Worship Your Ancestors for the Hungry Ghost Festival
Far more than many other cultures, China is well known for its traditions that honour ancestors. Throughout the year there are a number of celebrations in China – now spreading to the Western World – that directly give thanks to and remember the dead.
The concept and symbolism of family has been a crucial component to Chinese society for hundreds of years. But, honouring one’s family is not just a wish among living relatives; Chinese culture also places heavy emphasis on heritage, meaning that honouring one’s deceased relatives is an essential practice too.
Falling on the 14th or 15th day of the seventh lunar month (‘Ghost Month’), the Hungry Ghost Festival is one of the most popular – and important – festivals of Chinese culture, alongside other major festivals, such as Chinese New Year.
During Ghost Month it is commonly believed that the restless ghosts and spirits of deceased ancestors will return to roam the earth, as the realms of Heaven and Hell open, merging with that of the living world. This thought is rather terrifying for many Chinese people to behold, which is why so much effort is placed into appeasing the dead for the Hungry Ghost Festival.
On a Western calendar, the festival usually happens at the end of August or the start of September. This year’s festival will be celebrated on Tuesday 5th September – many of the celebrations are already being prepared across the country.
The History of the Festival
Many people have been quick to note the festival’s similarity with Halloween in the Western World and South America’s Day of the Dead, but the Hungry Ghost Festival is far more intrinsically linked to Chinese tradition.
Principally, the festival is rooted in Buddhist and Taoist religious practices. Both religions actually have their own names for the festival – Buddhists refer to it as Yu Lan Pen Festival, whilst in Taoism it is named the Zhongyuan Festival – and perform their own set of rituals, sacrifices and prayers during this time.
In Buddhist folklore, Yu Lan Pen can be traced all the way back to the third century CE with the story of Mulian. The young monk Mulian sought the help of the Buddha to rescue his long-lost mother, who had been condemned to a state of purgatory due to her transgressions. Finding her in the realm of hungry ghosts, starved and sorrowful, Mulian took pity on her and procured a bowl of rice. As she went to take her first bite, the rice turned suddenly to ash.
The Buddha told Mulian that the only way he could help his mother and relieve the punishment for her sins was to unite with others monks, offering food and kindness to cultivate the whole realm of hungry ghosts. This would also placate the ghosts and prevent any harm to the living world.
A similar tale originates in Taoism, dating to the Northern Wei Dynasty (368-534). According to legend, on the birthday of Hell King on 15th July, hungry ghosts and imprisoned spirits would be pardoned and released from Hell to accept the rituals and sacrifices from the mortal world. These gifts would be a way of enlightening the spirits, motivating them to follow in the path of Taoism.
Serving a Feast for the Spirits
The Hungry Ghost Festival wouldn’t be a traditional festival without the feast. Unlike other Chinese celebrations though, this feast is not enjoyed by the family but is presented directly for the spirits. There is less grandeur to the meals, and no specific delicacies. Families are encouraged to present dishes that will nourish the ghosts and help put them in good favour of the spirits.
Many people present simple bowls of rice and plates of vegetables, to reflect the festival’s Buddhist ties; but sometimes roasted meats and an impressive suckling pig are offered to honour the dead. It is also traditional for families to burn incense and share stories (both spooky and pleasant) around the table of food.
Buddhist monks are known to throw rice or other such small foods up into the air, to distribute among the ghosts entering the land of the living.
An Evening of Celebrations
The festival is not just about food though. There are plenty of special ceremonies and celebrations, particularly during the evening. In the city podiums are erected and large tents pop up in the countryside for what’s known as getai (which literally translates to ‘song stage’). From pop music performances, opera and dance, to stand-up comedy and tales of gods and goddesses, the festival has progressed through time to welcome a more modern atmosphere.
Lanterns are another crucial part of the festival, as people across towns and villages unite to bid farewell to the spirits at the end of the holiday period. People from all corners of the country will cast a floating lotus flower paper lantern into the waters of rivers and lakes, sending the wandering spirits home. The candles inside bring light to the darkness, symbolising hope and rebirth.
Superstitions and Folklore
For a festival that celebrates the dead it is not unusual that there are many superstitions that have arisen over the years. Some of the most common things that people are warned to avoid include strolling alone at night, so as not to attract hungry ghosts seeking food; swimming, to prevent being drowned by an evil ghost; wearing red, since this is the colour ghosts are most attracted to; or singing and whistling by yourself loudly, because the chorus may rouse the attention of ghosts.
Also, due to the festival having an inauspicious air, people are advised not to fulfil any life-changing actions, including moving house, starting a new business or marrying.
Eerie superstitions and tales aside, the festival brings the community together with a moral sense of purpose, tying back to the influence and value of family in Chinese culture. The festival’s wider message is for people to look after wandering souls (whether a lonely neighbour or a lost spirit roaming the living world), respect their elders, and grow up to honour their family.