Summer season is a popular time for tourists to spread their wings. Plan summer travel to Asia ghost festivals and experience a truly unique cultural event. The Ghost Festivals are both a tradition and celebration. The festival’s other names include Hungry Ghost Festival, Zhonyuan Jie, Gui Jie, and Yulan Festival.
Celebrated across Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, the Ghost Festival is East Asia’s month-long equivalent to Day of the Dead.
The Ghost Festival is a tradition and celebration based in Taoist and Buddhist beliefs, in which the spirits of the deceased leave the underworld and return to the living. Having spent many, many summers in Taiwan, I have personally taken part in the festival there several times. As such, I will explain the festival’s general traditions in this article and how festivities pertain specifically to Taiwan.
It is similar to the Qingming Festival (or Tomb-Sweeping Day), in which families pay tribute to their ancestors and deceased elders. The difference is that the Ghost Festival extends tribute to all deceased, including the young and the unrelated.
When is the Ghost Festival?
According to the Lunar Calendar, the seventh month of the year is Ghost Month. Depending on the individual year, that date corresponds to either August or September in the Gregorian calendar. Once the gates of the underworld (or “hell” for the more dramatic translator) open on the first day of the month, the spirits remain for a full thirty days.
While for example, in 2021 the Ghost Festival started on August 22nd, the start date varies each year. The 14th or 15th day of the lunar seventh month is known as Ghost Day, and begins the Ghost Month.
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Origins of the Ghost Festival: Tradition and Celebration
The origins of the Ghost Festival actually come from ancient India, namely the Yulanpen (or Ullambana) sutra, from the Mahayana scripture, an essential Buddhist text. During the Jin Dynasty (265-311 AD), a professional translator named Zhu Fahu (more famously known as Dharmaraksa in Sanskrit) translated the sutra into Chinese. His translations had a great impact on the spread of Buddhism in East Asia.
The Yulanpen sutra describes a story in which a man named Maudgalyayana searches for his dead parents. When he finds his mother’s spirit, he realizes she has become a preta, a ghost that suffers from severe hunger and thirst. Maudgalyayana tries to alleviate her suffering by feeding her rice, but it turns to burning coal in her mouth. He goes to the Buddha for help. Buddha says an individual can aid their current parents and past parents (from a cycle of seven previous lives) by giving food to monks on Pavarana. This also marks the end of the monsoon season, falling on the 15th day of the seventh month. The monks will then give the individual’s merits to their deceased parents.
Soon after Dharmaraksa’s translation of the tale appeared, the canon of Chinese festivals adopted it as the origin of Ghost Month.
Mulian Rescues His Mother
A Chinese version of Maudgalyayana’s tale sprung up in the 9th century, expanding on the original. Mulian is the abbreviation of Maudgalyayana’s Chinese translation. The story of Mulian follows the same beats as the Indian sutra, though with slight additions. It was particularly popular in the Tang dynasty as a means of reinforcing filial piety and family bonds amongst the Buddhist community. At the time, Buddhism was under criticism for encouraging its converts to leave their families and ancestral worship behind.
To my memory, I learned about Mulian’s story when I was four years old. I remember my mother explaining it to me once and a few news specials that revisited the tale. To be perfectly honest, I was horrified! It was a vivid horror story to four-year-old me, despite the “happy ending,” so keep that in mind before you repeat it to any children.
The Tale of Mulian
In the most widespread version of this tale, Mulian gives his mother money to use as alms for monks and beggars. He then leaves to become a Buddhist monk. However, she hides the money for herself. After she dies, the Jade Emperor (the head deity of the Taoist pantheon) sends her to Yama (or King Yan), god of the underworld (per Hindu and Buddhist mythology). As punishment for her selfishness, King Yang sends her to the lowest realm of hell.
Upon his return, Mulian uses his newfound powers (gained through his conversion to Buddhism) to go to heaven, where he learns of his mother’s fate from his deceased father. Mulian enters the underworld, where he finds his mother nailed down by forty-nine iron spikes in prison. Unable to save her, Mulian asks the Buddha for help. The Buddha gives him a rod to destroy the prison walls and free the ghosts within. The freed spirits reincarnate, but Mulian’s mother remains trapped and eventually reincarnates as a hungry ghost with a neck too thin to sustain food.
Mulian offers his mother food through an ancestral altar, but the food turns to flames when it contacts her mouth. Mulian seeks the Buddha again. This time, Buddha tells him to provide food and gifts for monks and monasteries on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. Here, it coincides with the date from which monks return to society after their summer spiritual retreats. As per the original tale, the monastic community helps Mulian redeem his mother.
Mulian’s mother then reincarnates as a dog. After Mulian reads sutras for her for another seven days and nights, she reincarnates as a human and is able to reach heaven.
Mulian Rescues His Mother became the de facto origin story of the Ghost Festival in Chinese culture. The tale has been adapted into countless operas, puppet shows, oral and written tales, films, and televised specials. Theatres often perform the opera on the 15th day of the Ghost Festival.
For a truly unique experience, visit this hands on Shadow Puppet Workshop in Penang where you will create your own traditional Wayang Culit Character and learn from a Master Puppeteer how to bring it to life!
Ghost Festival: Tradition and Celebration
As with all cultural festivities, the Ghost Festival has many customs unique to itself. These traditions range from burning paper money to water lantern processions and feasts for the dead.
The Gates of the Underworld
When the seventh lunar month arrives, the gates to the underworld open. In Taiwan, the port city of Keelung is home to the Lao Da Gong Temple, famous for having doors that allegedly lead to the underworld. The temple performs a ceremony to open the doors, known as the Kanmen Ritual. The symbolic doors open at midnight. Although the event’s main attendees are politicians and Taoist priests, it also attracts a fair amount of news crews and locals. This event is open to the public, and I recommend a visit to experience this ritual during your summer travel to Asia Ghost Festivals.
When the month ends, Lao Da Gong closes the doors to the underworld, marking the end of the Ghost Festival. As with the opening ceremony, the closing ceremony is also open to the public and greatly attended.
Jenny’s Tip: Beware of the potential for large crowds.
Tour Keelung like a Local
Located approximately 19 miles from Taipei, Keelung is one of the hidden gems of Taiwan travel. Rich in culture, it is not something you should miss, regardless of time of year. Take this unforgettable small group tour with a private knowledgeable guide, that offers a chance to see Keelung as a local.
The Water Lantern Festival While on Summer Travel to Asia Ghost Festivals
Both a tradition and a celebration, the Water Lantern Festival falls on the 14th night of the Ghost Festival. On this night, the living, float paper lanterns into rivers (which then lead to the ocean). These lanterns are shaped like lotus flowers and they each hold one lit candle within. Traditionally, the purpose of this procession is to guide spirits back to the underworld.
Keelung famously hosts the largest lantern parade in Taiwan. Keelung’s parade consists of large-scale floats adorned with lanterns and flowers, accompanied by local musicians. At the end of the parade, locals prepare to release paper lanterns into the harbor.
Book this Hotel right near the action in Keelung Harbor and you may even be able to enjoy some of the festival right from your room!
These lanterns are shaped like houses and filled with paper money, with a local family responsible for each lantern. At midnight, the people set fire to the lanterns and send them into the water. According to superstition, the longer the burning lanterns stay afloat, the better the following year will be.
A Feast of Spirits
Typically falling on the 15th day of Ghost Month as per Mulian’s tale, the Hungry Ghost Festival is a celebration and tradition that doubles as a feast for the dead. The living set out tables of food for the dead, ranging from full course meals (vegetables, dumplings, cooked meat, rice wine, etc.) and packaged snacks to fruit and instant noodles. The ghosts feed on the “spirits” of these offerings and by nighttime, the living eat the food themselves.
During Ghost Month, all spirits are free to wander the land of the living. This also includes homeless ghosts, the spirits of deceased persons without families or whose families neglected to make offerings (food, paper money, etc.) to them. This causes their throats to shrink. Then like Mulian’s mother, these poor souls cannot eat food without it turning to flames in their mouths.
Appeasing the Spirits
When the Ghost Festival rolls around, local families use it as another chance to provide offerings and food to their ancestors and deceased members. What differentiates the Ghost Festival from other holidays like the Qingming Festival, is that it also requires the living to pay tribute to ghosts unrelated to them.
The Ghost Festival is the only time of the year when the gods enlarge their throats and put out the fires in their food. After starving all year long, these ghosts can finally feast on local offerings. In Taiwan, most locals set up offerings of food outside their homes and offices to appease these hungry ghosts. If they’re fed and content, there’s less of chance that they’ll cause mischief for the living (or haunt your house)!
The Hungry Ghost Festival: Tradition and Celebration
If you happen to wander through Taiwan during the 15th day of the Ghost Festival, you can see long tables (usually draped with red cloth) outside apartment and office buildings, filled to the brim with food, drinks, and incense. This is the most important tradition and celebration of the Ghost Festival.
Speaking of past summers, if I happened to be in Taiwan during the annual Ghost Festival, I also accompanied my family in setting up offerings outside the entrance to our apartment. Our offerings mostly consisted of packaged snacks, juice boxes, and fruit.
*Fun fact: Local supermarkets offer discounts on bulk items during the Ghost Festival. You can even see multiple upbeat commercials advertising snacks for the festival.
Local temples allow for even larger congregations, where the people can put up their offerings. There, a Buddhist or Taoist priest recites a mantra and welcomes surrounding spirits to feed.
In addition to offering food and drink as tribute, locals also provide toiletries to feasting spirits to clean themselves up after they eat. These toiletries usually consist of water basins, towels, toothbrushes, and toothpaste (though I’m sure the latter two items are a modern addition).
So what exactly is “paper money”? To put it simply, paper money is underworld currency, bank notes made from joss paper. Joss paper is made of bamboo (or sometimes rice), often handcrafted. You burn the bank notes as offerings to your deceased relatives so they can have money to spend in the afterlife. In Taoist purgatory, spirits still need money to purchase clothes and food.
The 3 categories of spirit money are jiujin (“nine gold”), kanjin (“cut gold”), and xiaoyin (“little silver”). Jiujin notes are the most complex and designed with red characters and patterns. You offer these to deceased loved ones. Kanjin notes are blank, save for a printed golden rectangle. You offer them to distant ancestors and higher gods (such as the Jade Emperor). Xiaoyin notes are yellower in color and also blank save for a printed silver rectangle. You can offer these to recently deceased loved ones, ancestors, and earth gods.
My uncle usually purchases paper money in bulk, so I have experience with all three types. The edges feel uneven, evidence that the paper notes were cut by hand. Their texture resembles sand paper and is coarse to the touch.
Burning the Paper
In order to deliver this money to the deceased, you must burn the paper first. We typically do this through outdoor furnaces after arranging the money into bundles. There’s a spike in burning paper money during the Ghost Festival, but there is no set date or time to do it. Families are expected to burn money for their deceased throughout the year at their own discretion.
Paper money is the most common burnt tribute to the dead, but you might also catch other papier-mâché offerings. These items include everything from luxury houses and smart phones to cars and clothes (all made of paper of course!), ranging from scale items to miniatures. Funeral homes sell these items year-round, independent of the Ghost Festival.
Interestingly, paper money no longer just takes the form of the above three categories. Nowadays, you can see them mimic real life currency, so if the dead are in need of Yen or USD, they are also available for purchase.
There have been complaints in recent years about the burning of paper money resulting in pollution. The solution? Virtual ceremonies that allow you to burn joss paper via smartphone app. To my knowledge, these apps have yet to replace the tradition.
Entertainment during Summer Travel to Asia Ghost Festivals
Opera troupes often perform “Mulian Rescues His Mother” as per tradition and celebration on the 15th day of the month (the Hungry Ghost Festival). Temples also commission live performances such as operas, puppet shows, and singing related to the Ghost Festival. These performances take place throughout the month and are free to the public.
However, these events are not meant for the living, but for the dead. This is why the first row of seats (usually red) remains empty. These seats are reserved for any ghosts that decide to attend the performance. (Living) visitors are more than welcome to attend, so long as they don’t sit in the red seats.
Fun fact: In rural areas, burlesque shows are hosted for the dead, complete with pole dancers.
I recommend a private cultural tour with a local guide to maximize your experience as many of the interesting aspects are not advertised and are local knowledge.
Local Beliefs: Dos and Don’ts When You Take Summer Travel to Asia Ghost Festivals
There are some taboos that come with the Ghost Festival, and as always, they depend on how much you believe. Due to the number of spirits haunting the island during the festival, Taiwanese locals have come up with a set of guidelines to avoid bad luck.
During ghost month, do:
- Call spirits “good brothers” instead of “ghosts” as a form of politeness towards spirits in earshot
- Open large packages of food so ghosts will not fight each other for its contents
- Eat your own offerings after night falls on the 15th day of the festival, but this custom, along with the mentioned others, will likely not apply to passing tourists
- Enjoy the festivities and respect the traditions
During ghost month, do not:
- Move into a new home
- Get married
- Open a new business
- Take photos at night
- Take the last train or bus home
- Steal offerings
- Go swimming (the superstitious believe that drowned spirits will try to possess or trap swimmers)
It’s also not recommended to hang up clothes to dry. Local lore says ghosts will steal your clothes to disguise themselves as living humans. The same applies for patting people on the shoulders; locals believe the living have invisible flames that protect them from supernatural harm. These flames reside on the shoulders and you could erase them by patting. That said, tradition also dictates you not turn your head when touched on the shoulder during the month, for fear of an attack by malicious spirits.
When you plan your own summer travel to Asia Ghost Festivals, you may want to keep these dos and don’ts in mind, especially as a traveler so as not to offend!
Celebrating Ghost Festival Tradition During Your Summer Travel to Asia Ghost Festivals
There are many ways visitors can take part in the Taiwanese Ghost Festival instead of simply observing from a distance. Some ideas are:
- Visit an opera performance of “When Mulian Rescues His Mother”
- Purchase “paper money” of your own
- Visit Lao Da Gong Temple to see the “Gates of Hell” open
- Pray for good fortune at Ching-An Temple while the Dipper Lantern is paraded around
- Watch a grand parade in Keelung with intricate floats, flashing lights, and often loud music
- Release a water lantern in Bedouzi Harbor
- Buy red paper lanterns to ward off ghosts
Although you can catch glimpses of the festival anywhere on the island, Keelung is the go-to destination for summer travel to Asia Ghost Festivals in Taiwan. You may see tons of hanging red paper lanterns, strung up to ward off ghosts.
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Keelung’s Midsummer Ghost Festival activities are the most lively and largest in scale. This applies to both its Hungry Ghost Festival and Water Lantern Festival, especially the latter’s famous parade and burning of lanterns.
Keelung is also home to the largest Jump the Ghost Festival, a ceremony that guides remaining spirits back to the underworld. This ceremony takes place after the Ghost Festival ends. Another name for the ceremony is Jumping Zhong Kui, in reference to a Chinese folk figure famous for banishing malicious demons and ghosts. The ceremony often features an actor or puppet performing as Zhong Kui and rounding up the ghosts that refuse to leave.
Toucheng Ghost Grappling Festival
Another famous Taiwanese Ghost Festival celebration is the Ghost Grapping Festival, hosted in Toucheng. The festival lasts for two days and falls at the end of the month. The festival’s purpose is to “grapple” ghosts and once that goal succeeds, the Ghost Festival ends.
This festival is a competition in which contestants climb greased poles that reach up to 20 meters in length. The goal is to retrieve the flags tied to the top of each pole and the winner can expect to receive money (and good luck) for their efforts. Thanks to crowds of onlookers and accompanying fireworks, the contest is just as, if not more, lively than the Keelung parades.
Sun Moon Lake Swimming Carnival
Remember what we said about swimming being discouraged during the Ghost Festival? Once the month passes, the Sun Moon Lake Swimming Carnival takes place on the following weekend. A welcome respite for restless swimmers, the carnival is a contest stretching across 3000 meters. Open to any swimmer over the age of 10, the swimming event welcomes anyone from anywhere in the world.
Try one of these easy ways to experience Sun Moon Lake any time of year.
Additional Countries that Celebrate Ghost Festivals
Variations of the Ghost Festival are also celebrated in Japan, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. India and Indonesia practice similar traditions based on Hindi beliefs.
While you are in Asia, and especially if you choose Taiwan, for summer travel to Asia Ghost Festivals, be sure to checkout Kinmen Island!