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Ghost Festival

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GhostFestivalsMalaysia

A girl performs on stage during Ghost Festival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Nobody is sitting in the red plastic chairs because the front row is reserved for ghosts.

Ghost Festival (also known as Hungry Ghost Festival and Ghost Month, sometimes referred to as the Chinese Halloween) is a month-long traditional Chinese holiday, of religious significance to both Buddhists and Taoists, which has some similarities to Halloween. It is celebrated in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan and by Chinese communities in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere. Ghost Festival takes up the entire seventh lunar month, which roughly corresponds to August in the Western calendar. The fifteenth day of the month, known as Ghost Day, is considered to be the most important day of the festival. It is believed that the gates of hell[1] are opened during Ghost Month and ghosts are free to walk the Earth.

Unlike the Japanese Obon, Ghost Festival is not strongly associated with visiting and cleaning ancestors' graves. There are other traditional Chinese festivals on which that occurs, Qingming Festival (or Tomb-Sweeping Day) in spring and Chung Yeung Festival (or Double Ninth Festival) in autumn. During Ghost Festival people are more concerned with so called "hungry ghosts', the ghosts of people who died without leaving any descendants or of people whose family did not know they had died, for example, people who died far away from home. Hungry ghosts are usually imagined as having long skinny necks, because they do not have food provided for them by their living descendants.

Although free entertainments are provided in many places during Ghost Month, unlike Obon and Halloween, Ghost Month is not usually regarded as a happy time of year. The threat from mischievous or wicked ghosts is taken seriously by many people. There are many taboos connected with the holiday and many activities which are performed to prevent bad luck.

Strangely enough, Qinming Festival (also known as Lovers' Day or Chinese Valentine's Day) occurs during Ghost Month, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. For one day, people largely put aside worries about things that go bump in the night and turn their attention to dates, chocolates and flowers.

Activities

HellBankNote

A hell bank note from Hong Kong. The design of the note imitates that of a US dollar.

Many Chinese people believe that the afterlife is very similar to this life and that ghosts still need food, clothes, other material goods and money to pay for them. Hell bank notes (imitation paper money, intended for use by the dead) and paper models of houses, cars, televisions and other things are often burned by people as offerings for their deceased relatives, often on the anniversary of their deaths. During Ghost Month, hell bank notes and paper models of other goods are burned for the hungry ghosts who have no descendants to provide for them. It is a common sight to see people standing in the street in front of their homes burning large amounts of hell bank notes in metal drums. As a result of the smoke pollution that this causes, the government in Taiwan has encouraged people to burn a single ghost credit card instead of large amounts of ghost money, or to donate the money that they would have spent on hell bank notes to charity instead.

Incense is often burned outside houses throughout Ghost Month. Incense is associated with good luck and it is believed that the more incense is burned, the greater the luck.

On the fourteenth day of Ghost Month large amounts of food and drink for the hungry ghosts are placed on tables which are left in front of people's homes. Also on the fourteenth day of the festival, as on the third day of Obon, illuminated paper lanterns are placed on rivers and left to float downstream, symbolically showing ghosts the way back to the land of the dead.

In some areas, live street performances are put on for the returning ghosts' entertainment. These performances can include Chinese opera, plays and puppet shows but they can also feature singers performing modern pop songs or even striptease shows. The living are allowed to attend these performances for free but they are not permitted to sit in the first row of seats in front of the stage, those seats are reserved for ghosts.

In order to bring good luck, people often visit temples and wear protective amulets during Ghost Festival. Some people who usually eat meat become temporarily vegetarian.

Taboos

Unlike Halloween and Obon, Ghost Festival is not usually considered to be a fun time of year, rather it is considered to be an unlucky month. Like at Halloween, and unlike at Obon, some people are worried that evil spirits are amongst the ghosts who return during the festival. There are many taboos connected with the month, it is believed that avoiding certain activities will prevent people from coming into contact with wicked ghosts and the bad luck that they bring.

Children are told to come straight home after dark and avoid loitering. Whistling or playing a wind instrument at night is to be avoided because it is said to attract ghosts. Although August is the hottest time of year in many Asian countries, many people refuse to swim during Ghost Month, for fear that evil ghosts might drown them. Hanging clothes out to dry is traditionally avoided out of fear that ghosts may possess them and then be able to gain entrance to the house. It is considered extremely unlucky to tell ghost stories during this time. Many people avoid using the word "ghost" altogether during Ghost Festival and speak of the "good brothers" instead.

Burning-money-and-yuanbao-at-the-cemetery-3249

Imitation banknotes and gold ignots being burned during Ghost Festival in 2008 in Jiangsu Province, China.

During Ghost Festival, it is also considered unlucky to wear outfits made up entirely of red, black or white clothes. Urinating against a tree should be avoided during this time because it may anger tree spirits. Leaning against walls is considered unlucky during Ghost Festival, as ghosts are said to prefer to stay close to walls, where it is cooler, during the summer. Picking up money off the street during Ghost Festival, whether it is real money or hell money, is considered unlucky. People are told that, if they are tapped on the shoulder, they should turn their whole body round, as just turning the head may extinguish an invisible flame on the shoulder that offers protection from evil spirits.

Killing "rare insects" is taboo during Ghost Festival. The reason for this is that the insect may be the reincarnated spirit of an ancestor. "Rare insects" is usually understood as insets that people have not seen inside their homes before or which do not come into their homes very often. Therefore, butterflies, moths and grasshoppers are considered "rare' and should not be killed. Mosquitoes and cockroaches are not considered "rare" and will not bring bad luck if they are killed.

Ghost Festival is generally considered a bad time to start a new business, get married or move to a new house.

Wearing costumes is not a traditional part of Ghost Festival. It has been said that people in Europe began wearing costumes on Samhain to fool ghosts into thinking that they were other ghosts, meaning that they would be left alone. Many Chinese people continue to believe that if a living person dresses like a ghost spirits of the departed will be fooled into thinking he or she is one of them. However, far from being left alone, someone mistaken for a ghost is likely to be followed by spirits of the departed, who may even carry him or her back to the land of the dead with them. Nevertheless, some shopping malls and theme parks in Taiwan have recently started making use of people in vampire and zombie-like costumes to promote events during Ghost Month.

Footnotes

  1. In this context, "hell" simply refers to the afterlife location where all people go when they die. It is not necessarily a place of punishment.

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