Hungry Ghosts Festival

Hungry Ghosts Festival

Type of Holiday: Religious (Buddhist, Taoist)
Date of Observation: August-September; fifteenth through the thirtieth day of the seventh Chinese lunar month
Where Celebrated: China and throughout eastern Asia
Symbols and Customs: Ghost Money, Water Lanterns
Related Holidays: All Soul's Day, Ching Ming


The Hungry Ghosts Festival forms part of the tradition of Buddhism. One of the four largest religious families in the world, Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563-483 B . C . E .), who came to be known as Buddha, or "The Enlightened One." The basic tenets of Buddhism can be summarized in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths are 1) the truth and reality of suffering; 2) suffering is caused by desire; 3) the way to end suffering is to end desire; and 4) the Eightfold Path shows the way to end suffering. The Eightfold Path consists of 1) right view or right understanding; 2) right thoughts and aspirations; 3) right speech; 4) right conduct and action; 5) right way of life; 6) right effort; 7) right mindfulness; and 8) right contemplation.

Dating back to the sixth century and Confucius, the Hungry Ghosts Festival is similar to the Christian ALL SOULS' DAY-a time when the souls of the dead roam the earth and, if they are not treated properly, cause trouble for the living. During the last fifteen days of the seventh lunar month, therefore, families visit and repair graves and make offerings of food, GHOST MONEY , and paper reproductions of such useful items as cars, furniture, and clothing in the hope that when they are burned, these items will be freed for the dead souls' use. Although the roots of this festival can be traced to primitive spirit-worship, today it has become identified with the popular Buddhist belief that for one whole month, the souls of the dead are released from hell and permitted to enjoy earthly pleasures. According to the Buddhist calendar, the mouth of Hell opens on the last night of the sixth moon and closes again on the last night of the seventh moon. But it is on the fifteenth day of the seventh month that a community-wide celebration is usually held.

While the original Buddhist rite was designed to placate the spirits of ancestors, today the Hungry Ghosts Festival is devoted to the unhappy spirits of those who died an unnatural death (by accident or murder, for example) and those who have no human descendants to care for them. These discontented souls suffer from hunger and thirst and, if no one attends to their needs, are most likely to haunt the living. On the fifteenth day of the month, Buddhist and Taoist priests chant prayers, perform rituals on outdoor altars, and make offerings to the ghosts who have not yet attained the status of stable, contented spirits. Lantern processions (see WATER LANTERNS ) guide these souls to their final resting place. The ceremony comes to a climax when the priest tosses candy to the "hungry ghosts"-and children rush in to gather whatever falls on the ground.


Ghost Money

People who live too far away to spend this holiday with their families and visit the local graveyard often fill paper bags with make-believe money. Each bag is labeled with a strip of red paper on which are written the name and death date of the individual for whom it is intended. The bags are laid on an improvised altar, a priest offers prayers, and then the bags are set on fire so that the "ghost money" will reach the spirits of those who died by accident or suicide, who died in childhood, or who died far away from home.

In addition to mock money, miniature paper reproductions of automobiles, horses, sedan-chairs, and other modes of travel may be burned so that the spirits of the dead can reach Heaven. Paper furniture, clothing, and other useful items are also burned for their benefit.

Water Lanterns

Boats are supposed to convey the souls of Buddhist and Taoist monks across the Heavenly River to save the souls of those who are suffering in hell. During the Hungry Ghosts Festival paper boats-some with paper crew members and the images of various gods on board-are carried in procession either to the temple or the banks of a nearby river, lake, or canal. Priests conduct special ceremonies to invoke the blessings of the gods, and then, illuminated by candles, the boats are launched. Eventually they burn and their frames collapse, but not until they have served the purpose of guiding the hungry ghosts to their final resting place.

Because it is considered bad luck to meddle with these water lanterns, fishermen spend the day on shore and other boats are left at their moorings.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Bredon, Juliet, and Igor Mitrophanow. The Moon Year: A Record of Chinese Customs and Festivals. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1927. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Stepanchuk, Carol, and Charles Wong. Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts: Festivals of China. San Francisco: China Books & Periodicals, 1991.
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Ullambana (Hungry Ghosts Festival; All Souls' Feast)

July-August; full moon or 15th day of seventh lunar month
A Buddhist and Taoist festival probably dating back to the sixth century and Confucius, Ullambana is observed in China as well as throughout the rest of eastern Asia. A legend attaches to this feast's origins: a Buddhist monk named Moggallana sought to save his mother from hell, where she went after her death because of her greed. The Buddha proposed that Moggallana and his fellow monks offer money, apparel, and food on behalf of all the souls he would encounter there. Moggallana did as the Buddha suggested and so rescued his mother. Because it illustrated the Chinese virtue of honoring one's parents, Ullambana became the best-loved Buddhist festival in China, and from there it spread to Japan, Korea, and other east Asian countries.
It is believed that during this month the souls of the dead are released from purgatory to roam the earth. In Taiwan the day is called "opening of the gates of Hell." This makes it a dangerous time to travel, get married, or move to a new house.
Unhappy and hungry spirits—those who died without descendants to look after them or who had no proper funeral (because they were killed in a plane crash, for example)—may cause trouble and therefore must be placated with offerings. So people burn paper replicas of material possessions like automobiles, furniture, clothing, and paper money ("ghost money") believing that this frees these things for the spirits' use. Joss sticks are burned, and offerings of food are placed on tables outside people's homes. Prayers are said at all Chinese temples and at Chinese shops and homes, and wayang (Chinese street opera) and puppet shows are performed on open-air stages.
Families in Vietnam remember the souls of the dead by visiting their graves. It is known as Yue Lan, Vu Lan Day, Day of the Dead, and Trung Nguyen . The festival, the second most important of the year after Tet, is observed throughout the country in Buddhist temples and homes and offices. To remember the dead, families perform the dan chay, an offering of incense at graves. An altar at home is prepared with two levels—one for Buddha with offerings of incense, fruit, and rice, and one for departed relatives with rice soup, fruit, and meat. It is considered best if offerings include the tan sinh, three kinds of creatures—fish, meat, and shrimp—and the ngu qua, five kinds of fruit. Money and clothes made of votive papers are also burned at this time.
Consulate General of Vietnam
1700 California St., Ste. 430
San Francisco, CA 94109
415-922-1707; fax: 415-922-1848
Taiwan Government Information Office
4201 Wisconsin Ave. N.W.
Washington, DC 20016
202-895-1850; fax: 202-362-6144
Hong Kong Tourism Board
115 E. 54th St. 2/F
New York, NY 10022
212-421-3382; fax: 212-421-8428
AnnivHol-2000, p. 239
BkHolWrld-1986, Aug 18
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 225, 1051
DictWrldRel-1989, pp. 135, 581
EncyRel-1987, vol. 3, pp. 293, 326
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 461
OxYear-1999, p. 702
RelHolCal-2004, p. 233
WrldBuddhism-1984, p. 209
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
Focusing on the symbolic and organizational dimensions, he covers, temples and local communities; deities, speech groups, and temples; temple services, mediums, and temple promotion; localization and Chinese religion; Pudu: the Hungry Ghosts Festival; religious organizations and philanthropy; and Taoist religion in Malaysia.
Ha is building the giant model at a workshop in an old Hong Kong neighbourhood for the The Hungry Ghosts festival. It centres on a superstition that the spirits of the dead return to Earth during the seventh month of the Chinese Lunar calendar, which runs until September 4 this year.
As the city's Hungry Ghosts festival burns around him, Bosch puts aside everything he knows, and risks everything to succeed in a desperate attempt to outmatch the triad's ferocity.
The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the revitalization of the Chinese Hungry Ghosts Festival by certain Chinese leaders in Penang as a means to propagate their tradition and reclaim their right to practice their religion publicly.
One of the most colourful of the year, the Hungry Ghosts Festival sees people burn paper money and offerings.