The following post was written by our fellow AFSer, Suyin Chia. Find out who she is and enjoy her post:
I am the current ICL Responsible and Training Coordinator for AFS Malaysia who is happily tucked away in her mini cubicle dreaming up methods for social change and increased cultural awareness within the AFS network. I have been involved with AFS for 9 years now since my student exchange year to Japan. I am also an Intercultural Link Learning Program International Qualified Trainer candidate. Nothing delights me more than the sight of tail wagging puppies, a good read, the sound of ocean waves and interesting conversations. I believe that we need to learn to cut the cake differently.
* * *
In the month of August when I was 12 years old, there was a Chinese opera night show right opposite my family’s house held by the local temple’s association. As these performances are open to public my sibling and I -giddy with excitement – innocently seated ourselves at the empty front rows. A couple of hours later we noticed there were more people arriving, our neighbors who strangely enough, all gathered at the back of the open hall despite the plethora of empty seats in the front few rows with us. Being children, we thought little of it and continued being mesmerized by the colorfully garbed actors on stage and their swordsmanship until late into the night.
We later found out that the opera was put together for a very different kind of audience, as those seats were reserved for ‘wandering spirits’, and that August was the month of the Hungry Ghost Festival. Our father would chide us not to sit in the front rows ever again, as we may have offended some spirits for taking their best seats. Needless to say, we barely slept properly for the rest of the week.
Not unlike October’s Halloween, the Hungry Ghost Festival is a Chinese belief that for a month every year ghosts and spirits of deceased ancestors are released to the living world to visit their kin. The festival falls on the 7th moon, 15th day of the Chinese Lunar Calendar, which is somewhere in August every Gregorian year. It is a time to not only pay homage to deceased ancestors but also to pacify all the neglected souls, ghosts of strangers and the uncared-for dead roaming between the two worlds.
If you are planning to visit Malaysia (or China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand.. really just anywhere with a majority Chinese population) during this time of the year, here is a quick guide to all things you need to know about the Hungry Ghost Festival:
- There is going to be a lot of burning of things.
The festival originates from the belief that the Chinese spirit world is parallel with the living world, hence the spirits have the same basic needs such as food, clothing and material comforts once enjoyed in the living world. So people burn “hell notes” and gold ingots made from joss paper to ensure the spirits won’t come back and ask you for money. Traditionally, chariots, horses and harvest were buried or burned together with the dead. Today, modernization has changed what is perceive as material comforts for the dead, which is recreated in paper and burned to materialize in the netherworld for the spirits to consume. According to this logic, this year my deceased grandparents should be enjoying a wonderful new car, a bungalow, iPads, the latest cellphones, fashionable clothes and the biggest paper flat screen television set I have ever seen.
- It is not uncommon to see food, rice wine, incense and other offerings placed on roadsides and in front of establishments.
Just like the living world, there also exist homeless and hungry souls, ancestors of those who forgot to pay tribute after their deaths, or those who were never given a proper ritual send-off. During this month, the gates of hell are opened up and ghosts are free to roam the earth where they seek food and entertainment. The roadside offerings is to appease the wandering spirits from causing mischief. Do not step on or kick the offerings. Naturally, do not take the offerings for yourself either as you may just incur the wrath of the intended ghosts.
Eating and the exchange of food are socially significant acts in Chinese culture. The family is commonly defined as “those who eat together,” and it is often in terms of food that a family expresses its relations with other people. The only people invited to eat a meal as guests are family, relatives, friends or people of equal social status. Eating together thus implies intimacy and a certain degree of social equality. While food is given to beggars by a family, they will never be invited inside for a meal. The same goes for stranger ghosts.
- Stay indoors after dark.
Not a year goes by without my mother calling to remind me of this very important advice. Stay indoors or risk getting whisked away by a ghost, or at least bumping into one and bringing ‘it’ home. In fact there is a whole list of taboos about nighttime. Don’t pee on the trees, avoid turning around if you feel someone calling from behind or tapping your shoulder, don’t swim, don’t take major public transport (i.e. planes and boats), don’t leave your main door open, don’t go into the jungle, don’t leave an umbrella open. Basically, just about everything you do at night may get you impaled, possessed, dragged into bad luck, whisked away, tricked and other not so nice things happening. Best if you consult a friendly expert before planning evening activities (my mother, for instance).
The classification of ghosts, ancestors and deities also reflects a specific social hierarchy that is so intricately woven in traditional Chinese society: First, there was the kin, the most important social nucleus for every individual. They are the ancestors that protect the family body even after death. Secondly, the imperial hierarchy, which was, in terms of power and influence, superior to the family is represented as deities of various powers and control. Lastly there were the strangers, outsiders. Mutual animosity of various racial and ethnic groups in traditional China and Taiwan saw a world beyond the bamboo walls encircling each community as dangerous because it was inhabited by strangers, and strangers were feared because they were represented in experience by bandits and beggars. The bad, hungry ghosts are the product of this experience.
- Big feasts with live shows until early morning everywhere.
Families also pay tribute to other unknown wandering ghosts so that these homeless souls do not intrude on their lives and bring misfortune. A big feast of compassion is held for the ghosts on the 15th day of the 7th month, where people bring samples of food and place them on the offering table to please the ghosts and ward off bad luck. Prayer ceremonies are held by priests of various temples to alleviate the pain of these wandering ghosts, while helping to fulfill their unmet desires when still alive. Live shows are also put on where everyone is invited to attend. The first row of seats is always empty as this is where the ghosts are supposed to sit to better enjoy the live entertainment. The shows are always put on at night and at high volumes, so that the sound attracts and pleases the ghosts enough to ward off their wrath. These acts were better known as “Merry-making”. Talk about empathy across spiritual realms!
- Sending our ancestors home.
14 days after the festival people float lotus flower-shaped lanterns on a paper boat and set them outside their houses. The lanterns are used to make sure all the lost and hungry ghosts find their way back to the underworld, so unless you want them to find their way back to your house for a happy haunting, avoid collecting the “but they’re so pretty!” lanterns.
Originally a day to honor ancestors, the Hungry Ghost Festival builds an invincible cultural bridge between people and ancestors tied through cultural perspectives that are highly valued by the Chinese community. With the dialogue with the ancestors, people speak out their wishes for happy family and escape of disasters, pray for good harvest and good fortune in the coming year. In Chinese tradition, value on loss of life, respect for ancestors, and worship is the concrete expression of filial piety, the core traditional Chinese thought.