Sun, Jul 16, 2006 - Page 18 News List

The expert on Taiwan's ghost busters

Academia Sinica researcher Paul Katz, defies expectations: he's a foreigner who knows local religious phenomena better than most Taiwanese

By Max Hirsch  /  STAFF REPORTER

An abacus in Tainan's City God temple, used by the god to calculate good and evil deeds.

PHOTO COURTESY OF HUANG PING-YING

Abalmy summer night in 1985 found Paul Katz in Tainan standing amid screams and bloodletting. The young scholar had traveled thousands of kilometers from the relative calm of his leafy alma mater, Yale University, to enter a realm of ghosts and their hunters.

Two decades later, Katz — an Academia Sinica research fellow and a leading authority on Taiwanese religious phenomena — is still in that realm. For him, the study of religion is in itself a religion, and his baptism was literally one of fire: Taiwan's Burning Boat Festival (燒王船).

“The festival started with days of men lining up at temples to get whipped,” Katz told the Taipei Times. “Nominally, this kind of ritual is about driving out evil influences, but it also satisfies the psychological need to address guilt and sin.”

Next, ghost hunters — dance troupes wearing Chinese warrior outfits — took to the streets, twirling staffs and performing exorcisms.

“Ghost hunters typically congregate in places where a tragedy has occurred — at the site of a traffic accident, for example,” Katz said, adding that people who die violently become restless ghosts, according to the thinking associated with the Burning Boat Festival.

“Restless ghosts tend to haunt a particular area, oftentimes at the sites of their deaths, and it's up to ghost-hunting dancers to exorcise them,” Katz explained.

The festival's climax is the torching of a giant boat.

The organizers spend hundreds of thousands of NT dollars and many months constructing the boats, said Katz. They stuff a ship with paper effigies of themselves and parade it through town. Then, they light it up at twilight and watch it burn.

“The wildest scenes took place at night, when all the processional troupes returned to the main temple,” Katz said.

“Imagine yourself standing on a dimly-lit street outside the front gates of a temple, watching troupes of grim-faced ghost dancers going through their paces, while dozens of spirit-mediums scream and beat themselves bloody. To make matters worse, a fight between rival troupes broke out ... and the police had to intervene. The tensions that were on display were ... shocking,” he said.

So began the young American's fascination with religion in Taiwan.

A history major at Yale, Katz was initially drawn to the study of violent rituals in European history. However, after attending a lecture by Jonathan Spence, a renowned Sinologist, and studying Chinese at Taiwan National University for a year (1984-1985), Katz became hooked on Taiwan and the dark side of its religiousness. His first Boat Burning Festival in 1985 sealed the deal: Katz returned to the US in 1985 to study Chinese religion at Princeton University, eventually earning a doctorate in Chinese History. He taught at a number of universities before becoming a researcher at Academia Sinica in 2002.

“That a foreigner can come to Taiwan and be an authority on Taiwanese religious phenomena is, I think, indicative of the inclusive, syncretic nature of religion here,” Katz said. He attributed such inclusiveness to Taiwan's history as an “island frontier.”

“Island cultures typically boast a rich tradition of trade and cultural exchange, and so are often fairly open to outside influences,” Katz said. He called Taiwan a “cosmopolitan” place, ideal for conducting field research. China, on the other hand, still lacks the openness necessary for conducting research, the researcher said, adding that the island's comparatively free and democratic society is why he settled here and not in China.

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