I once worked on a screenplay where I was required to do some research on Chinese superstitions and beliefs. During this time, I learned a lot about the traditional manner in which this culture treated its dead loved ones. For most of us in the West, memories of our ancestors extend back only three or four generations. In China however, ancestral memory can be much longer– in some cases going back seven hundred years or more, being closely related to filial piety philosophies. This is a result of the traditions in ancestor worship which have been practiced for thousands of years, although largely stamped out and forgotten under the Communist regime and Cultural Revolution. It is, however, still kept alive in places that were able to evade the Red party’s control, such as Hong Kong and smaller villages where superstitions died hard and were able to exist more quietly. Traditions also still remain alive in countries that have large Chinese colonial populations, such as in Singapore and Malaysia.
The custom of ancestor veneration has deep roots in all of China’s dominant religious philosophies– Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, and includes many rituals that must be adhered to for those who still believe. The most important element in Chinese ancestor worship is the notion that the dead still have influence on the living. Those who are careful to perform the right rituals in regard to their ancestors can be confident that the souls on the other side will see to the good fortune and prosperity of their dutiful descendants. When a loved one passes on, they are interred according to the best feng shui (geomancy), which determines the direction and location that are the most desirable and auspicious for a permanent resting place. A stone tablet is made, engraved with the name of the deceased, and kept at the family’s home on an altar dedicated to them. It’s believed that the spirit of the dead remains in the tablet and that this item should stay in the home for forty-nine days while the soul undergoes bardo, or the intermediate period in which it is suspended between lives, receiving judgment. During and after this period, the descendants provide offerings to the ancestor in the form of food, such as rice, sweet cakes, and oranges, or even things like cigarettes, which the spirit may have enjoyed in life.
Each April, families celebrate the Qingming Festival (or “Pure Brightness Festival”), in which the dead are honored when their descendants clean and tend their graves and make offerings to them. The living also burn items such as joss sticks and paper effigies which represent different types of material possessions that are useful in the afterlife. “Hell money” (or mock money, also known as “ghost money”) is most commonly used, but other effigies such as cars, houses, clothing, and even big screen tvs can be offered. The burning process sends these things to the ancestors in spirit form so they can be used on the other side. If at the grave, fresh soil is placed on top before the sun comes up, the spirit will receive a tiled roof on their ghostly home. If the sun rises before soil is replaced, they will have only a thatched roof. In some cases, a loved one can even be “married” after death. Marriages can be brokered by a priest who locates a suitable mate using horoscopes. The ceremony itself is then carried out using photographs of the deceased, or even dolls to represent them.
In the summer, during the seventh month of the lunar calendar year (usually July), Hungry Ghost Month begins and includes a month-long festival. Like the Qingming Festival, it too involves making offerings and burning effigies, but not precisely for celebrating and honoring the dead, so much as preventing them from doing any harm to the living. During this time, the gates of hell are open, allowing transient ghosts to roam free and to bring pain and misfortune to those who are disrespectful or unmindful of the spiritual rules which must be obeyed. These souls are referred to as hungry ghosts because they no longer have anyone left to care for them, and in some cases, never did. Unlike venerated ancestors, the only times they receive food, money, and other offerings is during Hungry Ghost month, rendering them starving, homeless, and needy– and very angry.
Although it’s important to observe laws regarding the dead all year long, it’s especially dangerous to violate them or offend the spirits during Hungry Ghost month. Harm comes to those who damage or take offerings. Being out late at night, swimming, and walking near walls all put the living in peril. Ghosts dwell in darkness and in the trees and forests. Attracted to water, they can drown anyone who comes too close. Even businesses aren’t immune to the effects of hungry ghosts. If they don’t appease the spirits, their fortune can take a turn for the worse and it’s never a good idea to sign a contract during Hungry Ghost Month for fear of things going desperately wrong. As the end of the month approaches, it culminates in a festival in which public performances are made and the front row of seats are kept open and available for the ghosts themselves…
Learning about the traditions and beliefs of other cultures is entertaining but also educational. Although we’re free from most superstitions in the West, honoring and respecting our loved ones and ancestors can not only keep their memory alive, but provide us with insight into our own lives as well as to who we are in the present. It’s my intention to contribute to this process through Generations Of Stories.
For more information on Chinese ancestor worship, the article in National Geographic entitled, Restless Spirits, by Peter Hessler (Jan. 2010), provides a good example of a village during Qingming Festival, and novels Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo and Peony in Love, by Lisa See offer wonderful fictional renderings of the beliefs and traditions. A ceremony during Hungry Ghost Festival can be viewed here: