Like many cultures around the world, Chinese people observe important customs surrounding the dead and their spirits. In Chinese tradition, it is believed that unsettled spirits leave their realm to visit the living in the seventh month of the lunar calendar.
During this so-called Ghost Month, there is a main festival day called the Hungry Ghost Festival.
What is the Hungry Ghost Festival?
The Hungry Ghost Festival (盂蘭節, pronounced yu lan jit) is a festival celebrated in East Asia that focuses on paying tribute to the spirits of ancestors as well as other strange ghosts as they wander the physical realm. Ritual practices are observed during the entire seventh lunar month, which is also called Ghost Month (鬼月, pronounced gwai yut). The 15th day of the lunar month is considered the apex of the festival period.
In 2021, Ghost Month is from August 8 to September 6 and the main festival night falls on Sunday, August 22.
This special time, called Zhongyuan Festival in Taoism and Yulan Festival in Buddhism, may seem similar to Halloween as it’s a festival about ghosts. But in fact, East Asian people believe that during this month the gates of the afterlife open and troubled ghosts wander around the streets of the living.
As the spirits roam the physical world, they visit their descendants because they haven’t received a proper send-off or been remembered well enough after their death. During the entire month, there are ceremonies and rituals to appease, feed, and entertain these spirits. Along with providing offerings like food and faux money, people also avoid doing certain things in order to avoid upsetting the ghosts.
People practice these customs out of tradition to keep the relations between the living and the dead peaceful and to help the spirits pass back into their own realm. There isn’t an entirely documented history that clearly lays out the origins of this festival, but these are the basic principles behind the ritual practices. Today, people still hold the principles to be true and follow the rituals as they’ve been taught to.
Origins of the festival
Different origin stories for this festival time are told: the Mu Lian story is common in Chinese Buddhism and the story of ghost trials is a well-known story in Taoism.
In the Buddhist origin story, a close disciple of Syakamuni Buddha named Mu Lian helped save his mother from hell. His mother, a vegetarian, was sentenced to hell when she accidentally drank soup cooked with meat. Mu Lian cared for his deceased mother and tried to look for her in the afterlife by offering food to her. However, the food was taken away by hungry ghosts around her. He sought help from Buddha, who taught Mu Lian to chant and give sacrificial offerings in order to descend to hell and help his mother. People are touched by the kindness exemplified in this story and follow the offering ritual as a blessing to their ancestors.
In Taoism, the 15th day of the seventh lunar month is the judgment day for ghosts. It is believed that the judge of the lower realm gathers all spirits together and looks through their records to check who was kind or evil during their earthly lives. Ghosts with lesser sins would receive forgiveness, while ghosts with serious sins might suffer punishment and not be reincarnated. Ritual ceremonies are performed by the living family members of the ghosts in the hope that the judge offers them mercy.
During the Hungry Ghost Festival, rituals and special ceremonies are observed to pay tribute to unknown ghosts to avoid angering them and provoking them to play pranks on the living, but also to show reverence and pay respect to the spirits of your own ancestors. Families usually serve food on the memorial tables in their homes to ask for their ancestors’ blessings as they believe the dead are looking after them in spiritual forms.
Other common rituals people do during this time include burning incense and joss paper, which are paper products such as hell bank notes, clothing, cars, or other things ancestors enjoyed in paper form as a way to transfer them to the afterlife. Crowds gather at night to watch Chinese opera performances held at temporary bamboo structures decorated with lights. People also release paper lanterns on water, signifying guiding the ghosts back to the afterlife.
On the festival night, locals have a feast and leave an empty seat at the dining table as a symbol for their lost members. These rituals are believed to calm the ghosts as they wander and allow their ancestors to live a better afterlife.
Behaviours to avoid
There are certain taboo behaviours people will make sure not to do to avoid provoking the ghosts or incurring bad luck. For example, people usually:
- Avoid telling ghost stories.
- Avoid touching food offerings and apologize if you accidentally knock them over.
- Avoid scheduling significant events during this time, like starting a new business, getting married, or moving into a new home.
- Avoid leaving money on the street as it is believed to be a bribe to the guards at the underworld’s entrance, which will be counted as a mark against you during your final judgement.
- Avoid taking the last transportation of the day.
- Avoid taking photos at night.
- Avoid standing chopsticks upright in your bowl when eating as this considered an invitation to the ghosts.
- Avoid wearing red and black clothing.
- Avoid sleeping next to or facing a mirror.
How other Asian cultures celebrate?
Festivals with similar themes and rituals to the Hungry Ghost Festival are also celebrated in other Asian cultures. In Taiwan, the lighting ceremony on grand temporary bamboo structures lasts for a few days during the Zhongyuan Ghost Festival in Keelung to show respect to deceased ancestors. These structures are also the site of operas and grand feasts.
In Japan, similar beliefs and rituals encapsulate the Bon Festival. Japanese people create food offerings named syouryouuma, which are sculptures of cucumbers or eggplants with wooden stick legs made to resemble a horse or cow to symbolize the spirits being transported between two worlds.
In Indonesia, there is an ancestor worship festival called Ma’nene. Known as a cleansing ritual, locals clean, groom, and dress their ancestors’ corpses with new, expensive clothing as a way to show remembrance to their deceased family members.
Where to see the festivities this year
- Victoria Park Hungry Ghost Festival ceremony (Victoria Park, Causeway Bay, 2 Sept 2021)
- Hungry Ghost temple rituals & Chinese opera (Yuen Da temple, San Ha St, Chai Wan, entire month of Aug)
- Chiu Chow music concert (Yuen Da Temple, San Ha St, Chai Wan, every Thurs night from Aug 8 to Sep 6)