What is it?
The Hungry Ghost Festival is one of several traditional festivals in China to worship ancestors. The Taoist name for the Hungry Ghost Festival is the Zhongyuan Festival and Buddhists call it the Yulanpen Festival. The Chinese special customs regarding dead people and their ghosts are thousands of years old. The popular folk religion called Daoism includes days for dealing with errant ghosts in the land. When they visit in the seventh month of the lunar calendar, special precautions and ceremonies are necessary. The Hungry Ghost Festival is the most important festival of Hungry Ghost month.
Buddhist teaching is that there are 6 realms: Heavenly beings, asuras, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, hell beings. Based on karma, which is the effect of your thoughts, words and deeds during your lifetime, a person is reborn into different realms. Hungry Ghost is one of those realms.
When is it?
It is on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month which in 2020 was Wednesday 2nd September.
This day usually falls in July or August in the Western calendar. In southern China there are said to have begun celebrating the festival a day earlier during a time of long warfare to avoid being attacked by enemies during the inauspicious day.
What does it involve?
Believers perform special ceremonies to avoid the wrath of the ghosts such as burning incense and preparing food three times that day. The main ceremony is usually held at dusk. People put the family’s ancestral tablets and old paintings and photographs on a table and then burn incense near them. Plates of food are put out for the ghosts on the table, and the people may kowtow in front of the memorial tablets and report their behavior to their ancestors to receive a blessing or punishment. People also feast on this night, and they might leave a place open at the table for a lost ancestor.
Temples conduct rituals, while families, businesses and organisations perform their own prayer rites outside the front of their premises. So when you look for offerings there will none at the back of the premises.
Taoist temples perform salvation ritual to pray for deliverance of souls and ancestors, seeking the grace of Lord Tai Yi of Salvation, the Taoist mercy deity, and forgiveness from the Earth Official. Besides this, blessing and birthday rites are also done on Zhong Yuan Jie to seek blessing from the Earth Official.
On the first day of the month believers burn fake paper money (akin to Monopoly money) outside their homes or businesses, along the sides of roads, or in fields. Sometimes, they go to temples. They also light incense and may make sacrifices of food to worship the hungry unhappy ghosts. Red painted paper lanterns are put up everywhere including business and residential areas.
The last day of the seventh lunar month is marked with a special festival too as this is the day that the gates of hell are closed up again. People celebrate and observe this day in various ways. Many burn more paper money and paper clothing so that the ghosts can use these things in their hell society. The pictures and tablets of ancestors may be put away back on the shelves or hung back on the walls where they were before.
In order to drive the ghosts away, Taoist monks chant to make them leave. The ghosts are thought to hate the sound, and therefore scream and wail. Many families float river lanterns on little boats in the evening. People make colorful lanterns out of wood and paper, and families write their ancestors’ name on the lanterns. The ghosts are believed to follow the floating river lanterns away.
There are usually street, market and temple ceremonies to appease the ghosts to avoid spiritual attack. Due to Covid-19 that hasn’t happened this year.
What to look out for
The Singapore government provide dark-coloured metal bins scattered around residential areas and housing estates. These are specifically provided to contain the stacks of hell money and paper offerings, such as cars, watches and jewellery, that are burned by relatives to appease their deceased family members—taking care of their material needs even in the afterlife.
There is lots of food left out in the open. Many place their food offerings (oranges, rice or even suckling pig) and joss sticks on proper altars, but lots of believers place them at the them at the side of footpaths or trees. Hungry ghosts are very pitiful. They are always hungry because whatever food they touch turns into something inedible. When people offer food during this month they do it for 3 types of ghosts. The first are their ancestors. The second are for the wandering souls with no one to pray for them. The third are for those who would otherwise harm them. It is believed that by offering food to them, you are relieving them of their suffering and this earns you merit as you practise compassion for the souls that are suffering.
In Temples, they also offer food, and rituals. After the ritual, the food is deemed to have been consumed by the ghosts, and whatever is left behind is unwanted by the ghosts. These are then distributed to people. After the candles and incense have finished burning whatever is left is unwanted by ghosts.
The usual mainstay of the festival is the ‘getai’ performance as a popular mode of entertainment for the wandering spirits. Large tents are set up in open fields to host raucous dinners and auctions in heartland estates. There are performances too, such as Chinese operas and ‘getai’ (literally ‘song stage’ in Chinese, or live stage performances), which feature tales of gods and goddesses, bawdy stand-up comedy, as well as song and dance numbers. ‘Getai’ is a very different from the traditional performance as it is jazzed up with stages, lights and sound. Young perfomers sing both traditional songs in dialect and techno pop versions in English and Mandarin. (Again, due to Covid-19, these performances did not happen this year.)
Everyone is welcome but remember not to sit in the front row. The seats at the front of the getai shows are reserved for, and occupied by, the ghosts that are being honored by the festival. If you go and sit there, you may unwittingly be sitting in the lap of a now-angry ghost; and more importantly, you’ll be offending the people who believe their relatives are visiting them during the Ghost Month.
It is thought that the ghosts of Chinese ancestors are let out of hell on the first day of the month. It has been the scariest month of the year for thousands of years. They roam around looking for peculiar entertainment, and many fearful Chinese try to avoid swimming or being alone at night lest an enemy ghost comes after them. It is believed that whenever someone dies, this frees up a new place for an evil ghost to rebirth into. In an attempt to expedite this process, ghosts will try to drown people in swimming pools and some people avoid travelling by sea for the same reason.
According to Chinese folklore, the nighttime is when roaming ghosts are at their strongest with increased numbers and a stronger presence. People avoid being upset at night as an emotional mind makes them more vulnerable to being possessed by a ghost. Whistling, humming or singing to oneself while walking around at night makes a person highly liable to attract spirits towards the sound. Hanging damp clothes out at night is avoided as wandering ghosts will try them on and then the spirits will be brought inside. Leaving umbrellas open (to dry out) is essentially an offer for ghosts to come and take shelter underneath them. Even mentioning ghosts during the nighttime can attract their attention.
Don’t take photos during this period as the traditional belief is that cameras can trap spirits. This belief was exacerbated with film photography when developed pictures would sometimes include indecipherable, ghostly images.
Generally, nothing new happens whatsoever during this period. Weddings would be considered as predestined for failure because of curses from bitter ghosts that may crash a wedding. Ghosts could be occupying temporarily empty places in the wedding venue waiting to put a hex on the unlucky couple. People also avoid wearing high heels, black and red to avoid unwanted attention from ghosts.
Hungry Ghost Festival
This is an interesting festival to watch. There are plenty of offerings being made at the the side of the road and the lantern festivals the end of the month is usually stunning. Something to look forward too.