Culture & Religion

Chinese Culture 101: The Hungry Ghost Festival

Image credit: Smart Chinese Pinyin Teacher
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You might notice some changes along the roads in KL recently, with some having a newly erected stage and others donned with little flags. This is all put in place for a rather important festival for the Chinese community – the Hungry Ghost Festival. This year, the festival falls this Saturday, August 25.

What is the Hungry Ghost Festival?

Culminating on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, known as “Ghost Day”, this traditional festival is celebrated by Buddhists and Taoists. The seventh lunar month is known as the “Ghost Month” as it is believed that the “Gates of Hell” is opened on the first day of the seventh month, where dead ancestors and lonely spirits roam among the living during the month-long celebration. The festival itself is held on the 14th night and 15th day of the lunar month, which means celebrations start tomorrow night, August 24, and continue on until the next day. In Malaysia, the Chinese typically pray to the “Guardian God of Ghosts” called “Da Shi Ye, in order to gain protection from the hungry souls.

Devotees believe that the ghosts are jailed in hell and according to folklore, the ghosts are on a “one month parole” during the seventh lunar month and during this time, the spirits travel and roam through towns. It is also believed that the ghosts are up to mischief, thus the need to appease them with food and entertainment, among other things.

How is it celebrated?

Devotees prepare food offerings for the ghosts, burn incense sticks, joss papers, including hell banknotes, and burn effigies made of wood and paper to please these spirits. It is also believed that if the spirits are satisfied, good luck will come your way. To help spirits return to their family home, candles and lanterns are lit, but if you see offerings along the roadside, it’s for homeless souls and it is best to leave it untouched.

Chinese opera and getai (meaning literally song stage) are set up, where sexy singers hold boisterous stage performances nightly throughout the month in Malaysia and Singapore to entertain spirits. Large tents are set up in open fields for this purpose, where dinners and auctions are held too. The performances itself feature tales of gods and goddesses, bawdy stand-up comedy, as well as songs, and dance numbers. You may notice that the first few rows in front of the stage is kept empty and this is because those seats are kept for the ghosts, hence, you should not sit there.

Hungry Ghost Traditions and Taboos

For any Chinese family, the Hungry Ghost Festival month is a bad time to do anything, particularly significant milestones, which are avoided at this time as people believe it would bring bad luck. Here is a list of some of the traditions and taboos commonly associated with the festival:

  • Businessmen avoid flying in airplanes, buying property, or closing business deals.
  • Believers should not buy property, move houses, renovate houses, or get married as it is believed the ghosts will disrupt plans, resulting in an unsettled home and marriage.
  • Children are told not to go swimming, believing that the ghosts will pull them underwater, so as to find a replacement for their soul in hell.
  • Umbrellas should not be opened indoors, as it is believed a ghost may seek shelter under it and cause disturbances.
  • Do not stay out too late at night. According to an old belief, ghosts are at their strongest in the night because the “yin” energy from the moon strengthens them, whereas the “yang” energy from the sun weakens them.
  • Avoid killing insects that come into your home as it is believed that the insects are a reincarnation of spirits or could be your departed loved ones who are visiting you.
  • Avoid hanging your clothes overnight as they easily attract spirits.
  • It is advised that you wash your feet before entering your home.
  • Avoid spitting at trees or plants.
  • Don’t camp outdoors at night and avoid using the mirror at midnight.
  • Don’t whistle on the quiet street at night.
  • Don’t pick up coins or money on the street.
  •  Don’t insert chopsticks vertically into a rice bowl.

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