The Ghost Festival, also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival in Buddhism and the Zhongyuan Festival in Taoism, is a traditional holiday held in several East and Southeast Asian countries. The Ghost Festival occurs on the 15th (or 14th in regions of southern China) night of the seventh month (usually August in the Gregorian calendar).
In Chinese tradition, the 15th (or 14th) day of the seventh lunar month is known as Ghost Day, and the seventh month is known as Ghost Month, during which ghosts and spirits, particularly those of deceased ancestors, emerge from the lower world (diyu or preta).
Unlike the QingMing Festival (or Tomb Sweeping Day, in spring) and the Double Ninth Festival (in autumn), when living descendants pay honor to their deceased ancestors, the deceased are said to visit the living during the Ghost Festival.
The realms of Heaven and Hell, as well as the domain of the living, are open on the 15th (or 14th) day, and both Taoists and Buddhists would execute ceremonies to transform and absolve the deceased’s sorrows. The devotion of the deceased is intrinsic to Ghost Month, and descendants’ filial piety continues for their ancestors long after their deaths.
During the month, ritualistic food offerings, incense, and joss paper, a papier-mâché form of tangible items like garments, gold, and other expensive commodities, would be burned for the visiting spirits of the ancestors. Elaborate dinners (typically vegetarian meals) would be prepared with vacant seats for each deceased member of the family, as if the deceased were still alive.
QingMing Festival differs from Ghost Festival in that the latter covers paying respects to all departed, including the same and younger generations, while the former exclusively includes older generations. Other festivities may include purchasing and releasing little paper boats and lanterns on water, which represents giving directions to the ancestors’ and other deities’ lost ghosts and spirits.
Not your typical Western Halloween
When visiting countries that celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival, this is not usually a suitable month to dress up in your Halloween costume or other cost-play costume. This is because there is a notion that the spirits (or ghosts) of the deceased are being mocked and will usually retaliate against those who mock them.
Do you believe?
Could this be correct? Many people believe it to be true. East Asian films and operas have repeatedly featured such imaginary notions, and those with Yin-Yang eyes (eyes that can see spirits, deities, and ghosts) have regularly remarked that the streets will be crawling with ghosts during the Hungry Ghost month. Do you believe this as well?
The origins of China’s Hungry Ghost Festival and Ghost Month (鬼月) are unknown. From India to Cambodia to Japan, cultures share similar ideas about the month, and these traditions appear to date back to Buddha. The area was encompassed by more ancient folk faiths.
Taoism, China’s indigenous religion, incorporates some of the ancient folk religions. According to Taoist accounts, the gates of hell are opened on the first day of the seventh month, and hungry spirits are released to find food or exact revenge on those who have acted badly. To liberate the ghosts, the Taoists chant together.
Another legend has it that on the first day of the seventh lunar month, King Yama (the king of hell) unlocks the gates of hell and lets a few wild ghosts to partake in the sacrifices. On the last day of that month, the gates close, and the wild, ravenous spirits return to hell. Some Chinese believe that the gates of heaven open during this month, and they honor their ancestors from above as well.
The Chinese calendar’s seventh month is when the Ghost Festival takes place. It also coincides with the new season, the fall harvest, the pinnacle of Buddhist monastic discipline, the reincarnation of ancestors, and the gathering of the local community.
During this month, the gates of hell are opened, allowing ghosts to walk the world in search of food and entertainment. These ghosts are thought to represent the spirits of people who died without descendants (or, traditionally, without male descendants) or whose descendants did not pay tribute to them after they died. As a result, they are starving, thirsty, and restless. Family members feed the ghosts and burn “hell” bank notes and other types of joss paper.
Joss paper things are said to have worth in the afterlife, which is thought to be extremely comparable to the material world in some ways. Families pay homage to the traveling spirits of strangers in order to keep these homeless souls from intruding on their lives and bringing misfortune. On the day of the ghost festival or close to it, people bring samples of food and lay them on an altar or outside a temple or residence to satisfy the ghosts and fend off bad luck. Lotus-shaped lanterns are lit and sunk in rivers to symbolize the journey of lost souls to the afterlife.
Today, live concerts are held in certain East Asian countries, and everyone is invited to attend. The first row of seats is usually empty because the spirits sit there as a gesture of respect. The shows are always performed at night and at high volume because the sound is thought to attract and satisfy ghosts from the surrounding area.
Some shows include Chinese opera, plays, and even burlesque shows in some regions. Traditionally, Chinese opera was the primary source of amusement, but newer events, concerts, dramas, wars, and other forms of entertainment are referred to as Getai (歌台).
Buddhists and Taoists perform rituals to relieve the suffering of ghosts, with many of them performing ceremonies in the afternoon or at night (since it is thought that ghosts are liberated from hell after the sun sets). Altars for the dead are built, and priests and monks alike perform rituals for the benefit of ghosts. Monks and priests frequently throw rice or other small foods into the air in all directions in order to distribute them to ghosts.
During the evening, incense is burned in front of household doors. In Chinese tradition, incense represents affluence; thus, families feel that burning more incense will bring them more fortune. Some shops are shuttered during the festival to allow the spirits access to the streets. In the middle of each street, there is an incense altar with fresh fruit and sacrifices displayed on it.
People float water lanterns and set them outside their houses or along the riverbanks fourteen days after the festival to ensure that all the hungry ghosts find their way back to hell. Set a lotus flower-shaped lantern atop a paper boat to make these lanterns. The lanterns are thought to guide ghosts back to the underworld, and when they go out, it means they’ve found their way back.
Celebrations elsewhere in Asia
Singapore and Malaysia
Ghost Festivals in Singapore and Malaysia are known for their concert-style performances. These live concerts are commonly referred to as Getai. On a temporary stage set up in a residential area, groups of singers, dancers, entertainers, opera troupes, or puppet shows put on these shows. The locals in each area are in favor of the festival. The front row is left unoccupied for these Getai to accommodate the special guests—the ghosts. It is considered bad luck to sit on the first row of red seats; if somebody does, they will become ill or otherwise afflicted.
In Indonesia, the celebration is known as Chit Gwee Pua (Hokkien Chinese: ) or Chit Nyiat Pan (Hakka Chinese: ;Chhit-ngiet-pan), Cioko, or Sembahyang Rebutan (Scrambling prayer) in Indonesian. People assemble around temples to bring an offering to a spirit that died in an unlucky way, and then they distribute it to the needy; the way the offerings are scrambled is the origin of the festival name; these festivals are particularly known on Java Island.
Other areas, such as North Sumatra, Riau, and the Riau Islands, also held a live concert known as Getai, similar to those in Malaysia and Singapore, and there is also time for people who do tomb sweeping, known as Sembahyang Kubur to respect the ancestor spirit and looking for some luck, They will buy things like “hell” notes, or Kim Cua (Hokkien Chinese: ) and paper-based goods such as paper-made house, horses, cars, etc.
Traditionally, ghosts are said to stalk the island of Taiwan during the seventh lunar month, when the mid-summer Ghost Festival is held. Ghost Month is the name given to this month. The opening of a temple gate, which stands in for the gates of hell, commemorates the first day of the month. The lamps on the main altar are lit on the twelfth day. On the thirteenth day, a lantern procession is held.
On the fourteenth day, there is a parade to release water lanterns. To dissuade spirits from entering homes, incense and food are presented, and spirit paper money is also burned as a sacrifice. People avoid surgery, automobile purchases, swimming, relocating, marrying, whistling, and going out or taking pictures after dark throughout the month.
Hongkongers adore festivals and public holidays. The entire month is considered spooky since spirits are said to emerge from the underworld and places beyond.
The Ghost Festival has several genesis stories. According to the Yulanpen Sutra, an old Indian Buddhist story, Maudgalyayana (one of the Buddha’s closest students) discovered his departed mother in the world of the Hungry Ghost (preta). His vegetarian mother had accidentally swallowed meat soup. As a result, she was sentenced to hell.
Maudgalyayana sought assistance from the Buddha, who advised him to present food to the monastic community on behalf of the preta. Former pretas would be reborn and relieved of their misery as a result of this act.
The festival acts as a day of judgment for ghosts in Taoism. On Lord Qingxu’s (the earth’s celestial official’s) birthday, the deity is said to gather all spirits and sift over their records. They then decide who is pardoned and who is punished.
Hungry Ghost Festival superstitions
The Hungry Ghost Festival occurs during the full moon and the beginning of the new season during the seventh month, and it is believed that the gates of both heaven and hell open, allowing spirits to roam our world. Some are lost souls, including ancestors of the living who were not given an adequate burial or send-off, were treated poorly while alive, or were simply forgotten after death, and believers adhere to these practices to appease the restless souls.
- Making food offering to keep the spirits well-fed
- Burning joss paper
- Keep all clothes inside the house at night. Clothes hanging outside are bound to be borrowed by spirits who may leave behind negative energy (you might be telling the spirits or ghost that the clothes are for them)
- Make sure to close your doors and windows (to symbolize no entrance for spirits and ghosts)
- Keeping the lights on (to have more yang energy)
- Visiting a Chinese opera performance but making sure to not sit in an empty seat reserved for the dead
- Avoid swimming, as the spirit of a vengeful person who drowned may pull them under
- Avoiding the last round of transport at night (night is often considered to have more yin energy- spirits and ghost and considered yin energy)
- Refraining from wearing a lot of black or red clothing as it attracts spirits (it’s a belief that black color is a form of yin energy and an invitation for the spirits and ghosts to tag along, and red is considered to draw the attention of the spirits)
- Keeping photo-taking to the minimum (the belief is that you could possibly take photos along with the ghost around)
- Avoid events such as moving into a new home, getting married, or starting a new business on the day (to make sure no spirits or ghosts are invited)
Chugen (中元), also known as Ochugen (お中元), is an annual ceremony in Japan held on the 15th day of the 7th month during which people send gifts to their superiors. Originally, it was an annual celebration in which gifts were given to the ancestral spirits.
It is one of the three days that make up Taoism’s sangen (三元), and it is sometimes regarded as a zassetsu, a type of seasonal day in the Japanese calendar.
Obon (sometimes spelled O-bon) or simply Bon is the Japanese equivalent of the Ghost Festival. It has subsequently evolved into a family reunion holiday, with people from the big cities returning to their hometowns to visit and tidy up the final resting sites of their forefathers.
Obon has been practiced in Japan for over 500 years and traditionally includes a dance called Bon Odori. In modern Japan, it is celebrated on July 15 in the east (Kant) and August 15 in the west (Kansai). It is observed on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month in Okinawa and the Amami Islands, just as it is in China. Obon was observed on the same date in Kansai, Okinawa, and the Amami Islands in 2019, as August 15 was also the 15th day of the 7th lunar month that year.
This event, known as Tết Trung Nguyên, is regarded as a period for the liberation of condemned souls from hell. The “homeless” should be “fed” and placated with food donations. The discharge of birds and fish also earns points for the living. The lunar month in which the festival is held is informally known as Tháng Cô Hồn – the month of lonely spirits, and is said to be haunted and especially unfortunate.
Guests at a L Vu Lan service were given a white and a red rose. This Buddhist-influenced holiday corresponds with Vu Lan, the Vietnamese transcription for Ullambana.
Vu Lan is also known as Parents’ Day in modern times.People with living parents would give thanks and bear a crimson rose, while those without would bear a white rose and attend services to pray for the deceased.
Other Asian Buddhist traditions
Related rituals, rites, and festivals are also observed in Asian Theravadin Buddhist countries. Theravada scripture, the Petavatthu, gave rise to the idea of feeding food to hungry ghosts in the Theravada tradition as a method of merit-making, similar to its Ullambana Sutra-origins in Mahayana Buddhist countries. Petavatthu Maudgalyayana, who also plays a crucial role in the rise of the notion in the Mahayana tradition, and Sariputta also play a part in the rise of the concept in the Theravada tradition in stories published in the Petavatthu Maudgalyayana.
The Petavatthu describes a variation of Maudgalyayana Rescues His Mother that uses Sariputta in place of Maudgalyayana as the basis for the concept’s practice in Theravadin communities, which parallels the concept’s development in Mahayana Buddhism. The theme of feeding hungry spirits can also be found in early Buddhist literature, such as the Tirokudda Kanda.
Pchum Ben, a fifteen-day annual celebration in Cambodia, takes place in September or October. Cambodians pay their respects to deceased relatives stretching back seven generations. During this time, the gates of hell are said to open, and many people make offerings to these ravenous ghosts.
In Laos, a celebration known as Boun khao padap din usually takes place in September and lasts two weeks. During this time, hungry ghosts are said to be released from hell and enter the world of the living. Following the conclusion of Boun khay padab din, a second event known as Boun khao salak takes place. Food offerings are provided to the hungry ghosts during this time.
Food offerings are presented to hungry ghosts in Sri Lanka on the seventh day, three months, and one year after a departed person’s death. It is known as mataka dns or matakadnaya, and it is a ceremony performed after death as part of traditional Sri Lankan Buddhist burial customs. The offerings offered gain virtue, which is then converted back into equal items in the land of the hungry ghosts. The seventh-day offering happens one day after individualized food offerings are made in the garden to the spirit of the deceased relative on the sixth day.
The living fear the deceased who do not reach the appropriate afterlife, the Hungry Ghost realm, because they are thought to cause numerous illnesses and disasters to the living. Buddhist monks are summoned to perform pirit in order to ward off the floating spirits. The rite is also observed in Thailand and Myanmar, as well as during the Ghost Festival observed in other Asian countries.
Between September and October in Thailand, a fifteen-day yearly festival known as Sat Thai is celebrated, notably in southern Thailand, particularly in the province of Nakhon Si Thammarat. The deceased are believed to return to earth for fifteen days, as are analogous festivals and traditions in other regions of Asia, and people make offerings to them.
The celebration is called Sat Thai to distinguish it from the Chinese Ghost Celebration, which is called Sat Chin in Thai.
Other Asian Hindu traditions
Hindus consider Shraddha performed by a son during Pitru Paksha to be obligatory in order to ensure that the spirit of the ancestor goes to heaven. “There is no salvation for a man without a son,” the scripture Garuda Purana declares in this context. According to the Vedas, a householder should honor ancestors (Pitris), gods (devas), ghosts (bhutas), and guests.
According to the literature Markandeya Purana, if the ancestors are satisfied with the shraddhas, they will bestow health, prosperity, knowledge, and longevity, as well as heaven and salvation (moksha) upon the performer.
Ancestors who have died and been cremated are supposed to return to their previous houses in Bali and other parts of Indonesia, notably among the indigenous Hindus of Indonesia. This is known as Hari Raya Galungan, and celebrations normally span two weeks, with specific food and religious offerings as well as activities.
The festival date is frequently estimated using the Balinese pawukon calendar and happens every 210 days.
Why do different countries have such a strong interest in the Hungry Ghost Festival? There are two general theories on this.
1) Buddhism originated in India, and the teaching expanded throughout Asia, particularly ancient China and the surrounding countries. However, China went through a cultural revolution, and many Chinese migrants continue the tradition in other nations, while China abandons all myths and superstitions that may have harmed the country itself.
2) China was a superpower, and religion and culture spread throughout the world. Along with global trade, Chinese culture was immensely influential, similar to how Western culture is today. Nations that traded with and had good connections with ancient China eventually adopted the culture, beliefs, and religion of that time.
Hungry Ghost Festival vs. Western Halloween
Traditional days of the dead or ghost days date back thousands of years and were part of tribal folk religions before the arrival of Christianity in Europe and Buddhism in Asia. In the United Kingdom, Halloween evolved from the traditional holiday of Celts who thought that the last day of October was “the day of the dead” or “the ghost day” when ghosts stepped over the line between the living and the dead. The Chinese have a similar belief.
The Chinese believe that during Ghost Month, especially on the night of the full moon, there is a greater connection between the living and the dead, so they must take measures or honor the deceased. They execute rituals or ceremonies to defend themselves from ghost attacks or pranks, as well as to commemorate and venerate their ancestors or great persons from the past. It is thought that the spirits of the deceased can assist and protect them.
Modern Celebrations Practices
Today, the holiday has developed, and many people have added their own personal touch to the original celebrations. Communities put on theater productions, parades, and concerts. Some individuals also release floating lanterns on water to represent the release of trapped spirits and to ask for blessings, while others write messages for their ancestors on sky lanterns.
Some people hold eco-friendly celebrations, such as making homemade paper lanterns or using solar-powered lights. Plant-based foods are increasingly becoming more popular, making celebrations more sustainable and humane.