Pudu ritual during Ghost Month in Taiwan Sanxia - near Taipei hosted by spirit medium Nana Chen

Nana’s Transformation – The divine interpreter

It feels like the hottest day of the month, in the hottest month of the year. And unfortunately, Nana Chen’s temple sits on top of a hill somewhere in the outskirts of New Taipei with no public transport to help me up. It’s my first time seeing her, and apparently it’s going to be a narrow time-slot to meet and greet before Nana, the charming Taipei based ex-make-up artist transforms into Ji Gong Shi-Fu, a loutish Buddhist deity who possesses her body occasionally in order to heal the mortals, or to negotiate between them and the spiritual world. Within the previous days, I kept wondering, what kind of cure practices there are if someone was stalked, manipulated, or possessed by ghosts. Well, today it won’t be appropriate to investigate the expertise of the cursed, because Nana aka Ji Gong Shi-Fu will be busy throwing a massive Pudu event for the wandering spirits.

Let’s assume ghosts do exist; they must all have gathered here in Sanxia today, as Nana’s team has just outclassed the services of a major charity catering. To be frank, this feast could cater easily for a whole army of hungry spirits, including all their ghostly pets. There’s even a feeding section for animal spirits with some miniature paper spa imitations for not yet reincarnated dog and cat spirits. Toddler spirits can enjoy themselves too, asides from a wide array of sweets, porridge, juice, and cereals, they’ll receive all sorts of fun stuff like a ukulele and a passenger jet crafted with paper mâché. These, together with the piles of hell money for the adult spirits, will be cremated later on. Unlike the smaller ’messages’, such major burns have been relocated to proper incinerators. Ghost Month was recently nicknamed National Pollution Month, because of the amount of ash generated by people burning gifts to send to the dead. Especially the urban territories of the island are now enforcing new laws to meet all criteria of ‘eco-friendly ghost worshiping’. Commonly, all the food will be going either to the participants and the local orphanage, just after the ghosts have taken their share.

When Nana finally reaches here, there’s not much to anymore besides conducting bits and pieces around, or to have everything aligned in perfect feng shui style as if the ghosts fancy perfection, too. Shortly after exchanging a few words, Nana sits down near an arrangement of flower bouquets and wooden buddha images and puts on the first layers of her master’s robe. I’m sort of mentally prepared of what’s going to happen soon, at least I thought so until her left eye starts quivering independently. The altering seems to be well underway. Then Ji Gong Shi-Fu burps and craves for a sip of Jack Daniel’s, signaling that Nana has revived the alleged folk hero with success.

Recalling the ancient story; former monk Ji Gong Shi-Fu was much loved becaused he helped the poor and stood up to injustice by drawing supernatural powers from his buddhist studies. However, he was also well-known for his eccentric and wacky behavior, such as violating Buddhist monastic rules when being drunk – ultimately the reason why he was expelled from the temple grounds, living out his days as a wandering guardian. With his death, he was made a deity, believed by many to be a reincarnation of an enlightened being, and worshipped by Buddhists and Taoists alike.

Looking at it as an outsider, oracle Nana’s phenomenal interpretation of the folktale might give you a good laugh, but for all the local participants, this is grave matter – They have become one! Now, the misbehaved and bad-tempered Ji Gong Shi-Fu roams the Pudu grounds to assist in crossworldly affairs by inspecting the accuracy of all displayed offerings. To make sure they will be well-received. With the Pudu ceremony reaching its peak accompanied by Buddhist chants, prayers and the characteristic scent of incense, Ji Gong Shi-Fu invites me for a drink. I remember the city councilor of Keelung telling me about an invoked child spirit who made him drink a 1,5 liter of Coke bottoms up. He threw up thrice, if it weren’t for the elections, he would have left for good. Fine, fine, I tag along. Although alcohol won’t help me speak Taiwanese (or Chinese), it definitely breaks the ice between two (three?) strangers.

Psychic powers and paranormal phenomena associated with ghosts and spirits – Source: Yang Chiu-Ying and Jason Pan (via Taipei Times)

Among those who believe in the spiritual realm are people who also believe in psychic powers and paranormal phenomena associated with ghosts and spirits. Despite many decrying believing in the paranormal as mere superstition, several psychiatrists say that thousands of Taiwanese are capable of communicating with spirits or ghosts. Lee Kuang-hui, a senior psychiatrist and director of Pei-Ling Guan-Si Hospital in Hsinchu County, said that based on what he has seen during his years as a clinical practitioner, he estimates that at least one in every 1,000 people in Taiwan has the ability to perceive and engage with the spiritual realm. “This means that at least 23,000 Taiwanese have a special power that enables them to see, hear and experience supernatural events most people are blind to,” Lee said. Many people have reported being possessed by an evil presence as they sought to “channel” spirits. In some cases, medical treatment has been administered to the possessed and in other cases, Taiwanese-style exorcists have been called in to drive away from the malevolent spirit. Yang Tsung-Tsai, a psychiatrist at Hsintien Cardinal Tien Hospital in New Taipei City, said that eight out of every 10 patients who seek medical treatment because they are experiencing illusions or hearing eerie sounds indicated that they felt possessed by an other-worldly being. “Some of these patients were engaging in paranormal or occult practices, in which they were too deeply engrossed. When traditional Chinese medicine failed to cure them, they turned to Western medicine,” Yang said. “Some of these individuals do not recognize that they have a problem or are suffering from an illness. They think even God can not save them,” Yang added. However, Lee sees things differently. He stressed that it is not fair for society to label such people as superstitious or occult practitioners. “These individuals believe really they can see and feel other-worldly phenomena. This sense is similar to animals’ ability to foretell meteorological events,” he said.