China’s Ghost Festival: Is It Chinese Halloween Today?
Wait, it’s August and we’re talking about ghosts already? Halloween may still be a ways off, but Aug 22 marks another spirited holiday – Zhongyuan Festival, aka China’s Ghost Festival.
But don’t go stocking up on candy just yet. There’s no dressing up in costumes or trick-or-treating around the compound. Rather, Zhongyuan Festival is a traditional Buddhist and Taoist holiday that marks a yearly event when the gates between the realm of the living and the dead are flung open, allowing for all manner of wraiths and ghosts to see what it’s like on this side of the spiritual divide.
Zhongyuan Festival is similar to Qingming – or Tomb Sweeping – Festival in the sense that locals pay respects to their departed ancestors, however, unlike Qingming Festival – where you visit a gravesite to pay your respects – this one is a round trip ticket for those living in the heavenly, or hellish, thereafter. Put another way, during Zhongyuan Festival it’s the deceased who pay a visit. Put another another way, today… the ghosts are coming here! *gulp*
This festival might also be likened to Mexico’s “Día de Muertos” or Day of the Dead, which was popularized by the heartwarming 2017 Pixar film Coco. But in Chinese culture, those who believe and honor the Zhongyuan Festival will burn incense to appease the roaming spirits, a sight (and smell) that will be common in the next few weeks. In parts of Southeast Asia, the living would also put up performances ranging from concerts to puppetry, leaving the first row of seats empty for our ghostly guests.
Zhongyuan festivities traditionally involve cooking a vegetarian meal and setting a place at the table for departed family members, in case they decide to drop by for dinner. Then, 14 days after Zhongyuan Festival, to make sure all the ghosts find their way back to their otherworldly abodes, people will float paper lanterns and set them outside their homes. The lanterns are believed to direct the ghosts back to the underworld, and when they go out, it symbolizes that they have found their way back.