What’s the occasion? Hungry Ghost Festival

What’s the occasion? Hungry Ghost Festival / Zhōng Yuán Jié (中元節)

By Elaine Dunn

When is Hungry Ghost Festival?

Joss sticks for prayers and offerings

Joss sticks

Once a year on the evening of Oct. 31, Halloween or All Hallows Eve, kids in the United States and other countries in the Western Hemisphere dress up as ghouls and goblins to go trick-or-treating in their neighborhoods, returning home with enough candy to last for months!

In China and many ethnic Chinese communities in Asia from Cambodia to India to Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam all share the belief that real ghosts and spirits, hungry ones at that (!), roam the streets during the entire seventh lunar month each year, which is designated as Ghost Month (鬼月). No benign little trick-or-treaters, these roaming spirits are on the lookout for victims to claim so they can be reborn! This is the scariest and most dangerous month of the Chinese lunar year.

According to tradition …

there are three important days during Ghost Month: the first, the 15th and the last day of the month.

On the first day of the seventh lunar month, the Gates of Hell spring open so ghosts and spirits can access the world of the living. On the 15th day (14th in southern China*) – the Hungry Ghost Festival, also known as Zhong Yuan Jie (中元節) – is when families honor their dearly departed and appease the random spirits with no families. On the last day of the month, the Gates of Hell close and monks chant to let the spirits know it’s time to return to the underworld for another year.

*It was celebrated one day earlier in southern China because the southerners wanted to avoid being caught by enemies in the days when there was constant war among the states.

In 2013, the Hungry Ghost Festival falls on August 21. The main difference between this day and the other festivals honoring deceased ancestors in China is the living go to visit the dead on the other three occasions (Spring Festival, Ching Ming and Double Ninth), whereas on Hungry Ghost Festival, the spirits come to the living!

Hungry Ghost Festival is neither a religious or civil holiday. The festival is tied to the legend of a Buddhist monk, Mu Lian, who discovered his wicked deceased mother was reborn at a low rebirth level – the “hungry ghost” level. While alive, she opposed her son’s wish to become a monk as she had envisioned him becoming a successful businessman. To spite the monks, who were vegetarians, she included meat in the food she offered to them. As punishment, she was immediately sent to hell.

Mu Lian prayed incessantly for her release and tried to send food to her. However, because of her wickedness in life, she had to compete with other hungry ghosts for food in her afterlife. When she did get the food, the food would burn her her lips when she tried to eat it. Therefore, she was always hungry. Mu Lian decided to make food offerings to the other ghosts so they would let his mother eat in peace. The king of hell was moved by his filial piety and eventually, she was released. Buddha decreed that once a year the Gates of Hell will be opened to allow all spirits roam the earth and be fed.

What happens on this day?

Joss sticks and food offerings

The roaming spirits are said to be in “high gear” on the 15th. In honoring one’s departed ancestors, food and drink are offered at night inside the home. The table is set with empty seats strictly reserved for the deceased. No one is allowed to sit in them. However, never place a young child alone by the altar table lest the hungry ghosts mistake the youngster as part of the food offering.

Prayers are accompanied with the burning of joss sticks and (paper) hell money. Nowadays, papier maché gifts ranging from luxury cars, apartments, iPads and even papier maché servants, are also burnt. These gifts and money are for the deceased ancestors to live comfortably in the afterlife.

Almost as important as honoring your ancestors to obtain good fortune and their blessing for the family, offerings to ghosts without families must also be made. It is believed that those who died accidental deaths, committed suicide, died unjustly or did not get a proper burial make up the roaming lost souls who were denied entry into heaven. Feeding these lost souls not only shows compassion, it is also hoped it would prevent them from causing trouble. The lost souls are the ones looking for innocent victims who cross their path so as to capture their souls for their own reincarnation.

To appease the lost souls and random spirits whose families have forgotten them, people and businesses set up offerings of food, incense and hell money at makeshift altars outside the home on the street. These street-side offerings prevent the lost souls from entering homes and businesses as their malevolent nature can cause trouble, despite being fed!

People show their respect by always allowing the spirits to eat in peace. To avoid incurring the wrath of the hungry ghosts, people never kick the altars and food offerings, or peek under the altar table. Another form of appeasement is providing free entertainment for the wandering spirits. Many communities set up temporary outdoor stages for Chinese opera, singing and dance performances throughout Ghost Month. These performances are particularly popular with the living as well, especially in rural communities where live entertainment is sparse. One important point to observe for attendees: do not sit in the first row. Those seats are strictly reserved for the ghosts.

On the last day of the month, more paper money is burned to ensure the spirits have that to use back in hell. Colorful paper lanterns with the ancestors’ names written on them are lit and set afloat on the river. Lanterns can be in the shape of the lotus flower and boats, and are believed to guide the ghosts safely back to the underworld.



As with anything related to the dead, Ghost Month is considered inauspicious. As such, there are many “don’ts” associated with it:

· Children and adults alike should avoid being out in the dark.

· Should you hear your name called from behind, do not turn back and look as it may be a ghost calling!

· Curtail swimming as the lost souls are likely to drown their victims so they can be reincarnated.

· Avoid activities that you wish to have a good beginning and ending such as moving to a new home, starting a new business or getting married

· Do not hang clothes out to dry in case the ghosts try them on, bringing death to any living person who put that on afterwards

Ready for a month-long ghoulish celebration, anyone?

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