The Hungry Ghost Festival

What is Hungry Ghost Festival?

The Hungry Ghost Festival, also known as the Zhong Yuan Festival zhōng yuán jié (中元节) or Yu Lan Festival, is a traditional Chinese holiday observed in many East Asian countries, including China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and others. 

The festival is rooted in Chinese folk religion and Taoism, and it is believed to be a time when the gates of the afterlife are opened, allowing spirits and ghosts to roam the earthly realm. These spirits are often considered to be restless souls of deceased ancestors or those who have no living family members to care for them. The festival serves as a way to honor and appease these spirits, providing them with offerings and performing various rituals to ensure their well-being and to prevent them from causing harm.

When is the Hungry Ghost Festival celebrated?

It is usually celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, which falls in August or September in the Gregorian calendar. Hungry Ghost Festival 2023 is on August 30. The Ghost Month 2023 is from August 16 to September 14.

How to celebrate Hungry Ghost Festival?

Chinese usually make offerings during the first, 15th, and the last day of the festival. It is believed that the dead return to ‘visit’ the living for the fourteen days of the festival.

Throughout the seventh lunar month many Chinese people observe the festival by making offerings of foods, joss sticks, candles, paper money, and other paper effigies such as houses, cars, and clothes to the dead.

Paper offerings have to be burnt and usually burned in open areas, especially on the first, 15th, and last day of the festival. While fresh fruits and foods may be left out in the open, no burning is required.

How do Singaporeans celebrate Hungry Ghost Festival?

In Singapore, it is a practice to hold celebrations, including dinners, auctions, and stage performances.

The auction of “auspicious objects”, ranging from religious items to liquor to appliances and toys, usually begins during the multi-course dinner. These auctions are used to fund the following year’s Zhong Yuan celebrations, as well as donated to temples and charitable organizations.

The stage performances, mostly held outdoors, usually are held to entertain both ghosts and humans. The performances feature songs, dances, operas, and stand-up comedy. Fun fact, during the stage performances, the front row seats are always left empty for the spirits to enjoy the performances.

Taboos During the Hungry Ghost Festival

1. Do not touch, step over or kick roadside offerings.
Roadside offerings are typically for hungry ghosts who are only allowed to eat at Hungry Ghost Month. If done by accident, quickly apologize. In addition, avoid making fun of the supernatural, or complain about temporary altars and roadside offerings because it is believed that spirits will overhear this and may get offended and cause problems for the person or follow them home.

2. Don’t look under the  prayer altar.
The altar is where devotees can pray and extend offerings to the guardians of hell and the deceased. Therefore, it is not advisable to look under the altar as the spirits may be having a feast there.

3. Do not sit in the front row at street performances.
Chinese opera performances and getai (the singing performance) take place throughout the month to entertain wandering spirits, and the front row seats are specially reserved for the unseen VIPs.

4. Avoid staying out too late.
This especially applies to pregnant women and children, as it is believed that spirits are exceptionally attracted to fetuses and children. Ghosts are said to be at their strongest after sunset, as yin energy from the moon strengthens them at night, so best get home before sunset.

5. Don’t hang your laundry outside through the night.
The human shape of clothes is said to attract visiting spirits, who will gladly come over to borrow your garments for the night. Apparitions may also leave behind their misfortune-inducing aura on your clothes.

6. Avoid taking photographs after sunset.
Cameras have long been associated with ghosts due to the ghostly images captured on film in the past. Hence, it is believed that photographs can record and trap spirits, and taking any pictures at night may invoke spirits to associate with you.

7. Stay away from water-related activities.
It is said that vengeful water spirits lie in wait for a “substitute” to take their place in death, so that they can be reincarnated. Some people even go as far as to postpone any travel by sea to avoid mishaps caused by mischievous spirits.

8. Do not open an umbrella indoors or pick up any stray umbrellas.
Why? Because It is believed that wandering souls may seek shelter in umbrellas when it’s used in the open, and opening the umbrella indoors may bring them home to your house! Therefore it is best to have it dry outdoors and close it before entering the house.