According to traditional Chinese belief, the seventh month in the lunar calendar is when restless spirits roam the earth. King Yama opens the gates of hell on the first day and it’s denizens then roam around looking for peculiar entertainment, and many fearful Chinese try to avoid swimming or being alone at night lest an enemy ghost comes after them. The ghosts attack their enemies, and they might be angry or malicious in general. Ghost Month (鬼月) has been the scariest month of the year for thousands of years.
In addition, it is thought that the ghosts of Chinese ancestors are let out of heaven as well on the first day. So the Chinese people make efforts to appease these transient ghosts, while ‘feeding’ their own ancestors, on the first day, the last day and particularly on the 15th day, which is the Yu Lan or Hungry Ghost Festival. The Taoist name for the Hungry Ghost Festival is the Zhongyuan Festival (中元节), and Buddhists call it the Yulanpen Festival. In parts of southern China the rituals are often on the 14th day. The people there are said to have begun celebrating the festival a day earlier during a time of long warfare to avoid being attacked by enemies during the inauspicious day.
On the first day of the month, people burn make-believe paper money outside their homes or businesses, along the sides of roads, or in fields. Sometimes, they go to temples for this task. On a trip to China during this time, you’ll probably see people occupied with this activity or find the ghost money on the ground with ashes and remains. People also light incense and may make sacrifices of food to worship the hungry, unhappy ghosts. They put up red painted paper lanterns everywhere including business and residential areas. There are street ceremonies, market ceremonies, and temple ceremonies.
The last day of this month is marked with a special festival too. This is the day that the gates of hell are closed up again. People celebrate and observe this day in various ways. Many burn more joss paper money and clothing so that the ghosts can use these things in their hell society. In order to drive the ghosts away, Taoist monks chant to make them leave. The ghosts are thought to hate the sound, and therefore scream and wail.
Many families float river lanterns on little boats in the evening. People make colorful lanterns out of wood and paper, and families write their ancestors’ name on the lanterns. The ghosts are believed to follow the floating river lanterns away. The pictures and tablets of ancestors may be put away back on the shelves or hung back on the walls where they were before.
The most significant day of the month, however is the 15th, known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, Zhongyuan Jie (中元節), Gui Jie (鬼節) or Yulan Festival (traditional Chinese: 盂蘭盆節; simplified Chinese: 盂兰盆节; pinyin: Yúlánpénjié) a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival. On the fifteenth day the realms of Heaven and Hell and the realm of the living are open and both Taoists and Buddhists perform rituals to transmute and absolve the sufferings of the deceased. Intrinsic to the Ghost Month is veneration of the dead, 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, and sometimes papier-mâché forms of material items for the visiting spirits of the ancestors. Elaborate meals (often vegetarian meals) would be served with empty seats for each of the deceased in the family treating the deceased as if they are still living.
Around 1.2 million people originating from Chiu Chow (Chaozhou) in China’s Guangdong province live in Hong Kong. During the Hungry Ghost Festival, they organise their own Yu Lan Ghost Festival, which runs for the entire seventh lunar month. The festival has been held for over 100 years and is officially listed as part of China’s intangible cultural heritage.