Thu, Aug 30, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Spirits, ghosts, deities and monsters

Ho Ching-yao, author of a compendium on Taiwan’s supernatural beings, creatures and folktales, discusses his research and its significance as Ghost Month enters full swing

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Illustrator Chang Chi-ya’s rendering of Na Tao Ji, a spurned widow who haunts screw pine trees in Taiwan.

Illustration courtesy of Chang Chi-ya

On the first day of Ghost Month every year, a sinister, chilly wind would sweep through the streets of Taniao (打貓). The wind would bring the cries of hungry ghosts, terrifying the local populace for the entire month.

On occasion, a 10-meter tall being with a blue face, protruding fangs and twin spiral horns clad in bright red armor would appear, flickering its extremely long tongue covered in flames. Whenever it appeared, the winds would stop and the ghosts would quiet down.

The people were grateful to this deity, who eventually became known as Dashiye (大士爺), and worshiped it every first of July by creating an effigy of it and hiring monks to ease the suffering of the ghosts.

This tale can be found in a late-1890s publication describing the administration, geography and customs of the area that is roughly today’s Chiayi County. It is among the 229 entries in Ho Ching-yao’s (何敬堯) book Yaoguai Taiwan (妖怪台灣), a compendium of supernatural or fantastic beings, creatures and events from both Aboriginal and Han Chinese cultures collected from hundreds of historical texts between 1624 and 1945.

“If we’re talking about Ghost Month, the one being that we should get to know is Dashiye,” Ho says. “He can pacify the ghosts and prevent them from causing trouble.”

While Dashiye and other deities are relatively known due to popular religious rituals, Ho says that there’s still a lack of knowledge about Taiwan’s supernatural history due to political whitewashing of Taiwanese education and the lack of formal study on the subject because it often isn’t considered proper history.

Some of the more obscure items include a fortune-telling human-faced bull who was reportedly seen near Taichung in 1862, demons spotted throwing rocks at people’s roofs in 1925 (this was reported in the newspapers) and several sightings of sharks turning into deer, and vice versa.

“This is my way of promoting Taiwanese fantasy literature,” Ho, an author of several novels, says. “I feel like I’m searching for or trying to put together a lost history, and I hope that people can use my material in their movies, novels, plays, poems and songs.”

HISTORY OF IMAGINATION

Ho says that while the Chinese characters of yaoguai (妖怪) are identical to Japanese yokai, a class of supernatural demons and spirits, his version is a contraction of yaoguishenguai (妖鬼神怪, literally spirits, ghosts, deities and monsters), which by his definition includes all types of supernatural phenomena recorded throughout Taiwanese history.

Ho completed his compendium last year and has already put his findings to practical use, publishing Yaoguai Mingchanglu Formosa (妖怪鳴唱錄) in February, a young adult novel featuring several Taiwanese mythical creatures, demons and ghosts who form a band and write songs about their kind to overturn people’s perceptions of them. The book comes with a CD of songs; it was also turned into a phone game.

“It’s my experiment to try different ways of presenting these yaoguai,” Ho says.

Ho says he first started collecting the tales as potential material for his novels, and didn’t expect there to be so many that he was clueless about.

“The material is actually rich and easily accessible — the problem is that it’s scattered in texts belonging to various fields, including anthropology, folklore studies and history,” he says.

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