The 'Hungry Ghost' Festival
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In the way a lot of western society celebrates Halloween and Mexicans celebrate the 'Day of the Dead', the Chinese culture has their own sort of Halloween. It is known as the ‘Hungry Ghost Festival’ or Zhong Yuan Jie in Chinese. It is when the souls of the dead are believed to roam the earth. It is celebrated by Chinese cultures and is particularly popular in Hong Kong and Singapore, but is also celebrated in China, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, Vietnam and India. The festival is held on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. In Western calendars that is the 25th of August this year and it is typical held around August/September. It is held in the seventh month of the lunar calendar as this is when it is believed that restless spirits roam the earth. The purpose of the festival is to appease these spirits. It is believed if they are ignored, they can get up to all sort of mischief so by making offerings and ‘feeding them’ so that they have everything that they need (even in the afterlife). It is also thought that the spirits may be restless if they were treated badly by their families or not given a proper burial so this festival also honours them.
Image: Huffington Post
Where did this custom start?
While it is debated, it is believed that the festival originated over 2000 years ago. In Taoism, the festival falls on the birthday of Lord Qingxu who is considered the celestial official of earth. His role was to judge the deeds of the living. During the ‘ghost month’ he would release the deceased from suffered of those who would pray for his forgiveness. In the Buddhism religion, the festival is link to Mulian who was the chief disciple of Buddha. It is said that he organised a ceremony on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month in order to appease the spirit of his month. She had been reborn in the hungry ghost realm of hell. The ‘Ghost month’ is listed as a part of China’s cultural heritage.
How is the ‘Hungry Ghost’ celebrated?
The first indication that ghost month is close would be the smell of burning paper in tin cans as well as incense and candles. Metal bins line the streets full of banknotes which is called ‘hell money’, and paper offering such as cars, watches, jewellery, clothes and other items which are burned by relatives in order to appease their deceased family members.
Paper Offerings. Image: The Straits Times
Food is left out in the open to feed the spirits. Fruit, meat and pastries are popular choices. Lanterns and candles light the streets so that the spirits can find their way home. Now that they have the material items they need and they have been fed, they also need to be entertained. Large tents are erected which host dinners, auctions and provide performances which feature the tales of gods and goddesses. Everyone is welcome, but you must not sit in the front row. This is reserved for the special guests. Like a lot of festivals and similar to the Day of the Dead, it is a time for family to come together and honour and remember those who have passed.
As years have gone by, festivals and celebrations seem to get bigger and better and this is no exception. A popular aspect of the festival in recent years is what is known as the ‘getai’ performance. It is thrown into the festival to entertain the wondering spirits. Young performers dressed in what is considered ‘revealing’ clothing comparted to tradition sing not only the traditional songs in the correct dialect, but they will also throw in techno modern versions of English and Mandarin pop songs. The hashtag #hungryghostfestival trends on Instagram with livestreams on videos appearing on facebook and youtube. The festival has well and truly grown and adapted to the modern era.
Image: The Straits Times
What activities disrespect the Hungry Ghost Festival
It is natural that a festival of this nature would attract a lot of tourists. Like with any culture, you must be wary and respect the reasons behind the festival. In doing so this is what you must avoid:
Don’t disturb or take any offerings left for the spirits
Don’t take photos at night as you may ‘capture a spirit’
Don’t go swimming as the ghost of someone who has drowned may pull you under
Don’t leave your doors open at night as it is considered an ‘invitation’ to the spirits
Don’t hang your clothes out to dry after dark as a spirit may try to wear them and leave negative energy behind
Most importantly, don’t talk about ghosts during this festival as it is considered disrespectful and offensive. One would definately think that conducting any sort of 'paranormal investigation' would be a big NO NO.
People are encouraged during this month to sprinkle salt outside the front door (as spirits are afraid of it), keep areas well-lit as spirits hide in the shadows, and keep the spirits well fed and happy, they will leave you alone. While it sounds like a paranormal investigator’s dream, it is a festival taken very seriously and respect for their festival and culture takes precedent. Regardless of what your beliefs are, it is a nice way to honour and remember relatives and those who have passed. Who doesn’t love a party – with ghosts?
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Sources: Singapore and Hong Kong Official Tourism sites. Featured Image belongs to The Chairman's Bao.