In Sep 1982, when I was a student I wrote an article on the 7th month Hungry Ghost Festival. That was more than 35 years ago. Click this link to read. Till today, the same Festival is still observed by the Chinese community. In fact, it is being practised by all the Chinese community not only in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan but also throughout South East Asia.
Yesterday, on the 22 Aug 17(Tue) was the start of the 7th lunar month which ushers in the month-long Hungry Ghost Festival. At the stroke of midnight on 22 Aug, as if by some unseen telepathic signals, burning of incense, candles and food offerings sprouted simultaneously all over the HDB heartlands and shop houses. The air is filled with déjà vu burning smell. The month long celebrations will climax on the 15th day with another big bang on the last day of the month.
There are many Chinese customs and rituals withering or facing extinction as our modern society marches on towards more sophistication. Surprisingly, this particular phenomenon appears more widespread and entrenched in the Chinese psyche after more than 35 yrs when I first wrote about it. I don’t think it will face extinction in the near future.
It would be most interesting to examine and study why this superstitious custom continue to survive and attract followers?
This Hungry Ghosts Festival – simply said refers to the opening of hell gate for one month allowing all the ghosts full liberty to roam the human world of existence. After the one month period, all the ghosts will have to return to hell before the gate is shut for another year. Any wandering ghost refusing to report back to hell shall be deemed as “AWOL”. Severe punishment is meted out when AWOL ghost is caught by the hell guardians. Link
Back to the earlier question why this festival is still celebrated by Chinese community all over the world, and even in Thailand, Vietnam or Japanese society with traces of Chinese roots? As Asians, they just follow the superstitious folklore with no questions asked. No need scientific proof for verification. They know that life is impermanent and one day they will join the dead. It is this belief in eternity with a glimmer of hope in the afterlife.
Everyday, there are millions of births and deaths amongst humanity. They believe in the perpetual life cycle of death and rebirth. When there is birth, there must be death as this is the natural order of things in all life forms. The deaths sojourn in hell undergoing purgatory to redeem themselves before seeking nirvana or continue with perpetual reincarnation.
In the meantime, those hungry ghosts holidaying on earth need to be appeased for the sake of peace. The living do not want those hungry ghosts to wreak havoc on their business or safety especially certain hazardous jobs such as construction sites, shipyards or even training camps. When I was first enlisted for my BMT in Tekong camp, I witnessed an army captain in uniform offering prayers at the obstacles course during the 7th lunar month. Such is the widespread practice entrenched in the Chinese psyche.
Businesses not doing well with budget cuts elsewhere will nevertheless spend lavishly on this occasion. Those that did well will definitely throw more money on the occasion by setting up elaborate rituals engaging Toast priests, Getai performance , dinner feasts etc to boast their spending power in an “upmanship” show to rivals. That’s how the commercial game is played.
Inadvertently, it created an industry of joss & incense accessories from paper replica iPhones, houses, cars, ingots etc to be burnt as offerings. The tentage contractors and mobile kitchen catering to nightly feasts with noisy auction will have a field day. What about those so-called 7th month singers? Some of them from media corps and some unknown freelancers also making their rounds making hay with the ghosts! As such, 7th month is boom boom time generating lots of economic activities in the otherwise ghastly economy.
I’ve briefly sketched out the economic and spiritual aspects of the 7th month hungry festival to justify it’s stubborn existence thru the years. In our multi-racial society, even the other races are aware of such practice.
Usually, it coincides with the haze issue from neighbouring country. They burn their vast forests for their ghosts whilst we burn paper incense contributing to the haze problem. But surprisingly it doesn’t happen this year round. Hopefully, they will not clash in the future or we will all get suffocated.
Let’s live and let live in peace – ghosts or no ghosts!