What (And When) is the Hungry Ghost Festival in China?

Updated

The Hungry Ghost Festival in China involves a month-long tradition of honoring the dead, called the Hungry Ghost Month. Though relatives and friends celebrate the deceased all month long, several days during the month have become more important than others.

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Whether you take a trip to China or visit the streets of a local China town during this month, you'll see the entire population (young and old) celebrate this phantom-oriented festival.

What is the Hungry Ghost Festival in China? 

The Chinese believe that the gates of hell (and possibly heaven) open during the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar. During this time, the spirits of the dead wander the earth looking for pleasure, entertainment, and revenge against their enemies. The Chinese believe that these ghosts will create mischief of their own if they can’t find any available entertainment.

It's different from the Qingming Festival, where celebrants honor the ghosts of deceased ancestors and remember family members. The Hungry Ghost Festival involves the spirits of people that didn’t receive a proper Chinese funeral or died due to murder or suicide. The festival occurs in the middle of the month. The goal is to ward off evil intentions from hungry spirits that have been wandering the earth. 

What does it celebrate?

Commemorating death in different cultures differs widely from country to country. In China, numerous festivals celebrate the spirits of honored ancestors and family members. The Hungry Ghost Festival looks after the deceased that no one remembers or cares for. 

On the first day of the month and throughout the month, families burn fake money so the spirits have money to spend while wandering the earth. By the middle of the month, the Chinese believe that the hungry ghosts have run out of money. On the 15th day of Ghost Month, the Hungry Ghost Festival occurs.

The festival entertains the spirits and provides them with food, money, and even supplies like clothing. Along with entertainment, the festival wards off the evil intentions of any disgruntled spirits by appeasing them with gifts.

Where is it celebrated?

You’ll find the Hungry Ghost Festival celebrated in several East Asian countries, including:

  • China
  • Vietnam
  • Taiwan
  • Korea
  • Japan
  • Singapore
  • Malaysia
  • Indonesia

Thanks to the ease of international travel, you’ll also see this celebration pop up in China towns and in other areas with a high concentration of Buddhist and Taoist believers.

Who typically celebrates it?

Those who follow the Buddhist, Taoist, and Chinese folk religions typically celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival. 

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What’s the History Behind the Hungry Ghost Festival? 

Nobody knows the exact origins of the Hungry Ghost Festival and Hungry Ghost Month. Origin stories tend to vary among Buddhists and Taoists. 

One story from the early days of Buddhism may have significantly influenced the Hungry Ghost Festival: 

Long ago, a monk named Mu Lin found out that his mother, who had died, was condemned to the underworld where she could neither eat nor drink. Mu Lin couldn't bear to see his mother hungry or tortured, so he made her a bowl of rice. However, the grains of rice turned into flaming coals and she couldn’t take a bite. She was condemned to wander as a hungry ghost!

Horrified, Mu Lin appealed directly to Buddha. Buddha told Mu Lin that only the collective prayers of Buddhists could release his mother from her fate. The next day, on the 15th, Buddha and his disciples prayed for Mu Lin’s mother. She was released as a hungry, wandering ghost.

When Does the Hungry Ghost Festival Take Place Each Year? 

The Hungry Ghost Festival occurs on the 15th day of the 7th Chinese lunar month. That means the festival typically falls somewhere in August or September on the Western calendar.

Wondering when the Hungry Ghost Festival will take place? Learn the dates for the next several years:

2021: August 22
2022: August 12
2023: August 30
2024: August 18
2025: September 6
2026: August 27
2027: August 16

Popular Hungry Ghost Festival Traditions

You can take advantage of a number of interesting festivities and traditions during the Hungry Ghost Festival. Choose a few or do them all when participating with family members or friends.

Burn fake money and incense

People believe that ghosts require money and other goods once they leave. Most people like to offer fake money made from jos paper.

In China, you might see temporary structures set up to burn piles of jos paper for the community. You’ll also see people burning piles of “money” in front of houses, on sidewalks, in fields, and in other areas where people believe ghosts will pass. 

Burn other provisions

Burning paper replicas of clothing, electronics, and other items can also ease the hungry ghosts' journey. Shops often specialize in selling all types of paper goods during Hungry Ghost Month for this purpose.

Present food offerings

People often leave food offerings on a plate outside their doors or in areas with other offerings, such as pieces of fruit, rice, tea, and sweets.

Prepare a Hungry Ghost Festival feast

On the night of the Hungry Ghost Festival, people believe that the connection between the living and dead is the closest. On this night, you can prepare a huge feast for your family and the ghost ancestors of your family. Prepare a full spread of your family’s favorite dishes and leave a few seats for your family’s ghosts and the spirits of household gods to show up.

After your family feast, you offer the feast to passing spirits. You set up a makeshift altar on the curb in front of your home and arrange plates of food from your feast for spirits. You can also burn more money or paper goods that they can take with them as they pass by your home.

Attend a Chinese opera or theatrical event

Entertainment and community celebrations are common throughout China during the month and especially around the 15th. Plan to attend one of these events which often feature opera and theatric performances. Just make sure to leave the front row of seats open! The empty seats are for the guests you can’t see.

Make a floating lantern

In Chinese belief, a floating lantern is placed on a river. This guides spirits away from your home and back to the underworld. Place a floating lantern on any body of water and watch as it floats away.

Avoid hungry ghosts (at all costs)

The Hungry Ghost Festival and Hungry Ghost Month is chock full of superstitions and traditions to avoid angry and upset ghosts:

  • Don’t go out after dark unless making an offering (the night is for ghosts, not for people).
  • Don’t leave the door to your house open (ghosts might come in uninvited).
  • Don’t go swimming (a ghost might drown you).
  • Don’t ever disturb roadside offerings (ghosts will get angry at you if you do).
  • Don’t sing or whistle (ghosts might whistle back).

Follow these commonly recommended tips and you should make it through Hungry Ghost Month without encountering any otherworldly specters!

Traditional Food for the Hungry Ghost Festival

It’s only natural that the Hungry Ghost Festival would feature food! All throughout the month, the ghosts receive plenty of food from families for their ancestral ghosts and for those wandering ghosts they hope to appease. Take a look at the traditional foods you’ll most frequently see offered.

Plates of fruit

You'll often see fruit such as bananas, oranges, and other types of small fruit on makeshift altars throughout the month and during the Hungry Ghost Festival.

Bowls of rice

People assume that hungry ghosts would want the foods they enjoyed while living. They place bowls of rice on altars along with fruit and the items listed below to form a food offering.

Piles of sweets

Sweets, such as small desserts, candies, and confectionaries, often join the fruit and rice offerings. Candies and other sweet items join the daily offerings of food to please hungry spirits as they pass by.

Cups of tea

Tea is also a staple in many Asian cultures and is certainly a predominant drink in China. Ghosts are bound to be hungry and thirsty. Food takes care of their hunger and tea takes care of their thirst.

Favorite foods

Families will offer sumptuous items such as cuts of meat, noodle dishes, rice dishes, desserts, fruit, and tea on makeshift altars during the Hungry Ghost Festival.

How to Celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival In China: Etiquette and Tips

Whether you’ve celebrated this tradition with your family for years or you’re an interested Westerner celebrating with friends, take a look at a quick list of dos and don’ts.

Dos

Do take cues from those you’re with. If you’ve never celebrated before, keep an open mind and follow your friends’ lead.

Do stay inside after dark. The spirits take over at night, so those who adhere to the traditions will stay inside.

Do participate as much as you can. Ask questions if you’re unsure of something and learn as you go.

Don’ts

Don’t sit in empty rows. Invisible attendees get front-row seats in theaters and events. 

Don’t mess with altars and offerings. Not only should you not disturb offerings left out for hungry spirits (you might get a curse placed on you!), but it’s not respectful or polite.

Don’t talk about ghosts. During Hungry Ghost Festival, ghosts become a little like the elephant in the room. Everyone accepts that they’re around, but no one speaks about them directly.

Honoring Ancestors and Ghosts Unknown

The Hungry Ghost Festival honors ancient ancestors and the spirits of people unknown and unloved. Use this special time to gather with family and celebrate what matters most — caring for others.


Sources:
  1. Radez, Wes. “Hungry Ghost Festival Traditions.” Hungry Ghost Festival Family Guide, Chinese American Family, 10 May 2020. chineseamericanfamily.com.  
  2. Radez, Wes. “Hungry Ghost History and Folklore.” Hungry Ghost Festival Family Guide, Chinese American Family, 10 May 2020. chineseamericanfamily.com.
  3. Sim, Cheryl. “Zhong Yuan Jie (Hungry Ghost Festival). Heritage and Culture, Singapore Infopedia, September 2020. eresources.nlb.gov.sg.
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