{Prayers for Taiwan} Bai-bai (拜拜) & Ghost Month (鬼月)

I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts entitled “Prayers for Taiwan” about Taiwan’s culture and religion and the spiritual needs of the people.  Taiwan is a country in desperate need of the Gospel.  In fact, OMF, a mission organization with a strong presence in Taiwan, states that “Taiwan is recognised as the only major Chinese society where there has not yet been a significant spiritual breakthrough.”  I am not in Taiwan as a church planter or an evangelist, but through my work teaching at Morrison, through volunteering with other ministries, and through my interaction with the Chinese people and culture in daily life, I am witnessing firsthand the spiritual needs of this nation.  Many of you are already praying for my ministry in this place, so I feel compelled to share with you some of the specific spiritual strongholds in Taiwan so that you will know how to pray more effectively for this land.

Let’s begin by talking about “ghost month.”  This morning as I was leaving for church, I noticed a large tent near the entrance to my community.  I saw the same tent around this time last year and learned that it is for something called “bai-bai” (拜拜–sounds like “bye bye” in English).  Every month on the first day and the fifteenth day, the Taiwanese people do “bai-bai” by burning paper money  in large metal barrels and leaving food on tables outside their homes or businesses.  “Bai-bai” can be translated as “paying respect, worshiping, visiting, or saluting” or as “bowing with hands together.”  Boiled down to a basic definition, “bai-bai” is ancestor worship.  Though it is done regularly twice a month, there are also other special times for “bai-bai” throughout the year.  The seventh month of the lunar calendar (which began about a week ago) is called “ghost month” and this is one of those special times.

In Taiwanese folk religion, the people believe that there is a strong connection between this life on earth and the afterlife.  They believe that is it the duty of children (especially sons) to care for their ancestors after the ancestors have died.  It is also the belief of the people that if ancestors are not properly buried or cared for after death (given food, offered money, etc.) they will become wandering, hungry ghosts.  During “ghost month,” the Taiwanese people give abundant offerings to satisfy not only their own ancestors but also all of the hungry ghosts that have been uncared for throughout the year.  By offering these sacrifices, Taiwanese people believe they are protecting themselves from being haunted or bothered by the hungry ghosts.  One fellow Christian blogger in Taiwan writes, “Not every Taiwanese person actually believes 100% that these postmortem rituals make a difference, but many people have a ‘do it just in case it’s true’ sort of mentality. Many of them are afraid that if they don’t worship their ancestors, the ancestors’ ghosts will make their lives miserable. Who would want to risk that?”  “Ghost month” is a time when the spiritual darkness of Taiwan is made visibly evident through the  burnt offerings and sacrifices that are offered to the ancestors and gods.  Pray with me that the Taiwanese people’s eyes will be open to the emptiness of their ancestor worship and that they will come to know and worship the one true God.

Bai-bai table on the roadside

Another interesting prayer point that came out of this day for me happened in the afternoon when I heard my doorbell ringing.  I went to the door to find my Taiwanese friend Mike, the general manager of my community complex, holding a box of various fruits.  Mike often brings me little Taiwanese goodies to try, but I had a suspicion about where this food came from.  I asked, “Mike, is this food from the bai-bai?”  He said, “Yes, but we leave it there for just a little while for the spirits to come and when they’re finished with it, we take it and eat it.  So it’s okay.”  I very carefully chose my words and said, “Mike, you know I am a Christian, and I believe what the Bible says.  The Bible says we are not supposed to eat food that has been sacrificed to spirits (Acts 15:29*), so I do not want to eat this food.  I hope you’re not offended.”  Mike reassured me that he was not offended and told me that “we practice different religions.”  I walked away from the door thinking again how surreal it is to be living in a culture where the Bible’s wisdom and warnings about idols, idol worship, sacrifice to false gods, etc. is much more than figurative language.  Pray that my friend Mike will come to know Christ and choose Him over the idols of Taiwan.  Pray also that I will know how to share God’s truth with the Taiwanese people whom God puts in my path.

Continue to pray throughout the next month for the people of Taiwan who are bound by their fears of the unknown afterlife, who hope in nothing more than themselves and their families, and who are lost in spiritual darkness.  Pray for opportunities for believers to share the Gospel and for hearts to be ready to hear, trust, and obey.

*A friend commented to me that this verse in Acts forbids the eating of food sacrificed to idols because it was a cause of offense to godly Jews and that she believed mine was a different issue.  I just want to clarify that I understand the Bible’s point on this.  It is very clear that food sacrificed to idols is not evil in some way.  Paul writes in 1 Cor. 8:4, “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one” and in verse 8, “But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat it, and no better if we do.”  But in a society where food IS sacrificed to idols, ancestors, and spirits in worship, the command in Acts becomes an important issue.  In the passage in 1 Cor., Paul explains the reason for abstaining from eating food sacrificed to idols:  “Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled” (vs. 7).  We abstain because it can be a stumbling block to others.  In Taiwan, most Christians agree that we should not eat the “spirit food” because eating it can be a stumbling block to other Christians.  Many new Taiwanese believers struggle with their Christian faith because they have come from a system that assimilates any and all religious beliefs.  Christianity claims ONE way to salvation, and that it is a hard truth for many Taiwanese.  Being set apart from the practices of idol worship is one way that Taiwanese Christians can purely follow Christ.  Christians in Taiwan also see abstaining from “spirit food” as a way to set ourselves apart from the people who adhere to the many false religions of Taiwan (with the hopes of then sharing the Truth about why we are different).  I hope this explanation helps to clarify the issue.  Believe me, I never imagined what  unique biblical issues I would be forced to wrestle with because of living in a place like Taiwan.

* * * * * * * * * *

Check out this Wikipedia article for more on Ghost Month (or Ghost Festival). A few quotes I’d highlight from the page:

“Distinct from both the Qingming Festival (in Spring) and Chung Yeung Festival (in Autumn) in which living descendants pay homage to their deceased ancestors, on Ghost Day, the deceased are believed to visit the living.”

“Traditionally, it is believed that ghosts haunt the island of Taiwan for the entire seventh lunar month, when the mid-summer Ghost Festival is held. The month is known as Ghost Month. The first day of the month is marked by opening the gate of a temple, symbolizing the gates of hell. On the twelfth day, lamps on the main altar are lit. On the thirteenth day, a procession of lanterns is held. On the fourteenth day, a parade is held for releasing water lanterns. Incense and food are offered to the spirits to avoid them visiting homes and spirit paper money is also burnt as an offering. It is important that addresses are not revealed to the ghosts.”

Also see this article from about.com for more information and the dates of Ghost Month in the western calendar.

*Click to read other posts in my {Prayers for Taiwan} series.

3 thoughts on “{Prayers for Taiwan} Bai-bai (拜拜) & Ghost Month (鬼月)

  1. The term false religion is extremely incorrect and inapproporiate. God’s words and Wisdom is not neccessarily only found in The Bible but it also in other religious doctrines. Nor does the salvation only belongs to the Christians

    1. I appreciate your comment and your views, so thank you for sharing. Here is my response to what you said: According to the Bible, there is only one way to God, and that is through Jesus Christ. Jesus himself says, “I am the way, the truth, and the light. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Because I am a Christian, I wholeheartedly believe what Jesus said. I believe that the God of the Bible is the only true God and that trusting in Jesus is the only way to salvation. I know that it can seem offensive to others (even Jesus says that the Gospel will be a stumbling block to many), but since I am writing this blog about my faith and following God, I do not apologize for boldly proclaiming my views. I hope you understand. Perhaps you would be interested in entering into more dialog about this. What religion to you follow?

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