Background: My informant, CL, grew up in Taiwan, and speaks Mandarin, Hakka, English, Japanese, and Cantonese. Interview conducted in English over FaceTime.
Me: Do you know why Taiwan celebrates Ghost Month?
CL: “There’s a famous story in China regarding ghost month. The story of Mulian. He sees that his mom did a lot of bad things when she was still alive. So after she died she became a starving ghost. Mulian tried to use his powers because he’s a Buddhist, just tries to bring food to his mom because she’s a starving ghost. But whatever he served to her became burning…ashes right away. There was no way for his mom to eat it. He cries out, sees that his mom is tortured, and asks for a blessing from the Buddha. Buddha told him that because his mom did bad things, she has to suffer. Buddha told him that to reduce his mom’s suffering, the only way is to do good things, which is why they started Ghost Month: to worship ghosts, pray, and hopefully they can go to heaven. And finally the mom got released from the devil because Mulian did a lot of good things.
Me: So is Ghost Month just a thing for Buddhists then?
CL: No. Most people in Taiwan are Buddhist, but the Mulian story is famous–when I was a kid, a lot of TV shows talk about it because we didn’t know why we had Ghost Month. It’s about doing good things so your ancestors won’t be punished. In the old times less people could read, most people were farmers. So using drama or live shows let people in the countryside understand the purpose of the story: to do good things so your ancestors won’t be punished.
Me: Are ancestors just for Buddhists?
CL: No, we all have ancestors. Buddhists go to the temple to pray for them, but we still respect ancestors.
Analysis: Although the Mulian story is seemingly grounded in a more institutional presence like Buddhism, from my knowledge Ghost Month is widely celebrated throughout Taiwan regardless of its religious implications, much like Christmas in the US. Ancestor worship goes back to Confucian and perhaps Daoist ideology as well, so there’s a convergence of beliefs and practices at play here. Its structure is very much the classic cautionary tale, that shapes an idea of what “good” behavior would look like, particularly conveyed in an oral retelling to illiterate villagers. It’s clear to see why the story has stuck around, because its narrative progression is logical and points to a fairly universal moral message–respect your elders and ancestors, or else face karmic retribution.