The Hungry Ghost Festival – Its Origin and Meaning

The Hungry Ghost Festival (中元節 or 盂蘭節) is a Buddhist festival celebrated throughout the Chinese-speaking world, from mainland China to Hong Kong, from Taiwan to Singapore. This “festival of the dead”, which falls on the 15th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar, differs from similar ones. While, for instance, during the Qingming Festival people pray for the spirits of their ancestors, the Hungry Ghost Festival is devoted exclusively to ghosts of strangers, i.e., of people who do not belong to one’s family. As we will see later, this separation between family spirits and strangers’ ghosts reflects important characteristics of traditional Chinese thinking.
The 7th month of the lunar calendar is the period of the Yulan Assembly (盂蘭會) or the “Passage of Universal Salvation”. In a cosmic process of transformation, the spirits of the dead are temporarily released from the underworld and are free to wonder about in the world of the living. This is a moment of threat and danger, as the ghosts may harm the living, who therefore need to pacify them through sacrificial offerings. Among the spirits coming from the shades are the souls of those who have no family that could pray for them either because they died too young, or far away from their homeland, or because they remained childless. These souls are particularly menacing and must be placated through sacrifices of food and by burning “spirit money”. Spirit money derives from the ancient practice of burying the dead with objects and riches they could need in the afterlife: 

When the person died and faced the initial journey to hell for the great trial that would determine his assignment in the netherworld, relatives provided all of the amenities: horses, carriages, servants, food, and money. In ancient times some Chinese rulers were buried with horses, servants, and the like. After the classic period these were no longer items of the “real” world, but facsimiles for use in the other world–often paper items. And the money was the famous “spirit money,” made of cheap paper and foil, but ritually transmitted to have full value in the other world: It was backed not by bullion, but by the religious merit and ritual prowess of the living (Judith A. Berling: Death and Afterlife in Chinese Religions. In: Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions, ed. Hiroshi Obayashi, 1992, p. 189).

Only by sacrificing to the ghosts can the living hope to appease the spirits’ wrath and avoid being haunted by them.

Tables with offerings for the ghosts could be seen on almost every street of Taipei last weekend

In temples in Taiwan the ghost festival culminates in ceremonies where actors perform operas, and then priests, assuming the role of deities (Guanyin for the Buddhists and the Great Unity Heavenly Worthy Who Relieves Suffering for the Daoists) read sutras and perform mudras. Afterwards the priest invites the ghosts to come forward, while he describes to the worshippers the sufferings the ghosts have had to endure. In a symbolic ritual, the priest multiplies the food brought to the temple by the community as offers to the ghosts. The food is then thrown at the hungry ghosts to feed them. At this point, the worshippers, especially children, reach for the awaited candies and other delicacies which, although meant to feed the hungry spirits, are eaten by the living who brought them (Carol Stepanchuk / Charles Choy Wong: Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts – Festivals of China, 1991,  pp. 71-75).

In Taiwan, there is also a ceremony called “Release of the Water Lanterns” (放水燈), in which paper lanterns or paper boats are set afloat on rivers.

Burning of spirit money

The Origin of the Hungry Ghost Festival

The term “hungry ghost” (餓鬼) is a Chinese rendering of the Sanskrit word preta, which describes beings suffering from extreme hunger or thirst. In the Chinese-speaking world, the concept of hungry ghosts was incorporated into the ethics of filial piety and family ideology.

Ancestor worship played a central role in traditional Chinese thought. Hungry ghosts were the wrathful, suffering souls of those who had not been buried properly, or who were not properly worshipped by their descendants. For instance, people who died in mass executions, or died far away from home etc., could not be worshipped according to custom and thus became hungry ghosts.

For this reason, for instance, cleansing ceremonies were planned at Taipei Jiangzicui MRT Station during the Hungry Ghost Festival. In this station several people were killed and wounded by student Zheng Jie in an unprecedented knife attack last May.  

To the category of hungry ghosts belong, too, the souls of people without children or who died too young. This reflects the shame attached in traditional Chinese society to individuals who didn’t marry, or who had no sons; in fact, since daughters belonged to their husband’s family after marriage, only sons could worship the souls of their ancestors according to the rites and continue the family line.

Some souls turn into ghosts for other reasons; they might have been murdered, or been wronged in life. These ghosts can’t rest in peace as they seek vengeance.

The infernal regions are therefore inhabited by restless souls whose suffering is symbolised by their excessive hunger or thirst. On the 7th month (the “ghost month”) this negative energy is released into the world of the living. That’s why this month is considered unlucky for marriage, for moving to a new house etc. 

Buddhists and Daoists celebrate the hungry ghost festival as a feast of compassion, in which people make sacrifices for the unhappy souls of strangers. The Daoists call this period Pudu (普渡), signifying a kind of general amnesty for the souls living in hell (Leslie D. Alldritt: Buddhism, 2009, pp. 134-135).

In the Chinese-speaking world one of the most famous stories related to the festival is Mulian rescues his mother” (目蓮救母), which is derived from the Indian Ullambana Sutra, in which the Gautama Buddha instructs the monk Maudgalyayana (known in China as “Mulian”) on how to save his mother from hell.

Because of its focus on filial piety this story became popular in China. There are many ancient and modern versions of it, including a Hong Kong film from the 1950s and a recent Taiwanese adaptation called “Mulian Saves Mother Earth“.

In various Chinese versions of the text, Mulian is portrayed as a filial son who has compassion for his dead mother and wants to repay the kindness of his parents who fed him as a child. His mother is depicted as a sinful woman who must suffer in hell for her misdeeds, but Mulian, as her son, does not condemn her sins but loves her unconditionally. Instructed by the Buddha, Mulian descends to hell and gives his hungry mother food. But her sins are too grave, so she cannot eat it. Some versions of the story show how a son, however filial, cannot save his mother by himself, because her sins to the world are too deep. The 15th day of the 7th month is therefore chosen as the moment when all men feed the hungry ghosts and thus collectively help relieve them of their pain (Alan Cole: Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism, 1998, chapter 5).

Ghosts, Social Roles and Chinese Society

As I have mentioned, ghosts are called gui (鬼) in Chinese. This word has, in this context, a negative meaning, as it is related to a possible danger which the presence of restless souls – the souls of unlucky and vengeful people – entails. It is interesting to note that the gui are souls of strangers as opposed to the souls of ancestors and deities (神).

In order to understand this difference, we must first of all understand the social roles and hierarchies of traditional Chinese society, which also existed – and perhaps were, in some respects, even stronger – in Taiwan.

As sinologist Arthur Wolf argued, Taiwanese society had specific social hierarchies: first, there was the kin, the most important social nucleus for every individual; second, there was the imperial hierarchy, which was, in terms of power and influence, superior to the family, but not as close as the latter; third, there were the strangers. Wolf writes:

Until the Japanese occupied Taiwan and established an effective police system, the average village was a small community surrounded by a largely hostile social environment. The mutual animosity of the various racial and ethnic groups occupying the Taipei Basin made it a cauldron of internecine strife. The Chinese settlers fought the aborigines; Hokkien-speaking Chinese fought their Hakka neighbors; while among the Hokkien, people from Chang-chou and Ch’üan-chou competed bitterly for land and control of ports. In the hills surrounding the Basin, law and order gave way entirely to the rule of bandit chiefs and fugitives from the mainland. Under these conditions much of a peasant’s contact with strangers was with bandits, beggars, bullies, and equally rapacious yamen hirelings. When a man left his village it was usually to visit relatives in a neighboring community, and the only outsiders welcomed in the village were those recommended by ties of kinship. The world beyond the bamboo walls that encircled each community was dangerous because it was inhabited by strangers, and strangers were feared because they were represented in experience by bandits and beggars. The ghosts are the product of this experience. They are dangerous because they are strangers, and strangers are dangerous because experience has proved them dangerous (Arthur P. Wolf: “Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors”. In: Studies in Chinese Society, ed. Arthur P. Wolf, 1978, pp. 174-175).

Therefore, the hierarchy of supernatural spirits was modelled on social hierarchies:

The mandarins became the gods; the senior members of the line and the lineage, the ancestors; while the stranger was preserved in the form of the dangerous and despised ghosts. At a more general level the ancestors and the gods, taken together as sin, stand for productive social relationships, while their spiritual opposites, the kui, represent those social forces that are dangerous and potentially destructive (ibid., p. 175).

This explains why the offerings to the ghosts are never made inside the house (the house is reserved for the friendly ghosts of the ancestors) but outside the house, on the street. The different places where food is eaten and offered reflects not only the importance of food as a social symbol, but also social and spatial hierarchies:

In China, as in most societies, eating and the exchange of food are socially significant acts. The family is commonly defined as “those people who eat together,” and it is often in terms of food that a family expresses its relations with other people. While most families give a bowl of rice or sweet potatoes to a beggar who stops outside their door, they never invite the beggar into the house to eat. He squats outside the back door and leaves his bowl on the threshold when he is finished. The only people invited to eat a meal as guests are the family’s relatives, friends, and other persons of approximately equal social status. A family will invite a schoolteacher, a policeman, or a petty bureaucrat to dinner, but they would never invite a senior official such as a hsien magistrate or one of his principal secretaries. When I naively invited the heads of several of Hsia-ch’i-chous more prominent families to dinner with the magistrate’s secretary and another senior official, my guests from the village all found reasons to absent themselves. Eating together implies intimacy and a certain degree of social equality, and it is therefore impossible for a farmer or a coal miner to eat a meal with a ranking official. If a farm family wishes to curry the favor of an official, they often use food as a means of establishing a relationship, but it is presented through a go- between as a gift rather than in the form of an invitation to dinner (ibid., p. 176).


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