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Local governments across China have been clamping down on the country's folk religion, issuing bans on the burning of spirit money and other offerings during the Hungry Ghost Festival, and calling the practice "uncivilized."

"We must consciously resist worship activities with feudal superstitions, break old habits such as burning spirit money, setting off firecrackers and leaving offerings," the government of Yongren county in the southwestern province of Yunnan said in an Aug. 20 notice on its website.

Ghost Month, which began on Wednesday, is a period in the Chinese lunar calendar where many Chinese make offerings to their ancestors or to hungry ghosts. 

Found in both Buddhist and Taoist traditions, the offerings involve burning spirit money or leaving offerings of food, wine and incense in public places. Some traditions also include floating candles across bodies of water to help the departed in the afterlife, including deceased people who have no living descendants to tend to their graves.

"Ronglong Community will resolutely end uncivilized behaviors such as burning ghost paper [items] and ghost money," said an Aug. 12 directive from a residential community in Changsha, Hunan province, while officials in Langzhong, Sichuan province tried to encourage people to make digital offerings instead.

"For more civilized ways to make memorial offerings, you can use the Cloud Offerings linked to the WeChat public account of the Langzhong Cemetery Management Office," the city government told residents in a statement dated Aug. 28.

"[You can] set up a [digital] memorial hall, bow to pay respects, offer flowers, send messages and express condolences," it said. "Do not burn spirit money or set off fireworks or firecrackers on streets, riverbanks or residential areas."

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A woman burns joss sticks and leaves offerings for her dead ancestors during the Hungry Ghost Festival at a temple in Hong Kong on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. Credit: Peter Parks/AFP

But a Sina.com report about similar measures in the northeastern city of Liaoyang’s Baita district said many people don't agree with the attempt to change traditional ways, despite the government's claim that they are "feudal superstitions."

"Many people are saying that this is part of tradition and a way of offering sustenance for deceased relatives, and they are questioning whether such law enforcement behavior is reasonable," the report said.

Offerings are based on the idea that the afterlife, much like the human world, requires a certain amount of money and status for people to exist without suffering too much.

Paper goods shops can offer all manner of effigies ranging from houses, Rolls Royce cars and Rolex watches to suits of brand-name clothes and bureaucratic paperwork to help the departed soul make its way in the afterlife.

‘Bad traditions’

The move also comes against the backdrop of a campaign by the ruling Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping to encourage cremation rather than elaborate burials in expensive plots with good feng shui.

The district government in Guangzhou's Baiyun district called on party members and officials to lead the way in making only frugal and environmentally friendly offerings to the dead, calling on them to "change people's ideas, break with bad traditions and start a new trend."

Several government statements also said younger people should show their respect for their elders by taking better care of them and spending more time with them while they're still alive.

"People should show more filial behavior to the elderly while they're still alive, instead of vying with others when they die," according to the Langzhong municipal government.

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A woman burns offerings for her dead ancestors during the Hungry Ghost Festival at a temple in Hong Kong on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. Credit: Peter Parks/AFP

The ruling party under supreme leader Xi Jinping is clamping down on all forms of religious belief and practice, insisting they comply with the government's "sinicization" program and serve its political agenda rather than pledging allegiance to forces or beliefs beyond the material world.

"Let the deceased rest in peace, and make sure the living have no regrets," the Yongren county government told residents.

Jiang Jiawen, a resident of Liaoning province, hit out at the crackdown on Ghost Month offerings in Liaoyang, which was widely reported in official media.

"The city government gets involved in stuff it shouldn't, indiscriminately," Jiang said. "They have destroyed the legacy left by our ancestors."

"They like to build Confucian schools, but they actually oppose [Confucianism’s] traditional ways."

He said many people have taken to burning offerings in the middle of the night instead.

"The people don't like it, and they get up secretly to burn offerings at night or first thing in the morning," he said.

On X, formerly Twitter, some people marked the start of Ghost Month by posting generic photos of burning offerings, while others posted photos of actual people burning paper offerings at unnamed locations, suggesting that a blanket ban on the practice has yet to take effect.

"Today is the Hungry Ghost Festival," user @zhanglu wrote. "There is nowhere to light a fire in the capital, so people keep turning up at their local crossroads to burn a bit of paper money on the tarmac, sending it to relatives [in the afterlife]."

"The Hungry Ghost Festival used to be very lively, with every family cooking a large spread of dishes to honor their ancestors, and inviting relatives and friends to eat and drink with them," user @tuoxier wrote. "Now that circumstances have changed, things are easier and less complicated."

"I went down to the temple this morning to burn incense and pay my respects."

Lawyer Huang Hanzhong said the campaign appears to be highly political, with local governments competing to show loyalty to the latest ideology from Beijing.

"It's not surprising for people who have some kind of religious tradition to be suppressed at a time when the country is supposed to be on the path to the rule of law," he said. "It may be that this is some idea the local authorities have of political correctness."

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"The city government gets involved in stuff it shouldn't, indiscriminately. They have destroyed the legacy left by our ancestors," says Jiang Jiawen, a citizen of Liaoning, China. Credit: Provided by Jiang Jiawen

According to new rules taking effect starting Friday, monasteries, temples, mosques, churches and other religious venues are required to support the leadership of the party and leader Xi Jinping's plans for the "sinicization" of religious activity.

The Chinese Communist Party, which embraces atheism, exercises tight controls over any form of religious practice among its citizens, including what clerics may or may not say in places of worship, on who may call themselves a religious follower, and where and with whom they may gather.

Local officials have also used brainwashing and torture to get Christians, Muslims and Tibetans to renounce their allegiance to any power other than Beijing.

Translated with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie.


This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Gao Feng for RFA Mandarin.

Citations

[1]https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/funerals-09282018105702.html[2]https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/religion-controls-08032023122520.html[3]https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/xinjiang-imams-10162017132810.html[4]https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/earlyrain-raid-08152022075406.html[5]https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/christians-camps-04012021081013.html[6]https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/policies-02192021094330.html[7]https://www.rfa.org/english/news/tibet/karma_samdup-08252022171832.html