It is almost the time of the Ghost Festival and today we will talk about this special day in China. We talked about the Day of Death in our podcast before and it is a little similar to but not quite the same to Ghost Festival. If you want to know more about the Day of Death, please check our episode 38.
The main difference between Day of Death and Ghost Festival for me is that I feel like most ceremonies are held during the day on the Day of Death however most ceremonies held during the night on the Ghost Festival. So when I think of Day of Death, I would think about picnic on a refreshing spring day visiting the cemetery. However when I think of the Ghost Festival, I think about some scary ghosts wondering on the streets during night time.
Ghost Festival 鬼节, is also called ZhongYuan Festival 中元节in Taoism and YuLanPenHui 盂兰 盆会in Buddhism, which is on the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar. This year it will be on August 25th.
There are different origins about the festival due to the influences of folklore, Taoism and Buddhism. In the folklore, there are two reasons to have a festival on the 15th of the seven month in the lunar calendar. First, it is the end of the summer and the start of the harvest season when it is the time to sacrifice and worship the land. Second, the 15th of month is usually the full month and the moon is a sacred sign in the ancient time.
In Taoism, the festival is called ZhongYuan Festival. Zhong means middle. Yuan means basic or the top. There are three officials in Taoism called SanGuanDaDi 三官大帝 which are TianGuan 天官, the official of heaven, DiGuan 地官, the official of the ground, ShuiGuan 水官， the official of the water. DiGuan is in the middle who is in charge of pardoning sins. The origin of ZhongYuan Festival is said on the birthday of DiGuan, the official of the ground. On this day, the ghost gate in the underworld is open. We talked about the underworld and ghost gate in our episode 12 you can check it if you are interested. The ghosts and spirits have this day to come out to our world and it is kind of like in the movie Coco. If the spirits have families alive, they can visit them.
In Buddhism, the festival is called YuLanPenHui which is from the Sanskrit word Ullambana from the Ullambana Sutra. Ullambana means being hung upside down in sanskirt meaning the pains in life is like we are hung upside down on the tree. In the sutra, it says Mulian asked the Buddha to relieve the suffering of his past mom as a hungry ghost. His mom had been greedy with money and after death, she was at the realm of the Hungry Ghosts that they could not eat. The Buddha informed him that food offered to the community of monks at the time of their return from the summer retreat will benefit 7 generations of his ancestors. Mulian raised his mom to reincarnate to human by giving food and robes to 500 monks.
Since the Buddhism story is about filial piety which is an important part in Chinese culture including Taoism and Confucianism, the rituals of the festival includes descendants burning incenses, preparing food offerings, burning joss paper for the visiting spirits of the ancestors. Different from the Day of the Death, instead of going to the cemeteries, people would burn joss paper just on the streets because the spirits are visiting us. The ceremonies are usually held in the afternoon or at night when the ghosts are released.
Think about how scary it is for a kid thinking about spirits and ghosts are wondering on the streets. I remember after school on the Ghost Festival, I could see a lot of people just burning joss paper on the streets maybe talking to the spirit and the name of their ancestors so they can find families and receive the money. Grow ups would warn us that do not wonder around on the streets that day after school since we would be likely encounter ghosts. Shops closed early that they want to empty the streets for the ghosts. There are some taboos like don’t look back that day if somebody call you or pat on your shoulders. Pat your shoulders, exhale and rub your shoes before you enter home just in case you are haunted by some bad spirits on your body.
Another traditions on the Ghost Festival is float water lanterns usually in the shape of lotus flower on water to direct the spirits and ancestors back to the underworld.
鬼节 Ghost Festival
中元节 ZhongYuan Festival
盂兰 盆会 YuLanPenHui