Ghost Month in Taiwan

This year, August 14th, begins the annual celebration of Ghost Month here in Taiwan and across many Asian cultures. Ghost Month of Gui Yue in Pinyin is celebrated during the 7th lunar month of the year, specifically during the first 15 days, although the entire month is designated as such.

What is Ghost Month? Although there are some variations on this event, here is a brief guide to what you can expect to see over the next month along with some important cultural information.

First, a little background. Taiwanese religious culture is varied and diverse. There are many religions and beliefs represented on the island. That being said, the main religious belief system is held in the family. It is what we might call Traditional Folk Religion. Some families practice Buddhism, others Daoism while others might draw from both and add some elements of animism.

To help you understand this event, you need to know that most Taiwanese believe that when you physically die, your spirit goes to live in another world which is very similar to this one, the spirit world. Those that have done good go to a place of rest and happiness, those that have done bad, go to a place that is not happy. The second place is also where spirits who are killed or die apart from family are sent. In particular those with no family to worship them, people who moved to Taiwan and left their family in China, died here and now they are forgotten, those killed in major disasters where whole groups of people are killed and no family are left to worship, etc. This group of spirits must go through some process to work their way towards the other spirit world where they can finally rest. This may include reincarnation and another chance for some.

You may have seen or know that in almost every Taiwanese home, there is a family altar which must be continually maintained. At this altar, the ancestral tablets are placed and worshipped every morning and every night by the faithful. On certain days of the lunar calendar, it is very important to observe certain rituals and at times, even enlisting the aid of a shaman or spirit priest to aid in making certain that your ancestors are happy and satisfied. This is one of the most important acts that a good Taiwanese family does to make sure their ancestors stay in a state of happiness and do not turn into Hungry Ghosts. Ghost Month is not related to this regular act of ancestor worship in the family home.

Now, what is Ghost Month – and why is it such a big deal in Taiwanese culture.

Taiwanese, along with many Asian people, believe that during the first 15 days of the 7th lunar month, those spirits which have not achieved the place of happiness are released. This is their “holiday”. It is a time for them to enjoy themselves and escape the worries of the other world to which they have been banished.

Taiwanese people who subscribe to this belief, which is a great majority, will place an offering in front of their home and/or business for these spirits. They will also burn “hell money” and offer worship, the purpose being to aid these “wandering spirits – good brothers” in the hope they will be able to leave the place of torment and finally achieve a place of rest and happiness in the afterlife. Next to the table will be placed a small bowl of water and washcloth. This must be a new washcloth and it can never be used again after this time, otherwise it will bring bad luck. The hope is that if a spirit happens to drop by, they will take their fill of the offering outside, wash their hands and dry off and then be on their way without coming inside. I’ve seen many foreigners perplexed and even try to convince families and owners how ridiculous this is, knowing the items will stay on the table, not ever being consumed. Taiwanese people don’t expect it to “disappear”. They believe it is a spiritual act, so don’t bother.

In addition, over the years, Taiwanese have developed a set of cultural taboos and superstitions that they hold to fairly closely during Ghost Month. Most of them are related to night. The reason behind these taboos have been lost to many people, but if you dig deep enough you can find out the origins. If you are close to Taiwanese people, you may here these things talked about, mentioned or they may even urge you to abstain from certain behaviors. Here is a brief list of some of the main superstitions:

  • Don’t hang your clothes to dry at night. – The reason for this is that wandering spirits might think you have left them these clothes to try on and the next morning your clothes will be gone.
  • Don’t lean or walk against walls. – Spirits like walking next to walls where it is cooler.
  • Keep away from water. – Spirits that died in water will try to drown you. This is a particular taboo and has its roots in the idea that if a spirit can cause your death, it can return to the world of the living.
  • If someone calls your name or taps you on the shoulder at night … Keep walking.
  • No whistling or tapping of any kind. – This behavior encourages wandering spirits to come and visit you.
  • Don’t buy a home. – The reason for this is that buying a home is a celebratory act. During this month, you should avoid all types of celebrations. This is the spirits time to rest and celebrate. You are to lay low.
  • Try not to take the last bus home. – This is when the spirits are coming out at night and you might be stuck on a bus with them.
  • Keep away from hospitals.
  • Don’t take pictures outside at night. If you happen to catch a picture of a spirit, it is very unlucky.
  • Don’t get married. – Related to the idea of celebrating above.
  • Don’t have funerals. – Again, because of the large gathering of people associated with a funeral, it is like a celebration. This one generally applies to the first 15 days.
  • Don’t use the word Ghost. In Taiwan, these spirits are called “good brothers”. More on this below…

So, why call these spirits “Good Brothers”? It’s because they are family. The idea is to create a good feeling, you don’t want to do anything that would create enmity or anger between you and the departed. The one thing traditional Taiwanese fear almost more than anything else is being left in the afterlife with no one taking care of you in this life. Hence the term “Hungry Ghost”. If your descendents in the land of the living don’t pay attention to you in the afterlife, then your spirit turns into an angry and vengeful ghost.

There are three very important days during this month when there will be a great deal of incense and spirit money burned. Of course there will be plenty of burning going on the whole month, but you can expect a great deal more on these three days. They are: August 14th, August 28, September 12. These are the 1st, 15th and last day of the 7th lunar month.

So, over the next month, we will have many opportunities to talk about spiritual things. We ask you to pray for Taiwanese people who feel afraid during this time. Pray that Christians here will speak boldly about their faith and hope in Jesus Christ. Pray that the feelings of hopelessness will lead people to seek hope in Jesus Christ.

Christmas in Taiwan – Planning a Trip

If you are interested in coming to Taiwan this Christmas, we have two weeks of activities planned. You may choose to come for both, or just one. Please read carefully and then contact us to help begin planning your trip.

Week 1:
Start Date: December 28, 2015. Please try to arrive on December 27 if possible. (Dec 28 is okay)
End Date: January 3, 2016 or based on your own travel plans. Please plan to stay for at least a week to ten days.

Week 2:
Start Date: January 4, 2016. Please try to arrive on January 3 or before if possible.
End Date: January 10, 2016 or based on your travel plans. Please plan to stay for at least a week to ten days.

What Now? How do you make it happen? I’ve written this guide to help you with the details. Don’t worry, it’s not as hard as you might think. Whether you are a seasoned international traveler, or this is your first trip, you are in good hands. Over the years, I’ve helped bring over 250 people to Taiwan and have lots of experience with this particular kind of trip.

After you let me know (CLICK HERE to send me an e-mail) that you are thinking about or planning on coming to help, here is a checklist to help you get started.

First, Pray. Ask God to begin preparing your heart and mind for what He has already planned. Also, begin praying for the people He is going to put in your path while you are here. There is no doubt that when we prepare ourselves, God does His part to bring people to hear the Gospel. Jesus said that the field was ready for harvest, this couldn’t be more true in Taiwan.

Second, do you have your passport? If not, you should immediately begin the process of applying for a passport. CLICK HERE. If you don’t have at least 4 weeks left before the trip date, it is probably too late.

Third, you need a plane ticket. How much? Generally, the earlier you buy, the better, so it’s time to get cracking. If you are coming with a group of people, it would be good to work together to purchase tickets. If alone, then start pricing tickets with a travel agent or using some online tools. I prefer kayak.com as well as looking at the individual airline sites. Just a note – the more direct the flight, the higher the price. I know that seems crazy, but it’s true. People are willing to pay more to spend less time getting to their destination, so the direct flights tend to be more expensive. If you can tolerate a few stops along the way, you may end up with a cheaper ticket. Also, using a travel agent can also reap some rewards. For anyone coming from the middle of the country (i.e. Texas), I highly recommend a stop in California or Washington State and then catch the direct flight to Taipei. It is a much easier trip. I also encourage you to buy a refundable ticket. It’s usually just an additional $30-50 – and well worth it if you have something happen at the last minute.

Your travel destination is TPE, Taipei Taoyuan International Airport. For more about flights, please see the end of the article.

Fourth – you’ll need to plan for your expenses while you are here. You can count on about $50 dollars per day for your lodging, food, transportation and miscellaneous expenses. So take the number of days you are in the country and multiply it times $50 and there is your additional cost. Unless otherwise indicated, you will be staying in housing provided by the National Taichung University of Education. CLICK HERE for a look.

The other options are:
A business type hotel at around $30USD per night depending on how many people per room.
A backpacker type hotel is going to be $600 – 800 TWD per night.
There are also some private B&B type places which are actually quite nice and near our center city district. These average around $10-$15 per person per night.

Fifth – Get some support! Allow your family, friends, co-workers to get involved. You want to ask people to pray for you, and give people an opportunity to participate spiritually and financially. I know for many people, this feels a little weird or strange, but I’m telling you after years of working with people, this is one of the best parts of going on mission trips. Share with people a clear vision of what you are going to be doing and give them an opportunity to support you. I’ve learned that most people are pretty smart with their money, and they are looking for good places to spend / invest it. If they don’t want to, they won’t. Just don’t get your feelings hurt if they don’t. Pray first, trust God to provide your needs – it’s all His – then ask confidently, be willing to put your own resources on the line and go for it. The part that is really important is to keep people informed. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate! Get the e-mail address of every person and send out regular updates while you are on the trip with stories! People want to know stories, they don’t want endless pictures of food and tourist sites. They want to know that their prayer and money made a difference in someone’s life.

Sixth – get your church involved. Talk to your pastor / mission pastor / youth pastor and ask for their prayer and encouragement. Ask for your church to be praying for you.

Once we know you are coming, we will provide you with the resources you need to prepare for when you get here. We are going to be sharing in classrooms in several college campuses, at the invitation of professors. The presentations will consist of two parts, the first part will be American Christmas and New Year Traditions followed by the real meaning and story of Christmas. Your part of the preparation will be to collect pictures, video and prepare to talk about your family traditions and stories related to how you celebrate these two holidays. We’ll provide you with a guide about how to share the real meaning and story of Christmas.

Tentative Schedule:
We will be spending the majority of each day on various college campuses in classrooms connecting with students, sharing the above mentioned programs.

During the evening hours – you will have time to follow up with students who show interest in spending further time with our team. This is a very natural part of each trip. You’ll be busy from morning to evening each day.

If you are here for New Year’s Day – we will take some time to experience some traditional Taiwanese presentations and performances that can only be seen around this time of year. In addition, we’ll give you the opportunity to connect with Taiwanese host families and join them for a traditional Taiwanese New Year’s Meal.

Over the weekend, we’ll have more opportunities for follow-up as we take in some of the beautiful sights the island is known for as well as introduce you to some of Taiwan’s unique culture and heritage, including the religious side of Taiwanese life. In addition, you will get to experience our church, Taichung Baptist! For those who are able to stay longer, the University will provide more opportunities to enter the classroom and work in an English exchange environment the following week if you are able, if not, you can depart at your convenience. We’ll make sure you are taken care of from beginning to end.

Travel Agents we recommend:

Keren Yu out of Dallas with Gateway Travel. Her contact information is: keren.dfw@gtttravel.com

Also, I highly recommend Justin Bachus at Book it with Miles. If you have airlines miles (or if you don’t) he can help you immensely to make the most of your travel buck. It’s a fee for service, but well worth it. CLICK HERE

http://www.springfieldtravel.com

Riverside. 800-337-6658

Golden Rule Travel. Contact: Sharon(800) 950-3599; (330) 852-8805; http://www.goldenruletravel.com/

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Suzanne at 1.866 .NOW.EXIT

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FLIGHT INFORMATION

There are many ways to come to Taiwan. Most of the time using a search engine, your route will go through one of three major cities, Tokyo, Hong Kong or Seoul. It is possible to end up with another route. Here is what you need to watch out for when booking an overseas flight yourself. Long layovers – check your total travel time. From most anywhere in the United States, you should be able to get to Taiwan in around 24 hours or less, total travel time. There are some places where it will be a great deal less if you can get a direct flight. (New York, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago).

Most airlines allow you to purchase an upgraded economy plus seat. If you are a little older or have trouble with long legs, I highly recommend this option. For about $150 extra each way, it can make a big difference in your travel experience.

Don’t be afraid to use a travel agent. With a little work, you can put together a great route. For many, a shorter overseas flight is important. So a stopover in San Francisco or another West Coast city is important. An agent can help you sort out these details.

And of course, please don’t hesitate to ask us. We’ve made the trip multiple times on multiple airlines. We don’t know everything or all the tricks, but we know who to ask.