Chinese festivals are religious in origin, ritualistic in character, fulfilling an occult purpose which has, over time, been replaced by government-authorized “tourist teasers,” such as the Lunar New Year parades or Dragon Boat races. Nevertheless, despite local variations, the Chinese have managed to keep the spirit — no pun intended! — of their rituals alive, honoring gods, ghosts, and ancestors in festivals throughout the year. In their annual festival cycle, for example, the Chinese celebrate two “Festivals of the Dead.” The first, Ching Ming, occurs, ironically, in the spring, when the family must visit the grave sites of its relatives and/or ancestors. The second, Da Jui, or The Hungry Ghost Festival, occurs on the fifteenth day of the seventh moon. However, unlike Ching Ming, which stresses ancestral remembrance, Da Jui seeks to pacify the ghosts of strangers and the un-cared-for dead.
According to myth, the gates of hell open during the seventh lunar month, allowing its furloughed spirits to roam the earth, seeking whatever comfort they can find. To keep these souls amused, the Chinese stage street operas and various other public entertainment, in a kind of Chinese Halloween, Day of the Dead, or All Soul’s Day. It is for this reason that the seventh lunar month is considered the most dangerous month of the year. In the Chinese tradition of ancestor worship, during this period souls of the dead “live” very close to the living. Benign souls — those of loved ones — protect their descendants. However, the souls of those who have died by their own hands, in auto accidents, or by drowning or hanging, have been denied entry into heaven. These blighted souls seek other souls to take their places in hell. To dissuade these “gangsta” souls from their goals, the living use lanterns in the water to guide them away; or they make sacrifices in a safe place outside the home to buy them off.
Japan’s Obon Festival, another celebration for the derelict dead, resembles the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival, but adds drumming and dancing to the revelry. The origin of the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project’s annual Chinese Festival is the Hungry Ghost Festival, for which San Jose’s Chinatown was renowned a century ago.
By Lim Mar
The Japanese Obon Festival is essentially the same as the Chinese ghost month activities. Obon (Chinese yu-lan) is derived from the Sanskrit name for a Buddhist ritual performed for departed spirits. The Sanskrit term is ullambana. Placing paper boats on the water is a Chinese custom, part of the practices of attracting departed spirits during the so-called “ghost month” (lunar seventh month, likely to fall in August). During this month, especially on the fifteenth day, people are concerned with feeding departed spirits, including those who are believed to be temporarily released for a month from their underworld hellish existence. In order to show kindness, people place food for them outside homes and shops. In order to attract spirits to come and eat, various methods of cajolery are used, including paper boats. Recommendation: Stephen Teiser’s The Ghost Festival in Medieval China, Princeton University Press.
By Chris Jochim
Excerpt from Chinatown, San Jose, USA
by Connie Young Yu
Heinlenville [San Jose’s Chinatown] was famous for a traditional village celebration held each summer that was not observed anywhere else in California in such splendid style….Da Jui was San Jose’s own distinctive celebration. Heinlenville’s Da Jui was derived from the old Cantonese village festival — an “all souls day” or literally, “feeding the hungry ghosts” — an appeasing and honoring of the departed….
According to the Chinese calendar Da Jui was supposed to be celebrated the fifteenth day of the seventh month, but the Chinese in San Jose with their work schedule revolving around harvesting of crops, chose to celebrate it earlier.
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