Saturday, August 30, 2014

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Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival - Zhong Yuan Jie (中元节)

By now you should probably be aware of the 2008 Summer Olympics to be held in Beijing, China, this coming August. However, there is at least another event going on in (and beneath) China during August.

 
Every year, during the seventh month of the Chinese Calendar, it is believed that the Gates of Hell will be opened and all Hell beings (well, not nearly all, only those well-behaved ones) will be set to roam freely on Earth for a month. In this month, many spirits roamed the world in search of their past memories to fulfil their unforgotten attachments. As such, these are called the “hungry ghosts” and the festival is also called the Hungry Ghost Festival.

 
The Hungry Ghosts festival occurs on the 15th night of the 7th Lunar month which falls on the 15th of August this year. This festival is different from the more well-known Qing Ming Festival (清明节), or the tomb-sweeping day which is now an official holiday in China and is predominantly an ancestor worshipping day. The Ghost Festival on the other hand is for the ancestors to return the visit and is a festival of elaborate rituals of joss sticks and paper money, food offerings, and opera shows for the deceased.

Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival
Buddhist's offerings in temple during the Hungry Ghost Festival Offering of lanterns is a common practice during the Hungry Ghost Festival. A portrait showing a mother educating her son about the Hungry Ghost Festival.
     

The festival is also influenced by Buddhist teachings introduced into China. In the Buddhist’s Ullambana Sutra, Mahamaudgalyayana, one of the chief disciples of the Buddha, well-known for his psychic powers, searched for his deceased mother during one of his meditation session. He found his mother being reborn in the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts due to her previous greed. The hungry ghosts depicted in Buddhist’s literature are beings in another world, born with narrow throats and huge stomachs. They are constantly hungry but are not able to filled their stomach as they have difficulties swallowing the food. Seeking Buddha’s advice, he eased his mother’s suffering and eventual rebirth into a human form by performing various rituals of merits creation and offerings. This is the famous “Mahamaudgalyayana Saving His Mother” <目莲救母> storyline which is often performed in Chinese opera. In the Chinese context, more emphasis is placed on offerings to the ancestors than to the Sangha, or monks, as in the original Ullambana practice in Buddhism.

Chinese Opera on the Hungry Ghost Festival normally screening to an 'empty' audience

Chinese operas during this period are often screened to 'empty' audiences of non-human. Ask before sitting on the empty chairs as 'someone' could be occupying them.

This festival is unique in that even with modernisation and the advancement of education, the appeasement of the deceased is still not forgotten but has continued to grow from strength to strength. During this period, people will avoid undertaking important activities such as weddings, house moving and starting businesses. Late night entertainments, swimming lessons and long distance driving would also diminished. It is statistically notable that property transactions and entertainment activities in the Chinese cities would be reduced during this period.

Burning of joss sticks and paper money along the road are common signs during the festival.

Burning of paper money and joss sticks are a common sights along the roads during this period.

There are similar festivals around the world as well. These include the El Día de los Muertos Festival in Mexico, the Chugen and O-Bon Festivals in Japan as well as the Vu Lan Festival in Vietnam. This shows that people today are still in awed and respectful towards the mysterious underworld. For the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival in particular, it is a yearly reinforcement and reminder of one’s filial responsibility towards the mother and other ancestors in general.

 
 
 
 
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