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The Haunting Fetus

The Haunting Fetus: Abortion, Sexuality, and the Spirit World in Taiwan

Marc L. Moskowitz
Copyright Date: 2001
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  • Book Info
    The Haunting Fetus
    Book Description:

    The Haunting Fetus focuses on the belief in modern Taiwan that an aborted fetus can return to haunt its family. Although the topic has been researched in Japan and commented on in the Taiwanese press, it has not been studied systematically in relation to Taiwan in either English or Chinese. This fascinating study looks at a range of topics pertaining to the belief in haunting fetuses, including abortion, sexuality, the changing nature of familial power structures, the economy, and traditional and modern views of the spirit world in Taiwan and in traditional Chinese thought. It addresses the mental, moral, and psychological aspects of abortion within the context of modernization processes and how these ramify through historical epistemologies and folk traditions. The author illustrates how images of fetus-ghosts are often used to manipulate women, either through fear or guilt, into paying exorbitant sums of money for appeasement. He argues at the same time, however, that although appeasement can be expensive, it provides important psychological comfort to women who have had abortions as well as a much-needed means to project personal and familial feelings of transgression onto a safely displaced object. In addition to bringing to the surface underlying tensions within a family, appeasing fetus-ghosts, like other dealings with supernatural beings in Chinese religions, allows for atonement through economic avenues. The paradox in which fetus-ghost appeasement simultaneously exploits and assists evinces the true complexity of the issue--and of religious and gender studies as a whole.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6477-4
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    When I was a child my mother showed me a picture of one of her college friend’s sculptures: a life-sized work of a woman in a long evening gown crafted in the medium of snow. It has been over twenty-five years since I saw that picture, yet the image and elegance of the work, rendered all the more beautiful by its ephemerality, still remain vivid in my imagination. This book holds a bit of the same meaning for me as a fixed record of a transitory moment in time. And it is with some apprehension that I relate the story...

  5. 2 Beyond the Percentages: Abortion and Meaning in Taiwan
    (pp. 14-33)

    China’s population, which was approximately 65 million at the beginning of the fifteenth century, more than doubled to 150 million in 1600, reached 583 million in 1953 (Ho 1959: 277–278), and has nearly doubled again to 1.2 billion today. In traditional China, the desire to have fewer children was less one of preference than of survival. Pierre-Etienne Will speaks of the massive population growth in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which contributed to food shortages caused by floods and droughts (1990: 1) when most had a bare subsistence even before the natural disasters struck (1990: 303). He portrays the...

  6. 3 Made in Japan? The First Stages of the Adoption and Adaptation of a Japanese Religious Practice in Taiwan
    (pp. 34-41)

    Almost everyone I have spoken with in Taiwan, including those appeasing fetus ghosts, agrees that fetus-ghost appeasement is a modern import that arrived from Japan in the mid-1970s and grew substantially in the mid-1980s. Those who condemn the practice assert that religious entrepreneurs adopted the Japanese practice in order to exploit women who feel guilty about their abortions. Most of those who are sympathetic to the practice also acknowledge that it came from Japan during the same time period. In the following pages I will outline the emergence of this belief in Taiwan and briefly compare and contrast it to...

  7. 4 Fetus Ghosts and Traditional Beliefs in Taiwan
    (pp. 42-46)

    Fetus-ghost appeasement is in some ways an extension of more traditional religious conceptions, while in other ways it dramatically departs from the past. In the previous chapter I described the Taiwanese adoption and adaptation of this Japanese practice. Yet certain aspects of the belief are a better fit with traditional beliefs in Taiwan than in Japan. For example, in Japan when a spirit haunts a person, it is usually the ghost of a stranger; rarely is it the spirit of a relative (Ohnuki-Tierney 1984: 80). In contrast, in the traditional Chinese conception of the spirit world, disgruntled relatives’ ghosts are...

  8. 5 The Haunting Fetus
    (pp. 47-76)

    This quotation describes an experience typical of women who have been afflicted by fetus-ghost hauntings. Feeling anxious but unsure of the reason, ill with no explanation, women often turn to spirit mediums, fortunetellers, and Daoist and Buddhist masters for help. Like countless others, this woman hoped and believed that the soul of her aborted fetus would be given another life as her offspring so that they could fulfill their fate together as mother and child in an environment that would be better for both of them. Thus, she gains the psychological benefit of not killing life but postponing it, thereby...

  9. 6 Written and Visual Media
    (pp. 77-93)

    In the previous chapter I outlined six different personas of fetus ghosts and used examples from urban myth, people’s own accounts, newspaper articles, and morality tracts. I now turn to visual media and other written accounts of the ghost. These accounts provide a further illustration of the diversity of portrayals of fetus ghosts. Also, as did the morality tracts I have already presented, these accounts help to shape people’s views of the spirit and provide potential appeasers with conceptual frameworks of how one should deal with the ghost.

    A movie came out in the early 1980s entitledYingling(Ding n.d.)....

  10. 7 Religious Masters and Their Temples
    (pp. 94-114)

    Twenty years ago, Taiwan could for all intents and purposes have been called a third-world country. Thriving on agriculture, the rural village was the home of most families in Taiwan. Today, the urban landscape is spreading: skyscrapers, Western suits and prices, traffic jams, and the all-important 7-Eleven store on every third block are taken for granted as natural parts of life. Taiwan has experienced a frenzied modernization that is hard to describe or even to comprehend. Yet amid all these changes traditional temples tucked in corners and alleys remain; one cannot walk more than ten minutes in any direction without...

  11. 8 Illness, Healing, and the Limitations of Fetus-Ghost Appeasement
    (pp. 115-130)

    Often a person’s refusal to seek Western medical treatment in favor of traditional medicine or religious solutions is seen as illogical or even superstitious. Gananeth Obeyesekere, for example, maintains that we underestimate Taiwanese peasants when we assume that they are unable to use “simple instrumental rationality” in making the choice to visit Western practitioners (Obeyesekere 1975: 421). Yet I suggest that quite often it is precisely instrumental rationality that leads many Taiwanese to seek other options. Arthur Kleinman’s study, for example, lists fairly comparable results for medical and religious healing systems; 86 percent of patients treated by physicians reported improvement...

  12. 9 Sexuality and the Haunting Fetus
    (pp. 131-149)

    Continuous motifs in this evolving analysis of fetus ghosts have been the guilt experienced by the living, the censure expressed by some outside commentators, and the anger often attributed to the ghosts themselves. Important to all three of these is a concern about sexual excess and sex merely for pleasure. This chapter will therefore focus on the traditional Chinese and modern Taiwanese fear of sexual excess and the ways in which this fear plays itself out in beliefs concerning fetus ghosts. Intertwined with fear one can see shifts and tensions in the relationship between the individual and society. My analysis...

  13. 10 Blood-Drinking Fetus Demons: Greed, Loathing, and Vengeance through Sorcery in Taiwan
    (pp. 150-165)

    Who could argue? This chapter addresses the as yet unstudied subject of sorcerers who feed “fetus demons” (xiaogui) human blood in order to enslave the spirits. In the following pages I will describe the new growth of fetus-demon sorcery in Taiwan and discuss the religious imagery that surrounds the belief in relation to abortion, capitalism, and the urban environment.

    The majority of scholarly work done on sorcery and witchcraft has focused on accusations directed at people who may or may not have actually engaged in the practice. In part this must derive from our own history of witchcraft, in which...

  14. 11 Conclusion: Fetus Spirits and the Commodification of Sin
    (pp. 166-170)

    Part of the difficulty, and the interest, of writing on this subject has been the fact that for every rule there is at least one exception. Yet some conceptions of the spirit are prevalent enough that they can, as a general rule, be used to describe the ghost. In Taiwan, Buddhist gods are a larger presence than Daoist gods despite the fact that the number of Daoist temples engaging in fetus-ghost appeasement are equal to and probably greater than Buddhist temples that do so. Fetus ghosts are usually thought to grow older in the spirit world but to stop at...

  15. Appendix. Dragon Lake Temple’s Red Contract
    (pp. 171-174)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 175-184)
  17. Glossary
    (pp. 185-186)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 187-198)
  19. Index
    (pp. 199-206)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 207-207)