“Even at a young age, I had an appetite for fright and an attraction to the unknown. These stories implied a larger existence…, weaving together my family history, cultural identity, and human existence.”
As I grew up, my collection of strange tales and understandings of the world grew, through the stories of others and through my life experience. Though every culture develops a way of looking at the world, interpreting it, and making sense of the chaotic by establishing a world-view, there seemed to be a strange boundary between the cultures I inhabited. For many Taiwanese people, ghosts, gods, and seers are incorporated into cultural rituals and even news reports as a given part of life. Meanwhile, belief in these elements seems to be more personal yet unspoken and trivialized in America. Both cultures engage in sensationalist and commercial movies, television shows, and businesses. Rather than presenting a fragmented but entertaining, one-dimensional perspective, I sought to piece together different accounts to create a more comprehensive picture of Taiwanese cosmology and its social implications.
The tradition of strange accounts has a long history in China. One of the most cherished collections of bizarre miniatures, Pu Songilng’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, has become a classic. The stories entertain while “pushing at the boundaries of our everyday experience, stretching our vision in the tiniest of ways” with things that can “open up new vistas of thought, help us to see things anew, and quicken strange intuitions.”1 I found that the tales did not necessarily correspond with conventionally spine-chilling stories of ghosts, but used the supernatural to illuminate subtle levels of human interaction. In one of the stories, for example, a student has a little man living in his ear, who is scared away when a neighbor knocks on the door. Thereafter, the student is in “a state of utter desolation, as if his very soul had gone missing.”2 He has violent fits and howls hysterically, but eventually makes a recovery after six months. The most intriguing part of the story is not the little man, but how the student reacts to the incident and what human qualities are brought out by the way the story is told. Each weird situation is in fact, very real and true to human nature. In such a way, I hope to connect readers of different traditions to larger insights into our humanity.
I chose to focus on gods, ghosts, and seers in particular because they have been the most prevalent and interesting supernatural elements in my personal collection of stories. Many Taiwanese people believe in local gods, which stem from diverse influences such as Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, aboriginal culture, and Chinese folk traditions. Each individual or family has a unique blend of divergent practices and disciplines to form a highly syncretic religious view. The role played by a certain god does not seem to have a universal interpretation and will vary based on history and individual circumstances. In my own experience, family members have visited gods who occupy particular temples seeking to have their questions answered or to bring good fortune to their lives.
When speaking about the supernatural, many of my interviewees immediately jumped to a particular subject. My father, for example, immediately began telling me stories about his military service on a small island off the mainland of Taiwan. His encounters with ghosts on that island connect personal experiences with political histories with souls from the past. These stories illuminate a different time during which my parents grew up, connecting the present with the past, and touching upon more distant histories that echo through the stories.
The stories were invariably linked to Buddhist thought, with every action carrying significance larger than the self, extending into previous lifetimes, transcending into the future. Even while the stories communicate a sense of personal agency, they are also founded upon universal forces that influence one’s actions and fortune. To live our lives properly, we must exercise personal agency while recognizing larger forces.
The brush writing communicates the individual thoughts and perhaps personalities of my interviewees, since they themselves chose phrases or words to write. Many complained that they hadn’t practiced calligraphy since grade school, but they all wrote beautifully. On my part, the ink drawings represent some immediate impressions that the stories left me with, representing a life beyond the material.
The interviews left me with a greater sense of purpose, humility, and responsibility. By taking the time to listen carefully, I gained a deeper understanding of the bedtime stories that I had grown up with, and a deeper appreciation for their underlying significance. I gained a greater respect for the hardships and the way of life that my parents have chosen. Throughout the painstaking process of transcription and translation, my father was always here helping me with the Chinese and explaining the cultural references.
Besides my parents, I also interviewed Ann Lin (Teacher Ho), a family friend and mentor, Tu Jin-Sheng, a martial arts master and my mother’s friend, as well as Mrs. Chen, who does Buddhist rituals for our family and can communicate with gods. The names used in the text are translations of how I refer to them in Chinese, representing how closely I am connected to my interviewees. I hope this text can illuminate the particular cosmologies of my interviewees and provide greater insight into Taiwanese culture, Buddhist thought. Perhaps it can even shift a viewer’s understanding of being in the world.