Afraid to Give Up Ghosts

Times Staff Writer

Chin Wei considers for a brief moment a blockbuster American ghost movie and scoffs.

"I saw 'Ghostbusters,' but that's not how it's done," says the author of several ghost books and the host of various radio and television paranormal programs. "You can't get rid of ghosts that easily, especially with those funny, weird machines. That's just comedy."

In Taiwan, ghosts are rarely a laughing matter. On TV, in daily conversation, at temples and in the deepest recesses of the unconscious, they maintain a firm grip on island society. Taiwanese are ghost-crazy -- or rather, crazy to avoid them. A recent survey of Taipei college students found that 87% were believers, and some say that could be on the low side.

"I'd say the other 13% would probably hedge their bets if you questioned them closer," says Marc Moskowitz, an anthropologist at Lake Forest College in Illinois who has studied Taiwan's spirit beliefs. "Many Taiwanese feel it's best not to anger the ghosts, just in case they do exist."

Ghosts have been an integral part of Chinese culture dating to at least the Shang Dynasty, with 3,500-year-old oracle bones from the period depicting a big-headed, bent-kneed phantom.

But China has seen much of its otherworldly belief system erode under the Communist Party's assault on religion and superstition. That has left Taiwan, which split from China in 1949 after civil war, a rich repository of this living tradition, one that draws scholars eager to study Chinese ghost practices in their purest form.

"On the mainland, we're more cut off from our culture by socialist education and propaganda, and I don't believe in ghosts," says Wang Shen, 28, a Beijing-based website designer. "That's not necessarily a good thing, though. People here aren't as nice as they were before, when they feared retribution."

Up four dirty flights of stairs in a north-central neighborhood of Taipei, past grungy walls with peeling paint and landings with missing lightbulbs, is the Tian Yu Tang spiritual center. It's a rainy weekday, but several people wait in the anteroom for their consultation. An oversized TV blares beside a large Buddhist altar bedecked with five candles, a porcelain tiger and a revolving prayer wheel. Nearby sits a Tweety Bird coffee cup and the Chinese version of Elle magazine.

Fifty-four-year-old Liang, who declined to give her first name, is here to connect with her mother's ghost, who keeps visiting her during the night asking for money. Liang says that when she offered her jewelry, the ghost said she wanted only cash.

Parapsychologist Hsu Tzu-he fixes Liang with an intense stare and informs her that jewelry is indeed no good down there. Mom's spirit is trapped in a ghost channel unable to transcend to the next world, she adds during the 15-minute, $15 session.

With a few prayers and a proper funeral ceremony, however, Mom can be elevated out of purgatory. Hsu hands Liang a tissue as tears of anxiety and relief course down her face.

But there's more. Liang's dead father has been reborn and is now a 1-year-old Japanese boy, Hsu adds, occasionally glancing at a computer screen with rows of numbers.

For those looking for an out-of-this-world experience of a different sort, the company also offers a 20-stop tour of hell, including a review of the punishments evildoers can expect. The company says the experience prompted one fashion-obsessed customer to become a monk.

"After you tour hell, you can better appreciate paradise," Hsu's mother, who helps out with consultations, said, asking not to be identified.

Those not under direct attack from the netherworld can watch those who are, on numerous TV variety and ghost shows. No friendly, pudgy Caspers here. Late-night programs, timed to avoid scaring children, include amateur and professional video of haunted houses, sightings and other unexplained phenomena, helpfully explained by paranormal, feng shui and religious experts.

Some say the small screen goes too far.

"Most of the time you don't want to bother ghosts," says Wang Jun-kei, 38, an employee in the telecommunications industry. "With all those reporters chasing the ghosts around, no wonder they get angry and stirred up."

Ghosts don't just attack people's psyches, they might even be threatening Taiwan's military security. Ghost experts say some Taiwanese soldiers believe that certain vehicles, weapons and flags of military units, particularly units that suffered horrific casualties during the war against the Communists in the 1930s and '40s, have ghosts attached to them.

The military brass grew concerned several years ago after learning that some soldiers were afraid of the dark and were trying to appease the spirits of their broken weapons and disabled vehicles with prayers before ordering up repairs, says Chen Wei-min, host of the popular TV ghost show "Passing Through Yin and Yang."

"Commanders became concerned that soldiers wouldn't dare stand outside at night or use their weapons," says Chen, author of 14 ghost books, including "Ghost Talk in the Army."

A Defense Ministry official said the agency had no official comment.

"Our concern is defense readiness, not responding to superstition," he said.

Soldiers aren't the only ones looking over their shoulders. Some people admit to altering their behavior to minimize the chances of being attacked by rogue spirits.

This is especially true during midsummer ghost month -- the seventh month of the lunar calendar -- when the gates of the underworld open and the living burn paper "money" and delay weddings, medical procedures and even swimming because of the potential for bad luck.

This year, because of a calendar anomaly, there's a double ghost month, from July 25 to Sept. 21, extending the time the spooks are out wandering around.

Facing the prospect of a long drought, some wedding halls have cut their ghost-month prices 15%.

The summer ghost periods of the late 19th century are notorious for near-riots. Young thugs would claw at one another to steal the offerings left for spirits. In 2003, media reported a new twist: shops hiring bikini-clad women to sing and dance for the hungry souls, also known as "good brothers."

Chen Jun-jie, 18, a high school student, says he keeps his windows and doors shut tight year-round so the spirits can't peek in at him.

"I'm quite careful about ghosts," he says, dressed in Nike sneakers and a matching basketball outfit. "I once had one sleep on me, and I couldn't move for a long time."

Su Jeou-jin, 33, a civil servant, avoids mountains at night, whereas homemaker Chan Ching-fen, 33, won't swim in the dark. As added insurance she buys a temple talisman, she adds, pointing to a red, prayer-inscribed card pinned to her baby's blouse.

Anthropologists say that in China's rich spirit world, gods tend to be honored, ancestors tend to be honored or appeased, and ghosts tend to be appeased or avoided.

In this ancestor-worshiping culture where the memories of the living nurture the dead, tormented ghosts are often the embodiment of people with few loved ones to remember them, and of those less connected to their clan. They include unmarried women and people who die violently or far from home.

"Ghosts are in a sense gods that have fallen out of the system," says Robert Weller, research associate with Boston University's Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs. "They're desperate."

Scholars say the layers of hell in the Chinese belief system closely resemble in structure the former levels of imperial government, while ghost hierarchies mirror old bureaucratic rankings headed by a king of ghosts.

"This is endlessly complex, fascinating and expressive," says Steven Sangren, an anthropologist at Cornell University working on a book about ghosts and psychology.

The ghosts often have grotesque features, such as pointed heads, large, black teeth and faces without noses, chins or lips. And they love to whistle or knock on doors, or blow noxious fumes on you.

Hardly an area of Taiwanese life is untouched by their ghoulish breath, including the criminal justice and business worlds. Construction crews apologize to wandering ghosts before blowing up mountains or moving dirt. Police occasionally suggest that an unsolved crime is complicated by "unexplained phenomena."

And courts in Taiwan periodically hear cases in which defendants claim that ghosts told them to commit crimes, although these arguments don't tend to carry much weight.

Tsai Mon-hua, head of sales at Yong Ching Realty in Tainan, says almost every client looking at properties wants to know if someone has died there or if the place is haunted. The unconvinced can check websites that list properties susceptible to paranormal events. Occasionally, unscrupulous buyers spread ghost rumors hoping to drive down prices. "But only a few houses are so-called haunted," Tsai says.

Politics are not immune. In July 1996, Taiwan's now-defunct provincial assembly, which used to oversee local government, held a three-day ceremony to drive away evil spirits some considered responsible for nearly one-third of the 79 deputies being indicted for corruption or vote rigging. A Taoist priest danced and brandished a knife while 12 basins of towels were placed before an altar so the ghosts could cool off in the summer heat.

Although sociologists say Taiwan has seen some gradual weakening of traditional beliefs, given better education and wider use of technology, its ghost world has been surprisingly resistant to the erosive influence of globalization and MTV.

More young people are reportedly returning to traditional beliefs in reaction to what they see as excessive consumerism. In the survey of Taiwanese college students by the Chinese Culture University last year, which involved 1,144 people at nine universities, 16% said they believed they would become ghosts after they died. And half thought it was possible to contact the dead through a seance.

Outsiders sometimes see a contradiction between the ultra-pragmatic side of many Chinese and the almost poetic world of ghosts.

"It's sometimes hard for Westerners to understand," says Lin Mei-rong, a sociologist with Academia Sinica, Taiwan's preeminent think tank. "But look at all those saints the Christians have."

Special correspondent Tsai Ting-I contributed to this report.

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