One of the most surprising experiences for a newcomer from the West arriving in Taiwan must surely be the sight of the fashionably-dressed young staff of a hi-tech retail outlet burning paper money on the street, within inches of glistening new computers, scanners, printers and cellphones.
Marc L. Moskowitz's The Haunting Fetus is certainly the most interesting book on Taiwan I have ever read. Its subject is the very prevalent practice here of appeasing the spirits of aborted fetuses in the hope that they will cease to trouble the living adults who were responsible for depriving them of the chance of life in the human world.
Moskowitz is an academic sociologist from Illinois who lived in Taipei for six years in the 1990s. But his book is entirely lacking in the jargon common to so many in his field. Instead, he proves very aware of the sensitive nature of research, and refers on one occasion to "the beauty, the sorrow, and the hope that I have witnessed in relation to this belief." He talks to taxi-drivers, interviews women involved, and describes the behavior of clearly fraudulent fortune tellers and spirit mediums in terms that are openly comic, even farcical.
This, in other words, is a book everyone can read -- and should read. If you ever thought that the world of pubs, Western restaurants, fashionable beauties, plus a smattering of politics and the odd act of incense-burning, equaled Taiwan, then you have a shock coming.
Moskowitz opens with some astonishing statements. One third of all pregnancies in modern Taiwan, he claims, end in abortion, and perhaps half of Taiwanese women have terminated a pregnancy at least once in their lives. This is a result, he believes, of increased sexual freedom, the easy availability of abortion, and the inadequacy of sex education in at least some schools.
Secondly, he insists that the practice of the propitiation of fetus ghosts, far from being ancient, is in large part something that has come to Taiwan from Japan within the last 30 years.
These two points are connected. Abortion was fully legalized here in 1985, and so the rapid increase in the number of terminations that followed coincided with a mushrooming of establishments offering appeasement of the spirits of the unborn. Furthermore, fetus ghost appeasement reached its apex in Japan in the same period, so, taking into consideration the strong influence of things Japanese on Taiwan in general, the rise in the practice in Taiwan in the early 1990s is not surprising.
It should be said right away that the author himself shows no signs of believing in a spirit world of any kind, and all his attempts to explain the phenomenon are based on psychology, sociology, human sympathy, and a keen nose for plain exploitation and fraud.
He studies several temples offering fetus ghost propitiation in the course of the book. These range from a one-floor former apartment in Taipei to a large institution given over almost exclusively to the practice in central Taiwan.
His conclusions are as follows. Guilt at abortion is natural, even universal, in the women who submit to it. Having the opportunity to give something in recompense to your unborn child therefore fulfills a very valuable psychological function.
On the other hand, it is very easy for those offering the service to attribute difficulties in life of almost any kind to the attentions of the spirit of an unhappy and unpropitiated fetus. Moskiwitz tells the story of one practitioner immediately latching on to the presence of a discontented fetus ghost as the cause of a woman's unhappiness and, when she said she had never conceived, extending his questioning wider and wider through her family circle, until finally discovering that she once went to a temple with a friend to make an offering of this kind. This, he asserted, was obviously the cause of her problems.
The author also gives his opinion that there is a certain amount of sexual guilt in modern Taiwan associated with the speed with which permissiveness has advanced. This, he feels, readily combines with other feelings, most notably the Buddhist precept that the taking of life of any kind is wrong.
He does, however, go on to make another, and most interesting, point -- that Confucianism is deeply involved with the veneration of your ancestors, and that the practice of making offerings to the spirits of those much younger than yourself is at odds with this tradition.
This is a fine book. When the author writes of his emotions on seeing toys offered up before fetus ghost statues, of the mixture of grief and relief on the faces of the women at the temples, and when he describes one temple owner as being like "a 40 year old party animal looking for a good time," you feel he should now write a novel on the subject. It would probably turn out to be a classic.
Many incidental issues are raised here -- the high rate of abortion for a culture paying formal tribute to family values, the possible interpretation of the phenomenon as male doctors making money by exploiting the sufferings of women, and so on.
Taiwan is not the only place where modern, materialist ways of thinking and older beliefs exist side by side. They co-exist just as bizarrely in, for example, the US' Bible Belt. What is strange everywhere is that the two kinds of thought tend to occupy different areas of life. Few, for instance, in the US or Taiwan, believe that a spirit, whether it's a fetus ghost or the Holy Ghost, might be responsible for a computer malfunction. And no court of law in either place would admit such a thing as being responsible, even in part, for an air crash.
It is arguable that the situation here in Taiwan, even if one doesn't believe in the existence of any spirits, is preferable to that prevailing in those societies where few or no religious beliefs survive. There, the consolations available to a woman struggling to live with feelings of guilt after an abortion are few indeed. Here, such feelings can be channeled into activities that give a very considerable measure of relief, even though some other people make a good deal of money in the process.
The Hunting Fetus
By Marc L. Moskowitz
University of Hawaii
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