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Chinese look to greener ways to honor deceased

Chinese look to greener ways to honor deceased

Updated: 2012-04-01 20:19


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HARBIN - More people around the country are opting for environmentally friendly ways to pay tribute to their deceased loved ones with the approach of the Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day.

Zhang Kui, a 73-year-old resident of the city of Harbin in Northeast China's Heilongjiang province, wrote a letter and a check to his late wife at a municipal funeral service held just days before the start of the festival, which falls on April 4 this year.

After attaching the letter to a board and dropping the check into a box labeled "Post Office" and "Bank of Heaven," respectively, Zhang had a few words to say about his late wife.

"She's been gone for over 10 years, and I used to burn paper money for her during Qingming. But this year, I learned of some novel ways of remembering our loved ones and I decided to give them a try," Zhang said.

Chinese tradition holds that fake money or items crafted out of paper and burned by the living will be received by the deceased and contribute to their happiness in the afterlife. It is not unusual to see thick clouds of smoke in the streets during the holiday as people burn thick wads of yellow-colored paper money on the sidewalk.

According to the China Consumers' Association (CCA), over 1,000 tonnes of paper is burned each year during the festival. The total value of the paper is estimated to be about 10 billion yuan ($1.59 billion) nationwide, said CCA.

"We arrived at the idea of using a single fake check instead of large amounts of fake paper cash, since it saves a lot of trouble and is good for the environment," said Han Jinrui, a funeral service official in Harbin.

Other environmentally friendly methods of marking the holiday have taken off all over the country.

In Baotou, a large industrial city in North China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region, authorities have asked residents to exchange sheets of paper money for flowers to memorialize their loved ones. In the city of Nantong in East China's Jiangsu province, the local government is calling on local residents to plant trees in memory of the deceased.

"Burning was actually discouraged for the festival in the early days, until a change of custom during the Han Dynasty about 2,000 years ago," said Zhang Xiqin, a historian at Heilongjiang University.

"We want to explain to the residents that burning paper is not the only way to honor their loved ones," said Han.

Harbin resident Li Rui expressed gratitude for the opportunity to reconnect with his late relatives at the "Post Office."

"Men of my age do not want to appear sentimental or emotional in public, and are reluctant to say in words how much we miss our loved ones," Li said. "But it makes me feel at ease to put my thoughts down on paper privately."

Younger Chinese are using their technological expertise to bring a new twist to the holiday as well. For 17-year-old Liu Xiaoling, laying flowers on her father and grandparents' tombs is just one part of the holiday.

"I think young people are more willing to try environmentally friendly ways of honoring our relatives," Liu said.

Liu was referring to online memorials, which have sprung up in great number as an alternative to conventional customs. Memorial websites allow visitors to present their deceased loved ones with flowers, songs and other gifts, as well as upload pictures and essays that reflect their feelings about their relatives.

Xu Yongsheng, the owner of a store in Harbin that sells fake paper money and other Qingming-related goods, said more older people have been coming to his shop to buy flowers, which were previously purchased almost exclusively by younger people.

"The city of Harbin is preparing dozens of containers in designated urban areas to encourage residents to burn paper safely and do less damage to the environment. Old habits die hard," said Qu Wenyong, a sociology professor at Heilongjiang University.

"But it is undeniable that the Chinese people are turning to greener ways to pay tribute to their ancestors," he added.