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Afraid to Give Up Ghosts

The World | COLUMN ONE

Mainland China may have left otherworldly beliefs behind, but in Taiwan ... well, you'd better just do what the spirits say.

July 18, 2006|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

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

"I'd say the other 13% 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 an integral part of Chinese culture dating to 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 otherworldly 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 rich repository of this living tradition, one that draws scholars eager to study Chinese ghost practices in their purest 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 website designer. "That's not necessarily a good thing, though. People here aren't as nice as they were before, when they feared retribution."

Up four dirty flights of stairs in a north-central neighborhood of Taipei, past grungy walls with peeling paint and landings with missing lightbulbs, is the Tian Yu Tang spiritual center. It's a rainy weekday, but several people wait in the anteroom for their consultation. An oversized TV blares beside a large Buddhist altar bedecked with five candles, a porcelain tiger and a revolving prayer wheel. Nearby sits a Tweety Bird coffee cup and the Chinese version of Elle magazine.

Fifty-four-year-old Liang, who declined to give her first name, is here to connect with her mother's ghost, who keeps visiting her during the night asking for money. Liang says that when she offered her jewelry, the ghost said she wanted only cash.

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

But there's more. Liang's dead father has been reborn and is now a 1-year-old Japanese boy, Hsu adds, occasionally glancing at a computer screen with rows of numbers.

For those looking for an out-of-this-world experience of a different sort, the company also offers a 20-stop tour of hell, including a review of the punishments evildoers can expect. The company says the experience prompted one fashion-obsessed customer to become a monk.

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

Those not under direct attack from the netherworld can watch those who are, on numerous TV variety and ghost shows. No friendly, pudgy Caspers here. Late-night programs, timed to avoid scaring children, include amateur and professional video of haunted houses, sightings and other unexplained phenomena, helpfully 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 psyches, 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 were afraid of the dark and were trying to appease the spirits of their broken weapons and disabled vehicles with prayers before ordering up repairs, says Chen Wei-min, host of the popular TV ghost show "Passing Through Yin and Yang."

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