By Fang-Long Shih
Co-Director, LSE Taiwan Research Programme
25 January 2013
Recently, a sensationalist news source in Taiwan called Next Magazine (Yi Zhoukan) published a story about betting shops in a street called Shijia East Road in Taichung city, Taiwan. The shops were reported to be taking bets on how long they expected certain terminally-ill individuals to survive, and it is said that the street is now known as "Death Gambling Street". Although this was only a small story in Taiwan, it has received international media attention in English, including the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, and the London Times.
There has been some suggestion that this is something to do with the culture and rituals surrounding death and dying in Taiwan. However, most Taiwanese people were unaware of the story until it was reported on television that the police were investigating, and when they heard about it they were shocked and regarded such behaviour as immoral.
As a researcher who has worked on death practices and culture in Taiwan for more than a decade, I am not convinced that this behaviour has anything to with rituals and culture in Taiwan. In fact, this behaviour goes against traditional Taiwanese values of filial piety and the practice of venerating elders. Also, in most cases the terminally-ill persons on whom bets are made have sons and daughters and grandchildren, which means that they will have status as ancestors in the afterlife. This kind of gambling grossly violates this traditional value and practice.
In order to understand why this phenomenon has appeared, we need to understand socio-economic change in Taiwan since the late 1980s. Rapid changes have occurred, including a transition to democracy from a forty-year period of martial law, and Taiwan has increasingly become part of the global capitalist world. Old social relations based on kin, neighbourhood, and localities have gradually been replaced by new social networks which are mostly related to money, jobs, and cities. So, Taiwan’s traditions of ancestor worship and filial piety are in decline.
Also, an illegal lottery known as Dajiale ("Everybody Happy") became popular in the late 1980s. At that time, many more gamblers began to worship ghosts to seek winning lottery numbers. They worshipped ghosts rather than gods because their request was not one that gods in community temples would answer, since it would be against traditional moral principles. However, in Chinese religious culture ghosts, in contrast to ancestors, are the spirits of people who have died without having descendants, or who for some reason broke the link with their lineages and social groups. In other words, ghosts are unidentifiable and regarded as the manifestation of anomaly in the family system. As such, nobody has an obligation to take care of them after they die, and ghosts are therefore homeless and miserable, wandering in the living world and haunting people for a better lot.
Despite this understanding, ghost worship fitted the logic of the market, providing utilitarian help to individuals in exchange for material payments. Indeed, there are cases where the ghostly deity is punished for failing to predict the correct lottery number, and its statue is desecrated by mutilation. This in turn has led to the creation of new temples, where these abandoned statues are repaired and lodged after being rescued.
This breakdown of religious tradition has now gone further, and this new phenomenon of making bets on when a terminally ill patient will die should be regarded as an extension of an already existing gambling phenomenon, in which the capricious nature of profit leads to the abandonment of traditional values.
This new practice also needs to be understood in terms of declining conditions in healthcare, social welfare, and increasing economic uncertainty in Taiwan. This has left room for gamblers to take advantage of vulnerable people to make profit for themselves, but their behaviour exists within the same climate that has seen global tax evasion and cuts in social welfare for vulnerable people. These issues are fundamentally related to a wider issue of neo-liberalism that confronts not only people in Taiwan but also people in other parts of the world.
For further information, see Fang-long Shih (2010), 'Chinese “Bad Death” Practices in Taiwan: Maidens and Modernity', Mortality, 15 (2): 122–137.
Rescued statues of deities placed in a new temple shelter
Picture copyright Fang-Long Shih