Understanding the Purpose and Meaning of Ghost Month in China

Important Holidays During Ghost Month and Fun Vocabulary Words

Spirit Way leading to the Ming Tombs
Spirit Way leading to the Ming Tombs. Jon Bower at Apexphotos / Getty Images

The 7th lunar month in the traditional Chinese calendar is called Ghost Month. It is said that on the first day of the month, the Gates of Hell are sprung open to allow ghosts and spirits access to the world of the living. The spirits spend the month visiting their families, feasting, and looking for victims. There are three important days during Ghost Month, which this article will delve into.

Honoring the Dead

On the first day of the month, ancestors are honored with offerings of food, incense, and ghost money—paper money which is burned so the spirits can use it.

These offerings are done at makeshift altars set up on sidewalks outside the house.

Almost as important as honoring your ancestors, offerings to ghosts without families must be made so that they will not cause you any harm. Ghost month is the most dangerous time of the year, and malevolent spirits are on the lookout to capture souls.

This makes ghost month a bad time to do activities such as evening strolls, traveling, moving house, or starting a new business. Many people avoid swimming during ghost month since there are many spirits in the water which can try to drown you.

Ghost Festival

The 15th day of the month is Ghost Festival, sometimes called Hungry Ghost Festival. The Mandarin Chinese name of this festival is 中元節 (traditional form), or 中元节 (simplified form), which is pronounced "zhōng yuán jié." This is the day when the spirits are in high gear. It’s important to give them a sumptuous feast, to please them and to bring luck to the family.

Taoists and Buddhists perform ceremonies on this day to ease the sufferings of the deceased.

Closing Gates

The last day of the month is when the Gates of Hell close up again. The chants of Taoist priests inform the spirits that it’s time to return, and as they are confined once again to the underworld, they let out an unearthly wail of lament.

Vocabulary for Ghost Month

If you happen to be in China during Ghost Month, it could be fun to learn these vocabulary words! While terms like "ghost money" or "ghost month" are only applicable to Ghost Month, other words like "feast" or "offerings" can be used in casual conversation.

EnglishPinyinTraditional CharactersSimplified Characters
altarshén tán神壇神坛
ghostguǐ
vampirejiāng shī殭屍僵尸
ghost moneyzhǐ qián紙錢纸钱
incensexiāng
ghost monthguǐ yuè鬼月鬼月
feastgōng pǐn供品供品
offeringsjì bài祭拜祭拜