The Ghost Festival (鬼節 ) or the Hungry Ghost Festival (鬼節) is a traditional Taoists and Buddhists festival held in China and some Asian countries. The Taoists called it Zhong Yuan Jie (中元節) and the Buddhists called it Yu Lan Jie (盂蘭節). The Ghost Festival is on the 15th night of the seventh lunar month (or 14th in southern China). In 2018, it falls on the 25 August (Saturday) or 24 August (Friday) in southern China.

In China, people generally think that when people died, most of them go to hell and they are tortured to various extend for the reparation of the sins they committed when they were alive.

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Statues displayed in The Ghost City (Gui Cheng) of Fengdu (酆都鬼城) showing the torture of the deceased
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Statues showing the torture of the deceased
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Statues showing the deceased is about to be placed into boiling oil
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Statues showing the deceased is put into the mouth of a monster

During the seventh lunar month the gate of hell is opened to allow the ghosts and spirits go back to the living world. Those have families visit their families and those alone roam on the streets to seek food and entertainment.

Family members usually offer sacrifices to their deceased ancestors and relatives during the month and especially on the Ghost day. Deceased ancestors are honored with delicious food on tables. The family’s ancestral tablets and photographs are put on the table with incense burning near them.

Filial piety (孝道) of descendants extends to their ancestors even after their death. Activities during the month would include preparing ritualistic food offerings, burning incense, candles, joss paper and paper form of material items such as clothes and accessories, gold bars,  TV sets, washing machine, cars, houses or even servants for the deceased ancestors.

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Miniature model of Tai Fung Joss Stick and Candle Shop (大豐香莊) (Artist: Sandy Tsang), The shop sells various items for offering to the ancestors.
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Joss sticks, candles, paper clothes and everyday items are sold in the shop. (Artist of the miniature model: Sandy Tsang)
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Paper houses, paper cars and other fashionable goods for afterlife are sold in the shop. (Artist of the miniature model: Sandy Tsang)
Modern joss paper (ghost clothes and accessories)
Modern joss paper (ghost clothes and accessories)
Paper models of wallet, smart phone, watch, car key, pen, sun-glasses
Paper models of wallet, smart phone, watch, car key, pen, sun-glasses
Paper models of household items : refrigerators, gas stoves, oven, washing machine, air conditioner, sound system, painting
Paper models of household items : refrigerators, gas stoves, oven, washing machine, air conditioner, sound system, painting

People also pay tribute to those unknown wandering ghosts with food and burn joss paper to please the ghosts on the 15th (some places on the 14th) day of the seventh lunar month so that these homeless souls do not intrude on their lives and bring misfortune.

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Joss sticks and ghost money are burnt on the pavement in the street. (Artist of the miniature model: Sandy Tsang)
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Food such as roast duck, rice, fruits, wine are put on a tray for offering to the ancestors and restless spirits. (Artist of the miniature model: Sandy Tsang)
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Offerings such as food, rice, fruits, candles and joss sticks, ghost money are put on a round tray. (Artist of the miniature model: Sandy Tsang)
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Joss paper is burnt for the deceased

Many of the ceremonies are carried out at night as it is believed that the ghosts are released from hell when the sun sets. Taoists and Buddhists perform rituals to transmute and absolve the sufferings of the deceased. Altars are built for the deceased and monks chant mantra. Rice and other small foods are thrown into the air in all directions to the wandering ghosts.

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An altar set with burning incense and offerings of fruits and cakes

The Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva Pūrvapraṇidhāna Sūtra ( 地藏菩薩本願經) is a popular Mahayana Buddhist sutra chanted during the Festival. The sutra tells how Kṣitigarbha (地藏菩薩) became a bodhisattva (菩薩) by making great vows to rescue all other sentient beings and gives a description of his filial piety in his past lifetimes.

He vowed not to achieve Buddahood until all hells are emptied. 眾生度盡、方證菩提;地獄不空、誓不成佛

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Kṣitigarbha (地藏菩薩)

Other festivities may include buying and releasing miniature paper boats and lanterns on water, which signifies giving directions to the lost ghosts and spirits to find their way back to home. The lanterns are usually lotus flower-shaped with light or candles. Some people also write their ancestors’ names on the lanterns.

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Colorful lanterns floating on water

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 as the sound is believed to attract and please the ghosts. Some shows include Chinese opera, dramas and modern songs.

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A made-shift theatre for Cantonese opera performance

At the end of the lunar month all the hungry ghosts find their way back to hell.

In the Qingming Festival 清明節 (in spring) and Double Ninth Festival 重陽節 (in autumn) people pay homage to their deceased ancestors. In the Ghost Festival, it is believed that the deceased visit the living. People not only pay homage to their own deceased ancestors but also pay tribute to other unknown wandering spirits and ghosts.

Some people say that the Ghost Festival is similar to Halloween (All Saints’ Eve) on 31 October, the eve of the All Hallows’ Day originally dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs and all the faithful departed believers. Nowadays Halloween is a festival for parties using “humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.” Halloween activities include playing trick-or-treat, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, attending costume parties, telling scary stories, etc.

I think the Ghost Festival is more similar to the All Souls Day (2 November) than the Halloween. All Souls Day is a day of remembrance and prayers for the repose of the souls of the deceased.

A Chinese poem written about Zhong Yuan Jie by Fan Zhongyan (范仲淹) (989 – 1052) :

中元夜百花洲作

南陽太守清狂發,未到中秋先賞月。
百花洲裏夜忘歸,綠梧無聲露光滑。
天學碧海吐明珠,寒輝射空星斗疎。
西樓下看人間世,瑩然都在青玉壺。
從來酷暑不可避,今夕涼生豈天意。
一笛吹銷萬里雲,主人髙歌客大醉。
客醉起舞逐我歌,弗舞弗歌如老何。

Acknowledgements :

Patrick would like to thank Sandy Tsang, the artist and maker of the miniature model of ‘Tai Fung Joss Stick and Candle Shop’ for her wonderful and highly meticulous work which give us a lot of fond memories of the old Hong Kong lives.


Further readings :

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_Festival

https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E4%B8%AD%E5%85%83%E7%AF%80%E8%88%87%E7%9B%82%E8%98%AD%E7%9B%86%E7%AF%80

https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E7%9B%82%E8%98%AD%E7%9B%86%E6%9C%83 (盂蘭盆會)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%E1%B9%A3itigarbha_Bodhisattva_P%C5%ABrvapra%E1%B9%87idh%C4%81na_S%C5%ABtra

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halloween

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Souls%27_Day

https://zh.wikipedia.org/zh/%E8%8C%83%E4%BB%B2%E6%B7%B9 (范仲淹)

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5 thoughts on “Ghost Festival (鬼節) – Zhong Yuan Jie (中元節), Yu Lan Jie (盂蘭節)

  1. It seems a busy month of celebration /festival in July of the Chinese calendar. Unluckily there is no public holiday for these two festivals (The Double Seventh Festival and this one).
    At childhood, I did remember people who paid tribute to the deceased/ Ghost, unknown or known, with food, joss paper and also ‘real coins’ into the air/ streets after the ceremony at night. People/ children would rush there to get the coins for ‘fun’.
    There is also a ‘myth’ that people who were born in July of the Chinese calendar are extremely bright and smart. I did believe it.
    Thanks for your kindness in sharing the knowledge of these two festivals.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Ambrose, Thank you so much for your kind support and encouragement. I cannot keep on writing webpages without the support of my readers. Again, many thanks, Patrick

      Like

  2. Hi Patrick

    Thank you for evoking the memory of the “Ghost Festival”.

    The idea of the transcendent and the spirits is universal. Our deceased ancestors
    are always venerable and there are a myriad of ways to remember them.

    I remembered chanting the Mahayana Buddist Sutra while my mother was gravely ill every morning until her moment of passing. The belief was that it will help her to find peace and comfort.

    it is not surprising that being an agnostic, I still observe this traditional practice because it serves a purpose, it offers comfort.

    The Ghost Festival is enduring despite we are so advanced in astrophysics and other area of sciences. It will live in our collective unconsciousness from generation to generation to come.

    Liked by 1 person

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