It is the time of the year when superstitions reign supreme for a lot of Chinese people. We are right now in the midst of the Hungry Ghost Month which runs from August 10 to September 7 this year, with the Hungry Ghost Festival or zh?ng yuán jié falling on August 24.
The fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is called Ghost Festival and the seventh month in general is regarded as the Ghost Month, in which ghosts and spirits, including those of the deceased ancestors, come out from the netherworld, wandering in search for food. On Ghost Day, the deceased are believed to visit the living.
On Ghost 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 (often vegetarian 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 releasing miniature paper boats and lanterns on water, which signifies giving directions to the lost ghosts and spirits of the ancestors and other deities.
Chinese celebrate this festival in order to remember their dead family members and pay tribute to them. They also feel that offering food to the deceased appeases them and wards off bad luck. It’s important to give them a sumptuous feast, to please them and to bring luck to the family. Taoists and Buddhists perform ceremonies on this day to ease the sufferings of the deceased. Chinese perform these rituals due to fear that the revengeful spirit may come back to take revenge. Some even think that the ghosts would seek revenge on those who had wronged them in their lives.
There is also the belief that some entertainment be provided to please those wandering ghosts. The Ghost Festival in Singapore and Malaysia is modernized by the ‘concert-like’ live night performances on outdoor stages in some neighborhood. The live show is popularly known as “ge-tai”, performed by a group of singers, dancers and entertainers. Nowadays performances by young girls wearing trendy revealing attire have become very popular. The festival is funded by the residents of each individual residential districts. Karaoke too can be heard and funny Mandarin or Hokkien pantomime is played to the delights of the older generations. Many chairs are lay in front of the stage where the first rows are reserved for the souls of the dead.
The Chinese also do a lot of offerings to the deceased. These offerings are made by burning fake money notes, known as hell money, and even paper television sets, houses and cars to give to their dead relatives. The Chinese feel that these offerings reach the ghosts and help them live comfortably in their world. Some Chinese even burn paper hand phones, computers and other modern gadgets but there are some Chinese who shy away from burning such modern gadgets as they fear that their dead ancestors may not know how to use these gadgets and would therefore “drag” them to the other world so that they can teach their dead ancestors how to use the gadgets.
Almost as important as honoring your ancestors, offerings to ghosts without families must be made, so that they will not cause you any harm. Ghost month is the most dangerous time of the year, and malevolent spirits are on the look out to capture souls.
Going swimming during the Ghost Month is considered bad as an evil ghost may cause you to drown.This makes ghost month a bad time to do activities such as evening strolls, traveling, picnics, moving house, or starting a new business. No late night are tolerated during the seventh month. Most mums or grandmothers nag for all to be home before midnight. In addition to this, children are also advised to return home early and not to wander around alone at night. This belief is due to the reason that the wandering ghosts might possess children. And during the seventh month, if any death is reported it will be pointed out that, it is due to disobedience. Do not step on the burnt incense papers, you could be possessed. Weddings and business launches are not held as it may bring bad luck. Whistling should be avoided as it may draw souls to one’s home.
The last day of the Ghost Month is when the Gates of Hell are closed up again. The chants of Taoist priests inform the spirits that it’s time to return, and as they are confined once again to the underworld, they let out an unearthly wail of lament. To make sure all the hungry ghosts find their way back to hell, people flow water lanterns and set them outside their houses. 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.