Atlantic Cities

The Greening of China's Smoky Funeral Rites

The Greening of China's Smoky Funeral Rites
Vmenkov/Wikipedia

When it comes to mitigating climate change, any little act of self-sacrifice helps. That's why it's commendable that some Chinese people are shunning the traditional way of honoring ancestors – by burning large wads of fake money – in favor of greener kinds of tribute, like writing a fake check.

News of this trend surfaced recently in Harbin, a city in northeast China of about 10 million residents. While it's no Beijing or Tianjing, where the air can smell like 18-wheeler exhaust mixed with burning camel hair, Harbin has its share of days when the atmosphere turns foul, bringing an unhealthy dose of second-hand smoke to regional lungs. China's distinct musk is all part of the price of being the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

A reporter for news agency Xinhua went out on a fact-finding quest right before April 4's Qingming Festival, otherwise known as Tomb Sweeping Day, when loads of Chinese burn fat stacks of what Westerners call "hell notes." Here's one lower-denomination hell note (the bills, which are not legal tender, can range all the way up to the billion-dollar kind):


Hell bank note courtesy of Immanuel Giel.

Why do Chinese people torch this hellish moolah? Traditional Chinese beliefs have it that the flames transfer the money to the realm of the dead, where ancestors can use the cash to live the good life. Anyway, the Xinhua journo found one elderly man who had chosen to honor his late wife by dropping a voided check into a box labeled "Bank of Heaven." And that was just one example of how Chinese across the country are embracing greener memorials, according to the report. Some others:

• In Inner Mongolia, officials have requested that tribute-givers switch from faux cash to flowers (although flower-plucking would seem to carry its own ecological ramifications).

• In Jiangsu province, authorities asked that people just plant trees in honor of the dead.

• Younger citizens are simply creating online memorials to ancestors.

The ordinary Chinese citizen cannot demand their city switches to solar and wind energy, or climb an industrial smokestack to install a carbon scrubber. But they can choose not to burn stuff. Will this change actually make a difference to the thickness of Asia's toxic brown cloud

China is one big smokestack. In this 2007 satellite image from NASA, a trail of brown haze can bee seen drifting over the Yellow Sea to South Korea and Japan.

That's probably too much to hope for. But it could make the air in cities on festival days more breathable, given the sheer amount of this deathly currency that the Chinese turn to smoke. As Xinhua notes:

It is not unusual to see thick clouds of smoke in the streets during the holiday as people burn thick wads of yellow-colored paper money on the sidewalk.

According to the China Consumers' Association (CCA), over 1,000 tonnes of paper is burned each year during the [Qingming] festival. The total value of the paper is estimated to be about 10 billion yuan ($1.59 billion) nationwide, said CCA.

Above: Chinese people in Jiangsu Province burn imitation cash at ancestors' graves during 2008's "Ghost Festival." Photo by Vmenkov.

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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