Kinmen is a very traditional place where the people still follow ancient traditions.
I was walking through Kinmen and everybody seemed to be doing the same thing. They were standing out in front of their shops and homes before knee-high steel bins that had flames shooting out of them. They were feeding the fire with hundreds of square sheets of paper. They would toss in a handful, bow and pray, then repeat the process over and over again until a brick-sized stack of paper was extinguished and the flame was roaring high.
The paper that they were burning is a ritualistic stand in for money. It is called joss, ghost money, or votive currency in English, and it’s a way of venerating gods and deceased family members by sending them symbolic wealth that they can use in the spirit world. It is felt that when the paper money is burned it transfers across the realm between the living and the dead. Paper houses, credit cards, cars, cellphones, and even girlfriends can now also be burned as offerings.
This is an ancient Taoist, Buddist, and folk religion practice in Taiwan, and is one that the country still engages in with routine, if not excessive, exuberance. It has been estimated that the Taiwanese burn between 90,000 tons and 220,000 tons of joss paper performing religious rituals each year. They burn so much of this stuff that it is often cited as a major source of air pollution around festival times. Some advocacy groups are even trying to have the practice banned, saying that the smoke contains carcinogens, and at least one major temple had substituted burning joss paper for a large screen television which shows other people burning joss paper. Though this controversy seems pretty remote from Kinmen, which is across a narrow sea from the main island of Taiwan and is really it’s own place.
Here on Kinmen people still burn joss paper with innocent abandon. The critical mass of the society seems to engage in it, and there are shops all over the city that sell nothing but spirit money and other joss offerings and entire workshops that make nothing else. It’s an entire industry. I walked through the streets as shopkeeper after shopkeeper were standing outside, tossing offerings into flaming braziers. The roads in the commercial area were a gauntlet of little religious infernos, and when I asked people what they were doing they simply answered that they were praying.
“Every house does this on the first and fifteenth of every month,” a guy sitting on a curb informed me.
Twice a month, every month this ritual is carried out. Knee high steel braziers are permanent fixtures outside the doors of most shops and many homes on the island. You have to be careful not to mistake them for garbage cans.
Kinmen is an incredibly religious place. There are over 300 temples and shrines here. A rather large number for an island that only has 60,000 people. The traditions here are ancient, and the social mainstream still follows them.
It is becoming a rare thing in this world to see a street of people engaged in the same practice at the same time. When this happens it means that the community is on the same page, they had the same upbringing, they are enacting the same traditions in the same ways. Our world is becoming a place where such catalysts of cultural cohesion are rapidly diluting into inconspicuous soups of blandness. Melting pots, I believe they are called. Our cultures are losing their powers to hold people together.
If you walk down the street in an over-developed country you will not see practices like the bimonthly burning of joss on Kinmen. An attribute of the globalized sphere are populations where everybody is plugged into their own personal channels, concocting their own personal beliefs, and rejecting that which they were raised to believe almost on principle. Our traditions are withering, being picked apart by the politically correct, critics straining to be unique, and profiteers. We travel to places like Kinmen and become enamored by the old traditions and religious practices. We say trite things like, “Wow, they have so much culture here,” not really acknowledging the fact that we had such culture too, we just chose to ignore it.
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