Zhong Yuan: Ghost Month

This year’s Ghost Month started yesterday. Are you now thinking of Dias de Muertos? You’ve got the right idea. This is the Chinese version.  There are three traditional festivals of the dead on the Chinese annual calendar, known in Taoist terms, as 上元 Shang Yuan, 中元 Zhong Yuan and 下元 Xia Yuan. Shang Yuan, or Qing Ming, the Chinese Remembrance Day, takes place in the 4th lunar month (see my other article). Zhong Yuan, popularly known as 鬼节 (“Gui Jie”) or 鬼月 (“Gui Yue”) Ghost Month, takes place on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month.

Chinese culture is a unique space where Buddhist and Taoist traditions stand side by side with Confucian principles. The Buddhist version of this festival is named after the Ullambana sutra, with which the Buddha instructed his disciple Maudgalyāyana to free his mother, who had been reborn into a lower realm.

Whereas the Buddhist tradition emphasizes filial piety, the Taoist tradition is based on sending souls on their way. In Taoist belief, Zhong Yuan is the birthday of the governor of the underworld, who gives all his subordinates a day off. As no one guards the gates on this day, the souls of the dead return to their loved ones in the world of the living. It is this version of the festival, that has proven popular with the populace, throughout Chinese history.

Customs vary between regions, and there are multiple legends, but their main focus is on looking after the souls of dead. In the old days, businesses would be closed on the start of the Gui Yue, tables with burning incense, fruits and meats, would be set up on streets and in homes. Around these arrangements, Taoist monks sang to the souls of the dead, and stories from Buddhist teachings were performed.

It is believed that the souls of dead are attracted to water, lanterns in the shape of lotus flowers would be made out of coloured paper, and set to float downstream, to guide the dead along their return to the underworld. Paper money would also be burnt for the dead to use along the way.

Ghost Month is not only celebrated in China, but in different guises throughout Asia, in countries like Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Unfortunately, due to being considered an “unhealthy superstition” during the Cultural Revolution, Gui Yue festivities came to an abrupt halt during the late 1960s, and its customs faded from popular memory. In recent years, the state has made considerable effort to revive and preserve Chinese heritage, and the rituals of Gui Yue, has certainly adapted to the times.

Whilst the traditional banquets for the dead are still set up, and traditional  parades still take place, the Taoist songs and Buddhist performances have evolved into costume parties.Taoist inspired online RPGs launch on this day, while the demons of this game, “Heroes of the Sacred Flame”, challenges you to fight on Zhong Yuan.The artistically inclined post their gorgeous Gui Yue inspired artwork on the internet, whilst the environmentally aware, seek the services of websites offering the burning of virtual paper money. Even though Britain is a long way for the souls of my maternal grandparents, and Cantonese grandma to travel, I’ll be sending off lotus lanterns to light their way down the Regent’s Canal.

At ReadCon this year, I was delighted that the panel after my Shaw Sisters talk, was by Jade Leamcharaskul, games music composer and founder of JDWasabi Studios, currently in the process of creating Hungry Whispers, a visual novel inspired by Gui Yue.

Here are their details:












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