Legends, Traditions, and Superstitions of the Hungry Ghost Festival
The Hungry Ghost festival falls on the 15th day of the 7th month of the Chinese calendar. It is believed that during this month, the gates of “hell” are opened to let the hungry ghosts return to earth to look for food. It is also believed that at this time, the dead would return to visit their relatives so consequently, the family would pay tribute to the dead by preparing a sumptuous meal to feed them. Joss sticks, paper money, clothes, computers, DVDs, TVs and cars are burned and offered to the dead relatives so that they can live comfortably when they return to their world. It is also believed that if they pay tribute and keep the ghosts satisfied, they will bring good luck and fortune to their lives. Tribute is also paid to other unknown wandering ghosts so that these homeless souls will not bring them bad luck or misfortune.
Since Chinese are pretty superstitious, they believe that children should refrain from swimming on the 7th month fearing that the evil ghost might cause them to drown. Also, it is not a good idea to stay out late, as the wandering ghosts may possess them.
Getting married, starting a business, moving homes or even traveling is not advised. It is believed that the ghosts will return to where they come from after a month of merry making!
Ms. Yong first heard the legend behind the Hungry Ghost festival when she was growing up as a child in Malaysia. She says that when she goes back to Malaysia, she still practices it with family. We usually pray to our ancestors on the day of offering food and I think it’s a way of trying to remember your loved ones who have passed away.
I myself have never heard of this type of festival. My mother does not practice this in our home in California, mainly just in Asia with our relatives. I also did not realize how superstitious the Chinese are. They have many dos and donts during certain events that must have come from something in history. The only similar thing I can recollect is the burning of incense and offering of food that is sacrificed for the Gods. This is done usually on a daily basis and extends beyond just the Chinese, to Vietnamese and Thai as well.
Unlike Americans, Chinese place a lot of emphasis on their past. Americans are more concerned with what is going to happen, often insisting not to dwell on things of the past. On the other hand, the Chinese focus on the opposite. They are very interested on their past and have great respect for their ancestors and their origins. Many Chinese traditions pay homage to their ancestors, showing appreciation and celebration of their heritage. It is also a way of strengthening family ties and continuing the family lineage.
Spirits and ghosts are also common in many Chinese traditions and superstitions. The idea of ghosts and haunted spirits in western culture seem to be associated with scary campfires or other fear-invoking settings. In Chinese society, however, they are more prevalent to everyday life. The Chinese are strong believers in life after death. Many fear death but since it is inevitable, want to have the best afterlife as possible. This could be reason behind strong ancestral and ghost worship; Chinese want to be on their best behavior and treat the spirits right so they can join them in a good place after they pass away.