Monday, August 29, 2011

Taiwanese Traditions: Holidays and the Lunar Calendar

The Lunar Calendar
Living in Taiwan, as a foreigner, means that I have to pay attention to the Lunar Calendar. I’m a pastor and I have to be careful of church events planned throughout the year, because if they fall on one of Taiwan’s major holidays, I will be the only one attending the event. As a result I have become interested in the Lunar Calendar.
The very first renderings of a lunar calendar go all the way back to the Shang Dynasty. This is the 2nd Chinese Dynasty, which existed in 1600 BC until 1046 BC. But the calendar has gone through a number of revisions since that time. As science progressed and the true and actual cycles of the moon and the earth were understood the calendar was changed t reflect this information. These revisions are tedious and boring, so I will not include all of that stuff in this post but I will tell you that the current lunar calendar has been in use since 104 BC.

There are a number of rules that govern the calendar:

1. Each Month begins at midnight on the day of the new Moon.
2. There are 12 regular months.
3. The sun must pass through winter solstice in month 11

In order to make that happen there must be an intercalary month inserted into the calendar. An intercalary month is like a leap month The intercalary month can take place after any month and is the same number of days as the month it follows. Because of the use of intercalary months of the Lunar calendar the corresponding days of the holidays in the Solar Calendar Change each year. For example in 2011, Chinese new Year took place on February 3, in 2012 it will be on January 23.

Most of Taiwan’s traditional holidays are marked through the use of the Lunar Calendar. modern Holidays are marked through the Solar Calendar. Let’s take a look at the Taiwanese Holidays:

Shin Kong Mitsukoshi decorated for the Year of the Rabbit
Chinese New Year: 春節Lunar Date is January 1. (January 23, 2012) This is the most important holiday of the year. It is celebrated much the same way that Christmas is celebrated in the west. Families gather for 3-15 days. Traditional meals are served on Chinese New Year’s Eve. People are given gifts of Hong Bao 紅包. These are gifts of money that are a wish of prosperity for the recipient.

The Lantern Festival: 元宵節 Lunar date is January 15. (February 6, 2012) This is the first day a full moon can be seen in the New Year. People celebrate by lighting and launching sky lanterns. There are also huge venues where people go to see artistically made lanterns and watch them launched. People often write prayers and wishes on the side of the lanterns before they are released. The traditional food for the Lantern festival is the tangyuan 湯圓 (soup circle) These are balls of gooey, sweet rice gluten.

A Replica of an actual Lantern at the 2011 lantern Festival
Qingming Festival: 清明節 Solar Holiday: April 4,2012. During the Qingming Festival familes gather to sweep the tombs of departed ancestors. It is a day to honor the dead. Many people use this day to burn incense and worship their ancestors.

Dragon Boat Festival: 端午節 Lunar date is May 5. (June 23, 2012) his festival honors Chinese Poet Qu Yuan. It is celebrated with the racing of the dragon boats. People eat a special sticky rice pyramid called a zongzi.

Night of Sevens: 七夕 Lunar date is July 7. (August 23, 2012) This holiday celebrates the legendary love of Niulang and Zhinu. According to legend they are forever separated, but are allowed to unite on July 7. The Taiwanese view this as a romantic night celebrated much like Valentine’s Day in the west.

Zongzi, the traditional food of the Dragon Boat Festival.
Ghost Festival: 中元節 Lunar date is July 15. (August 31, 2012) The festival honors the departed ancestors. People commemorate this day by placing offerings of incense, food and beverages outside their homes and the burning of spirit money for the family members who have departed the world. This is the most important date of Ghost Month (The whole month of July on the lunar calendar.)

Mid-Autumn Moon Festival: 中秋節 Lunar date is August 15. (September 12, 2011/ September 30, 2012) This is the day when most people get together with friends and family and barbeque. Look for an in-depth post on the Moon Festival in September. A gift is given to friends and family of moon cakes. Circular cakes made with egg yolks and other things inside. The shape represents the moon and the cakes themselves are good wishes for the recipient.

Double Ninth Festival: 重陽節 Lunar Date is September 9. (Oct. 5, 2011/Oct.23, 2012) People usually celebrate this holiday by climbing mountains or visiting flower shows.

Traditional Moon Cakes for the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.
Xia Yuan Festival: 下元節 Lunar date is October 15. (Nov. 10, 2011/Nov. 28,2012) During this festival people pray to the water god for a peaceful year.

Winter Solstice: 冬至 Solar Holiday (Dec. 22, 2011/Dec. 21, 2012) This corresponds to the Winter Solstice in western Countries. Families gather to celebrate on this day.

Kitchen God Festival: 謝灶  Lunar date is December 23. (Jan. 27, 2011/ Jan 17, 2012) This is the day to thank the kitchen god. It is believed that on the twenty third day of the twelfth lunar month, just before Chinese New Year he returns to Heaven to report the activities of every household over the past year to the Jade Emperor (Yu Huang). The Jade Emperor, emperor of the heavens, either rewards or punishes a family based on Zao Jun's yearly report.

One final note is that the Chinese Zodiac is broken down into 12 years. Each year corresponds to a particular animal. It is believed that people born in a particular year will share the traits of the animal mentioned. The following is a breakdown of the Zodiac and the corresponding years from 1924 through 2031.

Rat         1924 1936 1948 1960 1972 1984 1996 2008 2020
Ox         1925 1937 1949 1961 1973 1985 1997 2009 2021
Tiger      1926 1938 1950 1962 1974 1986 1998 2010 2022
Rabbit    1927 1939 1951 1963 1975 1987 1999 2011 2023
Dragon   1928 1940 1952 1964 1976 1988 2000 2012 2024
Snake     1929 1941 1953 1965 1977 1989 2001 2013 2025
Horse     1930 1942 1954 1966 1978 1990 2002 2014 2026
Sheep     1931 1943 1955 1967 1979 1991 2003 2015 2027
Monkey  1932 1944 1956 1968 1980 1992 2004 2016 2028
Rooster   1933 1945 1957 1969 1981 1993 2005 2017 2029
Dog        1934 1946 1958 1970 1982 1994 2006 2018 2030
Boar       1935 1947 1959 1971 1983 1995 2007 2019 2031

Photo Credits:
Lunar Calendar:
Moon Cakes:
All other photos:  Brenda and Elizabeth Banducci

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Local Color: Taoyuan City Ghost Festival Parade 2011

All Photos by Brenda Banducci

Other posts you may be interested in:

Local Color:  The Temples of Taoyuan City
Local Color:  The Colors of Yingge

Taiwanese Traditions: The Traditions of Ghost Month

A woman with her Ghost Month offering to her ancestors.
Once again, Taiwan is in the midst of Ghost Month, sometimes called Hungry Ghost Month. The Ghost Month takes place throughout the entire month of July (Lunar).

All of the religiously themed festivals in Taiwan are held according to the lunar calendar. So this year (2011) Ghost Month is taking place from July 31 until August 28. There are a number of traditions associated with Ghost Month.

Ghost Month Traditions:

Lanterns light the way for the deceased to find their way.
 During the seventh month, the Gates of Heaven and Hell are opened and the Ghosts of departed ancestors return to earth. On the first day of the month, the gates of the temple are opened symbolizing the opening of the gates of hell.

On the first, fifteenth and the thirtieth day of the month people set up offerings in front of their homes for returning Ghosts. They offer incense and food and beverages for the Ghosts. Alcoholic drinks are often offered. The people also burn spirit money. They believe that the smoke carries the essence of the money to their ancestors who use that money to supply their needs while waiting to be reincarnated.

People in Taiwan are afraid of ghosts and are careful not to allow the Ghosts inside their homes and do not allow their address to be seen. All offerings are done on the porch or in front of the home. They are never done inside the house.

One of the singers drawing a crowd.
On the thirteenth day of the festival a parade of lanterns is held. The lanterns are supposed to help the ghosts to find their way home.

On the fourteenth day of Ghost Month a parade is held. The parade includes Dragon Dancers, and drummers. One modern twist to the Ghost parade is the use of current music. As I stood and watched the parade the sounds of the Far East Movement song, “Like a G-6” blared through the streets of downtown Taoyuan City. There are also singers who ride in elaborate trucks singing a mix of Chinese Folk Music and popular Taiwanese pop songs. The women singing the songs are scantily clad. From a western perspective we have trouble associating religion and scantily clad women, so I asked a man standing and watching why the women were dressed that way his reply with a shrug was, “To draw a crowd to watch the parade, I think.” It seems to have been a fairly effective strategy considering the size of the crowd.

Each Dragon Dancer  is one young man standing on another's shoulders
The fifteenth day of the month is the official Ghost Festival. Buddhist and Taoist priests both perform elaborate rituals to absolve the suffering of the deceased. Often on this day families gather for feasts, leaving a few empty chairs for deceased ancestors treating them as if they are still living.

A large part of Ghost Month is the worship of ancestors as seen in the offerings of food, incense and money. Filial piety is extended to the ancestors even after their death as the family burns paper money, paper mache representations of homes and material possessions and clothing to provide for their ancestors as they await reincarnation.

Other posts you may be interested in:

Taiwanese Traditions:  Ghost Month 2: Ghost Day
Taiwanese Traditions:  Chinese New Year:  The Legend of Nian
Taiwanese Traditions:  The Dragon Boat Festival

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Taiwanese Weather: Monsoons and Typhoons

Plum Rains 2011
Taiwan is an interesting place weather-wise. I come from Southern California, a place noted for warm, mild weather. In fact, the area in which I lived received about twelve inches of rain a year. Taiwan gets more than that on the average for the month of June.


Eastern Asia, Taiwan, Japan, eastern China, Korea and Vietnam all have two monsoon periods each year. It is actually, according to some websites, one monsoon period broken into two sections: The Winter Monsoon and the Plum Rains.

The Winter Monsoon usually starts in Late December or Early January and continues until March. Because of the Winter Monsoon, Chinese New Year in Taiwan is usually cold and wet. It is amazingly cold. I’m always surprised that it gets as cold as it does during the winter. Considering that Taipei is on the same latitude with the tip of Florida, you would expect temperatures to be similar to Southern Florida’s temperatures, but in fact, the temperature can get to between 6C and 9C (43F and 48F). When you couple that with high humidity you come out with bone chillingly cold weather. Add to that the fact that homes in Taiwan are concrete with tile floors and no furnaces, you have the makings of a cold winter. Fortunately winter here lasts only about six to eight weeks.

The Plum Rains start in May and usually last through June, although the periods of heavy rainfall continue until September. The Plum Rains are created through a stationary front that hangs over Japan, Taiwan, Eastern China and South Korea. It lasts until the sub-tropical ridge becomes strong enough to push this front to the north. That’s meteorologist speak for the weather is rainy until it isn’t. This year the Plum Rains started a little late closer to late June and continue to this day. (I’m writing this on August 13, 2011).

The Plum Rains bring quite a bit more rainfall than the Winter Monsoons as you can see from this average rainfall chart:

December      77mm – 3.0”            June          322mm – 12.7”
January          91mm – 3.6”            July           269mm – 10.6”
February      146mm – 5.8”            August      266mm – 10.5”

I think it is interesting that the average rainfall for June is a little higher than the average annual rainfall in the area where I lived in Southern California. There was one day this last June where we received 200mm (7.9”) in a twelve-hour period; more than half of the monthly average in twelve hours. That’s a lot of rain; a lot of rain.


The paths of typhoons in 2010, Taiwan is right in the middle of it.
Taiwan gets its share of typhoons, too. A typhoon is actually a hurricane but it happens in the Pacific Ocean instead of the Atlantic Ocean. They start near the island of Chuuk and move northward into the South China Sea. The places most affected by typhoons are Taiwan, the Philippines, Japan and Eastern China. It is a complicated set of circumstances that cause typhoons. I explained it in detail in a post titled, “Typhoon Conson: Here It Comes.” There are on average, in the Northwestern Pacific, where Taiwan is, 11 typhoons, annually. Of course they don’t all hit Taiwan directly and many just pass close to the island. But we feel the effects of them as wind and torrential rains.

Just before I moved to Taiwan in September 2009, a typhoon called Typhoon Morakot, which landed on the island on August 8, 2009 devastated Southern Taiwan. It caused landslides and flooding, costing billions of dollars. The Binlang (Betel Nut) industry was hit very hard as Betel Nut trees, which have a shallow root system and grow on the sides of mountains, were unable to hold back mudslides. One small town, was completely buried, killing 439 people. The government received a lot of criticism for poor response and rescue operations.

Typhoon Fanapi 2010 - Each circle represents 70% probability of direction
Taiwan’s Central Weather Bureau website forecasts rain and typhoons for up to ten days in advance. You can track a typhoon’s progress by checking the website hourly. The website contains typhoon direction predictions as well as hourly weather satellite photos of typhoons and their proximity to Taiwan.

One thing you can’t say about Taiwan is that the weather’s boring. It seems meteorologically something is happening here all the time. Whether it’s monsoons or typhoons or just plain raining. Somebody gets wet almost every day.

Satellite Photo of Typhoon fanapi on Central Weather Bureau site.

Thanks to our companion blog Glimpses of Taiwan for the Typhoon Rain video.

Other Posts you may be interested in:

Here It Comes: Typhoon Conson
Typhoon Conson:  How Did We Cope?

Monday, August 8, 2011

East Meets West: Where am I, Anyway?

My daughter, Emily at TGI Friday's in Taoyuan City,  Taiwan
Taiwan is starting to look a lot like the United States; at least it’s looking that way in certain areas. There has always been a certain amount of foreign food in Taiwan, but it seems that lately things are really beginning to take off for American food restaurants.

I took my daughter to lunch the other day, and she is my culinary opposite. She likes to eat the familiar things, I'm more of, "what did you say I just ate?" kind of guy.  I prefer to eat Chinese food and usually at the food carts, but my daughter’s tastes run to American food. She’s a beef and potatoes type of person. She likes good old-fashioned steak and French fries. So I thought I would take her to a restaurant where a friend had taken me, recently. Rebel Burger.

Rebel Burger's Bacon Cheeseburger, fries and a Sprite
Rebel Burger, that’s about as American as you can get. Big beef patties, avocado, mushrooms, bacon, all the decadent, fattening stuff you can put on a burger and more. It was pretty good. One thing I have discovered, though, is that if you go to dinner with a American in Taiwan, I don’t care how long they’ve been here; they want American food. To me it’s like going to Nebraska and ordering sushi. There isn’t an ocean for thousands of miles, why would you eat fish? Or going to Mexico and eating Italian. I don’t get it.

When I first came here, a friend, knowing I liked Mexican food, wanted to take me out for a treat and took me to a Mexican restaurant in Taipei. “The best Mexican food in Taiwan. Bro!” But the flour tortillas were raw, and they only had Tabasco sauce when I asked for hot sauce. I’m not complaining, I could see that they really wanted to make the best Mexican food they could, but this isn’t Mexico.

This is Taiwan and the best food in Taiwan is Taiwanese. That’s what I want. When in Rome, eat what Romans eat. When I’m in Mexico, I’m going eat Mexican. When I’m in America, I’m going to eat…probably Mexican. But that’s another story. This isn’t about me, this about Taiwan looking a lot like America restaurant-wise.

Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taoyuan City, Taiwan
American food has become pretty popular for the younger generation here. American fast food has been here for years. Kids have grown up on it. Young people like it and are starting to open their own restaurants and serving it up to other young people. That brings me back to Rebel Burger. This place is for young people. They have pictures of famous rebels all over the place: James Dean is there. So is Che Guevara, although I’m not sure what he has to do with America, but he is a famous (actually, infamous) rebel.

Because of American food’s newfound popularity, American restaurants have sprung up everywhere. They have Outback Steak Houses, Chili’s Restaurants, Bangles, TGI Fridays, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut. I’m sure there are probably others that I’ve missed. Hopefully, my children won’t find out about them and I can continue to miss them.

The thing is, though, they have the same menu as their American counterparts for the most part, but they all seem to have a Taiwanese twist. For example, Pizza hut has a fixed menu. In the U.S. you go to the restaurant and you can pick the toppings you want on the Pizza. But in Taiwan they have only a few choices, and sometimes don’t know how to react if you want to change something. My wife has stood in the restaurant while they called the boss to ask him what to do when she wanted something different than their menu showed.

TGI Friday's, just like in the good ol' USA
McDonald’s has Fried Chicken, rice and other Taiwanese favorites, along with the Big Macs and milk shakes. They know what sells, where and they serve that. McDonald’s also doesn’t have my personal favorite, (it takes a very secure man to admit he likes McDonald’s), the Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Taiwanese people aren’t really all that fond of cheese and one-quarter pound of red meat seems unhealthy to them.
At KFC you don’t specify whether you want original, crispy or spicy chicken…you get what they have on hand at that moment. If you say, “I don’t want biscuits,” you’re likely to get them anyway, because that’s what goes in that package.

Bigger restaurants, like Chili’s or TGI Fridays, or Outback Steak House just serve exactly what they serve in the U.S. I guess they figure that’s the drawing card; eating like you’re in America. If you’re inside the restaurant, it’s just like being in the U.S. In fact, that’s why my kids like to go to those places, it reminds them of home. It reminds me of America, too, but to me this is where I live, so this is home.
Sometimes I just forget where I am, "Sure are a lot of Asian kids working here.  Oh yeah, this is Taiwan."
Other posts you may be interested in:

An American Presence:  What I Don't Miss in Taiwan
Eating My Way Through Taiwan:  The Stink of Adventure

Monday, August 1, 2011

Speaking Chinese: Learning to Listen

Rainie Yang and Mike He in Devil Beside You
I began to learn to speak mandarin in the United States. But as you may guess there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to practice speaking the language. I was limited in my ability to practice. There are a number of tools to learn to speak. For instance, Rosetta Stone software has a neat feature that records and processes your voice and displays it digitally so that you can see if you pronounced the tones correctly. You can also go to the local Chinese restaurant and try to speak to the servers. This was a favorite past time for me but there was a problem. Some of them were so amazed that I was trying to speak Chinese that all they would say was, “Ah, You speak Chinese?” Unfortunately I had an extremely limited vocabulary, and if they spoke much Chinese back to me beyond greetings I was lost and my tones were so bad that most of them would just laugh.

In fact at one point, I asked a friend, the owner of this particular restaurant, “Why does everyone laugh when I speak to them in Chinese?” Her reply, “You don’t speak Chinese.” Aha, I realized at that moment that learning to speak Chinese was going to be harder than I had previously thought.
Mike He, Rainie Yang and Kingone Wang in Why, Why Love?

You know it’s kind of annoying when you see ads for software that say, “Learn Chinese in six weeks!” because it really takes a while to master Chinese. When I first started to learn my teacher spent the first three months drilling me on consonant and vowels sounds, “Bu, pu, mu, fu,” on and on over and over. Then we started to work on the tones. It wasn’t until we had done all that that we began to actually work on vocabulary. I think it really helped because my pronunciation is very good. I still struggle with tones, though. Because we don’t use them in English and I had been speaking English for 50 years before I started to learn Chinese.

But, without a doubt, the most difficult thing for me has been to learn to listen. Now that I live in Taiwan, I have many opportunities to practice speaking. I have become more confident and actually speak to strangers in Chinese. But when they answer I find myself struggling to understand what they’re saying. I think part of it stems from the fact that I have been taught with Beijing pronunciation and people here speak with a Taiwanese accent. But the biggest problem is that I’m not able to process the language at the normal speaking speed.
Mike He, Hebe Tian and Lee Wei from Bullfighting

So, I developed a plan to learn to listen. In Taiwan they have a number of television shows known as “Idol Dramas.” They use the current popular teen idols and produce a love story that lasts for about 20 episodes. They’re similar to a soap opera. They have the nice girl, the tough guy, comedy, drama; all that you might expect in a teenage love story is rolled into the package. They usually follow a couple of formulas.

1. The rich, highly motivated, young business heir falls in love with the girl from the other side of the tracks. The mother is opposed and does everything she can to destroy the relationship. The son stands up to his domineering mother. In the end there’s always a happy ending.

2. The girl falls for a guy that is way beyond here. He’s smart, rich, popular and she’s a nothing. She eventually wins him over because of her charm and sweetness.

Okay, so basically they all have the same plot. The young woman overcomes all odds to end up with the super successful young man. The nice thing about them, probably owing to the culture, is that they are wholesome and enjoyable. I watch them on the internet because I got rid of my television many years ago.

The good part is that you can find these dramas all over the Internet. Many sites carry them with English subtitles. Because they are written to appeal to teenagers they use simple language. They are often written about everyday life so they are excellent tools for learning to listen in Mandarin. English subtitles help understanding when vocabulary fails and you can check your understanding of the dialogue quickly and easily.
Ariel Lin and Joe Chen from  It Started With a Kiss

One good site for watching these video dramas is They have a large collection of current and past dramas. Many of them are produced in Taiwan and you can hear the language with a Taiwanese accent, which helps if you live in Taiwan. But they have many others from Mainland China and Hong Kong. Youtube carries a number of them as well both with subtitles (in a number of languages) and without.

Here are some that are worth watching if you want to try this out:

Devil Beside You: Starring Rainie Yang, Mike He, Kingone Wang and Tsai Pei Lin: The story revolves around a nice young girl who wants to declare her love to the captain of the basketball team. Inadvertently, the love letter she prepared for him she gives to the school’s notorious bad boy, which also happens to be the son of the university’s president. After a lot of drama and plot twists they eventually fall deeply in love.

Why, Why, Love: Starring Rainie Yang, Kingone Wang, Mike He and Michelle Chen: Rainie plays a young woman who works very hard to pay off their family’s debt. The debt was left to the family when her father died. Kingone and Mike play brothers who are the sons of a super successful businessman. Kingone is the nice guy and Mike is the bad guy. Rainie and her friend are temporary workers at the mall owned by the guys’ father. Try and guess what happens.

Bullfighting: Starring Mike He and Hebe Tian (from the popular pop group, S.H.E.): Mike He plays the super motivated business heir. His father wants to buy the land that her father owns to build something. But her father stands his ground and refuses to sell. This pits the two families against each other. But Mike falls for Hebe and well the rest is kind of predictable.

It Started with a Kiss: Starring Ariel Lin and Joe Cheng: Ariel plays Xiang Qin, a very naïve young woman in the lowest class of the high school. Joe Cheng plays Zhi Shu, the best student in the school. He scores the highest grades in the entire school. He is also the most handsome guy in the school. Xiang Qin falls hard for Zhi Shu in her freshman year. But Zhi Shu is unimpressed. Eventually, well you can probably guess. This story is charming and fun. You can’t help but root for this hapless young woman.

Below is a part of Devil Beside You taken from You Tube.  It starts out pretty corny but it gets a little more interesting as it goes on.  Rainie Yang is a popular singer in Taiwan she's singing the song "Ai mei" (which translates as "Ambiguous" in English).  The Title song is by Huang Yi Da it is called "Chou Nan Ren"  (loosely translates to English as "The Jerk.")  Actually, I think this is the best of all the dramas I watched in my quest to learn to listen.