Passing Through Death
Yvonne Zhang, Shanghai Star.
alert and behave respectfully, it is time for underworld souls
to stay with you.
appear, it's like someone blowing cold air on the back of your
neck, your hair stands on end and you breathe out cold vapour.
So said the boy who could see "dead people" in the film, "The
for a while and see if you feel anything the boy said, because
ghosts are supposed to be wandering about.
to legends and Chinese folklore, during the seventh lunar month,
the gate of hell is wide open and all the spirits are let out
to stay with their living families until the end of the month
when they have to return to hell.
is a festival called Zhongyuan Jie or Yulan Jie, on the 15th
day of the seventh lunar month - that is Friday, August 23.
Local families used to place offerings for their ancestors -
usually food, incense, candles and joss money - to be spent
in the underworld.
is recognized in both Taoism and Buddhism, the two dominant
religions in China. In both, this day is a time when the souls
of the dead are redeemed.
Yulan means "liberation from suffering" in the original Sanskrit
(ullambana), and Yulan Jie has its roots in the Buddhist story
of Mu Lian, a disciple of Buddha, who saved his own mother.
said that Mu Lian (Maudgalyayana in Sanskrit), who gained magical
powers on reaching a high level in knowledge of Buddhist doctrines,
saw his mother starving in hell, with a huge belly and very
small mouth, unable to swallow any food.
had been a miserly woman and had not done a single charitable
deed in her lifetime. She was condemned as a hungry ghost in
the lowest depths of hell. Mu immediately fed his mother some
rice, but the rice was reduced to ashes when it touched her
Buddha for help, but Buddha said the mother had committed too
many sins in her lifetime. The Buddha advised Mu to collect
various types of fruit and vegetables in Yulan basins as an
offering to the Buddhist monks. Only by doing this could his
mother's suffering be alleviated.
generations continue to put fruit and vegetables in Yulan basins
as offerings to monks, and the festival turned into a time for
remembrance of ancestors.
places of South China and Japan, people used to make paper boats
on each of which a lit candle is placed. They would put these
little lanterns into the river and let them float down the water.
Children would try to follow the paths of their lanterns from
the riverbank to see whose lantern could go the farthest.
story said this custom is to send the lanterns as a guide for
the spirits of their loved ones, to show them the road back
home. Another tale said these lanterns are to send away the
spirits of those who died of drowning. It is believed that these
spirits, "drowned ghosts", will suffer in the water until someone
else comes to take their place.
thought that many people have died by drowning simply because
they were pulled into the water by ghosts who were eager to
find a substitute for their suffering.
people have had very practical attitude toward religion and
faith. Religions, either initiated in China like Taoism or through
other countries like Buddhism and Christianity, are perceived
in a totally pragmatic way.
build temples and worship whatever god they believe will be
efficacious and will respond to prayers. They do not care much
about what religion the god represents.
and general belief, all the gods are like officials in charge
of different affairs, judging people from different aspects
and giving out punishments and rewards.
books, there are vivid descriptions about the horrible hell,
the torment that sinners would suffer after death. Those with
the worst sins would be sent to the 18th floor of hell, which
means they could never be born as a human again.
who died of persecution, or after being wronged, would seek
revenge in the living world. They would become malicious ghosts,
who would bother the living and bring bad luck to people and
places affected by their hatred.
movies have been made about ghosts. Classical literature also
has stories about ghosts seeking justice through super-natural
a character in a drama by Guan Hanqing (circa 1210-1300) was
executed on false accusations and she made some severe curses
before her death: it would snow in summer and there would be
drought for long years.
curses were realized and it was not until her father came back
to the region as a high official and redressed her case under
the guidance of her spirit, did the natural disasters stop.
ghosts don't always take on real forms. Often they come and
leave in a breeze. But sometimes they come in horrifying images
of their death: hanged ghosts have protruding tongues, drowned
ghosts leave water wherever they stay, and young beautiful women
make the most scary ghosts, with long hair covering their pale
faces with blood trickling down.
are not invincible. There is a figure in Chinese legends whose
sole mission is to catch and devour ghosts.
Zhong Kui, is often pictured as being tough and dark, with a
thick beard. His portrait is often hung in the house to protect
the family from being hurt by wandering ghosts.
Chinese communities take the festival seriously. In a modern
metropolis like Shanghai, people cannot expect to see large-scale
rituals of worshipping or temple operas held on the day.
you look carefully, you will find in some unconspicuous corners
in residential quarters, candles being lit and incense and joss
paper being burned. It is the past ones of the family enjoying
the offerings of the living.