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Dealing with the dead in Taiwan and Germany

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Flying Dutchman
For detailed biographical information, please check the very first article of this blog. Thanks!

According to the Chinese Lunar Calendar, Tomb Sweeping Day, also known as Ching Ming Festival, one of the most important holidays in Greater China as well as for the Chinese diaspora, is always celebrated on the 15th day after the Spring Equinox.

Although the exact date is fixed, and this year it fell on April 5th, many Taiwanese will choose a time convenient for the whole family to gather and fulfil their pious duties, often to avoid traffic jams and overcrowded locations, particularly nowadays that the pandemic isn’t over yet.

The main activity consists in showing respect to one’s ancestors, an important element of Confucianism, by cleaning their tombs, usually built as far away from occupied buildings as possible on hills or mountain tops, and burning stacks of paper money in their honor.

Taiwanese don’t visit the gravesite of their forefathers except on this one occasion. As due to the subtropical climate on the island grass and weeds tend to overgrow the graves quite fast, there’s always a lot of work to do and it often starts quite early in the morning.

This custom already indicates that the relationship with the deceased is significantly different from Germany, where many cemeteries are located in residential areas and often include parks that regularly attract people of all ages looking for a relaxing walk in a peaceful surrounding.

Up to this day, superstition represents a relevant part of Chinese culture, especially on former Formosa, where all traditions, including some rather backward habits, have been much better preserved than in Communist China, ravaged by the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) orchestrated by the “Great Helmsman” Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976).

In consequence, up to this day there’s a widespread fear of ghosts, even among the younger generations of Taiwanese. When many years ago I was driving with a middle-aged local friend through the outskirts of Taichung, we somehow got lost and ended up in the middle of a graveyard, separated only by the road we were on.

After realizing where we were, he was visibly shocked and immediately started repeating the word “Amituofo”, the Chinese transliteration from Sanskrit of Amitabha Buddha’s name, which stands for “boundless life”, to feel safer among the dead and speed out of there.

The rent of apartments in Taiwan were people died, sometimes violently, is significantly cheaper than the average. Any real estate agency marketing such flats is bound by law to state their “unholy” past very clearly.

Some Taiwanese parents may not abort an unwanted child out of fear that its ghost may haunt them forever, which is actually a very good thing as it helps to prevent murder.

On the contrary, as in large parts of Western Europe, including post-war Germany, religion almost plays no role anymore, such ancestral views are almost nonexistent or frowned upon.

Still, theoretically more rational Western foreigners are well advised not to make fun out of such beliefs, no matter how risible they might seem to those educated to think logically.

Especially, as in the West spirits, but also witches and demons, have been substituted by “climate change”, “systemic racism” and a supposedly ever increasing threat by omnipresent “right-wing extremists” to create new apocalyptic scenarios and doomsday prophecies.

At the end of the day, as my late father used to say, one has to believe in something, might it be the Führer or the Deutsche Bank, if one chooses not to believe in God.   

Therefore, we aliens living in Taiwan should refrain from any comments on Tomb Sweeping Day and feel proud if a local gives us the rare chance to participate in such an event, as it was the case with me a decade ago.

I’m speaking out of the experience accumulated during my 20 years in Taiwan, as I have been upbraid a couple of times for my insensitivity and warned that apparitions do in fact occur…

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