There are many misconceptions and taboos surrounding the lunar 7th month and more often than not, the lunar 7th month has often been portrayed by the media (movies, dramas, news and etc.) to be a very scary month. Now, I must say this, there is no such thing as the, “hungry ghost festival”. If you do a literal translation of “hungry ghost festival” from English to Mandarin, it is 饿鬼节, and it makes no sense to have a festival whereby we celebrate “hungry ghosts”. Furthermore, many people mistakenly believe that the entire seventh lunar month is the Zhongyuan Festival 中元节, which is incorrect. The Zhongyuan Festival 中元节 specifically refers to the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, just as we wouldn’t say the entire eighth lunar month is the Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋节.
However, yes, hungry ghosts do exist but not the celebration of it. Thus, I would like to take this opportunity to clarify and share some thoughts from a Taoist perspective.
The following is a literal translation from what a Taoist Priest has shared in Mandarin and I have taken the liberty to share it here:
The 15th day of the seventh lunar month is known as the Zhongyuan Festival 中元节 in Taoism. It marks the birth of the Earth Official Deity 地官大帝, one of the Three Officials 三官大帝 in Taoist belief. In Taoism, it is believed that the Heavenly Official 天官大帝 bestows blessings, the Earth Official 地官大帝 forgives sins, and the Water Official 水官大帝resolves difficulties. Therefore, Taoist priests usually offer vegetarian meals on this day to pray for forgiveness for departed souls. In Chinese folk tradition, there is also the custom of ancestral worship and seeking forgiveness from the Earth Official 地官大帝 for the sins of ancestors. It is a day to honour all departed spirits.
The custom of worshipping the Three Officials 三官大帝 dates back to ancient China when the emperor performed rituals to worship the heavens, the earth, and the waters. However, over time, this tradition has taken on a more eerie and terrifying tone, perhaps influenced by the popularity of horror movies in the 1970s and 1980s. Thus, tracing the origins, you might find significant differences between the ancient and contemporary observances of the Zhongyuan Festival 中元节.
What is the belief in the Three Officials 三官大帝 about?
The birthdays of the Three Officials 三官大帝 in Taoism are the 15th day of the first lunar month (Shangyuan Festival 上元节), the 15th day of the seventh lunar month (Zhongyuan Festival 中元节), and the 15th day of the tenth lunar month (Xiayuan Festival 下元节). Their status is highly revered in the hierarchy of Taoist deities because they are believed to oversee the three realms of heaven, earth, and water, maintaining balance and dispensing rewards and punishments.
The Zhongyuan Festival 中元节 also has its roots in ancient worship of the heavens, earth, and waters, which were considered essential elements for sustenance.
Hence, the Three Officials 三官大帝 were seen as the deities governing human fortune and misfortune.
As early as the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 CE), there existed the “Three Officials Handbooks 三官手书” for confession and repentance in the Zhengyi Dao of Taoism. The “Records of the Three Kingdoms: Biography of Zhang Lu” 三国志·张鲁传 explicitly states: “Write the names of the sick, express the intention of confessing sins, make three copies, send one to the heavens, place one on a mountain, bury one in the ground, and sink one in water; these are called ‘Three Officials Handbooks’.” “书写病人姓名，说服罪之意，作三通，其一上于天，著山上，其一埋于地；其一沉于水，谓之三官手书。”
This practice involved writing three confession letters, asking for forgiveness from the heavens, and hiding them on a mountain, burying them in the ground, and sinking them in water. These documents, known as “Three Officials Handbooks,” 三官手书 were offerings to the Three Official Deities 三官大帝.
During the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912), there was a saying that “Zhongyuan 中元 sweeping is even better than Qingming 清明.” Families made various types of offerings to their ancestors during this time, while Taoist temples held rituals to rescue spirits and light lanterns to guide them.
In essence, during the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912), the focus was on ancestor worship and salvation of souls. However, Chinese folk culture evolves over time, leading to complexity and changes.
Influenced by horror movies and drama shows, many individuals are unfamiliar with the Zhongyuan festival 中元节 and might even find it frightening. This fear of the “ghost month” in the seventh lunar month has led to a variety of “tips for good luck and avoiding misfortune” and related merchandise. However, whether these are based on religious texts or rooted in culture requires a wise interpretation.
In reality, the Zhongyuan Festival 中元节 is more about Chinese people honouring their ancestors and remembering them. It’s a day for chanting scriptures, offering food, and praying to the Earth Official 地官大帝for forgiveness and transcendence of sins. In Buddhism, the Ullambana Festival 盂兰盆节 is also significant for practicing filial piety. Buddhists make offerings to the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) and dedicate the merits to the well-being and longevity of their parents and ancestors. It’s a ceremony to help the departed find their way to a better afterlife.
Regardless, it’s essential not to forget the spiritual significance behind these festivals. For instance, the Zhongyuan Festival 中元节 is a day to honour the divine and ancestors, and we should approach it with reverence, not fear.
The seventh lunar month also features the beautiful story of the Cowherd and Weaver Girl 牛郎织女, so July isn’t necessarily ominous; it can even be considered a romantic month.
How Should One Make Offering During the Lunar 7th Month?
- Be considerate towards our environment and neighbours when burning offerings.
- Burn smaller amounts of joss paper to reduce smoke and ashes.
- Please clear up your offerings after prayers.
- Consider joining communal prayers in nearby temples.
- Burn responsibly, please don’t toss or scatter the joss paper.