What you need to know
Local clampdowns on burning joss paper strike at the heart of ancestor worship.
Tomb-Sweeping Festival, one of the three major ghost festivals celebrated in China, takes place every year on April 5. On this day, people offer sacrifices to their ancestors and perform religious rites to help lonely souls find peace.
Recently, however, several provinces have proposed eliminating the practice of burning paper money during ancestor worship. Some local governments have even banned its burning and manufacture outright, while also taking steps to discourage feudal superstitions such as burning paper idols made to resemble people, horses, or cattle. This is a foolish move, in my opinion, as it strikes a heavy blow to the roots of deep-seated traditional belief systems.
Traditional Chinese thought encourages people to venerate their ancestors by propagating the notion that deceased forbears have the power to grant happiness. In order to secure the blessings of the dead, the living need to provide money and food for their ancestors to use and consume in the afterlife. Without the sacrifices made regularly during ghost festivals, or the offerings of money and food, the ancestors would starve — or so the people of ancient China believed.
According to traditional beliefs, the living bear the responsibility of determining their ancestors’ quality of life in the underworld. But this seems preposterous to Westerners, particularly Christians, who may not see ghosts as integral to everyday life the way Chinese people do. Early Christians believed that a blissful waiting period preceded Judgment Day and the ascent to heaven — a period characterized as a refreshing, tranquil existence where one could rest peacefully.
Later, Christians came to believe in a transitional space that was neither heaven nor hell, but rather existed between those two places. Although they believed that the soul was not annihilated in death, they also believed that spirits dwelt in a neutral state of peaceful sleep. This dormant state marked the transition between their worldly lives and an afterlife in paradise.
Later, Catholics further developed this idea into the concept of purgatory. Transitional spaces between life and afterlife, as well as the role of good works in determining one’s fate after death, remained central to Catholicism after the Protestant Reformation, even though the Protestant Church continues to disavow the idea of purgatory because it is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. To Protestants, the soul hibernates until the resurrection, whereas Catholics believe they exist in purgatory until they atone for their sins. Protestants also emphasize the role of hell and demons, believing that steadfast devotion can help believers overcome evil.
In other words, Western Christianity does not envisage a substantive relationship between ancestral souls and their living descendants, nor are the living responsible for providing their ancestors with basic needs like clothing or food. Westerners honor their dead through prayers, but the Chinese memorialize their ancestors in more concrete ways, and in their everyday lives.
During the Chinese ghost festivals, people hope not only to provide a better afterlife for their ancestors, but also to ensure that so-called wandering souls — those without any living descendants, or those whose living descendants no longer offer sacrifices to them — will not disrupt them in the real world. Without the money and food that those sacrifices bring, China’s ghosts have no choice but scavenge for food by cheating, robbing, or other dubious means in order to survive.
In ancient times, people would burn money or offer food as a sacrifice during ghost festivals. As living standards improved, though, they felt that the living standards and needs of those in the afterlife rose proportionally, and their offerings began to reflect this. For instance, people might burn copied versions of Buddhist or Taoist scriptures to help their ancestors find inner peace. Some might even offer more elaborate tributes — like paper clothing, paper carriages, or even paper servants — to be consumed by flames in the hopes that their ancestors would make use of these boons in the afterlife.
Festival offerings fulfill the physical and even spiritual needs of ghosts, leaving them less likely to pester the living. In his collection of ghost stories titled “What the Master Would Not Discuss,” author Yuan Mei recounted this tale: During the Qing Dynasty, thousands of coffins were piled up outside Desheng Temple, located near Hangzhou’s West Lake. Yuan asked one of the monks: “Doesn’t the temple get haunted by ghosts with all those coffins around?” The monk replied that the temple’s ghosts were all wealthy, and as such had peaceful dispositions year-round.
Confused, Yuan Mei wondered: “How were there so many wealthy people in town? Where did all these wealthy ghosts come from?” None of the coffins had been properly buried, suggesting that the dead had come from poor families. The monk replied: “Being wealthy refers not to one’s status at birth, but to the food and drink offerings and paper money that a ghost receives after death. These thousands of coffins might not be buried underground, but our monks beg for alms on their behalf, perform rituals for them three or four times a year, and prepare a sumptuous banquet during the Feast of All Souls. With so much to eat, what ghost could harbor a grudge against the living?”
The monk had made a fair argument. Yuan ended up staying at the temple for a month, and during that time, not a single ghost disturbed him.
In believing that ghosts can lead lives as fulfilling as those of the living, the Chinese envisioned a community for the dead with its own system of governance. One of the more prominent figures is Yama, the “King of Hell” and the deity responsible for passing judgment on the dead and determining their overall guilt or innocence.
Yama’s subordinates include underworld magistrates who oversee administrative duties; the Black and White Impermanence, two deities responsible for demanding mortal lives; Meng Po, Lady of Forgetfulness, who erases the deceased’s memories of life; and the city gods and earth gods from different geographic regions. This supernatural bureaucracy forms the basic structure of underworld governance, where the entire underworld system operates smoothly under the watch of these officials. Interestingly, most duties and posts are not inherited or passed down, as they were in the living world of ancient China. Instead, they are delegated to those who demonstrated noble behavior and moral conduct during their lifetimes. The posts are also restricted by terms of office: Once a ghost has finished its term, it can be reincarnated in human form.
Traditionally, most Chinese people have regarded ghosts as a collective body that dwelt outside our own world. They connect with us and influence our world in a number of ways, all without ever breaking communication with us. The ludicrous decision to ban the burning of paper money, then, has hardly been formulated with the interests of the people in mind. Rather, it targets something at the heart of our identities: our cultural connection with the past.
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.
Editor: Olivia Yang