China moves to ban burning joss paper to cut pollution and help the environment, but many say it disrespects tradition

Mandy Zuo
·5-min read

After making Tomb-Sweeping Day a national holiday in an effort to prevent the erosion of traditional culture over a decade ago, Chinese authorities are now trying to eliminate a major ritual on the day — burning joss paper for the dead.

A number of Chinese cities have launched a crackdown on the thousand-year-old custom ahead of the festival to remember ancestors, also known as the Qingming Festival, which falls on April 4.

The governments of several northern cities including Harbin have warned against the burning of joss paper, also called ghost money and a symbol of currency in the afterlife, during the festival, saying it’s a safety hazard and a source of pollution.

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Harbin, the provincial capital of Heilongjiang province has been at the centre of recent controversy after it announced a citywide clampdown on the manufacturing and sales of joss paper recently.

A Chinese fisherman burns joss papers to sacrifice on his fishing boat during the ceremony of sacrifice to the sea God in Zhougezhuang village. Photo: Getty
A Chinese fisherman burns joss papers to sacrifice on his fishing boat during the ceremony of sacrifice to the sea God in Zhougezhuang village. Photo: Getty

Authorities will undertake stringent inspections on manufacturing and transportation services, and impose strict punishment on sellers so residents “have nowhere to buy and nothing to burn”, the Harbin Urban Management and Law Enforcement Bureau said in a statement earlier this month.

Similar actions have been taken by smaller cities including Mingshui in the same province, and Xinghe in Inner Mongolia, prompting criticism that the authorities are killing traditional culture.

Commonly observed across the country, the act of setting joss paper alight during funerals and other ceremonies is regarded as a spiritual medium through which Chinese people communicate with their beloved in the otherworld.

It’s just one of the many customs China has been trying to eliminate in recent years to encourage more environmentally friendly behaviour.

A woman burns afterlife money, a common paper sacrifice, in front of the tomb of her parents in the wheatland in Huaxian county in central China’s Henan province. Photo: Getty
A woman burns afterlife money, a common paper sacrifice, in front of the tomb of her parents in the wheatland in Huaxian county in central China’s Henan province. Photo: Getty

While there are growing concerns younger generations are forgetting the country’s traditional culture, a nationwide campaign to change customs has taken place in China recently; targeting habits that include setting up firecrackers in traditional festivals, using cremation instead of burial for the deceased, and extravagant weddings and funerals.

Zheng Tuyou, deputy chairman of China Folklore Society and a professor at Fudan University, said folklore is made up of small rituals, and the killing of a particular one can make it become empty and meaningless.

“To simply ban certain customs is surely conflicting with the perseverance of traditional culture,” he said.

Over the past decade, most urban areas in the country have banned firecrackers, which are set up during the Lunar New Year to expel spiritual monsters, out of safety and air pollution concerns.

Funeral reforms across the country have also seen some forced to give up coffins in favour of eco-friendly cremations in the past years.

In Yunnan, a 2018 directive by the provincial government set detailed standards on how weddings and funerals should be held, limiting the number of people that can be invited and dishes that can be served for each table. Traditionally Chinese people tend to invest heavily in those occasions to show the family’s affection to the newlyweds or filial piety toward the dead.

Calling such measures “crude and violent”, Zheng said they are “typical lazy governance” and will not achieve the expected results.

“Take the joss paper issue, for example, people believe it’s the money for the dead to use in the otherworld. They will burn it anyway at night, if not in the day because it’s something supported by a belief,” he said.

In 2019, the central government issued detailed guidelines on changing customs and habits in rural areas, vowing to build a mechanism to “manage social conduct” within three to five years.

Zhang Bo, a folklore expert at Beijing Union University, noted that so far China’s initiative to change customs remains largely on government documents, but it’s ultimately the people who should be the ones to make the change.

“The point of such campaigns is to change people’s values, to lead them to kindness and beauty, to a better life,” she said.

Supporters of the campaign said firecrackers and joss paper have caused many accidents, and many of the rituals on special occasions are based on superstitious medieval ideas.

“We repeatedly read news of people getting injured by fireworks or fires resulted from joss paper burning. I think it’s necessary to give up those outdated and dangerous rituals,” said Nancy Lin, a 29-year-old white-collar worker in Shanghai.

From 2010 to 2019, over 97 per cent of forest fires were caused by human activities, of which traditional activities were a major proportion, the Ministry of Emergency Management said earlier this year.

“We should also simplify how we celebrate weddings etc as well, for example, the wedding hazings which often reduce to vulgarity or insult. It makes life a lot easier if these bad habits are gone,” she said, referring to the traditional revelry at bridal parties to create a fun carnival atmosphere to expel evil spirits.

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