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Early Autumn: Ghost Month, Folklore, and Indigenous Traditions

By: Camey VanSant

By Sophia F

Hello from the Love River! I have been in Kaohsiung, Taiwan for almost two months now through the National Security Language Institute for Youth, a State Department scholarship for high schoolers interested in learning critical languages. This year, I’m taking Mandarin Chinese lessons at Wenzao Ursuline University and living with a Taiwanese host family. 

At the beginning of the semester, I took a five-hour flight across the country to San Francisco for pre-program orientation. NSLI-Y was good enough to put up all twelve of us and our resident director—plus a group of students headed to South Korea—in a lovely little hotel with full view of the San Francisco airport. We spent two days in San Francisco getting to know each other and going over program rules. Then we all climbed into a Boeing on Friday at 2pm, and thirteen hours later, it was Saturday evening and we were landing at the Taipei airport. 

Trivia on the plane

Some observations from the flight: 

  • Turbulence is only fun when it comes in little bursts and not in forty-minute stretches while you desperately need the bathroom 
  • Bad airplane trivia games (with thrilling factoids like “Clowning was first developed in Europe,” see attached photos for evidence) become very funny about seven hours in 
  • It is actually incredibly easy to be peer-pressured into doing homework if your seat mates are determined enough—I watched two movies in total and went through about 250 flashcards 
  • If you, say, pack a fun little snack for your very long flight, it is probably best not to stow it in your carry-on where it will quickly become inaccessible to any passengers interested in small and amusing treats 

Upon arrival, we met our local director, who herded us into a bus for the four-hour drive to Kaohsiung. Having not slept in over twenty-one hours at the point, which was a bit much for me, I was perhaps not alert enough to appreciate the maximalist dream that is a Taiwanese karaoke bus—small curtains with little hanging pom-poms, loudspeakers and mics built into the ceiling, tastefully camp disco lighting, and ornate lace headrests (why?). It started drizzling as we passed through Chiayi County, which is incidentally right below the Tropic of Cancer. When I fell asleep in my bed at the hotel at around midnight, it was raining in Kaohsiung City.

View from Taoist temple; ghost money and other gifts to gods and ancestors are burned in the second building

I arrived at the beginning of September, the end of Ghost Month in Taiwan. During this month, the ghosts of the ancestors are supposed to be increasingly present. Traditionally, people burn special gold bills of ghost money as gifts. We caught the tail end, when there is a large send-off celebration for the ancestors. Each temple organizes a dinner and sometimes even a performance; the dinner is left out for the ghosts of the ancestors to consume and a play is put on for them to see. Ordinary people aren’t allowed to watch from in front of the stage—this would block the ghosts’ view. Instead, they stand on the sidelines and leave room for their ancestors. One Friday afternoon, when I got home from Wenzao, I could hear the music from one of the two temples as they put on their opera for the year! 

Dancers at the folklore festival

Throughout my stay in Taiwan, I’ve been able to attend various cultural festivals with my host family in addition to spending time with my cohort and peers at the university. For example, at the end of September, we attended a folklore festival. The keystone of the festival was a multi-act performance, sponsored by local temple directors and endorsed by the Mayor of Kaohsiung, who was sitting front and center in the audience. One act was a dance illustrating the tradition of the eight generals, referred to in the south as 八家將 (bā jiā jiāng, “eight home generals”). While it originated in China and emigrated with the Chinese immigrants of the eighteenth century to Taiwan, it is now a solely Taiwanese tradition. The 八家將 procession consists of three leaders, eight generals, and finally the god. The head leader carries the weapons for the group, while the second-in-command carries a sort of shield and receives orders from the god; he in turn instructs the third-in-command, who will relay those orders to the generals by using a standard. Of the generals, four are named: Generals (Gan), (Liu), (Xie), and (Fan). Their responsibility is to capture evil spirits who have escaped from the spirit realm and clear the way for the god. The other four generals, each named after a season, are in charge of interrogating the spirits. In the festival’s production, each general held a fan and a sword—the fan, to capture the spirit, and the sword in order to quickly dispatch it. 

A few weeks later, we had the opportunity to attend an indigenous arts and music festival near Pier 2, Kaohsiung’s fishing-port-turned-arts-center. The stage was set up in a small plaza by the water, so that we were surrounded on three sides by various stalls selling handmade bags, fried food, and rice wine. On the other side by an enormous boat upon which the coast guard was milling about. There were various tribes present, and for the first hour they sang songs in several indigenous languages in a variety of styles, from very traditional—a choir of singers linking hands cross-body with one or two soloists calling out the main melody—to a sort of eighties’ pop synthesia. During the second hour, we all formed a circle and began to dance, linking hands cross-body with the people on either side and stepping in a diamond pattern. Three singers stood in the middle of the circle (which by the end had more than forty people) with a keyboard, a guitar, and a mic, while a few of the dance leaders went around offering couples in the circle a special rice wine brewed in the mountains. The couple would break off from the circle and drink from two cups that were joined by a long wooden bar, and then join the circle again, if a bit clumsily.  

Kaohsiung at dusk

As much as I’ve enjoyed learning about Taiwan through its varied cultural events, I’ve found so much joy in walking through the city. One of my favorite memories so far was the night I stayed late studying at the university. I remember standing at the bus stop, eating a milk bun and probably feeling altogether too satisfied, because ten minutes into the bus ride—which is an exceptionally sleepy sort of thing, the overhead lights start glowing a dim warm gold—I realized I was on the wrong bus. I got off at a little station in the dark by an avenue rushing with cars and almost entirely devoid of streetlights. It was a strange feeling to walk the twenty minutes to the tram station: slowly coming out of the dark, the pavement realizing itself into a sidewalk, the skyscrapers materializing out of the gloom to show off big rounds of flashing lights. Kaohsiung does not slow down at night—to me it seems even brighter; in the daylight, the sun washes out all the street signs, the temples, the lanterns, the palms, the trash bags, the scooters, and the stray dogs into one flat wash of hot asphalt, but when the sun goes down, the neon lights go up, the moon comes out, the convenience store windows glow, and little tucked-away shrines start to burn incense. I am so grateful for the opportunity I have to be here, and I am so excited for the rest of my year! 

Categories: Sophia F