Every year during the Hungry Ghost Festival – also called Enlightenment Ceremonies in Malaysia – the burning of joss paper money and display of food offerings are a common sight to behold. You may have been told that, according to Chinese folklore, burning joss paper money allows the deceased to receive money and material goods, but have you noticed that food offerings are always made with real food?
The reason is found in Buddhist and Taoist origins, where both mention that spirits of the deceased do not have access to food. According to Buddhist lore, food and drink turn into fire in the underworld as soon as a spirit tries to eat. This is particularly emphasised in the story of Mulian.
Much like Buddhism, Taoist lore states that spirits in the underworld are denied food as a result of wrong doings they’ve committed in life. Hence, when the hungry ghost month arrives, the spirits are released and search for real food to satisfy themselves until the end of the month. This is why real food are prepared and laid out as offerings, instead of food made out of joss paper.
At the heart of their respective origins, food offering customs are meant to emphasise and reinforce the practice of good values beyond merely fulfilling spiritual obligations. This is why food offerings differ for different spirits, as the nature and intent of different offerings each cultivate a specific value.
Food Offerings For Loved Ones & Ancestors
Food offerings laid out for deceased loved ones and ancestors are typically grander as prayers are conducted by living family members in their homes. Hence, the offerings are more personalised to the dearly departed’s preferences, which usually consist of their favourite dishes alongside other food items that signify wealth and extravagance such as roast pork, roast duck and fried fish.
At the prayer altars, the dishes are usually offered in sets of three; three bowls of rice, three sets of chopsticks and three cups of Chinese tea. This is because they represent the three realms of heaven, earth and the underworld.
You may also notice that elaborate meals (often vegetarian) are served with empty seats at the dinner table for each of the deceased in the family .
As you can tell, the purpose of ancestral food offering customs not only promotes filial piety; whereby one’s departed loved ones and ancestors are honoured and commemorated, but also emphasises a time of heartfelt reunion between living and deceased family members.
Food Offerings For Orphaned Souls
On the other hand, while food offerings for orphaned souls – spirits who have no family to pay respects to them – are more simplistic, they are no less sincere. There aren’t any restrictions to types of food offered, but typically the offerings consist of buns, fruits, or vegetarian dishes. Sometimes coffee or a bottle of Yakult is offered.
It is common to see such offerings laid at small alters that are found on street curbs or the compounds of Chinese-run business.
In the past, these offerings were motivated by fear, as they were mostly done to protect the living from possible disturbances by roaming spirits. Business owners even tend to serve more elaborate offerings to encourage orphaned souls to either protect their business or leave it undisturbed.
Today, due to better communication which has allowed religious teachings greater outreach, there is now greater clarity of the purpose of these offerings. Being conscientious in taking time to prepare food offerings for orphaned souls is less about fear of spooky spirits, and more about having empathy and showing kindness to those less fortunate than ourselves – it just so happens that the recipient of our good will is a spirit!