The Hungry Ghost: A Student Story

Linhan "Angelina" Xu holds up her decorated mini pumpkin in Monica Farling's third-floor classroom at the ELI's building at 189 West Main Street.

Linhan “Angelina” Xu holds up her decorated mini pumpkin in Monica Farling’s third-floor classroom at the ELI’s building at 189 West Main Street.

As instructor Monica Farling’s Level 4 Reading/Writing class discussed how Halloween is celebrated in the U.S., Linhan “Angelina” Xu noticed the similarity between Halloween and a Chinese tradition, the Hungry Ghost Festival.

We hope that you enjoy this essay that Angelina wrote to share how these two fright-filled holidays are alike and how they are different.

Hungry Haunted Holidays

Long, long ago, a group of special people who had died came back into the world at the time of a particular festival, which people called the Hungry Ghost Festival in China and Halloween in America. Although the purpose of the festival in the two countries had similar reasons in the beginning, the activities that people do to observe the holiday have changed a lot in modern times, which means a variety of differences have formed between the Hungry Ghost Festival and Halloween.

Both stories started with the idea of ghosts coming back, but not in the same way. The first difference between the Hungry Ghost Festival and Halloween is the origin. The Hungry Ghost Festival in China came from a story about a man called Men Lan who asked ten Buddhist monks to open the door of the hell on July 14 in order to save his mother. As a result, people always said that the door of hell opens once per year on July 14 and the ghosts of their ancestors come back to the world on that day. In America, the holiday for ghosts is called Halloween and happens on October 31. Hundreds of years ago, people believed that those who had died could come back to life by grabbing living people on that day, which meant the ghosts would come back and kill people to get their bodies so they could live in the real world.

The second reason that the Hungry Ghost Festival is different from Halloween is the traditional customs. On that day, most Chinese people observe a death anniversary for all the people in their family who have died. They put lanterns which look like lotuses into a river to honor the memory of their dead ancestors. In contrast, in America, people started to dress up as ghosts and other frightening creatures to scare the real ghosts, which could help people avoid the ghosts that wanted to grab them. Later, some young people began dressing up as the ghosts on Halloween, asking for offerings and sometimes threatening that they would cause trouble if they did not receive a gift. People also began to carve awful faces on turnips, which they carried and used as frightening lanterns.

Long ago, both Chinese and Americans believed that ghosts would come back and grab people on a particular day. However, the ideas of American and Chinese people today are quite distinct from each other. The Chinese retain their ancient beliefs. Consequently, there are a variety of taboos to which people need to pay attention during the Hungry Ghost Festival. For instance, children are not allowed to go outside, and people cannot mention the Chinese words for ghosts at night. On the other hand, Americans’ ideas have changed significantly, and they no longer believe in the existence of the ghosts, unlike the Chinese. Hence, children who live in America enjoy a celebration at night called trick-or-treat. Children dress up as characters that they like, which include ghosts and other scary characters like witches or monsters but also cartoon characters, superheroes, and movie stars. They go from one house to another and ask for candies in the evening.

Last but not least, the types of vegetation that are used that day are different depending on the country. Chinese people assert that the ghosts rest in the shade under banyan trees during the Hungry Ghost Festival, so these trees are dangerous and no one will grow this kind of tree near their home. Everyone hangs branches from peach trees on the doors of the houses because people in China are convinced that peach branches can kill ghosts. This is similar to the belief in some western countries that garlic can kill vampires. As for America, pumpkins are one of the main symbols of Halloween. Although Americans no longer believe they are scaring away ghosts, they still carve faces on vegetables to decorate the houses and streets, but today they use pumpkins, which are prettier, easier to cut, and are common during the autumn harvest.

In conclusion, the four differences between the Hungry Ghost Festival in China and Halloween in America are the origins, customs, beliefs, and types of plants that people use. Every country has its own unique culture, even when some traditions seem to be similar at first. As an international university student, I am so lucky that I had the opportunities to learn about another “ghost” holiday that is different and happier from the one I grew up with.

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