What Is Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival?

There are several traditional Chinese festivals that are characterized by diverse styles and themes which reflect Chinese practices along with the 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 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 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 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 an 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 Ghost month begins and the ghosts are more prevalent and aggressive during the Hungry Ghost Festival.  For thousands of years, 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, the 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 Ghost month when the ghosts return to their home.

why Chinese celebrate hungry ghost festival?

The Hungry Ghost Festival, also known as the Zhongyuan Festival or the Ghost Festival, is a traditional Chinese festival that is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. It is believed that during this time, the gates of the underworld are opened, and the spirits of the dead are allowed to return to the human world to seek food and offerings from the living.

The origins of the festival can be traced back to the ancient Chinese belief in the afterlife and the importance of ancestral worship. The festival is based on the belief that the dead need to be appeased and provided for in order to ensure good fortune and avoid misfortune for the living.

During the festival, people make offerings of food, incense, and paper money to the spirits of their ancestors and to other wandering spirits that may be seeking offerings. It is believed that these offerings will help to appease the hungry ghosts and prevent them from causing harm to the living.

The festival is also marked by various rituals and ceremonies, including the burning of incense and the lighting of lanterns. Many people also attend performances of traditional Chinese opera or other forms of entertainment, which are believed to please the spirits and bring good luck.

While the festival is primarily focused on ancestral worship and the appeasement of wandering spirits, it is also seen as a time for reflection and introspection. Many people use the festival as an opportunity to contemplate their own mortality and to reflect on the importance of family and community.

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 after the month begins. The Ghost Festival, which is celebrated on the 14th day of Ghost month in Southern China and on the 15th day of 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 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, and 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 an 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 story

The Hungry Ghost Festival is an important event in Chinese culture, and its origins can be traced back to a number of different stories and legends. Here is one story that is often told about the festival:

The story begins with a man named Mulian, who was a disciple of the Buddha. One day, Mulian decided to use his powers to look into the underworld, where he saw his own mother suffering in the realm of hungry ghosts. Mulian was filled with grief and despair, and he begged the Buddha to help his mother.

The Buddha told Mulian that the spirits of the dead are only able to eat offerings that are made by the living. He instructed Mulian to make offerings to the spirits on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, which is when the spirits are believed to be most active. Mulian followed the Buddha’s instructions and made offerings to the spirits, including food, incense, and paper money.

To his great relief, Mulian was able to see his mother again, and he offered her the food and other offerings he had prepared. However, Mulian’s mother was unable to eat the food, as her ghostly body was too insubstantial. Mulian was heartbroken, but the Buddha came to him again and told him that he could help his mother by performing good deeds and making offerings on her behalf.

Inspired by the Buddha’s words, Mulian set out to do good deeds and make offerings to the spirits of the dead. He also began to spread the word about the importance of making offerings to the spirits, and over time, this tradition became known as the Ghost Festival.

Hungry Ghost Festival Food

Chinese ghost festival food

The Chinese believe that the hungry ghosts released from hell during Ghost month are often in search of merriment, food, and other worldly pleasures. For this reason, food is at the center of the festivities during the 15th day of 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, candy, and 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 on the night of the 14th/15th day of the 7th month. They make colorful river lanterns out of paper and wood and then write their ancestors’ 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 off evil.

what happens during the ghost festival?

The festival is believed to be a time when the spirits of the dead are allowed to return to the human world to seek offerings from the living. Here is a breakdown of what happens during the Ghost Festival:


One of the key elements of the Ghost Festival is the making of offerings to the spirits of the dead. These offerings typically consist of food, incense, and paper money, which are burned as offerings to the spirits. It is believed that these offerings will appease the hungry ghosts and prevent them from causing harm to the living.

Ghost Month:

The Ghost Festival is just one part of a larger period of time known as the Ghost Month. This month-long period is believed to be a time when the spirits of the dead are particularly active and when the living should be especially careful to avoid angering or offending them. During this month, many people avoid taking long trips or making major life changes, as it is believed that doing so could invite bad luck or the wrath of the spirits.

Burning Incense:

Another important aspect of the Ghost Festival is the burning of incense. Many people burn incense as an offering to the spirits, with the smoke from the incense being believed to help guide the spirits to the offerings. It is also believed that the scent of the incense will help to soothe the spirits and make them less likely to cause mischief or harm.

Lighting Lanterns:

The Ghost Festival is also marked by the lighting of lanterns, which are believed to help guide the spirits back to the underworld. These lanterns may be simple paper lanterns, or they may be more elaborate and ornate, with intricate designs and decorations.


In many parts of China, the Ghost Festival is also marked by performances of traditional Chinese opera or other forms of entertainment. These performances are believed to be a way to please the spirits and bring good luck, and they are often attended by large crowds of people.

Ghost Marriage:

In some parts of China, the Ghost Festival is also associated with the tradition of ghost marriage. This tradition involves marrying off the spirits of unmarried dead people in order to provide them with companionship in the afterlife. While the tradition has fallen out of favor in many parts of China, it is still practiced in some areas.

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 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 the 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 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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