The Festival of the Spirits of the Dead

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The Festival of the Spirits of the Dead ( 中元節 Zhongyuan Jie ), commonly called Half Seven, is set on the 15th of the 7th month of the lunar calendar. According to legend, all ghosts are set free from hell on that day and so folk people commonly hold offerings to ghosts. As a rule, those who suffered death recently must see their new tomb, and local people give sacrifice to lone souls and wandering ghosts. So, this is a festival totally focused on offering to ghosts. It is the major ghost festival in Chinese folk culture.

The seventh lunar month is the minor autumn when some crops ripen. Folk people as a rule offer to ancestors with new rice to report the harvest. Meng Yuanlao said in vol. 1 of Dreamlike Prosperity of the Eastern Capital ( 《東京夢華錄》 Dongjing Menghua Lu ), "the day before the Festival of the Spirits of the Dead, people buy fragrant leaves for spreading on the sacrifice table, and tie small bowls of grains to the the foot of table to report the harvest to the ancestors." In the minor autumn of the seventh month when some crops ripen, the Chinese, stressing filial piety, as a rule offer new rice to ancestors and report the harvest. So people hold offerings to the ancestors in the seventh month. In the Eastern Han, Daoism set three meeting days and five days of offerings. The 7th of the 7th month was the Moral Offering Day as well as the middle meeting day when Daoists received examinations in the Diocese office. The five days of offering were focused on offerings to ancestors. The day in the seventh month was set on the 15th, as it became the birthday of the Earthly Official of the Middle Origin ( 中元地官 Zhongyuan Diguan ).

The Festival of the Spirits of the Dead is both a religious and a folk festival. Early Daoism worshiped the Three Officials. The Orthodox Oneness Mighty Commonwealth Tradition ( 正一盟威道 Zhengyi Mengwei Dao ) believed in the Heavenly Official ( 天官 Tainguan ), the Earthly Official ( 地官 Diguan ) and the Water Official ( 水官 Shuiguan ), who were later called the Three Great Official Emperors ( 三官大帝 Sanguan Dadi ). They each have their respective tasks: the Heavenly Official of the Upper Origin gives blessings; the Earthly Official of the Middle Origin pardons sins; the Water Official of the Lower Origin dispels misfortune. Daoist books say that on the Three Origin days, the Three Officials examine people's merits and sins and decide on corresponding rewards and punishments. The Earthly Official, in charge of hell, surely focuses on examining ghosts and souls. On this day, all ghosts must leave the realm of the dead to accept examinations. Daoists celebrate the birthday of the Earthly Official with offering rites; Daoist believers have offering rites set to bless their ancestors, pardon their sins and pray for them to ascend to heaven early. This is the main reason that the Middle Origin day became a folk festival.

The 15th of the 7th month is also the Buddhist Ulabhama festival ( 孟蘭盆節 Yulanpen Jie ). Ulabhama is a Sanskrit word that means loosening upside-down hanging. According to legend, Mujianlian, a disciple of the Buddha, asked the Buddha how to save his mother who was suffering in hell for her vicious deeds in life. Buddha told him that by offering food for the Sangha ( 僧 Seng ) on their Dismissal Day ( 解制日 Jiezhi Ri ), one can save souls from misery in hell. According to Buddhist rule, monks sit in meditation in temples without going out from the middle of the 4th month until the 15th of the 7th month, which is called the Dismissal Day, when monks can come out and accept believers' gifts. Chinese Buddhists created the Ulabhama Sutra to spread it and formed the custom of offering food for souls and ghosts. Thus, the festival is characterized by offering to ancestors and lone ghosts on Middle Origin day, and saving souls from hell and giving food to ghosts, in combination of Buddhism and Daoism. It is the most important ghost festival in folk culture.

The folk activities centre on sacrificing to ancestors and lone souls. Also, the City God processions save the wrongly dead; Daoist and Buddhist temples hold universal salvation rituals; and people see new tombs. As Chinese migrated to Southeast Asia, the custom of the Festival of the Spirits of the Dead was brought to this area. The activities in Malaysian cities are very popular and famous.

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