Zhong Yuan Jie (中元节) or Hungry Ghost Festival is a yearly celebration that happens during the seventh lunar month. This year, it’s happening from 1–29 August, with Ghost Day falling on 15 August. During this period, spirits emerge from the gates of hell in search of food, entertainment and a breath of fresh air (much like a mum after confinement). During the month, Chinese families worship their ancestors and present offerings to appease the hungry ghosts. It’s sort of like Halloween but it lasts for a whole month, there’s no dressing up and all of the treats are for the dead. Keen to see some of these ghosts for yourself? Pop down to Haw Par Villa to see just what sort of horrors await if you don’t respect your parents, kiddos.
Origins of Hungry Ghost Festival
There are many versions of the tale, but the story of Mu Lian is one of our favourites. This Buddhist tale tells of a monk named Mu Lian who attained enlightenment and went to visit his dead mother to repay her for her earthly kindness to him while he was growing up. We’ll leave out the grisly parts about what state she was in down in the fiery furnaces of hell, but needless to say, she was not only in torment, but starving too. When Mu Lian tried to feed her, the food turned into ash as soon as it touched her lips by way as punishment for committing sins while she was alive. Mu Lian, in despair, turned to the Buddha for help and was taught how to make offerings of prayers and food in a way that his mother and all the other hungry ghosts could be finally be satisfied.
How (and where) it’s celebrated
Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as Singapore. Traditions vary according to region but, in Singapore, the Chinese often offer food, incense, candles and paper offerings to the dead. They also hold performances to entertain the ghosts.
Offerings during Hungry Ghost Festival
The Chinese believe that when you burn something, the smoke can rise to the afterlife for relatives to enjoy. You can find shops around Chinatown that sell all sorts of paper offerings, including paper handbags, Apple MacBooks, swimming pools, luxury cars and even banks (after all, why offer a few measly dollars when you can offer a whole bank?). These offerings are usually burned on the 1st, 15th and last day of the Ghost Month in cages, metal drums or in small red containers. Other types of offerings such as fresh fruit, suckling pigs and rice may be left out in the open, no burning required. Warning: people can get a little enthusiastic and kick up a load of smoke and ash so don’t get too close if observing!
DON’T touch or kick the offerings or burners. If you do, apologise! And take photos of the offerings at your own peril… Our editor-in-chief ended up with an unwanted spooky houseguest she’s convinced followed her home after she made the rookie error of snapping a shot of the offerings. Not everything should be done for the ‘gram!
Temporary tents and stages to entertain ghosts will be set up around the heartland areas, including Joo Chiat and Ang Mo Kio and outside MRT stations. The events held in these areas include dinners and auctions for auspicious items – charcoal pieces wrapped in gold paper representing black gold, for example. Ghosts can also expect dinner and a show at special getai (song stages) where performances feature songs, dances, operas and even stand-up comedy. It’s a good month to be a ghost.
DON’T sit in the front row as it’s reserved for the spirits.
Finally, stick to the rules!
We’ve already included some of the don’ts surrounding Hungry Ghost Festival, but here are a few more superstitions and rules to follow to help keep the ghosts at bay.
- Have the little ones tucked up in bed before the witching hour, so that they don’t bump into any spirits.
- Don’t wear red or black as spirits are drawn to these colours.
- Keep off the wine as people believe it’s easier for people who are intoxicated to become possessed.
- Take a break from the pool: spirits are supposedly fond of trying to drown people so that they can be reincarnated in a new body.
- Avoid making big changes until after Hungry Ghost Festival. Getting married, moving house, rearranging furniture or buying new vehicles might disturb residing spirits, so are best avoided during this month.
- Don’t kill any moths as the Chinese believe they are spirits trying to find their way home.
- Never speak ill of the dead. Not to be all ‘Big Brother is watching’, but you probably won’t want your ancestors paying you a visit, Mulan style. Even if Great Aunty Wu was not the nicest person, best to keep your opinions to yourself lest she turns up to berate you in ghost form.
- Avoid the number four as it sounds like the word “death” in Chinese.
Now that you’re equipped with the need-to-knows, pop down to your nearest neighbourhood getai and join in the fun! Just watch your step for offerings and burners… and try not to bring a ghost home with you.
Top image: Choo Yut Shing via Flickr
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