Traditional Chinese beliefs state that every entity has a soul. Much like traditional Native American beliefs. One aspect of this worldview is that people that die prematurely, or who perhaps suffered some major unresolved grievance during life which caused them to do so, will wander around the earth, in a dimension unseen to humans, and suffer from extreme hunger and thirst.
Some interpretations of this belief state that the ghosts suffer in hell, or the netherworld. And some also say that even in Heaven there are spirits who have unresolved business on earth. And this is what the Ghost Festival (or Ghost Day or Hungry Ghost Festival) is for.
Chinese communities mark this event with vivacious and music-filled events. Activities include performances (lots of Chinese opera and Chinese traditional and pop music), ritual prayers for the dead, burning lots of incense and “spirit money”, money that is supposed to be redeemable in other dimensions once it is burned by the spirits’ relatives on earth. Presently, some relatives even burn mock laptops, cell phones, and even furniture.
Lavish feasts of grilled pork, broiled chicken, rice and fruit also accompany the festivities.
In return, relatives often wish for blessings from heaven. Most commonly they want help with jobs, school exams and, since we’re talking Chinese here (lot’s of avid gamblers), the lottery.
The festival is on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month. This year it falls on August 10th in our Roman calendar. In fact, the entire 7th lunar month is considered ghost month. On Ghost Day, besides the festivities, families will cook food and offer it to the spirits at their family shrines for their ancestors, in their home, or at the temple.
Traditionally, the festival was an aspect of filial piety, or, something people did in order to be good people. In modern times, however, it has taken on a decidedly more commercial, if not materialistic, tone, even for those who still believe in the spirit world.