Have you read Part One already?
Oblations of Zhong Yuan Festival
On the day of Zhong Yuan Festival, people set altars outside their front door. Of course incense sticks and paper money for ghosts are indispensable. Furthermore, according to tradition, people should prepare three kinds of meat (三牲 sānshēng): chicken, pork and fish, and four kinds of fruit (四果 sì guǒ).
However, some argue that actually 四果 doesn’t mean four kinds of fruit. It may refer to fruit of four seasons (in other words, seasonal fruit) or 素果 sù guǒ (vegetarian fruit, since in the past some fruit were regarded non-vegetarian). But the most important fact to remember is that the number of each fruit can only be an odd number. Bananas, plums, pears and pineapples can’t be on the altar together. If you pronounce them all together in Taiwanese, it sounds like “invite many of you”. It will certainly be a problem if many ghosts come to your house along with their friends!
Additionally, rice, dishes, sticky rice cakes, cups of tea and sake, a basin of water and a towel are also required. Nowadays, you can even see people prepare all kinds of oblations, from any kinds of beverage, cookies, to even packages of instant noodles and cigarette.
Far from just relevant to homes, you can also see companies, stores, schools, governmental offices and communities setting altars in front of their doors and worshipping the ghosts. Temples or religious sites will even hold Pudu and ceremonies and invite people to join them. There will be numerous tables filled with food and oblations all together, just like a grand banquet for hungry ghosts.
Other events on Zhong Yuan Festival
According to different customs, each region has developed different relevant activities and tradition.
搶孤 Qiǎng gū (Pole-Climbing Competition)
Yilan County (宜蘭) and Pingtung County (屏東) are famous for this competition. It originated from the custom of snatching the oblations after the huge banquet for hungry ghosts. Another version is that people act like hungry ghosts to snatch the oblations in order to entertain the souls of their family.
Take Yilan for instance, people will build a high and huge shed of 42 meters and 46,000 kilograms. The shed is divided into three parts. The lower parts consist of 16 pillars of 13 meters with 75-litres of butter on the surface. The middle part is a flat stage while on in the upper part there are 13 pillars standing at 30-meters with oblations tied on them and a flag on the top.
The teams which participate in the competition should have eight people. Team members need to help one another to climb up the pillars and get the flag on the top. The team which gets the flag first will win the competition. The winner can not only receive a prize but also blessing for the whole year.
Nowadays, it has transformed into a rather international festival from merely a local pole-climbing competition. The government actively invites people from all over the world to participate in this special event. There are also foreign teams taking to the challenge every year.
放水燈 Fàng shuǐdēng (Float water lanterns)
Another famous activity of Zhong Yuan Festival that originated from the Buddhism ritual, different from 搶孤, which has its origin from Taoism. You may also see it in other Asian countries which are under the influence of Buddhism, like Japan, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.
This event involves simply floating paper lanterns down a river or sea. In Taiwan, the lanterns are usually made in the form of a house or a temple. Their size ranges largely, some of which can even accommodate a person. In order to let them float on the water, people put them on a raft made of bamboo or wood. There are supposed to be a three-coloured flag on the lanterns, which is called 普渡旗 pǔdù qí. People will write some honorifics and their names on it to let the ghosts know who the donors are. Sometimes they will just write the information directly on the lanterns.
The purpose is to light up the waterway and invite spirits in the water to join the Zhong Yuan Festival banquet. It is believed that the further the lantern floats the greater the blessing the donor will receive. This is because it means that more ghosts will help.
Moreover, people also make 水燈排 shuǐdēng pái, which is the assembly of numerous lanterns. They arrange those lanterns in a latticed bamboo frame, then place them vertically on floats in the Zhong Yuan Festival parade, which is very spectacular and eye-catching. People can join the event in Keelung (基隆), Yilan (宜蘭) and Taoyuan (桃園), which are three of the most famous counties for this celebration.
客家義民祭 Hakka Yimin Festival
Back in Qing Dynasty, Hakka people united and formed their own military self-defence force, which was called 義民軍 Yìmín jūn. They not only defended their hometown but also assisted the Qing government to maintain order and safety for fighting against the rebel army. Qing government thus built temples to honor those who sacrified their life in the battles. As a result, the belief of 義民爺 Yìmín yé has become a Hakka-specific religion from then on.
Hsinchu County (新竹) is famous for its Hakka community. The annual Yimin Festival is also a highlight of the Ghost Month, which is usually held on July 20th of the lunar calendar. People prepare oblations and altars for a grand puja to placate the souls of those loyal force members and worship them with their highest respect. The most interesting event is supposed to be the competition of “god pig” and “goat horn”. The pig which weighs the most will win the contest and be offered to the god, which is the utmost honor for the owner. Goats’ owners also compete to see whose goat has the longest horns.
Animation about the Ghost Month:
魔法阿嬤 Grandma and Her Ghosts (1998)
If you are interested in Zhong Yuan Festival, you definitely cannot miss the Taiwan-made animation 魔法阿嬤 Mófǎ ā mā (Grandma and Her Ghosts). The literal translation is “Magic Grandma” since in Taiwanese 阿嬤 means grandmother.
It was released in 1998, when Taiwan still produced rather poor animations compared to that of today! The production team suffered a lot during the process, but they still went through all the obstacles and finished this incredible animation.
Although from the modern perspective the picture quality isn’t that exquisite, Grandma and Her Ghosts successfully presents the most authentic culture and human touch of the Taiwanese local. The story took place in a small fishing village of Keelung (基隆).
Through animation, the audience can not only understand more about the custom of Zhong Yuan Festival but also realize how Taiwanese people get along with and understand ghosts. For Taiwanese, it’s a film which scares them in their childhood but touches them to make them cry and laugh during their adulthood.
The core value of Zhong Yuan Festival
This distinguishes Zhong Yuan Festival from other festivals related to ghosts around the world. Unlike Halloween (when people use scary costumes to scare away the spirits) and Day of the Death (when people celebrate together with the dead), Zhong Yuan Festival reveals the sympathy and mercy of people towards all the ghosts whether they know them or not. It’s about selfless help, care and blessing.
Besides, it reflects the values of the society, which is established on the praiseworthy trust between people, also people and ghosts. It is believed that ghosts won’t do us any harm and will even help us in return if we treat them well first.
Still wondering if you should believe all this about the Ghost Month or not? Well, let me just give you a piece of advice, which is also a famous Chinese idiom:
寧可信其有，不可信其無。Níngkě xìn qí yǒu, bùkě xìn qí wú.
It is better to believe that it exists than it does not.
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