Hungry ghosts and foreigners

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Saturday, August 16, 2008

My student isn't allowed out. In fact, many children are banned from going outside at night for fear they will be taken by ghosts.

Sound strange? A little superstitious?
Well that is China in 2008. It may be hosting its coming out party with the Olympics, but festivals like the one this week - the Hungry Ghost festival - is alive and well, judging from the strict adherence by locals here in Lijiang.

Unlike Halloween, which is becoming more commercial and universal these days, Hungry Ghost day seems to be more of a family affair. And it's deadly serious.

On the night of the 14th of the 7th lunar month, families prepare a meal - not for themselves but for the ghosts. Why this day? And why are the ghosts hungry?

Around this time Chinese believe the gates of hell are open, and the ghosts - who are rather peckish - head down to Earth looking for food. Some ghosts will also use this as an opportunity to avenge those who wronged them during their lives hear on earth.

Essentially this is a traditional festival to honour deceased family members. That's why a sumptuous meal for the 'hungry ghosts' is prepared to satisfy the ghosts and get good fortune.

That's why on the streets of Lijiang - and most Chinese towns - you will see the burning of incense. And in Lijiang the Naxi do more. They put outside their houses offerings of rice, brightly coloured fruits and other tasty morsels. Unfortunately in the old town, wandering dogs are the beneficiaries rather than wandering ghosts.

There's also other superstitions linked with this month: don't go swimming or you could drown - dragged down by an evil ghost (I write this as a friend goes off to a deep cold reservoir for a swim). Similarly children shouldn't wander alone at night in case they get possessed. Which might explain why a student of mine didn't want to go out that day.

Not only is food and incense offered, but also fake money (as if there isn't enough of this around Lijiang already) is burnt. This hell money - and sometimes elaborate houses and TV sets made of paper are offered to the deceased for a rich material life in the next life. And who these days isn't glued to the TV watching the Games??

The festival lasts for 15 days, reinforcing the connection between the living and the dead, heaven and earth, the body and the soul.

Apparently this was originally a Buddhist festival, with Taoist influences, and then the Chinese took it and ran with it - so to speak.

There's a story that a rich merchant gave up his trade to become a devout follower of Buddhism. After he obtains enlightenment he wonders whatever happened to his mum and dad who were dead. He goes looking - and finds his father in heaven. But his mother ain't there. She's in hell. And she's a hungry ghost with a large belly but a throat so thin no food can pass. [she was greedy in her life, according to the story, and didn't host any Buddhist monks, instead spent up large on herself]

Eventually the guy battles demons and with the help of the Buddha rescues his mother. Mu-lien gets his mother back on earth - admittedly as a pet dog.

So that's how Zhong Yuan Jie started. While on Qing ming day living people pay homage to the dead, on Ghost Festival, the dead visit the living.

So the other day, the night air was thick with incense, and outside each house were piles of small offerings. Some of these were later placed in canals. It was a serious occasion, but small dogs everywhere were happy.
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