In Chinese folk tradition, the gates of hell open every lunar seventh month and release all the spirits from hell. Known also as Zhong Yuan Jie, this time sees ghost take a holiday from hell to visit the world of the leaving. Most ghosts are benign and take this time to visit their families and loved ones, some are vengeful and return to seek revenge for wrongdoings, young child ghosts (stillbirths etc) will roam the streets in search of their parents, while fiendish spirits will try to claim new victims.
Building up to this day, you will see on the streets of the heartlands, small processions of people in solem religious ceremonies.
At the head of the procession, is a lion dance troupe with the acrobatic lions moving supranaturally to the beat of the drum. Behind them, huge (5 metre tall) stilt figures held aloft by a few men, ‘saunter’ in. These guards open the way for the main altar with a statue-sedan held by at least four men. Unlike most processions, this altar is swung from left to right. Further behind them are a group of people accompanying a person dressed up in seemingly periodic Chinese attire, behaving differently. The lion dance troupe, as with all lion dances are there to scare away the evil spirits, the huge figures are guards protecting the diety on the altar. They are followed up by people who are possessed by other smaller dieties (known as dang kee).
On the first day of the lunar seventh month (this year that date is 7th August), the gates of hell will be flung open and the spirits released. On the vigil night, many households will prepare offerings to welcome back their loved ones. Interestingly, every vigil night will be marked by a huge rain – thats what the elderly have observed.
In thousands of homes, make-shift altar will be prepared with gifts and food and other things that the dead enjoyed when they were alive. All the gifts will be claimed for the family by writing the name of the deceased and then calling out their names.
But it isn’t just the family ghosts who matter, the wondering ghost are important too too. Prayers are offered to them, usually a mixture or tea leaves, candy, biscuits and paper money.
The lunar seventh month tends to see a minor spike in CO2 emissions. In Chinese taoist culture, the burning of paper offerings is very important because it is believed that the dead receive these burnt offerings as real things. When a person does, sometimes a huge paper house is burnt together with servants. Nowadays you can also get paper Ferraris, iPhones, iPads, Samsung N5 laptops and pet animals too. The paper money is then burnt in a huge container. This marks the family and keeps the ghouls appeased.
There are three days that matter, the first day the fifteenth day and the last day. The fifteenth day is the climax of the month, known as the Hungry Ghost Festival.
Sometime in August you will find huge stages erected with garish, sometimes sexually suggestive performers. Next to these getai’s will be traditional opera stages. These performances aren’t for you, hell no. You can watch it if you want, but it wasn’t created for you’re entertainment. Go a little closer to this getai and you will notice that the front row is empty. This is reserved for the VIPs – the spirits. Interstingly, you will not find this practice in China, but in other places where there are significant ethnic Chinese populations (Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong etc). Such folk practices were eradicated rather thoroughly througout China during the cultural revolution, although they are making a return now.
If you are not familiar with Chinese culture, this morbid fascination with death and hell might be either intriguing or disconcerting. The rational for this, as some sociologist have put it is simple – the Chinese culture, influenced by Confucianism for many years, has a strong focus on filial piety. A festival where the ghost returns encourages people to remember and not forget their dead. The spirits being an unknown entity, are something to be treated with respect and reverence hence many of the practices and do’s/don’ts are geared towards showing respect for the dead. Most Tourism Boards have made this a tourist attraction (Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong)
Here’s a list of do nots for the month (Updated: 27 Aug 2014)
- Do not stay out too late, try and be home by 11pm
- Yin energy (which is what spirits are full off) are believed to grow stronger at night, especially after the sun sets, so the world ‘belongs’ to the spirits.
- Do not respond when you hear your name being called late at night
- Spirits may be calling out to you for help, if you respond then you must help.
- Do not step on anything that was used for prayer
- You wouldn’t like it if people stepped on your things right? Same logic.
- Never joke about a procession or event even if you are not Taoist of Buddhist
- This is particularly true if you are not from a Taoist/Buddhist/Confucian tradition or did not grow up in one. There are many grapevine stories of people not of the religion who made fun of these practices and were punished by the spirits.
- Do not take pictures of the ceremonies unless allowed
- Most cultures have this thing, photographs seem to be able to capture spirits.
- When walking or running, avoid trampling on any place that has had prayer before
- See the same reason on stepping on things used for prayer, add in the fact that prayer is divided between offeerings for familial spirits and wondering ghosts. And where things are burned (particuarly joss sticks), spirits are sort of ‘eating’ the joss stick as food and you wouln’t want people to step on your food/money right?
- Do not sit on the front rows of any getai performance or opera performance
- Thats reserved for the spirits, unless you like people sitting on you. I think spirits don’t like that.
- Do not comment on girls especially late at night, if they are attractive
- Its not politically correct, but culturally spirits can sometimes appear as very attractive females particularly if they are vengeful. Don’t ask me why, just is.
- Do not comment on sudden fragment smells
- Sudden fragrant smells are not perfume, but usually represent the presence of a spirit/god. Since this is the seventh month, lets just assume the former.
- If you are burning incense paper do not stir the pot to mess up the ashes you spoil the burning and mess up the transfer of items to the netherworld
- Thats as good as tearing the money up.
- Be respectful but don’t be overly superstitious
Now, interestingly Singapore’s National Day almost always falls on the Hungry Ghost Month, and that being a special day for the country, some older folks believe that the large fireworks helps to ‘protect’ the country by entertaining the spirits.
I blog, you decide 😉
postscript: here’s a movie entitled 881, revolving around the Ghost Festival to lighten the mood.
Oh and a new one from RyanSylvia (updated 27 July 2014).