Ask a Mexican when the dead walk the earth, and he will likely tell you Nov. 2, Day of the Dead. In Taiwan, the dead mix and mingle with the living for a full lunar month; their yearly sabbatical in the material world is known as the Ghost Festival (中元際).
This year, a doubling up of the seventh lunar month — the month of the Ghost Festival — has resulted in a two-month sojourn for phantoms on earth. The gates of hell were flung open late in July and won't close until Sept. 21, said Hsieh Tsung-jung (謝宗榮), an expert on Chinese traditional culture.
“This year's festival is special because it's twice as long as usual,” Hsieh added.
But fear not, for Chinese ghosts are hardly the stuff of nightmares; they are our ancestors whose visits to the realm of the living should be honored and celebrated, according to the National Youth Commission (NYC, 行政院青年輔導委員會).
Which is why the NYC went all-out to organize the 2006 Ilha Formosa Ghost Festival, launching numerous fun-filled activities for local and foreign youth this month.
“Young people today don't know enough about traditional customs and holidays like the Ghost Festival — we need to show them their roots,” said Cheng Li-chiun (鄭麗君), the commission's minister.
The commission will finance and lead 17 activities for kids across the island at various Ghost Festival-related locales. The festival's main attraction is a parade in Keelung tomorrow, with thousands of festival-goers showing off their homemade floats and lanterns. The noisy procession will pass through downtown Keelung in the late afternoon, ending at a nearby oceanside park. Thousands of lit lanterns will then be placed atop the water and pushed off into the twilight.
“The lantern launching is meant to guide ghosts in the water back to land so that they can feast during the Pudu ceremony (普度盛會),” Hsieh told the Taipei Times. That ceremony, which will be held Tuesday, involves bringing offerings of food to temples to “feed” lost, hungry ghosts.
“In the early days, a large number of immigrants to Taiwan died in shipwrecks. Most of them were bachelors without any offspring or family members to provide for them,” states the commission's pamphlet promoting the 2006 Ghost Festival. This could explain why there are so many ghosts haunting the waters off Keelung. “[A floating] lantern set at a height of 30cm can attract ghosts within the vicinity of 600m,” the pamphlet claims.
In addition to activities in Keelung, the commission has organized four day-long bus trips as a part of its Youth Exploration Bus program. Three such excursions will also be held on Tuesday. The trip to the Ghost Grappling Contest in the town of Hengchun (恆春), Pingtung County, is geared for kids who like action and suspense. The highlight of the trip is more of a sports competition than a tussle with ghosts, with contestants racing one another to the tops of towering poles. Tens of thousands of spectators are expected to attend.
Other commission-organized trips to temples and events marking the Ghost Festival include the “divine pig” contest on Aug. 13, which is an eye-opener for anyone who has yet to see a 600kg hog in the flesh. A ceremony for locals of the town of Hsinpu (新埔) to exhibit the “pigs of their labor,” is ideal for children fascinated by impossibly large animals. The pigs are painstakingly raised as a show of veneration to ghosts.