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TIANJIN - Want a decent gift for deceased family and friends? Why not try the latest electronic gadgets?
Paper versions of iPads and iPhones in several colors have become available ahead of this year's tomb-sweeping holiday in China.
However, these innovative ideas are generally not recognized by the law or even accepted by the public, with many viewing these modern offerings as a joke.
Experts believe that the persistent pursuit of increasingly fashionable or extravagant sacrificial offerings at rememberance services is the result of underlying public anxiety over increasing pressure in daily life.
Evolution of Paper Offerings
The centuries-old Qingming Festival, or Tomb-sweeping Day, goes by the Chinese lunar calendar, and falls on April 4 this year.
A tradition of the festival was to burn offerings to mourn the death of ancestors and loved ones, since it was once widely believed that anything burnt at the memorial ceremony could be used by their deceased friends and relatives in the afterlife.
The list of optional offerings has expanded rapidly in recent years along with China's opening-up and economic boom.
Roughly cut paper money and paper horses have been replaced with multi-billion-dollar "banknotes" and delicate paper models of villas, private jets and even Lamborghinis, items which are beyond the reach of ordinary Chinese citizens.
A basic paper iPad costs about 20 yuan, while the most expensive paper villa was priced at 16,888 yuan (2,682 US dollars) on Taobao.com, China's popular online marketplace.
However, the industry of paper offerings is not strictly legal under Chinese law, without even considering the potential for trademark disputes with the genuine producers of these fancy luxury goods.
A 1997 law on funeral issues explicitly prohibits the making and selling of these paper replicas, which are deemed to be a symbol of superstitious practices.
Underlying Aspiration & Anxiety
Despite the ban, the gray market of paper offerings continues to thrive, especially in less developed rural regions, and new innovations like the recent paper iPad series continue to develop.
But a few controversial questions remain unanswered: If it's that easy to send billions of "heaven dollars" to the dead at a more reasonable cost here on earth, why bother burning expensive paper offerings for goods which could theoretically be purchased by the ancestors themselves in heaven?
An opinion piece in a local news portal in eastern China attributed the rise of these paper offerings of luxury goods to a new form of aspiration, as these offerings are an indicator of the luxury goods desired by the living.
Meanwhile, some microbloggers have suggested that sending material goods to those in heaven could help to dampen inflation here on earth.
Other commentators however have criticized these sometimes extravagant memorials, arguing that resources could be better spent taking care of family members while they are still alive.
One crucial motivation for such flamboyant sacrificial offerings is to show off in front of neighbors, said Zhang Baoyi, director of the Institute of Social Studies at the Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences.
The evolution of these offerings is an indicator of the public's anxiety over the uncertainty of life amid acute inflation and rising living costs in the real world, said Zhang.
The rising prices of paper offerings has also triggered outcry on weibo.com, a leading microblogging service in China.
Alternative Way out?
Under the current loose ban on paper offerings, many believe that this will remain an underground or sunset industry, because these products cannot be sold through mainstream retailers but only at far-off open markets and online stores.
Government authorities continue to encourage the public to use flowers instead of fire at ceremonies, and have issued a strict ban on burning things in public cemeteries.
However, some manufacturers believe that there could be an alternative way to upgrade this promising service.
Mr. Kang, a Hong Kong-based manufacturer of customized paper offerings, described his products as being works of art made from love, and something which can help ease the pain of losing loved ones. He says he feels pity for those who misunderstand his work.
In addition to more traditional offerings, his store designs and sells paper models of musical instruments and golf kits.
"There is a touching story behind each individual piece", said Kang.