origins of the festival of the middle season (Zhong yuan jie, 7th month festival)
Across Asia during the lunar 7th month is celebrated this important festival that is at once an acknowledgement of the supernatural and at once a habit ingrained in the culture of chinese filial piety. The Festival of the Middle Season (Zhong Yuan Jie), commonly known as the Chinese Ghost Festival, and perhaps wrongly translated as “Hungry Ghosts Festivals” starts on the 7th Aug this year. The actual day of the festival is on the 15th of the lunar 7th Month (21 Aug).
The Chinese ghost festival, the Chinese term for it is “Zhong Yuan Jie”（中元节）, translated in English it means the Festival of the Middle Season.
Originated from China and a Chinese festival, the 15th Day of Luanr 7 Month is known as the Zhong Yuan Jie (Festival of the Midde Season). It is a day for Chinese to perform worship to their ancestors and perform salvation rites for the deceased. This day is known as the feast day of Di Guan Da Di (The Earth Official) (中元地官大帝下降考校日). He is one of the trio deities, together with “Tian Guan Da Di” (天官大帝Heaven Official – Feast day on the 15th of the 1st lunar month; coincide with the last day of Chinese New Year) and “Shui Guan Da Di” (水官大帝Water Official – feast day on the 15th of the 10th lunar month), they are the “San Guan Da Di” (三官大帝Three Divine Officials) worshipped by Taoists since the Han Dynasty. Therefore the celebration and various rituals probably began since the ancient Han dynasty era. According to historical research, there are strong connections between the festivals to many Taoist beliefs.
On this Day, Taoist Priests would be engaged to perform the Salvation rituals (Chao Du 超度) for souls to ascend to the Eastern Palace of Eternal Bliss 东方常乐界 (Heavenly Realm). It is a heavenly paradise recorded in Taoist scriptures. The Earth Official pardon sins and thus it is a time to seek repentance and forgiveness from the Divinities for both mankind and the spirits. This is why religious rites and rituals are conducted.
The festival grew from just a day of celebration to a month filled with religious activities. In our research, we found Taoist scriptures dated back between the Han and Tang Dynasty that contained records on the above mentioned and explained various practices performed even till today in modern times. On the other hand, the Buddhist tradition also has a similar celebration during this period of the month; called the Ullambana Festival based a Buddhist scripture in the Western Jin Dynasty. In the Ullambana Sutra, we find an account of how the Buddha taught Mahāmaudgalyāyana help his mother who was suffering in the lower realm of the Hungry Ghosts.
The Buddha instructed Mahāmaudgalyāyana to make offerings of Pravarana food to the virtuous assembly of the Sangha on the last day of the rainy-season (summer) retreat (fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar). The merit gained from the dana liberated Mahāmaudgalyāyana's mother from hell. Today, the exact same ritual that the Buddha asked for Mahāmaudgalyāyana to do is well practiced in many parts of Asia.
Buddhism has similar festival on this day/period, but then again, Buddhism being originated from India followed a different calendar system and thus it might be possible that Chinese Buddhism has incorporated the Taoist concept salvation during the 7th month.
Note that there are no records in both Taoist/Buddhist scriptures that mentioned the opening of the gate of Hades. It might be a saying from the common folks as there are many prayers and rituals conducted during this period of time
For the many common folks, making offerings along road sides also means appeasing the wandering spirits, so as to ease their sufferings and maintain a ‘harmony’ between the realm of the Yang (Living) and the Yin (Spirits).
The dead would return to visit their living relatives during the 7th month of the Chinese Lunar year and thus the living people would prepare sumptuous meals for the ghosts.
During this festival, the Chinese offer prayers to the deceased relatives, burn paper money, paper houses, paper transportation, paper accessories and joss sticks massively to their ancestors as well as wandering spirits in front of their homes.
Giving the ghost such necessities would enable them to live comfortably when they go back their own world. In Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, it is a common sight to see entertaining Chinese Opera shows performed on outdoor stages in many neighborhoods. These events are always held at night. Such entertainment would please those wandering ghost that comes to earth once a year.
It is in line with Chinese culture of ancestor worship – Confucius teachings of respect and worship the subject as though they are rightfully present.
This article is contributed by the SPI. More about them in this months' issue.
In Chinese tradition, the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is called Zhong Yuan Festival 中元節 and the whole of seventh month is also commonly known as the Ghost Month, in which ghosts and wandering spirits, including those of the deceased ancestors, revisit a cosmopolitan world from the lower realm.
Intrinsic to the Ghost Month is ancestor worship, where traditionally the filial piety of descendants extends to their ancestors even after their deaths. Activities during the month would include preparing ritualistic food offerings, burning incense and joss paper, a papier-mache form of material items such as clothes, gold and other paper effigies for the visiting spirits of the ancestors. Elaborate meals would be served with empty seats for each of the deceased in the family treating the deceased as if they are still living. Ancestor worship is what distinguishes Qing Ming Festival from Ghost Month because the latter includes paying respects to all deceased regardless known or unknown.
Common households will normally prepare the following list of offerings and perform simple prayers near their household. It can be at the void deck at HDBs, or along the roadside near their house or office.
Individual may perform simple rite by themselves, while prayers at a bigger scale may be led by Taoist priests.
Offerings may include (Some will prepare more):
a) Incenses – a form of respect and Chinese believes that incense smoke is a mode of communication to the spiritual realm
b) Candles - brightness to illuminate darkness
c) Joss paper – Chinese believes in life after death. In the spiritual stage, souls experience similar experiences just like the living. Including their feelings, desire and thus joss paper is an offering to appease spirits. ‘Gold joss paper’ (gold in colour) is for deities as a mark of reverence and respect, in this case its not to appease or satisfy their needs as deities are sacred; while ‘Silver joss paper’ is for spirits and deities from the netherworld. The difference is in their hierarchy and position in the spiritual realm.
Other paper offering includes models of daily items. This custom developed from the Chinese burying real artifacts in tombs. With the invention of paper, Chinese uses paper to create paper offerings for their prayers. The act of burning paper offerings, depending on burning for deities, ancestors or wandering spirits, reflects the reverence, filial piety and compassion values within.
Popular myth saying that burning paper offerings was invented by Cai Lun, the person who invented paper in the Han dynasty is false. The myth says that he pretended to be dead and asked his wife to burn paper offerings in order to ‘resurrect’ him. As a result, believe believed in his trick and the sales of paper went up. This is not true as according to historical research, Cai Lun was a eunuch and thus do not have a wife and family.
d) Fruits – form of respect and symbolizes good returns
e) Flowers – form of respect and adoration
f) Tea and wine – ancient Chinese rite to offer tea/wine in ceremonies
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