The Chinese version of Halloween

Although this festival is not celebrated in mainland China as it once was, the Festival of the Hungry Ghost originated more than twenty-five-hundred years ago when it was believed by many Chinese that ghosts cannot rest and had to be appeased so they would not turn from wondering ghosts to malevolent demons. By remembering dead family members and paying tribute to them, it is believed that they will not intrude on the lives of the living or cause misfortunes or bad luck.

One legend says that Mu Lian [also known as Maudgalyāyana—568 BCE] told his mother he wanted to be a Buddhist monk and left home.

Years later, he returned to discover that she had died. He knew that his mother had done bad things in her life and was probably in hell.  Since his mother had no one to feed her, she had to be hungry so he offered food to her hungry ghost but the food didn’t reach her.

To solve the problem, Mu Lian was told by his Buddhist master to become a vegetarian and perform spiritual deeds. After following this advice, on the 14th day of the seventh lunar month [August], he saved his mother from hell and she was no longer a hungry ghost.

The history of the Chinese Festival of the Hungry Ghost is much older than the tradition of trick-or-treating on Halloween night in the United States—Halloween says that the practice of trick-o- treating spread from the western United States and moved east starting in 1942 during World War Two when sugar was rationed  and the practice then became an American tradition.

And according to Time Magazine, Americans spend about $7 Billion annually on Halloween candy, costumes and parties. Time Magazine says, “Modern-day Halloween [October] traditions are said to derive from ancient rituals intended to protect people from ghosts, harsh winters and crop failures.”


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

His latest novel is the multiple-award winning Running with the Enemy.

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15 Responses to The Chinese version of Halloween

  1. Hari Qhuang says:

    I have always wondered how the “simple” Ulambana turned into such a “festive” event.
    I mean, in Singapore, they have special “boutiques” that sell paper-made items (houses, cars, jeweleries, etc).

    • I suspect it may be the same reason that caused Halloween to become what it is today in the United States—a candy fest with costumes. The traditions behind this Western “festive” event have nothing to do with the old traditions and most kids if not all have no idea what the traditions were behind Halloween. Instead, it has become an event where parents take photos of their children in cute costumes and kids get bags of candy to gobble down leading to a sugar rush at school the next day and maybe many stomach aches. Very few parents in America teach their kids the meaning behind holidays like Halloween because they probably don’t know the history or care.

      Today, almost everything has to do with making money. Once the private sector figures out a way to earn money from something like the ancient superstitions behind Halloween, they will go all out to make as much money as possible and then some. Forget the traditions behind the event. Focus on what you can sell: costumes and candy.

      I saw a Halloween bumper stick earlier this week on another car that said Halloween was a religious holiday but it didn’t explain that Christianity wasn’t the religion behind this festive, sugar-laden event. The old traditions behind Halloween came from Pagan religions. The same pagan religions that early Christians persecuted, burned at the stake, and slaughtered as they destroyed the old temples and hunted down the priests of those old religions.

      Even Christmas comes from pagan origins. In fact, the Christian Puritans banned Christmas and made it illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 – 1681. This may also help explain why the Jehovah Witness religion doesn’t celebrate Christmas. But if money can be made, let’s push Christmas.

      • Hari Qhuang says:

        I totally agree with what you said. Many holidays have been turned into “Hallmark Events”.

        In the past, Ulambana was all about the chanting of the Sutra for the whole month. I don’t think Buddhist folks from different ethnic backgrounds celebrate the Ulambana the way the Chinese folks do. I mean, they don’t burn paper houses in India or Nepal!

      • Capitalism in an open market economy has its good side by offering individuals opportunities to prosper if they hit on the right idea and work hard. For example, Steve Jobs; J.K. Rowling; Steven King; Bill Gates, or Zuckerberg. But I don’t think making money by changing the original meaning of traditions so those traditions can be commercialized for profit is one of them.

      • Hari Qhuang says:

        Well said! 😀

        My late Grandma told me that when she was young, the way Chinese folks pray was much more simpler.

        I remembered when we were buying incense sticks, the shop keeper asked us if we want to buy some cellphones and burn them for our ancestors.

        My Grandma answered him, “No! Absolutely no! Even if they really “accept” the cellphones when I burn some for them, I fear the prospect that they might call me at night!”


      • I love your grandmother’s answer about the cell phone. Yes, LOL! Imagine getting calls from the other side. I’ll bet the cell phone company—in very small print—says it will charge more for those calls. A very out-of-this-world charge. More expensive by the minute than long distance from one country to another.

      • Hari Qhuang says:

        The charge would be the least concerned thing! 😀
        I worry more about getting a heart-attack! L-O-L!

        “Hello? I’m your great-great-great Grandfather. I’m trying my the new cellphone you sent me. It has lots of cool applications!”

        I do not want to experience THAT! L-O-L!!!

      • I don’t know. I might want to ask my dead ancestors a few questions to learn more about the history of my family. And I have a few things I want to ask my mother’s father to discover if he did sexually molest her as a teenage girl—as I suspect he did when she was fourteen and ran away from home never to return. And if that was true, I might haunt him by calling him in that hot place where he may be living in the afterlife until he destroyed the phone to escape me.

      • Hari Qhuang says:

        In our local Chinese traditions, people like you (who has such bravery) is called as “a man whose heart has grown hair”.
        It means that you are so brave that you scare ghosts away. 😀

        (Note to myself: must investigate why they think people who is brave has hairy heart! L-O-L!)

      • So funny. I’m also curious about how a hairy heart equals courage. Maybe most warriors who were great in battle were also very hairy so people imagined their hearts had to grow hair too. LOL

        As for bravery, when an actual event comes along that tests an individual’s bravery/courage, rational thought plays little or no role in how one reacts. We either react in what is considered a courageous and brave way or we panic; maybe freeze and/or run and it happens so fast, there isn’t much or any time for conscious thought. The adrenaline surges into our blood in a flood and we react automatically from training or not. And that may explain why the U.S. Marines spends so much time to training the troops in repetition to react with what many consider to be courage when it was only an automatic response.

        I think that if I got a phone call from someone claiming to be my long-death grandfather and he was living in “hell” [if hell really exists as we imagine it], I’d think it was a joke and probably would play along while waiting for this supposed ghost to ask me for my Social Security number or credit card numbers claiming that the ghost needed proof I was really his grandson.

      • Hari Qhuang says:


        If I got a phone call like that I would give the “person” some tests.

        There are many secret recipes that are only passed along to certain members of the family.

        That person should know how to answer my questions very well… if he is really an ancestor of mine! 🙂

      • I think I’d have to dig through the old family Bible and photo albums to come up with my questions.

      • Hari Qhuang says:

        Ha ha ha
        That’s a great idea! 😀

  2. Teepee12 says:

    It’s remarkable how beliefs cross over cultures … Remarkable. Thanks. I would never have learned this except from you.

    • You are welcome. Yes, it is amazing how traditions cross over and then evolve through the ages—sort of the same way gossip spreads rumors until years later the actual event that started the gossip has changed the truth so much that it is totally different from the actual facts of the event.

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