Burning through Money?: Tomb-Sweeping Day in China Goes Green

April 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

You’re dead, but according to traditional beliefs, you’ll rest more content in the spirit world if you are outfitted with some of the comforts you had in life.  This is where your descendants come in: every year on tomb-sweeping day they converge on your burial site to spruce up the site, to celebrate with family who have gathered from far and near, and to replenish your needs for the following year.

Tomb-sweeping day, or the Qingming festival, falls every year as it has now for thousands of years, just after the Spring equinox (April 5 this year).  It’s a day for the living to reunite with family members, to pay their respects to the dead, and to enjoy the warming spring air.  But you too are looking forward to it, because you need stuff, just as generations of ancestors before you have.  You’re keeping your fingers crossed that your descendants will have given careful thought to what provisions will get you through another year.

Of course they will bring oranges, cigarettes, watermelon seeds, shoes, and maotai liquor, because they’ve done that routinely for the past ten years or so, knowing full well how much you enjoyed those things in life.  You’re less confident that this year they’ll bring the cash you need to cover normal expenses, mahjong bets, and occasional bribe to gain preferential treatment in the spirit world.  They’re naturally aware that you, like ancestors in all the neighboring graves, are expecting money (a mainstay of the holiday for centuries), but this year the living have expressed a new concern about the economic and environmental effects of provisioning ancestors with money (see Xinhua).

It turns out that in 2010 people spent 1.5 billion dollars on money and other gifts for ancestors.  That’s paper money, of no use in the living world.  The money, joss paper as it is called, is burnt at gravesites, its essence then transmitted to ancestors for use in the spirit world.

The 1.5 billion dollar cost alone wouldn’t stand in the way of Chinese descendants caring for ancestors.  But people are now calculating the toll on the environment as well. There’s the deforestation that results from the manufacture of the money: more than 1000 tons of papers bills were burnt on last year’s tomb-sweeping day.  The environmental costs continue: 1000 tons of burning paper spews a lot of particulate matter and ash into the air.  Living people have become worried about the pollution and the health effects on the descendants of burning money.  One of them told Xinhua News: “At this time of year, people burning thick wads of yellow-colored paper cash can be seen on the streets. The ashes make the streets dirty and the air sometimes would become suffocating.”

And then there’s the concern with fires.   Last year, burning paper money and other paper goods set off 1651 fires, leaving 17 people dead.  This year, the Ministry of Security has urged fire control bureaus to be more vigilant and “to identify fire risks and prevent major fires during the festival.”  Police departments are expected to increase patrols at sites where fires are most likely to be lit (see People’s Daily). You’re hoping that your cemetery isn’t one of high interest to the local police department.

It’s not just the paper money that’s on your wish list.  There’s the Mercedes Benz that you had always coveted in the world of the living.  Your eldest son was aware of just how much you wanted to own a luxury car.  You’re hoping, almost beyond hope, that he remembers your disappointment and buys a paper Mercedes to transmit for use in your spirit world.  Some of the Mercedes even come with their own drivers!

And it would be wonderful, of course, to get an iPad 2.

But this expectation is pretty unrealistic—you know there’s been a run on them, and paper shops throughout the country simply can’t keep them on their shelves (see Reuters; PC Mag.com).

And there’s always the danger you won’t get anything but the routine oranges and a bit of maotai.  You’ve heard of families that have gone totally low carbon and environmentally friendly on tomb-sweeping day.  Mr. Zhang, who above complained about the suffocating air of burnt paper money, stopped the practice of burning gifts to his ancestors altogether.  He remarked, “In the past we would burn fake paper money for our ancestors on this special occasion. But presenting flowers or silk ones began gaining popularity in Hohhot last year and we have decided to shift to the new way of doing things…It is more environment-friendly.”

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