Ghost Month and the Hungry Ghost Festival: How Asia celebrates

·5-min read
Multiple Ethnic-Chinese Indonesians throw
Ethnic-Chinese Indonesians throw "hell money", prepared as offerings for their ancestors' souls into the air during the "hungry ghost" festival in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)

The Ghost Festival falls on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, which translates to 12 August this year.

Taoist and Buddhist devotees believe that during this month, also known as the Ghost Month, spirits will be released from heaven and hell to roam the living realm.

The 15th day marks the peak of the Ghost Month, the day when all the spirits have arrived in the living realm.

As such, people fill this day with celebrations and offerings for the spirits of the deceased ancestors who have come to visit and to appease the wandering ghosts.

While it originates from China, the Ghost Festival is observed and celebrated differently across the Asian region. Here are some of the different celebrations that take place on this day.

Singapore and Malaysia

A prominent feature of the Ghost Festival in Singapore and Malaysia is getai, which literally means song stage in Chinese.

This live performance is held to keep the spirits entertained as they roam the living realm. The first row of seats is reserved for them, and it is taboo for anyone to take these seats.

Another feature is the auction, which is usually held together with a feast at void deck in a public housing estate. However, as this is funded by the residents, it has seen a gradual decline and reduction in numbers over the years.

Traditional Teochew and Hokkien open-air operas and puppet shows are also another form of entertainment for the spirits.

A dying art form, such performances may be more common in regions in Malaysia, such as Penang, as compared to Singapore.

A female Getai singer performs on a stage to empty chairs during Hungry Ghost Festival. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
A Getai singer performs for "ghosts" as well as residents living nearby, dressed in loud outfits, usually belting out songs in mandarin or in local dialects during the "Hungry Ghost Festival" celebrated in Singapore. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Indonesia

Some parts of Indonesia, like Riau, Riau Islands and North Sumatra, also hold getai during the Ghost Festival, also known as Chit Gwee Pua or Sembahyang Rebutan.

In Java, people will visit temples and bring some offerings for the spirits, which will then be distributed to the poor.

Some will also do tomb-sweeping to pay respects to the dead. This is different from the practices in Singapore, where tomb-sweeping is generally done during Qingming Festival (usually in April).

Vietnam

Similar to other Asian regions, the Vietnamese believe that the Ghost Month, or Tháng Cô Hồn, is inauspicious and the roaming spirits should be fed.

Rather than calling it the Ghost Festival, Vietnamese families celebrate the Vu Lan Festival, which is the second largest annual traditional festival in Vietnam after the Lunar New Year.

Vu Lan is the Vietnamese transliteration for Ullambana, a sutra in Mahayana Buddhism. Also known as the Amnesty of Unquiet Spirits, the Vu Lan Festival is celebrated on the seventh full moon of the lunar calendar (15th day of the seventh lunar month) to honour the dead.

Nowadays, the Vu Lan Festival is also seen as Parents’ Day.

People with living parents will wear a red rose, while those without will wear a white rose. The rose has been a symbol of love and sharing among parents and their children regardless of social background.

Burning paper houses on a sea of water at night during Hungry Ghost Festival. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)
Celebrating the mid-summer Chinese Ghost Month Festival, paper houses burn at sea for offerings for the departed's return home off Keelung, northern Taiwan. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

Taiwan

In Taiwan, the Ghost Festival is better known as Zhong Yuan Pu Du Festival. Out of respect, the Taiwanese tend to refer to the roaming spirits as hao xiong di, which means good brothers, instead of gui, or ghosts.

A unique event during the Ghost Festival in Taiwan is the releasing of water lanterns.

An age-old and beautiful tradition, two types of lanterns are released: lotus lanterns to guide homeless spirits to the afterlife, and house lanterns to guide the spirits of deceased family members to reincarnate.

These lanterns are placed on the water surface and lit before pushing them out. It is said that the further they go, the more blessings one would receive.

A few Japanese ladies dancing during the day. (AP Photo/Sherry Zheng)
A woman dances in "bon-odori," a traditional summer dance at a festival in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Sherry Zheng)

Japan

Things are a little different for Japan.

They used to celebrate the Ghost Festival, or Ochugen, on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month by presenting offerings to the ancestral spirits.

But the modern practice now takes place in July of the Gregorian calendar, and they give gifts to their superiors and the people one is indebted to.

Apart from Ochugen, their relatively more significant Ghost Festival is actually Obon, which falls on 15 July in the Eastern part (Kanto, think Tokyo) of Japan, and 15 August in the Western part (Kansai, think Osaka).

However, in Okinawa and the Amami Islands, Obon is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month.

Obon is characterised by the dance festival called Bon Odori, which is a traditional folk entertainment to welcome the spirits of the dead.

The dance is said to have originated from the later years of the Muromachi period (approximately 1336 to 1573), but has lost its religious meaning over time as it became associated with summer.

If you’ve been to a Japanese summer festival, or natsu matsuri, chances are you’ve seen the Bon Odori.

Here's what you need to know about the Hungry Ghost Festival and the Ghost Month.

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