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Short Guide to the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival / Ghost Month


Hungry Ghost Festival

For my non-Chinese or non-east Asian readers, this month may appear to be no different from any other months in the year. However, while you have been getting along with your daily lives, you may have been accompanied by our friends from the other side.

We have just passed the 15th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar (as can be seen from the wholeness of the moon hence the “lunar” calendar). According to Chinese customs, the 7th month is the Ghost Month or the month where hungry ghosts roam the earth. Depending on what stories you are told, the basis for the festival may be different.

When I was growing up, I was told stories of how the Ghost King (under Chinese mythology, he is a king ruling over hell and not some kind of devil) will open the gates of hell and allow all souls in it a month to roam the human world. It is their time of the year where they get to feast on the offerings being made and also enjoy pleasures in life that they would have been accustomed to while alive.

However, if you are a Buddhist, the underlying basis behind the Ghost Month is different and involves notions of filial piety. The story is something like this:

There was once a monk who became one of the Buddha’s chief disciples. This monk eventually found out that his mother had been banished to hell and had taken on the form of a hungry ghost. His mother had highly thin neck and a small head but with a very big belly and was in perpetual state of hunger. She was being punished having acted greedily with respect to monies left to her by her monk son. Instead of being kind to other monks as was instructed by her son, she pocketed the monies.

The monk tried to provide food for his suffering mother but such food turned into burning coals before she could eat them. The monk then sought help from Buddha on how to alleviate his mother’s suffering. Buddha instructed to make certain food offerings which when done according to a ritual will help relieve the hunger of these ghosts.

Whether you subscribe to either version, the customs of preparing food offerings, burning incense, and burning joss paper, and burning mock items made from paper that are commonly used by humans (iPhones, cans of beers, clothing, cash, maid servants)  are the same. Sometimes such offerings are meant for your own ancestors but at times for the random soul roaming outside your house or along the street:

If you are visiting Asia during this period of time, you will see offerings being laid out along footpaths, makeshift tables and even at temples. You will also see people burning offerings to those living on the other side. While it is okay to take photos of these offerings, do try to stay safe and not offend anyone or anything unnecessarily.

I set out below 6 rules that I abide by during this ghostly month and maybe you should too:

Rule 1 : Don’t kick or step on the offerings. Nobody wants their plate of offerings being kicked while they are enjoying their food. While you may not intend to, these offerings are sometimes placed at street corners and there is a high chance you might accidentally hit one (I ended up doing hopscotch to avoid stepping on joss papers last night – What an amazing sight it would have been to see me suddenly jumping)

Rule 2 : Don’t put out those burning piles (unless there is a true fire hazard). Nobody wants dripping piles of wet money or a half an iphone or a torn dress.

Rule 3 : If you happen to violate either Rules 1 or 2, immediately say sorry for your stupidity and be sincere about it.

Rule 4 : If touring Asia and you happen to see a folk performance with empty seats up at the front, please don’t take those seats. These are seats reserved for our unearthly friends.

Rule 5: If there is a foot path, just stay on it and do not venture off it. The place is already packed with our unearthly friends and it is not good to walk near them or into them.

Rule 6 : Don’t stay out too late. No good can come out of it.

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3 responses

    • I think it is something that even applies outside of Chinese/Asian culture. The later into the night, the weaker the “yang” and stronger the “yin”. The unearthly things associate with “yin” and the later it is, the stronger the unearthly things are and more likely to materialise.

      I understand the most “yin” period is between 2am to 4am.

      Coincidentally, under some Christian thinking, 3am is the devil’s hour (being directly opposite from 3pm – the ninth hour of the day and the hour Christ died)

      • That’s really interesting, I never knew about that. It’s interesting how night time has always been associated with evil. It appears in Greek and Roman mythology as well. I wonder why!

        I’d never heard that about the Christians either! Thanks!

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