August, the Ghost Month

Like most cultures around the world, the Chinese observe special customs for the dead and their goes, practices of which date back centuries. Hailed as the Ghost Month, this tradition is widely observed not only in China, but also in neighboring countries such as Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, and Malaysia. The narrative goes like this: during this period, the Gates of Hell (or the underworld) is opened, which releases the lost souls or hungry ghosts. They roam around to either visit their families or look for victims among the living. The Hungry Ghosts are those people who have died of violent deaths or have committed suicide, as well as those souls that have been completely ignored or forgotten by their loved ones. The Hungry Ghost Festival, the most important aspect of the Ghost Month, is celebrated on the seventh lunar month, on the 15th day. In the Western calendar, this usually falls in August. 

The Chinese celebrating Ghost Month burning paper money as offerings to the dead.

Hungry Ghost Festival

Locals say that it is their duty to make the hungry ghosts happy, and if they succeed, the lost souls will bring you wealth. To make the hungry ghosts “happy”, they partake in special ceremonies, which come in the form of burning incense, putting the family ancestral tablets on a table,  and cooking food three times a day. They also offer what is described to be their “happy food”, from roasted pork to candies, to keep the souls contented.  The people also feast this night, usually leaving a place open at the table for a lost relative. The festival is observed as they believe that these ghosts have been wandering since the beginning of Ghost Month, and after two weeks of activity, the souls are famished. 

On the first day of Ghost Month, people burn paper money outside of homes and businesses, sometimes even along the roadsides or fields. If given the chance, they accomplish this tradition in temples. The money represent offerings to the departed souls, in celebration of their special month. As previously described, people also light incense and sacrifice food, and red painted lanterns are put up. The last day of the Ghost Month is often marked with special festivities, as this is the day the Gates of Hell are shut. Many locals burn more paper money, sometimes including clothing, believing that the ghosts can make use of these in the afterlife. Families visit rivers and float lanterns on tiny boats in the evening, which are usually made out of wood and paper. Their ancestors’ name are written on the lantern, and they say that the souls follow the floating lanterns as they flow along with the river.

Things to Avoid During Ghost Month

Legend has it that anyone who dies of natural causes reincarnates, but those who died guilty or in accidents become ghosts who wander around, especially during Ghost Month. Unfortunately, many Chinese folk believe that evil spirits are inclined to disturb the living, sometimes causing death, accidents, and disasters. Due to this, people who die unexpectedly during the Ghost Month are deemed as souls “taken away by ghosts.” To avoid this misfortune, people live by a set of rules during the Ghost Month, to be followed strictly:

The departed souls come back to haunt the living, according to the ancient Chinese.

  • Refrain from staying out too late because spirits might follow you back home.
  • Avoid stabbing your chopsticks in your bowl of rice because not only is it rude, it can also look like offerings to the dead, with chopsticks looking like incense. You are directly causing your own death, as this tells the spirits that it is their bowl of rice.
  • Avoid taking photos late at night – the chances of capturing the unknown are high. 
  • Avoid celebrating your birthday at night, along with blowing your cake. Festivities must be held during the daytime.
  • Do not open umbrellas, especially red ones, in the house because wandering souls might seek “shelter” under them.
  • Do not work late during this month. Humans are weak during the night and the spirits are strong – possession can happen. 
  • Avoid playing games that have the power to attract spirits, such as the Ouija board. 
  • Do not wait at the bus stop at midnight, and most especially after bus service hours. 
  • Avoid using black or dark colored manicure, as this may lead the spirits to thinking that you are one of them. They may lead you to Hell with them.
  • Do not visit the cemetery or enter any abandoned house. You may attract a wandering spirit and cause them to follow you home. 
  • Do not spit and blow your nose in public, especially at any tree or plant. 
  • Avoid leaning against the wall. Apparently, spirits are inclined to stick on walls as they are cooler.
  • Do not turn your head if someone pats you on the shoulder. Human beings are believed to possess two flames that protect you, located on each shoulder. Should a ghost pat you on the back and only your head turns, the protective flame will be snuffed out. This makes you vulnerable to their antics. To avoid this from happening, turn your entire body around.
  • Do not kill insects that come into your house. It is believed that are reincarnations of your loved ones.
  • Renovation works should not be observed during the Ghost Month, as these cause disturbances. 
  • Do not buy properties or cards during this month. Shopping is acceptable, but signing any legal document pertaining to these should be done after the Ghost Month. 
  • Hanging your clothes overnight is unacceptable, as it easily attracts spirits to possess them.
  • Weddings are discouraged during this month, as it will bring great misfortune to the marriage.

The Ghost Month is not just a time of fear – it celebrates a tradition that has been preserved for thousands of years, which can be considered part of the cultural identity of the people who believe in it. More than highlighting the terrors that come with interacting with the dead, however, the Ghost Month also celebrates the memories left by the dead, along with life beyond it. 

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