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Perhaps you’re a local who only fuzzily remembers some vaguely scary warnings from your nan about avoiding certain things during the seventh month of the year, or perhaps you have moved to Hong Kong and are not quite sure what the deal is with people suddenly starting to burn stuff on the streets around August or September. No worries—we’re here to clarify the secretive reasons and superstitions behind this ghostly time of year. Read on to find out the origins, practices, and traditional phenomena of the Hungry Ghost Festival.
Also referred to as the Yulan Festival (盂蘭節), the Zhongyuan Festival (中元節), or simply the Ghost Festival (鬼節), the Hungry Ghost Festival is a traditional festival celebrated annually in several East Asian countries. Rooted semi-religiously in Buddhism and Taoism, the festival begins on the fifteenth night of the seventh lunar month, which for 2021 falls on 22 August.
The belief is that on this date, the Gates of Hell will open and for the duration of the month, ghosts and spirits come out from the underworld to return to the realm of the living and visit their loved ones. Despite the similar themes of the dead and ancestor worship, the Hungry Ghost Festival is not to be confused with the Qingming or Chung Yeung Festivals, when the Chinese visit ancestral graves to pay respects.
Even though this is now largely considered a Chinese festival, its origins are actually derived from ancient India. The Yulanpen Sutra, or Ullambana Sutra, records the story of how Maudgalyayana was searching for his deceased parents and discovered that his mother had been reborn into the hungry ghost realm, wasted and starving. He tried to feed her a bowl of rice but because she had become a preta (प्रेत)—a hungry ghost—the food transformed into a pile of burning coals before she was able to eat it. Buddha then advised Maudgalyayana that one would be able to help their dearly departed by offering food to the monastic community during Pravarana, occurring—you guessed it—on the fifteenth day of the seventh month.
In general, the Chinese will keep with the cultural notion of filial piety and present offerings to the souls of deceased family members, in the hopes that they will be comfortable and well looked after in the afterlife. Families who have altars or ancestral tablets and pictures set up at home will regularly offer incense and fresh food. You will also often see people putting out offerings of food and drink for unknown wandering souls with no one to look after them, as well as burning joss paper, or paper money from the Bank of Hell, so that departed loved ones will have spending money.
There are also more elaborate offerings for those who want to ensure material comforts for these souls even in hell. Paper effigies of cars, mansions—often complete with servants—television sets, and clothes are all commonly seen being offered. In recent years, people would also keep with the times and burn paper effigies of modern technology such as smartphones, tablets, and even gaming devices. If you have departed family members who were fashion-forward, we suppose there’s no reason why they shouldn’t still be able to embrace couture in the afterlife; shops will even sell paper models of Louis Vuitton bags and other such branded items!
Apart from offerings and paying tribute to the deceased, live performances are also held to provide these wandering souls with entertainment. First initiated by the Chiuchow community in Hong Kong, Chinese opera performances are set up on elaborately created temporary bamboo stages all over the territories. This festivity has even been officially recognised as part of our Intangible Cultural Heritage. These eye-catching shows are always held at night, and while the living are more than welcome to attend, the first couple of rows of seats are always left empty, specially reserved for souls.
Buddhist and Taoist ceremonies are also held throughout the day to appease spirits and ease their suffering, through offerings of incense and the chanting of spiritual scriptures. Often, these ceremonies will include the throwing of rice or other small food items such as buns or dumplings into the air, to symbolically be distributed among the dead; some Chinese opera performances will also be concluded in such a manner.
On the last day of the festival, you might also come across people giving away free rice. This rice is actually donated to community organisers of Hungry Ghost festivities, in order for their names to be listed on their “Golden Chart” as a sign of good merit—think of it as gathering good karma in this life for a better afterlife!
The largest concentration of festivities will be centred in Victoria Park, usually including historical exhibitions of the festival through the years, ceremonial altars and offerings, festival-related competitions, 3D and VR areas, and the Chinese opera performances on a bamboo theatre.
Neighbourhoods all over Hong Kong will also have committees in charge of organising local festivities on a smaller scale. These are usually located at sports grounds or similar locations with open spaces. Some places where such events have been held include the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park in Sai Ying Pun, Bridges Street in Sheung Wan, Carpenter Road Park in Kowloon City, Hong Ning Road Playground in Kwun Tong, Argyle Road Playground in Kowloon City, King George V Memorial Park in Jordan, Po On Road Playground in Cheung Sha Wan, Tai Wo Hau Playground in Kwai Chung, and Sha Tin Sports Ground.
Owing to the Covid-19 health crisis, it would be prudent to assume that some of these festivities will either be cancelled or conducted on a more subdued level, so do check with relevant events committees for the latest updates.
The last thing you want to do during this period is to accidentally offend or aggravate a spirit—the Chinese believe that at best this will bring about some bad luck, or even an angry soul following you home or bodily possession at worst! Here are ten things you should definitely not do for this month.
Here is a more detailed list of taboos and things to avoid during the Hungry Ghost Festival.
As much as the idea of ravenous—and potentially angry—ghosts wandering the world for a full month may sound terrifying, it is important to remember that this festival is very much rooted in the idea of love and remembrance. Asian cultures celebrate this festival out of deep love and concern for their deceased family members, and as long as you go through the month with a sense of respect, we’re sure no supernatural harm will befall you!