Ghost Month Special: The Two Perceptions of Ghosts In Chinese Culture

The Hungry Ghost Month is a time to worship deceased ancestors and also a time to be wary of wandering ghosts, which says a lot about the two different perceptions of ghosts in Chinese culture. It happens every 15th day of the seventh lunar month, and it starts  on August 16 and ends on September 14 this year. During this month, it is said that the gates of hell are opened to unleash wandering ghosts to the mortal world, and several observances must be done in order to appease these spirits. 

It’s unclear when the concept of the Hungry Ghost Month started, but Chinese culture has always placed importance on worshiping and respecting the dead. The primary example of this is Ancestor Worship, which is a practice that involves lighting incense and giving offerings (e.g. food or paper money) to deceased ancestors. This practice is linked to the ancient folk beliefs about how a person’s soul is divided into two components once they die. The first is called po, which is the part that undergoes trials before rising to heaven to be reincarnated, and the second is called hun, which stays with the deceased person’s body and eventually becomes part of their grave of ancestral tablets. 

Photo from Chinese Language Institute

Ancestor Worship is usually done during the person’s death anniversary or special occasions such as Chinese New Year, Tomb Sweeping Day, and of course, the Hungry Ghost Month. Ancestor Worship is all the more important during Ghost Month because it’s a way to ensure that deceased loved ones don’t go hungry or turn into wandering ghosts during their brief time back in the land of the living. 

Ancestral spirits are the more positive perception of ghosts, but the Chinese also believe in the existence of malicious ghosts, which are called gui (鬼). For the most part, these malicious ghosts are spirits of people who were not given a proper burial or were neglected by their living relatives. They may also be spirits who died a “bad death” such as murder, suicide or childbirth. Dying unmarried is also considered a bad death, especially for women, since patriarchal Chinese beliefs consider the wife to belong to the husband’s family. So if a woman died without a husband, she technically doesn’t have a family to give offerings to her. For men, dying unmarried is seen as an unfulfilled wish and is believed to increase the chances of them becoming restless spirits, so their families would conduct ghost marriages to appease them. 

Improper burial, dying a bad death, or being neglected are some of the conditions that prevent spirits from ascending to the spirit world, hence why they are left wandering the living realm with the intention to do harm. This is why certain precautions must be taken during ghost month, and here are some of them: 

Photo from Woman’s Day

Don’t hang your clothes out at night. If you get annoyed whenever your siblings steal your clothes without permission, you definitely do not want to do this because it’s basically an invitation for ghosts to possess your clothes. In line with this, you also shouldn’t wear black or red because these colors are believed to attract wandering spirits the most.

Don’t stay out late at night. It is believed that ghosts are the strongest after sunset, which increases the chances of them attacking you or following you home. Given this, you should also avoid taking pictures at night or taking the last bus home. 

Don’t go to secluded areas. Now is not the time to go on camping or hiking trips where there are lots of trees and no person in sight. Don’t be that type of person in horror movies.

Don’t pick up anything from the street. It doesn’t matter how broke you are. If you see P500 or any other object on the street during ghost month, ignore it rather than risk accidentally getting married to whatever spirit that object belongs to.

Don’t go near bodies of water. Drowning is also a form of bad death, and there are likely plenty of spirits waiting to lure you into bodies of water so you may take their place and allow them to be reincarnated.

Don’t talk to yourself or whistle at night. Basically, avoid doing anything that would make the ghost think you are trying to interact with them. 

Don’t tap someone on the shoulder. According to Chinese Folk beliefs, everyone has “flames” on their shoulders that can ward off ghosts, hence tapping someone on the shoulder would extinguish this flame and make them more vulnerable to ghostly attacks.

Don’t kill any insects that come into your house. It is believed that deceased ancestors would pay a visit to you in the form of insects, so you should resist the urge to crush that spider unless you want to reach a whole new level of disappointing your ancestors.

Don’t stick chopsticks upright in your food. Chopsticks look like incense sticks, which in turn would invite ghosts to help themselves to your food.

Don’t make any life-changing decisions. This includes moving to a new house, getting married, starting a business, starting a new job, etc. You don’t want any uninvited guests at your housewarming party or wedding.

Whether or not you and your family abide strictly by traditions, it won’t hurt to take these precautions during Ghost Month to avoid bad luck. 

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