Zhong Yuan Jie (Hungry Ghost Festival)


Zhong Yuan Jie (Hungry Ghost Festival)

Zhong Yuan Jie (中元节), also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, traditionally falls on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. In Singapore, the festival is observed throughout the entire seventh lunar month, which is usually around the month of August of the Western calendar.1 During this period, many Chinese worship their ancestors and make offerings to wandering souls that roam the earth.2

Origins and significance
The origin and significance of the Hungry Ghost Festival differ between Taoists and Buddhists. Taoists focus on appeasing the wandering souls released from the netherworld, while the emphasis of the Buddhists is filial piety.3

According to traditional Taoist beliefs, the fate of mankind is controlled by three deities: Tian Guan Da Di, ruler of heaven, who grants happiness; Di Guan Da Di, ruler of earth, who pardons sins; and Shui Guan Da Di, ruler of water, who alleviates dangers. Shang Yuan Jie, which falls on the 15th day of the first lunar month, and Xia Yuan Jie on the 15th day of the tenth lunar month, are the birthdays of the rulers of heaven and water respectively. Zhong Yuan Jie, which falls on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, is the birthday of Di Guan Da Di, who descends to earth on this day to record the good and evil deeds of each human being.4

During the seventh lunar month, the gates of hell are open and hungry ghosts are released from the netherworld to wander on earth among humans and look for food.
5 Traditionally during this month, Taoist priests would perform rites and make food offerings, while devotees would visit temples to repent their sins, as well as pray for happiness and avoidance of disasters.6


Buddhists, on the other hand, have traditionally celebrated the Hungry Ghost Festival as the Yu Lan Pen Festival. Yu lan means to “hang upside down” in Chinese, while pen in this context refers to a container filled with food offerings.7 Yu lan pen thus refers to a container filled with offerings to save one’s ancestors from being suspended in suffering in purgatory.8 The festival, which originated from the story of Mu Lian, commemorates his filial piety towards his mother.9 The legend is also believed to be the origin of the Chinese custom of making offerings and praying for one’s ancestors during this annual festival.10

Legends
Mu Lian

According to legend, the Yu Lan Pen Festival originated from the attempt by Mu Lian, a disciple of Buddha, to save his mother from torture in hell.11 His mother, who was a vegetarian, had consumed meat soup unknowingly, and was condemned to hell for denying it.12 Mu Lian tried to locate his deceased mother in the netherworld and found her among the hungry ghosts.13 In one version of the story, Mu Lian tried to feed his starving mother, but the food was grabbed by other hungry ghosts.14 In another version, he sent her a bowl of rice as an offering, but the food turned into flaming coals before it could enter her mouth.15 Mu Lian sought help from Buddha, who intervened and taught Mu Lian to make offerings of special prayers and food. Only then was Mu Lian’s mother relieved of her sufferings as a hungry ghost.16

Dragon King of the Eastern Seas
A lesser-known legend on the origin of the Hungry Ghost Festival took place during the Tang Dynasty. The legend is about the Dragon King of the Eastern Seas, who was jealous of Li Liang Feng, a famous fortune teller. When Li boastfully claimed that no one could prove his predictions wrong, the Dragon King was infuriated. To discredit Li, he executed a plan which involved disobeying an order from the King of Heaven. Unfortunately, the plan was exposed and the Dragon King was sentenced to death.17

The Dragon King then approached Emperor Tang Taizong for help. Feeling sorry for him, the emperor promised to do what he could and devised a plan to help save the Dragon King’s life. The plan, however, did not succeed. Shortly after his death, the Dragon King again sought Emperor Tang out in a dream. He reproached the emperor for not keeping his promise, which resulted in his plight as a wandering spirit. The very next day, which was the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, Emperor Tang ordered all Buddhist and Taoist priests in the capital to offer prayers, as well as food and drink for the Dragon King, and this marked the beginning of the Hungry Ghost Festival.
18


Celebrations
While the significance of the Hungry Ghost Festival differs between Taoists and Buddhists, the way it is celebrated is similar for both religions in present-day Singapore.
19

Throughout the seventh lunar month, many Chinese observe the festival by making offerings of food, joss sticks, candles, paper money and other paper effigies such as houses, cars and clothes to the dead.
20 As the paper offerings have to be burnt, burning activities in open areas are prevalent, especially on the first, 15th and last day of the festival.21 To minimise pollution and damage, special containers are provided by the authorities for the burning.22


It is also a practice in Singapore to hold neighbourhood Zhong Yuan celebrations during the seventh lunar month, which typically include dinners, auctions and stage performances.23 Participants of these events, many of whom are owners of neighbourhood businesses, make small monthly contributions during the year, and the proceeds are then used to make mass offerings to hungry ghosts during the festival.24 The offerings usually comprise food items such as rice, oil, canned food, fruits and poles of sugarcane, which are subsequently distributed to participants in buckets.25

The auction of “auspicious objects”, ranging from religious items to liquor to appliances and toys, usually begins during the multi-course dinner.
26 The most sought-after auction items include charcoal pieces wrapped in gold or yellow paper known as wujin (which means “black gold” in Chinese), “prosperity” incense burners, decorated rice barrels, good-luck tangerines known as daji, as well as statues of deities.27 The proceeds from these auctions are used to fund the following year’s Zhong Yuan celebrations, as well as donated to temples and charitable organisations.28 In addition, outdoor performances are held on makeshift stages to entertain both ghosts and humans, with the front row seats left empty for the spirits. Chinese opera or wayang, which used to be a common sight in the past, has over time been gradually replaced by modern Chinese song performances called getai, which means “song stage” in Chinese.29


Besides Singapore, the Hungry Ghost Festival is also commonly observed in Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong.30 The Chinese communities in these three regions observe the festival throughout the seventh lunar month with rituals of prayers and offerings.31 Like Singapore, the Chinese in Malaysia also celebrate the festival with dinners, auction of auspicious objects, as well as Chinese opera and getai.32 A highlight of the festival in Hong Kong is the staging of Chinese opera performances in neighbourhoods across the city.33 In Taiwan, large-scale celebrations are held in various townships and counties. Ceremonies and activities include releasing floating lanterns into the sea; the "grappling with ghosts" event, a competition that requires scaling of heights to be the first to cut down a flag; as well as an annual parade of decorated floats.34 In China, the festival has become less commonly observed in recent times. It involves prayers, making offerings and floating lanterns on the river on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month.35

Taboos
Special care is taken by some to avoid the attention of wandering souls during the seventh lunar month.36 Such precautions include refraining from going out after dark to avoid bumping into evil spirits, or swimming in case one gets dragged away by “water ghosts”.37 One should also avoid stepping on or kicking offerings placed along the roadside or peeking under the table of an altar, as these actions may incur the wrath of hungry ghosts.38

Believers are also warned against wearing red because it is believed that spirits are drawn to the colour. Drugs and alcohol are to be avoided too as some people believe that it is easier for ghosts to possess those who are intoxicated.
39 In addition, believers should keep away from walls as ghosts like to stick to them, and also refrain from cutting hair, shaving and hanging clothes outside of the house during the night. Furthermore, activities such as getting married, moving house and buying new vehicles are discouraged during this period.40

Variant names

Chinese name: Gui Jie, which means “ghost festival” in Chinese.41
Variant names: Feast for the Wandering Souls,42 Mid-Year Festival.43



Author
Cheryl Sim



References
1. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. (1989). Chinese customs and festivals in Singapore = Hua ren li su jie ri shou ce. Singapore: Author, p. 63. (Call no.: RSING 390.08995105957 CHI-[CUS] IC)
2. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. (1989). Chinese customs and festivals in Singapore = Hua ren li su jie ri shou ce. Singapore: Author, p. 63. (Call no.: RSING 390.08995105957 CHI-[CUS] IC); Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. (2012). Zhongyuan Jie (Hungry Ghost Festival). Retrieved from Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations website: http://www.sfcca.sg/en/node/58
3. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. (2012). 中元 [Zhong Yuan Jie]. Retrieved from Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations website: http://www.sfcca.sg/node/58
4. Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple Association. (2014, April 13). The temple affair activities: Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations. Retrieved from Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple Association website: http://www.shtemple.org.sg/qi-zan-zhong-yuan-eng.htm#qing-zan-zhong-yuan-eng
5. Fu, C. (2004). Origins of Chinese festivals. Singapore: Asiapac Books, p. 127. (Call no.: RSING 394.26951 FU-[CUS])
6. Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple Association. (2014, April 13). The temple affair activities: Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations. Retrieved from Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple Association website: http://www.shtemple.org.sg/qi-zan-zhong-yuan-eng.htm#qing-zan-zhong-yuan-eng
7. Tan, H. P. (1991). Fun with Chinese festivals. Singapore: Federal Publications, p. 70. (Call no.: JRSING 394.26951 TAN)
8. Teiser, S. F. (1986, August). Ghosts and ancestors in medieval Chinese religion: The Yü-lan-p'en Festival as mortuary ritual. History of Religions, 26(1), 48. Retrieved from JSTOR; Gateway to Chinese culture. (2003). Singapore: Asiapac Books, p. 81. (Call no.: RSING 305.8951 GAT)
9. Tan, H. P. (1991). Fun with Chinese festivals. Singapore: Federal Publications, p. 70. (Call no.: JRSING 394.26951 TAN)
10. Comber, L. (2009). Through the bamboo window: Chinese life & culture in 1950s, Singapore & Malaya. Singapore: Talisman: Singapore Heritage Society, p. 30. (Call no.: RSING 390.08995105951 COM-[CUS])
11. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack Chia-MPH, p. 162. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON)
12. Wong, C. S. (1987). An illustrated cycle of Chinese festivities in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Jack Chia-MPH, p. 162. (Call no.: RSING 398.33 WON); Tan, H. P. (1991). Fun with Chinese festivals. Singapore: Federal Publications, p. 70. (Call no.: JRSING 394.26951 TAN)
13. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. (1989). Chinese customs and festivals in Singapore = Hua ren li su jie ri shou ce. Singapore: Author, p. 65. (Call no.: RSING 390.08995105957 CHI-[CUS] IC); Teiser, S. F. (1986, August). Ghosts and ancestors in medieval Chinese religion: The Yü-lan-p'en Festival as mortuary ritual. History of Religions, 26(1), 47. Retrieved from JSTOR.
14. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. (2012). 中元 [Zhong Yuan Jie]. Retrieved from Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations website: http://www.sfcca.sg/node/58
15. Teiser, S. F. (1986, August). Ghosts and ancestors in medieval Chinese religion: The Yü-lan-p'en Festival as mortuary ritual. History of Religions, 26(1), 47. Retrieved from JSTOR.
16. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. (1989). Chinese customs and festivals in Singapore = Hua ren li su jie ri shou ce. Singapore: Author, p. 65. (Call no.: RSING 390.08995105957 CHI-[CUS] IC); Tan, H. P. (1991). Fun with Chinese festivals. Singapore: Federal Publications, p. 70. (Call no.: JRSING 394.26951 TAN)
17. Comber, L. (2009). Through the bamboo window: Chinese life & culture in 1950s, Singapore & Malaya. Singapore: Talisman: Singapore Heritage Society, pp. 30–33. (Call no.: RSING 390.08995105951 COM-[CUS])
18. Comber, L. (2009). Through the bamboo window: Chinese life & culture in 1950s, Singapore & Malaya. Singapore: Talisman: Singapore Heritage Society, pp. 30–33. (Call no.: RSING 390.08995105951 COM-[CUS])
19. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. (2012). 中元 [Zhong Yuan Jie]. Retrieved from Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations website: http://www.sfcca.sg/node/58
20. Yee, P., & Tan, V. (1999). Feasts and festivals of Singapore. Singapore: The Educational Publishing House, p. 25. (Call no.: RSING 394.295957 YEE-[CUS]); Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. (1989). Chinese customs and festivals in Singapore = Hua ren li su jie ri shou ce. Singapore: Author, p. 65. (Call no.: RSING 390.08995105957 CHI-[CUS] IC)
21. Tan, H. P. (1991). Fun with Chinese festivals. Singapore: Federal Publications, p. 71. (Call no.: JRSING 394.26951 TAN); Yee, P., & Tan, V. (1999). Feasts and festivals of Singapore. Singapore: The Educational Publishing House, p. 25. (Call no.: RSING 394.295957 YEE-[CUS])
22. Tan, H. P. (1991). Fun with Chinese festivals. Singapore: Federal Publications, p. 71. (Call no.: JRSING 394.26951 TAN); Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. (1989). Chinese customs and festivals in Singapore = Hua ren li su jie ri shou ce. Singapore: Author, p. 65. (Call no.: RSING 390.08995105957 CHI-[CUS] IC)
23. Foo, C. (2004). Origins of Chinese festivals. Singapore: Asiapac Books, p. 132. (Call no.: RSING 394.26951 FU-[CUS])
24. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. (1989). Chinese customs and festivals in Singapore = Hua ren li su jie ri shou ce. Singapore: Author, pp. 65, 67. (Call no.: RSING 390.08995105957 CHICUS] IC); Yee, P., & Tan, V. (1999). Feasts and festivals of Singapore. Singapore: The Educational Publishing House, p. 25. (Call no.: RSING 394.295957 YEE-[CUS])
25. Tan, H. P. (1991). Fun with Chinese festivals. Singapore: Federal Publications, p. 74. (Call no.: JRSING 394.26951 TAN)
26. Tan, H. P. (1991). Fun with Chinese festivals. Singapore: Federal Publications, p. 74. (Call no.: JRSING 394.26951 TAN); Yee, P., & Tan, V. (1999). Feasts and festivals of Singapore. Singapore: The Educational Publishing House, p. 25. (Call no.: RSING 394.295957 YEE-[CUS])
27. Tan, H. P. (1991). Fun with Chinese festivals. Singapore: Federal Publications, p. 74. (Call no.: JRSING 394.26951 TAN); More Mandarin being used at seventh month auctions. (1989, October 16). The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Foo, C. (2004). Origins of Chinese festivals. Singapore: Asiapac Books, p. 132. (Call no.: RSING 394.26951 FU-[CUS])
29. Foo, C. (2004). Origins of Chinese festivals. Singapore: Asiapac Books, p. 132. (Call no.: RSING 394.26951 FU-[CUS]); Lin, Z. (2011, August 26–September 8). Of getai and charity. AsiaNews. Retrieved from http://www.asianewsnet.net/epaper/pdf/AsiaNews%20Aug26-Sept8.pdf
30. Hungry Ghost Month. (2011, August 26–September 8). AsiaNews. Retrieved from http://www.asianewsnet.net/epaper/pdf/AsiaNews%20Aug26-Sept8.pdf
31. Hungry Ghost Festival begins today. (2013, August 7). The Star Online. Retrieved from http://www.thestar.com.my/News/Nation/2013/08/07/Hungry-Ghost-Festival-begins-today.aspx; Hong Kong Tourism Board. (2014). The Hungry Ghost Festival. Retrieved from Hong Kong Asia’s World City website: http://www.discoverhongkong.com/eng/see-do/events-festivals/chinese-festivals/the-hungry-ghost-festival.jsp; Li, F. (2004). Taiwan jie qing zhi mei = The beauty of festivals in Taiwan. Yilan County: National Centre for Traditional Arts, p. 113. (Call no.: Chinese R 394.26951249 LFM-[CUS])
32. Hungry Ghost Festival begins today. (2013, August 7). The Star Online. Retrieved from http://www.thestar.com.my/News/Nation/2013/08/07/Hungry-Ghost-Festival-begins-today.aspx; Chan, J. (2011, August 26–September 8). Festival offerings. AsiaNews. Retrieved from http://www.asianewsnet.net/epaper/pdf/AsiaNews%20Aug26-Sept8.pdf
33. Hong Kong Tourism Board. (2014). The Hungry Ghost Festival. Retrieved from Hong Kong Asia’s World City website: http://www.discoverhongkong.com/eng/see-do/events-festivals/chinese-festivals/the-hungry-ghost-festival.jsp
34. Caltonhill, M. (2013). Who let the ghosts out? Origins and practices of Taiwan's feeding of the "good brethren". Retrieved from Taiwan the Heart of Asia website: http://go2taiwan.net/ghost_month.php
35. Wei, L. (2010). Chinese festivals: Traditions, customs and rituals. Beijing: China Intercontinental Press, pp. 46–47. (Call no.: R 394.26951 WEI-[CUS])
36. Comber, L. (2009). Through the bamboo window: Chinese life & culture in 1950s, Singapore & Malaya. Singapore: Talisman: Singapore Heritage Society, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING 390.08995105951 COM-[CUS])
37. Comber, L. (2009). Through the bamboo window: Chinese life & culture in 1950s, Singapore & Malaya. Singapore: Talisman: Singapore Heritage Society, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING 390.08995105951 COM-[CUS]); Foo, C. (2004). Origins of Chinese festivals. Singapore: Asiapac Books, p. 132. (Call no.: RSING 394.26951 FU-[CUS])
38. Do’s and don’ts during the Hungry Ghost month. (2013, August 15). The Malaysian Times. Retrieved from http://www.themalaysiantimes.com.my/dos-and-donts-during-the-hungry-ghost-month
39. Chin, C. (2011, August 26–September 8). When ghosts see red! AsiaNews. Retrieved from http://www.asianewsnet.net/epaper/pdf/AsiaNews%20Aug26-Sept8.pdf
40. Beh, Y. H. (2011, August 26–September 8). How to avoid meeting ghosts. AsiaNews. Retrieved from http://www.asianewsnet.net/epaper/pdf/AsiaNews%20Aug26-Sept8.pdf; Foo, C. (2004). Origins of Chinese festivals. Singapore: Asiapac Books, p. 132. (Call no.: RSING 394.26951 FU-[CUS])
41. Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple Association. (2014, April 13). The temple affair activities: Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations. Retrieved from Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple Association website: http://www.shtemple.org.sg/qi-zan-zhong-yuan-eng.htm#qing-zan-zhong-yuan-eng
42. Lee, S. M. (1986). Spectrum of Chinese culture. Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications, p. 171. (Call no.: RSING q301.2951 LEE)
43. Tan, H. P. (1991). Fun with Chinese festivals. Singapore: Federal Publications, p. 68. (Call no.: JRSING 394.26951 TAN)



Further resources
Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. (1990). Chinese heritage. Singapore: Author.
(Call no.: RSING 305.895105957 CHI)

Lip, E. (1985). Chinese beliefs and superstitions
. Singapore: Graham Brash.
(Call no.: RSING 398 LIP)



The information in this article is valid as at 29 July 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Ethnic Communities>>Festivals and Celebrations
Ethnic festivals--Singapore
Singapore--Social life and customs--Chinese
People and communities>>Customs>>Festivities
_SingHeritage:Heritage and Culture

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