The (Hungry) Ghost Festival (中元节, zhōngyuán jié) is a Buddhist and Taoist festival held on the 15th night of the 7th month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Tradition claims that the 7th month of the lunar calendar is ghost month, where ghosts and the spirits of your dead ancestors come back to earth to visit the living. Ghost Day is when the gates of Heaven and Hell are open and rituals (such as presenting the deceased with food, burning incense and fake money or luxury items) are performed to make the ancestors’ existence in the afterlife easier.
While there are other festivals venerating one’s dead ancestors, Ghost Festival honors all the dead and shows lost ghosts and spirits directions so they can go to Heaven. Since this year’s Ghost Festival falls on August 17th, i.e. this week, let’s use this chance to have a look at this lesser-known Chinese festival.
The reason that this Buddhist holiday is called Hungry Ghost Festival is that Buddha instructed one of his disciples, Maudgalyāyana, how to liberate his mother by making food offerings on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month. Maudgalyāyana’s mother had been greedy and unkind when alive and was thus reborn into a hungry ghost. Hungry ghosts are spirits with impossibly big bloated bellies but very narrow throats, so that no food can pass through them and they have to continually starve – hence the name hungry ghosts. They must have looked something like this:
So Maudgalyāyana decided to help out his mom in trying to achieve a more cushy existence in her future reincarnations. To do so, he started feeding the hungry ghosts ritualistic food on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month by placing pieces of food onto a clean plate, blessing the food by reciting a mantra 7 times, snapping his fingers to attract the ghosts’ attention and then emptying the food out onto clean ground. Apparently, it worked, because in her next reincarnation, his mom was “upgraded” from a hungry ghost to the dog of a noble family. How’s that for a promotion?
This story has translated into the practice of giving offerings of food, burning fake bank notes or papier-mâché items (like miniature houses, TVs, cars etc.) and lighting incense on Hungry Ghost Festival.
Additionally, there are different traditions around China for this holiday. One is to light lanterns in the form of lotuses and let them float down rivers or onto the sea. These lanterns are meant to guide the lost souls of the deceased into the hereafter. Buddhist and Taoist temples will hold relief ceremonies for the ghosts in the evening, when the ghosts are free to enter the world of the living.
In some parts of Southern China and outside the mainland, people also put on theater or Chinese opera performances where the first row of seats remain empty for the “ghostly audience” for which the display is intended.
There are many superstitions attached to Hungry Ghost Festival. Since the spirits roam the earth that night, you should avoid spending time outside by yourself and also avoid swimming lest the especially nasty water ghosts get a hold of you. If you forget to take in your things from the clothesline outside, the spirits might cling to your clothes and thereby enter your house.
The same goes for coins you find on the ground – leave them there at least until the festival is over. A braver person might have picked them up by then, but better being out an extra RMB than tracking a ghost back into your home, right?
We already mentioned that there will be quite a number of incense and offerings lying around the streets to honor and help the spirits. Take care not to scatter them when walking or even kick them over, as this will annoy the ghosts. Well, you would probably also object if someone kicked your TV or trampled your food, so no surprise there. Chinese ghosts really like the color red, so try not to wear red clothing around Ghost Festival if you do not want to attract the beasties’ attention.
A more modern superstition is that if you take selfies or videos on that night, ghosts might appear in them. So my challenge to you: take selfies and shoot videos on August 17th and then report back to us in the comments below if you were able to capture any hungry ghosts! Booooooooo!
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Written by Julie Marx