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. In Singapore, the festival appears to have been celebrated since the British arrived, being mentioned in the newspapers in as early as 1873. In the 1880s and 1890s, the festival was also known as Sumbayang Hantu (praying to ghosts).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 (盂兰盆) Festival. Yu Lan Pen is a transliteration of the Sanskrit name for the Buddhist Ullambana 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
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
While the significance of the Hungry Ghost Festival differs between Taoists and Buddhists, most Singapore Chinese popularly celebrate it in similar ways.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. For large burnings of paper offerings by associations, a paper effigy of 大士爷 [Da Shi Ye] would be present. The effigy has a small image of Kuan Yin on its forehead as it is commonly believed to be an incarnation of Kuan Yin.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
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
Chinese name: Gui Jie, which means “ghost festival” in Chinese.41
Variant names: Feast for the Wandering Souls,42 Mid-Year Festival.43
1. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, “Qing Ming Jie (All Souls’ Day),” in Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore = Hua ren li su jie ri shou ce (Singapore: Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, 1989), 63. (Call no. RSING 390.08995105957 CHI-[CUS])
2. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, “Qing Ming Jie (All Souls’ Day), 63; “Zhongyuan Jie (Hungry Ghost Festival),” Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, 2021.
3. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, “Zhongyuan Jie (Hungry Ghost Festival)”; T. Ho Swee, “Chinese Customs,” Straits Times Overland Journal, 20 September 1873, 10; “The Sembayang Hantu,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 24 August 1896, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “Celebrate Zhongyuan,” Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple Association, last retrieved 13 April 2014.
5. Origins of Chinese Festivals, comp. Goh Pei Ki and trans. Koh Kok Kiang (Singapore: Asiapac Books, 2004), 127. (Call no.: RSING 394.26951 FU-[CUS])
6. Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple Association, “Celebrate Zhongyuan”.
7. Choon San Wong, An Illustrated Cycle of Chinese Festivities in Malaysia and Singapore (Singapore: Jack Chia-MPH, 1987), 162. (Call no. RSING 398.33 WON); Tan Huay Peng, Fun with Chinese Festivals (Singapore: Federal Publications, 1991), 70. (Call no. JRSING 394.26951 TAN); Jean DeBernardi, “The Hungry Ghosts Festival: A Convergence of Religion and Politics in the Chinese Community of Penang, Malaysia,” Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, 12, no. 1 (1984): 25–34. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
8. Stephen F. Teiser, “Ghosts and Ancestors in Medieval Chinese Religion: The Yü-lan-p'en Festival as Mortuary Ritual,” History of Religions, 26, no. 1 (August 1986): 48. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website); Gateway to Chinese Culture, trans. Geraldine Chay and Y.N. Han (Singapore: Asiapac Books, 2003), 81. (Call no. RSING 305.8951 GAT)
9. Tan, Fun with Chinese Festivals, 70.
10. Leon Comber, “Ch’ing Ming Festival,” in Through the Bamboo Window: Chinese Life & Culture in 1950s, Singapore & Malaya (Singapore: Talisman, Singapore Heritage Society, 2009), 30. (Call no. RSING 390.08995105951 COM-[CUS])
11. Wong, An Illustrated Cycle of Chinese Festivities, 162.
12. Wong, An Illustrated Cycle of Chinese Festivities, 162; Tan, Fun with Chinese Festivals, 70.
13. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, “Qing Ming Jie (All Souls’ Day), 65; Tieser, “Ghosts and Ancestors in Medieval Chinese Religion.”
14. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, “Zhongyuan Jie (Hungry Ghost Festival).”
15. Tieser, “Ghosts and Ancestors in Medieval Chinese Religion.”
16. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, “Qing Ming Jie (All Souls’ Day)”, 65; Tan, Fun with Chinese Festivals, 70.
17. Comber, “Ch’ing Ming Festival,” 30–33.
18. Comber, “Ch’ing Ming Festival,” 30–33.
19. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, “Zhongyuan Jie (Hungry Ghost Festival)
20. Vivian Tan, Feasts and Festivals of Singapore (Singapore: The Educational Publishing House, 1999), 25. (Call no. RSING 394.295957 YEE-[CUS]); Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, “Qing Ming Jie (All Souls’ Day), 65.
21. Tan, Fun with Chinese festivals, 71; Tan, Feasts and Festivals of Singapore, 25; Chen Kungang 陈坤纲, “中元节出现大'威武鬼王',” [A big 'Mighty Ghost King' appeared on the Mid-Year Festival], Xin Ming Ri Bao 新明日报, 5 September 1994, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Tan, Fun with Chinese Festivals, 71; Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 65.
23. Origins of Chinese Festivals, 132.
24. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 65, 67; Tan, Feasts and Festivals of Singapore, 25.
25. Tan, Feasts and Festivals of Singapore, 74.
26. Tan, Fun with Chinese Festivals, 74; Tan, Feasts and Festivals of Singapore, 25.
27. Tan, Fun with Chinese Festivals, 74; “More Mandarin Being Used at Seventh Month Auctions,” Straits Times, 16 October 1989, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Origins of Chinese Festivals, 132.
29. Kwa Chong Guan and Kua Bak Lim, eds., A General History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, 2019), 581 (Call no. RSING 305.895105957 GEN); Kwok Kian-Woon and Teng Siao See, Chinese (Singapore: Institute of Policy Studies; Straits Times Press, 2018), 78 (Call no. RSING 305.895105957 KWO); “Entertain the Dead, Charm the Living,” New Paper, 17 August 2007, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Tan Chee Beng, ed., Chinese Food and Foodways in Southeast Asia and Beyond (Singapore: NUS Press, 2011), 28 (Call no. RSEA 394.12089951059 CHI-[CUS]); Tan Chee-Beng, Chinese Overseas: Comparative Cultural Issues (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004), 23. (Call no. RSEA 305.8951 TAN)
31. “Hungry Ghost Festival Begins Today,” (2013, August 7). Star Online, 7 August 2013; “The Hungry Ghost Festival,” Hong Kong Tourism Board, 2014; Li Fengmao 李丰楙\, Táiwān jiéqìng zhīměi 台湾节庆之美 [The beauty of festivals in Taiwan] (Yilan Xian 宜兰县: Guo li chuan tong yi shu zhong xin 国立传统艺术中心, 2004), 113. (Call no. Chinese R 394.26951249 LFM-[CUS])
32. “Hungry Ghost Festival Begins Today”; J. Chan, (2011, August 26–September 8). “Festival Offerings,” AsiaNews (26 August–8 September 2011).
33. Hong Kong Tourism Board, “Hungry Ghost Festival.”
34. M. Caltonhill, “Who Let the Ghosts Out? Origins and Practices of Taiwan’s Feeding of the “Good Brethren,” 2013.
35. Wei Liming, Chinese Festivals: Traditions, Customs and Rituals, trans. Yue Liwen and Tao Lang (Beijing: China Intercontinental Press, 2010), 46–47. (Call no. R 394.26951 WEI-[CUS])
36. Comber, “Ch’ing Ming Festival,” 33.
37. Comber, “Ch’ing Ming Festival,” 33; Origins of Chinese Festivals, 132.
38. “Do’s and don’ts during the Hungry Ghost Month,” The Malaysian Times. 15 August 2013.
39. C. Chin, “When Ghosts See Red,” AsiaNews (26 August–8 September 2011).
40. Y. H. Bey, “How to Avoid Meeting Ghosts,” AsiaNews (26 August–8 September 2011); Origins of Chinese Festivals, 132.
41. Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple Association, “Celebrate Zhongyuan”.
42. Lee Siow Mong, Spectrum of Chinese Culture (Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications, 1986), 171. (Call no. RSING q301.2951 LEE)
43. Tan, Fun with Chinese Festivals, 68.
Evelyn Lip, Chinese Beliefs and Superstitions (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1985). (Call no. RSING 398 LIP)
Guangmingshan Pujue Zen Temple Propaganda Department 光明山普觉禅寺弘法, Fú shuō yú lán pén jīng: Qī yuè shì bùshì guǐ jié? 佛说盂兰盆经: 七月是不是鬼节? [The Buddha speaks the ullambana sutra: Is the 7th Lunar month the ghosts' season?, 2004]. (Xinjiapo 新加坡: Guang ming shan pu jue chan si hong fa bu 光明山普觉禅寺弘法部. (Call no. RSING 294.385 BUD)
Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, Chinese Heritage (Singapore: Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, 1990). (Call no. RSING 305.895105957 CHI)
Stephen F. Teiser, The Ghost Festival in Medieval China (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988). (Call no. R 294.3438 TEI)
The information in this article is valid as at September 2020 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.