On the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, the gates of hell fling open and ghosts roam the earth freely to visit their living relatives.
Or so goes the origin story of the Hungry Ghost Festival, a day celebrated predominantly by the Chinese diaspora across East and Southeast Asia. It occurs during Ghost Month, which began on July 26 and concludes on August 26 this year, with the festival observed August 12.
While the Hungry Ghost Festival is often said to have Buddhist roots, it is more accurately described as a Chinese folk religion arising from Taoism, says Justin Tan, coeditor of Spirit Wind: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit in Global Theology—A Chinese Perspective.
“In folk religions, good and evil is always around you,” he explained. “There [is a sense that] demons and angels are everywhere.”
Many Asian Christian leaders would agree with that sentiment. But most believe celebrating the holiday seems to raise ghosts to the level of God. Instead, this month serves as an important time for the church to reflect on its own convictions about spirits and the Holy Ghost himself.
This starts with Chinese Christians openly acknowledging the existence of the spirit world, says Tan.
“This is an active power in Asia, so we have to tackle it,” he said. “In the West, you can say that you don’t need to care about this. You have to in Asia. We reject it to our own disadvantage.”
Defending and honoring
An all-pervading awareness of the spirit world often leads people to feel afraid that evil spirits—“hungry ghosts” that experienced unfortunate or violent deaths or committed bad deeds in their lives—may attack them during Ghost Month. Countless websites in Asia have published listicles highlighting activities that one should avoid, such as not kicking food offerings to these ghosts, not hanging clothes outside to dry, not going swimming, and not holding weddings.
“People are very cautious of their actions during this month. They will work to appease the evil spirits,” said Tan.
Appeasing these spirits often includes activities like praying to them and sacrificing food or paper money to “feed” them. To that end, in Singapore, it is common to see food offerings placed along sidewalks or at the void decks or communal spaces of HDB flats (i.e., public housing apartments), people burning incense paper in large metal bins, and getai or Chinese opera performances taking place to “entertain” wandering ghosts.
In Hong Kong and Taiwan, individuals, companies, schools, and nonprofits may serve rice, soup, cookies, or soft drinks to ancestors.
Christians across the region largely eschew these rituals as well as those focused on ghost interaction and ancestral worship, where food or paper items—often in the shapes of luxury goods like fancy cars or designer bags—are offered to one’s ancestors to ease their suffering and help them “enjoy” the afterlife.
Respect for one’s elders is biblical, and expressing filial piety is a strong component of Chinese culture. So Chinese Christians may experience fear and guilt for not paying their respects to their ancestors in these traditional ways.
“Ancestor worship is a complex, elaborate system,” said Khiok-Khng Yeo, a New Testament professor at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. “The fear that younger generations may experience in [trying to appease and honor] older generations—that’s what the gospel message can overcome. The gospel teaches us that love is not [given] out of compulsion, fear, or terror. It gives us freedom and helps us know that we are created and loved by God.”
Encountering evil spirits
One thing is clear: In the region, spirits—holy or otherwise—are not an abstract notion but an ever-present reality.
“Augustine said that evil is the absence of good. In Asia, however, evil is not just philosophical or conceptual but realized,” said Tan. “We often experience evil spirits before we experience the Holy Spirit.”
For Tan, Christianity obviously stands in opposition to folk religious beliefs as it declares that God created a good world, not a dualistic world. Yet even Christians can find it hard to rid themselves of a dualistic worldview.
“Christians reject the idea that ghosts are released from hell because God reigns over the whole world. But out of that, they still have a fear of the supernatural,” Tan said.
“When Christianity came over to Asia, Western missionaries tried to say these [beliefs] were superstitious. But it’s difficult for Chinese people to get rid of them as they see evil manifestations everywhere and in their daily lives. I’ve experienced them myself.”
Growing up in Malaysia, Yeo saw people who were possessed and shared that both Catholic and Protestant churches carry out exorcisms in the country.
In Taiwan, Christians use their own theological convictions to make sense of wandering ghosts.
“Theologically conservative Christians consider them untrustworthy mythic figures passed down from one generation to the other. Charismatic Christians are more animist, believing that these wandering ghosts are biblical ‘devils’ that can cause harm to people,” said missiologist Paulus Pan. “Therefore, they will perform counteractivities, such as prayer walks, to expel them.”
The Chinese government has used the idea of being possessed by evil spirits to crack down on religion.
“This arouses fear from Chinese people” because they connect the idea of demon possession with Christianity, said Chengwei Feng, who is researching eschatology and Chinese religion and science at Fuller Seminary. (Despite originating in China, the festival is not as visible compared to Lunar New Year and the Mooncake Festival. Feng attributes this to China’s hostility to any form of religious activity over the past decade.)
For Feng, having a keen awareness of the spirit world is not restricted only to the duration of the Hungry Ghost Festival. Rather, it is what defines the Chinese worldview.
“It is deeply embedded in our cultural upbringing. It does not mean I have to be Buddhist or Taoist to believe it,” he said.
However, having such a worldview does not imply that the Holy Spirit and other spirits are on equal footing.
“The Holy Spirit’s work is always holistic,” said Yeo. “He may nudge or persuade but will not force anyone to make confessions of faith.
“An evil spirit does not promote wholeness. Its violence is self-disintegrating.”
For Chinese Christians in Asia, being filled with the Holy Spirit is an assurance of God’s presence and a safeguard against any attacks by evil spirits during the Hungry Ghost Festival—and beyond.
“Being aware not only of the world as it appears but also of the spiritual world is a more honest way of looking at the reality of the world we live in,” said Yeo. “That’s New Testament language and [reflects] a New Testament world. If we want to understand what is going on today, simply using the language of modern science will probably not be adequate. An understanding of Christian faith in our world today transcends the sciences.”
“Filled with the Holy Spirit”
“Asia, and particularly China, was a favorite destination for early Pentecostal missionaries,” wrote Allan Anderson in To the Ends of the Earth: Pentecostalism and the Transformation of World Christianity.
Recent data on the number of Christian Pentecostals in Asia is lacking, but a 2006 Pew Research Center study noted that Pentecostals represent 3.5 percent of Asia’s population. While the Philippines and South Korea have the largest percentages of Pentecostals represented in their populations, the movement continues to be popular among the Chinese, especially among the diaspora.
“The majority of Pentecostals in urban centers like Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Surabaya, Jakarta and Manila are, with some notable exceptions, upwardly mobile, middle-class ethnic Chinese,” wrote Singaporean sociologist Terence Chong in a 2015 paper.
In general, Asian Pentecostals and evangelicals’ differences in experiences with the Holy Spirit mirror global divides. But semantic slippage can lead to varying approaches to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in Asia.
“Hong Kong evangelicals tend to avoid the Holy Spirit, as the term [in Cantonese] is confused with gui (鬼), the Mandarin word for ‘ghost,’” said Calida Chu, teaching fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity. “Evangelicals may also criticize Pentecostals for mingling with ghosts because of this confusion, but it is a misunderstanding.”
Because of this, the phrase filled with the Holy Spirit is not actively used among Hong Kong evangelicals, Chu explained.
Its theological equivalent? “God is guiding me.”
Chu also described a theological imbalance in Hong Kong evangelicals’ approach to worship music and sermons.
“Outside of Pentecostal traditions, mentions of the Holy Spirit are minimal. In the Chinese context, people are so cautious that no one has composed any hymns [on the Holy Spirit]. If you find something about the Holy Spirit, it is likely from a hymn composed by missionaries.”
Feng cited the Mandarin word qi (氣) or “life force” as a word that helps Chinese Christians in mainland China relate to conceptualizations of the Holy Spirit in the Bible and in Christian theology. He says being filled with the Holy Spirit is very popular in mainland Chinese churches—a phenomenon he attributes to the Pentecostal movement’s spread in the 1930s and ’40s and to leaders like Watchman Nee.
While the West seems preoccupied with discussing the manifestation of charismatic gifts like speaking in tongues through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, Chinese Christians are “less bogged down by this debate as they focus on the liberating power of the Holy Spirit,” said Feng.
The Holy Spirit’s liberating work is particularly evident in the country’s “996” work culture, where many young Chinese professionals work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week.
“In their daily work, people often find that their [physical] bodies are fully occupied and their souls are ‘squeezed’ to work or care for family,” said Feng. “With the Holy Spirit, there has been a revival of interest in taking care of one’s spiritual well-being on top of psychological well-being.”
Opening doors for the gospel
Chinese Christians in Asia often experience a mixture of fear and fascination about the spirit world, says Tan. For him, this is a starting point for evangelism.
“If there is a Holy Spirit, there must be evil spirits. Chinese people will understand this in reverse,” Tan said. “If we acknowledge the fact that there are evil spirits in the world, we can say that our God is in control of the world. He is a God of love and truth.”
Chinese Christians in Asia cannot ignore the Bible’s reference to believers not wrestling “against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12) or the devil as a prowling lion (1 Pet. 5:8), said Tan.
“In the West, there is a move towards getting rid of superstition and sensationalism. This is not happening in Asia, where people are face-to-face with the spirit world,” he said.
That may or may not make this time of year an opportune moment to reach those outside the church.
“Some Christian pastors have tried to evangelize during Ghost Month by redefining it as ‘Peace Month,’ but the Taiwanese people have not accepted this idea yet,” said Pan.
In general, Pan has observed Chinese Christians sharing their faith when visiting and spending time with those in need. More charismatic churches perform miracles and prophetic healings, “demonstrating the power of the Holy Spirit to attract people to join.”
“More than a thousand young professionals have been baptized in China,” said Feng. “The gospel movement there is very much attributed to the move of the Holy Spirit.”
When Tan speaks with people living with mental health challenges, he talks about their psychological states but also factors in the spirit world and its impact on their lives. He looks to the desert fathers for wisdom on reckoning with otherworldly spirits and illuminating hope into peoples’ lives in Asia.
As Tan put it: “The desert fathers knew what it meant to be attacked by the devil. They were alert towards the spirit world but not afraid of it. Their struggles were spiritual and psychological. In Asia, we have to combine them as well.”