Shuddering at the sight of a black cat crossing the road or avoiding walking beneath a ladder are just a few ways we in the West ascribe to superstitions. Though we typically understand its silly nature, Taiwan takes its superstitions VERY seriously. But there’s one month of the year when their spiritual ticks hit a whole new level, one that’s eerily known as Ghost Month.
The 7th month of the lunar calendar is when the gates of hell open, and the hungry ghosts are released into the world in search of food, money, entertainment, and if you fail to follow the rules, they might take your soul too!
During this very contentious month, there is a myriad of things you should avoid in order to respect the dead and hopefully keep your soul. So, let’s look at some of the things to avoid during Ghost Month!
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What Is Ghost Month?
Taiwan’s Ghost Month is observed on the 7th month of the lunar calendar, which changes each year, though it’s typically celebrated around August.
During this time, Taoists and Buddhists believe that the gates of hell are opened for “hungry ghosts” to roam the world. These lost souls are believed to have been sent to the underworld to suffer an eternal state of hunger for their misdeeds or for not having a proper burial.
As such, they have one whole month each year to satisfy their hunger and to search the world for money and entertainment. Best of all, if they find a soul, they might not have to go back to hell at all!
However, many of these spirits, referred to as “Good Brothers” (好兄弟) and “Good Sisters” (好姐妹) (ascalling them ghosts might offend them!) have a less ominous reason for visiting Earth. It’s also the time when the dead can visit their family and loved ones.
A Brief History of Ghost Month
Religions in Taiwan are a cultural melting-pot of various scriptures and ideologies, and the same is true for Ghost Month. Originally starting as a day to honour ancestors, it soon evolved once Buddhism was introduced to China where it became known as the Yu Lan Peng Festival. Taoists on the other hand refer to the festival as Zhongyuan Jie.
Regardless of what its called, the common consensus is that it originated from Buddhist scriptures. One of the origin stories explains that the Buddha’s disciple, Mulian, travelled to hell on July 15th of the Lunar calendar to offer food in exchange for his mother’s release. His prayers were answered, and she was released from hell, leading to the tradition that we have today.
How Is Ghost Month Celebrated?
The Mid-Summer Ghost Festival begins on the first day of the 7th lunar month. For the next 12 days, lanterns are lit and coloured threads are placed on the alters.
On the 13th day, the Ying Dou Deng procession takes place, followed by the water lantern procession by the seashore on the 14th. The water lanterns are aimed to guide the wandering souls toward the temples where their offerings will be waiting for them. The processions of Ghost Month culminate in an event known as the Hungry Ghost Festival on the 15th day.
During the event, spirits are offered a multitude of food, including various types of meat, dumplings, fruits and vegetables. Later in the evening after the ghosts have taken their full, the living will eat the offerings for dinner.
Ghost Month Superstitions – What Not to Do!
Even on an average month, Taiwanese are very superstitious, and belief in ghosts is commonplace. As such, Ghost Month has a litany of rules and taboos that must be adhered to.
These are in place not only to respect the dead but also to ensure that you don’t take your soul!
These rules should be followed throughout the month, especially at night, as the gates of hell are believed to be the most open during this time!
Don’t Go Swimming!
Like the stuff of nightmares, those who unwisely go swimming during this month might be dragged down to the depth by the spirits that lay within! These unfortunate souls are the ones who drowned themselves, so taking you down with them gives these spirits a second chance at life, so they’ll be pretty determined.
All bodies of water should be avoided, and even acts of personal hygiene like showering or even combing your hair should not be done after midnight! That being said, you should still take care of your hair, because those with a dishevelled look are said to look like ghosts…as you see, it’s a minefield with these rules!
Don’t Turn If Tapped on Your Shoulder!
Naturally, if someone taps you on the shoulder, your first reaction is to turn around and see who did it. Unfortunately, you might find out that a ghost was responsible!
If you must turn round (to avoid being rude to your boss or family member who might actually be there!) then you must turn your whole body, not just turn your head like an owl! If you were to do that, you’ll be extinguishing one of the two protective flames that sit on the shoulders of the living.
That also means that YOU shouldn’t tap anyone on the shoulder, as you’ll be putting out one of these flames too!
Don’t Schedule Anything Important!
The entirety of Ghost Month is pretty uneventful, as many people avoid big life changes during this time. That includes marriages, buying or moving into a new place, starting a business, buying a car, or even visiting the hospital…so best pray to the gods for good health.
That means it’s actually a great buyer’s market during this month as housing sales plummet and people avoid any transfer of ownership, renovations or even paperwork during this time. So its the perfect time for non-believers to buy!
It’s also “recommended” not to give birth during this time…but how in God’s name are you supposed to control that is a whole other question.
Also, you’ll be incredibly unlucky if your birthday falls on this month…
Don’t Hang Out Clothes!
Hopefully, you have plenty of room and a decent dehumidifier in your house, because you’ll have to hang those clothes inside!
If you do, spirits will be tempted to wear those trendy threads and comfortable yoga pants of yours to keep themselves warm. It’s also the perfect way for them to disguise themselves so they can sneak into your home.
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All aboard the ghost train! Locals believe that the first and last transport of the day harbours the strongest yin (bad) energy. Therefore, unless you want to be taken to the afterlife by a phantom driver, try to get there on time!
Don’t Take Photos at Night!
Unfortunately for photographers and Instagram attention seekers, you better leave that camera at home during the evening! If you unwisely take some photos when the sun has set, then you might find an unwelcome photobomber who’ll come along to ruin your pic and leave you with nightmares for years to come!
Be aware when a catchy tune comes on the radio, as whistling along is a big no-no! Your catchy melodies are said to attract spirits who like the sounds you’re making; thus they’ll keep following you!
Don’t Contact Any Walls!
How in the almighty hell are you supposed to achieve this in the middle of a city is beyond me, but you should avoid coming into contact with any wall. Its believed that spirits like to congregate next to walls as a way to keep cool. So don’t lean on one, don’t be near one…just walk in the middle of the highway I suppose.
Don’t Pee on A Tree!
We’ve all been there. A bladder fit to burst and nothing but the reassuring protection of a tree to relieve ourselves against. During Ghost Month, this could be the most unfortunate piss of your life.
Spirits prefer to congregate in cooler, shaded areas, thus being below the canopy of leaves is the perfect place for them. Naturally, pissing all over the nearby spirits will not be taken too kindly, and they’ll seek vengeance on the unfortunate pisser.
Locals will even specifically prune overgrown trees and bushes before Ghost Month to limit their areas of relaxation. If Ghost Month is already upon them, then they will wrap tree trunks in red cloth to convert yin (bad) energy into yang (good) energy.
Don’t Pick Up Money!
What seems like good luck could turn out to be disastrous! Picking up money from the ground brings with it bad fortune. So as hard as it may be, you’ll need to leave it where it is for the next unfortunate soul to pick up!
You might come across a lot too, as people often toss coins on the street following certain ceremonies or might leave joss paper lying about too. Picking up the latter is considered an insult to the spirits, and you wouldn’t want them to hold a grudge!
Finally, a superstition many of you might be familiar with! Taiwanese cultures also believe it’s bad luck to open an umbrella indoors, but for different reasons.
The umbrellas will gather yin (bad) energy as ghosts will huddle under for protection from the sun. I guess nobody really figured out that there is no sun indoors, but I digress.
On top of that, the Chinese character for umbrella and scatter (散) are homophones (sound the same), so people believe using umbrellas indoors is thought to scatter one’s wealth and family. For some reason, the same is not true for using one outdoors.
Don’t Hang Lanterns!
Lanterns are big in Chinese culture, there’s even an entire festival dedicated to them! However, this cultural phenomenon is put aside during the beginning of Ghost Month. Lanterns are only used on the 15th day to guide the spirits onto the temple grounds where their offerings are waiting for them.
If you put a lantern outside your home or your business, you’re essentially guiding the spirits to enter your place!
Another misinterpreted welcome signal for spirits is wind chimes! Usually hung above a doorway, balconies, or windows, the tinkling sound is a blissful invitation for the lost souls who just can’t resist! So best not put them up.
Don’t Keep Too Many Dolls in the House!
Like something out of a horrifying B-movie, dolls can be the stuff of nightmares in the right context! During Ghost Month, these frightful little figures can transform into an army of living spirits!
To prevent this, cut red paper into circles and stick them on the base or feet of the dolls to keep the spirits at bay. Yet again, how in the almighty hell anyone ever figured this out is beyond me!
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Though it may seem like the perfect time to indulge in spooky horror movies and the like, it should be avoided at all costs. Consumption of horror media is said to deplete yang (good) energy, and you’ll need all you can get this month!
Don’t Wear Monochrome Outfits!
It seems the spirits are quite fashion conscious too! Even colour has significant symbolism in Taiwanese culture. Where typically the colour red is one of luck, during Ghost Month, one should avoid wearing monochrome colours.
Clothes shouldn’t have just a single colour, there should be a few. I’ve heard stripes can be awfully slimming you know?
Don’t Place Shoes Facing the Bed!
When sleeping at night, the toes of one’s shoes should never face the bed. Instead, turn them to face away from the bed. The direction of the shoes indicates to spirits where a person is located.
If the shoes are pointed toward the bed, the spirits know where you are (because just looking at the bed would be too easy I guess). This could lead to a situation of being pinned to the bed by a spirit, which does not sound pleasant…
Don’t Kill Insects!
Sadly, for you, you’ll just have to deal with those endless cockroaches and buzzing-bastard mosquitoes.
More specifically, you should avoid killing insects that rarely appear in residential areas, as it is believed that ancestors visit relatives after they have reincarnated as a rare insect…bad luck for them I suppose.
Don’t Sit in the Front Row of The Opera!
If you happen to visit the Taiwanese opera during this time, just make sure you stay away from the front row, as that is reserved for the spirits. They get special privileges this month, and this entire festival is about making them as happy as possible.
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A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.