Hungry Ghost Festival – Biography Points

Hungry Ghost Festival

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Hungry Ghost Festival Asian holiday

The Hungry Ghost Festival is a significant annual event celebrated across Asia, particularly in China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. This festival, also known as Zhong Yuan Jie in Chinese, is deeply rooted in tradition and spirituality, marking a time when the boundaries between heaven, hell, and the living are believed to blur. Celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, it is a blend of Buddhist and Daoist customs aimed at honoring and appeasing the spirits of the deceased.

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Hungry Ghost Festival
Hungry Ghost Festival

This festival is both eerie and joyous, observed in regions influenced by Chinese culture. It falls on the 15th day of the 7th month in the Chinese lunar calendar, corresponding to July or August in the Gregorian calendar. The Hungry Ghost Festival, drawing from Buddhist and Daoist beliefs, revolves around paying respects to restless spirits. While interpretations vary between religious traditions, the essence remains consistent. Sometimes referred to as the Yulanpen or Ullambana festival, it is based on the Buddhist Yulanpen (Ullambana) Sutra, which recounts the festival’s origin story.

During this time, offerings are made to appease the ghosts, and lanterns are lit as symbols of hope. While it may be loosely compared to Western holidays like Halloween, All Souls’ Day, or the Day of the Dead, the Hungry Ghost Festival possesses its own distinct cultural significance, practices, and regional nuances.

Origins and Significance

The Hungry Ghost Festival traces its roots back to ancient Chinese folklore and Buddhist beliefs. According to legend, this is the period when the gates of the underworld are opened, allowing spirits and restless ghosts to roam the earth. These spirits are often thought to be the souls of ancestors or those who died unnatural deaths and were not given proper burials. To appease these wandering spirits and avoid misfortune, families offer food, burn incense, and perform various rituals.

CountryName of Festival
China盂蘭盆節 (Yúlánpénjié) or 中元節 (Zhōngyuánjié)
Taiwan盂蘭盆節 (Yúlánpénjié) or 中元節 (Zhōngyuánjié)
SingaporeHungry Ghost Festival or 盂蘭盆節 (Yúlánpénjié)
MalaysiaHungry Ghost Festival or 盂蘭盆節 (Yúlánpénjié)
Hong Kong盂蘭盆節 (Yúlánpénjié) or 中元節 (Zhōngyuánjié)

Hungry Ghosts in Buddhism

In Buddhism, there’s a realm known as the hungry ghost realm, where beings suffer from insatiable hunger. These ghosts are depicted as terrifying creatures with large bellies and small mouths, believed to sometimes haunt the human realm, especially during the seventh month of the year in Chinese culture. According to Buddhist teachings, being reborn as a hungry ghost is a consequence of negative karma, indicating a need for spiritual purification.

A well-known tale from Mahayana Chinese Buddhism, the Yulanpen Sutra, narrates the story of Maudgalyayana, a devoted disciple of the Buddha. Upon realizing that his deceased mother had become a hungry ghost, Maudgalyayana tried to help her by offering food, but she couldn’t consume it. Seeking guidance, he turned to the Buddha, who advised that the entire Buddhist community gather to help the suffering spirits. Thus, a holiday was established on the 15th day of the seventh month, during which devotees offer food, incense, lanterns, and prayers to relieve the suffering of the departed.

These offerings are believed to transfer merit to the deceased, aiding them in escaping their plight. Additionally, the act of offering is seen as an expression of filial piety, a core Confucian value. The Yulanpen Sutra appears to merge Buddhist beliefs with Chinese cultural values, emphasizing the importance of honoring ancestors and relieving their suffering. While similar stories exist in earlier Buddhist texts, the Yulanpen Sutra formalizes the practice into a holiday, known as the Ullambana festival, which has been observed in China since 538 CE.

Ghost Month In Daoism

The connection between the seventh month and ancestral worship in Daoism likely predates the introduction of Buddhism to China. However, it’s unclear how Daoist and Buddhist practices influenced each other and which aspects of the Hungry Ghost Festival came first. It’s probable that over time, these two traditions interacted and influenced each other. Among Daoists, this holiday is known as Zhongyuan Jie, or the Middle Element Festival. In Daoist belief, there are three divine officials, called the Sanguan, overseeing the three realms: upper, middle, and lower. The middle realm, which is earth, is referred to as zhongyuan, meaning “middle element.” Its ruler is Diguan, also known as Qingxu, whose birthday falls on the 15th day of the seventh month, hence the festival’s name. On Diguan’s birthday, it’s believed he descends to earth to judge the deeds of the living.

Despite Diguan’s connection to the festival’s Daoist name, the main focus of the festivities isn’t on him. Instead, it’s on ghosts (gui), as per Daoist beliefs and Chinese folk traditions. It’s believed that during the seventh month, ghosts are released from the underworld to wander the earth. While ancestors’ ghosts are welcomed as cherished guests, there are also fearsome ghosts, often of those who died tragically or without family to care for them. Celebrants strive to protect themselves from these malevolent spirits to prevent harm.

During the Hungry Ghost Festival

During the Hungry Ghost Festival, believers go to great lengths to appease and honor the spirits wandering among them. These ghosts, believed to be hungry and in need, are offered various tokens of respect. Food plays a central role, with families setting out bowls of meals three times a day and even leaving an empty seat at the table for friendly ancestral spirits. Yet, it’s not just food they crave; money is also essential, both in the afterlife and in earthly realms. To provide for their needs, paper money, known as joss paper or spirit money, is ceremoniously burned. This act symbolizes the transfer of wealth from the living world to the spirit realm, ensuring the ghosts’ comfort and prosperity.

What Is the Hungry Ghost Festival Traditions
What Is the Hungry Ghost Festival Traditions

Beyond monetary offerings, elaborate rituals unfold during this month-long festival. Paper boats laden with symbols of luxury are set ablaze, and intricate paper crafts, representing everything from favorite foods to modern gadgets, are burned as offerings. Incense fills the air as prayers are recited by Buddhist monks and Daoist priests to ward off malevolent spirits. Cultural performances, including traditional Chinese operas and costumed parades, entertain both the living and the dead. As night falls, lanterns are lit and placed on water, guiding the spirits to the underworld.

However, amidst the festivities, caution prevails. The seventh month is deemed inauspicious for major life events like weddings or relocations, and swimming is discouraged due to the perceived presence of water spirits. Wearing red or black is ill-advised, as these colors attract ghosts, and precautions extend to mundane tasks like drying laundry overnight. It’s said that even hearing one’s name called late at night should be ignored, lest it be a ghost’s mischievous ploy. Such precautions are taken seriously, as believers navigate this delicate balance between honoring the spirits and safeguarding themselves from harm.

Related Ghost Festivals in Asia

In Asia, various cultures celebrate ghost festivals with unique traditions and customs. In Japan, the Hungry Ghost Festival takes the form of Obon. It’s believed to be a time when ancestral spirits return to visit their families. During Obon, people take a break from their daily routines to honor their ancestors and visit relatives. The festival, spanning from the 13th to the 15th days of the month, features colorful lanterns illuminating the way for the spirits as they come and go.

In Vietnam, a similar festival known as Vu Lan transforms from Ullambana. This occasion focuses on showing respect to both living and deceased parents. In Malaysia, the Chinese community commemorates the festival by paying homage to the god Dashiye, the ruler of the underworld. Effigies are burned to appease him and maintain order among the roaming spirits.

In Taiwan’s Hakka communities, the festival includes the display and feasting upon giant pigs, weighing over 1,500 pounds, as part of the festivities. Meanwhile, in Phuket, Thailand, Chinese communities celebrate Por Tor, where red cakes shaped like turtles take center stage during the festivities.

Modern-Day Observances

In contemporary times, the Hungry Ghost Festival continues to thrive, albeit with some modern adaptations. While traditional rituals are still widely practiced, urbanization and changing lifestyles have introduced new ways of observance. For instance, some people now opt for eco-friendly offerings and digital joss paper to minimize environmental impact. Additionally, community events and educational programs have become integral parts of the celebration, promoting cultural awareness and participation.

Cultural Impact

The Hungry Ghost Festival is more than just a religious observance; it is a cultural phenomenon that brings communities together. It serves as a reminder of the importance of filial piety, respect for ancestors, and the acknowledgment of the spiritual realm. Through the festival, the younger generation learns about their heritage and the significance of maintaining traditions.


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