Wandering Spirits

By Emily Dalton
November 1, 2018

This year early September marked the end of Ghost Month (鬼月) in Singapore, the period when ghosts and spirits are thought to rise up from the lower realms and wander among the living. The festival has a kind of counterpart in spring, another moment in the lunar year when the world of the living turns toward the dead. During the Qingming Festival (清明節) in early April, the living pay their respects to the dead by sweeping clean their tombs and leaving behind offerings. Walking through the old Chua Chu Kang cemetery at nightfall, one can see bright incense sticks and silver-leafed joss paper adorning the neat rows of graves, splashes of colour in the gathering dusk. The festival, whose name means something like “pure brightness,” involves a familiar kind of care for the dwelling-places of the dead.       

What is beguilingly unfamiliar is that here, this communion is reciprocal: during Ghost Month, the dead also return to visit the living. Chinese tradition dating back to before the arrival of Buddhism in China considered that a person had two souls: when someone died, the immaterial soul (called hun, 魂; literally ‘cloud-soul’ ) escaped to the heavens, while the earthly soul (po, 魄; ‘white soul’ ) would remain with the body for generations, subsisting on and enjoying the food left for it by the living.

The Ghost Festival itself appears to originate in a set of Buddhist texts translated from Sanskrit into Chinese in the third or fourth century. One sutra recounts the tale of Maudgalyāyana (or Mulian, to use his abbreviated Chinese name), who discovers his deceased mother wasting away among the preta, the Sanskrit term for those beings invoked in Buddhist, Taoist, and Hindu traditions who suffer afflictions of hunger and thirst beyond human limits. Finding that he is unable to feed her—the rice he offers her turns quickly into burning coal—he learns that he can appease her hunger, as well as that of his deceased parents from his seven previous lives, by making appropriately-timed offerings to the monastic community. The gift itself, the story implies, must take a different form from that offered in the first anguished impulse of generosity: the bowl of rice can be given only indirectly, proffered to someone else before it can be converted into spiritual food.

Yet what is striking about Ghost Month in its contemporary expressions is how much it seems to be animated by a vivid, almost literal imagination, one that sees the ghostly realm as an uncanny mirror of the human. These ghosts remain recognizably like the living in their desires and jealousies. Growing up in a Christian-influenced culture, one might become accustomed to thinking—if one thinks about any sort of afterlife at all—of a psychic landscape transfigured after death, one in which desire for earthly things ceases altogether. (My favourite medieval poem, Pearl, is about precisely this problem: the difficulty of grasping the transformation that takes place between the earthly and heavenly spheres, despite or even because of the immensity of human love that seeks to bridge them, the way structures of feeling can collapse and reform themselves into something barely recognisable on the other side of this divide.)  

The ghosts who dwell briefly alongside the living during Ghost Month, though, have undergone no such transformation. Instead, they return in search of food and entertainment, the very things we might seek out to stave off our own boredom or hunger or loneliness. Occupying the front rows of seats respectfully left empty for them, they settle in to enjoy street performances of Chinese opera or getai (boisterous and often comic pieces once consisting of traditional songs but now often with more of the flavour of a pop concert—apparently the tastes of ghosts, too, change with the times). They consume elaborate paper offerings burned in their honour. Everywhere, replicas not only of food, drink, and cigarettes, but also of cars, television sets, bank notes, and houses flake into ash in small streetside shrines. Such gifts seem unbound by constraints of tact or tastefulness that govern exchanges among the living. From whom, after all, could one conceivably accept a house?

Meanwhile, the bodily forms of these ghosts mirror their spiritual state with a Dantesque vividness. Many are what are known as hungry ghosts (the term by which the word preta is often rendered in English; in Chinese 餓鬼), those whose ancestors have failed to provide them with sufficient sustenance. As a consequence, their necks have been stretched into a needle-like thinness (though this distortion, I learn, could also be a punishment for their own conduct, a cruel elongation that prevents them from swallowing). If descendants’ neglect can cause such deformities, it’s clear that the ghosts remain wrapped up in earthly affairs.

During this month, one should refrain from doing anything that might offend the ghosts or attract their unwanted attention. All kinds of things can be mistaken for an invitation: standing alone at a bus stop after dark, wearing red or black, painting one’s nails in dark colours, leaving a front door open in the evening, or hanging out wet clothes that ghosts might wish to try on during the night. Going for a swim, one may be dragged down by so-called water ghosts in pursuit of someone living to take their place so they might escape their liminal domain. Taboos bear on significant life decisions (holding weddings, starting a business, moving into a new house) as well as the most ordinary of gestures: combing your hair in front of a mirror or opening an umbrella at night, for instance, are strongly discouraged.

Of course, the dead who return to reengage with the lives, properties, and pleasures they have not fully left behind also figure prominently in the Western imagination. The boundary between the dead and the living has often been permeable. Under medieval Christianity, for instance, the new concept of purgatory as a physical place led the Church to develop elaborate means of caring for the souls of the dead: the living might intercede in the fate of the dead through prayer, requiem masses, or paying for indulgences, just as the dead, too, would pray for the living and could even come back to make specific requests of them or to report on the conditions of the afterlife. (Surely the most famous example of such revenants in English literature is the ghost of King Hamlet who haunts the opening scene of Shakespeare’s play.)

What distinguishes these ghosts from the unsettled spirits who linger during Ghost Month is that the former tend to target someone specific in their return to the human realm. (Indeed, though he appears in the presence of others, Hamlet’s ghost will speak only to his son.) The hungry ghosts in Singapore, on the other hand, relate differently to the world they have left behind. Most often their aim is not to bring comfort to a relative, or to deliver a warning to a friend, or to visit revenge upon an enemy. In this way, perhaps, they appear more changed than their Western counterparts: their encounters with the living are not defined by the same moments of recognition; they are not known as who they once were. Driven more by the imperatives of the body than of the mind or of the heart, they loiter and attach themselves to people with greater yin energy—usually one of the careless or brazen who has violated Ghost Month’s taboos. 

In a city of glossy surfaces and self-conscious modernity, such quietly persistent beliefs flow through Singapore like a kind of subterranean river that surfaces occasionally with surprising strength. While Qingming is still observed in China, the Ghost Festival survives mainly in those countries that preserve practices dissolved in the mainland under communism: Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, parts of Malaysia. Singapore itself offers a fascinating window onto such older observances, as if in these outposts of nineteenth and twentieth-century migrations one can make out other shapes a culture might have assumed under different historical circumstances. It is, of course, also very much its own culture, a patchwork of varied traditions and histories. But there is something resonant in the prescient speech of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew in 1967: in response to a somewhat ineptly posed question about his views on China, he insists that he is not Chinese but Singaporean, but acknowledges that he has perhaps “some of the in-built memory” of the Chinese people. Seeing how this cultural memory mingles with other histories is one of the unexpected pleasures of living in this island nation, where one witnesses the continued flourishing of forms that have long since passed into disuse in their country of origin, after-images that linger in the periphery of vision.

While such afterlives last, the presence of the dead will continue to enchant what is often assumed to be a disenchanted world. Such communions, though, can be fragile and transient—rare, unpredictable hauntings—and, even here, may come to a close. At the end of Ghost Month, wandering spirits drift back to the underworld, trailing behind lotus-shaped lanterns that have been set afloat to guide them. ❖


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