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Buddhist Mass in Ghost Festival

Ghost Month, or Hungry Ghost Month, begins on the full moon of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, usually around mid August, and lasts for 15 days to a month. It is a time when some Chinese believe spirits get a "summer vacation" from the other world and return to the mortal world to cause mischief and enjoy feasts, performances of Chinese opera and other activities. Firecrackers are set off to scare away dangerous ghosts while ancestors are welcomed with bonfire offerings and recitations of Buddhist scripture.

Chinese go out of their to be nice to ghosts and go about their activities with more caution than usual. Many people avoid traveling, moving into new homes, opening businesses, or getting married because ghosts associated with these endevours could cause mischief. People who die during Ghost Month are sometimes stored and buried when Ghost Month is over.

Businessmen dread Ghost Month because people are often reluctant to buy anything; partiers stay home; wives orders their husbands to come home straight form work; and tourists stay away from beach resorts out of fear of being captured by ghosts in the water. The ghost month in 2006 was particularly nasty because it was a calender year with two seventh months, when the gates of hell open and the dead walk among the living twice.

Ghost Month is a Chinese holiday celebrated mostly by Chinese in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong although it is making a come back in China even though it has been denounced by the government as foolish superstition.

Ghosts and Hungry Ghosts in China

On Chinese ghosts Yale historian and China expert Jonathan D. Spence, wrote in New York Review of Books, “The English word “ghost” is not really adequate to catch the range of the Chinese term "gui" that it is meant to encompass demon, ogre, monster, and goblin, as well as the souls of the dead and their apparitions to the living.”The Chinese generally recognize three kinds of ghosts: 1) “orphaned ghosts,” who left no descendants to make offerings to them; 2) “vengeful ghosts,” who have died in an accident or have been angered by some perceived injustice and need to be appeased; and 3) “hungry ghosts,” who have been condemned to their ghostly form for some misdeeds they have done. They usually have huge bellies but small mouths and are so named because they are perpetually hungry because they can never get enough food to satisfy them.Most ghosts are regarded as women because women have traditionally been more likely to be mistreated during their lives on earth and want to seek revenge against the men that mistreated them from the otherworld after they are dead. Even today many suicidal women put on red underwear before they kill themselves because they believe it will help them seek justice from the otherworld.Many Chinese believe that ghosts reside among the living. The writer Amy Tan wrote that her father’s ghost ‘sat at our dinner table and ate Chinese food. We laid out chopsticks, and a bowl for our unseen guest at every meal.” She said there were other ghosts. “I could sense them. My mother told me I could.”

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Luo Ping ghost painting
Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “It may seem odd that the ancient Chinese were concerned about ghosts starving. Early Chinese notions of the spirit world were very different from those evolving in Europe; they were also unsystematic. In the Classical era of the late Zhou, the spirits of the dead were conceived as inhabiting a variety of spaces. They could be pictured in heaven, which was up, or in the region of the Yellow Springs, which was down, or as occupying the same space as humans, which was scary. Sometimes, these spatial ideas were related to a notion that humans possessed two types of death-surviving entities: one rose upon death and tended to be thought of as a benign spirit, and one descended into the earth as a spirit which could possess frightening tendencies, but was not necessarily threatening. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Spirits of the dead were very different from the living, but were not a-physical and did require sustenance. This sustenance was the responsibility of their descendants, and was maintained through regular sacrifices of food and drink. Spirits “descended” at the time of such offerings and partook of the food, although their particular physical needs were tenuous enough that no apparent change in the offerings would appear, and apart from certain unpalatable ritual items, the “leftovers” were consumed by the thrifty clan members, an act which was itself viewed as pious. Ancestral spirits took a great interest in the affairs of their descendants, and their influence varied according to their lifetime temperaments, any crotchets which they may have picked up through the unpleasant experience of death, their judgments of the conduct of the descendants, and the quality of the sacrificial menu. As ancestors grew more remote, their impact grew more tenuous, and if they continued to exist, their existence was such that they no longer required further human attention – only recent ancestors showed up at dinnertime. The relatively tame ancestral spirits shared an influence on the course of human events with a host of much more interesting animal demons, nature gods, city gods, anonymous revenants, and unidentified spooky things, all of which made the nighttime good to sleep through and Chinese religious beliefs colorfully incoherent. /+/

“Kings were different. For the Zhou, if they died peacefully they went up to heaven where they were seated to the left and right of the “Lord on High,” an anthropomorphic high deity roughly equivalent to Tian, the term we translate as Heaven. The former kings of the Zhou ruling house remained important to the political health of the realm, but spiritually unproblematic. The Shang view of former rulers was more complex, but we will encounter those only later in the course, as the writers of Classical China were no longer aware of them.”/+/

Ghost Month Customs

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Burning money and yuanbao
at a cemetery
Spirits are placated with k’o t’ous (bows), prayers, offerings of chicken, pork, rice spirits and wine, and banquets and operas. Buddhists sutras are chanted to transfer merit to the dead and 2.5-meter candles are lit to honor them. After sunset many people make small fires and burn incense, paper televisions, paper Rolexes, paper cell phones, paper Mercedes Benzes and wads of “hell money” to appease the ghosts and encourage them to bring about good fortune. An old saying goes: "The bigger the flame, the better your luck will be."

The offerings and burnings can take place at the graves of ancestors but are usually directed towards “soul tablets” of the deceased in homes and temples. Buddhist monks and Taoist priests are hired to conduct special rituals to placate “hungry ghosts.”

Operas featuring ghosts are fixtures of Ghost Month, especially in Hong Kong. Explaining the purpose of an opera for ghosts one Hong Kong theater owner told Reuters, "This show is for the gods and the ghosts, but humans can come and watch too...What we're doing is telling the ghosts to leave us alone, not to create trouble or frighten our neighbors and kids." Empty chairs are set out for ghosts.

History of the Hungry Ghost Festival

The Hungry Ghosts Festival is one of the most misunderstood Chinese celebrations. It is not just about starving ghouls roaming the earth. Dr Ong Seng Huat, the chief executive director of Xiao En Cultural Foundation — a non-profit, charity-based organisation that promotes academic research and cultural exchange in Asia — and an expert on the Hungry Ghosts Festival told The Star: “The term ‘hungry ghost’ was coined by the British when they first set foot in the Far East. But they misinterpreted the Chinese rituals to be something scary and absurd. Decades may have passed since then, but it’s still being defined this way. That’s colonialism at its best...The Chinese never had a solid concept of festival. We don’t go out and party the way Westerners do. For us, festivals are very family-oriented. It’s always a time to go home to our families and remember those who have passed on. This tradition dates back centuries, when our ancestors from China used to gather after the harvest season was over.” Dr Ong believes that the same goes for the Hungry Ghosts Festival, or Zhong Yuan Jie, as the Chinese call it. The rituals, as far as he’s concerned, grew out of society’s need to resolve a social concern that was then plaguing a particular era. [Source: Louisa Lim, The Star (a Malaysian newspaper), August 30, 2008 ^|^]

On told The Star: “In China, Zhong Yuan Jie marked a dramatic shift in the seasons. There was a sharp spike in the number of deaths and fatal illnesses during this period due to the shortage of food and sub-zero temperatures. The villagers believed that a person’s spirit would be restless if he died tragically, and had therefore prayed for these departed souls.” The lighting of joss sticks evolved from this era because it served two purposes: firstly, to provide some relief from the freezing cold, and secondly, to get rid of the flies and diseases that were spreading. “The joss sticks were nothing like the ones you have today,” he claims. “They contained medicinal properties and benefited anyone who caught a whiff of it, since it was made by the village doctors. Meanwhile, we’ve got the capitalists to thank for the modern versions, which contain enough poison to pollute the earth and everything in it.” ^|^

Confucius and the Hungry Ghost Festival

Hungry ghost paper gods

Louisa Lim wrote in The Star: What is now The Hungry Ghosts Festival “wasn’t made official until the Zhou dynasty (1122 B.C. -256 B.C.), when a special treatise called the Record of Rites was compiled by a Confucianist student who thought it was a fundamental doctrine for every human being. “It tells you to pay respect to those before you and to thank them for the sacrifices they have made. After all, without them, you wouldn’t be here, and the world wouldn’t be where it is now. This is the most basic concept of filial piety, or xiao tao.” Resurrecting the past The story, according to Dr Ong, began like this: Confucius was in a class with his students when he asked for the definition of “xiao tao”. A student raised his hand and answered, “It means providing your parents with shelter and food, and taking care of them if they’re ill.” [Source: Louisa Lim, The Star (a Malaysian newspaper), August 30, 2008 ^|^]

“Confucius roared with laughter upon hearing the reply. “You’ve not learned anything from my classes, have you, boy?” he said. “You speak of your parents as if they’re on equal footing with the chickens and pigs from the farm. Filial piety goes beyond obligations. What about respect or deep honour?” These two main elements, says Dr Ong, would be constantly emphasised throughout Confucius’ lifetime because the concept of filial piety was believed to be the root of all virtues. It is also a fragile one, and easily forgotten in a world like today. “In other words, the world doesn’t revolve around you,” Dr Ong says. “Both parent and child are shaped by others, especially their families, and that’s why they should always show their appreciation by respecting the elders and caring for the young. Confucius believed that doing this could help to cultivate your heart and soul. Just imagine, if everyone were this way, the world would be a far better place.” ^|^

“The Chinese government was so impressed with this plan that every dynasty since the Zhou period had a scholar specially appointed to interpret the Record of Rites according to their needs and limitations. Word about this amazing doctrine spread so widely that even the Koreans and Japanese adopted it for the benefit of their own people. The teachings were later perfected by the Buddhists, who believed that a person could only be upgraded spiritually if they were to put others before themselves. “What annoys me is that all the other societies still practise this, except the Chinese,” Dr Ong reveals. “I went to a conference the other day, and this Korean chap smugly told me that the Record of Rites is being translated into contemporary context by the Korean government till this very day. We, on the other hand, are forgetting our past.” ^|^

“Not surprisingly, Dr Ong is a stickler for the past. The past, he claims, is trying to teach us something. Any beliefs and rituals that we have today were, in fact, created long ago as a form of symbolism and social education. “Take the recent Enlightenment Ceremony at Nilai Memorial Park,” he says. “The fact that there are families folding and burning paper lotuses all over the place would stump an average man with little or no understanding of history.” The paper lotuses, as it turns out, is a symbol for spiritual purity because these flowers retain their pristine quality despite growing from the mud. When it’s set alight, these lotuses signify spiritual transformation, or a release from the physical being, a process that is necessary for enlightenment. “This metaphorical richness applies to everything else,” Dr Ong says, referring to other practices during the Hungry Ghosts Festival.

Sentiments and Superstitions About the Hungry Ghost Festival

Hungry ghost offering table

Daniel Martin, 36, self-employed told the Star: “I’m used to travelling all around Asia for work and I’ve seen the way this festival is celebrated on a wide scale, particularly in Malaysia, Singapore, China and even Vietnam. “The people are also always happy to tell stories of their own ghostly encounters, like seeing shadowy figures huddled over the offerings and what-not. “What really creeps me out, however, is how the monks will set up massive altars on the streets and sing eerie songs that only these spirits can understand.” ^|^

Ong Chee Khim, 22, student, told the Star: “My mum tells me to avoid dark, deserted places or going out after midnight, because it’s the time of year when the gates of hell are open, and more ghosts are wandering about than usual. I don’t know if what she’s saying is true, but I don’t wish to find out.”^|^

Michelle Chan, 26, investment analyst, told the Star: “I’ve always been fascinated with the Hungry Ghosts Festival, compared to the other Chinese celebrations because it relates to spirits and the supernatural. “Even though I’m a level-headed person and I come from a Malay-educated background, I try to be a little more careful during this month. I won’t step on ashes from joss sticks or hell money, for instance.” [Source: Louisa Lim, The Star, August 30, 2008 ^|^]

Elaine Tan, 32, freelance writer, told the Star: “It’s a non-event to me. I don’t even notice it until I start hearing free entertainment blaring late into the night, courtesy of the Poh Toh Society down the road from where I live. “Unlike many of my peers, I can’t recall my parents ever telling us anything about what we can or cannot do during hungry ghosts month because they aren’t really superstitious to begin with.” ^|^

Karim Rashid, 45, sales manager, told the Star: “My wife is a Chinese from Penang so I know a thing or two about this festival. They believe that the spirits must be appeased in order to get good fortune and better luck in their lives, so they burn offerings and put on stage performances. “It affected us because my wife was restricted from doing all kinds of things back when we were dating, including going swimming!” ^|^

Zheng Xiaolu and The Festival of Ghosts

“The Festival of Ghosts” is a book by Zheng Xiaolu about a ghost festival as it relates to victims of China’s harsh family planning policies. Anna Savittieri said on” In the story, there is a real tension over mysticism and rural culture. The mother literally feels the spirits of the dead within her as they come to her at night in violent nightmares, leaving physical marks. When she expresses her belief in the after world and its earthly haunting, she is laughed at by her neighbors and made to feel shame even as all the villagers participate in Yu Lan Jie rituals. The mother seemed to be holding onto spirits and her late husband as an act of salvation, her last hope in saving her soul against society and the state. But when she marries Eighth Uncle, she finally severs her relationship with the spirit world and with her own soul, giving into an identity which is entirely corporeal. Would you speak about the choice for the spirits to materialize in bruises on Mother’s body? Why is the after world represented as a place of violence rather than paradise? [Source: Anna Savittieri,]

Zheng Xiaolu said: “In my hometown, we celebrate Festival of Ghosts in middle of July Lunar calendar every year to welcome home the spirits of the ancestors. We worship our ancestors for a few days and then send them away. This ancient ceremony has left a deep impression on me. I still remember one year, the time to celebrate this Festival was also the time when the state’s Family Planning Campaign reached its peak. One of my cousins, in order to escape from the hunting from the state’s family planning agency, hid in the cellar of our house and almost died from that incident. This left a deep impression on me, and inspired me (to write) Festival of Ghosts.

“My hometown is located in the Western area of Hunan province and the traditional cultures have been well preserved there. The local natural and cultural environments have nourished me greatly and I, intentionally or unintentionally, have encompassed them into my writing...Festival of Ghosts is a mysterious and ancient ceremony. It is the memorial time for the deceased, and also the bridge of spiritual communication between the living and the dead. During the Festival, there is no isolation between the living and the dead, and we assume that the dead are living with us in the household. We even do not speak loud, for fear that we might frighten them. In my opinion, the deceased include not only ancient ancestors, but also those infants who died from the forced abortion from the Family Planning Policy. Apparently for the latter, this is not a paradise. The pain of the "Mother" is not only a physical injury, but also a mental trauma.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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