In Chinese thought, the world is populated by a vast number of spirits, both good and evil. Such spirits include nature demons (kuei-shen), evil spirits or devils (oni), and ghosts (kui).
Evil spirits are believed to avoid light, so many rituals involving fire and light have developed, such as the use of bonfires, firecrackers, and torches. Evil spirits are also traditionally believed to travel in straight lines, which explains many curvy roads throughout China.
But not all spirits are evil — some are just unhappy. As evidenced by the practice of ancestor worship, most Chinese people believe the souls of the deceased endure after death and must be kept happy by offerings and honor.
If a spirit is not kept happy, perhaps because it had a bad death, an improper burial or has no descendents to perform the proper rituals, it becomes a ghost (sometimes called a "hungry ghost," a term with Buddhist origins). Ghosts may attack human beings to prompt them to meet the ghosts' needs or at least to draw attention to their plight.
Ghosts receive the most attentions during Ghost Month, the seventh month in the Chinese lunar year, and especially during the Ghost Festival on the fiftteenth day.
In mainland China, belief in ghosts and evil spirits is declining under the influence of atheistic Communism. But in Taiwan, which split from China in 1949, the vast majority of the population (perhaps as much as 90%) believes in ghosts. Late-night television is filled with video of haunted houses and ghost-busting and afterlife experts make a good business of advising distressed clients on how to appease their angry ancestors.
- - David K. Jordan, Gods, Ghosts, & Ancestors: Folk Religion in a Taiwanese Village, Third Edition (San Diego CA: Department of Anthropology, UCSD, 1999). Published as an online book.
- Mark Magnier, "Afraid to Give Up Ghosts." Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2006.