The Ghost Festival (鬼節 ) or the Hungry Ghost Festival (餓鬼節) is a traditional Taoists and Buddhists festival held in China and some Asian countries. The Taoists called it Zhong Yuan Jie (中元節) and the Buddhists called it Yu Lan Jie (盂蘭節). The Ghost Festival is on the 15th night of the seventh lunar month (or 14th in southern China). In 2021, it falls on the 22nd August (Sunday) or 21st August (Saturday) in southern China.
In China, people generally think that when people died, most of them go to hell and they are tortured to various extend for the reparation of the sins they committed when they were alive.
During the seventh lunar month the gate of hell is opened to allow the ghosts and spirits go back to the living world. Those have families visit their families and those alone roam on the streets to seek food and entertainment.
Family members usually offer sacrifices to their deceased ancestors and relatives during the month and especially on the Ghost day. Deceased ancestors are honored with delicious food on tables. The family’s ancestral tablets and photographs are put on the table with incense burning near them.
Filial piety (孝道) of descendants extends to their ancestors even after their death. Activities during the month would include preparing ritualistic food offerings, burning incense, candles, joss paper and paper form of material items such as clothes and accessories, gold bars, TV sets, washing machine, cars, houses or even servants for the deceased ancestors.
People also pay tribute to those unknown wandering ghosts with food and burn joss paper to please the ghosts on the 15th (some places on the 14th) day of the seventh lunar month so that these homeless souls do not intrude on their lives and bring misfortune.
Many of the ceremonies are carried out at night as it is believed that the ghosts are released from hell when the sun sets. Taoists and Buddhists perform rituals to transmute and absolve the sufferings of the deceased. Altars are built for the deceased and monks chant mantra. Rice and other small foods are thrown into the air in all directions to the wandering ghosts.
The Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva Pūrvapraṇidhāna Sūtra ( 地藏菩薩本願經) is a popular Mahayana Buddhist sutra chanted during the Festival. The sutra tells how Kṣitigarbha (地藏菩薩) became a bodhisattva (菩薩) by making great vows to rescue all other sentient beings and gives a description of his filial piety in his past lifetimes.
He vowed not to achieve Buddahood until all hells are emptied. 眾生度盡、方證菩提；地獄不空、誓不成佛
Other festivities may include buying and releasing miniature paper boats and lanterns on water, which signifies giving directions to the lost ghosts and spirits to find their way back to home. The lanterns are usually lotus flower-shaped with light or candles. Some people also write their ancestors’ names on the lanterns.
In some East Asian countries today, live performances are held and everyone is invited to attend. The first row of seats are always empty as this is where the ghosts sit. The shows are always put on at night and at high volumes as the sound is believed to attract and please the ghosts. Some shows include Chinese opera, dramas and modern songs.
At the end of the lunar month all the hungry ghosts find their way back to hell.
In the Qingming Festival 清明節 (in spring) and Double Ninth Festival 重陽節 (in autumn) people pay homage to their deceased ancestors. In the Ghost Festival, it is believed that the deceased visit the living. People not only pay homage to their own deceased ancestors but also pay tribute to other unknown wandering spirits and ghosts.
Some people say that the Ghost Festival is similar to Halloween (All Saints’ Eve) on 31 October, the eve of the All Hallows’ Day originally dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs and all the faithful departed believers. Nowadays Halloween is a festival for parties using “humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.” Halloween activities include playing trick-or-treat, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, attending costume parties, telling scary stories, etc.
I think the Ghost Festival is more similar to the All Souls Day (2 November) than the Halloween. All Souls Day is a day of remembrance and prayers for the repose of the souls of the deceased.
A Chinese poem written about Zhong Yuan Jie by Fan Zhongyan (范仲淹) (989 – 1052) :
Patrick would like to thank Sandy Tsang, the artist and maker of the miniature model of ‘Tai Fung Joss Stick and Candle Shop’ for her wonderful and highly meticulous work which give us a lot of fond memories of the old Hong Kong lives.