Halloween is one of my favorite celebrations of the year. I’m not sure why, considering that I have only celebrated two Halloweens so far, and both have been relatively uneventful in comparison to the parties I grew up watching through American drama series like Vampire Diaries and Stranger Things. Nonetheless I enjoy the concept of dressing up as monsters once a year and going around households blackmailing families for candy. And in the spirit of Halloween, I’m going to introduce the Hungry Ghost Month celebrated by the Chinese.
The Hungry Ghost Month is the Chinese culture’s very own version of Halloween, only it lasts for a month and it slightly veers off from being whimsical and leans towards being terrifying. The Hungry Ghost Festival begins on the 15th
day of every lunar calendar, which is July or August for Western Calendars. Chinese believe that on this day, the barriers that separate Hell from our world open, allowing the deceased to cross into the realm of the living. Filial piety among the Chinese is often strong enough to extend to their ancestors even after death, which means that living descendants will usually honor their deceased relatives by burning incense, joss paper and a papier-mâché
form of money, clothes and other luxury items. Descendants also prepare food offerings that will be served to the ancestors with empty seats at the dining table, as if they were still living. In countries like Singapore and Malaysia, concerts or Getai as they are known, are sometimes held during the Hungry Ghost Month. During events such as these, the front row seats are usually reserved for spirits and closed off to living people.
Like many Chinese festivals, the Hungry Ghost Month comes with its own set of dos and don’ts: Avoid taking pictures late at night, as traditional beliefs state that cameras and photography can record spirits. So you might capture something you do not wish to see. Do not hang clothes late at night, as clothes resemble human form, which may attract restless spirits. Never turn your head if you feel your shoulder tapped or your name called at night; it is believed that human beings have two protective flames on their shoulders. Turning your head could snuff out one of the flames and make you vulnerable. It is also considered bad luck to disturb or take offerings that are meant to appease the spirits. In the event that you were to accidentally disturb it, you are to apologize or risk incurring the wrath of the spirits it was meant for. Lastly, avoid talking to yourself as spirits that crave attention might interpret it as an invitation to interact and be drawn to you.
Many of the superstitions and taboos surrounding the Hungry Ghost Month are based on traditions and personal beliefs that have spanned over several generations. To this day, the Hungry Ghost Month remains as important a festival to the Chinese as Halloween is to Westerners. As mentioned above, Chinese culture places strong emphasis on filial piety and many see these rules as a way to respect and honor their deceased family members. And while most of these superstitions sound like silly old-wives tales, it is still better to be safe than sorry. Happy Halloween!
Joanne is a second-year Masters Candidate at the Bush School of Government and Public Service pursing a Master of International Affairs.