The Hungry Ghost Festival: tales and taboos

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Would you turn around when you feel someone is tapping you on the shoulder? During the Hungry Ghost Festival, best to ignore it… Read more about this festival and the do’s and don’ts in our article here!

The seventh Chinese lunar month, also called Hungry Ghost month, falls between 19 August – 16 September this year. Ghost Day is on 2 September 2020. This period is believed by the Chinese Buddhists to mark the opening of the gate of hell, allowing the lonely spirits to wander and roam the land of the living.

During this period you will see roadside offerings of food, sweets, candles and joss sticks to fete the wandering spirits. Buddhist devotees will put up tents to hold prayers to the spirits and the guardians of hell as a mark of respect. Live opera performance or ‘getai’ will also be performed to entertain the spirits.

What are hungry ghosts?

Buddhists believe that when one dies, the spirit will leave the body and go to another world – be heaven or hell – before they reincarnate. Those spirits who have families are given offerings and prayers at least once a year during Ching Ming Festival. Those spirits that do not have families or friends to pay them respect or offer food become ‘hungry’. When the door of hell opens they come out and search for any offerings they can get!


Photo: Flickr

Growing up in a Buddhist family, we were often told to obey the taboos during the Hungry Ghost month. These are some of the common taboos that my parents used to talk about when we were young:

Do not pick up coins on the street

Those coins are meant for the spirits, not you. Besides offering foods, coins are thrown on the street for the spirits to ‘collect’.

Do not stay out too late

When the sun sets, the the spirits will grow stronger. To avoid bumping into the wandering spirits, we were told to stay at home after 7pm. This was especially important for children and pregnant women. It is believed that children are more likely to get possessed by the wandering spirits and they are very much attracted to fetuses!

Do not sit at the front row at a performance or a show

The front row is reserved for the spirits. They are the VVIP of the show. Stay clear of the front row, even when all other seats are all taken. You should just stand by the side or the back, rather than risk offending the spirits.

Do not hang clothes outside at night

This applied especially to white clothes. It is believed that the wandering spirits will try on the clothes and will get brought home together with the clothes. You will end up with an unwanted guest in the house!

Avoid traveling

Delay or stay put on any holidays or vacations during this month to avoid any mishaps caused by the mischievous spirits. This applies especially to holidays that involve water related activities, as well as hiking or camping.

Do not touch or step on the prayer items or offerings on the roadside

This shows disrespect to the spirits and offends them. If one was to accidentally step on the offering items, please make sure to apologise.

Do not place your child on the offering altar

Items on the offering altar are for the spirits to consume, take and enjoy. They might mistakenly devour the child, thinking that he/she is one of the offerings!

Do not wear black and red

You could attract the hungry spirits if you are wearing red and black or even paint your nails black. It is thought that you are one of them if you have black nails.

Do not shout or swear out loud during the night

You may anger or offend the spirits that happen to be on the same path with you or are even sitting right next to you.

Do not turn around when someone calls you or taps your shoulder at night

If you turn around the spirit will reveal itself to you! The Chinese believe there are three torches of fire on your body – one on each shoulder and one on the forehead. The brighter the fire, the less chance that the spirits will attack you. If you do turn around, make sure you turn the whole body instead of one shoulder or your head!


Photo: Flickr

The taboo list can go on and on… These taboos probably seem like superstition for some but as anything, are subject to personal belief. Believe it or not? I would say better be safe than sorry!

When I was young, I was told that dogs can see ghosts and they will howl when they see any. I was told that in order for a human to see ghosts, one can try to rub dog’s tears into his/her eyes and they will see the ghosts… Dare you!

Read also about the family traditions around Chinese New Year.

Featured image: Flickr

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