Even as China modernizes at a pedal to the metal pace, certain elements of its old traditions and beliefs remain relevant and important throughout the society. Though formal religion took a major hit during the Mao era which it will probably never recover from, ancestor veneration is still alive and well. It’s purpose is to provide deceased family members with provisions in the afterlife, and one of the main ways that this is manifested is through the burning of joss paper.
All through China on traditional holidays people can be seen out in the streets, in public squares, and on highway overpasses setting small stacks of yellow paper on fire. This paper represents money, and through the act of burning it the practitioner symbolically sends it to their ancestors. Paper houses, credit cards, clothing, automobiles, and other items the living feel the deceased may need are also set alight.
I recently took a moment to ask a Chinese friend who grew up in a rural area about this tradition. She explained the basics, that the burned items go to the deceased in the afterlife, but when bluntly asked if people really believe in this she had another reply:
“No,” she laughed, “it is just tradition.”
This is one of the sights of China.