The Hungry Ghost Festival or zhong yuan jie (中元节) is one of the main festivals in Chinese culture that makes it’s presence felt in every Chinese community.
Often known simply as the Chinese Ghost festival, it’s associated practices and rituals are acknowledged by Chinese even though the event’s origins has a religious nature.
This means that even if one is not Buddhist or Taoist, one can still get involved with some of it’s cultural practices.
The main reason for this is that people find it a responsibility to pay tribute and show gratitude to their ancestors and loved ones who have left the living world.
Although It falls on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month in the year, it’s not uncommon to find communities commencing activities from the first day of the seventh month, reaching it’s peak on the 15th, and finally coming to a close at the end of the month.
Legend of hungry ghost festival
The folklore behind this is that the king of hell would open the gates to allow spirits to wander on the beginning of the seventh month. And their return would be on the fifteen when then gate closes.
This is why offerings are made and rituals are most active on the 15th so as to ensure that the released spirits would be satisfied. Thus, making their way back to where they come from instead of lingering in the living world to satisfy their unfulfilled wishes.
Practices of Chinese ghost festival
Probably the most notable of all practices during this festival is the burning of paper money.
This can occur all over the place.
Even when one has not made any food offering or conduct some rituals during the month, there is still a strong chance that one would still burn paper money as a symbolic gesture to honor his or her ancestors.
In modern times, the burning is no longer limited to paper money. People are now also burning condominiums, sports cars, airplanes, etc, in these burning processions. No Kidding.
To save customers from the hassle of thinking what to buy for burning, stores that sell these merchandise for burning even create paper packages to include all the essential items. It’s sort of like a value-meal to help indecisive customers.
Another popular activity during the festival is the organization of mini-concerts.
This is to entertain the spirits.
During these concerts, the front row is often left empty as they are meant to be seats for the spirits.
These concerts are so popular for organizers that some musicians and artists make a living by performing at these venues during the seventh month. Many even jump from venue to venue on the same night in an effort to maximize their earnings.
In the past, these concerts were limited to traditional Chinese contemporary music. But these days, you can find performers performing pop songs and and even dance music.
Rituals and offerings however, take on a more serious note on the fifteen.
In more religious circles, priests make their appearances to conduct rituals and make offerings that include dough made of flour, rice and peaches.
On the prayer table, people would place pigs, goats, poultry, and all types of traditional cakes with fruits.
When the priest has finished with the prayers, the flour, rice and preaches would be thrown in the four directions as offerings to the dead.
A huge prayer ceremony is usually conducted in the evening of the 15th.
This is when huge volumes of offerings are piled on prayer tables while Buddhist monks or Taoist priests chant mantras to appease the spirits.