On Friday, China Daily published my latest monthly column: Ancestors have a special seat at the table for ‘Ghost Festival’. It traces my first experience with the festival and also how it ultimately moved me to re-imagine my own relationship with ancestors (particularly my mother, who passed away when I was in high school). Here’s an excerpt from the piece:
The first time I ever experienced the “Ghost Festival” with my husband’s family in their rural Zhejiang village, it was the table that caught my attention.
Two candles up front illuminated a fine spread of homemade delicacies from my mother-in-law’s kitchen, from spicy stewed fish to red-braised pork. The food was surrounded by six white porcelain rice bowls with chopsticks and six tiny matching cups filled generously with the local rice wine.
Even though the wooden benches surrounding the table were ready to welcome people for a real feast that evening, they remained empty. After all, the real guests — the family’s ancestors — had probably already arrived, in ghostly form. These ancestors had always presided over the entrance hall to the home through their sepia-toned photos hung high on the wall. But the table arranged below them seemed to strengthen their presence in the room.
And just as family members often do at special occasions and holidays in China, we were presenting the ancestors with money that evening. Granted, the neat, silvery piles of joss paper folded into boat-shapedyuanbao, the imperial ingots once used as currency in ancient China, looked nothing like the crisp yuan we would normally stuff into festive red envelopes. And unlike real banknotes, these paper yuanbao needed fire to reach the hands of their recipients. Nevertheless, the idea behind it all — that a little money could show you cared — remained the same.
As I watched my father-in-law bow before the ancestors’ table with sticks of incense in his hands, I was struck by how the entire scene — from the steaming dishes on the table to the paper money on the floor — was so full of life. In that moment, it was possible even for me, a woman who usually didn’t believe in ghosts, to imagine the ancestors were all seated before us.
But for my husband and his family, it wasn’t imagination at all. The ancestors were still a part of their world, as they had always been. Death had merely delivered them to another realm, where their presence carried on in each and every day, just like their photos on the wall. They brought strength to the family and blessed everyone. They could even “visit” the family, which is said to happen during the Ghost Festival.
Experiencing the Ghost Festival with the family, along with their ideas of how the deceased fit into our world, brought great consolation to me.
You can read the rest of the column (in full color) right here. And if you like it, share it!