The dead wander the earth, as is their wont.

NOTE: This post was made during the festival itself, but since then I've returned home, and settled myself into a new job, over the past two months. Please excuse my tardiness. Cheers.

Taoist / Chinese folk religion priests conducting prayers during the course of the festival. Hong Kong, late 20th century. My paternal relatives worked in this line of profession, long before we left the old country. The English term for them would be black-head priests, so called because their ritual headgear was of that color in contrast to the red-head priests. The hand of the effigy is poking out from the right.

August 20th marks the start of the Hungry Ghost Festival, that month in the year when according to Chinese belief, the lower infernal realms open for precisely four to five weeks (depending on who you consult) and the shades of the departed are permitted to return to this plane of existence, and partake of the offerings their descendants and loved ones would prepare for them. This is not to be confused with Qing Ming (or as the Southern Chinese Fujianese people call it, Cheng Beng) or Tomb-Sweeping Day, when people visit the graves of their ancestors to pay homage. Rather, the HGF is when offerings are made in the form of food and beverages, and most importantly paper goods (ranging from all kinds of things. Literally) are burned so that the dead can use them in the hereafter. It's similar to Qing Ming, but on a larger scale.

The Chinese (and to an extent, East Asian) belief considers hell to be divided into numerous levels, some as large as in the tens of thousands. But the primary hells are usually numbered as eighteen, with the punishments more severe the further downwards you proceed. Unlike Abrahamic (Judeo-Christian-Islamic) beliefs, hell itself is not an eternal place of suffering and torment. Rather it's more of a pit-stop, much like Purgatory. The advent of Buddhism 18 centuries prior in Eastern Asia (what a coincidence 0.0) can be credited for this interesting bit of thanatology, to the point that the Lord of Diyu (Hell) is Yen Lo Wang, the Chinese counterpart of the Hindu-Buddhist Dharmaraja Yama, residing in Yama Lokha.

The traditional depiction of Lord Yama, flanked by two attendants and riding on the animal most associated with him, a water buffalo. I recall as a kid hearing of a water buffalo unexpectedly entering a Hindu temple during the evening puja. The devotees present took it as an ill omen, and ran out helter-skelter. 

A papier-mâché statue of Yen Lo Wang, usually constructed a week before the start of the HGF. This effigy is placed at the mass altar (in Chinese-majority neighbourhoods) to be offered prayers. At the end of the festival, it is ceremoniously burned.

But enough of the academic bull. As a kid, despite the lack of observance in my immediate family, the HGF was a time of superstitious taboos (I'll say this much, the Chinese are a paranoid bunch >.>) You couldn't play outside after sundown, no loud noises after 10pm, saying impious things was frowned upon. We could not touch the burnt offerings. It was especially unlucky if you tampered with it in any way. And for those who were unlucky enough to encounter "them" (my uncle's word), pretend like you saw zilch, and pray like hell they'll leave you alone. My aunts and uncles would fold joss paper into paper ingots, to be burned later on for our ancestors, and I'll buzz in and out being the nuisance that I was/am. My granddad would chant at the top of his lungs as the offerings went up in flames. And the offerings! God, how we move with the times. Back in the day, they were fairly simple stuff like this:


But nowadays:


What the- I don't even- How-...

...somehow I doubt my mom's folks will be using iPads and Blackberries whilst eating McDs in their palatial mansions complete with servants and shiny Mercedes. A goddamned MERCEDES.


Hell, the damned thing even has a chauffeur in it! If I had a dollar for every time I saw people burn shit for their dead relatives, I'd go into the funeral business myself. But humorously enough, this occurred in 2011. Well, that's capitalism for ya'.

With all the hell money burnt over the years, I'd be surprised if there wasn't any inflation down there. Diyu would be giving Zimbabwe a run for their money in the note denominational department. Oh well, I reckon the mechanics of economics have no sway down there.

So that's it readers; to us the dead still live as they have always done so in the flesh. My sympathies to Yamaraja / Yen-lo Wang. After all these millennia, what with the tens of billions of souls he's had to judge, his Lordship must either be bored witless out of his mind, or a little unhinged.

Keep an eye out for them hungry ghosts. Those bastards are always keen on bringing people big surprises. Until later, good readers.


  1. With all the hell money burnt over the years, I'd be surprised if there wasn't any inflation down there. Diyu would be giving Zimbabwe a run for their money in the note denominational department.

    Dude...you're killing me right now.

    1. < takes a bow > I try, Sister Ankhesen, I try ^^

  2. I remember reading about this in my high school 'Religions of the World' book. I see the bling for the dead has been kicked up several notches since then. :D

    Thanks for sharing!


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