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Dismay over China’s clampdown on folk religious practices

The local governments are competing to show loyalty to the latest ideology from Beijing, says analyst
A woman burns offerings for her dead ancestors during the Hungry Ghost Festival at a temple in Hong Kong on Aug. 30

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

Published: September 01, 2023 11:11 AM GMT
Updated: September 01, 2023 11:40 AM GMT

Authorities in several Chinese provinces have banned traditions and worship systems associated with the Hungry Ghost festival, a major folk religious celebration, calling them “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 a notice, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on Aug. 30.

The notice was posted on the country website on Aug. 20.

Followers of Buddhism and Taoism in China observe Ghost Month, which began on Aug. 30. They make offerings during the festival to their ancestors or spirits, or hungry ghosts.

Many Chinese follow the traditions and make offerings that involve burning spirit money or leaving offerings of food, wine and incense in public places, RFA reported.

Some traditions also include floating candles across water bodies to help the departed in the afterlife, including deceased people who have no living descendants to tend to their graves.

Local governments in other places have also issued notices banning the traditions.

"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.

Officials in Langzhong of Sichuan province encouraged 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."

Media reports say many people have opposed the attempt to change traditional ways, despite the government's claim that they are "feudal superstitions."

Many people are "questioning whether such law enforcement behavior is reasonable," Sina.com reported.

Offerings are based on the idea that the afterlife, much like on earth, 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 or Chinese geometry.

The district government in Guangzhou's Baiyun district called on party members and officials to lead the way and asked them to "change people's ideas, break with bad traditions and start a new trend."

Statements from local government also urged younger people to show their respect for their elders by taking better care of them and spending more time with them while they're still alive.

The clampdown on folk religious practices comes as the communist regime of Xi Jinping continues its crackdown on all religions under the so-called “sinicization” program, which stresses adhering to socialist principles and loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.

"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.

"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, RFA reported.

"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 social media, 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.

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."

Effective Sept. 1, the Chinese government enacted new rules on religious affairs which require monasteries, temples, mosques, churches and other religious venues to support the leadership of the CCP and Xi Jinping's plans for the "sinicization" of religion.

The new regulations have triggered renewed criticism from rights groups who claim the rules muzzle religious freedom further in the officially atheist state.

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