Hungry Ghost Festival a.k.a. the 7th month in the Chinese calendar marks the opening of the Gates of Hell, allowing the spirits of the dead to freely roam in the land of the living for an entire month
During this period, Buddhist and Taoist devotees hold prayers and submit offerings to the guardians of Hell and the spirits as a mark of respect. Street performances are also enacted to entertain the spirits.
This year, Hungry Ghost Festival falls from 19 August to 16 September.
In observance of the Ghost month, the Chinese observe a number of superstitions and beliefs – mainly focused on things that should be avoided – that have been passed down from their elders since the olden days, such as:
1. Don’t sit on the front row of seats at opera street performances and getais. They are reserved for the unseen.
The front row seats are roped off and left vacant for a reason, they are specially reserved for the spirits as a form of respect. Under no circumstances should you sit on any of those seats, even if all the seats behind it are taken. You would do better to stand by the side rather than risk offending the spirits.
2. Don’t touch, step, or kick prayer items and offering for the hungry ghosts, especially those from temporary altars placed by the roadside. You should also refrain from making jokes or complaining about the prayer altars.
The temporary altars are erected to pay respects and extend offerings in order to appease the hungry ghosts. If one were to mess with the offerings or even remark unfavourably upon them, it is believed that the spirits might get offended and disturb or follow him or her back home!
In the event that one were to accidentally step on them, be sure to apologise or risk incurring the spirits’ wrath. After all, you wouldn’t like it if anyone steps on your food too, right?
3. Don’t look under the altar, especially during prayer sessions
The unseen may be having their feast underneath the table and they do not take too kindly to being disturbed.
4. Anything placed on the offering altar is considered as an offering for the spirits, so don’t place your child on the altar!
There is an urban legend that’s been going around for some time and it goes like this:
A mother took her child to a Hungry Ghost Festival event. She place her child on the altar table while preparing her offerings, but when she turned to check on her child, the kid had already turned pale and passed away. Yep, the hungry ghosts have mistakenly devoured the kid’s ‘life essence’.
5. Avoid staying out too late at night and try to return home by sunset, more so if you are alone. This applies to everyone, especially children and pregnant women.
Ghosts are at their strongest in the night because the “yin” energy from the moon strengthens them, whereas the “yang” energy from the Sun weakens them.
Spirits are said to be able to roam the streets freely to their supernatural hearts’ content without being obstructed by human beings during the 7th month, hence your chances of ‘bumping’ into them are much higher. Some Chinese shops also opt to close down earlier during the inauspicious month.
There is also a belief that children are much more susceptible to possession by wandering ghosts, while pregnant women are advised to not go out at all as the spirits are exceptionally attracted to foetuses.
6. Don’t stand under a tree shade or a bus stop, especially alone during the night and after bus service times
It is believed that spirits favour the dark and cold conditions under a tree shade and bus stop, hence the spirits may follow you back home.
7. Any major travel or vacation plans should be postponed to after the 7th month, especially if it
8. In fact, avoid going near any body of water for the entire month. Don’t go swimming or engage in any water-related activities.
It is said that vengeful water spirits who have drowned are determined to drag the living into the water as their ‘substitute’ in death so that they can leave the place where their souls linger and be reincarnated.
Another belief is that spirits favour water due to its ‘yin’ environment.
It is commonly said that some swimmers who encountered “water ghosts” felt their legs being “pulled” at while they were swimming and they only managed to break free by luck or because they screamed for help or someone came to get them.
9. Avoid going for jungle trekking, hiking, or camping trips
It is believed that one is more vulnerable to possession and physical injuries during the Hungry Ghost month, as spirits tend to roam in jungles where the ‘yin’ energy is strong underneath the shade of trees.
10. Don’t pick up any strange items you stumble upon on the streets, especially coins
Throwing coins on the street is part of the Hungry Ghost Festival ritual and apparently those coins are for the hungry ones to take, not you!
11. Don’t be too curious. Ignore strange sounds like soft whispering or sobbing, as well as strange smells, particularly pleasantly sweet ones.
No matter what you do, don’t follow the sounds or smells!
12. If you sense something or feel a sudden coldness, remain calm (e.g. don’t scream or start crying) and do not shift your eyes. Just look straight ahead and continue towards your destination.
If you treat the supernatural as if it is part of normal life and just go on with your business, the ghosts will have no power over you and they will be less likely to find trouble for you.
13. If someone taps you on the shoulder or calls your name from behind, do not turn around and look or answer the call. Seriously, DON’T ANSWER or the spirit may reveal itself to you.
The Chinese believe that there are two torches of fire on your shoulders. Turning your head over your shoulders will put out these torches, causing an imbalance of yin and yang energy, making you more vulnerable. If need be, turn your whole body when someone calls you from the back.
Legend has it that any ghost who calls out you at night while you are walking alone is hostile and wants to possess or harm you. Spooky stories of how some people went missing or became stricken with illness after encountering such spirits abound.
14. Don’t whistle at night
It is believed that roaming spirits are attracted to whistling, so you may be drawing attention to yourself. You could try humming or singing instead, although some believe that singing is also not advisable during this time.
15. Don’t curse or swear out loud. You may offend and anger the spirits who happen to be on your path for being disrespectful.
16. Don’t talk about ghosts (e.g. telling ghost stories) or worse, make fun of the supernatural
The Chinese has a saying “Don’t talk about ghosts at night and don’t talk about humans in the day”. When two or more people group together to talk about ghost stories in the middle of the night, they will tend to attract unwanted attention from wandering spirits and ghosts!
Avoid watching horror shows and talking about inauspicious topics like death, even if it’s for laughs. The reason being that you wouldn’t want the ghosts walking around to hear you making fun of them.
17. Avoid painting your nails in dark colours, particularly black, as the spirits may think you are one of them
Only the dead have nails which turned black due to the halt in blood flow. Black nails may lead the spirits to think that you are one of them and may lead you back to hell as well.
18. Do not cover your forehead. If you have bangs, pin them up as high as possible.
This comes from the Chinese belief that the forehead has powerful yang energy emanating out from it and any ghost who wishes to cross you would be overpowered by your life energy.
Qi, or life energy, is believed to be concentrated at the forehead and therefore covering one’s forehead will decrease the qi. Some also believe that shoulders and the top of the head represent the fire element, and tapping those parts during the festival will adversely affect one’s luck.
19. Don’t wear red or black clothing, the unseen are especially attracted to these colours and may follow you home. Ladies, avoid wearing high heels too!
According to beliefs, a person (or women) is opening themselves to spirit possessions if their heels are constantly elevated above the ground. Spirits are rising from the netherworld underneath us and basing on Chinese spiritual healing, one of the major energy points is found beneath our ankles that can be an entry point for spirits.
20. Avoid hanging wet clothes late at night. It is believed that wandering ghosts will ‘try on’ the clothes and after that, be brought into the house along with the clothes.
21. During the night, do not open umbrellas inside the house or leave them open outside the house, especially if your umbrella is red or black
Beside spirits being especially partial to the colours red and black, opening umbrellas in the house (or leaving them open outside) may seem like an open invitation for wandering ghosts to seek “shelter” under the umbrella and bring them into your home.
22. Don’t kill rare insects like moths, butterflies, or grasshoppers in the house. The Chinese believe that they could be manifestations of spirits or ancestors paying a visit to the family home.
23. Don’t move into a new house, start renovations, or buy new furniture, especially mattresses. Also, avoid throwing housewarming dos and house parties.
This could inadvertently ‘invite’ some wandering spirits into your house as you are moving items into a new unoccupied space, which the spirits could deem as their own as well. Furthermore, they could hide from the guards to escape going back to their realm.
24. Avoid leaning on or walking near walls, especially in the dark. It is believed that ghosts prefer to walk or fly along walls and stick to dark corners.
25. Avoid taking photographs in the evening
According to superstitious beliefs, taking any photographs at night – that includes selfies and instagram worthy vanity shots during the Ghost Month is not advisable as it will invoke spirits to associate with you. Traditional beliefs state that the camera or a photograph can record and trap spirits. Cameras are also long associated with ghosts as various “ghost images” or spirits captured in photographs have been subject for debate of their existence.
26. It is inauspicious for couples to get married during the Hungry Ghost month
Weddings during this month may not have a good ending, as believed, as there may be bad curses or hex placed by spirits on them. Furthermore, you would not want to have additional ‘uninvited guests’ crashing your party which you obviously did not plan for, do you?
27. It is also considered an inauspicious period to visit a sick friend in the hospital, get surgery, or attend a funeral
Other than looking obscenely rude, having chopsticks stabbed on your bowl of rice also resembles the joss sticks offerings to the dead. It is indirectly cursing your own death and also telling the spirits that it is their bowl of rice.
29. Avoid leaving the main door to your home or any other premise open, especially at night, to avoid inviting negative energy or unwanted spirits into the premises
30. Avoid talking to yourself
We tend to talk to ourselves at a time of stress. In this time where spirits wander freely around us, talking to yourself attracts spirits as it is an invitation for interaction. So when you are alone in your cubicle or office, don’t mutter to yourself. Spirits crave interaction with the living at this time of the year and they will seek every opportunity to do so.
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