The Ghost Festival (中元节), Tomb Sweeping Festival (清明节) and what I will call the Festival of Winter Clothing (寒衣节), in lack of a better translation, are the three main Chinese festivals of worship of ancestors. Every year in the middle of the seventh lunar month, the Ghost Festival is held to offer sacrifices to deceased family members.
The festival has as well Daoist as also Buddhist origins, both with the same purpose of performing religious ceremonies to help the souls of the deceased find peace.
In Daoism, the ghost festival takes place on the birthday of the earth god, who is one of the 三官大帝, the three gods in charge of the earth, water, and heaven. It is the day on which the underground palace opens the gates to hell and allows the ghosts of the deceased to roam among the living and reunite with their families.
It coincides with the Buddhist festival of 盂兰盆会, the Feast of All Souls, which has its origins in the story of Mu Jian Lian (目犍连), who was one of the ten disciples of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical founder of Buddhism: Mu Jian Lian’s parents had died and he was very concerned about their circumstances in the afterlife, so he went to see them in hell. He discovered that they had become hungry ghosts, with nothing to eat or drink, hanging upside down over scalding fires. His heart hurt so much, that he went to bring his mother food, but as soon as he put it in her mouth, it fell out and into the hellish blaze. He reported what he had seen to Siddhartha Gautama, who in response, told him the following: his mother had committed many wrongdoings during her time on earth, therefore she was consigned to the eternal damnation of a hungry ghost, with no hope of reprieve. Mu Jian Lian would not be able to save his mother from her devastating circumstances all by himself, he would need to assemble the power of many. In order to help his mother’s soul find peace, he gathered a crowd of senior monks and held a large-scale sacrificial ceremony.
The expression “to liberate people from hanging upside down 解放倒悬” originates from this story, and it is why people gather on the Feast of All Souls or the Ghost Festival.
Steamed mantou breads 馒头 are offered to the lonely ghosts, and alike on the Tomb Sweeping Day, paper offerings are made and the tombs are cleaned. As a beautiful finale, lotus-shaped lanterns are lit and set out on ponds and lakes in order to show the ghosts their way home. When the lights are extinct, it symbolizes that the ghost has arrived.
The festival is a serious one and has no fun elements unlike the US American Halloween has. People have many superstitions and warnings to stay safe during the ghost festival are meant seriously. Some of the superstitions are acted out in the following slapstick video by Singaporean youtubers, which – creepy enough – you can also watch in reverse.