Hungry Ghost Festival
- Celebrated: Aug. 21 to Aug. 21
The Hungry Ghost Festival that is also known as the Zhongyuan Festival is one of four traditional festivals in China to worship ancestors. The other three are the Spring Festival, the Qingming Festival, and the Double Ninth Festival. The Taoist name for the Hungry Ghost Festival is the Zhongyuan Festival (中元节), and Buddhists call it the Yulanpen Festival. It is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. This day falls on August 14, 2011 in our Western calendar. In South China, the Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated by some on the 14th day of the seventh lunar month or August 13. The people in South China are said to have celebrated the festival a day earlier to avoid being caught by enemies at a time when there was a lot of warfare. The Hungry Ghost Festival is one of the important days of Ghost Month (鬼月) -- the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar. It is thought that the ghosts of ancestors are let out of hell on the first day of the month, so by the 15th day they are very hungry. So people traditionally prepare a meal for them, burn incense or pray to them on Hungry Ghost Festival day.
The seventh month is the scariest month of the year because on the first day of the seventh month of the Chinese calendar, the ghosts are let out of hell. This is an ancient belief. The ghosts roam around looking for entertainment, and many people try to avoid doing anything dangerous such as swimming or being out alone at night since the ghosts are active. It is thought that the ghosts may attack their enemies or be angry or malicious. So the Chinese have certain traditions about what to do about the situation on the first, 14th or 15th, and last day of the 7th lunar month.
One the first day of the month, people burn make-believe paper money outside their homes or businesses or along the sides of roads or in fields. Sometimes, they go to temples to do this. It is thought that the ghosts need the money to use. They light incense and may make sacrifices of food to worship the hungry unhappy ghosts. People believe that the ghosts will not bring bad luck after eating their sacrifices. Red painted paper lanterns can be found everywhere including business and residential areas. There are street ceremonies, market ceremonies, and temple ceremonies. During street and market ceremonies, people gather on the street or at the market to celebrate the festival. At temple ceremonies, monks in temples organize festive activities. Many believe it is important to appease the ghosts to avoid spiritual attack.
The Hungry Ghosts Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month by most people and on the 14th day by some in the south of China comes as the hot summer ends and the cool autumn begins on the scary night of the full moon. In many ways, this festival is reminiscent of Halloween or the Night of the Dead in the West. Since people believe that their ancestors pay visits especially on this day of the full moon and that after two weeks of mundane activity they are especially hungry and tired and perhaps angry, they must worship their ancestors. The ceremony is usually held at dusk. On the Hungry Ghosts Festival, people put the family’s ancestral tablets on a table and then burn incense and prepare food three times a day. Plates of food are put out for the ghosts on the table, and the people may kowtow and pray in front of the memorial tablets to report their behavior to their ancestors in hopes that their ancestors bless them. People also feast on this night, and leave a place open at the table for their lost ancestor.
On the last day of the seventh lunar month that falls on August 28th in 2011, ghost month ends. The last day of the month is when the gates of hell are closed up again. People celebrate and observe this day in various ways. Many burn more paper money and clothing so that the ghosts can use them in their society in hell. The pictures and tablets of ancestors may be put away back on the shelves or hung back on the walls where they were hung before. In order to encourage the ghosts to leave, Taoist monks chant to make them leave. They hate the place and are thought to scream and wail.
A common tradition that many families participate in is the floating of river lanterns. People make colorful lanterns out of wood and paper, and families write their ancestors’ name on the lanterns. A floating river lantern is believed to take or guide those ghosts. On the night of the festival, people place paper boats with the paper lanterns in the river, and they watch the boats as they float away.
In Jiangxi Province and Hunan Province, the Hungry Ghost Festival is considered to be more important than the Qingming Festival and the Double Ninth Festival. The majority of Chinese have these beliefs. For many families, the Hungry Ghost Festival day on August 14 will be an occasion for feasting. ?
There are many ideas about the origin of the Hungry Ghost Festival and the idea of the Ghost Month (鬼月) in China. It is interesting that cultures in Asia all the way from India to Cambodia to Japan share similar beliefs and that these traditions seem to date from before Buddha was alive. It was a part of the more ancient folk religions that seem to cover the entire area. Taoism is the indigenous religion of China that incorporates a lot of the ancient folk religion. According to Taoist records, the gates of hell are opened and hungry ghosts are released to find food or to take revenge on those who have behaved badly in the seventh lunar month. The Taoists chant together to free the ghosts. Another story talks about how the King Yama opens the gates of hell on the Hungry Ghost Festival and allows a few wild ghosts to enjoy sacrifice on the first day of the seventh lunar month. The gates are closed on the last day of that month and the wild, hungry ghosts return to hell. Some Chinese believe that the gates of heaven are also opened during this month, and they worship their ancestors from heaven.
I updated this article on February 28, 2014
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