The “King of Hell” Tames the Hungry Ghosts
(This year the Hungry Ghost festival falls between Aug 17- Aug 31.)
All belief, when it comes down to it, is a personal experience. Regardless of any religious belief, life and death are an integral part of every being. Naturally there are some superstitions that resonate with all human cultures and are timeless. For instance, the ancient belief in “Hungry Ghosts” stemming from the tribal folk religion is now considered also part of Chinese Buddhism and Taoism. In Great Britain, Halloween had originated from the traditional holiday of Celts who believed that the last day of October was “the day of the dead” or “the ghost day” when ghosts crossed over the boundary between the living and the dead. The Chinese belief is somewhat similar. In many ways, this festival is reminiscent of Halloween or the Night of the Dead in Western countries.
The Chinese believe that on the days of the Hungry Ghost Month, and especially on the night of the full moon, there is more of a bridge between the dead and the living and that the gates of Hell (in other words the underworld) are opened wide releasing all the hungry ghosts into the living realm.
In case you’ve been wondering: How do Hungry Ghosts come into being? Well, here are some possible explanations. Ideally many cultures believe when death occurs the good soul ascends to Heaven, gets reincarnated or become part of that cosmic energy or God. Most Chinese people believe that the soul contains elements of both yin and yang. The yin is the kui, or demon part, and the yang is the shen, or spirit part. When death occurs, the kui is returned to earth, and the shen resides in the grave or family shrine. The shen, or ancestral spirit is believed to watch over its descendants, and if properly worshiped, bring the living descendants good fortune. If a ghost is neglected however, it will become a kui. Some hungry ghosts could be the result of a deceased that had met a violent end such as murder or succumbing to an unhappy circumstance that resulted in suicide. Hungry ghosts could also be the result of the dead being guilty of evil deeds while they lived, such as theft, sexual misconduct, gluttony and greed.
For those of you who are superstitious, it is best to keep in mind many of the superstitions and taboos surrounding the Hungry Ghost Festival. For instance, at night during this time it would be better to remain indoors or visit only well lit areas to avoid danger of being possessed by evil spirits. After all they are capable of assuming many forms, including snakes, moths, birds, foxes, wolves, and tigers. Some can even use the guise of a beautiful man or woman to seduce and possess the unwary.
Of course there are some precautions in warding off the possible wrath, attacks or pranks of these discontented, deprived entities that have, during the Hungry Ghost Period, been temporarily allowed to roam free in the living world.
One of the best ways to protect yourself is to have the image of Zhong Kui .
Zhong Kui is a most potent protection from evil spirits, demons and hungry ghosts. Here’s why:
Zhong Kui ( also known as Chung Kwei, Chong Kwei, Chung Kui, Chong Kui, Zhong Kwei, Zhung Kwei, Zhung Kui and Shoki,) is a figure of Chinese mythology. He is traditionally regarded as the vanquisher of ghosts, hungry ghosts and evil spirits. He is purportedly able to command 80,000 demons. His image is often painted on household gates as a guardian spirit and in paintings or statues are kept in places of business for protection from evil.
The representation of Zhong Kui’s bearded face is usually very dark, if not black. Sometimes his fierce face is enough to ward off any evil spirits which is why some pendants depict it. Often he is shown sporting a sword which he uses for battling demons and evil spirits. He is also represented with a magical fan, which he uses to ward of hungry ghosts or other evil ghouls. He is also seen with a red bat, which is a harbinger of good fortune through scholarly means, as he was a highly learned man when alive.
According to legend, Zhong Kui had once traveled with Du Ping, a friend from his hometown, to take part in the imperial examinations at the capital. Even though Zhong had succeeded in achieving a top honor in the exams, his title of “zhuangyuan” was stripped by the emperor soon after because of his dreadful and somewhat disfigured appearance. Highly incensed Zhong Kui hurled himself against the palace gate until his skull was broken. His trusted friend Du Ping was there fortunately to provide him with the proper funeral. Meanwhile because of his act of suicide Zhong Kui had gone straight to hell. During his judgement however, the Hell King saw a real potential in Zhong: How Zhong had been intelligent enough to score top honors in the imperial examinations, but wrongly robbed of his inherent right. The Hell King (judge) therefore bestowed on Zhong the title King of Ghosts. He was from then on commissioned to hunt down and capture ghosts and maintain order in the Underworld.
Soon after he became King of Ghosts in Hell, Zhong was granted permission to return to his hometown on Chinese New Year’s Eve, in order to repay Du Ping’s kindness. He did this by giving his younger sister in marriage to Du.
Zhong Kui’s popularity in folklore meanwhile can be traced all the way back to the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang China (712 to 756). According to Song Dynasty sources, when the Emperor Xuanzong was gravely ill, he’d had a nightmare in which he saw two ghosts. The smaller ghost stole a purse from the imperial consort Yang Guifei and a flute belonging to the emperor. The larger ghost, wearing the hat of an official captured the smaller ghost culprit, tore out his eyes and ate them. He then introduced himself as Zhong Kui, and stated that he had sworn to rid the empire of evil. Upon waking the Emperor found that he was in good health and that he had made a complete recovery from his ailment. He at once commissioned the court painter Wu Daozi to produce the image of Zhong Kui as he remembered it in his dream and then showed this painting to all the officials. This image stuck and Zhong was represented from then on by this image.
There are many other ways to protect yourself during the precarious time of the Hungry Ghosts. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts:
-Do not venture outside alone during the dark hours; furthermore, stay away from quiet paths, as ghosts like to target those who are alone. However, if you must, stay away from the walls. Spirits can inhabit them also.
– Don’t pick someone up! If you go out for a late night drink and further, happen to meet someone that you really hit it off—and then they suggest heading back to your place, be mindful of the ghost stories you’d heard and be safe.
– Avoid standing or loitering under a tree in the middle of the night —spirits love trees.
– Bad manners aside, restrain from spitting in the street or at a tree.
-Do not stare at candlelight or a lit fire.
– Avoid stepping on or kicking the offerings or the joss sticks left alongside of the road.
– Cover up your forehead at night; always pin or put up your hair as high as possible. Wearing any kind of a hat is a good idea.
– Do not play or loiter at the playground in the middle of the night, particularly the swings.
– Resist staring at an “apparition” if you happen to see one; swiftly look away or calmly walk away with composure.
– Do not be disrespectful or utter funny jokes or comments on any display altar or offering items along the street
– Resist the urge to look underneath the altar table during a prayer session
– Do not shift your gaze from left to right or right to left repeatedly when you sense something akin to an apparition; instead look straight ahead and advance toward your destination calmly.
– Should you detect an unexplained, pleasant or sweet smell ahead or around you, restrain from sniffing it.
– It’s best to avoid using any Dark or Black color manicure at this particular time.
– Do not sit on the first few Front Rows of any performance or entertainment.
– Don’t take photos! It is believed that cameras can capture spirits. Best to resist taking a selfie this night, but if you must, look closely at the picture—you may discover an unwelcome visitor lurking in the frame with you.
– Do not wait around at any Bus Stop after Mid-Night especially past the bus service operating hours
– You mustn’t whistle alone at night; if you detect someone singing when you know you are alone, do not accompany him or her.
– Do not open your umbrella at night, especially red color umbrellas
– It’s not advisable to wear a red color costume with high heels and walk alone at night
– Resist any urge to pick up any unique items found on the street or road. And certainly, do not pick up any coins on the ground. Any dropped coins belong to the two guards of the underworld, “Cow Head” and “Horse Face”—these are the two entities that spirits need to bribe in order to enter the mortal realm.
– No swimming in the pool or lake in the middle of the night; something maybe waiting to pull your legs under
– You mustn’t hang your clothes out in the middle of the night
– Do not answer or respond when someone calls you, especially from behind
– Do not turn around or turn your head when someone unexpected pats on your shoulders in the middle of the deserted street
– Avoid combing your hair in front of the mirror in the middle of the night
– Do not be rowdy; best not to shout or scream in the middle of the night. Remain as quiet as possible, particularly if you should feel a sudden, unexplained coldness or temperature drop.
– You mustn’t’ be emotional and cry in the middle of the night
– Resist being a curious person or playing the hero if you hear some “strange” sound or noise, especially a soft crying tone.
– Do not leave any fresh or bleeding wounds out in an open air; always cover the injury/ lesion with proper bandage materials.
– And finally, never respond to a dare or take up the challenge to enter a cemetery area or abandoned houses.
Last but not least there is a legend depicting two images of phantasmal beings/deities you see a lot of around this time.
The Taoist Grim Reapers
For all during Hungry Ghost time, one may encounter images or accounts of two phantasmal beings. They are the “hak bak mo seung” , which means, the “Black and White Impermanence.” (“Impermanence” the Buddhist doctrine of mutability, which states that nothing is inert and that all things must transform—in particular, our lives.)
This pair of deities is believed to guide the spirits of the recently deceased to the underworld. The Black Guard has domain over the evil souls; while the White Guard guides those who have been good in life. The White Guard wears a hat is inscribed with the phrase “yat geen fat choi” which means, “Fortune at one glance”; the Black Guard’s hat has words “teen ha tai ping” which translates as, “Peace under heaven”. The tablet he holds is a symbol of authority, engraved with the character ling, meaning “Order”. The two are often depicted with long red tongues, to scare away evil demons.
There are of course various interpretations to this story. Nevertheless, they all share a common theme: loyalty!
Xie Bian and Fan Wujiu were once two policemen in Fuzhou. Respected by all, they saw each other as nothing less than brothers.
One day, the pair was ordered to track down an escaped convict, who had absconded during a torrential rainstorm. The pair ventured out into the violent gusts and pelting rain; they searched far and wide, leaving no stone unturned, but all to no avail. At one point as the downpour had increased in intensity, they decided to split up and each search one half of the city. They’d arranged to meet, at the end of the search, under a specific bridge in the middle of town.
Fan Wujiu made it to the bridge first, but Xie Bian was held up chasing the fugitive. As the waters rose, Fan refused to leave his spot under the bridge, certain that his brother would arrive soon. He remained even as the floodwaters crashed down on him, and so Fan drowned, tragically, just minutes before Xie showed up. In his anguish, for unwittingly causing the death of his brother, Xie, right there and then took his own life.
Observing this feat of true fidelity, the Jade Emperor raised the two policemen to Godhood, and put them in charge of guiding spirits to the afterlife. Never again would a soul be left standing, waiting for help to arrive.