What is the Hungry Ghost Festival?

Love Halloween? Well, China has its own version, celebrated this year on September 2nd: the Hungry Ghost Festival (中元节 Zhōng Yuán Jié ). It is in fact just one day in a whole month where the gates of Hell are open and the dead walk among us…

Read on to find out more!

In Beijing people often burn paper money for the ghosts on the streets

The Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, and likely originated before Buddhism arrived in China. For example, in Taoism, China’s indigenous philosophy, it was believed that on the first day of the seventh month the dead were released from hell to punish criminals. But early Buddhist scriptures seem to have influenced it. They tell the story of one of Buddha’s disciples. After attaining a certain level of knowledge, he discovered that his deceased mother had been reborn into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was starving. When he asked the Buddha how he could feed her, the Buddha told him that by making offerings to the monastic community in the period around the end of the monsoon season (which in India is late summer) the benefits would be transferred to the deceased parents. 

Burning gold ingots made of paper

It’s at this time, during the seventh lunar month, that it is believed the gates of Hell are open, hence it is named Ghost Month (鬼月 Guǐ Yuè). On the first day of the month (August 19th in 2020) the ghosts pour out of Hell and swarm around looking for food and fun things to do – so traditionally people would avoid putting themselves at risk at this time; no swimming or walking alone after dark during this month! In fact, there are many taboos which tend to be  adhered to more in countries where traditions are stronger than here on the Mainland (Malaysia, Singapore etc). For example, you shouldn’t look under altars at this time, as the hungry ghosts might be feasting under there and resent being disturbed!

To keep the ghosts happy, people burned money for their ancestors and made offerings of food and incense, particularly on the first, middle and final days of the month. The ancient Chinese believed that by burning paper representations of real objects their dead ancestors would receive the actual goods – money, a house etc – for use in the afterlife. 

Performers prepare for a getai

On the middle day of the month, the festival itself, there were large meals and performances called getai  (歌台 gē tái) which included comedy, singing, dancing and opera. The front row of chairs in the audience was always left empty so the ghosts could get the best view!

What made the ghosts leave on the final day of the month? More offerings were made in temples so the dead had plenty of money to use once they returned to the afterlife. Monks chanted loudly to drive the ghosts away. And in some places, lanterns were floated down the river on tiny wooden rafts with the names of the dead on them; the ghosts were thought to follow the lights. When the lanterns was extinguished it meant that the ghosts had finally returned to the afterlife… until the next year!

The front row of seats at this Singapore getai are reserved for ghosts

Have you seen anyone burning offerings for Ghost Month since August 19th? Will you be doing anything to celebrate this festival? Let us know in the comments below! 

Photo Credits
– Cultural Keys; The Sun Daily; Flickr user Momofuko Ando

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