Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A survey of Taipei college students has found that 87% believed in ghosts

Mark Magnier:

Chin Wei considers 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 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 conversation, at temples and in the recesses of the unconscious, they maintain a grip on island society. Taiwanese are ghost-crazy or, rather, crazy to avoid them. A recent survey of Taipei college students found that 87 percent were believers, and some say that could be on the low side.

"I'd say the other 13 percent 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 a part of Chinese culture from 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 other-world 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 repository of this tradition, one that draws scholars to study Chinese ghost practices in pure 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 Web site designer. "That's not necessarily a good thing, though. People here aren't as nice as they were before, when they feared retribution."

In a north-central neighborhood of Taipei is the Tian Yu Tang spiritual center. Several people wait in the anteroom for their consultations.

Liang, 54, who declines to give her first name, is here to connect with her mother's ghost, who visits her during the night asking for money. Liang says that when she offered jewelry, the ghost said she wanted cash.

Parapsychologist Hsu Tzu-he fixes Liang with an intense stare and informs her that jewelry is 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.

The spiritual center also offers a 20-stop tour of hell, including a review of the punishments that evildoers can expect.

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

Those not under direct attack from the netherworld can watch those who are on numerous TV variety and ghost shows. Late-night programs, timed to avoid scaring children, include amateur and professional video of haunted houses, sightings and other unexplained phenomena, 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 psyche, 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 tried to appease the spirits of broken weapons and disabled vehicles with prayers before ordering repairs, says Chen Wei-min, host of the popular TV ghost show "Passing Through Yin and Yang."

A Defense Ministry official had no official comment beyond, "Our concern is defense readiness, not responding to superstition."

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 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 wandering around. Facing the prospect of a long drought, some wedding halls are cutting their ghost-month prices 15 percent.

The summer ghost periods of the late 19th century are notorious for near-riots. Thugs clawed at one another to steal the offerings left for spirits. In 2003, shops hired bikini-clad women to sing and dance to 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. "I once had one sleep on me and I couldn't move for a long time."

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