The Hungry Ghost Festival

Written by Mugilaa Selvaraja

Edited by Fajar binti Benjamin

Many Malaysians by now would have been accustomed to the festival called the “Hungry Ghost Festival”. Well how much do we know about it or how little is still a question yet to be answered. As creepy and fun as it may sound, I still blame my Chinese friends for giving me the chills I have until this day when the month of this festival arrives. I was often told stories about how ghosts will haunt mortals like us during the festival season and my friends would tell me stories of their so-called “experiences” to creep me out further. I simply don’t walk out alone in the street at night, cross places the lamps and food is served or do my usual night swims throughout the period of the festival.

To those who have no idea what I’m saying, let us decipher all about it shall we?

The hungry ghost festival is also known as the Ghost Festival, Zhongyuan Jie, Gui Jie and Yulan Festival. It is a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival held in certain Asian countries. The celebration to my surprise is only for one day. I always thought it was for a month until I did some research. It is held on the 14th or 15th day of the seventh lunar month of the calender. This day fell on the 25th of August this year.

The origin of this festival is still unknown as countries like India, Cambodia and Japan share similar beliefs. Well , the celebration signifies the opening of the gates of hell wide open in the beginning of the month. It is believed that during the ghost month , spirits seek out worldly pleasure and even revenge against those who did them harm while they were alive.

 Sacrifices are offered by the believers to the deceased that consist of burning joss paper, chanting scriptures, floating lotus flower-shaped lanterns and food. This is done due to belief that after weeks of travelling the ghosts would be famished and to contain the spirits.

Unlike the Qing Ming festival that honors the family and ancestral ghosts, the ghost festival is celebrated to pacify the restless stranger ghosts that might possibly cause harm (Chinese American Family, 2018). What stands out and stays interesting about this event is that it is filled with taboos only our ancestor generations would clearly be aware of. It starts with not being able to wear shirts that have your name printed on, not to open your legs wide open and view anything from between your legs and not to whistle. Besides all of this, children, pregnant women and senior citizens are strictly prohibited from going out at night. Any activities that would provoke the ghosts are not allowed too.

Here is a list of DON’TS extracted from an online source :

1. Hang out late
2. Spit in the street or tree
3. Stare at the candlelight or burning fire
4. Step On Or Kick offering items / joss sticks along the Roadside
5. Cover up your forehead at night; always pin or put up your hair as high as possible
6. Stare at “them” if you really saw one; look or walk away calmly
7. Make funny jokes or comments on any display altar / offering items along the street
8. Look underneath the altar table when there is a prayer session
9. Shift your eyeballs from left to right or right to left repeatedly if you sensed something; always look straight and walk toward your destination calmly
10. Sniff and follow any pleasant or sweet smell ahead of you
11. Sit on the first few Front Rows of any public Chinese Operas
12. Open your umbrella at night, especially red color type
13. Wear red color costume with high heels and walk alone at night
14. Pick up any unique items found on the street or road
15. Stand Under a Tree in the middle of the night
16. Wait at The Bus Stop after Mid-Night especially already passed the bus service operating hours
17. Whistle alone at night; you may found someone singing along with you
18. Hang your clothes out in the middle of the night
19. Walk in the dark and near the walls; something maybe visible at your side view
20. Answer or respond when someone calls you, especially from behind
21. Turn your head when someone pat on your shoulders in the middle of the street
22. Use any Dark or Black color manicure
23. Comb your hair in front of the mirror in the middle of the night
24. Shout or scream in the middle of the night, stay as quiet as possible if you felt sudden coldness
25. Get emotional and cry in the middle of the night
26. Leave your bleeding wounds in a open air; always cover up the area with plasters or other bandage materials
27. Be a curious person or hero, if you hear some “strange” sound or noise, especially soft crying tone; always act blur.
28. Swim in the pool or lake in the middle of the night; something maybe waiting to pull your legs
29. Play at the playground in the middle of the night; especially the swings
30. Take up the challenge to enter cemetery area or abandoned houses

Source from : Stolarchuk, J. (2018). 30 “Do Not” list for the Chinese Hungry Ghost month. [online] The Independent. Available at: http://theindependent.sg/30-do-not-list-for-the-chinese-hungry-ghost-month/ [Accessed 7 Oct. 2018].

These superstitions are due to the belief that any humans that dies peacefully will reincarnate and any humans that die in tragic and sudden accidents will become restless ghosts. It is said that spirits in this period that are evil seize the opportunity to posses, disturb or harm mortals.

As there will always be people who are ignorant of this festival, many people including the nonbelievers take caution by preventing themselves from going out late at night or by choosing to wear protection amulets, prayer beads or coarse salt. This includes the Malay and Indian communities in Malaysia who respect and believe in this tradition.

Some taboos and restrictions fail to meet the proper explanation from the scientific view. Nevertheless, everyone who believes this tradition continues to fear the unknown and the majority choose to follow customs without question as instructed by our ancestors.

Year

Date of Ghost Festival

Ghost Month

2018

August 25th

August 11th – September 9th

2019

August 15th

August 1st – August 29th

2020

September 2nd

August 19th – September 16th

2021

August 22nd

August  8th – September 6th

Adapted from : Yourchineseastrology.com. (2018).

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