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A Chinese Halloween: the Hungry Ghost Festival

Outside of the large Chinese cities, Halloween isn’t a celebrated event so you may be rather disappointed if you’re in a small town waiting for children to come knocking on your door for a trick-or-treat. That may set you off wondering if the Chinese celebrate their roving ghosts? 

Absolutely! It’s called the Hungry Ghost Festival, or Zhong Yuan Jie. No, people don’t go out partying in outrageous costumes. Instead, it’s celebrated with some reverence and respect, and in some places, song and dance. Here’s all you need to know about the Hungry Ghost Festival.

What is it?

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Image Credit: Flickr

The Hungry Ghost Festival takes place in the seventh month of the lunar calendar, so dates vary year to year. It is said that at this time of the year, the gates of the netherworld open and spirits are free to roam the living world. Some believe that it’s not just the gates of hell that are open, but heaven too.

Why are they hungry? We hear you ask. Well, in this time of being in-between worlds, the spirits cannot eat or drink as they usually would, so are always hungry, and it is up to us mere mortals to feed them through offerings of food and drink.

Rituals, offerings, and some night entertainment

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Image Credit: Wikimedia

There are some very elaborate rituals performed by Taoist priests, and some traditional families take offerings very seriously. Incense is usually burned along the streets, along with things like hell-money, or even paper replicas of material luxuries from this world, like a posh car and a smartphone. It is thought that these items, when burned, reach the netherworld for their spirit relatives. By generously offering food and gift, it is hoped that angry spirits will be appeased and they will not be spiritually attacked. 

It’s not just about offering food and gifts though, as people also put up entertaining shows for the spirits. This could range from opera shows to elaborate concerts with a song, drama, and dance called Getai, which literally means “song stage” in Chinese. If you’re lucky enough to attend one, be sure not to sit on the first row! The first row is reserved exclusively for the VIPs- spirits!

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Image Credit: Wikimedia

How did it come about?

The history of Zhong Yuan Jie is one that weaves folk traditions with religion. One popular folk tale actually revolves around filial piety. A monk, Mu Nian, saved his mother when she fell into the mouth of a hungry ghost and burst into flames. A helpless Mu Nian turned to Buddha for help and was told to recite the Yu Lan Pen canon to save his mother on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month. The Yu Lan Pen canon serves to encourage filial piety amongst Buddhist followers. That is also why one of the names of the Hungry Ghost Festival is also called the Yu Lan Festival.

It’s been said that the custom of celebrating and honouring this festival has been around since the 6th century A.D, and it has since evolved into the present festival that we know today. 

Festival Superstitions

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Image Credit: Wikimedia

There are many guidelines that some Chinese adhere to rather strictly, not just in China but in Chinese communities around the world, especially in Southeast Asia. 

Here are some of the rules of the festival to prevent you from crossing paths and provoking and angry ghost.

1.    Keep your home DIY for a later time

This might freak you out.  But you may have spirits residing in your home at this time, and you may be disturbing them when you move your furniture around and spruce things up. 

2.    Don’t go swimming!

Spirits are said to wait around pools and seas to wait for the careless swimmer.  Why would they do that? To drown you of course, so that they get a chance at reincarnation.  The logic may be lost on you, but heed it just in case.

3.    Happy thoughts, or else…

If you’re a sensitive soul, avoid sappy movies and songs and getting into arguments so that you don’t get emotional and cry, especially at night.  Ghosts are known to possess people when they are emotionally down.

4.    Postpone that wedding for a happy ending

Got a wedding scheduled for the 7th lunar month? You may want to rethink that, as it’s considered to be an inauspicious month to be tying the knot. Malefic spirits are thought to cast bad spells on the newly wed couple.

The hungry ghost festival may not be a party time like how you’re used to celebrating Halloween. But if you happen to be travelling in China or in other East Asian countries that celebrate this, stick around and observe. Definitely visit the temples to witness the ceremonies, and enjoy a Getai performance or two. Just remember to avoid plonking yourself on the first row; you don’t want to be sitting on an already angry spirit!


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About the author

Tilda is a happy sufferer of chronic wanderlust. When she isn't spending a disproportionate amount of time Googling about places and cultures, she's writing, dancing, and navigating a massive career change. She shares stories and photography on Wanderful People, and shares her coffee with no one.

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