Tonight it’s time to “send cold clothes” (送寒衣), the 1st day of the 10th month in the lunar calendar, and that means a lot of people are outside in the road right now lighting fires with paper clothes and fake money. The idea is that the paper clothes and money (and paper cars, cell phones, TVs, computers, cows, even secretaries) can be used by dead relatives in the underworld, which basically mirrors this world (thus the need for winter clothes, food, money for bribes, etc.).
Tomorrow morning intersections will be covered in scorch marks and ash and plastic packaging will be blowing around everywhere. Why do so many Tianjiners do this? Apparently there are two main reasons, and being true believers in ancient folk superstitions is not one of them:
- Fear of the unknown; “just in case.”
Even though Chinese tradition is full of legends and superstitions, most people don’t really have much in the way of specific, strongly held beliefs regarding the afterlife. They aren’t especially “religious,” and figuring out exactly what they personal believe about everything and why is not necessarily a high priority. But since no one really knows what happens after death, making the small effort to perform this kind of ritual seems more reasonable and safer than not. Especially in light of #2.
- Expressing filial piety; being a good son/daughter.
What you as an individual personally believe about the world isn’t the point. Even if you did have specific, strongly held beliefs, it’s expected that you won’t let less-important things like your personal beliefs disrupt family life. People should subjugate their individuality to the felt-needs of the family. “Burning paper money” (烧纸钱) and clothes to send to your dead relatives is really just an arbitrary action assigned by history and culture through which you remember lost loved ones, express your feelings for them, and fulfill what you consider to be a good value: being a filial child.
In many ways this second aspect can be like a North American who’s lost his wife. He brings flowers to her grave and “talks to her,” even though he has no illusions at all that he is actually communicating with her; it just helps him express his grief and makes him feel better. “Sending cold clothes” and “paper money” is a way for Chinese to also express their own feelings and values. One’s specific personal beliefs regarding death and afterward are distant, secondary concerns and beside the point.
Complicated Spot for People with Convictions
One of our recently-married teachers and her new husband are both Christians and hold specific, important personal beliefs regarding spiritual matters. She’s expecting that her parents will specifically ask her and her husband to join the family trip at Spring Festival to make these types of offerings at their grandparents’ gravesite. They haven’t yet decided how they’ll respond or what activities they will or will not participate in. For them, being able to square their actions with their personal spiritual convictions is a high priority, but so is being good family members, and the potential for causing misunderstanding and friction in the family is high.
Shopping for “clothes”
You can buy paper clothes and ghost money in any local vegetable market at booths selling daily use supplies (soap, plungers, pots & pans, fly swatters, brooms, etc.). At right you can see one kind of paper suit, which cost 1元 ($0.18 CDN) and one kind of “paper money” (纸钱) that looks like play money. The brown sheet with holes in it (above) resembling rows of ancient Chinese coins is the more common form of paper money burned in Tianjin, and 1元 will get you a whole bundle. In Taipei the most popular paper money was yellow with red printing, and scented like incense.
I was in the vegetable market this afternoon when some middle-ages ladies were buying paper suits. They were getting confused over which ones were for women and which ones were for men, and how many of each they needed. The fanciest ones come in packages that imitate a real packaged shirt with the collar standing up and everything neatly folded, with some jewelry and a paper cellphone included, all for 5元 ($0.92 CDN).
“yabaliu,” a Tianjiner I’ve never met who sometimes visits the blog, gave us some helpful information in the comments on the last post, and I’ve roughly translated/paraphrased it here:
On the 1st day of the 10th month in the Lunar Calendar, because the weather is getting colder, people “burn cold clothes” (烧寒衣), meaning paper versions of cold-weather clothes. On that day (tomorrow 08 Oct 29), people will “send cold clothes” (送寒衣) to their dead relatives. Before and afterward people will burn “paper money” (纸钱) as a substitute. Sometimes the cold clothes or paper money is wrapped in an envelope or slip of paper with the ancestor’s name on it.
There’s a fun story surrounding the “send cold clothes” tradition (yabaliu calls it a “classic marketing story”). The Chinese credit a man named Cài Lún (蔡伦) with inventing paper. Legend has it that his little brother Cài Mò (蔡莫) was jealous because the paper he made was worse quality than that of his older brother. So in order to get people to buy his poor-quality paper, his wife faked her death and Cài Mò burnt paper resembling money for her ghost. Then she came back and told everyone that in the underworld, that paper is money and she was able to bribe the king of the underworld into letting her come back to this world. So then everyone wanted the “paper money” to send to their dead relatives.
Aside from sending cold clothes on 十月初一 (10-1) of the lunar calendar, Tianjin has lots of other lunar calender days where you’re supposed to offer paper money to your dead relatives. Other especially important days to do this are:
- New Years Eve, when you spruce up your ancestors’ graves and burn offerings to them (上坟),
- Tomb Sweeping Day (清明节), a special holiday just for the purpose of families going to shàng fén (上坟). Tomb Sweeping Day is during the Cold Food Festival (寒食节), three days around Tomb Sweeping Day when you aren’t supposed to eat any cooked food.
- The “Ghost Festival” (鬼节), the 15th day of the 7th month in the Lunar Calendar
- And also on the anniversary of a relative’s death
All this shows how much Chinese people respect their ancestors. Every year has fixed times that remind people to remember their ancestors.
Even in today’s big cities like Tianjin people retain these kinds of traditional customs and culture. Burning paper offerings on the roads maybe makes air pollution, and fires can be dangerous, but with this kind of tradition, it shouldn’t be prohibited. Instead they ought to think of a way to do it properly, for example designating the extent to which you can burn paper money, or providing each community with a special time, place, and container to burn the paper money.
There are propaganda posters and paintings in nearby neighbourhoods criticizing this practice: “Don’t recklessly burn paper” (below left) and “Civilized sacrificing/honouring the dead, don’t burn paper money on the side of the road” (below right) — but that doesn’t seem to stop anyone.
Other posters are blunter; the ones against noisy religious rituals say “Don’t do feudal superstitions.” In Taipei burning offerings was done every 15 days, during the day, out in the open in special containers (photos here). In Tianjin, people do it at night in the dark, and not as often. I’ve heard that in some areas local neighbourhood committees set up a big container for everyone to use, but apparently part of the tradition/superstition is that the money you burn can be “stolen” by other people’s dead relatives’ ghosts, so people don’t want to mix their ashes.