The Ghost Festival, also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, or Yulan Festival is a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival held in certain East Asian countries.
According to the Chinese calendar (a lunisolar calendar), the Hungry Ghost Festival is on the 15th night of the seventh month (14th in parts of southern China).
In Chinese culture, the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is called Ghost Day and the seventh month, in general, is regarded as the Ghost Month, in which ghosts and spirits, including those of deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm.
Distinct from both the Qingming Festival (or Tomb Sweeping Day, in spring) and Double Ninth Festival (in autumn) in which living descendants pay homage to their deceased ancestors, during Hungry Ghost Festival, the deceased are believed to visit the living.
On the fifteenth day, the realms of Heaven and Hell and the realm of the living are open and both Taoists and Buddhists would perform rituals to transmute and absolve the sufferings of the deceased.
Intrinsic to the Ghost Month is the veneration of the dead, where traditionally the filial piety of descendants extends to their ancestors even after their deaths.
Activities during the month would include preparing ritualistic food offerings, burning incense, and burning joss paper, a papier-mâché form of material items such as clothes, gold and other fine goods for the visiting spirits of the ancestors. Elaborate meals (often vegetarian meals) would be served with empty seats for each of the deceased in the family treating the deceased as if they are still living.
Ancestor worship is what distinguishes Qingming Festival from Hungry Ghost Festival because the latter includes paying respects to all deceased, including the same and younger generations, while the former only includes older generations.
Other festivities may include, buying and releasing miniature paper boats and lanterns on water, which signifies giving directions to the lost ghosts and spirits of the ancestors and other deities.
The timing and origin story of the modern Hungry Ghost Festival, however, ultimately derives from the Mahayana scripture known as the Yulanpen or Ullambana Sutra.
The sutra records the time when Maudgalyayana achieves abhijñā and uses his newfound powers to search for his deceased parents. Maudgalyayana discovers that his deceased mother was reborn into the preta or hungry ghost realm. She was in a wasted condition and Maudgalyayana tried to help her by giving her a bowl of rice.
Unfortunately as a preta, she was unable to eat the rice as it was transformed into burning coal. Maudgalyayana then asks the Buddha to help him; whereupon Buddha explains how one is able to assist one’s current parents and deceased parents in this life and in one’s past seven lives by willingly offering food, etc., to the sangha or monastic community during Pravarana (the end of the monsoon season or vassa), which usually occurs on the 15th day of the seventh month whereby the monastic community transfers the merits to the deceased parents, etc.
The Theravadan forms of the festival in South and Southeast Asia (including Cambodia’s Pchum Ben) are much older, deriving from the Petavatthu, a scripture in the Pali Canon that probably dates to the 3rd-century bc.
The Petavatthu account is broadly similar to that later recorded in the Yulanpen Sutra, although it concerns the disciple Sāriputta and his family rather than Moggallāna.
The Ghost Festival is held during the seventh month of the Chinese calendar. It also falls at the same time as a full moon, the new season, the fall harvest, the peak of Buddhist monastic asceticism, the rebirth of ancestors, and the assembly of the local community.
During this month, the gates of hell are opened up and ghosts are free to roam the earth where they seek food and entertainment. These ghosts are believed to be ancestors of those who forgot to pay tribute to them after they died or those who were never given a proper ritual send-off.
They have long needle-thin necks because they have not been fed by their family, or as a punishment so that they are unable to swallow. Family members offer prayers to their deceased relatives, offer food and drink and burn hell banknotes and other forms of joss paper.
Joss paper items are believed to have value in the afterlife, considered to be very similar in some aspects to the material world, People burn paper houses, cars, servants and televisions to please the ghosts.
Families also pay tribute to other unknown wandering ghosts so that these homeless souls do not intrude on their lives and bring misfortune. A large feast is held for the ghosts on the fourteenth day of the seventh month when people bring samples of food and place them on an offering table to please the ghosts and ward off bad luck.
Lotus-shaped lanterns are lit and set afloat in rivers and out onto seas to symbolically guide the lost souls of forgotten ancestors to the afterlife.
In some East Asian countries today, live performances are held and everyone is invited to attend. The first row of seats is always empty as this is where the ghosts sit. The shows are always put on at night and at high volumes as the sound is believed to attract and please the ghosts.
Some shows include Chinese opera, dramas, and in some areas, even burlesque shows. Traditionally Chinese opera was the main source of entertainment but the newer shows, concerts, dramas, wars and so forth are referred to as Getai. These acts are better known as “Merry-making“.
For rituals, Buddhists and Taoists hold ceremonies to relieve ghosts from suffering, many of them holding ceremonies in the afternoon or at night (as it is believed that the ghosts are released from hell when the sun sets).
Altars are built for the deceased and priests and monks alike perform rituals for the benefit of ghosts. Monks and priests often throw rice or other small foods into the air in all directions to distribute them to the ghosts.
During the evening, incense is burnt in front of the doors households. Incense stands for prosperity in Chinese culture, so families believe that there is more prosperity in burning more incense. During the festival, some shops are closed as they want to leave the streets open for the ghosts. In the middle of each street stands an altar of incense with fresh fruit and sacrifices displayed on it.
Fourteen days after the festival, to make sure all the hungry ghosts find their way back to hell, people float water lanterns and set them outside their houses.
These lanterns are made by setting a lotus flower-shaped lantern on a paper boat. The lanterns are used to direct the ghosts back to the underworld, and when they go out, it symbolizes that they have found their way back.
Celebrations in other parts of Asia
Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia
Concert-like performances are a prominent feature of the Hungry Ghost Festival in Singapore and Malaysia. Those live concerts are popularly known as Getai in Mandarin or Koh-Tai in Hokkien Chinese.
They are performed by groups of singers, dancers, entertainers, and opera troops or puppet shows on a temporary stage that is set up within a residential district. The festival is funded by the residents of each individual district. During these Getai the front row is left empty for the special guests—the ghosts.
It is known to be bad luck to sit on the front row of red seats, if anyone were to sit on them, they would become sick or similarly ailed.
In Singapore, people would pray to ghosts/spirits or ancestors with offerings & others outside their homes for the start of the 7th month. Most patriotic events were held on 7th Month for Singapore, which includes general and presidential elections, the Olympics and the National Day Parade. This is where the number of outings was minimized.
In Indonesia, the festival popularly known as Cioko, or Sembahyang Rebutan in Indonesian, (Scrambling prayer). People gather around temples and bring an offering to a spirit who died in an unlucky way, and after that, they distribute it to the poor. The way people scramble the offerings is the origin of the festival name.
Traditionally, it is believed that ghosts haunt the island of Taiwan for the entire seventh lunar month when the mid-summer Hungry Ghost Festival is held.
The month is known as Ghost Month. The first day of the month is marked by opening the gate of a temple, symbolizing the gates of hell. On the twelfth day, lamps on the main altar are lit.
On the thirteenth day, a procession of lanterns is held. On the fourteenth day, a parade is held for releasing water lanterns. Incense and food are offered to the spirits to deter them from visiting homes and spirit paper money is also burnt as an offering.
During the month, people avoid surgery, buying cars, swimming, moving house, marrying, whistling and going out or taking pictures after dark. It is also important that addresses are not revealed to the ghosts.
This festival is known as Tết Trung Nguyên and is viewed as a time for the pardoning of condemned souls who are released from hell. The “homeless” should be “fed” and appeased with offerings of food.
Merits for the living are also earned by the release of birds and fish. The lunar month in which the festival takes place is colloquially known as Tháng Cô Hồn – the month of lonely spirits and believed to be haunted and particularly unlucky.
Influenced by Buddhism, this holiday coincides with Vu Lan, the Vietnamese transliteration for Ullambana.
In modern times, Vu Lan is also seen as Mother’s Day. People with living mothers would bear a red rose and would give thanks while those without can choose to bear a white rose, and attend services to pray for the deceased.