Toucheng Qianggu Festival (頭城搶孤)

My adventures with Taiwan’s folk traditions continues and this time I head to the usually quiet town of Toucheng, Yilan(頭城,宜蘭)to go see some burly men climb some very high spires.

Toucheng’s Grappling with Ghost Festival or Qianggu (頭城搶孤) is held every year on the last day of the Ghost Month. Wait, Ghost Month? Taiwan has a whole month dedicated to ghosts? Yes indeed, it does.

Ghost Month (鬼月) refers to the Hungry Ghost Festival, a grand belief that every year during the 7th month of the Lunar calendar, the gates of hell are thrown open, freeing ghosts and spirits to roam into our world. The thought of restless and transient spirits co-existing with humans is intriguing to not only the Taiwanese but also to most nations that share the same Taoist and Buddhist heritage, including Hong Kong, Malaysia, Japan and Viet Nam.

The wandering ghosts(孤魂)are believed to be the ancestors of families who have forgotten to pay tribute, or are those who have died without proper burials. They meander the human world searching to fulfil what they have been missing, like food and entertainment. To appease them, believers present them with live performances and offerings, including animal sacrifices.

I’ve heard foreigners and even locals alike scoff and dismiss the idea of ghosts. “Just superstitions”, they’d say. Well sure they can be regarded as such in this day and age, but let’s not discount centuries of folk religion and whole cultures that have survived modernity and other influences, shall we?

Apart for its cultural and historical significance, I attended yesterday’s Toucheng’s Grappling with Ghost event because it’s a spectacle that’s also rare to come by. How many events do you know that have teams of men competing against each other to reach the top of gigantic pillars?

Pillars reaching more than 20 metres to be exact. For the main event of gupeng (孤棚), the base poles made from Chinese fir measure around 13 metres in height and 8 metres wide. To make it even more challenging, they are greased with what is reported to be butter but looks more like your average motor oil. With nothing but a few lengths of rope and pure grappling strength, each team consisting of five of their best make the slippery climb to the platform. Only to face another 8 metres of bamboo trestles to reach the top. You’d think that is a good enough feat, but whoever manages to get past those two stages must lop off the top that completes the towers. Only when they manage to take down the flag can they then be declared the winner.

Grappling with ghosts in this way is said to scare away bad spirits. Winning climbers receive much admiration and prestige…and are assumed great fortune for the rest of the year.

The following pictures may be too raw for some.

Chinese Opera performances were seen at two different stages. Front row seats at such performances during Ghost Month are always vacant. Ghosts are believed to occupy them.
Offerings are laid out by the masses as part of the ceremonies proceeding the Grappling event. Photo courtesy of Guang-Hui Chuan of GSquaredTravel
A man offers his ancestors some incense. Guhun or lonely souls are believed to be restless because they have been forgotten by their families overtime. To prevent this, believers offer the proper rituals to the familial deceased.
A rooster carcass lies pathetically on that of a tattooed pig.
A row of animal sacrifices is a common theme at the event. A rooster rests on a pig, of which underneath hangs a live carp. If anyone can help me decipher the meaning of these animals placed in such a way, please get in touch.
A decorated pig with a pineapple in its mouth is presented facing the giant spires for the Grappling
The makeshift temple in which believers go to ask for blessings and safeguarding against evil spirits. Copyright of Guang-Hui Chuan.
A priest throws blessed flower buds to the vying crowd hoping to catch them. Photo thanks to Guang-Hui Chuan
I heard the commentator say the spires were constructed from 6am that morning, and greased with about 120 gallons (450 litres) of butter. Quite an incredible effort considering it was all ready in about 12 hours.
Competitors get covered in grease as they go through phase 1 of the climb.
Its not over… One competitor heaves himself over the ledge, only to climb another 8 metres of bamboo lattices.

Getting there: Forget the train, Kuo-Kuang Bus 1877 will take you straight to Toucheng in less than an hour. Main points of departure are from Yuanshan Station, Nangang Station or Nangang Exhibition Hall Station.

When: Going by the Gregorian calendar, this event will vary year after year. However it will always abide to the last day of the 7th Lunar Calendar Month. So you just have to ask Google for future dates and details. I find Googling the Chinese characters 頭城搶孤 provided the best results. If you get there around 9pm, that leaves you plenty of time to eat, drink and do. The grappling starts at 11pm.

Pro-tip: There are a few taboos that you should know if you are visiting Taiwan during Ghost Month. Not everyone is superstitious but it’s a nice to know. Because you don’t want to get reprimanded, out of the blue, like I did. (Whistling at night, as I passed an elderly man in a park. Oops.) Here’s a great video to watch.

As always, my greatest thanks to fellow adventurer and photographer Guang-Hui Chuan. Head to his website GSquaredTravel for even more amazing captures!