The Zhongyuan Festival, also known as Ullambana Festival among Buddhists, falls on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, on Aug 10 this year.
Since ancient times, the Chinese have believed that the gates of hell open on that day and so people hold all kinds of activities to honor the ghosts. Therefore, the festival is also called the Ghost Festival.
There are two other festivals in China to honor departed spirits of ancestors: Qingming Festival (in spring) and the Chung Yeung Festival (in autumn). In both, living descendants pay homage to their deceased ancestors. Zhongyuan Festival is distinct from these, as the deceased are believed to visit the living.
Buddhist doctrine says that by offering articles on the festival day, deceased parents and relatives can be saved from bad situations in the after life. The Ullambana Festival of Buddhism has two meanings. One is to persuade people to provide for Buddhist monks. The other is to convince people to do more charitable deeds to release departed souls from sin and advocate family devotion.
The legend of Mulian Saves His Mother
The Ullambana Festival is related to the legend of Mulian Saves His Mother.
It is said that after going through innumerable trials and hardships in the nether world, Mulian finally saw his mother, only to find her being tortured by a group of hungry ghosts. Mulian wanted to send his mother rice and dishes with an earthen bowl, but the food was snatched by the hungry ghosts. Mulian had no choice but to ask Buddha for help. Moved by his filial piety, Buddha presented Mulian with the Ullambana Sutra and told him to participate in an Ullambana Fast onJuly 15 of the lunar calendar. On that day, food of various kinds as well as five fruits -- peaches, plums, apricots, chestnuts and dates -- should be provided to all Buddhist monks. Under the instruction of the Ullambana Sutra, Mulian filled the Ullambana vessel with fruits and vegetarian food to offer a sacrifice to his mother on July 15. His starving mother finally got the food. To show his gratitude to the Buddha, Mulian held an almsgiving activity every year to release the hungry ghosts from the disaster of being hanged by their feet.
The day has become a festival to honor departed ancestors, relatives and friends.
Floating water lantern
Among the various folk customs of the Zhongyuan Festival, the floating water lantern is the grandest. The water lantern, also called lotus lantern, is usually made by pasting paper into alotus shape. Then a lamp or candle is placed inside. On the night of the Zhongyuan Festival, lanterns are released into rivers or lakes.
People think that they should hang out lanterns to celebrate the ghosts. As human beings and land belong to yang, which means positive, so ghosts and water belong to yin, which means negative. The dark and mysterious underworld usually reminds people of the gloomy sepulchral hell where the ghosts suffer. So lanterns are floated on the waters.
Burning paper "money"
It is said in folklore that departed ancestors will be released by Yama for half a month. As a result, there is a custom to welcome ancestors at the beginning of July and send them off on July 15. When sending off the spirits, people will burn a lot of paper "money" so ancestors can spend it in the nether world. They will also insert some paper "money" into an envelope on which the user's name has been written. The envelope will be burnt for sacrifice.
A popular folk custom during the festival requires that a grandfather or uncle on the mother's sides end a live goat to his grandson or nephew. Legend has it that the custom has something to dowith the myth of Chenxiang Saving His Mother from the Mountain. The custom has gradually evolved into sending a pair of flour goats.
The festival is quite popular among Chinese and is celebrated not only on the Chinese mainland, but also in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Besides, it has spread to and is celebrated in Thailand, Japan, North Korea, Singapore and Malaysia.