This evening is Halloween and many of the shops here in Beijing have been stocking some of the type of stuff that has turned All Hallow’s Eve from the ancient Celtic festival it once was, into the commercial jamboree that it is today, particularly in the USA.
I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised, television programmes and films which feature the American version of Halloween are seen here, and after all most of the ghoulish masks, witches’ hats, orange and black ‘pumpkin’ themed paper chains etc bought in the West are made right here in China. There was always a likelihood it would start being sold here too.
The irony is that the Chinese don’t need to import Halloween, they have their own equivalent, The Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. It is a major Buddhist/Taoist festival where the ghosts of those who died without appropriate burial rites return to the world, and it is celebrated on the 15th night of the 7th lunar month.
The exact beliefs vary slightly in different regions of China and the Chinese diaspora, but broadly speaking it is believed that the gates between the world and the afterlife open, and the ‘hungry’ ghosts – who are the spirits of those who died at sea, committed suicide, was executed, suffered a wrongful death or committed sins of greed during their life – emerge and wander around the world seeking food and entertainment or revenge on their enemies.
Dutiful families celebrate the festival with a big feast to remember dead family members, and to pay tribute to these restless spirits so that they will not impinge on their lives and bring misfortune. In order to keep the hungry ghosts happy, they make offerings of food at temples, burn joss sticks, as well as burning ‘Hell money’ and sometimes elaborate paper models of worldly goods such as television sets or cars, which the ghosts can then use in the afterlife.
Entertainment is provided with troupes of strolling musicians and opera singers who put on outdoor performances of Chinese operas. These ‘wayang’ are enjoyed by one and all, but the first rows of seats must be left empty for the ghosts to use!
Fifteen days after the Feast, the ghosts have to return to the netherworld, and those who live near lakes, rivers or the sea send flotillas of little paper lanterns floating on the water to guide the ghosts back to hell, where they will remain until the following year.
Witches hats, carved pumpkins and trick-or-treat seem rather mundane I think.