Ghost Month and Zhong Yuan Festival – Part One

Ghost Month - LTL Taiwan

Ghost Month – LTL Taiwan

The belief of afterlife and spirits exists universally in different cultures and societys. The relevant celebrations, festivals or customs therefore came into being. Western Halloween and the Mexican Day of the Death are both famous examples. However, in addition to one-day Halloween and the two-day “Day of the Death”, do you know that Taiwan even has a “whole month” dedicated to just ghosts?

Ghost Month in Taiwan - not just a day, a month!

Ghost Month in Taiwan – not just a day, a month!

Ghost Month in Taiwan

The so-called Ghost Month takes place in the entirity of the July of the lunar calendar. Collating to the solar calendar system, it usually begins in August and ends in September. For example, in 2018 it has begun from August 11th (July 1st of the lunar calendar) and will last 30 days until September 9th (July 30th of the lunar calendar). Sometimes it ends on July 29th depends on how many days there are in the Lunar July that year.

Ghost door opens on July 1st of the lunar calendar.

鬼門開 Ghost door opens on July 1st of the lunar calendar. Picture book for children illustrated by Taiwanese artist 陳盈帆 Ying Fan Chen, winner of BOLOGNA ILLUSTRATORS EXHIBITION.

Taiwanese people believe that the ghost door opens on the first day of the Ghost Month, and closes on the last day. Ghosts will come to the mortal world to wander around and go back to underworld on the last day. As a result, we set altars and prepare oblations on the first day to welcome their arrival and the last day to conduct a farewell ritual for them. However, the greatest celebration is on July 15th of the lunar calendar (in 2018 it falls on August 25th of the solar one), which is known as 中元節 Zhōng yuán jié (Zhong Yuan Festival or Ghost Festival) or 七月半 qī yuè bàn.

The origin of Zhong Yuan Festival

Zhong Yuan Festival is actually a mixture of three different religions: Taoism, Buddhism and the believers of afterlife, ghosts and reincarnation.

Ghost Month in Taiwan

慶讚中元 Lanterns written of Zhong Yuan Honorifics and the names of the donors.

Taoism legend

Legend has it that July 15th is the birthday of a Taoism god 地官大帝 Dì guān dàdì. He is regarded as the God to reduce the sins of the suffering ghosts and set them free. On his birthday he will remove the sins of all the ghosts. Thus believers worship him for redeeming the souls of their family who has passed away from purgatory.

Buddhism legend

The legend of Buddhism is from the story 目蓮救母 “Ven. Maudgalyayana rescues his mother” (Maudgalyayana is Indian Sanskrit while in Mandarin it is translated as Mulian). Ven. Maudgalyayana, one of Buddha’s closest disciples, one day through meditation saw that his mother who passed away a few years ago, was suffering in the realm of the hungry ghost. His mother told him that she was incarnated into a hungry ghost because she did many bad things in her pre-existence thus had to receive punishments. Ven. Maudgalyayana felt sorry for her and tried to offer her some food. However, whenever she was going to swallow, the food turned into flames. She couldn’t eat.

Realm of the hungry ghost

The realm of the hungry ghost. Mulian met his mother, who reincarnated into hungry ghost and suffered due to the bad things she did.

Ven. Maudgalyayana was so sad and helpless that he turned to Buddha for help. Buddha told him that he should rely on the help of many spiritual cultivators to save her. In order to invite them to save his mother, he must pay his utmost respect to every monk. On the day of July 15th (of lunar calendar), Ven. Maudgalyayana, personally carried a basin of water to everyone to let all the monks wash their hands. Later, he offered a hearty meal and delicious fruit to not only Buddha but also all the monks. Everyone reverently prayed for Ven. Maudgalyayana’s mother. In unity there is strength, it works not only on his mother but also all the suffering beings in the hungry ghost realm. They are finally freed.

Redeem the souls

In a nutshell, the aim of Zhong Yuan Festival is to deliver those suffering and wandering souls from purgatory by conducting charity act for them. The more good deeds and merits the living people do, the more powerful the amnesty and the redeeming will be. Thus the souls can be released and reincarnated into another being. This is the so-called idea of 超渡 chāo dù in Taoism and Buddhism.

普 pǔ can mean wide-ranging and universal. Thus 中元普渡 Zhōng yuán pǔ dù refers to the scale-up ceremony for rescuing all the ghosts universally on Zhong Yuan Festival.

ghost month

Taoist priests conducting ceremony to redeem the souls from purgatory on Zhong Yuan Festival.

Why is it called Zhong Yuan?

ghost month

三元宮 San Yuan Temple in Chiayi County (嘉義). There people worship 天官, 地官 and 水官, corresponding to 上元, 中元 and 下元.

Han people generally call January 15th (of the lunar calendar) 上元 Shàng yuán, therefore there’s 上元節 Shàng yuán jié. Maybe you haven’t heard of it, but what if I tell you that actually it is the so-called 元宵節 Yuánxiāo jié, when there are lots of lanterns and fireworks?

Likewise, they also had July 15th as 中元 Zhōng yuán and October 15th as 下元 Xià yuán.

If we go into more details, it’s actually relevant to the religion of 三官大帝 Sān guān dàdì of Taoism and folk believers. 三官 refers to 天官 Tiān guān, 地官 Dì guān and 水官 Shuǐ guān, which correspond to 上元, 中元 and 下元. 天官 is the belief from the sky, people believe that he gives blessing. 地官 is the belief of the land, he is regarded as the God to reduce people’s sins. 水官 is about the belief of water, the God that solves disasters in the mortal world.

ghost month

Idols of 三官大帝. From left to right: 水官, 天官, 地官.

What is 好兄弟?

You may hear many people use 好兄弟 hǎo xiōngdì (good brothers) as the euphemism of 鬼 guǐ (ghosts). It’s due to fact that they don’t want to offend those souls. Besides, calling them by 好兄弟 also illustrates the sympathy and the wish to get along well with them.

Taboos of the Ghost Month

ghost month

民雄鬼屋 Minxiong ghost house in Chiayi County (嘉義). It maybe the best known haunted house in Taiwan. Nowadays, it has even become a famous tourist site.

People believe that they should avoid going to rivers, beaches or ponds during the Ghost Month. Graveyards, remote mountain areas, abandoned  buildings and places where there are not many people should also be avoided.

Furthermore, people shouldn’t blow whistles at night since it’s easy to attract the souls. Hanging bells on the windows or bedsides is regarded as taboo as well because they make a sound like the bell used by Taoist priests when summoning ghosts. Getting married, buying cars or houses are also things that people will prevent themselves from doing during the Ghost Month. Of course, nowadays people are not as superstitious any more. Many of them still travel to wherever they want without the consideration of these taboos.

To be continued…

Please read Ghost Month and Zhong Yuan Festival – Part two.

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