As a Chinese teacher in Wisconsin (USA), everything is new to me. The first festival I observed here was Halloween, when people carried out activities like trick or treating, attending costume parties, carving a pumpkin and putting a candle in it, hanging scary ghost puppets on trees, etc. Generally speaking, it was a terrifying festival to me.
Halloween can’t help but remind me of a traditional Chinese festival—occurring on the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar. This day is called Chinese Ghost Day (中元节 zhōng yuán jié). What does it mean? In Chinese culture, the whole world (and everything in it) is composed of two opposite sides, Yin (阴) and Yang (阳). The living people reside in the Yang world, while dead people occupy the Yin world. Chinese Ghost Day is a frightening day, especially for the children who don’t understand the real meaning of it.
Image by Thetruthaboutfgs [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
It is said that whenever the Chinese Ghost Day begins, the gate of the Yin world opens and the dead ancestors of every family are let out to check if their descendants work hard and abide by public morals to be good. It is also a time that living descendants communicate with their ancestors psychically (such as through telepathy). A variety of rituals or activities are held to observe the day.
The first thing the Chinese do on the fifteenth is to float lanterns on rivers. In areas without rivers, people mix sawdust and diesel and place small piles of the mixture in a line along the street outside their houses and light them instead of floating lanterns on rivers. The lanterns and burning sawdust piles are for guiding the dead to find their homes in the dark.
Second, the Chinese prepare delicious food and serve it on a table with their ancestor’s portrait hanging on the wall above the table. Wine, cigarettes, fruit and cake are also offered on a table in a more private room of the house. And, on the table they must light smoking joss sticks, which are call xiāng. Chinese people believe the joss stick smoke rises into the sky to pass on information to the souls of their dead relatives. In the evening, many people go to a certain intersection in their town to burn yellow paper, which is symbolic of money that is given to their dead ancestors. As a side note, when the People’s Republic of China was founded, the government forbade burning yellow paper money and joss sticks because it thought they were just superstitious and foolish activities.
Some people also buy colorful printed Bank of Hell banknotes, which are called 冥币 (míngbì). This is considered a much more decent way to show the Chinese’s respect and memorials for their dead ancestors. Some people go to the cemetery to do this and clean their ancestors’ graves with brooms.
It is believed that before the dead ancestors return to the Yin world, they enjoy a big feast that has been prepared by their descendants. If satisfied, the ghosts go back to where they came from and the gate of the Yin world closes after Chinese Ghost Day. If the ghosts are not treated with food, they will not go back and will instead haunt the Yang world of the living until the gate reopens the next year.
Some people take this seriously and are very nervous that day. They are afraid to go out at night or stay in the dark.
Many years ago when I was a teenager, I was riding a bike home on a dark street. When I came to an intersection, a gust of cold wind suddenly blew at me and a fire rose out of nowhere. Startled, I was stumbled off the bike. Dumbfounded for quite a while, I finally realized that it was a pile of burned yellow paper that had not burned out completely. When the wind blew suddenly, the pile reignited.
I don’t remember how I made it the rest of the way home, but I know I was practically scared to death! I should have been more mentally prepared for something like that on the night of the fifteenth of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar.
Chinese Ghost Day is a time when the Chinese mourn and show respect to their ancestors. People talk about their dead parents or grandparents on this special day. It’s also a spooky day, especially for kids and women – and for some men, apparently.