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Has ancient Chinese tradition gone up in smoke?

The present-buying frenzy of the festive season often prompts questions about whether the true meaning of Christmas has been forgotten.

But it’s not just Christians who worry about religious traditions being diluted by consumerism.

The ancient practice of burning joss paper as an offering to dead relatives, practised by millions of adherents of Chinese Taoist-Buddhism around the world, has also taken on a decidedly modern twist. 

The ritual of burning letters, metallic paper and fake money at ceremonial furnaces has been observed for centuries.

It’s a key part of festivals like Qingming or as an offering to a dead relative, either shortly after they die or on the anniversary of their passing.

It is based on the belief that one can assist a loved one as they progress through the afterlife towards rebirth.

Traditionally such offerings were paper money and written charms or paper talismans that could be used to pay off evil spirits during their journey.

But in recent years there has been a roaring demand for other paper items to send up in smoke to those in the afterlife – paper tablets, smartphones, laptops, sports cars and even private jets are all increasingly popular purchases.

It's now possible to buy and burn paper plasma TVs and iPhones
Image Caption:
It’s now possible to buy and burn paper plasma TVs and iPhones

In the backstreets of Bangkok’s China Town, there is an alley where it’s possible to buy all these things in the belief a dead relative might need it to be comfortable.

Stalls have stacks of neatly packaged boxes filled with paper credit cards, designer watches and shirts. Even cardboard fans and refrigerators are on hand.

Store owner Waraporn Apisitamournkul told Sky News she relies on her suppliers from China to know exactly what the latest fashion might be, but when a new delivery arrives “people get excited”.

One customer, Kaew Chaikitpattana, was picking up a 42″ paper plasma TV that she planned to burn for her father, who died three years ago.

He told Sky News: “It’s for him, and my other relatives. They’ll be able to use this as they don’t have one at the moment.”

But there are those that fear the original meaning of this ancient practice is being lost in the desire for the latest goods, and that it’s becoming more about showing off in the living world than helping someone in the afterlife.

Raymond Chow, originally from Hong Kong, now runs a foundation for the Thai-Chinese community in Bangkok, and is an expert in the origins of joss paper burning.

He says that while many of the shops selling the paper products are good at explaining to customers how to practise the ritual correctly, there is some deviation going on.

“When their grandfather was alive, he would never use an iPhone or tablets,” Mr Chow explained.

“But they burn (paper) iPhones and tablets, and burn Lamborghinis … the guy will not drive a Lamborghini when he was alive.

“When they buy more things to burn, they are telling people ‘we love our parents more, we love our grandparents more’, because we buy so much, and you cannot because you are less rich than I am.”

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