Summary: A festival month in East Asia in which people leave food and offerings for ancestors and others who have are suffering in the afterlife.
2018 Date: August 25. The Seventh month of the East Asian Lunar Calendar.
Celebrated by: Buddhists, Taoists, Chinese and East Asian societies.
Linked Holidays: Sweeping Tomb Festival, Phi Ta Khon, Tōrō nagashi.
Background and Theological Significance
Venerating ancestors is of central importance to both Confucian and Daoist theologies. Worshiping those who have died who are part of your family often has a dual significance.
First, it more closely binds together the different generations of the family. The living improve the afterlives of those who have died by making sacrifices and offerings, and ensuring a proper funeral. In return those who have died protect and watch over the living members of the family.
Second, it binds together the wider community, family names are shared very widely in East Asia. Ancestors are shared by a large number of people and so coming together in public to make offerings is an outward sign of recognition for the connections that run throughout society tying the present to the past.
When those who have died are not cared for, normally because there is nobody alive or willing to properly undertake their funeral rites, then they become what’s known as a Hungry Ghost. This will also happen if the person died in exceptional circumstances such as murder. The idea is that intense emotion or desire, justified or unjustified, keeps this person present as a suffering and dangerous spirit. These spirits are commonly depicted as shade-like, with large hands and frail throats. Their desire for satisfaction symbolised in their hunger which is never satisfied as food burns to ashes at their touch and/or is impossible for them to swallow because of their narrow and fragile throats.
In East Asia there are two main versions of an apocryphal Buddhist story. In the story a Buddhist Monk achieves enlightenment and subsequently learns that their mother is suffering in the afterlife as a Hungry Ghost, due to her own desires (in the main version she was obsessed with money.) The Monk asked Buddha what he can do relieve his mother’s suffering, to which the Buddha tells him to offer food for the Monks and Nuns of the community on the 15th day of the 7th Lunar Month, the prayers of the Monks and Nuns will relieve the suffering of his ancestors.
This story likely does not date to the time of Buddha. Instead it is a Chinese addition to an older Indian myth that was attributed to Buddha in order to harmonise Buddhism with the Ancestor worship and Filial Piety that is so important to East Asian societies.
The practice of ancestor veneration has a long history in East Asia. The Buddhist holiday of Ullambana gave it more concrete shape. First, by expanding it to a society-wide caring for all who have passed away, especially those who are not cared for in the proper manner. Second, by placing it in the calendar on the 7th lunar month, particularly on the 15th day.
In South and South-East Asia the celebrations are much earlier, and hard to date. In East Asia they can be traced back to 7th century China during the Tang Dynasty.
This diversity of origin and long history has led to a wide variety in how the month is marked across South and East Asia.
The whole month is called ‘Ghost Month’ in many parts of East Asia. In Taiwan the whole month is seen as the time where the Gates of Hell are open and Hungry Ghosts are free to roam the world. Every version of the festival recognises the importance of placating these spirits in various ways.
The most common is putting food and incense out on the side of the road and in temples after it has been blessed. This ‘spirit food’ is there in order to nourish the Hungry Ghosts and stop them wandering into people’s lives. After the offering, this food needs to be eaten quickly, or thrown away. This is because it is thought to go bad quickly after the spirits have ‘eaten’ it.
Most practices have the pragmatic purpose of avoiding the ghosts and/pr attracting them to specific places and keeping them satisfied and placid. Certain actions are discouraged during the month. Whistling, swimming, and walking the streets at night are all actions thought to attract the Ghosts. Water is thought to attract ghosts, loud noises like firecrackers are thought to scare ghosts away. This is partly influenced by Yin-Yang duality. Ghosts are drawn towards the negative Yin, passive, depressed, watery and dark places. They avoid loud, bright, positive happy areas. Keep this in mind and you will be fine during Ghost Month.
The diversity of practices also makes for fascinating variations on methods for keeping the ghosts occupied and happy. Paper money is burnt as an offering, as are paper houses, cars, servants, etc. In Taiwan ceremonies last all month with different activities each day to guide the ghosts back to the underworld. In Singapore, Malaysia, and some other places performances of Chinese Opera or even burlesque are put on for an audiences of ghosts; empty chairs are laid out and no human is allowed to attend.
All these practices and rituals serve as reminders that a society is made up of more than just those of us lucky enough to be alive at the moment. We are connected to the past through our family ties and we also share the space with others in the community whom we often give little thought to. These connections need maintaining, space needs to be made for the other. Ghost Month stands as a reminder to all of us of exactly this truth.