Hungry Ghosts / 餓鬼

by Flora Yin-Wong

On the 15th night of the 7th month in the Chinese lunisolar calendar, the lower realm is opened so that ghosts and spirits can return to roam the living world, seeking food and entertainment. During this month (鬼月), Taoists and Buddhists must perform rituals to absolve the suffering of the deceased. Familial offerings are made to ancestral lines and tribute must also be paid to wandering ghosts (known as “hungry ghosts”), so that they do not intrude on the living and bring misfortune.

As written in the Huayan Sutra, evil deeds will cause a soul to be reborn in one of four mutually-existing lower realms: the highest degree of evil will cause a soul to be reborn as a denizen of the hell realm, forever confined in suffering, while the two lowest degrees of evil will cause one to be reborn as an animal or an Asura (demi-god); the second degree is what results in the rebirth of a hungry ghost (餓 鬼), who is partially able to roam. These spirits are driven by intense, emotional and animalistic needs, tormented by an insatiable desire for a particular object or substance.

“Hungry ghost” is not to be confused with the generic term for ghost, “鬼” (the spirit of a deceased ancestor), as all humans become regular ghosts when they die, then slowly weaken and eventually die a second time. Hungry ghosts, by contrast, are more exceptional, only occurring in violent or unhappy circumstances, such as when a whole family is killed or if someone is denied a correct ritual send-off. They have long, needle-thin necks, either as punishment so that they are unable to swallow, or because they have not been fed by their family over several generations.

“盂蘭節” (the “hungry ghost festival”) falls during a full moon, the new season, the Autumn harvest and the peak of Buddhist monastic asceticism. During this time, ritualistic ceremonies are held in the early evening or at night, as it is believed that the doors of hell open when the sun sets. Chinese opera, dramas and more modern performances known as “歌台” (Getai) are put on for non-human audiences. The first row of seats are left empty for spirits to occupy and if a human sits in their place, it might result in their possession – especially if they are prone to bad luck. These shows are held throughout the night and at high volume, as the sound and light is believed to attract and entertain ghosts.

At home, elaborate meals are prepared and served on a table with an empty seat for each of the deceased in the family, treating them as if still living. Relatives also burn incense and joss paper in the form of material items such as ‘”hell bank notes” – in large denominations, from $10,000 to $500m – clothes, gold and other goods for the visiting spirits of ancestors. This extends to paper Ferraris, Louis Vuitton handbags, iPhone 6’s and everyday necessities such as Colgate toothpaste, Ibuprofen and all kinds of dogs.

Throughout the month, some shops may close to open up the streets for ghosts. Public altars displaying incense, fresh fruit and sacrifices are placed in the roads. Vast red braziers and makeshift metal trashcans are filled with burning joss paper at every corner and incense is also burned in front of the doors of households. Priests and monks perform rituals for the benefit of ghosts, such as scattering rice into the air.

Fourteen days after the 15th night, the ghosts must be led back to their realm, and so paper boats bearing floating lotuses are set off on the water to guide them. The flame going out is a signifier that the spirit has returned.

As ghosts and all manners of other spirits will be loose during this period, many things should be avoided, especially on Ghost Day:

Do not stroll alone at night, especially children who are weaker.
Do not disturb offerings left on the roads. If one does, they should apologise aloud to ameliorate the situation. Also, after an offering has been burned, stepping on or near the burnt area should be avoided, as it is considered an “opening” to the spirit world.
Do not swim. It is said that drowned evil ghosts may try to drown people in order to find vessels in which to rebirth / 七月时候不要去海边和河边游泳会很容易溺水让陰魂找替身。
Avoid wearing red as ghosts are attracted to the colour.
As the month is inauspicious, do not move to a new house, start new a business or get married.
Avoid talking about ghosts during this month as it may offend nearby spirits. The terms “backdoor god” or “good brother” are sometimes used instead / 七月时候避免在這個月談鬼,因為這样可能比较會得罪好兄弟陰魂。
Drugs and alcohol are to be avoided as it is believed that it is easier for ghosts to possess those who are intoxicated.
Avoid taking photographs at night. Having a photo taken with a ghost is unlucky and may bring trouble / 七月时候尽量不要在晚间拍照会容易拍到陰魂然后一起带回家。
During the ghost month, it is advisable not to look back or respond when somebody calls your name from behind.
If someone is born during the ghost month, avoid celebrating at night. Celebrate during the daytime.
Do not place your shoes facing your bed, lest unwanted spirits sleep alongside you.
It is advised not to leave the main doors of premises open at night, as this will invite negative energy into the building / 七月时候到晚上不要把大門开放一整夜這样很容易把好兄弟鬼魂招進屋子里。
Do not move or place a new fish tank in the house, as water is a Yin element*.
*It is believed that the soul contains both elements of Yin and Yang. The Yin is the Kui, or demon part, and the Yang is the Shen, or spirit part. When death occurs, the Kui should return to earth, and the Shen to the grave or family shrine. If a ghost is neglected, it will become a Kui.

* * *

It was the 15th night of the 7th month. It was also my birthday. We were out for drinks in Sheung Wan and now I was alone, half walking home and half waiting in vain for a taxi as my phone was dead. I knew the walk wasn’t far, but it’s increasingly uphill further out and the nighttime humidity was weighing me down. I paused and glanced at the long, straight road going up Sai Ying Pun, an area said to be particularly haunted, as it’s one of the oldest in Hong Kong. With no music for the journey, my ears picked up the wind and the faint sound of traffic lights changing. And I was suddenly glad of it, because I was starting to feel strange. This road always creeped me out as it played host to a disused colonial psychiatric hospital with a horrific past, was deadly quiet and the rubble of a staircase at its top was a hazard. Usually, I avoided it.

I was told that those-who-should-not-be-named come to those who can see them. I tried not to over-think anything and continue walking, but I was starting to feel faint. A wave of nausea washed over me and my feet were somehow stuck. I was immobile, dizzy and felt the darkness of the evening devouring my body. Slowly losing my sight, my knees doubled over until I was sitting in the street with my head down, unable to go any further.

Tonight, as with every year, black ashes rained from the sky, the air held dark patches where fire had touched it and the residual smell of Chinese incense lingered. I’d noticed metal platters of neatly arranged oranges and bananas and dragonfruit were left on red altars lit up by pointed red bulbs, finally switched on. The visions on the inside of my eyelids were starting to disturb me. I felt very conscious of the weight of my hair and the length of my fingernails. I forced myself to take deeper breaths. When I came to, I looked over at cat corner, home to a family of cautiously hostile, though probably well-fed, strays – it was oddly empty.

Slowly, I got myself up. I wanted to get back as soon as I could. “Do not look back,” was the most pertinent piece of mum’s advice I could remember with conviction. The understanding is that ghosts follow you along your path, as they like to be seen by the living. I held tightly onto the fact that I was a rational human being who didn’t believe in superstitions, religion or horoscopes. The only problem being that the rules where I’m from don’t quite apply here and I felt the disadvantage of my own ignorance.

This is a city where giant holes are bored into skyscrapers for dragons to pass through; the soaring skyline of international corporations is dictated by feng shui consultations; and office workers take trips to the old women curled up under the bridge in Wan Chai to place curses on the names of ex-colleagues. Woven into this modern lifestyle of 4G networks and Uber Porsches are the beliefs of the 7 million people concentrated in this dense area which build up year round, culminating in this un-fortuitous phenomenon. This scares me more than anything. What could be more powerful than the aligned emotions and thoughts of so many people, while coursing inside my veins is the same blood and lineage? How could I ignore this?

I composed myself and decided to channel and focus on my Yin energy: the passive, the shaded, the cold, the ”concealed”. “I’m one of you’” – this was the only tactic I could think of in order to not get hassled. I knew it was dormant and I wanted to tap into this shadow. I kept my gaze on the Autumn moon hanging low above, drawing more of it into myself. My footsteps felt lighter. I felt somewhat mischievous and I floated on through the night.


Photograph by Flora Yin-Wong

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