A small table with some food offerings in front of a small bank.

Hungry Ghosts

Today is Ghost Day, the day where the door to heaven and hell will open and ghosts will wander earth for another two weeks. (In two weeks, they will be guided back by the burning of water lanterns.) In Taoism and Buddhism, Ghost Day is celebrated through the Ghost Festival (中元節). Food offerings and incense burning should calm the “hungry ghosts.”

Hungry ghosts are the “improperly dead” or “marginal dead” (according to anthropologist Robert Weller, via Albert Wu). They are the ghosts who died a brutal or tragic dead – the drowned, killed, starved, or forgotten. Different from ancestors, they do not have descendants who worship them, so they are destined to stay hungry, thirsty, and restless. They scuffle the streets, feeding off human attention.

Out of tradition, sympathy, and caution, people in Taiwan prepare offerings for the hungry ghosts. On small tables outside the houses or offices (you don’t want ghosts inside!), you can see food offerings and burning incense, sometimes humble, sometimes exuberant. Luckily, the ghosts also feed off the essence of the food, so after they are gone, you can eat it yourself.

Another reason to call ourselves lucky is that hungry ghosts are asocial, so you usually don’t have to deal with many of them at the same time. If you should meet any – and if you did not prepare an offering – make sure to appease them by calling him or her as “good brother” or “good sister.”

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