An exhibition on death and its ghosts enchants visitors and haunts religious people in Taiwan

Chinese vampires, evil Japanese or Thai spirits… The exhibition on the Asian underworld arouses, by its success, the anger of Christians and Taoists.

Jumping vampires from China, decapitated heads and detached organs that gravitate in the air… These attractions of an exhibition in Taiwan draw crowds, to the chagrin of religious groups who, outraged, call for the cancellation of the show. Ticket sales had to be suspended twice on opening day to prevent the Tainan Art Museum on the island’s southwest coast from being over capacity. Thousands lined up, hoping to shudder at the gory exhibit titled: Asian hells and their ghosts.

It includes traditional objects, works of art and popular culture on life after death in different Asian cultures. Much of it was borrowed from a French museum, the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac.

The main attraction: three human-sized Chinese vampires, jumping at regular intervals. They are supposed to represent revived bodies, whose stiffened limbs can only move by hopping. Visitors imitate their movements, arms outstretched, hands dangling. “I expected a lot of people to come, but not that there would be such a crowd”reacts to AFP Lin Yu-chun, director of the museum.

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According to her, the Covid-19 pandemic has given prominence to discussions of death in Taiwanese society in recent years, even though the subject remains generally taboo in Chinese culture.

Western ghosts tend to have an austere air, like the vampire.

Lin Yu-chun, director of the museum

“Many of us were directly affected and had to face death”she notes. “I have never seen so many people here, not since the start of the pandemic”says Su, a saleswoman whose shaved ice stall is next to the museum. “The queue had to be at least a kilometer long”she says.

Inside, depictions of ghosts from Thailand like the krasue, a bodiless female ghoul whose glowing viscera dangle below a floating head, as well as drawings of Japanese evil spirits and works by Taiwanese artists can be seen. “Asian ghosts tend to be more female, there are more ghosts that are female”explains the director of the museum, while “Western ghosts tend to have an austere air, like the vampire”.

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Anger and superstition

If the exhibition fascinates the public, it is not the same for religious groups who did not hesitate to criticize it. A Christian church in northern Taiwan has called for the exhibition to be cancelled, saying it “defiled the land and the people”, local media reported. Other groups, including some from Taoist temples, have accused her of spreading superstition.

According to local media, the museum has prepared a thousand charms to distribute to visitors to protect them from bad luck. Tony Lyu, a policeman in his twenties, visited the exhibition on the same day as AFP. The exhibition made him think, he says. “I will try not to do bad things from now on because of fear” to go to hell, he laughs.

Zora Sung, 25, a laboratory technician at a hospital in the capital, is “moved and (…) a little touched”. For her, “hell is also a part of our culture that we must try to understand”.

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