Terrifying trend: Halloween takes off

By Wang Shanshan (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-10-30 06:38

A spine-tingling statistic: China's ghost population will boom tomorrow.

But there is no need to be frightened. This is only because Halloween is becoming more and more popular, with hordes of revellers dressing up as ghosts, goblins and witches.

This year the festival is being given a modern twist, as many young Chinese send e-Halloween cards and have online parties.

There is even a tug-of-war in cyberspace between supporters of Western ghosts in black cloaks, and fans of Chinese ones who stick out their long tongues. The latter group is calling for a revival of local ghosts as foreign ones begin to take over.

"There is a 'ghost festival' in China that is more than two thousand years old," one claimed at the popular online forum Tianya.com. "These 'expat ghosts' are not going to be the winners who take all."

No matter which side they are on, Chinese netizens have never shown such interest in ghosts.

The inbox of Miranda Chang, a 28-year-old office manager in Beijing, has been filled with Halloween e-cards over the past week.

"I had never received a single Halloween card before, but this time I've got more than 30," she said on Friday. "It seems that my friends are all remembering me, and they want my hair to stand up!"

Major websites in China such as Sina.com, Sohu.com and 163.com are all offering e-greetings for Halloween on their home pages. A popular e-card at Sohu.com featuring a cute black-cloaked, green-faced ghost has been sent more than 20,000 times.

Halloween in China is a "crazy night" for young people now, according to Sheila Shi, a website editor in Beijing.

"When I was a kid, I celebrated the Chinese ghost festival with my family, and it was a little frightening," she said. "Now I am invited to Halloween parties every year and have a great time. I know that it is for kids in the West, but who cares?"

The revellers probably don't know the origins of Halloween, which go back to ancient Celtic traditions in Ireland. According to Celtic mythology, November 1 marked the end of summer, and it was then that the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural were believed to disappear, and spirits of the dead moved freely among the human world.

Christianity became involved when Pope Boniface IV in the 7th century established an All-Saints Day to remember Christians who had died in the past year. It was observed in May, but in AD 834 Pope Gregory III moved it to November 1. October 31, then, became All Hallows (Saints) Evening, or Hallowe'en.

Frightened villagers in Ireland would leave fruit and nuts on their doorsteps to keep demons from killing their sheep or destroying their property. That tradition gradually developed into the present-day "trick or treat."

It's interesting to see certain parallels with the Chinese ghost festival, also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival in southern China and Southeast Asia. It falls on July 15 of the lunar calendar, or mid-August of the Gregorian calendar.

On that day, Chinese legend says, the gate to hell is opened at midnight, and ghosts swarm into the world of human beings in search of food and money.

These ghosts, who have been starving for a whole year, will enter households if they cannot find enough delicacies in the street. Therefore, people in southern China traditionally put chicken, meat, vegetables, rice, tea and fruit on their doorsteps that day.

In other parts of the country people simply burn pieces of paper resembling currency notes, and in larger cities in East China, such as Shanghai and Hangzhou, the ghosts are now welcomed by candles lit along the street.

According to website editor Shi, the streets that night are empty in Chongqing, as few dare leave their house. "They say if a ghost finds you in the street and follows you back home, your family will have bad luck all year," she said.

People should also not go near bodies of water on the day, said Mabel Jiang, an industrial designer in Hangzhou, capital of East China's Zhejiang Province, home of the famous West Lake. "Ghosts who drowned themselves in West Lake are said to be eager to grab someone into the water so that they can come back to life," she said.

"All in all, people should be very careful during the Chinese ghost festival; they have to keep away from ghosts and not offend them. It's really not as much fun as Halloween."