Spirited Traditions; Having Exorcised the Demons of SARS, Taiwan's Free Spirits Again Are Blowing in the Wind during the Annual Ghost Festival, Where Old China Is on Brilliant Display

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Byline: Douglas Burton, INSIGHT

Visit Taipei in the middle of August and you will marvel at swank department stores, American-style coffee shops and posh restaurants. But you also will smell the smoke and see fires on city streets, even at the base of modern steel and glass skyscrapers. Trash fires these are not. The Taiwanese are burning ritual money to benefit household gods and ghosts, for August is the month of the annual Ghost Festival, and nothing better illustrates that, in Taiwan, the old China still flourishes within one of Asia's economic miracles.

In Taipei alone the government estimates that 5,000 tons of bamboo paper money painted with auspicious symbols was burned at temples, as well as at the entrances to homes and offices, to honor Taoist and Buddhist deities and to welcome the spirits of the dead for a month of revelry and feasting. Along with this ersatz money, the Taiwanese put out elaborate feasts on offering tables for the hungry ghosts. What the ghosts do not consume is shared later by their descendants at family celebrations. The sacrifices to honor ancestors and household gods are not to be taken literally, says Taipei resident Lily L. Chen. "It is really our way of welcoming them into our hearts," she tells Insight.

The Ghost Festival is celebrated nowhere in Asia with such verve and lavish expenditure as in the Republic of China on Taiwan, centered on a mountainous subtropical island near the mainland of China. Taiwan celebrates 12 major festivals each year, as well as a handful of festivals linked to the enduring cultural legacy of Taiwan's thriving aboriginal tribes. In contrast to the People's Republic of China, still run by the Communist Party and which continues to suppress religious traditions and theological cultures of all kinds are thriving in Taiwan. In addition to the traditional Chinese religions, Christianity, Baha'i and Islam have substantial followings here.

By some estimates there are 5,000 indigenous temples in Taiwan, in most of which Buddhist and Taoist worship comfortably have merged. Temple staff at Taiwan's Pao-An Temple tell Insight that, since the brief but deadly SARS epidemic was quelled three months ago, worshippers and cultural observers have been coming in large numbers. Among the faithful lighting incense and offering prayers at Pao-An on Aug. 11 were dozens of young students, many with cameras and video recorders.

Taiwan's best-known spectacles of the Ghost Festival are held in the port of Keelung, a 30-minute drive north of Taipei. There the festival dates back to a period of factional fighting in 1855 when residents of the city frequently clashed about land and water issues, often with heavy casualties on both sides. To put an end to clan conflict and violence, the city's leaders decided to hold a ceremony for "Putu," described as "passage of universal salvation," on the 15th day of the seventh month of every lunar year, with the 11 local clans taking turns organizing the event.

Beginning on July 29, the first day of the seventh lunar month, the "Opening of the Gates of Hades" ceremony was held at the Elders Temple in Keelung to allow the ghosts and spirits of the underworld into the human realm where they could receive sacrificial offerings. …