The Hungry Ghost Festival
Halloween is familiar to most people who grew up in the U.S. Largely a festival known for groups of children wandering local neighborhoods dressed up in colorful, themed costumes and feasting on candy, adults also spend time draping artificial cobwebs over front doors and fences, carving pumpkins and decorating haunted houses all to help set the stage. Asian culture has a similar festival, and food is likewise an essential part of the event. However, in the Asian version of Halloween, those present to the feast are invisible to the human eye!
This “Chinese Halloween” is known as the Hungry Ghost Festival. Also known as Zhong yuan jie or Yu lan jie, the holiday falls on the 15th day of the 7th month in the lunar calendar. The 7th month is regarded as the Ghost Month (Gui jie), when restless spirits roam the earth. Commonly celebrated in Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan, the Ghost Month runs from August 3 – August 31 on the western calendar this year.
The Chinese tradition shares the belief that a “hungry ghost” was sent to the underworld to suffer an eternal state of hunger for his or her misdeeds during life, or for not having a proper burial. Once a year, the gates of hell are opened and these spirits are given the opportunity to satisfy some of their cravings through offerings from the living. Many people also believe that this holiday is a time for deceased family members to return for a visit, similar to Dia de los Muertos in Mexican culture.
Many Chinese people make efforts to appease these transient ghosts. This includes observing superstitions and make offerings of food, money, and entertainment all month long.
What do the living do to appease the dead?
Burn incense paper and paper replicas of daily needs and wants
Burning piles of fake money and paper replicas of the houses, electronics, and cars needed by ghosts in their afterlife are common sights during the Ghost Month. Fires are started along streets and roadsides, though in recent years several countries have assigned designated places for safety and environmental reasons.
Leave food offerings for the hungry ghosts
Small plates of food, including fruits, tea leaves and candies can be seen along the roadside for passing ghosts. Children are warned not to touch these items.
Attend a Chinese Opera or Getai
Performances such as the Chinese Opera or the Getai (Song stage) are held in large Chinese communities to praise various Chinese deities and provide entertainment to the dead. Warning! Do not take the empty front row seats as they are reserved for the ghosts.
Prepare a Hungry Ghost Festival feast
It is believed that the bridge between the living and the dead is strongest on the night of the Hungry Ghost Festival’s full moon, which is on August 18th this year. Prepare a large meal to please the ghosts and leave empty seats at the table for deceased family members.
What are some Ghost Month taboos?
It is considered dangerous to go swimming because it is believed that evil spirits that drowned may try to drown the swimmer for a chance at rebirth.
Avoid going out alone at night
Young people in particular should avoid going out alone after sunset as it is believed that the young are more susceptible to being kidnapped by a Hungry Ghost.
Do not pick up incense paper and food offerings on the street
Picking up a hell bank note (incense paper) is considered an insult to the spirits and also a bad omen. As for food offerings, it is considered rude and invasive to touch, steal, or misplace gifts for the dead.
Though the “Chinese Halloween” is associated with many superstitions and taboos, it actually offers a great opportunity to teach the younger generation about caring for those less fortunate. The Chinese tradition belief of “filial piety” is greatly showcased during this holiday. The Hungry Ghost Festival is a time to remind young people to always honor the dead; both elderly family members who have passed on, as well as total strangers deserve respect.