Taiwanese Culture: Origins of the Taiwan Ghost Festival
There is a rich history attached to Taiwanese culture. The seventh month of the lunar calendar is recognized as Taiwanese Ghost Month or seventh month festival. In the northeastern part of Taiwan stands the sleepy port city of Keelung. For over 163 years, the small city has mobilized to host an entire lunar month of rituals that effectively blend religious, cultural, and traditional symbols.
The Keelung Mid-Summer Ghost Festival is one of the 12 major festivals recognized by the Tourism Bureau. It began during the Qing dynasty, when Fujian immigrants settled in Keelung. The Kanmen opening at Lao Da Gong Temple serves as the festival's official start date on the first day of the seventh lunar month. Over 12 days, lanterns are lit, and colored threads are released on the Zhupu altar.
Also known as the Keelung Mid-Summer Ghost Festival (基隆中元祭), it occurs on the 1st day of the 7th lunar month, changing yearly. In 2021, it started on August 8th. Throughout the month, the Ghost Month lets spirits roam the earthly realm. Families pay respects to ancestors and offer offerings to other forgotten spirits to prevent disturbances.
Originating a century and a half ago, the festival reconciled feuding clans. After conflicts, clans united to honor their departed in a shared temple. They established ceremonial tributes and rotated hosting duties. Today, clans continue these elaborate, month-long ceremonies.
Dating back to 1851, the Keelung Ghost Festival is one of the oldest festivals in Taiwan, featuring offerings, parades, performances and sacrificial rituals for the spirits to protect the living from eternal suffering in the afterlife. Each ritual has historical and folk significance, and over the last few years, cultural and artistic aspects have been integrated into the traditional festival unique to Taiwanese culture.
The Keelung of the past includes Jiufen, Yehliu, Pingxi, Jinshan, and Ruifan. This group of participants makes up the traditional Keelung Ghost Festival, and its traditions can be seen on display in the festival parade.
What happens during the Ghost Festival
The French Cemetery in Keelung hosts an Offerings Ceremony on the fourth day of the seventh month at 10:00 a.m. (Location: The Sino-French War Relic)
The sixth lunar month's Lights-On Night (kaidengye) begins at 11:00 p.m. on the twenty-ninth day. At midnight, a feast is served as a guide for the dead to visit the living. (Address: Laodong Temple)
A chinese ghost story, On the first day of the 7th lunar month, when the gate of Lao Da Gong Temple opens, the ritual is called “Kanmen.” It is believed that the gates of tombs and graveyards are left open the whole month, giving the spirits of the dead free access to the world of the living.
Lantern Delivery and Worship (sngdng xiànjng), which takes place on the ninth day of the seventh month.
The ceremony known as the Bamboo Lantern Pole-Raising (shùdnggo) takes place at 9:00 a.m. on the eleventh day of the seventh month. In order to encourage lingering spirits to get ready for the afterlife, whole bamboo plants are raised. (Location: Main Salvation Altar)
The Ghost Festival consists of a different ritual on each day, but the major rituals fall on the days between the 12th and 15th days of the 7th lunar month.
On the 12th day, the Taoist exorcism takes place; lamps on the Zhupu altar are lit, casting spectacular rays of colored lights across the city.
The Lantern Lighting Ceremony at the Salvation Altar (kidngfàngci) honors ancestors who have died in battles and illnesses on the twelveth day of the seventh month at 7:00 p.m. (Location: Main Salvation Altar)
On the 13th day, the Dipper Lantern (Ying Dou Deng) is paraded around Ching-An Temple to pray for good fortune.
The 14th day features a large-scale parade with celebrations and performances in the city center, marking the occasion for the water lantern release. After the parade, the water lanterns are lit and set adrift down the seashore of Keelung to honor and reconcile with the spirits of the drowned.
The Passage Ceremony Announcement takes place at 9:00 a.m. on the fourteenth day of the seventh month. (Location: Salvation Altar)
The Water Lantern Parade happens at 7:00 p.m. on the fourteenth day of the seventh month. (Location: Keelung City)
The Releasing of the Water Lanterns takes place at 11:00 p.m. (Location: The seafront at Wanghai Alley)
On the 15th day, a public Taoist prayer is held as a sacrificial ritual at the Zhupu altar. In addition, every household has its own sacrificial ritual known as ‘Pudu.’ Incense and food are offered to the spirits to keep them from visiting homes, and spirit paper money is also burnt as an offering. At midnight, the ritual of Chung Kwei (a deity who protects people and places from evil spirits) begins, and he comes to calm the ghosts and keep them from disturbing the living. The offering of food to appease the spirits is why this festival is known to some as the festival of hungry ghosts.
The Earth Emperor's Birthday Celebration Ceremony is held on the fifteenth day of the seventh month at 11:00 a.m. (Location: Main Salvation Altar)
On the first day of the 8th lunar month, the Door-Closing Ceremony (gunknmén), which takes place at 5:00 p.m., marks the conclusion of the festival. (Location: Laodagong Temple).The Lao Da Gong Temple gates officially close and a ceremony takes place for the next clan to host the following year’s festival.
The Hand-Held Pot Heater Transfer Ceremony (jiojishul) is held on the first day of the eighth month at 6:30 p.m. (Location: Ching-An Temple)
If you are not here during the time of the festival don't worry. Take a walk to Zhongzheng park where you will find the Ghost festival Museum that will ensure you don't miss out on any aspect of Taiwanese culture in relation to this unique chinese ghost festival.
For those interested in the locations that the ghost festival celebration can be seen, check this map below.
Keelung City Ghost Festival Museum
For those seeking a deeper understanding of the festival's history and significance, a visit to the Keelung City Ghost Festival Museum is a must. The museum houses a vast collection of artifacts, costumes, and historical exhibits showcasing the evolution of the festival over the years. Visitors can delve into the spiritual beliefs and cultural practices integral to the festival's traditions.
Admission to the Keelung City Ghost Festival Museum is free, allowing visitors to gain valuable insights into the festival and enrich their overall experience.
Safety and Etiquette Tips for Visitors
While attending the Keelung Mid-Summer Ghost Festival, it is important to observe safety guidelines and respect the local customs and traditions. To ensure a pleasant experience, here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Dress appropriately: As the festival has religious and cultural significance, dress modestly and avoid wearing revealing or inappropriate attire.
- Respect temple rules: When visiting temples or participating in rituals, follow any guidelines provided by the religious authorities. Remove your shoes, be quiet and mindful, and refrain from touching any sacred artifacts.
- Be cautious during the parade: The grand parade can get crowded, so exercise caution and be aware of your surroundings. Keep valuables secure and respect the procession's boundaries.
- Follow fire safety regulations: Lanterns and candles are an integral part of the festival, but ensure you follow fire safety guidelines and dispose of them properly after use. Avoid causing any accidental fires or endangering others' safety.
- Embrace cultural diversity: The Keelung Mid-Summer Ghost Festival celebrates cultural diversity and inclusivity. Respect the beliefs and practices of others, and approach the festival with an open mind and heart.
The Keelung Mid-Summer Ghost Festival is a captivating celebration that unites generations, cultures, and beliefs. It serves as a testament to the rich heritage and spirituality of Taiwan, providing a window into the ancient customs and traditions that continue to shape the nation. Embark on this enchanting journey, immerse yourself in the vibrant festivities, and experience firsthand the magic and allure of the Keelung Mid-Summer Ghost Festival.
- When does the Keelung Mid-Summer Ghost Festival take place?
Usually occurring between July and August, the seventh lunar month is when the Keelung Mid-Summer Ghost Festival takes place. It is crucial to consult the festival's official schedule, as specific dates could change each year.
- Are there any age restrictions or limitations for participating in the festival?
All ages are welcome to attend the Keelung Mid-Summer Ghost Festival. However, it's advisable to exercise caution, especially during crowded events, to ensure the safety of young children.
- Can tourists actively participate in the rituals and ceremonies during the festival?
Tourists are generally welcome to observe and appreciate the rituals and ceremonies taking place during the festival. But before engaging in these practices, it is important to respect their cultural and religious significance and ask for permission.
- How long does the festival usually last?
Even though the Keelung Mid-Summer Ghost Festival lasts the entire seventh lunar month, certain activities and events might be concentrated over a few significant days or weeks. Visitors can experience the festival by planning their travel in advance and participating in a number of events during this time.
- Are there any specific foods associated with the Keelung Mid-Summer Ghost Festival?
The festival is well known for its thriving night markets, which provide a wide selection of regional specialties. Traditional street food is available to tourists, including oyster omelets, stinky tofu, and shaved ice with fresh fruit. It is a wonderful chance to enjoy the flavors of Keelung's delicacies while soaking up the festival's atmosphere.