What's the Hungry Ghost Festival in China?

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Do you love celebrating Halloween? What about the Day of the Dead? If you’re familiar with the inspiration behind both of those holidays, you know why they’re celebrated. Some people do it for the opportunity to eat candy and dress up. Others do it to honor their ancestors, or as part of a religious tradition, as is the case with the Hungry Ghost Festival.

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Honoring your ancestors is one of the biggest motivations behind celebrating the Hungry Ghost Festival. It’s a big part of Daoism, a major folk religion in China. The basic tenets of the festival are present in Buddhism and Hinduism, too. They’re just celebrated under different names. 

Why is the Hungry Ghost Festival Celebrated? 

In Western cultures, Halloween is comparatively tame. What was once known as All Saints’ Day has become a fun holiday for kids. The Hungry Ghost Festival is a wild celebration with traditional food and activities and there are also very important reasons for celebrating it. 

The seventh lunar month of the year is called Hungry Ghost Month. In many Chinese belief systems, all the ghosts of their ancestors are released from hell on the first day of this month. The seventh lunar month doesn’t strictly correspond to July, though. Some years, it does, but in other years, the seventh lunar month might fall in September. The festival starts on the 15th day of the seventh month. 

There are two major reasons for celebrating this festival. It’s an opportunity to honor and care for the ghosts of their ancestors. After two weeks of being released from hell, this festival operates on the principle that the ghosts are hungry. 

It’s also a method of self-defense. Many traditional Chinese believe that these ghosts are ready to wreak mischief, havoc, and pranks. These activities are sometimes inconvenient but harmless. Other times, they believe these ghostly activities escalate. 

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When and Where is the Hungry Ghost Festival?

The Hungry Ghost Festival is always held on the 15th day of the seventh month. But because it’s the lunar calendar, the actual date often varies. 

  • 2020: September 2
  • 2021: August 22
  • 2022: August 12
  • 2023: August 30

Ancestor worship is a common practice in many Asian religions, particularly on death anniversaries.

How is the Hungry Ghost Festival Celebrated?

There are lots of traditions in Chinese funerals, and the same thing is true for the Hungry Ghost Festival. 

Activities

Death in different cultures means something unique. In some religions, the dead will be resurrected upon the return of a Messiah figure. In others, ancestors are never really gone. And in still other faith traditions, the dead are reincarnated. 

In Chinese culture, appeasing the ghosts of their ancestors revolves around ceremonies. The main ceremony is held at dusk, and it’s meant to honor and support their ancestors. Ancestral tablets, paintings, or photographs of the ancestors are placed on a table. Then, incense is burned near these items. 

The memorial tablets and food provided are important parts of the ceremony. The food is for the ghosts to eat in case they’re hungry. Memorial tablets are a place for honor and respect. Descendants, those alive to celebrate the festival, often speak to the tablets. They can expect appropriate retribution from their ancestors after they do so. 

Food and drink

Lots of traditional foods are prepared. The living can eat but the priority is always dead ancestors. They’ve been wandering, hungry and straight from hell, for the past two weeks. It’s a chance to give them an opportunity to rest. 

Superstitions Associated with the Festival and Ghost Month

Superstitions are involved with the Hungry Ghost Festival — and they’re not the “bad-luck black cat” variety. Here’s some more information.

Staying safe

Not all ghosts who return are pleased. Many wreak havoc, according to traditional beliefs. That’s why many Chinese people refuse to outside alone after dark or swim alone — they feel vulnerable. These precautions don’t just happen during the festival. They’re put in place during the entire Hungry Ghost Month. 

Sometimes, there are no family members left to remember certain ancestors. That means the honor, food, and attention paid to other ghosts aren’t for them. They’ve been forgotten, and the vengeful tendencies get worse because of that.

Burning items 

Many different items are burned during the Hungry Ghost Festival. These items can be used in hell’s economy, as ghosts barter and trader for what they need. The types of items burned are very diverse. Many people burn food, money, television sets, and more. Whatever might be useful in the real world is often burned, and these huge bonfires light up the towns during the seventh lunar month. 

Avoiding normal activities

Lots of usual activities are postponed during the seventh lunar month. Want to make any major life decisions? It’s usually advisable to hold off until this month is over. After the Hungry Ghost Festival wraps up, ghosts will return where they came from. You won’t have to worry about them anymore.

Celebrating the Festival 

This festival is far more common in Asian countries. If you’d like to celebrate it, cities like Hong Kong are a great place to do it. The focus is on dead ancestors so the festival is a great incentive to start end-of-life planning. If you’d like loved ones to honor you in certain ways after death — setting out certain photos, or plates of special foods — it’s important to let them know about it. 


Sources

  1. Zhang, Wenli. “How Do We Think about Death? A Cultural Glance of Superstitious Ideas from Chinese and Western Ghost Festivals.” November 2009, files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1065752.pdf
  2. UC Davis Medical Center. “Cultural News.” August 2016, health.ucdavis.edu/interpreting_services/pdf/Cnews_August_2016%20FINAL.pdf
  3. USC Digital Folklore Archives. “Festivals, Legends, Traditions, Superstitions: China.” 2008. folklore.usc.edu/?p=2495
  4. Discover Hong Kong. “The Hungry Ghost Festival.” n.d., www.discoverhongkong.com/us/see-do/events-festivals/chinese-festivals/the-hungry-ghost-festival.jsp

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