Hungry Ghost Festival - Malaysia



Hungry Ghost Festival falls on the 7th moon, 15th day of the Chinese Lunar Calendar.The build up to this festive date begins roughly a week before. Chinese Opera's and Chinese Puppet Shows are put together for audiences - the living and the non-living alike, at Temples and certain Chinese Associations for a week prior to the big day. These performances are more rampant in towns and villages that are more Chinese (as in race) dominated, like in Penang, Perak, Malacca etc.

puppet theatre
On a particular visit to a small village close to the Kuala Gula Sanctuary in Perak some years back, we found a Chinese Opera performance in the grounds of a large Taoist Temple. As these performances are open to public, we innocently seated ourselves at the front row . After a short moment, villagers started to fill up the back row seats. Thinking that strange as to why no one chose the front few rows, we happily sat at our chosen spots supposedly the best seats around - only to find out that those seats were reserved for the 'visiting ghosts'!

There are many rituals and beliefs in the religion that sometimes even baffles believers but for festivals like the Hungry Ghost is typical of Chinese religions, having materialised from a convergence of strains of Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist and traditional religious teachings.

back stage theatre
The Hungry Ghost Festival originated during the Buddhist fusion with classical Chinese filial piety. However, with the introduction of Buddhism to the Chinese came a clash of beliefs. Buddhism, upon entering China, immediately faced the opposition of Confucian filial piety. According to Buddhism, one would have to leave one's home and family in favor of celibacy and begging, which would mean having to relinquish all ancestral commitments. Confucianism on ther other hand, emphasises on filial piety and honouring of ancestors. Hence, Sanskrit sutras were reinterpreted to include obedience to family and upholding of family traditions. The maintenance of such task is passed onto the male heir of the family tree.

For those with inquisitive minds may be wondering why then is the festival named Hungry Ghosts? Taoists believe that the soul contains elements of both yin and yang. The yin of the sold is called kui (demon) and the yang is named shen (spirit). At death the kui should return to the earth and the shen remains in the grave, family shrine and the other world. If the dead relative's soul is neglected by the family, it will persist as kui, eventually bringing problems to the living. The kui are therefore categorised as hungry ghosts and ancestors are categorised as shen. As the Chinese Spirit World is believed by followers to be in parallel with the living world, spirits have the same basic needs such as food, clothing and sometimes even material comforts that were once enjoyed in the living world. However, this spirit world also exists homeless and hungry souls. These souls are percieved as spiritual beggars who are driven by jealousy of the living hence are deemed to cause mischief in the realm of the living.

With this in mind, the Hungry Ghost Festival not only pays homage to ancestors but to all other neglected souls roaming in between worlds. Just as most would not invite a beggar into their homes, the same goes for spiritual beggars. Food for these homeless souls are placed outside and sometimes prayer sessions are conducted. The feast usually consist of a variety of meat and delicacies. Some believers even lay out cigarrettes, beer etc for them.