Harried by “Hellions” in Taiwan
Most readers are probably familiar with a number of Asian practices, such as Zen meditation and acupuncture, that have been appropriated by New Agers and others. Some of these practices — acupuncture, qi-gong,1 and traditional Chinese medicine — have received considerable coverage in the skeptical press (Alcock et al. 1988; Kurtz 1988; Zhang 1992; Basser 1994; Holmes 1994; Huston 1995; Beyerstein and Sampson 1996). In this brief space I thought I'd sketch a few other customary practices that touch on the paranormal or pseudoscience in this part of the world.
Many of the practices that one can witness daily in Taiwan, such as the burning of “ghost money” and “god money,” are a mix of folk beliefs and religion. Like our Halloween, there is a day during “ghost month” in the fall in which people put out offerings of food and drink for ghostly hellions on little tables out side their houses.
During the Dragon Boat Festival, held in the late spring, there is usually an egg-balancing contest, but given the following favorable conditions, one wonders how anyone can lose: On that day, “the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, the orbits of the sun moon and earth are perfectly lined up. The interaction of the gravitational forces of the three heavenly bodies lends eggs the unique power of being able to stand up on end without any external support” (Tung 1996a).
As in the West, many Chinese look to the stars for guidance in their lives. Asian astrology, unlike its Western counterpart, uses a twelve-year cycle of signs, based on their own pictures in the sky. Hence the return of the Year of the Ox. But this is only part of the information the compleat fortuneteller uses. Seated beside little tables in the arcades or in the underground passageways, Chinese soothsayers combine one’s star sign with blood type as well as palm and face reading to reveal the future.
Although I rarely see anyone other than teenage girls at the tables, many Chinese do follow the list of astrologically derived dos and don’ts in the equivalent of a farmer’s almanac, found in most businesses and homes. In addition to days for planting and harvesting, some days are said to be good for travel, others for cutting your nails! One of two English-language papers, The China Post, even runs a regular column entitled “Science and Myth” to explain the good and bad-omened days.
True believers here also have to make sure their lives are in line with the wind and water, a practice called “feng-shui” in Chinese. At first glance, feng-shui is a commonsense alignment of structures to conform to the shape of the land, an idea shared by any sensible architect in a land fraught with typhoons and torrential rains. Actually, however, as Stored (1994) and Bruun (1996) point out, it is more of a mystical belief in cosmic harmony. This Chinese geomancy can “explain” one’s good or bad fortune, as well as affect the choice of a site for a new building or a grave. While Tomb Sweeping Day in April is an obvious instance of the intermixing of custom and belief, the desire for south-facing or slightly angled entrances to businesses reflects the combination more subtly. A friend back from the U.S. tells me that a feng-shui expert, or geomancer, was called in to decide the position of a house in Vermont last year (Yen 1996).
Hand in hand with concern over the future and fate is the preoccupation with good health and longevity. Good diet plays its role toward those ends, but the rationale given for consuming certain animal products puts a new twist into the old snake oil. Most worrisome is the use of parts of endangered species, based on the notion that elixirs made of, say, tiger penis or rhino horn will enhance a man’s virility and hence prolong life (Wong 1995). In a slightly different vein, a family reaped the deadly reward of believing that the meat of toads would have “therapeutic effects” when a two-year-old boy died and other family members got seriously ill from eating mom’s toad soup (China Post 1996b). Another man “frequently” told his neighbor that he was drinking motor oil because it “contained a secret medical remedy to cure his liver-related diseases” (China Post 1996a). A strong Chinese belief in noninterference with the private lives of neighbors may have played a role in their inaction as the sixty-four-year-old man finally drank himself to death.
As far as I can tell, people in the Occident aren’t bullish on Asian astrology, nor do I suspect toad soup will be on the menu at Ye Olde Macrobiotic Shoppe any time soon. But acupuncture, Chinese herbal elixirs, and now feng-shui have made their way to many lands outside the Orient. Can the old Chinese almanac be far behind?
- Pronounced “chee-gong,” Storey (1994, 23) calls it a kind of faith healing; Zhu and Penny (1994) report a “resurgence” on the mainland.
- Alcock, J., et al. 1988. Testing psi claims in China: Visit by a CSICOP delegation. Skeptical Inquirer 12 (4), Summer: 364-75.
- Basser, S. 1994. Acupuncture: The facts. Rocky Mountain Skeptic 11 (5), January/ February: 1, 4,6-7, 10-12,15.
- Beyerstein, B. L., and W. Sampson. 1996. Traditional medicine and pseudoscience in China: A report of the second CSICOP delegation (Part 1). Skeptical Inquirer 20 (4), July/August: 18-26.
- Bruun, O. 1996. The fengshui resurgence in China: Conflicting cosmologies between state and peasantry. The China Journal, no.36, July. China Post 1996a. Man dies from drinking lubricant as tonic. June 14, n.p.
- China Post 1996b. Toddler dies, family ill from toad soup. July 31, p. 16.
- Holmes, T. 1994. Chee’s sandwich, etc. Taiwan Skeptics, September: 1-2.
- Huston, P. 1995. China, chi, and chicanery. Skeptical Inquirer 19 (5), September/ October: 38-42, 58.