The Trans-Pacific Phenomena of Ghoulish Extortionists: from Halloween to the Ghost Festival

Hungry ghosts in a traditional painting
There is no trick-or-treating in China, but each summer the Chinese celebrate an eerie holiday not unlike our Halloween. While Americans permit their children to don disguises and extort candy from strangers, the Chinese offer edible treats and other bribes to ancestors and other hungry ghosts in the hopes that the former will grant blessings and the latter will return to Hell without inflicting any infernal “tricks” on the living. In both cases, the living get to enjoy treats while experiencing a sometimes uneasy flirtation with the netherworld, but the fact that the American holiday focuses on youth and the Chinese holiday focuses on ancestors portrays an important contrast between the two cultures.

Long before All Hallows’ Eve (the day before the Christian feast of All Saint’s Day) merged with pagan traditions to form Halloween, Chinese Taoists and Buddhists both recognized a day when the dead walked the Earth. The Hungry Ghost Festival 盂蘭盆, or Zhongyuan Jie 中元節, falls on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, which places it in mid to late August, or August 24 in 2010.

On this day, the gates of Hell are thrown open so that the dead may walk the Earth. Thus, families set out feasts for the deceased to enjoy and burn incense, special “spirit money,” and other flammable offerings that will be useful in the afterlife. In Chinese tradition, the dead require all the same things as their living brethren, and tombs often are filled with miniature houses, farm animals, servants, and entertainers. Indeed, boredom must be a big problem in the eternal hereafter; so Chinese operas held during the Ghost Festival traditionally leave the front row of seats empty, reserved for otherworldly spectators.

However, this is not to say that all Chinese ghosts are kindly grandmothers come back as Casper to sip tea and pinch cheeks while taking in an opera. Ancestors can grant boons to the living in exchange for offerings, but souls of unfilial sonsand corrupt officials, those who died a violent death, had an improper burial, or have not received the offerings they crave, come to this world in search of vengeance. Those who deserve punishment for earthly misdeeds become “hungry ghosts,” and they traditionally are depicted with huge stomachs and tiny throats, so they are perpetually hungry but cannot eat.

A ghost marriage in Singapore,
courtesy Singapore Paranormal Investigations
When young people die before marriage, their families sometimes arrange a “ghost marriage" toappease their spirits and incorporate them into living families who will give them offerings. Since women traditionally become part of their husband’s family, they would not receive offerings if they died before marriage, and their spirits may cause illness or misfortune for the family of their betrothed or their own family that failed to find them a spouse in life. To alleviate their ill-fortune, such families must find a groom, living or dead, sometimes employing a matchmaker specializing in such marriages. After the families exchange the dowry, they conduct a typical wedding feast with paper effigies in place of the dead bride and/or groom, and afterwards they burn the effigy(ies) (but not a living bride or groom) along with real marriage clothing, paper attendants, paper dowry items, paper gifts, and spirit money.

The Ghost King and offerings, flanked by attendants
In Chinese custom, burning things is one sure way to transport them to the netherworld. The finaleof the festival is often the burning of a giant paper effigy of the Ghost King, so he will gather his minions and lead them back to the afterlife, making Earth safe for the living once again. In a similar vein,  people set paper lanterns afloat in water the night of the Ghost Festival, to guide mischievous phantoms back to the realm of the dead.

At other times during the festival, the superstitious will avoid water as ghosts of people who drowned can avoid their torment by dragging a living replacement to his or her watery grave. Many Chinese and other believers will refuse to schedule weddings or other celebrations during this time. It is also a risky season to undergo surgery, make major purchases, or move into a new house, and many parents keep their children indoors at night lest a wayward spirit choose to possess them.

It’s an odd contrast that Chinese tradition requires parents to keep their children indoors, while American kids take to the streets for several hours of interaction with strangers. But Americans are just as (if not more) afraid of razor-filled caramel apples or poisoned candies as Chinese parents are of ghosts. As a child in the ‘80s, I remember being warned not to eat any goodies before my parents had a chance to inspect the annual haul, and throw away anything not securely wrapped in impermeable plastic, foil and/or cardboard. Most people now realize that diabolical Halloween candy tainters were largely an urban legend, and no one ever hears about a surge in demonic possessions each August, but the fear of unknown dangers from this or other worlds is a theme that pervades both of these holidays and makes all of us appreciate life while it’s still here, even as we tremble with trepidation at what lurks beyond…


  1. This article is informative, interesting and well written.

  2. "extort candy" haha. What a great post; this is fascinating. I never knew there was an Asian holiday analogous to Halloween. It is interesting how many different cultures have similar traditions. There is a similar holiday in Latino culture known as "Day of the Dead." Learn more about it at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's blog O Say Can You See:


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