Zongyuan Jie: Tao Ghost Festival

Grand Taoist Temple set in green hillside

The Zhi Nan Gong Taoism Temple in Teipei, Taiwan. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, AUGUST 20 (But Dates Vary): Over the past month, millions across Asia, especially Japanese and Chinese, observed Obon festivities—including Asian communities in the U.S. Now, as Chinese turn to the celebration of Zhongyuan Jie, alternatively known as The Ghost Festival, dates also vary. If you are looking for observances across the U.S., check local events listings. Some observances occur earlier than they do in China. Wikipedia has an overview of these traditions.

The origins of Zhongyuan Jie lie inTaoism, Chinese folk religion and the influence of Buddhism during “Ghost Month.” The focus often is on this one “Ghost Day.” While Chinese traditions suggest that the gates of hell open each year at the beginning of the seventh lunar month, it’s on the 15th day that these spirits are granted a major festival. The spirits return to their respective realm the following day.

CUSTOMS FROM EMPTY CHAIRS TO JOSS PAPER

During the recent Tomb Sweeping Day (Qingming Jie), the living paid respects to their deceased ancestors by visiting cemeteries and cleaning gravestones. Now, on Zhongyuan Jie, the ghosts and spirits return the favor by visiting the living. Chinese operas are performed before empty rows of chairs, so that spirits have a spot to sit; seats are left unoccupied at dinner tables, so that living and deceased family members can dine together; shops are closed so that the streets can be left empty for wandering ghosts. Burning incense and joss paper—often into the shape of houses, cars, boats and money—are common, as devotees hold that incense symbolizes prosperity and joss paper carries over material items into the world of the dead. Significant events like weddings and major investments are withheld until the end of Ghost Month.

Devotees of this festival believe that it is an auspicious time for the absolution of sins committed by their ancestors. Many perform rituals to further that spiritual goal. Buddhists and Taoists rites may include the throwing of rice in all directions, believed to aid suffering spirits. Families are also careful not to attract ill-mannered ghosts, paying tribute and offering food to unknown souls so as to appease them and not attract misfortune. On the final day, hungry ghosts are guided home with floating lanterns released onto nearby rivers and other bodies of water.

ZHONGYUAN JIE AROUND THE WORLD

With a general focus on ancestor worship, specific customs associated with Zhongyuan Jie differ in participating countries:

  • Singapore and Malaysia: Concerts and other performances are common during The Ghost Festival. Some older operas are slowly being transformed into pop concerts.
  • Taiwan: While ghosts allegedly haunt the island for the entire seventh lunar month, the mid-summer Ghost Festival is preceded by parades, offerings and the release of lanterns. Taiwan is home to a museum dedicated solely to the festival: the Keelung Mid Summer Ghost Festival Museum.
  • Vietnam: The release of birds and fish, along with prayer, is regarded a means to earn merit.
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