Chinese legend has it that a long time ago, there lived a young man, Mu Lian and his widowed mother. His mother was a wicked woman. She often turned away beggars who came to her door asking for food. She liked to jeer at the working poor and their dirty clothes; in essence, the only person she cared about was herself.
Mu Lian on the other hand was a kind soul. He was a gentle person and always willing to help anybody who was in need. One day he decided to become a monk and this did not please his mother. She scowled at him for being such a useless son; she wanted him to go out and work to earn more money for her. Wealth and materialistic things meant more to her than anything else.
When she saw that she could not dissuade her son, a plan began to hatch in her mind. She decided to play a trick on the monks just to get back at them for taking away her son. Now it was the custom to offer food to the monks (this custom still exists to this very day), but only vegetarian food. Mu Lian’s mother thought that it was nonsensical that these monks did not eat meat, so one day she offered food to some monks and slipped in some non-vegetarian items.
According to one version of the story, the wicked woman was punished immediately and was sent to hell. Mu Lian wanted to save his mother’s soul because he knew her soul was suffering.
He set out and ventured deep into the bowels of hell. Soon he came upon his mother and he saw that she was sitting a bed of very sharp pointy stakes and was holding on to a basin of blood.
Mu Lian tried feeding her some food but the food would either turn into fire or blood. It was hopeless: he couldn’t do anything for her so he left. He returned home and started to pray.
It is said that Buddha heard Mu Lian’s prayers and was touched by Mu Lian’s compassion. Thus Buddha decreed that once a year, the gates of hell be opened so that the lost souls will be able to roam the earth and be fed. This is why every year on the seventh day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, the Chinese celebrate the festival of the hungry ghost. This is one of five major festivals in the Chinese culture.
Food and drink will be offered at night outside the gates of houses. This is so that the ghosts do not enter their houses and cause trouble. A traditional food made for this festival is steamed sweet bread. Lanterns are lit to help guide the ghosts to the feasts set out for them. Special paper money is also burned as offerings to these ghosts so that they can take it back to hell and spend it there. To make sure that these souls stay out of trouble, entertainment is set up round the clock, mainly Chinese operas performed on outdoor stages.