The seventh month of the lunar calendar is widely known in Taiwan as “Ghost Month.” It is believed that, on the first day of this month, the gates of hell open up and remain thus opened until the 30th and final day of the month.
During this time of year, the Taiwanese avoid joining in holy matrimony, rituals are performed to ward off malicious spirits and appeasements are made to the dead whose souls become free to roam amongst the living.
Carelessness is ill-advised. This is no jolly good ol’ Halloween. To the Taiwanese, the seventh lunar month is serious business. It is a time for caution and prudence, a time for solemnity and decorum. It is, indeed, no occasion for joyous jack-o-lanterns and merry trick-or-treats.
While in China, the term “Ghost Month” refers to the summer month in which the (one-night) Ghost Festival falls—either the 14th or 15th eve of the month depending on the region, the same term in Taiwan refers to the entire seventh lunar month when visitors from the far shores are said to return to this world.
Ghosts in Taiwanese culture are often referred to euphemistically as dear brothers. This seemingly endearing form of address is intended to be respectful so as not to provoke the unseen visitors whilst the gates to the other realm remain opened.
During the Ghost Month, the Taiwanese—as well as the Hoklo people just across the Formosa Strait in China—hold no weddings, no birthday celebrations or celebrations for any other purpose. They also do not move and change residences. All of this is to avoid attracting the unwanted attention of otherworldly eyes who may just decide to stick around for a bit longer.
Historically, the custom of observing the Ghost Month most likely originated among the Hoklo people of southern Fujian in the hills of southeastern China. It likely began sometime in the 14th or 15th century. This is a custom that is unique to the Hoklo and their descendants and offshoots overseas.
The majority of Taiwan’s population traces their ancestry to 17th-and-18th-century male Hoklo immigrants from China, many of whom took indigenous Austronesian wives in Taiwan. This unique Hoklo folk tradition has since become an integral part of Taiwanese culture—observed also by many Taiwanese families of non-Hoklo origin.
While Halloween has evolved in the West to be a night of fun and communal bonding, the Ghost Month has largely retained its solemn atmosphere. Like Halloween, Taiwan’s Ghost Month embraces the darker elements of local folklore. This Taiwanese folk tradition, however, inspires not merriness, but caution, prudence and, conceivably, no small degree of terror.
Surely, no Taiwanese person will find the idea of pulling white sheets over one’s head and knocking on neighbours’ doors a palatable notion during this hallowed seventh month of the lunar calendar.