The Ghost Festival also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival (Traditional Chinese: 盂蘭節, Pinyin: yulanjié, alternatively Simplified Chinese: 鬼节, Traditional Chinese: 鬼節, Pinyin: guǐjié) is a traditional Chinese festival and holiday, which is celebrated by Chinese in many countries.In the Chinese calendar (a lunisolar calendar), the Ghost Festival is on the 15th night of the seventh lunar month.
In Chinese tradition, the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is called Ghost Day and the seventh month in general is regarded as the Ghost Month (鬼月), in which ghosts and spirits, including those of the deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm. Distinct from both the Qingming Festival (in Spring) and Chung Yeung Festival (in Autumn) in which living descendants pay homage to their deceased ancestors, on Ghost Day, the deceased are believed to visit the living.
On the fifteenth day the realms of Heaven and Hell and the realm of the living are open and both Taoists and Buddhists would perform rituals to transmute and absolve the sufferings of the deceased. Intrinsic to the Ghost Month is ancestor worship, where traditionally the filial piety of descendants extends to their ancestors even after their deaths. Activities during the month would include preparing ritualistic food offerings, burning incense, and burning joss paper, a papier-mache form of material items such as clothes, gold and other fine goods for the visiting spirits of the ancestors. Elaborate meals would be served with empty seats for each of the deceased in the family treating the deceased as if they are still living. Ancestor worship is what distinguishes Qingming Festival from Ghost Festival because the latter includes paying respects to all deceased, including the same and younger generations, while the former only includes older generations. Other festivities may include, buying and releasing miniature paper boats and lanterns on water, which signifies giving directions to the lost ghosts and spirits of the ancestors and other deities.
The Ghost Festival shares some similarities with the predominantly Mexican observance of El Día de los Muertos. Due to theme of ghosts and spirits, the festival is sometimes also known as the Chinese Halloween, though many have debated the difference between the two.
Buddhist Ghost Festival: Ullambana
Both Buddhists and Taoists claim that the Ghost Festival originated with their religion but its roots are probably in Chinese folk religion and antedates both religions (see Stephen Teiser's 1988 book, The Ghost Festival in Medieval China). In the Tang Dynasty, the Buddhist festival Ullambana and the Ghost Festival were mixed and celebrated together.
The Buddha's joyful day
To Buddhists, the seventh lunar month is a month of joy. This is because the fifteenth day of the seventh month is often known as the Buddha's joyful day and the day of rejoice for monks. The origins of the Buddha's joyful day can be found in various scriptures. When the Buddha was alive, his disciples meditated in the forests of India during the rainy season of summer. Three months later, on the fifteen day of the seventh month, they would emerge from the forests to celebrate the completion of their meditation and report their progress to the Buddha. In the Ullambana Sutra, the Buddha instructs his disciple Maudgalyāyana on how to obtain liberation for his mother, who had been reborn into a lower realm, by making food offerings to the sangha on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. Because the number of monks who attained enlightenment during that period was high, the Buddha was very pleased.
The Buddhist origins of the festival can be traced back to a story that originally came from India, but later took on culturally Chinese overtones. In the Ullambana Sutra, there is a descriptive account of a Buddhist monk named Mahāmaudgalyāyana, originally a brahmin youth who later ordained, and later becoming one of the Buddha's chief disciples. Mahāmaudgalyāyana was also known for having clairvoyant powers, an uncommon trait amongst monks.
After he attained arhatship, he began to think deeply of his parents, and wondered what happened to them. He used his clairvoyance to see where they were reborn and found his father in the heavenly realms i.e. the realm of the gods. However, his mother had been reborn in a lower realm, known as the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. His mother took on the form of a hungry ghost (preta) – so called because it could not eat due to its highly thin and fragile throat in which no food could pass through, yet it was always hungry because it had a fat belly. His mother had been greedy with the money he left her. He had instructed her to kindly host any Buddhist monks that ever came her way, but instead she withheld her kindness and her money. It was for this reason she was reborn in the realm of hungry ghosts.
Mahāmaudgalyāyana eased his mother's suffering by receiving the instructions of feeding pretas from the Buddha. The Buddha instructed Mahāmaudgalyāyana to place pieces of food on a clean plate, reciting a mantra seven times, snap his fingers then tip the food on clean ground. By doing so, the preta's hunger was relieved and through these merits, his mother was reborn as a dog under the care of a noble family.
Mahāmaudgalyāyana also sought the Buddha's advice to help his mother gain a human birth. The Buddha established a day after the traditional summer retreat (the 14th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, usually mid-to-late August) on which Mahāmaudgalyāyana was to offer food and robes to 500 bhikkhus. Through the merits created, Mahāmaudgalyāyana's mother finally gained a human birth.
Due to Confucian influence, the offering became directed towards ancestors rather than the Sangha and ancestor worship has replaced the simple ritual of relieving the hunger of pretas. However, most Buddhist temples still continue the ancient practice of donating to the Sangha as well as to perform rituals for the hungry ghosts.
The Ghost Festival is celebrated during the seventh month of the Chinese Lunar calendar. It also falls at the same time as a full moon, the new season, the fall harvest, the peak of Buddhist monastic asceticism, the rebirth of ancestors, and the assembly of the local community. During this month, the gates of hell are opened up and ghosts are free to roam the earth where they seek food and entertainment. These ghosts are believed to be ancestors of those who have forgotten to pay tribute to them after they had died, or those who have suffered deaths and were never given a proper ritual for a send-off. They have long thin necks because they have not been fed by their family, or it is a sign of punishment so they are unable to swallow. Family members offer prayers to their deceased relatives and burn "Hell bank notes" and other forms of joss paper. Such paper items are only valid in the underworld, which is why they burn it as offering to the ghosts that have come from the gates of hell. The afterlife is very similar in some aspects to the material world, and the paper effigies of material goods would provide comfort to in the afterlife. People would also burn other things such as paper houses, cars, servants and televisions to please the ghosts.
Families also pay tribute to other unknown wandering ghosts so that these homeless souls do not intrude on their lives and bring misfortune. A large feast is held for the ghosts on the fourteenth day of the seventh month, when people brings samples of food and place them on the offering table to please the ghosts and ward off bad luck. In some East Asian countries today, live performances are held and everyone is invited to attend. The first row of seats are always empty as this is where the ghosts sit. The shows are always put on at night and at high volumes, so that the sound attracts and pleases the ghosts. Some shows include Chinese opera, dramas, and in some areas, even striptease shows. These acts are better known as "Merry-making".
For rituals, Buddhist and Taoists hold ceremonies to relieve ghosts from suffering, many of them holding ceremonies in the afternoon or at night (as it is believed that the ghosts are released from hell when the sun sets). Altars are built for the deceased and priests and monks alike perform rituals for the benefit of ghosts. Monks and priests often throw rice or other small foods into the air in all directions to distribute them to the ghosts.
During the evening, incense is burnt in front of the doors of households. Incense stands for prosperity in Chinese culture, so families believe that there is more prosperity in burning more incense. During the festival, some shops are closed as they want to leave the streets open for the ghosts. In the middle of each street stands an altar of incense with fresh fruit and sacrifices displayed on it.
Fourteen days after the festival, to make sure all the hungry ghosts find their way back to hell, people float lanterns on water and set them outside their houses (a practice mostly found amongst the Japanese). These lanterns are made by setting a lotus flower-shaped lantern on a paper boat. The lanterns are used to direct the ghosts back to the underworld, and when they go out, it symbolizes that they have found their way back.
The Ghost Festival in Malaysia is modernized by the 'concert-like' live performances. It has its own characteristics and is not similar to other Ghost Festivals in other countries. The live show is popularly known as 'Koh-tai' by the Hokkien-speaking people, performed by a group of singers, dancers and entertainers on a temporary stage that setup within the residential district. The festival is funded by the residents of each individual residential districts.
Chūgen (中元), also Ochūgen (お中元), is an annual event in Japan on July 15, when people give gifts to their superiors and acquaintances. One of the three days that form the Japanese sangen三元 of Taoism, it is sometimes considered a Zassetsu in the Japanese calendar. Originally it was an annual event for giving gifts to the ancestral spirits.
O-bon, or simply Bon, is the Japanese version of the Ghost Festival. It has since been transformed over time into a family reunion holiday during which people from the big cities return to their home towns and visit and clean their ancestors' graves.
Traditionally including a dance festival, it has existed in Japan for more than 500 years. It is held from of July 13, to July 16, ("Welcoming Obon" and "Farewell Obon" respectively) in the eastern part of Japan, (Kanto), and in August in the western part (Kansai).
Vietnam: Tết Trung Nguyên
This festival is viewed as the time for the pardoning of condemned souls who are then released from hell. Those which are "homeless" should be "fed" and appeased with offerings of food. Merits for the living are also earned by the release of birds and fish.
Influenced by Buddhism, this holiday coincides with Vu Lan，the Vietnamese transliteration for Ullambana.
In modern times Vu Lan is also seen as Mother's Day. People with living mothers would give thanks while those without would attend services to pray for the deceased.
- Hungry ghosts in Chinese religion
- Buddhism in China
- Buddhism in Hong Kong
- Buddhism in Taiwan
- Bon Festival
- Day of the Dead
- Teiser, Stephen. The Ghost Festival in Medieval China. Princeton University Press, 1996.
- "Hungry Ghost Festival". Essortment, 2002. Retrieved 20 October 2008. Essortment Articles.
- "Chinese Culture: Hungry Ghost Festival" Modern China
- "Ghost Festival" ChinaVoc 2001-2007, Online Store.
- Zhongyuan Festival
- Chinese Ghost Culture
- Hong Kong University Library Digital Archives Oral History Project of Hong Kong
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