I asked around and interviewed a few people about what Pudu was and what it meant to them; and maybe the next time you visit Taiwan, whether during the Ghost Festival or not, these anecdotes will help you know more about Pudu than I did.

Ghost Festival

The Research on Pudu

Below you’ll find a modest emic/etic-esque research project. But first, a bit about the fancy terms. Emic and etic are two ways that cultural anthropologists can look at a culture. The emic approach is letting the words of the local people speak for themselves. The etic approach sees the culture through the eyes of the researcher, who, because they are outside the culture, will understand things from a different point of view. Combining both approaches potentially offers a richer understanding of a culture, one from the insider’s viewpoint and one from an outsider’s viewpoint.

The participants (co-researchers) were all native-born Taiwanese. They were asked non-affirming questions about Pudu in hopes that their personal opinions would be elicited and not textbook answers. For each question, all non-repeating themes across all participants’ answers were used as a basis for formulating the final compiled response. The interviews were compiled into quotes under each question and are not verbatim, but seek to provide an average view of how the participants/co-researchers understand Pudu.  

Why is this research on Pudu important?

The tradition of Pudu is practiced in the context of the Ghost Festival, a cultural event spanning the entire month of August. The tradition of Pudu is observed by many cultures in East Asia, though each has their own interpretation of the practice, Taiwan’s version being one. This research is important for two reasons:

1. Since the departure of a ghost (or spirit) from the mortal realm is entirely dependent on whether their hunger has been satisfied, the cultural practice of Pudu may be the most important. It deserves further examination to ascertain its level of importance in the context of the Ghost Festival and its significance in the context of Taiwanese culture and society.

2. There exists scant English information available that adequately explains the practice of Pudu from the culturally relativistic view of native Taiwanese inhabitants.

What does Pudu mean to the native Taiwanese population in Keelung?

[Note: In order to preserve the original feeling of participant’s answers, the researcher has engaged in only minor edits that sought to fix serious grammar errors during the process of compiling. The cadence of the participants’ responses—their stream of thought and level of English proficiency—is preserved in the answer. The voice of the researcher is indicated by italics.]

In your own words, can you tell me the origins of Pudu?

“The origin of Pudu, geographically speaking, is China. Immigrants from China brought with them culture and religion when they came to Taiwan. The origins and practice of Pudu comes primarily from China.”

Are there stories or folklore that explain Pudu’s origin?

“In Taiwan, many people believe in Taoism. In Taoism, we believe there are three groups—people, the ghost, and the gods. When people die, they become ghosts. If you are a wandering ghost, or a ghost with very bad karma from a previous life, you will stay stuck in the world of living beings. If you are a wandering ghost or ghost with bad karma, you will go to judgement, were you will be judged on the actions of your past life. Like on how many bad or good things you did. If you did more bad things, you need to be punished. There are many levels of punishment, but once you finish your punishment you can go to heaven. If you didn’t finish your punishment you will be kept until you do. Some people, when they die and then become a ghost, they won’t want to be punished and they will try to escape, and they will come to the mortal world and do many bad things. We hope that when people are alive they do a lot of good things.”

Are there important characters associated with Pudu, like spirits, gods, etc?

“The gods. On the day of Pudu it is also the gods’ birthday. Pudu is for ghosts, so ghosts too are important characters. But of course, when we practice the Pudu we need people too, the ghost won’t and aren’t able to practice Pudu by themselves. Also, a Taoist master helps with the practice of Pudu. There are two types of spirits: one is a type of god—those spirits of the dead that were once originally ghosts but later turned into a god. These are the spirits people pray to during the Ghost Festival ceremonies. Second, there is a group of spirits who have not yet turned into a god. People pray to them through ceremonial objects.”

Ghosts, spirits and gods are important figures of the Pudu tradition

What is the reasoning behind Pudu?

“People face many challenges in daily life. In Taiwan there are many unpredictable risks such as typhoons and earthquakes. When people don’t know how to solve such a problem, they will pray, directing their wishes to gods in the Taoist and Buddhist beliefs for good luck. They also seek to prevent the encountering of bad luck in their daily lives by visiting the spirits of Hell during the Ghost Festival. They believe that after the ceremonies, any serious bad luck (like the loss of money, or potential loss of life) will be removed because they did something good for the spirits. People seek peace, peace of mind, and a safe life. That’s why they feel they need the ceremony. It reassures them that there is a chance to bypass bad situations and have their wishes granted.

When we practice Pudu we hope we can provide the ghost a break from their punishment during the Ghost Festival. We need to show our respect, and we need to prepare a lot of good things for them to enjoy during their holiday to the world of the living. Also, practicing Pudu will cancel out some bad things we have done during life.”

Is Pudu native to Taiwanese culture?

“This ceremony originated from the traditional religious philosophy of Taoism from mainland China. The Han immigrants from the Fujian province were mainly responsible for bringing this tradition to Taiwan. I know the ceremony happens in countries where there are Han immigrants/descendants living or were living, like Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Thailand. Not native to Taiwan.”

Who is usually involved in carrying out the Pudu?

“In Keelung, our Keelung Ghost Festival is the most important tradition we hold onto. The difference is, in Keelung, clan families are very important in organising Pudu—most important. In the normal practice of Pudu in Keelung, the participants are households, and also the wider community, like community organisations, the government, official entities, shopkeepers, government workers, or any one of the many businesses that line Keelung’s streets. Everyone gathers together to pray to the spirits and practice Pudu.”

What do you believe you are accomplishing by practicing Pudu?

“I believe that in the moment of Pudu, during the 7th month of the lunar calendar, the spirits have already come to our world. So, we give them offerings and hope they will be happy, because we know they suffer in Hell. This is an annual opportunity for them to eat something and get satisfaction. We are also showing our mercy, because in Pudu, we will pray for all the ghosts,  whether we know them or not, so we can ensure that they enjoy the festival. If we show them respect, if they don’t return to the underworld to complete their punishment and stay in the world with us, they won’t hurt us.”

Can you explain how you set up, carry out, and end Pudu, as well as the pieces and components of the offering itself?

We need to invite the ghosts. No matter if they died in the ocean, or on the land. For two days we will invite the ghosts. [First] day is for the spirits who died on land, day two is for those spirits who died in the ocean. Taoist masters help by doing their job to help the ghosts receive the Pudu.

First, people will put [out] toothpaste, a cup, and bowl, all the material things that allow the spirits to wash their hands and prepare for the meal. We do it so they can enjoy the offering. We also burn lots of paper money during Pudu because the ghosts need money to buy clothes or anything else. Also, very interesting, is that before Pudu starts we burn paper-clothes, paper-scissors, paper-toothbrush, to be extra sure the ghost are clean before partaking in Pudu.

Before Pudu we will usually need to go to the supermarket or traditional market to collect the offering. It includes flowers, and sacrificial items such as fish, pork, eggs and fruit, sometimes cookies. It is based on what we like to eat. After we collect the offering, we start burning incense, and put that incense on the offering. This shows the spirits the meals are ready to be received. It’s a message from our world to theirs that the offering is ready to be received. We then pray and wait for the incense to finish burning; when the incense finishes burning it means that both the gods and the spirits have finished the meal. We then know the banquet has been finished and we can clean the table and have our own meal.

Burning incense is a message for the ghosts to let them know the offering is ready to be received

At the end of Pudu we will have a 1-2 hour break so the ghost can leave. The last action of the Pudu is when the Taoist master conducts a dance that tells the ghost it is time to leave. Hopefully, we think, the ghost will leave the places of Pudu.”

Are there any special foods associated with Pudu?

“In Keelung, some people will prepare moho and bitou. They are two different kinds of desserts. One is for celebrating the spirits’ birthday while the other is for wishing the spirits have better karma in the next life. In Keelung, it’s very common that people offer moho and bitou. Also, people will present soup with water spinach that is not fully boiled. The Chinese word for ‘fully boiled’ also means ‘not familiar with’ in English. People use the soup as a message to the spirits. The meaning is, ‘we don’t know you, so please, you can go.’ It is the last meal of the Pudu.

Food offering is an important part of the Pudu tradition

Also, in Keelung we make offerings and pray for foreign ghosts. In the history of Keelung there have been lots of wars, all the way back to the dynasties. Taiwan has had to fight the Japanese, the French… and more. When we talk about the food, we don’t just offer traditional food, we also offer vegetarian meals for vegetarian ghosts. We notice foreign ghosts may not be able to eat our food so we prepare hamburger and other western foods like pizza. We have many different foods for many different cultures that are offered during Pudu.”

Are there important symbols associated with Pudu?

“There is a Taoist god that is associated with Pudu. His face is a little bit scary. He makes sure that the ghosts won’t have an accident and won’t fight with each other. We can say that this god is the guard of Pudu. Not just for scaring the ghosts, but also to make sure everyone does their own jobs too.”

Are there important colours associated with Pudu?

In my memory Pudu is usually quite colourful. I think it is because it involves the burning of paper money. The burning money can be very colourful. I would say the colour is red or yellow.

Also, in Taoism, which is closely related to Pudu, we have five kinds of colour: white, black, red, blue, and yellow. These five colours are part of the Taoist tradition. These colours are also a symbol for five kinds of wishes and these colours hold five different meanings.”

Red and yellow are the most proeminent colours of Pudu

How does Pudu fit within Taiwanese society?

“I think that in Taiwanese society Pudu is especially important for people who have serious health issues or other serious problems… like family problems or financial problems. These ceremonies could help people with these types of problems achieve peace of mind. People are very cautious, they are not sure whether or not the ghost will hurt them. Taiwanese people think participating in the ceremony may help them, people are scared of ghosts so they think, ‘Oh, I did something for the spirits so I should be able to have a luckier year.’”

I think Pudu also helps people connect. There are many people who meet at Pudu and are able to find a connection through shared culture.”

In a few words, what do you believe the values of Pudu to be?

“Respect. Mercy. International. Peace. Courtesy. Self-satisfaction.”

What do you believe the values of the Taiwanese people are?

“For the Taiwanese people the most important value is respect. We respect everyone, and we are welcoming of anyone from any culture. Just because you belong to a different culture or are of a different ethnicity does not mean we won’t accept you. That’s why we pray for foreign spirits too. If you come from any place across the world, and come to Taiwan, we will welcome you.

Also, many Taiwanese desire a sense of security.”

What are these values based on?

“It’s because we have many immigrant communities in Taiwan. Our ancestors came from cities in China. Today, many people come to Taiwan. There are many people from South Asia married to Taiwanese people. Taiwan is not just for old Taiwanese people. Taiwan is an international country.

International food is offered for the foreign ghosts too

“As for the reason Taiwanese desire security… this country has many problems that make people feel unstable, especially in Taiwan’s history. So Taiwanese desire a strong sense of security.”

Reflection on Pudu

After reflecting on my research, it has become clear to me that the practice of Pudu is a tradition that has long and deep cultural roots within Taiwanese culture. Today, many young Taiwanese are less interested in carrying out these age-old traditions. Even so, there seems to be a thorough understanding of the significance, history, and meaning behind Pudu, even amongst those who are rarely directly involved. In this researcher’s opinion, the continuation of the practice is solely dependent on the involvement of the younger generations. How to entice young people to participate, though, is a question that needs answering.

If you’re interested in further exploring Taiwan’s unique culture and history in Keelung, look on our website Keelung for a Walk right here.

Ghost Festival

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