It is almost the time of the year again when you will see joss paper and food offerings everywhere on the street. If you have lived in Malaysia for a while, you would know that this could only mean one thing. Yes, the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival is upon us!
What is the Hungry Ghost Festival?
Whether you are a Taoist, Buddhist or non-believer, this festival always rings a bell to any Malaysian. Known to be the most inauspicious month of the year according to Chinese culture, Ghost Month takes place on the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar, with the Hungry Ghost Festival occurring on 12 August this year. The event is of Taoism and Buddhism origins with both religions believing that this is the time when both dead and living meet.
It was said that during this month, the Gates of Hell will be opened for the dead to return to the mortal world in search of food, family, and entertainment. The reason food is mentioned is that these ghosts are depicted as “hungry” after having starved in the afterworld. Therefore, you will notice many Taoists burning joss paper and providing food offerings on the street to appease these “hungry” ghosts.
Although many depict the festival as scary, it was actually meant to be a time to commemorate and give thanks to our ancestors, which is similar to the Qing Ming Festival. Many of these ghosts have homes they can return to where they reunite with their families, whereas those who are homeless will wander around the living world until it is time to go back.
What to expect during this time of the year?
1. Food offerings on the roadside
As mentioned, Taoists and Buddhists will make a lot of food offerings during this period to feed the dead who return to the living. This food can only be “eaten” by the wandering ghosts, so never pick it up to eat it nor tamper with it.
People will offer food such as rice, peanuts, candy, raw noodles, or for richer families, raw meat. Moreover, they will burn joss paper or paper currency as “money” for these ghosts to spend during their one month of freedom.
2. Getai performances
It is normal to see pop-up stages on the roadside at this time. Other than the food, there is also entertainment provided for these spirits to enjoy. Getai, translated as ‘song stage’ will be frequently held during Ghost month as a celebration of the Hungry Ghost Festival.
Many performers will be invited to sing or dance pop songs at this mini-concert to entertain both people and spirits. You might notice at these getai shows that the first rows are often empty because these spots are reserved for the “Good Brothers and Sisters” only. That’s right, the ghosts.
3. A lot of superstitions
Ghost month is the scariest time of the year for the Chinese community as they believe it is the time when the dead walk among the living. To avoid spiritual encounters or worse, attacks from ghosts, many superstitions were passed down from generation to generation, and are still widely practised to this day.
Even as a non-believer, it is important to take note of these superstitions so you would not offend your Chinese acquaintances. We’ll get to these superstitions later.
4. Probably fewer people at night
If you are a horror fan, you would understand how people, especially the Chinese will avoid going out at night during this period. They say that the Yin energy is heavier at night, which strengthens the dead and increases the chances of a spiritual attack.
Therefore, it is natural to see a decline in the number of Chinese customers as many will be staying at home or carrying out rituals.
5. Loud ceremonies and events at nearby temples
In order to appease these ghosts, Taoist priests and monks will perform rituals in temples at this time. Their ceremonies will get more elaborate when the Hungry Ghost Festival draws near, which is believed to be the peak of the month when all the dead are already in the mortal world.
Devotees will also flock to these temples to burn paper money and make food offerings to please these wandering spirits.
Here’s what you should not do during Ghost Month
Whether you believe these myths or not, it is always better to be aware of these superstitions out of respect to your Chinese colleagues and friends.
1. Don’t stay out late
As stated beforehand, the Yin energy is stronger when the moon is out, which provides the ghosts more spiritual powers to haunt the living. Some families will stop their children and pregnant family members from going out at night because they believe that the ghosts tend to prey on the weak.
So if your Chinese friends decline your invitation for a fun night out, don’t take it personally. They just don’t want to meet any “new friends”.
2. Stay away from the water
Avoid swimming in water bodies, such as pools or the sea for the time being. According to Chinese myths, vengeful spirits who died in the water may have their revenge on unknowing swimmers by pulling them down under and drowning them.
These victims will then take their place in the water while the spirits will finally be reincarnated.
3. Don’t make any moving plans this month
During this time, many people will advise you not to move houses or offices, and here’s why. Moving on this month sends a wrong message to the “Good Brothers” and “Good Sisters” out there as they might take it as an invitation to live with you. So, they might attach themselves to your new house or furniture if you’re not careful.
4. Don’t touch or tap someone’s shoulders and head from behind
The Chinese believe that the shoulders and the head carry three invisible fires that help to ward off evil spirits. Patting on the shoulders or head might snuff out these fires, which can cause that person to be vulnerable to paranormal encounters.
Not only that, there is a superstition that suggests people not to look back or respond if someone taps their shoulder or calls them from behind. Just keep on walking and don’t look back, or else you might see something you shouldn’t!
5. Refrain from wearing black or red clothing
Another myth is that you can attract spirits if you dress in black or red (including underwear!). Ghosts are drawn to these colours, therefore wearing them might draw their attention to you.
However, there’s no need to be scared
Though all of these seem frightening, you do not have to let them get in the way of your daily life. Just go on with your day and continue working, studying or going with friends like normal. The festival is an opportunity for the Chinese community to give thanks and commemorate their ancestors, so it is not entirely as adverse as it sounds. If you are a believer, take the time to remember your loved ones who have passed on. If you are a non-believer, maybe use this festival as a reminder that our time is short, and to appreciate the life we have right now.
And above all, it is never too late to learn about Chinese culture and understand what the Hungry Ghost Festival is all about. So here’s to a little spooky enlightenment!