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18 taboos to heed during Taiwan's Ghost Festival

Do not step on joss paper, steal offerings, or utter obscenities, lest Good Brothers seek revenge

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Scene from Taiwanese horror film "Tag Along 2." (Atmovies.com image)

Scene from Taiwanese horror film "Tag Along 2." (Atmovies.com image)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The Ghost Festival (鬼節 or 中元節) in Taiwan is on Wednesday (Aug. 30), a time when many Taiwanese send offerings and pray to their ancestors, gods, and ghosts.

The Ghost Festival falls halfway through Ghost Month (鬼月), on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunisolar calendar, which this year is Aug. 30. Devout Taoists and Buddhists believe that during this time of year, the gates of hell are opened for a full month so that hungry ghosts can roam the world of the living in search of food, money, entertainment, and possibly souls.

Offerings typically given on this day include rice wine, fruit, chicken, pork, fish, snacks, incense, and joss paper. Gold joss paper is burned for the gods, while silver joss paper is burned for spirits.

The terms "Good Brothers" (好兄弟) and "Good Sisters" (好姐妹), as opposed to "ghosts," are considered preferable when referring to lost souls — to avoid offending them. These apparitions are not worshiped in the same way as ancestors and vary in nature from pitiful to dangerous.

The following are 18 taboos to dodge a ghoulish gaffe during the Ghost Festival in Taiwan according to Marie Claire:

1. Be careful on special road sections

There are some road sections that are particularly prone to accidents and motorists should exercise extra caution when navigating these roadways during Ghost Month. According to folk belief, ghosts seek the living to serve as their replacement at this time.

2. Do not swim in certain areas

Although many say it is dangerous to swim at all during Ghost Month, a more nuanced version of the superstition is that one should avoid dangerous coastal areas and streams.

It is said that water ghosts like to find someone to replace them. From a common-sense standpoint, it is probably prudent to avoid places such as Mystery Beach in Nan'ao Township, Yilan County, when typhoons approach and mountain streams when afternoon thunderstorms are frequent during this time of year.

3. Do not walk around temples or worship in Yin temples

It is believed that individuals with spiritual energy that has been deemed weak by Chinese astrology are susceptible to attracting impurities when worshiping at Yin Temples (陰廟), which are dedicated to wandering and homeless spirits, during this period. It is said that there are also many orphaned souls who might take advantage of this time to seek justice or resolution within the temple premises.

Therefore, it's also advisable not to linger around temple areas during this period. Instead, make offerings to Good Brothers outdoors and away from temples.

4. Do not take photos or videos at night

Avoid taking photos or videos in dark corners, particularly at night, otherwise, a phantom photobomb might ruin the picture. This is because it is believed that from the time the sun goes down to the time before the sun rises, there will be yin energy (陰氣) especially in the middle of the night.

5. Do not whistle or knock in the middle of the night

Whistling at night, playing musical instruments with melancholic tones, or making sounds by tapping or knocking is said to easily attract Good Brothers.

6. Do not take the last bus

It is believed that the period from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. is the strongest in yin energy. Therefore, it is advisable to avoid taking the last bus or train of the night to avoid being taken away by a phantom driver.

7. Do not lean against walls

Ghosts are thought to stick on walls because they find them cooler and more shaded during the summer heat, or that they are attracted to their yin energy. Either way, people are admonished not to lean against them to avoid making the ghouls' work too easy.

8. Do not catch insects such as dragonflies and katydids

It is generally believed that these two insects may be the incarnation of Good Brothers. If one catches bugs at this time, they could undergo an unwelcome metamorphosis.

9. Do not provide offerings inside the home

When performing ancestral worship and making offerings at home, it is important to choose a location outside the entrance, commonly referred to as the "worship doorway." The offering altar must be placed facing outward at the front door, and under no circumstances should it be set up inside the doorway, in the courtyard, or indoors, to prevent inviting spirits into the household.

10. Do not step on joss paper, steal offerings, or utter obscenities

Both joss paper and offerings are to be dedicated to Good Brothers at the Ghost Festival. It is therefore very impolite to steal the offerings and step on the joss paper.

It is considered even more offensive to Good Brothers if a person utters obscenities during a worship ceremony. Such actions could anger the Good Brothers and invite potential revenge.

11. Do not take statues or dolls home

Because wandering spirits and ghosts lack physical forms, they will need to find something to attach themselves to. At this time, statues or dolls can easily become objects of attachment for them.

During this period, it is inadvisable to bring external statues or dolls into one's home, and it is also not suitable to "invite deities" into the house. Some people even tie red threads to statues and dolls in their homes to ward off evil spirits.

12. Do not move, buy a house, or buy a car

Traditionally, it is believed that one should keep a low profile during Ghost Month. Buying a house or car and moving are all major events.

Drawing too much attention to oneself during this time may attract the interest of Good Brothers and should be avoided as much as possible.

13. Do not hang wind chimes by the bedside or by a window

The sound of wind chimes is easily reminiscent of the sound of a priest shaking a bell, and it is also believed in Feng Shui that wind chimes easily to attract yin energy.

14. Do not dry clothes on the balcony at night

Good Brothers like to cling to dark, damp places or objects. After sunset, wet clothes left outside can easily attract them as they resemble the human form, and when the clothing is brought back indoors, it is likely to include some uninvited guests.

15. Do not open an umbrella indoors

The umbrella is traditionally used to collect souls and is also a typical hiding place for Good Brothers. If one opens an umbrella in the home, spirits are liable to hide underneath.

16. Do not stick chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice

Putting chopsticks in the rice evokes thoughts of ancestral worship rituals and may attract Good Brothers to join the meal at the dinner table.

17. Do not call people by their full names

In general, when in the wilderness or countryside, guides often caution hikers against calling each other by their full names, because it is easy to invite pranks or mischief from Good Brothers. The same problem may also occur during Ghost Month.

If there is a need to call out to one another during this period, it is advised that people refer to each other by nicknames instead.

18. Do not pat people on the shoulder

The living are believed to have a protective invisible flame that emanates from either shoulder. Thus, when one suddenly turns their head to look back, that flame is snuffed out. Apparently, ghouls with guile pat their victims on the back in hopes they will suddenly turn their heads, making them vulnerable to attack.

The solution is to turn the whole body at once instead of just the head. Ideally, one should avoid patting a person on the shoulder throughout Ghost Month.