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The tale of the ‘Ghost’

The Ghost Month, also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival or Zhong Yuan Jie, traces its origins to Taoism and Buddhism beliefs. It falls on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, based on Chinese traditions. At least eight Asian countries observe a month-long ritual, which starts on Aug. 19 and ends on Sept. 19 this year. The “ghost day” falls on Sept. 2.

Major activities are usually held in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Chinese-dominant Singapore, but the Ghost Month is also celebrated in some form or another in China, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, Vietnam and India.

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ILLUSTRATION BY STEPH BRAVO

Religious origins

The Taoists believe that the universe is controlled by three deities who represent three basic elements: heaven, water and earth. Lord Qingxu, who is the ruler of earth, was born on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, the traditional date of the ghost month. He was said to have descended to earth to release the dead from suffering and to absolve the living of their sins. At this time, the gates of hell are said to be opened so hungry ghosts can hunt for food. Taoist priests would perform rituals and offer food, while devotees would pray in temples in supplication and ask for forgiveness.

Among Buddhists, the Ghost Month is also known as Yu Lan Pen Festival. “Yu lan” means to hang upside down, while “pen” means a container filled with offerings. This festival was said to have originated from the attempt by Mu Lian, a disciple of Buddha, to save his mother from hell or suffering. Mu Lian was said to have turned to Buddha for help. Buddha then told him about the Yu Lan Pen canon and asked him to save his mother on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. This belief supposedly influenced the Chinese custom of praying for one’s ancestors during the festival.

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Another lesser-known origin of Ghost Month is the legend about the Dragon King, which took place during the Tang Dynasty (from 618 to 906 A.D.) The Dragon King was said to be angry at a famous fortune teller named Liang Feng, who claimed that no one could prove his predictions wrong. The Dragon King tried to sabotage Liang Feng, but his plan was exposed and he was sentenced to death. He sought the help of Emperor Tang Taizong, but the latter’s promise to help was never fulfilled. This made the Dragon King a wandering spirit and prompted the emperor to order Buddhist and Taoist priests to offer prayers and food, marking the supposed start of the Hungry Ghost Festival.

Activities

Those who honor the traditions and rituals of the Ghost Month practice caution and perform certain activities to avoid bad luck as this period is considered to be inauspicious in the Chinese lunar calendar.

In some Asian countries including in the Philippines, many Chinese observe this month by offering rice, meat, fruits, incense sticks and candles to the dead while others burn paper money and put up entertainment to satisfy the spirits and wandering souls. Some say that making the ghosts happy can bring good fortune. In Singapore, where the Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated during the seventh month of the lunar calendar, neighborhood businesses come together and participate in dinners, auctions and stage performances. The proceeds from these events and small monthly contributions are used for mass offerings, usually food items, for ghosts during the festival.

During this month, many Chinese avoid important endeavors and big decisions such as business transactions and marriages as it is believed that the ghosts would put up stumbling blocks. Other believers refrain from cutting their hair, shaving, hanging clothes outside the house at nighttime, visiting the hospital or attending funerals. Going out at night, swimming and leaning on walls are also considered taboos.

Keeping away from risks is probably the general attitude during the Ghost Month but having items such as an amulet of Chung Kwei, the deity dubbed as the ghost catcher in Chinese mythology, an elliptical coin and a figurine of Kwan Kung, known to protect homes from thieves and evil spirits can help ward off negative energy.

Sources: Inquirer Archives, eresources.nlb.gov.sg, files.eric.ed.gov

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