Hungry Ghost Month and the Zhuangyuan Festival

We are in the midst of Chinese Ghost Month. It’s the 7th lunar month (August 11th through September 9th in 2018) of the year. The gates of the underworld open on the 1st day of the 7th lunar month and close on the 30th. During this time, ghosts and spirits of the departed wander the earth. It’s the only time of the year when they can freely leave the underworld and move among the living. Traditionally, Chinese believed this month was particularly dangerous. There would be more disasters than normal, both natural and man-made.

The spirits, called Hungry Ghosts, roam the world seeking revenge and trying to find a living person to replace them in the underworld. Today, many still encourage extra caution during this month. Older people and children, for example, should not go out at night. Everyone should be careful to avoid needless risks.

Who are these ghosts? Everyone who has died will not become a wandering ghost–only those who died in unhappy circumstances, such as people who are guilty of a crime, committed suicide, or died violently or prematurely.

The ghosts travel the world looking for food and entertainment. To keep them from causing too much mischief—in case they are disappointed with what they find—people put out food, ghost money (also called joss paper), papier-mâché renditions of items the ghosts need in the afterlife (clothing, furniture, etc.), and burn incense sticks. The most important day for offering sacrifices to them is the 15th day of the 7th lunar month. It’s called the Hungry Ghost Festival (the Zhongyuan Festival). It is on this day that the grandest celebrations/sacrifices are offered. This year (2018) the Zhongyuan Festival day is August 25th.

In the past, to appease these lost souls and ensure safety for the living, families and communities would burn paper money (called ghost money because the ghosts could use this money in the netherworld) and hold open-air banquets with theatrical troupes providing fun for the spirits and the human guests. Buddhist monks and Taoist priests also performed ceremonies to alleviate the ghosts’ suffering. All of these activities, by families, communities, and the temples, were to placate the spirits. That is, once the spirits have eaten the food and enjoyed the entertainment, they should not cause trouble. After all, it would not be polite to hurt someone who has just shown you such generosity! Many families and communities today still remember the wandering ghosts in this way.

For a selection of ghost stories based around this tradition, read A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts: A Collection of Deliciously Frightening Tales by Ying Chang Compestine. It’s for children, but everyone, no matter the age, will enjoy it.

The Chinese American Family organization has a wonderful site with lots of information on this special month. They also have crafts and other ideas for families to learn more about the Hungry Ghost Festival and Ghost Month. http://www.chineseamericanfamily.com/hungry-ghost-festival/ .

NOTE: Other sites for more information on Ghost Month and the Zhuangyuan Festival (the Hungry Ghost Festival) are:

https://www.yourchineseastrology.com/holidays/ghost-festival/

https://www.yourchineseastrology.com/calendar/ghost-month.htm

https://www.thoughtco.com/ghost-month-and-ghost-festival-2279383

If you do anything special during this month or on the Zhuangyuan Festival, I’d love to know what you did.

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