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Hungry Ghost Festival and the Cross-Cultural Nature of Roots

Ghosts come in all shapes and sizes, especially Chinese ones. There are water ghosts, headless ghosts, friendly old lady-ghosts, and, as pictured here, hungry ghosts.


Source: Kyoto National Museum via Wikipedia.


Like all hungry ghosts, you can recognize him by his needle-thin neck, which hardly allows any food to pass through, and by his stomach, big and empty as a balloon. Whereas most of his demon friends in the lower realm did evil things during their lives, the pictured, unlucky devil became a hungry ghost simply because his descendants neglected him after his death.

However, during this year’s month of August, our hungry ghost has less to complain about. It is “Ghost Month” and if you have ever been in the underworld, you will know that that is when the gates of hell open up. For a whole month, our pictured hungry ghost is free to spend time on earth, reminisce at nostalgic places, and eat, swim, roam at leisure.

Moreover, since his descendants are burning incense and paper money for him again, he visits them on Ghost Day (the 15th lunar day of the Ghost Month). On this evening, he attends a delicious meal in the house of his descendants, who have set a chair at the dinner table especially for him. After dinner, he may meet up with some underworld friends to catch a live theater performance, where slightly nervous humans have kept the front rows of seats empty for hungry ghosts.


The Origins of Ghost Day

Our hungry ghost’s night out was made possible by a monk some 2600 years ago. He was a Buddhist monk with supernatural powers, who wanted to trace his deceased, beloved mother.

Imagine the shock on his face when he found her in one of the lower realms as a hungry ghost, complete with needle neck and bloated belly! Apparently, during her lifetime, his mother had spent all the money he had given her to provide for visiting Buddhist monks on her own pleasures. While disappointed with her actions, the monk begged his master for help in getting his mother out of the underworld.

Fortunately for the monk, his master was Gautama Buddha himself. First, Buddha taught the monk to properly feed hungry ghosts; this allowed for the monk’s mother to be reborn as the dog of a noble family. Then, Buddha instructed the monk to offer food and robes to 500 other monks, a good deed of such proportions that it merited a human birth for his mother. The day of offering became known as Ghost Day.

Zhong Kui, the Ugly “Demon Crusher”

Zhong Kui

But not all is fun and games for hungry ghosts on Ghost Day: woe unto the unsuspecting hungry ghost that runs into Zhong Kui, a demons’ worst nightmare.


When Zhong Kui was born at the start of the Tang Dynasty(618-907AD), it was clear that the boy was special. However, while he turned out to be brilliant and supremely talented, he was unfortunately also supremely ugly. He had hideous, ring-like eyes and a square, misshaped, black face. Although Zhong achieved the very highest honors in the famously difficult imperial examinations, he was rejected as a government official for being too ugly. Out of anger, Zhong Kui smashed his head violently into the palace gates until he cracked his skull and died.

Some years later, Tang Dynasty Emperor Xuanzong (see our previous story about Qingming) had a dream while being gravely ill. In the dream, a large, powerful, ugly ghost saw a small ghost stealing a purse and a flute. Righteous and ruthless, the large ghost captured the smaller ghost, tore out his eye, ate it, and then introduced himself to the Emperor as Zhong Kui the “Demon Crusher.” When the Emperor awoke, he had recovered from his illness. Regarding it as an omen, he introduced Zhong Kui as a popular mythical hero, fighting demons and hungry ghosts across the world and through the ages.


What’s in a Root?

The above stories are the roots of the Chinese Hungry Ghost festival, celebrated predominantly by Chinese on the Mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and in Singapore and Malaysia.

But how Chinese is the festival and what are the roots behind the stories? The festival’s key origins are in India, where the monk lived and where Buddhism started. Belief in a continuous cycle of rebirth came from India too, while belief in a spiritual world for immortals and deities was influenced by Taoism, and ancestral worshipping by Confucianism. Combining that with the historical Xuanzong Emperor and mythological Zhong Kui, it is safe to say that the Hungry Ghost Festival is a big soup of sources and origins.

Also interesting is that there are numerous cross-cultural versions of hungry ghosts across the globe. Japanese hungry ghosts are cursed to eat excrement or human corpses. Hungry Hindu ghosts are obsessed with the things that made them evil while they were alive. Early Jewish and Christian texts talk about Grigori who wander the earth, yearning for food while having no mouths to eat with. Americans welcome spirits during Halloween and place jack o’ lanterns on their porch to ward off the demons in exactly the same way that Chinese hang pictures of Zhong Kui outside their doors.

Our roots are never mono-cultural as no culture exists in complete isolation. Moreover, what may be categorized as “one culture” in turn consists of a variety of sub-cultures, each with their own beliefs and customs. Learning about our roots does not just teach us about ourselves and those that we take to be similar to us; learning about our roots also teaches us how similar we are to those that we take to be different. All our cultures share essential commonalities as all are created by humans (and maybe a handful of hungry ghosts).

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