Tableau of hell from the Daxingshan Temple in Xi’an, China.

NEW YORK - The Gates of Hell were thrown open on July 27th 2014, the first day of the seventh lunar month. According to Chinese tradition, they remain open for one month to allow deceased souls who have no living descendants to make offerings to them, to return to earth to satisfy their needs. For one month these ghosts roam the streets looking for sustenance, taking what they want from the living.  People in Hong Kong, Taiwan and other overseas Chinese communities lay out offerings, provide entertainment and recite sutras on behalf of these ghosts, giving the entire affair a rather festive, if somewhat spooky feel. 

Table of offerings laid out for ghosts in the Ximending distict of Taipei, Taiwan.

This month-long festival is observed by both Buddhists and Daoists. To the Buddhist, it is the Ullambana Festival, whose name means ‘Deliverance from Suffering’ in Sanskrit. To the Daoists it is the Zhongyuan Festival, which falls exactly in the middle of the Chinese year.  However, to many people it is the Hungry Ghosts Festival.

(left) A Buddhist commemoration of the Hungry Ghosts Festival. (right) A Daoist service of the same thing. In both traditions, images of the respective deities are hung up, and the deities are invited to ease the sufferings of the ghosts.

Makeshift stages are set up to entertain the ghosts. In Hong Kong, the entertainment provided is usually operas and puppet shows. In Singapore, provocatively dressed pop singers and dancers take to the stage. The ghosts are entertained to keep them happy and to prevent them from being idle and causing mischief.

Chaozhou opera being performed to entertain the ghosts.  Human audiences benefit as well.  In the foreground are three large sticks of incense.

Ritual spaces are also set up, hung with images of Buddhist or Daoist deities, and prayers are chanted periodically by monks and priests, calling upon deities to ease the suffering of the ghosts. Sutras are also chanted and dedicated to the deceased souls to increase their good karma. Conducting such services also provides benefits for the living. The hope is that the ghosts will not cause them problems and that the merit they gain by conducting the service will help them avoid the same suffering when they reach the underworld.

(left) A Daoist altar with paintings of the Daoist Trinity flanked by guardians. (right) Musicians resting between services in front of paintings of deities.

Paintings of deities are also used during the Water and Land Deliverance Ritual, such as the one illustrated below, which is another ritual held to call upon deities to save all sentient beings from suffering, and not just the hungry ghosts.

Lot 439, A Painting of Heavenly General Yang Jian, 17th Century, Estimate: US$25,000-35,000; Sotheby’s New York, Images of Enlightenment, 17th September 2014.

In some ritual spaces, scrolls depicting scenes of hell are hung up, providing a visual reminder of the horrors that the ghosts are being paroled from, and also to serve as a reminder to the living that they should live a good life to avoid such retribution. Punishments for various misdeeds are usually clearly labeled and graphically portrayed.

Scrolls depicting scenes of hell hung flanking a Daoist altar.

Scrolls depicting scenes of hell were also hung in temples dedicated to the city god, who is responsible for reporting to the underworld judges on the deeds of people living in his precinct after they have passed away.  Some temples even have tableau depicting hell in their side halls to vividly drive home the importance of being a good person, to avoid horrendous punishments in the afterlife.

Lot 207, Four Paintings of Scenes From Hell, Qing Dynasty, Late 18th / Early 19th Century, Estimate: US$6,000-8,000; Sotheby’s New York, Chinese Works of Art, 16th and 17th September 2014.

Presiding over the month long festivities is the King of Ghosts, Guiwang, usually represented by a larger than life paper effigy.  Guiwang is the wrathful manifestation of Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.  Guanyin assumes the fearsome form of Guiwang in order to keep the mischievous hungry ghosts in check. Images of Guiwang have a small image of Guanyin either on the head or stomach to remind us of who he is really is, and that even while he deals with fearsome ghosts, he still acts with compassion. For this reason, the official title of Guiwang is ‘Bodhisattva with the Burning Face’, Mianran Dashi.  At the close of the ceremonies, the effigy of Guiwang is set ablaze in a ritual send-off.

Various paper effigies of Guiwang, King of Ghosts, from Hong Kong.

Apart of offerings of food, paper offerings are burnt for the ghosts, and these take the form of paper robes, shoes, hats, and nowadays even paper iPhones and iPads.  Beautifully decorated incense sticks adorned with Chinese opera figures made from sandalwood paste are also lit.  As the incense sticks burn down, the figures fall to the ground, and as I child I used to pick these figures up and keep them, much to my mother’s dismay.

Incense sticks decorated with sandalwood figures.

The Festival of the Hungry Ghosts has always been one of my favorite festivals, and in 2011 it was listed as being part of Hong Kong and China’s intangible culture heritage. It is a colorful festival that provides a platform for all sorts of traditional crafts that struggle to survive in the modern age, such as incense and paper effigy making, traditional opera, puppetry, religious textiles and altar dressings.

(left) Lot 524, A Rare Blue Daoist Priest's Robe (Daopao), Qing Dynasty, 19th Century, Estimate: US$12,000-18,000. (right) Lot 526, A Rare Yellow Embroidered Daoist Priest's Robe (Jiangyi), Qing Dynasty, 19th Century, Estimate: US$25,000-35,000. Both lots offered Sotheby’s New York, Chinese Works of Art, 16th and 17th September 2014.

It is also a serious festival. Caring for and remembering the spirits of people who have no descendants to care for them is an act of charity.  In traditional Confucian society, one of the worst fates was to die with no descendants to tend to the ancestral graves and altars. And while tending to the needs of lonely and hungry spirits can gain one merit, roaming the streets after dark, knowing that ghosts could be walking next to you can also be scary, as some ghosts can be malicious.  My father just sent me an e-mail listing ten things not to do while the Gates of Hell remain open.  My father’s list was short. Here is a list of thirty things one should avoid doing during this period.

Paper offerings to be burnt for ghosts and deities.   Fire is the medium that transfers these articles to the next dimension.

Even if you do not believe in ghosts, it is good for the soul to spend a bit of time thinking of those less fortunate, who while alive did not have family and died alone. It makes us realize how important family is, and it is the family that is the heart of traditional Chinese life. This year, the Gates of Hell will close on August 24th. Even after a month of partying and having their fill, I would suspect that from the images of hell that I’ve seen, the ghosts aren’t exactly keen on going back.

Lot 207 (Detail), Four Paintings of Scenes From Hell, Qing Dynasty, Late 18th / Early 19th Century, Sotheby’s New York, Chinese Works of Art, 16th and 17th September 2014.