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Zhongyua Festival - Hungry Ghost Festival
Updated: 2004-08-30 11:16

Float the lotus-shape lanterns
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 and takes place during the 7th lunar month.

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.

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