What Is Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival?

There are several traditional Chinese festivals which are characterized by diverse styles and themes which reflect Chinese practices along with history of China and its people. Each festival has its own unique origin and customs, and they play an important role in defining China’s history and culture. Along with that, there is a very close relationship between the Chinese Traditional Festivals, the Chinese calendar and the 24 solar terms. One of the most popular festivals is the Ghost festival, which is the most important festival of the hungry ghost month. Read on to learn more about its history, origin, and how it is celebrated.

What is Hungry Ghost Festival?

hungry ghost festival water lanterns

The Hungry Ghost Festival is considered one of the most important festivals of Ghost Month, which is the 7th month of the Chinese Lunar calendar. It is commemorated on the fifteenth day of the Ghost month, and this day often falls in either July or August. In some parts of China especially Southern China, the Hungry Ghost Festival is observed on the 14th day of the Ghost Month. It is believed that the people in Southern China started celebrating the Ghost festival a day earlier during warfare to avoid attacks by their enemies on the unlucky day. That said, the Ghost Festival just like other special festivals such as the Double Ninth Festival, the Qingming Festival, and the Spring Festival, is simply celebrated to worship the ancestors.

The Chinese believe that the ghosts of their ancestors are let out of hell when the Ghost month begins and the ghosts are more prevalent and aggressive during the Hungry Ghost Festival.  For thousands of years, the Ghost month has been considered the scariest month of the year and during this time the Chinese try as much as possible to avoid any implicative situations. For example, Chinese avoid swimming for fear of drowning and they try to avoid being alone at night because they believe that this is when enemy ghosts can come after them. Also, the Chinese believe that these ghosts are very angry and malicious and are on the hunt for their enemies. For this reason, the Chinese came up with unique traditions about how to control the ghost situation on the first day when they are let out of hell, on the Hungry Ghost Festival day, and on the last day of the Ghost month when the ghosts return to their home.

When does Hungry Ghost Festival end?

As mentioned earlier, the Chinese honor the memories of the deceased every year, for a month. The Ghost month lands on the 7th month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar and the ghosts are let out immediately the month begins. The Ghost Festival, which is celebrated on the 14th day of the Ghost month in Southern China and on the 15th day of the Ghost month in other parts of China, then lasts for 14 days until the ghosts return to their homes, and a new month is ushered in.

Hungry ghost festival History and Origin

As a Taoist festival that was greatly valued in the Tang dynasty and popularly known as the Zhongyuan Festival, the Chinese at the time believed that the gates of hell were opened on the first day of the Ghost month. The hungry ghosts are then released to take revenge on anyone who has behaved badly throughout the year and has been blacklisted on the Taoist records. The hungry ghosts would also be searching for food, drinks and needed to make merry. During this time, the Taoists had to chant together to free the ghosts.

As a Buddhist festival, the Ghost Festival draws its origin story from the Mahayana scripture known as the Yulanpen. According to this scripture, Maudgalyayana (one of the disciples that accompany the Buddha) used his powers to search for his parents and he found out that his deceased mother had been sent to the realm of hungry ghosts. In attempt to help his mother who was in a deprived state, Maudgalyayana tried to feed his mother a rice bowl but she couldn’t eat it as it turned into burning coal. He then asked the Buddha to help him out. Upon his request, Buddha explained to him that he could only assist his parents by willingly offering them food on the 15th day of the 7th month when the hungry ghosts come out. Since then, the festival has been observed in China with respect to the deceased.

Hungry Ghost Festival Food

chinese ghost festival food

The Chinese believe that the hungry ghosts released from hell during the Ghost month are often in search of merriment, food, and other worldly pleasures. For these reason, food is at the center of the festivities during the 15th day of the Ghost Month.

During the festival, you may find about three sets of chopsticks, three bowls of rice, and three bowls of Chinese tea on Ghost Festival altars. The number 3 is very symbolic during this time as it represents the underworld, the realm of heaven and earth. Besides that, other essential food offerings during this time are large plates of raw noodles, uncut meats (fish, pork, chicken, or beef), rice wine, and candy, fruits such as pineapples, Chinese lettuce, and peanuts, among others.

How is the Hungry Ghost Festival celebrated?

chinese ghost festival traditions

During the Hungry Ghost Festival, there are several temple ceremonies where the monks organize various festive activities. There are also street and market ceremonies where people gather around to celebrate. All activities carried out on this day are designed to appease the ghosts and avoid their wrath and spiritual attacks.

The main ceremony is held at dusk and during this time; people take time to put out plates of food on the table and sometimes leave a place open at the table for any lost ancestors. Also, the Chinese prepare food 3 times on that day and put the family’s ancestral tablets, photographs and old paintings on the table then burn incense right next to them. In addition to that, there are three other important activities carried out to celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival. These are;

Floating River Lanterns

To celebrate the Hungry Ghost festival, the Chinese people put a light or a candle on a lamp stand and float it on rivers at the night of the 14th/15th day of the 7th month. They make colorful river lanterns out of paper and wood then write their ancestor’s names on the lanterns. These river lanterns are also known as lotus lanterns and they believe that doing this helps the ghosts of their loved ones reincarnate. They also believe that the ghosts of those who were wrongly accused can follow the floating river lanterns away and reincarnate instead of suffering too much in hell.

Burning paper ‘money’

On the first day of the Ghost month, the Chinese burn paper money outside their businesses or homes, in the fields, or along the sides of the road. Sometimes, they even go to the temple, so that they can burn make-believe paper money on the Hungry Ghost Festival altars. Generally, the Chinese believe that paper money actively enables their deceased family members and ancestors to have all the money and things they would need in the afterlife. Also, they believe that by burning fake money, they are able to repay any debts the deceased may have accrued when on earth and wasn’t able to pay it back in good time. They do all this to ward off evil and prevent frustrating the ancestors and other angry ghosts.

Sending Goat

One of the most popular traditions during the Hungry Ghost Festival is sending goats. Chinese custom during this time requires that one of the uncles or a grandfather on the mother’s side send a live and healthy goat to his nephew or grandson. Aside from being the best sacrificial animals in China, goats are a symbol of abundance and health. So, by sending goats to other family members, it communicates a message of health and wards of evil.

Hungry Ghost Festival vs. Halloween

The Hungry Ghost Festival is perhaps one of the most popular Halloween-related festivals in China and it is celebrated at the time of the year when the moon is full.

According to the Chinese, there is a bridge between the dead and the living on the night of the full moon. For this reason, they try as much as possible to take precautions that prevent them from finding themselves in a compromising situation that may cost their lives. Also, the Chinese find all possible ways to honor the dead by lighting floating river lanterns, burning paper money, and sending goats. All these activities and traditions are done to protect themselves from pranks and attacks by any angry ghosts, to honor famous people from the past and to worship their long dead ancestors. They believe that by appeasing the ghosts, they can help protect them every other day.

Halloween or the Night of the Dead, on the other hand, originated from the traditional holiday of Celts in Great Britain. The Celts believed that that last day of October was the ‘ghost day’ or ‘the day of the dead’. Further, they believed that on that particular day, the ghosts often crossed over the boundary between the living and the dead. Halloween, however, is currently characterized by dressing up as ghosts, and trick-or-treating.

Final Thoughts

The Hungry Ghost Festival is one of the most important and most intriguing festivals in China. The Chinese perform several rituals during this time, and the rituals are meant to welcome the spirits and alleviate them from any kind of suffering they may have gone through in the underworld.

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