Battlepanda: Whose afraid of the big, bad, ghosts?


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Whose afraid of the big, bad, ghosts?

The Taiwanese, apparently.
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."
I find this phenomenon fascinating. It just goes to illustrate how members of a society that has drank deeply out of the beneficial cup of science can neverthless hold deeply irrational beliefs. However, unlike evangelical christians, whose faith compells them to deny evolution, ghost-belief in the Taiwanese seems to be a completely discrete parallel paradigm. Believing in ghosts was no barrier to the enthusiastic acceptance of western science; but conversely, their adaptation of western science did not undermine their belief in ghosts. This leads to some amusing contradictions -- I've known a biologist whose lab holds yearly baibais (or spiritual services) for the rats they kill in their experiments, so that the soul of the rats would not return to disturb future experiments!

I've also had a Chinese teacher, a slim, coiffed, middle-aged Taiwanese lady; just about the most sensible, no-nonsense person you can imagine. Except for the fact that she also considers herself uncommonly sensitive to the world of the spirits. With a matter-of-fact manner, she related how the ghost of her Father-in-Law came back to her house a few days after he died. "The doorbell wouldn't stop ringing. We got a repairman, and he couldn't fix it," she said, "...then I realized that it was Dad. We had to open the door, greet him properly and let him in every night when he rings the bell. He finally left us for good 49 days after he passed." I didn't know what to say. I could hardly question the veracity of her account, neither could I credit it. Was there really a doorbell malfunction at her house that triggered this story? Or was it an embellishment to make the return of the Father-in-law more tangible? Either way, Mrs. Jiang spoke with absolute conviction.

Anyhow, we are all entitled to our harmless irrational beliefs. I might not believe in ghosts, but I have a horror of killing spiders. I believe that all the spiders in the world are connected to a giant spidey-hive-mind, so that if you kill one of them, more spiders in the vicinity will gang up and get you. Don't ask me how this notion got planted in my head, or why known spider-killers have gone without their punishment. I know this belief is not rational. But like they say with the ghosts, better safe than sorry, right?