A city in northeastern China has taken aim at a thousand-year-old Chinese custom of burning joss paper to provide for the dead.
The paper, also known as ghost money, is set alight during funerals and other ceremonies, and is intended to symbolize currency for the deceased person in the afterlife. But the municipal government of Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang province, said Wednesday that it is a “feudal superstition” that is causing air pollution.
In a statement on its website, the government banned the burning, production, and selling of joss paper for the 9.6 million people who live in the city and its surrounding rural areas. The ban will “eradicate bad funeral practices, advocate civilized ancestor worship, and purify the urban environment,” the statement said.
Any individuals caught burning joss paper will receive fines of at least 200 yuan ($29), and those caught producing or selling the paper will be fined 500 yuan or more. The ban comes just three weeks ahead of the traditional Tomb-Sweeping Festival holiday, when many Chinese visit the graves of their forbears and perform rituals such as burning joss paper.
“The prevention of atmospheric pollution is one of the factors that led to the government order,” Yang Xiaodi, head of the environmental publicity, education, and information center of the Harbin Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, told Sixth Tone. The burning of ghost money, which is commonly made of recycled yellow paper, creates very fine so-called PM 2.5 particles, according to Yang.
According to the city’s air quality reports issued by the environment bureau, PM 2.5 particles, which are especially damaging because they can enter the lungs and bloodstream, are the primary air pollutant in Harbin during the winter. Compared to the same period of last year, the first two months of 2017 saw nine more days with heavy air pollution.
“In the past four years, the environmental protection bureau has been continuously advocating civilized funerals and ancestor worship with alternatives to [burning] joss paper, such as [placing] flowers,” Yang said. “The burning of joss paper is a tradition, but whether today’s society inherits it should be up to the considerations of today’s people.”
Huang Wenfang, an associate professor with the Department of Environmental Science and Engineering at Fudan University in Shanghai, told Sixth Tone that, as far as she is aware, it has not yet been scientifically researched whether the burning of joss paper contributes to air pollution in any meaningful way.
Cities in northern China, including Harbin, are more likely to suffer from air pollution caused by PM 2.5 particles during the winter because coal is the main fuel used for central heating. In addition, Harbin is an industrial center and the biggest city in Heilongjiang, with about a quarter of the province’s population living within the city’s administrative limits.
The government should control rather than ban the burning of joss paper, said Tian Zhaoyuan, deputy dean of the School of Social Development at East China Normal University, also in Shanghai.
The act is a spiritual medium through which Chinese people communicate with their ancestors, Tian added. “The decision for a compulsory ban will likely be a problem,” he added, “and damage cultural traditions.”
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Chinese burn yellow paper symbolizing money to honor their deceased ancestors during the Tomb-Sweeping Festival holiday, Hefei, Anhui province, April 4, 2015. VCG)