In the seventh month of the Chinese calendar, Taoists often light incense and leave food offerings along roads and streets across Asia, but experts and believers cannot agree on a single explanation for why or how this practice came to be.
Text: Rachel Genevieve Chia
Near Singapore’s Chinatown district on the day of the Hungry Ghost Festival, a tradition is in full swing. Food is laid out; money and new clothes are proffered. Nearby, singers perform loudly on a getai stage.
This celebration isn’t for the living, but the dead.
For those of Taoist denomination, the seventh lunar month (from August 22 to September 19 in 2017) represents the Chinese ghost month, where the spirits of the dead are believed to return to Earth.
Known as “hungry ghosts” or “wandering spirits”, their month-long sojourn lets them roam the mortal world and reunites them with descendants, who offer food and burn them joss money and paper clothes.
But when descendants cannot (or will not) make these offerings – or when no descendants remain – it is believed these spirits go hungry.
To avoid incurring their wrath, the Chinese burn incense and leave food like cakes or fruit by the roadside, sometimes alarming those who step over or on these offerings by accident.
These are wandering spirits, so offerings must be made by the roadside where it is likely they will pass by… Road junctions are popular spots, as people believe the spirits may be lost, not knowing where to turn, when they arrive at an intersection.
-Ang Mok Wai, 72, taxi driver
“These are wandering spirits, so offerings must be made by the roadside where it is likely they will pass by,” explains Singaporean taxi driver Ang Mok Wai. “That way, any spirit that passes by can receive the food. Road junctions are popular spots, as people believe the spirits may be lost, not knowing where to turn, when they arrive at an intersection.”
The 72-year-old adds that he had been among the “throngs of believers” who went to Chinatown on the 15th night of the Hungry Ghost Festival, and brought incense, tofu, rice and rambutans to offer hungry ghosts.
Incense prayers for wandering spirits are commonly made along the road, while those for ancestors are done in homes or temples. Primarily a practice observed by Taoists and some Buddhists in Singapore, Malaysia, China and Hong Kong, the custom is not religious in nature, but a folk tradition, says Taoist priest Chung Kwang Tong from the San Qing Gong Temple in Singapore.
The priest suggests that this practice could have originated from Chinese immigrants who migrated from South China to other parts of Asia. In the absence of Taoist priests, the early Chinese may have done their own prayers to make peace with the spirits, which evolved into the seventh month practices of today.
But researchers have different theories.
“In ancient China, when people left on a long journey, the custom was to host a banquet for the person by the road, as that was the beginning of the journey,” says Dr Lo Yuet Keung, an Associate Professor from the National University of Singapore’s Department of Chinese Studies.
He adds: “This practice could have given rise to the burning of incense by the sidewalk. People try to feed the spirits along roads by using the smell of incense to attract them to the spot where food offerings are.” He says the custom is also observed in Taiwan.
In ancient China, when people left on a long journey, the custom was to host a banquet for the person by the road, as that was the beginning of the journey. This practice could have given rise to the burning of incense by the sidewalk.
-Dr Lo Yuet Keung, National University of Singapore
Dr Livia Kohn, Emeritus Professor of Religion and East Asian studies at Boston University, proposes that the practice evolved from erecting roadside shrines in China and Japan. “People used to offer flowers and incense by the road to ask for safe passage from the Earth deity. These offerings were placed particularly at road curves and corners,” says Dr Kohn, who has written and edited 35 books on Taoism and Chinese practices.
She says the practice of burning incense could have developed into the Japanese ritual of lighting candles along roads at the end of the seventh month, to guide spirits back to the underworld.
The practice’s origin is not the only detail about the custom that is sketchy. Believers also provide differing interpretations of the meaning behind the offerings. “I burn incense at the roadside near my office to appease the spirits, so they won’t come into the building and play pranks on the staff,” says Hong Kew Ming, 56, who manages a massage parlour with his wife in Malaysia.
Singaporean housewife Tan Mui Hoong, 62, adds: “It’s an optional show of mercy toward orphaned ghosts or those with no descendants, but it brings you good karma when you yourself pass into the afterlife. These offerings are made out of kindness – much like how in Western countries, people place flowers by the roadside to mourn the dead after a disaster.”
It’s an optional show of mercy toward orphaned ghosts or those with no descendants, but it brings you good karma when you yourself pass into the afterlife. These offerings are made out of kindness – much like how in Western countries, people place flowers by the roadside to mourn the dead after a disaster.
-Tan Mui Hoong, 62, housewife
But beyond personal benefits and protection, the practice hints at deeper aspects of the human condition, such as spirituality and remembrance.
“The seventh month is a time of salvation for these spirits. This is a way to remember those who have perished in unfortunate deaths like earthquakes or traffic accidents,” says priest Chung, adding: “It is believed these spirits have many grievances, as their lives were suddenly torn from them. People make offerings out of kindness to let the souls of these spirits be liberated from their suffering.”
Dr Lo also suggests that the practice engendered benevolence among its observers. “Feeding hungry ghosts with whom one has no connection is similar in spirit to feeding hungry strangers in soup kitchens – done out of compassion,” he says, of the food offerings made. “Sometimes, parents also use it to teach their children about kindness toward those who are not as fortunate.”
But in the big picture, the concept of venerating the dead is hardly unique to Asia, says Dr Kohn, adding: “Making offerings is part of the universal human condition, for once people in different cultures develop an awareness of their dead, they try to establish a relationship with them.”
Related: Rituals of Remembrance
Related: Religion Comes to Town
Related: And Thereby Hangs A Tale