by Kate Heyhoe
Kate's Virtual Journey: A Progressive Feast
5th Stop: Hong Kong, China
"Taai Si Wong reports to the King of Hell, which is why he carries a writing pad in one hand and a pen in the other" explains the diminutive Taoist priest. We're standing beneath a towering 15-foot figure, constructed of a bamboo frame covered in brilliantly colored paper and shiny foils. The intimidating paper maché head scowls fiercely, looking almost like a Maori warrior, while the body bears broad golden armor plates and a roaring tiger head on its belly. This figure is just one part of the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts, one of the larger scale ceremonies in Buddhist and Taoist communities throughout China, Malaysia and Vietnam.
"The hungry ghosts are mean-spirited," explains the priest. "They are not our ancestors. In fact, they are no one's ancestors, and that is why they are angry. When our ancestors die, the living must take care of them. The family provides them with food, clothes, and all the materials they need in yinjian, the world of darkness. But some ghosts die with no one to bury them. Some die at sea, some have no family, some die in childhood, and hence they wander the underworld as the uncared-for dead."
But these ghosts do get a second chance. During the seventh month of the lunar calendar (around August for us), the gates of the underworld open up and allow these poor suffering souls a portal to the living world, where they cause mischief and malevolence. Families attempt to appease them with altars of food and gifts set up outside their homes. These sacrifices take place just before the Feast of the Hungry Ghost. Then, on the 15th day, a community-wide festival is held in the ghosts' honor, overseen by Taai Si Wong, a sort of on-site reporter and escort from Hell.
Being an uncared-for dead, it seems, can make a spirit downright testy. The worst of the ghosts are those who were murdered, ones who haunt the scene of their death seeking violent revenge. But all the ghosts act like gangs of mean bullies, beggars and bandits, which is why the living make sacrifices to them outside their homes, fearful of the destruction they might inflict if allowed inside.
For the past two weeks, I've noticed that some boats decorate themselves with lights and circle the harbor. "The women take care of the souls who died at sea," says the stoic, long-robed priest. "They prepare food on paper plates or paper boats, then float them on the sea, throwing out rice as they go."
Tonight is the actual Hungry Ghosts Festival ceremony, and Taai Si Wong shimmers in the torch light of a neighborhood quadrangle. On one end is a theater, where operas, musical performances, Buddhist and Taoist chants, and other ceremonies have been held over the past two weeks. An altar on another side of the quad holds fat incense sticks, which have been smoking constantly, day and night, tended by a steady stream of worshippers.
I watch as giggling children take turns darting around and under one of Taai Si Wong's massive feet. "They do this to gain health and courage," notes the priest. Then the priest bows and leaves my side to prepare for the final ceremony, a spectacular event that includes candies for the children, treats for the ghosts, and the shiu yi, a burning bonfire of paper clothes, spirit money, and ultimately, of Taai Si Wong himself.
During this part of the night's ceremony, a pile of paper clothes and spirit money burn in a huge blaze—offerings to the ghosts who missed out on these goods at death. In traditional funerals, the ancestral dead are buried with square packets of folded paper clothes—one-dimensional shirts, jackets, belts, and even odd paper shoes—to keep them well dressed in the spirit world. (At certain times of year you can even find these paper clothes and money in Chinese and Vietnamese markets in the U.S.) Now, for the uncared-for dead, these paper packets burn unopened at the feet of Taai Si Wong, filling the air with sparks, flame and smoke, setting the scene for the rest of the night's celebration.
Before the crowd, the chief monk dons an ornate crown of five gold and red panels, each representing the five most powerful deities; by wearing this crown, he becomes their voice on earth. Gongs, reeds, and drums set the scene while priests purify the altar with graceful hand signals.
Amid the smoking incense, the altar is laden with sweet buns, cakes, and candies, offerings brought by the people. In a loaves-and-fishes type of action, the priest symbolically transforms these treats into the enormous quantities needed to feed the hungry ghosts. Then, into the hands of the dead and living (mostly children), the priest flings these treats out to the waiting crowd. I can't see what the ghosts are doing, but the living people energetically charge the area, joyously picking up as many treats as their fingers and hands can hold.
Finally, after nearly three hours of chanting, burning, and ceremony, the ghosts are sent home. In a magnificent blaze which lights up the entire quad's sky and warms the cheeks of my face, the paper effigy of Taai Si Wong is set on fire, taking the ghosts with him, away from the land of the living. The reformed souls are released to the Pure Land, while the unreformed ones are dispatched back to the underworld, destined to roam in agony until the next Feast of the Hungry Ghosts.
I reflect on the similarities between this Chinese custom of Hungry Ghosts and those of Halloween and Days of the Dead. All Hallow's Eve began as a religious rite, but today it's a secular holiday, one of the most lucrative in the Western world. And while Mexico's Days of the Dead may sound sad and solemn, they are anything but morose—celebrated on November 1 and 2, these days are a joyous time when the dead and living frolic together for two days in merriment and feast. Perhaps, if the Chinese ghosts could cross cultures as skillfully as they cross dimensions, they might end up here, amid our very own Halloween night, uniting with Western spirits and the Mexican dead in a sort of United Nations of Ghost Hauntings. Now that would be a really neat trick!
October 1999 Itinerary...
Kate's Virtual Journey: A Progressive Feast
Copyright © 2007, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created October 1999 and modified August 2007
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