I wonder what you think of when you hear the words ‘Hungry Ghost Festival.’ Before I knew anything, what first came to my mind were white spirits with googly eyes floating around, eating up my dim sum. Although it’s sometimes nicknamed the ‘Chinese Halloween,’ this is actually a traditionally Buddhist and Taoist festival, held on the fifteenth night of the seventh month (sometimes called ‘Ghost Month’ 鬼月) of the Chinese calendar, and celebrated all over Far and South East Asia.
Also known as the Yulan festival (盂蘭盆節 / 盂兰盆节 / Yú lán pén jié) by Buddhists and Zhongyuan Jie (中元節 / 中元节 / zhōng yuán jié) by Taoists, it is believed that the gates of the afterlife open up, and coming through are the spirits of past ancestors who reveal themselves to visit the living. As the boundary between mortality and immortality dissolves, many people are compelled to perform rituals out of veneration for their ancestors, such as burning incense and offering food. Families often leave a seat empty at the table and act as if their ancestor or relative has come back to life to join them for a meal. Hauntingly, that’s why the ghosts are said to be so ‘hungry.’
There are so many ways to celebrate the festival, and everybody has their own, unique way: for example, some throw rice up into the air to feed the ghosts; others burn joss paper in tin cans; and some even put on operas, for the ghosts out there who like the theatre. Buddhists’ and Taoists’ ceremonies can include setting up altars and chanting scriptures, and some families write their ancestors’ name on lotus flower-shaped lanterns and float them on the river, to give those ghosts a guiding light back home!
Unsurprisingly, Chinese people have many superstitions about this day, too! Don’t stroll at night, go swimming, hang clothes outside at night, pick up money on the street and bring it home, wear red, sing or whistle… the list goes on. Otherwise, the ghosts might be out to get you!
This year, the Hungry Ghost Festival takes place on 25th August. Will you be leaving a chair empty at your family dinner? Let us know how you’re celebrating!