Why the Hungry Ghost Festival is the Chinese Halloween


The seventh month on the Chinese lunar calendar is known as the Ghost Month. That is when the gates of hell open, and restless spirits are free to roam the earth for food and entertainment. To appease the ghosts and ward off bad luck, people offer prayers and food, and burn paper items. Not surprisingly, this month is a bad time for travel, weddings, or starting a new business. 

In the middle of the Ghost Month—this year on September 5—the Hungry Ghost Festival, or Zhōngyuán Jié (中元节) is held. As this is the most important day of the month, people burn incense, fake money, and material items made of paper, such as clothes, cars, and even houses for ghosts and ancestors to use in the afterlife. 


They also leave food out to satisfy the the hungry ghosts’ appetite and hold live performances, like Chinese opera, to entertain them. The front row seats are always empty—they are reserved for the ghosts. Two weeks after the festival, people float water lanterns to direct the spirits back to the underworld.

The origins of the festival are unclear. According to one story, a student of the Buddha called Mulian tried to save his mother from the depths of the underworld. The Buddha told him to give food offerings to the ghosts to keep them from stealing his mother’s food. In another version of the story, Mulian and the other students prayed and meditated until his mother was released on the 15th day of the Ghost Month.