THE Chinese, especially those who follow the teachings of Taoism and Buddhism, have been upholding the tradition of ancestral worship since time immemorial.
This veneration of the dead is observed in the Seventh Month of the Lunar Calendar and the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, a related event, falls on Thursday (Aug 15) this year.
Most people in ancient China believed in the occult – deities and spectral presences or ghosts.
Folklores have it that the souls of dead can reincarnate. It is believed those who had done wrong deeds during their lifetime on earth or had died unexpectedly would come back as ghosts to wander – and scare people, one might add – in the mortal world.
The Seventh Month of the Lunar Calendar is called the Month of the Hungry Ghosts. It is believed, at this time, condemned souls from netherworld are released on the first day of the month.
Chinese communities generally find the Seventh Month the scariest time of the year, believing that the gates of hell are flung open to let the tormented souls out to roam the Earth in search of offerings of food and drink as well as hell money – a form of joss paper printed to resemble legal tender bank notes – to tide them over when they return to their underworld existence after a brief spell of freedom in the world of the living.
The Hungry Ghost Festival, widely known as Zhong Yuan Jie and Lan Pen Jie among the Taoists and Buddhists respectively, is observed on the 15th day of the Ghosts Month – or Chit Quek Pua in a local dialect.
On this day, Taoists and the Buddhists worship their ancestors with assorted offerings of fruits and cooked food, according, Dr Chou Chii Ming, a savant of Chinese traditions.
He said Buddhists believed people who died would be put through a process of rebirth (reincarnation) via six pathways – hell, hungry spirits, animals, asuras, human beings and heavenly beings – based on their karmas.
“About 502 AD during the Liang Dynasty in China, a king popularised this festival (of hungry ghosts) and people followed.
“Later the festival became known as Zhong Yuan Jie after a salutation given to a high deity in charge of heaven, earth and water,” he added.
Opening hell gates
According to Dr Chou, the 15th day of the Seventh Lunar Month is the birthday of this high deity. In general, people believe the gates of hell will be opened by the King of Hell on the first day of the Seventh Lunar Month, and closed on the 30th day of the same Lunar Month.
Offerings to the hungry ghosts can be made any time throughout the Seventh Lunar Month.
The offerings should include fruits and all kinds of cooked food while plenty of joss papers and hell currencies are also burnt as monetary deposits for the ‘good brothers’ when they return to the other side.
Some offerings are marked by coloured triangular paper flags with words such as Yu Lan Pen Jie or Zhong Yuan Jie.
Dr Chou said the offerings were meant to pacify the wandering hungry ghosts so that they would not disturb or trouble people and their surroundings.”
He added that some local households would make offerings in front of the main doorway while bigger offerings were usually made in temples.
“Some temple organisers will put up two platforms amidst the citation of the Buddhist sutra. The one at the top serves as a high table for placing offerings to the high god Zhong Yuan who has the power to release the hungry ghosts from hell, while the other on the floor has all items of fruits and cooked food for worshippers and onlookers following the offering ceremony for the lost souls called Qiang Gu,” he explained.
Qiang Gu ceremony
In and around the city, a number of temples host the Qiang Gu ceremony on the 15th night.
The ceremony at Siang Ti Temple, situated in the heart of Kuching city at Carpenter Street, usually draws a huge crowd, including foreigners. Prior to the ceremony, participants burn joss papers as offerings.
Qiang Gu is an event where participants scramble for number tickets tossed into the air by the organising committee. Those who manage to grab a ticket or two are entitled to hampers containing various food items.
Qiang Gu is also said to symbolise how neglected hungry ghosts rush for the food offerings. It is believed if a participant can grab something from Qiang Gu, he or she is considered lucky and blessed.
The Ghost Month is observed in many other Asian countries such as Singapore, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, India and Taiwan.
It is learnt Yilan County, Taiwan, is famous for its version of Qiang Gu which is different from its city counterparts.
In this County, a huge 10-metre high shed weighing thousands of kg is built and divided into three parts – lower, middle and upper.
The lower part is made of several pillars over 10 metres high with a butter on the surface.
The middle part is a flat stage while the upper part has 30 metres high pillars with oblations tied on them and a flag at the top.
Participants come in teams and the members have to help one another climb up the pillars to secure the flag. The team that takes the flag first wins.
It is believed the winner will not only receive a prize but also blessings from the deities for the entire year.
Reserved for spirits
In some local temples, concert performances have become a prominent feature of the Festival and if chairs are lined up for the audience, the first row is normally reserved for the spirits from the lower realm.
Apart from the offerings, entertainment and the Qiang Gu ceremony are the Do’s of the Ghost Month but there are also the Dont’s.
According to Dr Chou, the Chinese usually refrain from starting new businesses during the Seventh Lunar Month.
It is also not an auspicious time for marriage and moving house, and families will avoid these two activities during the month.
As for outdoor activities, people do not go to picnic or take part in water-related events. There are also those who refrain from swimming at night for fear that ghosts of drowning victims might drag them under.
“Some people will not leave their front door open all night to keep negative energy at bay. Diners are also advised not to stick chopsticks in a bowl of rice as the hungry ghosts may mistake the food for offerings.
“Most non-believers respect the culture of burning gigantic joss sticks or hell money, and will choose to avoid areas where such burning is taking place,” Dr Chou said.
Since ancient times, the Chinese have been holding to the belief that there is a bridge between the dead and the living on the night of the full moon, particularly during the Ghosts Month.
It is for this reason they perform ceremonies or traditions to protect against attacks, mischiefs or pranks by the hungry ghosts, and to worship their ancestors or famous people of the past.
The ancient Chinese also believed natural and man-made disasters were frequent occurrences in the Seventh Lunar Month. Hence, they avoided risks and encroachment into the “otherworldly” realm.
Some took the precaution of wearing amulets, prayer beads or lodestones (with a particular energy) to avoid evil spirits.
The Chinese seem to also believe the hungry ghosts will not do them any harm and will even help them in return if the community treat their “spectral guests” well.
While some may not believe in the Ghost Month and will pass it off as mere superstition, there are, however, still many who feel discretion is the better part of valour and will heed the veiled admonishment in the following Chinese idiom – It is better to believe that it exists than it does not.