Remembering Tragic Spirits: The Worship of Nationalist and Communist War Dead in Kinmen

Written by Junbin Tan.

Image credit: Roadside worship of nationalist and communist war dead at Beishan, Guningtou on the 8th day of the 7th lunar month (August 15), 2021. Photo taken by author.

“These streets were once littered with corpses, stained with the blood of soldiers from the blue and red armies,” Mr Li Young-Sun said as we stood before a group of villagers at Beishan (北山) village, Guningtou (古寧頭) as they presented food offerings to these soldiers’ spirits. As many would know, Kinmen was the Republic of China’s (ROC Taiwan) battlefront against the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from 1949 to the 1990s. Thus, the residents of Guningtou, a cluster of villages a short drive from Kinmen’s north-western shoreline where one could see Xiamen’s skyscrapers, were first-hand witnesses of battles, artillery bombardments, and decades of militarisation.

Guningtou was where fierce battles ensued between the “blue” nationalist and “red” communist forces in the Chinese Civil War. In October 1949, communist troops landed on Guningtou’s shore, captured Kinmen’s northwest, and set up their temporary headquarters at a western-style bungalow at Beishan. Their troops continued southward but suffered enormous casualties. They were forced to regroup at Beishan, where the battle ended. The nationalists eventually won, marking their first victory in a series of humiliating defeats that forced their retreat to Taiwan. Kinmen became ROC’s battlefront against the PRC, initially for its quest to reconquer China, for the next half-century. Over 6,000 men died in the Guningtou battle, men who, as we shall see, could never be said to belong to either political “sides.”

It is 4pm on the 8th day of the 7th lunar month at Beishan: Over a hundred baskets and trays were neatly arranged on the pavement, filled with bowls and plates of cakes, steamed white rice, stir-fried vegetables, meat and seafood, soup, and other delicacies. Tall stacks of paper money were placed beside. I had earlier accompanied Beishan’s villagers as they walked a short distance to that very road—once covered in blood, now coated in black tar—that leads outside the village. On one end of this road was that bungalow, riddled with bullet holes and kept in a state of disrepair. The bungalow now serves as one of Guningtou’s war tourism highlights. Indeed, villagers unloaded their baskets by the roadside and waited by an elementary school on the other side. Paper money was arranged into a circular column to be burned and offered. Gongs and drums sounded, which I followed to a temple nearby. There, the Emperor of Dark Heavens (玄天上帝) descended upon his spirit medium and instructed a village elder to begin the ritual feast. 

Men then rushed out to inform the villagers to begin their worship of the “good brothers,” who, the medium said, were already waiting by the roadside. Beishan’s villagers mumbled some words and bowed a few times, facing outside the village with incense sticks in their hands. The incense sticks were then stuck into each bowl and plate of food and in stacks of paper money so spirits could begin to consume these offerings. The paper money is then burned alongside those in the circular pit. While we waited for the paper money to burn, to my surprise, I heard from Mr Li that the “good brothers” who villagers were worshipping included not only nationalist soldiers but also communist ones. In fact, I heard from others that they were primarily communist!

For the entire 7th month, “lonely spirits and wild ghost” (孤魂野鬼), also called “good brothers” (好兄弟), leave the underworld, and are allowed to roam freely. Men who lost their lives in war or inter-territorial fighting are also called “respected elders” (老大公). “Universal salvation” (普渡) ceremonies are held, and rituals are conducted all over Kinmen to deliver these souls from suffering so they can reincarnate and to ask of them not to cause trouble. Many of these communities in Kinmen’s northwest also prepare feasts like the one I described. These rituals and feasts, interlocutors said, are catered for individuals who suffered tragic or untimely deaths and those who are not worshipped. The former speaks to Chinese beliefs on the fullness of life, from birth to marriage to old age, and the latter to one’s continued existence after death, worshipped as an ancestor by one’s children. Denial of a full life, in deaths from accidents and childbirth, and absence of worship, for example, when individuals are childless or away from their families, create them as wild ghosts who are not cared for. 

Soldiers who died in the war, many young and childless, displaced from families in China, and not worshipped, are the most poignant of images that Kinmenese hold of “wild ghosts.” Moreover, many “soldiers” are, in fact, not military trained but were recruited by force from different parts of China during the ROC army’s retreat and the CCP army’s chase down south. They had not joined voluntarily but were captured and made to fight. Some areas in Kinmen’s southeast decided against holding universal salvation ceremonies this year due to government-issued Covid-19 warnings. But ceremonies and feasts are still conducted in the northeast, where countless deaths occurred. The villagers insisted on these ritual practices who felt the worship of war ghosts to be necessary. Some communities’ gods had even decreed that these ceremonies be conducted. 

Countless lives were lost during the 1949 Guningtou Battle. Over 1000 nationalist soldiers were buried at a mass grave near the spot where the Guningtou Battle Museum stands, and a Shrine of a Thousand Virtues’ (萬善祠) was erected to worship them. They were later exhumed and reburied at the Mount Taiwu Martyrs’ Shrine (太武山烈士公墓) when it was completed in 1952. Nationalist soldiers also appeared in the dreams of Kinmenese, requesting that they be worshipped. No less than 35 “patriotic general temples” (愛國將軍廟) were built in communities across Kinmen to pray to nationalist soldiers. The most notable of these is the General Li Guang Qian Temple. A ceremony is held each year, during which military officers and local politicians arrive to pay their respects and offer incense. Nationalist soldiers are also memorialised at the Guningtou Battle Museum. The bronze statue of a nationalist soldier charging forward, who locals nicknamed “A Zhong” (loyalty), guards its entrance. Portraits said to portray the battle as it unfolded line the museum’s walkways, of nationalist soldiers attacking communist troops at the shoreline, engaging in warfare in Beishan, and standing proud after the victory. But more than 4,000 communist soldiers also died. The nationalist government held no responsibility for nor commemorated their deaths. Their bodies were, according to locals, hastily buried by the roadside and in the fields at Beishan and nearby villages. 

Beishan’s villagers, like many other Kinmenese who I spoke to, shared with me in low voices, some shaking their heads and with brows furrowed, their thoughts and feelings on offering food to “fallen soldiers.” When they said that most of the war dead prayed to are communist soldiers, they were not only referring to the larger number of communists who died. In a larger cosmological sense, they were also concerned with war dead who are not worshipped–nationalist war ghosts are worshipped, but communists are not. Moreover, they were concerned that calamities would befall their village if these spirits, whose bodies were hastily buried, who are not provided for, and whose deaths are not honoured, unlike the nationalists,’ haunt them. Beyond negative sentiments, however, the “universal salvation” ceremonies for the deliverance of tragic spirits – and the offering of over a hundred bowls and plates of food to wild ghosts – gesture at their generosity and perhaps their commiseration and sympathy for these soldiers. 

Many Kinmenese reasoned, beyond the view offered in national narratives, that the men who lost their lives were neither nationalist nor communists. They were forcibly recruited. In this view, the nationalist soldiers honoured in commemorative rituals could not be said to have “sacrificed” their lives as they had not intentionally joined the war. Because they happened to be recruited by nationalist soldiers, they were honoured in death. “Communist ghosts, however, are “fallen soldiers” in a triple sense. First, they died in war (in English usage). Second, they lost the war (敗將, in the Chinese use of this term). Thirdly, they also died in a land not their own and are denied the right to worship. This is not to mention they were on a side that eventually lost.” Silenced in official history, it is worth thinking about how and why these most tragic of tragic spirits are only offered nominal recognition during ritual feasts such as the one at Beishan.

A bundle of emotions–fear and abhorrence, and pity and sympathy–that escape clear definition thus surround Beishan villagers’ worship, not only of “nationalist” ghosts but also “communist” ones. The affective states and the moral reasonings that these generate cut across political affiliations. Even if conducted for pragmatic reasons such as the placating of dangerous tragic spirits, these rituals create space for remembering and “thinking about” the fates of the men who died and, as unworshipped ghosts, continue to catch up in a fate that they had no control over. In turn, thoughts about the endless suffering they must endure continually remind us of the cruelty of politics and war and our ethical responsibilities towards men and ghosts who became unworshipped spirits (and war heroes) by happenstance. 

Junbin Tan is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Anthropology, Princeton University and visiting researcher at the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica. He is doing fieldwork at Kinmen, ROC (Taiwan) under the Taiwan Fellowship and will likely remain until December 2022. His research interests include Chinese popular religion, ritual, memory, border zones, Taiwan Strait relations, and post-war socialities. He is currently doing fieldwork at Kinmen, from January 2021 to December 2022 

This article was published as part of a special issue on The Outlying Islands.

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