For decades, claw machines have been designed, like most arcade games, to rip the players of. It’s basically like a wishing well which you feed with coins and expect something in return. And today modernity eventually melts together with tradition in the most bizarre way possible – A claw machine filled up with stacks of ghost money had been spotted in Taipei. Given the low price for spiritual currency, a single round of successful clawing costs the player already more than the win. As usual, the comments on such posts are even more exciting. My favorite one reads as followed: „There’s a famous ghost which can curse every human with its 800 military bases dotted around the world to enforce their ghost money“.
Anyway, having some ghost money comes in handy as Ghost Month is well underway. But the restless souls don’t crave for stacks of cash only. They’re hungry, too. Spiritual feeding highlights the essence of all Zhongyuan Pudu rites, which span throughout the month. Initially, the Universal Salvation ceremonies were held continuously rotating from one household to another until the end of Ghost Month. Following government efforts to curb lavish temple activities, Pudu was, for the most part, consolidated on the 15th of the month. Nowadays, Pudu is often split into inviting the ghosts on the first, feeding them on the 15th and eventually shooing them away again on the 29th. Every year a different clan hosts a temple-feast led by Taoist or Buddhist priests to appease the ghosts, additionally entire neighborhoods, shop owners, markets and even large firms are setting up makeshift tables laden with all kinds of foods (at times whole pigs or goats), flower bouquets, cookie combos, crackers, cigarettes, rice wine, and soft drinks. As the old saying goes, in case there’s not enough food on offer, the spirits may be offended, which could lead to a bad year ahead. Or worse, some even believe that if the ’good brothers and sisters’ are not fed properly, they will cause trouble for one’s ancestors in the parallel world. Just imagine, if no one was around to pray for you or offer cash and food for most of the year, you’re sure to feel abandoned in the afterlife. Worst case, you’re pierced with hooks, hung upside down and set on fire. Best case, you’re just incredibly bored. Either or both, after eleven months of pain and starvation, these temporarily released ghosts are trying to get their share of empathy. All this goodwill shall not remain uncompensated; many mortals do expect some ghostly luck in return.
Although small families seldom hold their own Pudu nowadays, there might be occasions when they actually do, making it extremely challenging for amateurs to tell the difference between Pudu offerings, which provide for the ’good brothers and sisters’, and Bai-Bai gifts laid out for of one’s ancestors. The only visible difference is that Pudu offerings are more abundant, and paper flags identifying the name of the worshiper are stuck into the offerings. On a closer look, ghosts also receive specific offerings that are not appropriate to either ancestors or gods, such as only one kind of hell money with a silver layer, and slips of paper Jingyi with imprinted clothing, which will after burning pop up in the parallel world as real pants, shirts and shoes – assumably the scissors icon will be needed in case the size doesn’t fit. I’ll spare you a lecture about what type of hell money is given to which category of spirits, it reads as complex as a requirements catalog for the evaluation of Amazons new E-Commerce platform. When researching about the rules, I’ve learned why younger folks would probably give up on it and switch back to Netflix. However, to top it all off, a washbasin, toothpaste, and brush plus a towel in front of the offering table are awaiting the ’good brothers and sisters’ after the meal. The distinct spiritual donations thus show ghosts to be an inferior kind of ancestor, emphasizing their pitiful need for alms, just like living human beings with no kin. That altogether basically indicates „this isn’t for you grandpa”!
Some words from Robert P. Weller, American anthropologist and author of ’Bandits, Beggars, and Ghosts: The Failure of State Control over Religious Interpretation in Taiwan’ (1985)
People often associate ghosts with bandits, gangsters, gamblers and other illegitimate threats to the power of the state. Vicious demons, suicides, and murder victims more normally enter the world of ghosts. Popular interpretations of the Pudu ceremony experienced several transformations within a basic symbolic framework that defined ghosts as socially marginal beings: ghosts were dangerous outsiders in the commercializing frontier of the 1880s, but they have become the powerless old with the changing family structure of modern Taiwan. Official and elite attempts at ideological control were unsuccessful because the state had no institution that could challenge the symbolic definition of ghostly marginality, or that could channel people’s flexible reinterpretations of ghosts. A century ago, the festival produced an annual near-riot by real bandits and beggars, who fought over the offerings to the ghosts. Today this part of the ceremony has been transformed into a genial jostling of old women and children, who try to grab buns and rice that the chief priest throws in the air to feed the hungry ghosts.
When I asked a sample of 120 people why they worshiped ghosts in the seventh month, only 15 percent gave an answer that might indicate some danger from ghosts („we worship to request a peaceful life“). The plurality (34 percent) said that they worship out of sympathy for the ghosts, and another 2 percent worship to „respect“ them. The remainder either could not answer (14 percent) said they worshiped because that was their tradition (32 percent), or said they did not worship (4 percent). Many people thus worshiped for no well-defined reason, or only out of sympathy. Very few stressed the potential danger or the political marginality of ghosts. The overriding theme for these people is no longer the danger of bandits and thieves, who are marginal to politics, but the pitiful conditions of orphans and suicides, who are marginal to kinship.
On a side note – Older people are complaining these days about the ancestral Bai-Bai being on a steady decline and thus age-old Confucian values like filial piety (the virtue of respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors) in favor of increasing Bai-Bai communal prayers held by companies, which then is more focused on prosperity and fortune. The main reason is the importance of big corporates relative to family-run businesses – de facto the side effects of globalization and the shift from a family backed society to a company or government-backed society. Eventually, the youth is busy with education, technology, and future-thinking, rather than caring about the lineage. And as for the soft factor, with the size of an average family getting smaller, it’s not worthwhile any longer to set up a variety of fresh items like roasted chickens, ducks, and whatsoever delicacies, if no one can eat it all that after the spirits have taken their share. That’s also why you’ll see more canned food and soft drinks piled on offering tables these days. Within a decade or so, some assume, the only thing left will be a burning joss stick.
When strolling through Keelung, I encounter the Pudu hosted by Hu Shu Fen and her team of Daqing Stock Trading company. Once all offerings are arranged, the colleagues line up for prayers led by CEO Kevin, completed by the characteristic bowing. To lure the spirits, joss sticks are neatly marking each dish, cigarettes, and even the washbasin. So, food first, cash later. I’m fascinated by the fact that a company whose primary goal is to profit off short-term gains from stock price fluctuations (online), is burning a great deal of spiritual money (offline) to back its economic fortune with otherworldly goodwill. It’s like the flickering flames in Daqing’s backyard are devouring several time zones, dimensions, currencies, and virtues in one go. The whole burning procedure lasts for half an hour or so until all the paranormal cash has exhausted, and if the Chinese saying “the higher the fire, the more hungry souls are around” was true, then we’re now enveloped by hundreds of pushing and shoving vagabond spirits catching their due paycheck from eleven months. You may recall the last scene of the movie Pitch Black when Vin Diesel is surrounded by creatures making sure not to astray the light, that’s how it probably looks like here if you’d merge both worlds. Well, I’m not surprised that according to Hu Shu Fen, the company has increased its profit for five years in a row.
Today, Keelung will be set on fire. At least you’d think so when wandering about. The alleys and sidewalks are reasonably crowded with all sorts of businesses, families, if not whole neighborhoods literally burning the hell out of that spiritual money. A tiny car body shop has set up its offering table. Judging by the outsized assortment of ghostly gifts, the owner was either less lucky this year or more fearful than the guy next door who runs a Chinese medicine shop with dried sea horses, ginseng and stuff. Whilst incense smoke as think as a Hollywood movie special effect envelops much of what I assume are his bowing colleagues, I take back to the main street in search of air. The obscure scene somehow reminds me of what is going on in nearby Hong Kong. A crucial topic indeed, especially here in rebellious Taiwan. With no end in sight in Hong Kong, and since China is still considering the island of Taiwan part of its territory, the Taiwanese will have many reasons to intensify their prayers shortly.