The Hungry Ghost Festival celebrates the Taoist belief in the afterlife. Chinese communities in Malaysia and Singapore believe that the gates of Hell open on the 7th lunar month, freeing the spirits of the dead to roam in the world of the living. The living, in turn, must make offerings of food and burnt prayer money to the souls of the dead to appease them.
The ghosts in question inspire both pity and fear. The spirits who roam the earth during this time have been denied access to Heaven for some reason, or have no descendants on earth to make offerings on their behalf. The former will look for any living being to take their place in Hell. The latter are starved from their year-long stint in Hell, and seek sustenance during their earthly furlough. The spirits of dead ancestors, though not as needy as the ghosts described above, are also celebrated by their living descendants during this time.
Celebrating Hungry Ghost Festival
Throughout Singapore and in Chinese enclaves in Malaysia (Penang and Melaka chief among them), Chinese go all out to feed and entertain the roaming ghosts.
In 2013, the Hungry Ghost Festival culminates on 7 August (1st day of the 7th lunar month).
Song stages known as getai are set up, and Chinese opera (phor thor) and puppet shows held for both the living and the dead. Spectators leave the first row empty to accommodate the spirits.
More modern entertainments like karaoke and dance contests are also held on these stages, presumably for the spirits of the more recently deceased.
To satiate their dead relatives, Chinese will offer meals and burn joss sticks, "hell money" (wads of fake paper money), and assorted paper versions of earthly goods like TVs, cars, and furniture.
The Chinese, who believe that the ancestors can help them and their businesses from beyond the grave, do this to ensure continuing blessings and protection from beyond.
Food offerings are also left along roadsides and street corners, and outside houses. The latter theoretically prevent hungry ghosts from entering residences - after all, with food just waiting outside the door, who needs to go inside?
Visit the local Taoist temples and wet markets to see the most spectacular displays of food offerings for Hungry Ghost. These displays are usually overseen by an effigy of the Leader of the Hungry Ghosts, the Taai Si Wong, who gets first dibs on the food on the table and keeps lesser ghosts in line, preventing them from doing too much mischief during their time on Earth. Penang boasts of the largest Taai Si Wong in Malaysia, which is set up every year at Market Street on Bukit Mertajam.
These places are usually fragrant affairs, as the air will be thick with the smell of burning joss sticks. Giant "dragon" joss sticks loom over the smaller sticks, like fenceposts in tall grass. The giant joss sticks are usually placed by businessmen, who seek the favor of the spirits so their businesses will do better.
On the 30th day of the seventh moon, the ghosts find their way back to Hell, and the gates of the Underworld are shut. To see the ghosts off, paper offerings and other goods are incinerated in a giant bonfire. The Taai Si Wong effigy is burned along with the rest of the goods to send him back to Hell.
Hungry Ghost Traditions
The month of Hungry Ghost Festival is, generally speaking, a bad time to do anything. Many significant milestones are avoided at this time, as people believe it's simply bad luck.
Chinese believers avoid traveling or performing any significant ceremonies throughout the festival. Businessmen avoid riding in airplanes, buying property, or closing business deals during Hungry Ghost Festival.
Moving house or getting married are frowned upon during this time - it's believed that ghosts will mess up one's plans during the festival, so your house or your marriage may be jeopardized at this time.
Swimming is also a scary prospect - children are told that hungry ghosts will pull them under, so they will have a soul to take their place in Hell!
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Hungry Ghost Festival – 中元节
The Hungry Ghost Festival, also called simply as Ghost Festival (Chinese 中元节 – zhongyuanjie) is one of the many traditional Chinese festivals celebrated by the Chinese communities in many countries. The festival usually falls on the 15th night of the seventh lunar month. In Chinese custom, the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar is regarded as the Ghost Month and the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is often called as Ghost Day.
It is said that during this time, ghosts and spirits come out from the lower realm and linger in our world. The Hungry Ghost Festival is the opposite of the Qingming Festival and Chung Yeung Festival, wherein living descendants visit their deceased ancestors, on Ghost Day however, it is the opposite: the deceased visit the living.
In 2013, Ghost Month 2013 falls on Wednesday, 7 August 2013 to Wednesday, 4 September 2013. The 2013 hungry ghost festival / Ghost Day 2013 falls on Tuesday, 20 August 2013. In Singapore Hungry Ghost Festival 2013 is celebrated in similar manner with Malaysia Hungry Ghost Festival. Live shows, called getai or “stage of songs” is held in the various towns in the city state of Singapore. The festival is truly modernized by the ‘concert-like’ live performances, often with scantily clad girl performers.
Zhong Yuan Jie (Mid-Year Festival)
Zhong Yuan Jie, or "Mid-Year Festival", also popularly known as the Hungry Ghost Festival or the Feast for the Wandering Souls, is held on the 7th month of the lunar calendar. On the 15th day of the 7th month, families pay respects to their deceased relatives and visit their graves often with much feasting as if their dead relations still were with them.
Significance - It is believed that during this time, the souls of the unborn and that of departed ancestors and friends are released from Purgatory to wander the earth for 30 days. The souls of the dead ignored by relatives may do acts of mischief, so steps must be taken to appease the spirits before they go on a rampage. Hell money, paper offerings and joss sticks are burnt to see to their material needs; food is offered so that the souls do not go hungry and thus less likely to wreak havoc. Neighbourhood celebration dinners or zhong yuan (popularly known as getai) are held on the feast day, with auctions of goods, operas and song performances being part of the festivities. The Buddhists and the Taoists have different ways of celebrating the feast. As ghosts are believed to dominate events, no auspicious activities such as weddings and business launches are held during this period.
Legend - Mu LianThe story of Mu Lian, who tried to save his mother from Hell, is connected to this festival. Mu Lian was reputedly a favourite disciple of Buddha. However his mother had broken her vow of abstention from meat-eating and was cursed to suffer the afflictions of hungry ghosts in Purgatory. Although filial Mu Lian offered rice to his dead mother, hungry ghosts would consume it before she could eat it. In anguish, Mu Lian appealed to Buddha for help. Buddha pointed out that only the monks of the Ten Directions could save her. They had to prepare all kinds of food and items and offer them to the ancestors of the past seven generations on the 15th day of the 7th month. Thereafter, Mu Lian's mother was delivered from her torments.
Hungry Ghost Festival
Also known as the Seven Month, as it occurs in the seven month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the Taoists (a religious denomination of the Chinese) take this traditional festival in Singapore very seriously. Founded on the belief that the month of the hungry spirits is the most inauspicious month of the year. They believe that it is this time of the year where the gates of hell open and spirits begin to wander freely among the living on Earth.
They are also extremely cautious in every way possible. Children are warned to stay indoors late at night; closing business deals and purchasing properties are considered acts that will bring bad luck; and even the stock market has been said to remain rather inactive during this period of time.
The Taoists would burn joss sticks and candles, give offerings of cakes, fruits and meats to appease the hungry ghosts and sometimes have paper-made money, cars, houses, clothes and mobile phones burnt so that the spirits are able to enjoy the equivalent of these luxuries in their afterlife
Festival of the Hungry Ghost
For the Chinese, the month of the Hungry Ghosts or Spirits - usually in the month of August - is the most inauspicious time of the year. Taoists believe that the gates of Hell are opened at this time, and the spirits of the departed wander freely about the earth.
Children are discouraged from staying outdoors late at night, it is considered unlucky to buy a piece of property or close a business deal, and some market pundits have observed that even the stock market is quieter during the Hungry Ghosts month. The ghosts are "hungry"after their impoverished time in Hell.
Besides burning huge joss-sticks and candles, Taoist believers offer cakes, fruits and sometimes an entire banquet to appease the famished spirits. Fake paper money - and sometimes even fake paper cars, houses and mobile phones - are burnt so that the dead spirits will have the actual equivalent of these objects in the afterlife. Street shows are also held to appease the hungry souls.
This is a heady time where the air is heavy with tradition and superstition, and is worthwhile paying a visit to Chinatown for.
Zhōngyuán Jié (TC: 中元節, SC: 中元节)
An array of foods being offered to the deceased at a Buddhist temple
The Ghost Festival, also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, or Yu Lan is a traditional Chinese festival and holiday celebrated by Chinese in many countries. In the Chinese calendar (a lunisolar calendar), the Ghost Festival is on the 15th night of the seventh lunar month (14th in southern China).
In Chinese tradition, 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 (鬼月), in which ghosts and spirits, including those of the deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm. Distinct from both the Qingming Festival (in spring) and Chung Yeung Festival (in autumn) in which living descendants pay homage to their deceased ancestors, on Ghost Day, 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 ancestor worship, 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 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.
Hungry Ghost opening night at Bukit Brown
August is known as the Hungry Ghost Month to most Singaporean Chinese. Intrinsic to the Ghost Month is ancestor worship, where families and individuals would traditionally pay their respects to their ancestors.
Petitioners would spend the month preparing ritualistic food offerings, burning incense, and burning joss paper as a gesture of paying tribute to the dead. Some petitioners would even make the effort to conduct their ritual offerings at the graves of their ancestors themselves, as a sign of their filial piety.
The first night of the ghost month is traditionally important because petitioners will prepare elaborate offerings to guide the spirits into the realm of the living after the gates of hell have opened. We journey to Bukit Brown to record some of the rituals that took place on the first night of the Hungry Ghost Month.
A petitioner offers candles to the tomb of his ancestors as well as their buried neighbours at Bukit Brown. He explains that he makes offerings to the nearby tombs as a gesture of neighbourliness, inviting them to share in the feast he’s prepared for his ancestors
A makeshift altar filled with assorted offerings sits alone as a pair of Buddhist monks chant sutras for the dead
Joss sticks are lit while incense is burned as part of the offerings for the spirits on the first night of the Hungry Ghost month
Another petitioner prays over a makeshift altar as a pair of Buddhist monks chant sutras nearby
The night of prayer ends with petitioners preparing a Fortune Well which will be offered to the spirits returning on the Seventh Month
Front row seats reserved for the exclusive use of spirits