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Hungry Ghost Festival: Chinoy traditions that you should follow

Maybe you’ve noticed a conspicuous amount of lists on social media telling you not to get married or move houses lately. 

This is because August — or rather, the seventh month of the lunar calendar — is actually the infamous Ghost Month (鬼月), which is known to be full of inauspicious dates that Chinese tradition dictates we should be careful of. When we say “be careful,” we mean it seriously. If they could be avoided at all, we especially recommend not starting new chapters of your life: no engagements or tinghuns, no weddings, no new businesses, and definitely no new contracts. 

“But how long do I need to not begin things?” you might ask. 

For this year, Ghost Month falls on August 8 to September 6, so you can probably start scheduling your hopes of a happier life on September 7. However, before you think of doing so, there is one special date in this unlucky period that we should all pay special attention to in order to not attract the ire of the dead — The Hungry Ghost Festival.  

The Hungry Ghost Festival, also known as the Zhongyuan Festival (中元节), takes place on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, aka August 22. But unlike Tomb Sweeping Day and other Chinese holidays that have to do with the deceased, this day is believed to be when the dead visit the living, as opposed to the expected contrary. 

 

A temple god during the Ghost Festival. Source: Julius Yls, Unsplash

 

According to Chinese legend, this is because during the first day of Ghost Month, the gates of the underworld open, allowing the spirits to wander the earth. After two weeks, however, they become hungry. And with hunger, of course, soon comes anger. In order to live in peace, our ancestors have since created traditions that both feed and pay respect to the dead. 

For all you Chinoys who wish to not fall under the misfortune of #hangry spirits, here is a crash course of what to do during the Hungry Ghost Festival:

 

1. Remember your ancestors

It’s important to remember the family that we have had. Cherish your relationships by accompanying them for a while.

For this year’s Ghost Month, it is advised to pay respects to the dead on specific dates. Ancestors who passed away recently or less than two years ago should have their offerings done a day before the Hungry Ghost Festival (August 21). On the other hand, ancestors who have passed away more than two years ago must have their offerings done during the day of the Hungry Ghost Festival itself (August 22). 

 

2. Offer food to your ancestors

You’re trying to stop ghosts from going hungry, so this should be a given, right?

Although it sounds simple, there are rules to follow so as to not disrespect or bring misfortune upon your family. Beef, for example, should absolutely not be offered to the dead since cows are regarded to be sacred animals that help till the land and provide sustenance. Another unlucky food item would be misua or birthday noodles — it wouldn’t be appropriate at all to serve spirits dishes that symbolize long life. 

 

Source: Pinterest

 

That said, not all noodles are banned from the afterlife. If your ancestors enjoy eating bihon or sotanghon, then they’re absolutely free to do so. And for some extra sweet fortune, why not serve up some round fruits in odd numbers, too? Circles are meant to represent wealth and prosperity, so we recommend giving that a go. 

 

3. Light incense for the gods

In addition to offering respect, you might want to ask for protection or guidance. In any case, it is best to burn three maroon incense sticks for each god that you choose to worship, whether that be the earth god Tudigong (土地公), the goddess of mercy Guanyin (觀音), or other such deities.

It is also important to note incense sticks should always be lit for the gods first before lighting some for your ancestors. 

 

4. Light incense and candles for your ancestors

One of the most basic acts of respect for the dead is to light incense or joss sticks for them. In this case, Chinese tradition dictates that we should offer lit incense sticks in even numbers (e.g. two sticks per ancestor). The color of the incense sticks should also differ according to the date on which the deceased has passed away. 

For those who have passed away more than two years prior, maroon incense sticks should be used. If the deceased being offered has not yet reached their second death anniversary, yellow incense sticks should be offered.

 

Source: Hanson Lu, Unsplash

 

Candles are also lit for similar purposes. For this offering, there are three colors to take note of: red for those who have passed for more than two years, yellow for those who have passed for more than a year, and white for the newly deceased. There is also a special rule for those who have lived to be more than a hundred years old — in this case, the color red should be used.

 

5. Burn joss paper (aka paper money)

Send some money — either folded as ingots or unfolded in their original forms — to your ancestors and the gods by burning them joss paper! 

Before doing so, however, you have to make “pwe-pwe” by throwing moon blocks or jiaobei (筊杯) to the floor. The jiaobei, which come in red half-moon pairs, are used to ask the deceased if they have finished consuming their feast. If the dead answer “no” or “maybe,” wait for a few minutes and try again. If the answer is “yes,” then the joss paper is then burned first to the gods then to the ancestors.

In regard to the different types of paper money that you should take note of, gold joss paper (寿金, shòujīn) should be burned for the gods while another form of gold joss paper (刈金, yìjīn) is used for those who have passed their second death anniversary. For those who have yet to reach the two years, silver joss paper (小銀, xiǎoyīn) is to be used. This next step is optional but spirits can be selfish at times. Stamping the names of your ancestors onto the joss paper is one way to prevent stealing among the dead! 

For those who want to take that extra mile, another form of joss paper widely used during the Hungry Ghost Festival is hell money (冥鈔, míngchāo), with the word “hell” referring to Diyu (地狱) — aka the Chinese underworld or realm of the dead. Hell money is printed to resemble legal tender bank notes but in especially large denominations ranging from 10,000 to 1,000,000,000. The reason for this is so that you can send money to your ancestors just in case they’re going through some post-living financial problems.

 

Left: Joss paper guide by CHiNOY TV. Right: Hell money and “paper clothes.” (Source: The Culture Trip) 

 

In addition to the joss papers, it is also best to send your deceased loved ones other things they may need by burning them drawings of necessities like furniture, appliances, and clothes. In fact, a sympathetic seller in Malaysia has even found a way to provide paper vaccines to burn for those who were not given an opportunity to be inoculated.

 

6. Pay attention to lost souls

The spirits of our ancestors shouldn’t be the only ghosts we pay attention to. It is also important to give respect to the souls (aka 好兄弟, hǎo xiōng dì) who have lost their way. 

In this case, it is best to present an offering consisting of a whole chicken (with head and legs attached), a whole fish, and liempo at one’s garage or right outside one’s house facing the gate at home or at one’s tiamlai (read: store). The gate is especially significant because it is the point of entry for the souls. Each food item must be accompanied by a stick of incense. 

A specific type of joss paper called kwakim, which is wrapped in newspaper, is also burned for the lost souls. In order to help guide them, a small table for Tudigong should be placed on the right side of the offerings for display. 

 

Once you’ve lit the incense and are done with everything, remember not to disturb the altar and food offerings so as to not disturb or offend the spirits. Just clean up the joss paper you’ve burned and enjoy the feast! 

 

Credits to Darwyn Albert Tanya Mendoza (吳永發) for sharing his knowledge of Chinoy traditions and practices of Ghost Month to CHiNOY TV. 

 

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