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The Chinese Ghost Festival: Origins, Customs, and Facts

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Ced earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.

“Hell money” for burning during the Chinese Ghost Festival.

“Hell money” for burning during the Chinese Ghost Festival.

The Chinese Ghost Festival

Smoky ashes, scattered paper offerings, and colorful street performances. These are common occurrences in Chinese cities every seventh lunar month.

Believed to be the month when spirits of the deceased are permitted to visit the mortal realm, the lunar seventh month is also a time of many taboos. Few Chinese, for example, will opt to marry or undergo surgery during this period.

In turn, the fifteenth day of the month is considered the most significant. Referred to in Taoism as Zhongyuan Jie (中元节), this is said to be the day to pray for absolution of sins, specifically, those of deceased ancestors.

Over time, rituals observed during the lunar seventh month developed important social functions as well. In modern cities like Singapore, “seventh-month” rituals and dinners are regularly attended by politicians. Such events are considered among the most important community events each year.

The festival is furthermore considered one of the Four Great Chinese Ancestral Festivals.

For 2021, the Chinese Ghost festival takes place on August 22.

For 2021, the Chinese Ghost festival takes place on August 22.

The Festival Is Both 30 Days and Just One Day

Strictly speaking, the Chinese Ghost Festival takes place on the fifteenth day of the Chinese seventh lunar month. However, the entire seventh month is also regarded by the Chinese as the ghost month (鬼月; guiyue), i.e., the time when spirits are allowed to visit the mortal realm.

Rituals and prayers happening on any day other than the fifteenth are therefore widely considered acceptable. Correspondingly, in some literature, the festival could also refer to all 30 days of the seventh month.

The Fourteenth Instead of the Fifteenth

Some Southern Chinese “celebrate” the festival on the fourteenth instead of the fifteenth, the most notable example being Hong Kong. In Hong Kong horror movies, the “spookiest” day of the ghost month is always stated as the fourteenth.

A community altar during the Ghost Festival. The poster above the altar says “celebrating Zhongyuan”

A community altar during the Ghost Festival. The poster above the altar says “celebrating Zhongyuan”

In Taoism, the Festival Is Called “Zhongyuan Jie”

In the Taoist pantheon, the San Guan (三官) are three high-ranking officials whose positions are second only to the Jade Emperor. Respectively, they are the:

  • Tian Guan (天官): The Official of Heaven who bestows happiness.
  • Di Guan (地官): The Official of the Earth who can pardon sins.
  • Shui Guan (水官): The Official of Water who can assist with averting misfortunes.

The birthdays of these important deities are additionally on the fifteenth day of the first, seventh, and tenth lunar months, respectively, with all three dates also referred to as the San Yuan (三元).

In the case of Di Guan, his birthday came to be known as Zhongyuan (中元); the Chinese character 中 means middle. With his power to pardon sins, Di Guan is correspondingly prayed to on his birthday for the forgiveness of sins, particularly those of deceased ancestors.

Originally a Harvest Festival?

Of note, Zhongyuan celebrations/rituals existed as early as the Han Dynasty. However, ancient historical annals such as Shi Ji described the festival instead as a day of gratitude towards agricultural gods. One that takes place at the end of summer.

The festival is believed to have evolved into its current form after the introduction of Buddhism into China. Taoist “content,” so to speak, was integrated into the Buddhist day to alleviate the suffering of the dead.

Some stricter Chinese Buddhists do not burn paper offerings for the dead during “Menglan Jie.” Only symbolic gestures, such as prayers and lit lamps, are offered.

Some stricter Chinese Buddhists do not burn paper offerings for the dead during “Menglan Jie.” Only symbolic gestures, such as prayers and lit lamps, are offered.

In Chinese Buddhism, the Festival Is Called “Menglan Jie”

According to the Yulanpen Sutra, Maudgalyayana, or Mujianlian (目犍連) in Chinese, achieved superior knowledge after studying under Gautama Buddha. He then resolved to use his new powers to locate his deceased mother.

Mujianlian succeeded in his quest, but to his despair, his mother has been reborn as a hungry ghost, or Preta, because of her sins. Worse, when Mujianlian tried to offer her food, his mother could not eat any. All food that touches her hands transforms into ambers.

Deeply distressed, Mujianlian sought advice from the Buddha and was told the only way to save his mother is to offer alms to the monastic community. Only through the combined efforts of the monastic community could the suffering deceased be saved.

Mujianlian adopted his master’s advice and did as told. Grateful for Mujianlian’s gesture, the monks then prayed for salvation for Mujianlian’s mother, ultimately freeing her from her punishment.

Over time, this practice of praying for the suffering dead also became ensconced in Chinese culture, particularly on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. Today, the fifteenth day is also known as Menglan Jie (盂兰节), or Menglan Festival. Menglan being the Chinese name for the Yulanpen Sutra.

The Festival Is Also Known as the Hungry Ghost Festival in English

The Buddhist origin of the festival resulted in the festival also called the Hungry Ghost Festival in English. In some countries, this macabre name is even used in travel literature. To give an example, the Singapore Tourism Board regularly promotes the annual “Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations” as a major cultural event.

In spoken or written Chinese, though, this alternate name is rarely used, if at all. The Chinese term for “hungry ghost” carries severe negative connotations. It is often also used to mock shamelessly greedy people.

No Chinese would thus want to refer to deceased ancestors this way; doing so immediately implies one’s lineage is disgraceful. Needless to say, no one would want to offend wandering spirits with such an offensive term too.

Chinese Ghost Festival prayer items left at the roadside.

Chinese Ghost Festival prayer items left at the roadside.

Paper Offerings Both Simple and Elaborate Are Burnt

The signature event of the Chinese Ghost Festival is the burning of paper offerings known as Joss Paper. Other than formal prayer rituals, paper offerings are widely burned by the Chinese outside or near their homes. The latter practice is called Shao Jie Yi (燒街衣), which translates to “burning clothes for the deceased at streets.”

In modern times, such paper offerings could get extremely elaborate as well. Everything from jewelry to pets, to cars, to even mini-apartments, are replicated for “burning.: For Non-Chinese, the sight of such otherworldly offerings could be an unforgettable spectacle.

Environmental Concerns

Without surprise, the city-wide burning of paper offerings, all month long, has come under scrutiny in recent years. In response, some governments and religious organizations have been encouraging worshipers to burn lesser, to only burn at designated spots, and to use low emission burners.

Chinese cakes and “longevity buns,” Such food items are commonly seen at community altars during the Chinese Ghost Festival.

Chinese cakes and “longevity buns,” Such food items are commonly seen at community altars during the Chinese Ghost Festival.

Food Offerings Are Left at Communal Altars Throughout the Day

Chinese communities would set up communal altars outside of temples and ancestral halls and maintain these throughout the seventh month. Other than urns for the burning of joss sticks and incense, food offerings such as tea, Chinese candy, cake, occasionally even roasted meat and cooked dishes, would also be food offerings.

Most altars generally welcome donations of joss paper too. What’s collected would then be burned together on a designated day.

Additionally, what’s important to note is that these altars aren’t for the spirits of ancestors. Instead, they are for the “good brothers,” i.e., wandering, forgotten spirits visiting our world throughout the month. Other than an act of charity, the offerings are an exchange for such spirits not creating trouble.

Trivia: “Good brothers,” or hao xiongdi (好兄弟), is synonymous with ghosts in some Chinese dialects.

Colorful Street Performances Are Common

Other than huge piles of paper offerings being burned, colorful and vibrant street performances are a feature of the Chinese Ghost Festival. In Chinese, these are known as Qiyue Getai (七月歌台).

Typically hosted on makeshift stages, such performances could be traditional or modern. Traditional shows would consist of Chinese opera or puppet performances, while modern ones would feature singers performing popular hits.

Importantly, such performances are not meant for the living. Rather, they are for the entertainment of invisible spirits.

The above said, there are no taboos at all about watching. Performances helmed by popular troupes thus often enjoy huge crowds of “living” audiences year after year.

Many Chinese companies conduct Zhongyuan Jie celebrations. The many food items bought are also thereafter distributed to participating employees.

Many Chinese companies conduct Zhongyuan Jie celebrations. The many food items bought are also thereafter distributed to participating employees.

In Singapore, Seventh Month Community Dinners Are Common

In Singapore, seventh-month community dinners are often hosted together with street performances or prayer rituals. Diners typically pay a fixed sum to attend. Throughout the diner, there would also be auctioning of associated fortune items.

For some Chinese business owners, bringing home certain fortune items each year is also considered crucial for sustained business success.

Furthermore, larger dinners are viewed as important socio-political events, as Members of Parliament or ministers would often be the VIPs. In short, such dinners serve an important socio-political function. Singapore politicians, both elected and aspiring, consider attendance crucial for votes.

The most important Chinese Ghost Festival taboo is to know where NOT to sit during street performances and rituals.

The most important Chinese Ghost Festival taboo is to know where NOT to sit during street performances and rituals.

There Are Many Taboos, but Few Have Historical or Religious Origins

With potentially vengeful, invisible spirits wandering everywhere for an entire month, many taboos are naturally associated with the Chinese Ghost Festival. That said, most are difficult to trace in origin or are local customs. Generally speaking; however, the following are widely observed by Chinese throughout the world.

  • This is the most well-known. The first row of seats at street performances is always left empty for spirits to sit at. Under no circumstances should a person sit at this row.
  • Street offerings, including ashes, should not be messed with. They should only be cleared the next day. (To mess with any is akin to disrupting someone’s meal)
  • Unburnt paper offerings in the streets should not be stepped onto.
  • Needless to say, altars should not be messed with. The underside of altars should not be entered too.
  • Weddings are rarely held. Surgeries and other medical procedures are avoided too.
  • Whenever possible, shifting into new homes and the starting of companies are deferred.
  • Umbrellas should not be opened indoors. In fact, it’s best to leave all umbrellas outside one’s home, as they are believed to be great hiding spots for spirits.

In past decades, the elderly would also warn about venturing out after sunset, or using the word for “ghost,” or going near bodies of water, or wearing black.

However, many such taboos are incompatible with modern lifestyles and work. As such, these taboos are nowadays seldom observed.

VCD cover for Thou Sall Not Swear. Of note, as this is a Hong Kong production, the date indicated is the fourteenth. (See Point 1)

VCD cover for Thou Sall Not Swear. Of note, as this is a Hong Kong production, the date indicated is the fourteenth. (See Point 1)

Many Chinese Horror Movies Were Inspired by the Ghost Festival

Like Halloween in the West, the Chinese Ghost Festival was the basis for several Chinese and Cantonese horror movies over the years. Some notable examples being:

  • Thou Shall Not Swear (七月十四不见不散): Also known as The Halloween Murders, this Hong Kong 1993 horror flick begins and ends on a promise made on the fourteenth day. One that resulted in inexplicable deaths.
  • Believe It or Not (七月又十四信不信由你): A bizarre murder on the night of the fourteenth may or may not be the work of hungry ghosts.
  • Hungry Ghost Ritual (盂兰神功): A reluctant new owner of a performance troupe is besieged by supernatural disturbances. He then tries to appease the spirits with the eponymous prayer ritual.
  • Where Got Ghost? (吓到笑): The third segment of this Singaporean horror-comedy anthology sees three brothers grouching to their deceased mother during annual seventh-month prayers. Mom decides to respond to their complaints.
  • 881: This Singaporean movie is not about the Ghost Festival per se; rather, it’s a celebration of getai, i.e., seventh-month street performance culture. The movie is a showcase of how the festival is celebrated in Singapore.

Similar to Western sitcoms like The Simpsons, long-running Chinese and Cantonese drama series will typically have a “seventh-month” scary episode too. For example, the popular Hong Kong sitcom, Come Home Love: Lo and Behold, will always screen a ghostly episode during the festival.

Obon dancing in Tokyo.

Obon dancing in Tokyo.

Other Asian Countries Have Their Own Version of the Festival

Several Asian countries have their own version of the festival.

In Japan, the festival is celebrated as Obon, and depending on which part of Japan you’re in; the date is either the fifteenth of July or August. Like the Chinese festival, Obon is all about the remembrance of ancestors.

Over in Vietnam, the festival is known as Tết Trung Nguyên and is seen as a day to appease hungry spirits. Some Vietnamese will also release birds and fishes to accumulate religious merits.

Lastly, other Indochina countries such as Thailand and Cambodia each have their own versions of the festival to appease/feeding spirits that have returned to Earth. However, in these countries, the festival takes place in September or October.

Depiction of the Chinese 24 Filial Exemplars. Such paintings are common in Chinese temples venerating gods of the underworld and the deceased.

Depiction of the Chinese 24 Filial Exemplars. Such paintings are common in Chinese temples venerating gods of the underworld and the deceased.

It’s All About Filial Piety and Charity

Regardless of origin story or local rituals, the Chinese Ghost Festival is all about filial piety and charity.

Filial piety, or xiao (孝), is one of the most important virtues in Chinese culture. Not just for one’s parents but also for one’s ancestors.

Likewise, being charitable to the forgotten, the helpless, and the desperate are also imperative. The living or otherwise.

With both virtues still greatly valued by Chinese worldwide, the “celebration” of the Ghost Festival is very likely to continue. The associated colorful customs and street performances will also remain popular for a long time.

Further Reading

What Are China's Horrific Ten Courts of Hell?
Like other cultures, the Chinese view Hell as a place of immense suffering. A ghastly place where sinful souls are tortured for sins committed when alive.

Chinese Gods of Hell – An Introduction and Listing
An introduction to the many gods and deities associated by the Chinese with hell.

References

  • Bloomfield, F. (1993). The Book of Chinese Beliefs. Ballantine Books. ISBN: 0345363590.
  • Sim, C. (2014, July 28). Zhong Yuan Jie (Hungry Ghost Festival). Infopedia. https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_758_2004-12-16.html.
  • Encyclopedia.com. (2021, June 25). ." Encyclopedia of Buddhism. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Jun. 2021 . Encyclopedia.com. https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ghost-festival.
  • Wikimedia Foundation. (2020, October 13). 中元節. Wikipedia. https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E4%B8%AD%E5%85%83%E7%AF%80. [In Chinese]
  • 中元节. 到百科首页. (n.d.). https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E4%B8%AD%E5%85%83%E8%8A%82/22411. [In Chinese]

© 2021 Ced Yong

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