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Seeing the Hungry Ghosts Festival in a different light

✦ No, don't call the Ghostbusters! It's just the Hungry Ghosts Festival!

Mark this date - August 12, 2022. That's when the Chinese celebrate this most unusual festival - the Hungry Ghosts Festival!

If you've never heard of it, you may be intrigued by what exactly it is. The Mexicans have their famous Día de Muertos with their trademark colourful skulls. And the Chinese have their Hungry Ghosts Festival.

It's one of the most important traditional festivals celebrated in China and by Chinese all over Asia. You may know it by its Chinese name, the Zhongyuan (Chinese: 中原) Festival. It falls on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and this year, it's on August 12th in 2022. The entire month itself really lasts from July 29th to August 26th.

Food offerings to the spirits during the Hungry Ghosts Festival
Food offerings to the spirits during the Hungry Ghosts Festival

During this period, the spirits roam the realm of the living and people prepare rituals and food offerings to honour their ancestors and appease these spirits that are roaming around.

If you're squeamish and perhaps have seen one too many horror movies, rest assured. This is nothing to be terrified of. Perhaps after reading this you'll see this festival in a very different light.

Spirits roaming free

The Chinese believe that during this month, the gates of the underworld open up and the spirits come out to play. They are free to roam, 'enjoy' themselves, perhaps visit the people they love and miss, or go to places they used to frequent. By the end of the month, the spirits return again to the underworld.

This is not a story to scare adults, much less little children, and it's not so important if you believe in the underworld or not. Just the idea of the souls of people who have passed on and can actually return, albeit briefly, from wherever they are for a visit, is actually rather moving if you think about it. And if these are simply our ancestors swinging by for a visit, then there's really nothing to fear now, is there?

Horror movies are made to scare and entertain and if they didn't do their job you'd vote them down on the Rotten Tomatoes website.

The Hungry Ghosts Festival is a time for the living to pay respects to their ancestors, to remember fondly loved ones who have passed on, and to remember to be kind to wandering spirits who may not have anyone to mourn them or miss them. It is also a sobering reminder that we who are living, are also ephemeral beings.

Right now we can enjoy a full life and partake in all the joys that life bestows on us. Why not share some of what we have with the spirits?

How to celebrate

1. Speak to those who have passed on

No no, we're not talking about dusting off that ouija board you have in the closet. Many of us may have photographs of family members and loved ones who have passed on in our living spaces. Remembering loved ones who have gone is not always, or only, about grief. It's also about celebrating who they were and what they have taught us during the precious time we've shared with them.

This is a time to fondly remember them, perhaps think about a message you'd want to tell them, and come up with your own little prayer to these loved ones, and trust that from wherever they are, they are also sending us their blessings.

2. Share the good food

What's a celebration without good food? The Chinese are famous for their culinary delights, and you can be sure that there isn't a single Chinese festival that doesn't involve food of some kind! And the important thing about good food is that when it is shared, it tastes even better!

The Chinese prepare food offerings to the spirits three times a day. The Chinese believe their ancestors will visit their homes and partake of the meals offered to them. You may have seen these offerings being set up. Three bowls of rice with three accompanying sets of chopsticks and why not include three cups of wine too to finish off the meal? There is no limit to what you wish to put out as offerings - meat, fruits and sweet things. Perhaps you may have a pet that has passed on and you can put out some of their favourite doggy or kitty treats on a dish. After all, a pet is very often treated as a member of the family.

If you really want to go the extra mile and prepare something special for your ancestors, why not try this traditional P'ng Kueh recipe from My Blue Tea?

*Note: If you're dining in a Chinese restaurant or invited over for a meal at a friend's place, never stick your chopsticks standing up straight in the middle of your rice bowl. That is actually a 'secret code' for the spirits to indicate they are welcome to eat here! So unless you generously wish to share your rice with them, otherwise, place your chopsticks on the little piece of chopstick rest, or on the table if there isn't one.

3. Burning offerings

Now this is the really interesting bit and for those who grew up with the culture you won't be too surprised and may not even realise how strange this really looks to people who don't know anything about it!

You may have seen people outdoors, burning either incense, joss papers, red candles or sometimes different objects made of paper. Before you start having an attack of eco-anxiety, there are metal containers that are placed strategically around for people to burn their offerings. So nobody is going to start a fire by burning offerings anywhere.

Burning incense and candles as offerings to spirits
Burning incense and candles as offerings to spirits

Even culture has to move with the times, and you'll see people burning paper effigies such as mansions, luxury cars, and even smartphones! These are meant to be offerings or gifts for the spirits and burning them is a way for the spirits to receive them on their end. We are very tickled by the idea of burning smartphone effigies, because we wonder if it means spirits will make contact from the other side, the smart way! We hope they have optic fibre working well where they are!

At the end of the day, it's the thought that counts. So don't worry if you're not comfortable burning offerings. Perhaps even just lighting a white candle at home and spending a quiet time in contemplation is offering enough.

4. Live entertainment

This is a typical sight during this month. There will be special live performances, typically some form of Chinese opera, or singers belting out old favourites. You are welcome to watch if you wish, but bear in mind that you do not rush to take a seat in the first and second rows of the performance. These seats are reserved for the spirits, as they are the special guests during this time.

Live entertainment during the Hungry Ghost Festival on 1:39'

5. Lead them gently home

This is our favourite - it's the gentlest way of celebrating this festival. Some people in Chinese communities around the world would write the names of their loved ones who have passed on on paper lanterns with a candle inside. These lanterns are left to float down the river as a gentle guide for spirits to find their way back to the spiritual realm. It serves to also carry away bad luck, and dispel ill fortune.

Think of it as a sort of GPS for the spirits. Yes, they've had their time during this month to visit and enjoy, and as all good things come to an end, we can also gently guide them and show them the lighted path back home. If you can't find one of these paper lanterns where you live, why not fold a little paper boat and let it float away? Find your own meaningful way of celebrating the festival.

A new narrative

Many talk about the superstitions to avoid during this period of the year. That makes for highly interesting conversations, but it also presents this festival as a somewhat dreaded or frightening one. Could we give especially to our children, a kinder, more human narrative of this festival? There are enough monsters under the bed, so why not use this festival as a time to nurture compassion and gratitude?

The Hungry Ghosts Festival can have its beautiful side too and it's not all about scary spirits who seem literally hell bent on messing with the living. Popular movies have put spirits and the after life in a rather negative light, and the person writing this article also has an expiry date at some point and would rather not think that what's coming after is all doom and gloom! And really, what if spirits are not really 'hungry' for food but 'hungry' to experience the reminder of what their past lives were like and to see again the people they miss?

If you are 'hungry' for some food for thought on the realm of the spirits, watch Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda's 1998 masterpiece After Life (also known as Wonderful Life ワンダフルライフ Wandafuru Raifu) where spirits are asked to choose one single precious memory to take with them as they pass into the next world.

"I'm going to keep you inside me, forever. I can't bear to be forgotten by any more people." - After Life (1998) dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda.

Perhaps that's all spirits (or living humans) want. Not to be forgotten. That's what the Hungry Ghosts Festival is for. It's to feed beautiful memories of loved ones who have gone physically but are very much alive inside of us in what they have taught us.

So how are you going to be celebrating the Hungry Ghosts Festival this year?


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