Hungry Ghost Month


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.

Red Chinese lotus lanterns floating in darkness

Mike [CC BY 2.0 ]

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.

Japanese hungry ghost, detail of a scroll painting c1800.

Japanese hungry ghost, detail of a scroll painting c1800




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Autumn Commences lì qiū 立秋 Aug 8

torii in shade of treesThe traditional East Asian calendars divide a year into 24 solar terms (節氣). Lìqiū (Chinese and Japanese: 立秋; Korean: 입추(S)/립추(N); Vietnamese: Lập thu; literally: “start of autumn”) is the 13th solar term. It begins when the Sun reaches the celestial longitude of 135° and ends when it reaches the longitude of 150°. The term more often refers in particular to the day when the Sun is exactly at the celestial longitude of 135°. In the western Gregorian calendar, it usually begins around August 7 and ends around August 23. Liqiu signifies the beginning of autumn in East Asian cultures.

Cicada on leafThere are pentad divisions for Autumn Commences. The first is “Comes the cool wind”. It is at Autumn Commences that northern winds start to prevail in many parts of China, bringing coolness and of setting the heat. The second pentad is “White dew falls”. During this period of time, it is still very hot in daytime but not at night. The difference in temperature between the day and the now cooler nights means dew will form on the surface of grass and plants in the morning. The third pentad is “Cicadas are crying.” With sufficient food and cooling evenings, cicadas are very nosy around this time. Some say they are calling that cooler weather is coming. I find that the mornings they are singing turn out to be quite hot. When I was very young, my grandfather told me they were crying for more heat and we would get a hot day because nature always gave them what they asked. For years I called them “More Heats”.

It will be a while yet before true autumn reigns either where I live or in most parts of China.  August is know for days equally as hot as July. It will be at least three months before a walk in the woods will be invigorating. Still, we have begun to have a few evenings when the cats felt comfortable  enough to cool up for a cuddle and spend the night, especially Mi Sun, who has a triple coat.

Deny if you will, global warming is real whatever the cause and contributing factors and is still getting worse. Changing solar terms are not the change we need. If it is cooler I can take out cuddly cat beds and put on a sweater but i can’t strip off and run my errands naked if it goes in the opposite direction.  Just running a de-humidifier a few years back ran my electric bill up as high as my winter heat bill.

In China Autummn Commences of course has food customs. In Shandong province, people make dumplings for Autumn Commences and call it “Eating the Autumn”. On the day of Start of Autumn, senior members of the family will stand in the middle of the hall, and pray for good harvest, then the family will have dumplings. Starting from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) people in Yiwu, Zhejiang province, have eaten red beans on Start of Autumn day. They take seven to 14 little beans, swallowing them with well water. When swallowing the beans, one must face west, it is said, to prevent dysentery during the autumn.

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), people would put gourds outside for a day before the Start of Autumn, and eat them on Start of Autumn day to drive off the summer heat. Today people in Tianjing still keep this custom, believing that eating melons such as towel gourd, white gourd and bitter gourd can prevent diarrhea in autumn and the coming winter and spring.

As for me, I have not been eating much, drinking a lot of water and sticking to fruit, especially mangoes and bananas to keep my potassium up. I am really happy to see Autumn Commences arrive, knowing that, in spite of the heat now, relief is on it’s way.



dried leaves against step
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History and Mystery – Commissario Brunetti

Overflowing canal and flooded bridge in Venice Italy

TheWiz83 at Italian Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

The Commissario Brunetti novels of Donna Leon take place in Venice Italy. Although Leon now resides in a small village in Switzerland and also has a home in Zurich, she lived there for over 30 years, She was a lecturer in English literature for the University of Maryland University College – Europe (UMUC-Europe) in Italy and then worked as a professor from 1981 to 1999 at the American military base of Vicenza, Italy. Eventually, she stopped teaching and concentrated on writing and other cultural activities in the field of music. All this knowlege and experience is reflected in the backgrounsd and detail which make her books so engaging. Venice itself is as much of a main character as the Commissario.

Her Commissario Brunetti novels are written in English, and have been translated into many foreign languages, but–at Leon’s request–not into Italian. One reason for this may be the X-ray vision Leon turns on the culture and society  of Italy and Venice. The crimes in the novels are often rooted in headline topics like human trafficing, art theft, illegal immigration and political corruption. Brunetti reports to the vain and ambitioous, Vice-Questore Patta, while Sergente (later Ispettore) Vianello and the all-knowing and well-connected Signorina Elettra, Patta’s secretary, assist Brunetti’ The ninth Brunetti novel, Friends in High Places, won the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger in 2000. The series is very popular in Germany, enough so German television produced  22 Commissario Brunetti episodes for broadcast

The series starts off running withDeath at La Fenice (1992) in which a difficult maestro is poisoned during a performance of La Traviata at the world renowned opera house. The mystery is so engrossing don’t even otice you have learned an amazing amount about opera, the opera house, the music world and of course Venice in the process. School learning was never so much fun. In A Venetian Reckoning (1995) aka Death and Judgment a  truck crashes on one of the treacherous mountain roads in the Italian Dolomites, spilling and killing it’s cargo, Eastern European women being smuggled for the sex trade.  One of my favorites is Cover of book Acqua Alta showing prows of gondolas in the mistAcqua Alta (1996) aka Death in High Water which takes place during a winter storm which brings on the famous acqua alta – the flooding that periodically innundates Venice. The mystery is triggered by skulldugery in the art world and is fascinating.

There are 28 books in the series the last being published just this year.While they definitely work as stand alone novels there is a progression of events like Vianello getting promoted and characters returning which lends me to recommend reading them in order. While the crimes are individual the relationships and backstory do build over time.

Finally, Venetian life and culture are brought to us in the daily lives of Brunetti, his family and colleagues. A big part of this is eating and the meals, whether at home or in trattorie are described in loving detail. I am a big fan of Italian food but most of what I know how to make is southern Italian and so, when in 2010 Donna Leon collaborated with her friend Roberta Pianaro to create A Taste of Venice: At Table with Brunetti, also issued as Brunetti’s Cookbook, I knew I had to get a copy. It not only is a beautiful book, but I love the recipes. There are a lot of vegetarian and seafood offerings, as well as meat and pasta dishes. A very few of the ingredients may be almost unattainable for some people (the cuttlefish eggs come to mind) but most are quite common and the recipes are very straightforward, years of cooking school are not needed. These recipes are interspersed with excerpts describing dining in the books and anecdotes about cooking by co-author Roberta Pianaro and really it is an enjoyable read as well as a great cookbook.

Venic sunset behind the basilica & gondola on the water in foreground

Cocai [CC BY-SA 4.0 ]

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Leo July 23rd 2:51 AM

Lion image for Leo sign from medieval astrology manuscriptLeo’s symbol is Leo.svg (Unicode ♌). It is one of the constellations of the zodiac, lying between Cancer the crab to the west and Virgo the maiden to the east. The name is Latin for lion, and to the ancient Greeks represented the Nemean Lion killed by the mythical Greek hero Heracles (meaning ‘Glory of Hera). He is was known to the ancient Romans and most moderns as Hercules. Hercules killed the lion as one of his famous twelve labors. One of the 48 constellations described by the 2nd-century astronomer Ptolemy, Leo remains one of the 88 modern constellations today, and one of the most easily recognizable due to its many bright stars and a distinctive shape that is reminiscent of the crouching lion it depicts. The lion’s mane and shoulders also form an asterism known as “The Sickle,” which to modern observers may resemble a backwards “question mark.” Leo is the fifth astrological sign of the zodiac. It corresponds to the constellation Leo and comes after Cancer and before Virgo. The traditional Western zodiac associates Leo with the period between July 23 and August 22,] and the sign spans the 120th to 150th degree of celestial longitude.

16 century woodcut of lion on paperLeo is associated with fire, and its modality is fixed. Under the tropical zodiac, the Sun transits this area on average between July 23 and August 22 each year, and under the sidereal zodiac, the Sun currently transits this area from approximately August 16 to September 15. The constellation Leo is associated with the mythological Nemean lion. Its opposite sign is Aquarius.

Leo was one of the earliest recognized constellations, with archaeological evidence that the Mesopotamians had a similar constellation as early as 4000 BCE. The Persians called Leo Ser or Shir; the Turks, Artan; the Syrians, Aryo; the Jews, Arye; the Indians, Simha, all meaning “lion”.

Some mythologists believe that in Sumeria, Leo represented the monster Humbaba, who was killed by Gilgamesh. In Babylonian astronomy, the constellation was called UR.GU.LA, the “Great Lion”; the bright star Regulus was known as “the star that stands at the Lion’s breast.” Regulus also had distinctly regal associations, as it was known as the King Star.

In Greek mythology, Leo was identified as the Nemean Lion which was killed by Heracles (Hercules to the Romans) during the first of his twelve labours. The Nemean Lion would take women as hostages to its lair in a cave, luring warriors from nearby towns to save the damsel in distress, to their misfortune. The Lion was impervious to any weaponry; thus, the warriors’ clubs, swords, and spears were rendered useless against it. Realizing that he must defeat the Lion with his bare hands, Hercules slipped into the Lion’s cave and engaged it at close quarters.[12] When the Lion pounced, Hercules caught it in midair, one hand grasping the Lion’s forelegs and the other its hind legs, and bent it backwards, breaking its back and freeing the trapped maidens. Zeus commemorated this labor by placing the Lion in the sky.

The Roman poet Ovid called it Herculeus Leo and Violentus Leo. Bacchi Sidus (star of Bacchus) was another of its titles, the god Bacchus always being identified with this animal. However, Manilius called it Jovis et Junonis Sidus (Star of Jupiter and Juno).

Greek stamp depicting a mosaical image of the encounter between Hercules and Leo,the Nemean Lion.

Leo as Archetype

A number of mythological beings are associated with Leo. Except for the Sphinx, all were considered the Sun-God. In fact, the Egyptian sun-god RĀ’s “favorite incarnation” was the Sphinx. “The Sphinx is denoted at once the unity, and the method of development, under individuation, of the soul of universal humanity.” The Sphinx became a “symbol of a higher nature arising from the lower, or of the Spirit triumphant over matter.”

Both the Greek sun god Helios and the Roman sun god Sol are associated with Leo. Their symbolic act was to ride the sun-chariot across the sky each day and into the underworld at night. A picture of Helios is of a “strong and beautiful youth with gleaming eyes, and a crown of flaming rays. Just as the sun’s rays penetrate everywhere, so Helios saw everything, and was invoked as a witness of.”

One version of this myth has Apollo (also considered the sun god), rather than Helios, “as rider, and lions, instead of horses, recalling the link between Leo and the sun.” Beyond this, Apollo is most known for his “endless series of lovers, upon whom he fathered many sons.” Although Apollo “played a prominent role in a host of famous tales,” he assisted a “great number of mortals in response to the involvement of other deities.” As we shall see, the archetype of Leo involves both self-expression and selfless cooperation in the service of others.

The internal drive of Leo toward self-expression and intense self-projection is characterized by persistence and stubbornness with an intense need to be the center of attention. This is further characterized by a need for praise, admiration and personal recognition. Further, an inherent drive to control one’s destiny and dominate the environment helps us to become leaders ahead of our time meeting life with pride, style and an uncompromising personal integrity.

Early traits instilled by the Leo archetype include an extreme sensitivity to the impact from the external environment; a social insecurity that leads to a tendency to overdo everything; a tendency to arrogance and being the show off; and an excessive use of power in being domineering, intolerant, tyrannical and close minded while clinging to opinions stubbornly.

Through Leo we embrace the crisis of individualization which helps us become a unique, indivisible unit or “whole man.” In the process our selfishness is transformed into selflessness; our desire becomes aspiration; our willfulness becomes willingness; and our leadership becomes cooperation. At this level, our willpower becomes the will-to-illumine. The urge toward self-knowledge, self-perception and mental positivity opens us to a sensitivity to the soul and begins the intermarriage between the conscious mind and the unconscious that is needed to become the “individual shining solar glory.”

What we get is personal freedom from outside control while becoming the ruler of our own life. Our outer oriented personality becomes inner directedness, humble, goal directed and purposeful. The power of the Sphinx leads to a perseverance toward wholeness in which we become a focused emanating light giving generously of self and of life in service to others. The end result is individuating of an outer Self while at the same time creating an inner sense of Beingness.

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Greater Heat dà shǔ 大暑 Jul 23rd

IMG_1365In the Chinese calendar the seasons are marked by descriptive solar terms. July 22nd we passed into the period called Great or Greater Heat. Although the actual weather does not always match the decription of the term, even in China, which is after all a large and geographically diverse country,  This year however, we have certainly passed into greater heat here. Over the weekend, we had heat indexes as high as 103F/39+C.  And actually we have passed into great heat all over the planet. Since I first blogged on Greater Heat in 2016 we have bee having record years.  Please check the chart o that lik, it’s a bit scary, but ignoring truth does’t change it. I was privileged to work with several NOAA people in my life ad they were  excellent scientists. I have always been an outdoor person, tanned easily and not gotten sunburned.  I have felt the sun’s intensity was increasing over the past few years, but people kept telling me it was because I was getting older and my skin was changing.  I still felt it was the sun, not the aging process. I am an excellent researcher and I found very credible scientific evidence that what my senses were telling me was true. The amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching the earth has been increasing for decades. One source was NASA, which still produces some great work in spite of political meddling, but it was not the only one.

The UV index was developed by Canadian scientists only in 1992 and was adopted and standardized in 1994 by the WHO and WMO, the UN’s oranizations for health and weather, respectively. My local weather reports have been giving the index lately at 8,9,or 10 over 10. Considering protection is recommended starting at values over three, this is worrying. UV radiation is dangerous, it goes way beyond sunburn, although that in itself is bad enough.  Combine this with increasing heat and you have something which is very unpleasant to consider, never mind endure.

file3191259601325Another factor adding to the problem of heat is humidity.  Per a NOAA web page on the subject “The Heat Index is a measure of how hot it really feels when relative humidity  is factored in with the actual air temperature. As an example, if the air temperature is 96°F and the relative humidity is 65%, the heat index–how hot it feels–is 121°F. ” Relative humidity is a comparison of the current moisture in the air to what it would be if the air was fully saturated. Realize the hotter the air the more moisture it will hold before saturatio, too.

Even without a degree in meteorology people naturally come to realize when it is humid the body’s ability to cool itself by evaporating sweat from the skin starts to break down. They feel much hotter and they are actually getting hotter. Unable to cool the internal temperature rises until heat stroke occurs.

I don’t have air conditioning. A woman was walking by one day when I was infront of the house. She said she used to rent here and asked if the landlord had put in central air yet. When I told her no, she shook her head and said that was one reason she moved. People ask me how I can function. I lived in Korea without air conditioning and it was certainly hot and humid. The 38th parallel that divides North and South Korea passes straight across Virginia, giving both places similarity in seasons and climate. I use fans. While they require electricity, they require much less than the three or four window air conditioners I would need to cool this house, given it’s design and poor air flow. Aside from the cost, they are inefficient and have many other drawbacks and so I do without.

Things are getting worse though and I am considering getting one window unit for the living room for the sake of the cats. I do some things in the evening, like yard work, since sunset is late enough to allow it. I  eat in the morning before sunrise and in the evening after sundown so I don’t cook in the warmer parts of the day. Millions of Muslims do this in fasting for Ramadan every year and in Greater Heat it is easier than you would think, evenn with the longer days.  I drink a lot of cool drinks, too.

I watch the cats very carefully. They are covered in fur and don’t perspire. They have three water fountains to drink from and on really hot days I add water to their wet food. Fotunately, they are like their hot climate relations, the lions. They do most of their average of sixteen hours of sleeping from mid morning until dinner time around six in the evening. They hunt their mousies and toys through the night. Sometimes this makes my sleep a problem but not very much. It does mean Mi Sun is awake to rouse me before sunup, but that is just what I want. With all this lifestyle adjustment, I use less energy and use it off peak, which the utilities love. And here is the thought which kept insinuating into my mind. As it gets hotter everywhere will we use more air conditioning and in consequence more energy? If we use more energy we are sure to use kinds of energy that will contribute to making things warmer. Then we will need more air conditioning and use more energy. Will all that melting polar ice evaporate into the atmosphere and make it more humid everywhere? It is getting harder and harder to enjoy summer and I hear this from other people, too. Does this go on ad infinitum? I certainly hope not.


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I Love My Cats

Yellow ball of sun in hot orange skyWe have been in a nasty heat wave. Really nasty. I have a clowder of senior cats. While I can run around the house in a T shirt or nothing at all, they can’t just slip out of their fur. With all the additional things wrong with the house it will be a long time, if ever, there will be central air. It will also be a long time before the attic  and any of the walls are insulated either. So I finally broke down and ordered a window air conditioner. At 48 pounds, I’ll just be able to lift it to the window sill in the living room, without needing weeks of chiropractic. I really shouldn’t have spent the money but sometimes you have to look hard at your priorities. Fans just aren’t cutting it. If any of the cats became sick because it’s too hot in this dump of a house, I would loose it completely.

Of course the next day thunderstorms and rain move in and cool things off. As usual the heavy rain went north or south of us. The cloud cover was nice though and distant thunder is a sound I enjoy. It was a day for lots of snuggling and the cats were quiet; that hot weekend took the starch out of them as much as it did me. We are not deceived by this break in the heat though, there is more to come. I’ll need that air conditioner. I love my cats.


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Minor Heat 小暑 Xiǎoshǔ Jul 7

White sun against gold sky over black outline of treesOn July 7th we entered the solar term of Xiǎoshǔ, or Shōsho in Japanese,  Soseo in Korean, and or Tiểu thử  in Vietnamese. It is the 11th solar term of the year, beginning when the Sun is exactly at the celestial longitude of 105°. In the western calendar it usually begins around 7 July and ends around 22 July . Minor Heat actually signifies the hottest period is coming but has not yet arrived.

In China, the 24 solar terms were created thousands of years ago to guide agricultural production. However, the solar term culture is still useful today to guide people’s lives. There are special foods, ceremonies and healthy living tips that correspond with each term. The terms also describe the weather and climate during the term. Storms, thunder and hail often happen during Minor Heat, though in some years there might be droughts. The prevailing farming activities during Minor Heat are staying on top of flood control or  drought relief.

The high heat and humidity during this solar term mean most people take time off of work to rest and recuperate. This is also the perfect time, according to traditional Chinese medicine, to purge winter diseases from the body. Here in Virginia we have a had similar weather, bouts of torrential rains with flash flood warnings,  several days of heat and humidity so high the index was above 100F and things began to wither and plenty of intermittent thunderstorms. And my aching ear, sinuses and jaw may be a sign my body is purging itself as I drink plenty of water and juice.

White lotus blossom in water with leaves floating behindIn Minor Heat, the high temperatures are good for the growth of the lotus flower. From Minor Heat to the Double Ninth Festival, the lotus flower is in full bloom, and always simple but elegant. It is always good on hot evenings to sit by a lotus pond and admire the blossoms and feel cooled by the water.

Small statue of child holding jar of firefliesMinor Heat is the season when fireflies begin to rise. Zhu Shuzhen, a woman of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), once described in her famous poem “Summer Fireflies” a happy scene of children playing with fireflies in the woods at night. Another poem about fireflies is “Two Poems about Fireflies” written by Luo Ye of the Tang Dynasty. He has described a beautiful scene of the moss on steps in front of the house which is decorated by thousands of winking lights, actually fireflies.

Minor Heat comes when all kinds of melons are being harvested. One custom in Nanjing, Jiangsu province has to do with enjoying small melons on the day of Minor Heat and having big melons on the day of Major Heat. The small melons are known to us as cantaloupes and the big melons as watermelons.  Dumplings are a traditional food among Chinese for a lot of occasions and when Minor Heat takes away the appetite, dumplings can refresh people’s feelings toward food. I can alway eat dumplings but when it’s really hot I also like summer rolls in the thin, light rice paper with crispy vegetables inside.

Ideal foods to eat during Minor Heat are onion, apricot, chai tea, fennel, and cinnamon. People who often get overheated in the summer can drink mint tea and eat pears, plums, celery, any kind of melon, all green-colored foods, and bitter-tasting foods. Regardless of your body constitution, it’s considered a good idea to get a foot massage or practice meditation during this time, to adjust and rebalance the body, and offset the stress of the weather.

During the Minor Heat period, with the longest amount of sunlight and the strongest sunlight radiation, many families hang their clothes out in the sun for the cleansing and disinfecting power of the sun. It’s a good tie to air out winter blankets and quilts that have been packed away for months and refresh their storage containers with herbs like lavender and artemisia.

Blue lotus blossom with yellow center


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