Ghost Festival

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Ghost Festival
HK ShatinYuLanFestival KingOfGhost.JPG
A paper effigy of the Ghost King in Shatin, Hong Kong
Official name Buddhism:
(TC: 盂蘭盆, SC: 盂兰盆 Yúlánpén)

Taoism and Folk Belief:
Zhōngyuán Jié
(TC: 中元節, SC: 中元节)
Also called Ghost Month
Observed by Buddhists, Taoists, Chinese folk religion believers
primarily in China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia with related traditions and festivals observed in Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka and Thailand
Significance The opening of the gates of Hell, permitting all ghosts to receive food and drink
Observances Ancestor worship, offering food (to monks as well as deceased), burning joss paper, chanting of scriptures
Date 15th night of the 7th Chinese month
2018 date August 25
2019 date August 15
Related to Obon (in Japan)
Baekjung (in Korea)
Tết Trung Nguyên (in Vietnam)
Pchum Ben (in Cambodia)
Boun Khao Padap Din (in Laos)
Mataka dānēs (in Sri Lanka)
Sat Thai (in Thailand)
Ghost Festival
Ancestor worship003.JPG
Food offerings for the Ghost Festival
Traditional Chinese 盂蘭盆節
Simplified Chinese 盂兰盆节
Alternative Chinese name
Chinese 鬼節
Literal meaning Ghost Festival

The Ghost Festival, also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, Zhongyuan Jie (中元节), Gui Jie (鬼节) or Yulan Festival (traditional Chinese: 盂蘭盆節; simplified Chinese: 盂兰盆节; pinyin: Yúlánpénjié; Cantonese Jyutping: jyu4 laan4 pun4 zit3) is a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival held in certain Asian countries. According to the Chinese calendar (a lunisolar calendar), the Ghost Festival is on the 15th night of the seventh month (14th in southern China[not in citation given]).[1]

In Chinese culture, the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is called Ghost Day and the seventh month in general is regarded as the Ghost Month (鬼月), in which ghosts and spirits, including those of the deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm. Distinct from both the Qingming Festival (in spring) and Double Ninth Festival (in autumn) in which living descendants pay homage to their deceased ancestors, during Ghost Festival, the deceased are believed to visit the living.[2]

On the fifteenth day the realms of Heaven and Hell and the realm of the living are open and both Taoists and Buddhists would perform rituals to transmute and absolve the sufferings of the deceased. Intrinsic to the Ghost Month is veneration of the dead, where traditionally the filial piety of descendants extends to their ancestors even after their deaths. Activities during the month would include preparing ritualistic food offerings, burning incense, and burning joss paper, a papier-mâché form of material items such as clothes, gold and other fine goods for the visiting spirits of the ancestors. Elaborate meals (often vegetarian meals) would be served with empty seats for each of the deceased in the family treating the deceased as if they are still living. Ancestor worship is what distinguishes Qingming Festival from Ghost Festival because the latter includes paying respects to all deceased, including the same and younger generations, while the former only includes older generations. Other festivities may include, buying and releasing miniature paper boats and lanterns on water, which signifies giving directions to the lost ghosts and spirits of the ancestors and other deities.[3]


Evidence of ancestral veneration in Chinese culture appears as early as its earliest records, with the Shang kings offering sacrifices to their forefathers. Many aspects of the present festival celebrated across East Asia derive from such native rituals in ancient China.[4]

The timing and origin story of the modern Ghost Festival, however, derive from the apocryphal Mahayana scripture known as the Yulanpen or Ullambana Sutra. In it, Mulian (i.e., the disciple Moggallāna) asks the Buddha about how he can relieve the suffering his mother is enduring in her present incarnation as a hungry ghost. Prior to his enlightenment, both of this parents had died. His clairvoyance had found his father's new incarnation in the heavenly realms but his mother had been greedy with money he had left her, refusing to help the monks who passed by, and she had been reborn into Avīci, the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts or Pretas. These had ravenous appetites but could not eat, either because food burst into flames upon their touch or because their throats were too thin and fragile. Mulian is informed that a tray of food offered to the community of monks and nuns at the time of their return from the summer retreat (i.e., on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month) will prompt them to offer prayers that will benefit 7 generations of his ancestors.[5] In his case, his mother was raised from the status of a hungry ghost and was reborn as a dog owned by a rich family. He then raised her to human status by giving food and new robes to 500 monks.[citation needed]

Buddhist tradition held that this was an authentic record of a conversation in the 5th century BC that had been translated from Sanskrit to Chinese by Dharmaraksa under the Jin at some point between AD 266 and 313.[6][7] The earliest attested celebration of the festival appears in much later sources, such as the 7th-century Record of the Seasons of Jingchu, and more recent scholarship finds that the sutra was a forgery[8] composed in China in the mid-6th century,[6] possibly based on a Central Asian original[8] contained in the 4th-century Zengyi Ahan Jing translated into Chinese by the Kabuli monk Gautama Samghadeva during his residence in Chang'an.[7]

The Theravadan forms of the festival in South and Southeast Asia (including Cambodia's Pchum Ben) are much older, deriving from the Petavatthu, a scripture in the Pali Canon that probably dates to the 3rd century BC.[9] The Petavatthu account is broadly similar to that later recorded in the Yulanpen Sutra, although it concerns the disciple Sāriputta and his family rather than Moggallāna.


A young girl performing during Ghost Festival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The red seats in front are reserved for ghosts.
Chinese lotus lanterns floating in a river.

The Ghost Festival is held during the seventh month of the Chinese calendar. It also falls at the same time as a full moon, the new season, the fall harvest, the peak of Buddhist monastic asceticism, the rebirth of ancestors, and the assembly of the local community.[10] During this month, the gates of hell are opened up and ghosts are free to roam the earth where they seek food and entertainment. These ghosts are believed to be ancestors of those who forgot to pay tribute to them after they died, or those who were never given a proper ritual send-off. They have long needle-thin necks because they have not been fed by their family, or as a punishment so that they are unable to swallow. Family members offer prayers to their deceased relatives, offer food and drink and burn hell bank notes and other forms of joss paper. Joss paper items are believed to have value in the afterlife, considered to be very similar in some aspects to the material world, People burn paper houses, cars, servants and televisions to please the ghosts.[11] Families also pay tribute to other unknown wandering ghosts so that these homeless souls do not intrude on their lives and bring misfortune. A large feast is held for the ghosts on the fourteenth day of the seventh month, when people bring samples of food and place them on an offering table to please the ghosts and ward off bad luck. Lotus-shaped lanterns are lit and set afloat in rivers and out onto seas to symbolicly guide the lost souls of forgotten ancestors to the afterlife.

In some East Asian countries today, live performances are held and everyone is invited to attend. The first row of seats are always empty as this is where the ghosts sit. The shows are always put on at night and at high volumes as the sound is believed to attract and please the ghosts. Some shows include Chinese opera, dramas, and in some areas, even burlesque shows. Traditionally Chinese opera was the main source of entertainment but the newer shows, concerts, dramas, wars and so forth are referred to as Getai.[12] These acts are better known as "Merry-making".[13]

For rituals, Buddhists and Taoists hold ceremonies to relieve ghosts from suffering, many of them holding ceremonies in the afternoon or at night (as it is believed that the ghosts are released from hell when the sun sets). Altars are built for the deceased and priests and monks alike perform rituals for the benefit of ghosts. Monks and priests often throw rice or other small foods into the air in all directions to distribute them to the ghosts.[13]

During the evening, incense is burnt in front of the doors households. Incense stands for prosperity in Chinese culture, so families believe that there is more prosperity in burning more incense.[13] During the festival, some shops are closed as they want to leave the streets open for the ghosts. In the middle of each street stands an altar of incense with fresh fruit and sacrifices displayed on it.[13]

Fourteen days after the festival, to make sure all the hungry ghosts find their way back to hell, people float water lanterns and set them outside their houses. These lanterns are made by setting a lotus flower-shaped lantern on a paper boat. The lanterns are used to direct the ghosts back to the underworld, and when they go out, it symbolizes that they have found their way back.[13]

Celebrations in other countries[edit]

Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia[edit]

Concert-like performances are a prominent feature of the Ghost Festival in Singapore and Malaysia. Those live concerts are popularly known as Getai in Mandarin or Koh-tai in Hokkien Chinese.[14] They are performed by groups of singers, dancers, entertainers and opera troops or puppet shows on a temporary stage that is set up within a residential district. The festival is funded by the residents of each individual district. During these Getai the front row is left empty for the special guests—the ghosts.[15] It is known to be bad luck to sit on the front row of red seats, if anyone were to sit on them, they would become sick or similarly ailed.

In Singapore, people would pray to ghosts/Spirits or ancestors with offerings and fruits outside their homes for the start of the 7th month. Most patriotic events were held on 7th Month for Singapore, which includes general and presidential elections, the Olympics and the National Day Parade. This is where the number of outings were minimised.

In Indonesia, the festival popularly known as Cioko, or Sembahyang Rebutan in Indonesian, (Scrambling prayer). People gather around temples and bring an offering to a spirit who died in an unlucky way, and after that, they distribute it to the poor. The way people scramble the offerings is the origin of the festival name.


Traditionally, it is believed that ghosts haunt the island of Taiwan for the entire seventh lunar month, when the mid-summer Ghost Festival is held.[16] The month is known as Ghost Month.[17] The first day of the month is marked by opening the gate of a temple, symbolizing the gates of hell. On the twelfth day, lamps on the main altar are lit. On the thirteenth day, a procession of lanterns is held. On the fourteenth day, a parade is held for releasing water lanterns. Incense and food are offered to the spirits to deter them from visiting homes and spirit paper money is also burnt as an offering.[18] During the month, people avoid surgery, buying cars, swimming, moving house, marrying, whistling and going out or taking pictures after dark. It is also important that addresses are not revealed to the ghosts.



Chūgen (中元), also Ochūgen (お中元), is an annual event in Japan on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, when people give gifts to their superiors and acquaintances. Originally it was an annual event for giving gifts to the ancestral spirits.

One of the three days that form the sangen (三元) of Daoism, it is sometimes considered a zassetsu, a type of seasonal day in the Japanese calendar.


Japanese volunteers perform tōrō nagashi: placing candle-lit lanterns for the dead into flowing water during Obon, in this case into the Sasebo River.

Obon (sometimes transliterated O-bon), or simply Bon, is the Japanese version of the Ghost Festival. It has since been transformed over time into a family reunion holiday during which people from the big cities return to their home towns and visit and clean the resting places of their ancestors.

Traditionally including a dance festival called Bon Odori, Obon has existed in Japan for more than 500 years. In modern Japan, it is held on July 15 in the eastern part (Kantō), on August 15 in the western part (Kansai), and in Okinawa and the Amami Islands it is celebrated as in China on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month.


A white and red rose issued to guests at a Tết Trung Nguyên service

This festival is known as Tết Trung Nguyên and is viewed as a time for the pardoning of condemned souls who are released from hell. The "homeless" should be "fed" and appeased with offerings of food. Merits for the living are also earned by the release of birds and fish. The lunar month in which the festival takes place is colloquially known as Tháng Cô Hồn - the month of lonely spirits, and believed to be haunted and particularly unlucky.

Influenced by Buddhism, this holiday coincides with Vu Lan,the Vietnamese transliteration for Ullambana.

In modern times, Vu Lan is also seen as Mother's Day. People with living mothers would bear a red rose and would give thanks while those without can choose to bear a white rose; and attend services to pray for the deceased.

Related traditions in other parts of Asia[edit]

In Asian Theravadin Buddhist countries, related traditions, ceremonies and festivals also occur. Like its Ullambana Sutra-origins in Mahayana Buddhist countries, the Theravada scripture, the Petavatthu gave rise to the idea of offering food to the hungry ghosts in the Theravada tradition as a form of merit-making. In stories published in the Petavatthu Maudgalyayana, who also plays the central role in the rise of the concept in the Mahayana tradition, along with Sariputta also play a role in the rise of the concept in the Theravada tradition.[19][20][21] Similarly to the rise of the concept in Mahayana Buddhism, a version of Maudgalyayana Rescues His Mother, where Maudgalyayana is replaced by Sariputta is recorded in the Petavatthu and is in part the basis behind the practice of the concept in Theravadin societies.[22] The concept of offering food to the hungry ghosts is also found in early Buddhist literature, in the Tirokudda Kanda.[23]


In Cambodia, a fifteen-day-long annual festival known as Pchum Ben occurs generally in September or October. Cambodians pay their respects to deceased relatives up to seven generations. The gates of hell are believed to open during this period and many people make offerings to these hungry ghosts.[24]


In Laos, a festival known as, Boun khao padap din usually occurs in September each year and goes on for two weeks. During this period, it is believed that hungry ghosts are freed from hell and enter the world of the living. A second festival known as Boun khao salak occurs directly after the conclusion of Boun khay padab din. During this period, food offerings are made to the hungry ghosts.[25]

Sri Lanka[edit]

In Sri Lanka, food offerings are made to the hungry ghosts on the seventh day, three months and one year after the death day of a deceased person. It is a ceremony conducted after death as part of traditional Sri Lankan Buddhist funeral rites and is known as mataka dānēs or matakadānaya.[26][27][28] The offerings that are made acquire merit which are then transformed back into the equivalent goods in the world of the hungry ghosts.[26] The offering that is offered on the seventh day, comes a day after personalized food offerings are given in the garden to the spirit of the deceased relative, which occurs on the sixth day.[29][30] The deceased who do not reach the proper afterworld, the Hungry Ghost realm, are feared by the living as they are believed to cause various sicknesses and disasters to the living. Buddhist monks are called upon to perform pirit to ward off the floating spirits. The rite is also practiced in Thailand and Myanmar and is also practiced during the Ghost Festival that is observed in other Asian countries.[31]


In Thailand, a fifteen-day-long annual festival known as Sat Thai is celebrated between September and October in Thailand especially in southern Thailand, particularly in the province of Nakhon Si Thammarat.[32] Like related festivals and traditions in other parts of Asia, the deceased are believed to come back to earth for fifteen days and people make offerings to them. The festival is known as Sat Thai to differentiate it from the Chinese Ghost Festival which is known as Sat Chin in the Thai language.[33]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Zhongyuan festival". China Internet Information Center. Retrieved 1 November 2017. 
  2. ^ "Culture insider - China's ghost festival". China Daily. 8 August 2014. Retrieved 1 November 2017. 
  3. ^ "Chinese Ghost Festival - "the Chinese Halloween"". Peoples Daily (English). 30 October 2009. Retrieved 1 November 2017. 
  4. ^ Teiser (1988).
  5. ^ Bandō (2005).
  6. ^ a b Bandō (2005), p. 17.
  7. ^ a b Teiser (1988), p. 114.
  8. ^ a b Mair (1989), p. 17.
  9. ^ Langer (2007), p. 276.
  10. ^ Teiser (1988).
  11. ^ "Hungry Ghost Festival". Essortment, 2002. Retrieved 20 October 2008. Essortment Articles.
  12. ^ "Chinese Culture: Hungry Ghost Festival" Modern China
  13. ^ a b c d e "Ghost Festival" ChinaVoc 2001–2007, Online Store. Archived 8 June 2009 at the Wayback Machine.
  14. ^ "Hungry Ghost Festival". 
  15. ^ "Hungry Ghost Festival". 
  16. ^ Mid-Summer Ghost Festival, Chine Town Connection.
  17. ^ Ghost Month Archived 3 December 2010 at the Wayback Machine., Ghost Festival Archived 29 December 2010 at the Wayback Machine., Government Information Office Archived 3 April 2005 at the Wayback Machine., Taiwan.
  18. ^ Taiwan's Ghost Festival and Other Religious Events Archived October 29, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.,
  19. ^ "Buddhist funeral cultures of Southeast Asia and China". Mortality. 18: 388–389. doi:10.1080/13576275.2013.843512. 
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ a b Langer, Rita (2007). Buddhist Rituals of Death and Rebirth: Contemporary Sri Lankan Practice and Its Origins. Routledge. pp. 153, 155, 173, 187, 191. ISBN 9780710304445. 
  27. ^ Buswell, Robert E (2004). Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Macmillan Reference USA. p. 21. ISBN 0028659104. 
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^


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