Taipei, Aug. 13 (CNA) The Chinese Ghost Month (鬼月), observed in the 7th month of the lunar calendar, is once again upon us, this year running from Aug. 14 to Sept. 12. During the festival the gates of hell are opened and all of the hungry ghosts are released to the world in search of food, money, entertainment, and what not.
A "hungry ghost" is a being that has been sent to the underworld to suffer an eternal state of hunger for their misdeeds or for not having a proper burial. Once a year, they are set free from hell and are given the opportunity to satiate some of their cravings and perhaps gain some good karma for a reincarnation into a better life with the help of their family members.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the following are some handy tips to avoid any phantom faux pas or ghoulish gaffes during Ghost Month:
1. Don't go swimming This restriction seems to have the widest consensus among those who observe Ghost Month. It is considered highly dangerous to go swimming because it is believed that evil spirits that had drowned may try to drown the swimmer to gain a chance at rebirth. The upside for non-believers is that the beaches are pretty much empty for the whole month.
2. Don't go out alone at night Young children and young adults in particular should avoid going out alone after dark as it is believed that wandering ghosts can more easily possess the young.
3. Don't whistle, especially after dark Whistling is thought to attract evil spirits and once they've been lured in, they may follow the person around for long periods of time, bringing ill fortune.
4. Don't sit in the front row of Gezaixi shows This is probably one of the biggest pitfalls for newbie foreigners during month. Beware that the front row of Gezaixi (Taiwanese opera) shows performed on the streets should be avoided at all costs because it is strictly reserved for spectral spectators only.
5. Don't pick up money on the street People are admonished not to pick up real money or take it home because it will bring them bad luck. Picking up a hell bank note (joss paper) is considered an insult to the spirits and a bad omen as well.
6. Don't just turn your head around if someone pats you on the shoulder It is believed that the living have two protective flames, one on each shoulder. If a ghost pats you on the back and you only turn your head, you'll snuff out that protective flame, thus making you vulnerable. To avoid this, turn the whole body at once instead of just the head.
7. Do not kill rare insects in your house Some believe that their ancestors come to visit their relatives in the reincarnated form of a rare insect. The definition of "rare"is debatable, but basically a type of insect that has rarely if ever been spotted in your house before such as butterflies, grasshoppers or moths, and for their part, roaches are probably not considered "rare."
8. Don't hang clothes outside to dry The thinking with this is that devious spirits will wear your clothes as a way to sneak into your house.
9. Don't lean against the wall Ghosts apparently like to stick on walls because they're cooler, so don't push your luck and lean against them during the month.
10. Don't pee on a tree Apparently, soldiers in the field know well that urinating on a tree could anger tree spirits which will seek vengeance upon you.
Some other important things to avoid doing during the month include anything that you wouldn't want having bad juju associated with such as a new business venture, moving into a new house, or getting married. Avoid wearing an outfit that is uniformly black, white or red. Drive extra safe because ghosts that died in car accidents will be trying to encourage you to take their place. Don't tell ghost stories or talk about ghosts in general during this period. Finally, it seems like a no-brainer, but definitely avoid disturbing any of the offerings made to the spirits in any way; if you do so inadvertently, apologize profusely to both the living and the dead.
Things people are encouraged to do:
1. Go to a temple and make offerings Make food offerings and burn incense and ask for protection of the deity at a nearby temple.
2. Burn hell notes Burn joss paper on the sidewalk in front of your house throughout the month as an offering to your ancestors. On the 15th day of the month, known as Hungry Ghost Festival (中元節), you can burn joss paper for lonely, wandering spirits in a gesture of good will.
3. Consider a vegetarian diet during the month Those of the Buddhist faith practice vegetarianism in this month in order to transmute and absolve the sufferings of the deceased. Luckily, Taiwan has a plethora of tasty vegetarian restaurants all over the island to choose from.
4. Wear a protective amulet In order to hedge your bets further, you can wear an amulet depicting Chung Kwei, the Taoist deity who specializes in subduing and slaying demons and evil entities. Other protector deities that can be worn include Guan Yu.
5. Contribute to charity Donate to charitable organizations and do good deeds to build up more positive karma.
If you're in the right place at the right time, you might witness an "Eight Generals" (Bajiajiang) performance or parade. The Eight Generals are a kind of spiritual police force that ward off, nab, and punish evil spirits. They are portrayed by troupes of young people with colorful costumes and makeup to depict specific generals. The most important thing is to keep a respectful distance from them and don't cross their protective line.