Yesterday I went to a kindergarten to teach a few classes with a co-worker. The kindergarten is inside a walled community. Not the kind of rich walled community you may be thinking of, but rather a big collection of fairly run-down Chinese apartment buildings which happen to be surrounded by a wall.
On the way out, we passed two men burning stuff near the garbage. My first thought was, “Just great. As if the pollution wasn’t bad enough, people also burn garbage for no apparent reason when they could just throw it away.”
Then I noticed a middle-aged woman and a rather old woman, who appeared to be just passersby, arguing with the men. It was all in Shanghainese, and I couldn’t understand it at all. Especially the old lady looked pretty upset about the exchange. I saw that what the men were burning was several large sheets of folded yellow paper. I also saw a bundle of white cloth which appeared to be next.
I asked my co-worker what they were saying.
Me: What were they saying?
Her: I think maybe someone died, so they’re burning things. The old lady told them they shouldn’t be doing it because it’s just superstition. The men told her it had nothing to do with her and she should mind her own damn business.
Me: Why do you think someone died?
Her: Well, in China, after someone dies we often draw a circle on the ground and place some of their clothes and other belongings in the circle and then burn them so that the person has these things in the afterlife.
Me: So is that superstition too, or tradition?
Her: Tradition, I guess.
Me: Where do you draw the circle? Just on the street?
Me: And what do you use to draw it?
Me: Just regular white chalk?
This is the kind of thing you see less often in Shanghai, but you still see it if you go to the right parts of the city.