The Hungry Dead and the Envoys of Hell: China’s Ghost Festival
The 15th day of the seventh lunar month in China marks Zhongyuan Festival, also known as Hungry Ghost Festival. According to ancient legend, on this day, the gates of hell swing wide open, granting passage to ghosts and spirits to traverse the human realm and partake in offerings. During this ancient festival, elaborate worship rituals are conducted by people to pay homage to their departed ancestors.
Zhongyuan Festival has its roots in Taoism, which categorizes elements into three types: heaven, earth, and water. These are referred to as the shangyuan (upper element), the zhongyuan (middle element), and the xiayuan (lower element), overseen by the Celestial Official, Earthly Official, and Water Official, respectively. The 15th day of the seventh lunar month also marks the birthday of the Earthly Official, which is the origin of Zhongyuan Festival. In Buddhism, this day is called Ullambana Festival, and its origins are entwined with the Buddhist tale of Maudgalyayana, or Mu Lian in Chinese, a disciple of Buddha who journeyed into hell to rescue his own mother.
Maudgalyayana, also known as Mahāmaudgalyāyana or by his birth name Kolita, stood out as a disciple of paramount significance in the lineage of Sakyamuni Buddha and was hailed as the “foremost in supernatural powers.” His mother, driven by greed during her lifetime, fell into the realm of hungry ghosts after death. Unable to bear his mother’s suffering, Maudgalyayana harnessed his supernatural abilities to summon sustenance for her. However, as the delectable fare neared her lips, it transmuted into scorching charcoal, perpetuating her hunger. Helpless, Maudgalyayana sought refuge in the Buddha’s wisdom. The Buddha instructed him that on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, he should prepare five types of edible fruits boasting a hundred flavors, place these offerings in a vessel, and offer them to monks from all corners. By harnessing the collective power of the monks, they could bestow salvation upon the wandering spirits and ultimately rescue his mother. Maudgalyayana followed the Buddha’s guidance and liberated his mother from her anguish.
Over time, this Buddhist event was passed down and came to be known as Ullambana Festival, also referred to as Yulanpen Festival in Chinese. Yulan is a transliteration from Sanskrit, meaning “relief from suffering,” while pen refers to the vessel used for offerings. Alternatively, it has been suggested that Yulanpen is the phonetic rendering of the complete term Ullambana. The commemoration gained substantial popularity in southern China during the Northern and Southern dynasties (420-589). Over time, it has evolved into a vibrant folk carnival, a day when people lavishly honor their ancestors at home. As night falls, the landscape is enlivened by theater performances, lion dances, river lanterns, and an array of other entertainments. This atmosphere is a testament to the seamless integration of Buddhist and Taoist influences.
Within this tapestry of amusements, a defining feature is the customary masquerade, when people dress up as various types of ghosts and monsters. In the Jiangnan region, located at the mouth of the Yangtze River, ghostly carnivals were a captivating tradition during the Qing dynasty. People concealed their original appearance, pretending to be ghosts and monsters as they meandered through the streets. Among all the grisly figures, two legendary “hell envoys” emerged, famously known as the Heibai Wuchang, or the Black and White Impermanences. The White Impermanence, or Baiwuchang, cloaked in white attire and baring a pale face, while the Black Impermanence, or Heiwuchang, donned a deathly black mask with long fangs and a spitting tongue. There was also the Big Head Ghost, with a head bigger than that of a cow juxtaposed with a childlike body, wobbling with each step. Additionally, countless nameless ghosts passed downtown in groups, their chirping echoing all the time. The ghosts in people’s minds were imitated in the real world.
So, what exactly do the ghosts haunting Zhongyuan Festival look like? In religious paintings from the Qing dynasty depicting the Liberation Rite of Water and Land, a Buddhist ritual performed by monks, most of the ghosts are portrayed as humanoid figures with withered faces. One painting in particular — the “Unprovoked Dead Ghosts” — depicts a group of ghosts who die unnatural deaths by falling off horses and being stuck underneath toppling carts and collapsing houses. In addition, the ghost images in zhima, or folk paper charms, are unclothed little people with two flesh-toned horns protruding from their heads and a rather lewd appearance.
Influenced by folk traditions, professional painters also delved into the portrayal of ghosts. Gong Kai (1222-1307), a painter during the last years of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), drew “Zhongshan Going on an Excursion,” a painting illustrating Zhong Kui, a Taoist deity exclusively devoted to fighting ghosts and exorcising evil spirits, traveling with a group of small ghosts, including a black one. Luo Ping, an artist from the Qing dynasty (1636-1912), was also adept at capturing ghostly imagery. Legend has it that his eyes held a unique quality that allowed him to see ghosts even in the daytime. His collection of paintings, “Ghosts Amusement,” has endured through various versions over time. One iteration shows a dozen or so ghosts with disheveled hair running around in the rain, while another portrays the Black and White Impermanences detaining two ghosts.
Another image, which is of a ghostly figure painted using light ink, obscures the ghost’s facial features. This conception stems from the viewpoint in the Book of Rites which posits that upon death, a person’s soul can separate from the body and manifest as a ghostly shadow in the form of chi, the vital energy that runs through all living beings. Modern painter Pu Ru stands as one of the champions of this style. His artworks are replete with striking spectral shadows on paper.
Humans have long speculated about life after death. Chinese antiquity, in its ceaseless quest for answers, has explored this query extensively — spanning from the ancient rituals of Zhongyuan Festival to the unrelenting creation of images of ghosts.
Translator: Zhang Yuzhao; editors: Elise Mak and Ding Yining.
In-text images: All images are from the public domain, collected and provided by Sheng Wenqiang.
(Header image: Ghostlike warriors from Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) painter Yan Hui. Courtesy of Sheng Wenqiang)