Hungry Ghosts

The food metaphor begins with the greeting in Chinese 'Have you eaten?' which is the equivalent of saying ‘Hi’ or ‘Hello’ in English. You will find a large number of compounds and expressions in Chinese with 'chi' ('to eat').

To bear hardships is referred to as 'eating bitter (chiku); to accept a kickback is to literally eat one (chi huikou); to suffer a blow or loss is to 'eat a loss' (chikui). In the not too distant past, a disciple or devotee of a religion was not called 'one who believes,' but one who 'eats' a faith such as a Catholic (chi Tianzhujiaode), and a Protestant (chi Yesujiaode).

Food is not only for the living but the dead as well. There are offerings of food to ancestors, gods, and ghosts. A famine in China spelled calamity not only for the living, but also for the dead. Those who succumbed to starvation were condemned to roam the land as hungry ghosts until they could be properly fed by their descendants.

Food offerings to the dead were called ‘blood food’ (xueshi). Ghost Festivals (Zhongyuanjie) celebrated by Chinese communities around the world prepare ritualistic offerings to please visiting ghosts and spirits and as well as the gods and their ancestors. Other activities include releasing or burying miniature paper boats on water to help the boat ghosts charter their way across what is presumably The River of Death.

In Buddhism, the six divisions of the wheel of birth and death include hungry ghosts. If that is the case, there must be quite a few hungry ghosts out there. 'Have you eaten?' as many Chinese writers have pointed out is in fact a greeting among hungry ghosts.

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