Much like Western culture's
Halloween, some Eastern cultures celebrate a Fall festival where
they believe the gates of hell are thrown open, releasing hungry
ghosts to wander the earth in search of food and taking revenge
upon those who wronged them in life. This month-long festival is
known as the Hungry Ghost Festival or Da Jui and takes place during
the 7th lunar month (Aug/Sept).
Unlike other celebrations of the dead in Eastern cultures
that seek to honor dead ancestors, the Hungry Ghost Festival
seeks to pacify the hungry ghosts, the ghosts of strangers and the un-cared-for
dead. These are the ghosts of those who died by their own hands,
by accidents, by drowning or hanging who have been denied entry
into heaven. Angry because they are forced to dwell in hell
without food or comfort, when released, they search for souls to
take their place in misery.
To Taoists and Buddhists, these evil spirits are not to be
taken lightly. They are most active at night and can take many
forms including: snakes, moths, birds, foxes, wolves, and
tigers. They can even appear as beautiful men or women to seduce
the living. When they possess an individual by entering the body
they cause illness and mental disorders.
Throughout this month, to keep the angry spirits amused,
people stage street operas and other forms of public
entertainment. In the past, people did not view the street
operas as they were performed only for ghosts. Other rituals are performed to help souls enter into
heaven. Taoists do their best to avoid late nights away from
these amusements and rituals to steer clear of the evil spirits. To appease
these wandering spirits, Buddhists and Taoists burn bundles of
joss sticks, paper hell money, food, and other offerings by the
roadside. Communities along rivers or near the sea float lanterns
in the shape of the lotus or carved from fruit or gourds in the water to guide them away from
their homes. They follow the lanterns from the river bank or sea
shore till they can no longer be seen. This is done to redeem
the soul of those who died by drowning.
The most important days of this month are the 14th and 15th,
the days of the great feasts. On the 14th, a great feast would
be held to honor family ancestors. Prayers and offerings would
be made at family altars. On the following night, the 15th, they
would feast for the hungry ghosts. Held outside under the full
moon, these feasts feed the evil spirits so that
they will leave the living alone and bribe the ancestors for
luck with money and the harvest.
The festival concludes 15 days later when the spirits must
return before the gates of hell are slammed shut for another
For a scholarly look at the Hungry Ghost Festival with
bibliography take a look at Darren
A. Bryant's website.