The Keelung Ghost Festival: A Taiwanese folk custom
Updated: Nov 20, 2020
Taiwan’s Ghost Month Holiday
Every year in Taiwan, the seventh month of the lunar new year is designated as Ghost Month (中元節). During this month, which usually occurs in August or September, the deceased are invited to visit the mortal world through the opening of the Gates of Hell and sent back with the gates closing. Taiwanese Buddhists, Daoists, and folk religion believers celebrate this month with offerings, performances, and rituals, all of which are meant to pray for the past ancestors who visit during the month, as well as for one’s own protection from suffering in the afterlife.
Origins of the Keelung Ghost Festival
For 150 years, the northern, sleepy port town of Keelung has celebrated Ghost Month with a month-long celebration known as the Keelung Ghost Festival. This elaborate event is one of the oldest festivals in Taiwan, dating back to 1851. The origin of the festival can be traced back to the unfortunate series of battles known as the Changchow and Chuanchow Clash (漳泉械鬥). During the Qing Dynasty rule of Taiwan, the city of Keelung saw over a century of armed conflict between two groups of migrants originally from two cities in China’s Fujian Province- Changchow and Chuanchow.
In 1851, the bloodiest battle between the two Fukanese groups occurred. The death toll was so high and the damage so intolerable that local leaders finally intervened. In an attempt to unite the two factions, it was agreed that shared surnames would take the place of the group’s ancestral homelands; for example, every resident whose last name was “Lin” would be part of the same clan regardless of which city in China they were from. To further peace and collegiality, a competition was held each year whereby each clan (姓氏宗親會) would take turns hosting the traditional Ghost Festival, providing an outlet for competition via folklore performance teams instead of armed conflict.
For 150 years, each family sect has continued this folklore tradition, with the event never ceasing despite changes in Taiwan’s ruling government or natural disasters. Currently, the festival is hosted in rotation by 15 different kinship groups. Thanks to Keelung’s community efforts, The Keelung Ghost Festival has been designated as one of Taiwan’s twelve major festivals by Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau.
Keelung Ghost Festival’s Water Lantern Release Ceremony
On the 14th day of the seventh month, Keelung hosts a large-scale Water Lantern Parade, followed by the release of water lanterns (紙厝) which are lit on fire and set adrift into the sea. I was fortunate to join MyTaiwanTour for this spectacular event.
The vibrant parade starts when the sun goes down. Colorful, lit floats play music and circle Keelung’s streets while carrying each clan’s water lanterns. These larger-than-life, paper-glued lanterns contain a bamboo structure and resemble tall houses. Each of the 15 kinship groups goes through great efforts to construct these ornate, paper, sometimes planning the construction a year in advance!
After the parade concludes, the parade floats arrive at Wang Hai Alley (望海港) where the water lanterns are taken off the floats and stuffed with ghost money. The lanterns represent a blessing for the dead and a place for them to rest in when they enter the mortal world while the Gates of Hell remain open (from the first day of the seventh lunar month until the first day of the eighth lunar month). (Historical fact: The bodies of the victims from the Changchow and Chuanchow Clash were buried together in a temple named Laodagong Temple (老大公廟). It is here where the city of Keelung opens and closes the Gates of Hell every year during Ghost Month.)
The most exciting part of the night occurs when the paper lanterns are set on fire and released into the sea in succession. The flames provided from the lanterns are meant to serve as a guiding light for the ghosts to lead them back to Earth where they can enjoy the food and offerings provided by the living. A dangerous and coordinated endeavor, Keelung’s Coast Guard assists with the lighting of the lanterns while scuba divers in the water ensure that the lanterns drift out to sea and away from the crowd-goers. The further a (lit) water lantern travels out to sea, the more honor for the clan.
Set with a backdrop of fireworks and Chinese firecrackers, the Water Lantern Release is a main attraction of the Keelung Ghost Festival.
This post was sponsored by MyTaiwanTour.