Hungry Ghost Festival History and Folklore

Hungry Ghost Festival History and Folklore

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This article is part of our Hungry Ghost Festival Family Guide. Sign up for our newsletter to receive our best activity, recipe and craft ideas before every Chinese holiday.

The Hungry Ghost Festival is a time when restless ghosts rise, when makeshift roadside altars glow with burning joss paper and when the living do everything they can to appease the wandering spirits. It’s one of the two big annual festivals designated specifically for the dead — the other is the Qingming Festival in the spring.

The Story of Ghost Month

Ghost Month lasts the duration of the 7th month on the lunar calendar. The Chinese believe that the gates to the underworld are opened on the 1st day of the month, releasing the captive ghosts to roam the earth among the living until the gates are closed again on the last day of the month. In contrast to the Qingming Festival, which honors family ghosts and ancestors, the Hungry Ghost Festival is intended to pacify the restless ghosts of strangers and uncared-for dead. That is, spirits who did not receive a proper burial or those who died through murder or suicide. During the duration of Ghost Month, the spirits seek out worldly pleasure and even revenge against those who did them harm while they were alive. To pacify these hungry ghosts, the living observe superstitions and make offerings of food, money and entertainment all month long, culminating with an outdoor ghost-feeding ceremony on the night of the Hungry Ghost Festival. It’s believed that content ghosts won’t cause trouble, especially for those among the living who faithfully serve them.

The Story of Mu Lian

Though much of the Hungry Ghost Festival’s origin myth is lost to time, many attribute the holiday’s focus on the destitute and less fortunate to the influence of Buddhism. Specifically, there’s a story about Mu Lian, a monk who rescued his mother from hell. Horrified to find his mother committed to the fiery depths of the underworld, Mu Lian appeals to Buddha for help. He’s told in response that only the power of joy harnessed through the collective effort of mass prayer could save her. When the ritual is performed by the Buddha and his disciples on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, Mu Lian’s mother is released. Many point to this story as the reason why the Hungry Ghost Festival focuses so much on easing the suffering of the wandering ghosts, as well as exonerating their spirits.

When is the Hungry Ghost Festival?

The Hungry Ghost Festival takes place every year on the evening of the 15th day of Ghost Month, the 7th month on the lunar calendar. There is no time off granted for the Hungry Ghost Festival.

Hungry Ghost Festival Dates Through 2026 are below.

2015August 28
2016August 17
2017September 5
2018August 25
2019August 15
2020September 2
2021August 22
2022August 12
2023August 30
2024August 18
2025September 6
2026August 27

Your turn! Do you have any other questions about Hungry Ghost Festival history and folklore? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!

HT: Photo by the photojournale.

2 Responses

    • Wes Radez

      Thanks for your question, Tony. Traditionally, the offering is left outside overnight before it’s generally cleared away, either by municipal services or the family. That said, you’ve got spirit of the holiday right, in the sense of looking after those less fortunate. Giving non-perishable goods to a homeless shelter might be your family’s modern adaptation. ~Wes

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