Bon­fire of the van­i­ties? Of­fer­ings go up in smoke


Gleam­ing gold watches and smartphones are piled high in a ram­shackle Chi­nese farm­house — all repli­cas made of pa­per and de­signed to be incinerated, as 21stcen­tury con­sumerism trans­forms the age-old mar­ket in of­fer­ings to an­ces­tors.

“Our work is serv­ing the dead,” said Pu Shuzhen, as fe­male work­ers with glue guns folded pa­per into im­i­ta­tions of Louis Vuit­ton hand­bags and iPhones in her dirt-floored house turned work­shop.

China cel­e­brates Tomb Sweep­ing Fes­ti­val on Sun­day, when mil­lions burn pa­per of­fer­ings to their an­ces­tors in a tra­di­tion be­lieved to date back thou­sands of years.

Pu’s work­shop is one of hun­dreds hid­den in­side crum­bling court­yards in He­bei, a prov­ince bor­der­ing Bei­jing which lo­cal farm­ers have trans­formed into the cen­ter of the coun­try’s fu­neral prod­ucts in­dus­try.

“Be­fore we were grow­ing corn and pota­toes. It was tough,” Pu said. “The money from this is bet­ter than farm­ing.”

Mahjong ta­bles, jewel boxes and cig­a­rettes sell well, she said. Other items in­clude imi­ta­tion house own­er­ship cer­tifi­cates and more prac­ti­cal goods such as tooth­paste, tooth­brushes and shoes.

“They are just the same as living peo­ple use,” she said. “It was like that in an­cient times too. It’s a tra­di­tion handed down from our an­ces­tors.”

Of­fer­ings to the dead have been found at some of China’s old­est grave sites.

“The prod­ucts ex­press an emo­tion: we are living well, and we hope our an­ces­tors can live just as well in their world,” said fac­tory owner Zhang Guilai, as a vast press roared in the back­ground press­ing out pa­per houses.

Grave Is­sues

Bei­jing de­clared Tomb Sweep­ing Fes­ti­val — just one of many tra­di­tional dates for hon­or­ing an­ces­tors — a na­tional hol­i­day in 2007.

The move was a marked con­trast to Mao Ze­dong’s rule when the of­fi­cially athe­ist Com­mu­nist party con­demned tomb of­fer­ings as feu­dal, graves were des­e­crated and tra­di­tions driven un­der­ground.

“Dur­ing Mao Ze­dong’s time it was all about op­pos­ing su­per­sti­tion ... and we would have to give of­fer­ings in se­cret,” said Pu’s hus­band, Zhao Yan­sheng. “But now it’s a na­tional hol­i­day ... and we can cel­e­brate openly.”

Even so, of­fi­cial at­ti­tudes are still some­times am­biva­lent.

China’s civil af­fairs min­istry this year vowed on its web­site to step up con­trols on “burning pa­per money, of­fer­ings and other un­civ­i­lized tomb sweep­ing be­hav­ior,” while also “pre­vent­ing the use of vul­gar and su­per­sti­tious grave of­fer­ings.”

State me­dia have also blamed burnt of­fer­ings for adding to chronic air pol­lu­tion.

The min­istry did not de­fine what it con­sid­ered “vul­gar” and did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment from AFP.

But at an open air mar­ket on a mud-soaked road in Mijiawu, ven­dors dis­played pa­per Fer­raris and fe­male mis­tresses.

Of­fi­cials in the north­ern city of Changchun — which hands out fines for burning of­fer­ings in public places — last month con­fis­cated seven ve­hi­cle-loads of “feu­dal and su­per­sti­tious ob­jects,” in­clud­ing pa­per cat­tle and horses, re­ports said.

“It’s clear to see that peo­ple are adding com­mer­cial el­e­ments — such as pa­per houses, sports cars and mis­tresses — into th­ese tra­di­tions, and some peo­ple would con­sider that vul­gar,” Yang Gen­lai, an aca­demic af­fil­i­ated with the civil af­fairs min­istry told AFP.

He added: “Per­son­ally I think any kind of ob­ject which can ex­press re­spect to­wards an­ces­tors can be rea­son­able. Burning iPhones is a re­flec­tion of how things are to­day.”

Cash­ing In

Au­thor­i­ties have other rea­sons to be sus­pi­cious of pa­per of­fer­ings.

At the Mijiawu mar­ket, seller Meng Weikai said: “Ev­ery­thing that living peo­ple have, there are pa­per repli­cas to be burned.

“In the past, you just burned some plain white pa­per. Now we burn notes which look more and more like real money, we even have U.S. dol­lars.”

But they are some­times mis­used for earthly pur­poses. Po­lice in south­ern China re­port­edly held four peo­ple in Fe­bru­ary for at­tempt­ing to pay back a loan with “spirit money,” and in Jan­uary po­lice in He­bei ar­rested a sus­pect who had used such bills to buy lot­tery tick­ets worth 90,000 yuan.

Work­ers at one small imi­ta­tion money work­shop ush­ered AFP re­porters away as fresh red notes lay dry­ing on rusty metal print­ing presses.

“It is hard for or­di­nary peo­ple to tell the ‘spirit money’ apart from real money ... this money has se­ri­ously dam­aged the im­age of the ren­minbi,” the state-run Xianyang Daily cited a bank­ing of­fi­cial as say­ing last year.


In a pic­ture taken on Wed­nes­day, April 1 a woman pre­pares pa­per gifts in a work­shop ahead of the Qing­ming fes­ti­val in Baod­ing, He­bei prov­ince.

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