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?

> Her: Yeah.

> Me: And what do you use to draw it?

> Her: Chalk.

> Me: Just regular white chalk?

> Her: Yeah.

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.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Joe Mackertich Says: August 13, 2004 at 1:26 pm

    I’m staying in an old Chinese house on Fuxing Zhong Lu, also in Shanghai. The woman who lives upstairs (and feeds me!)’s mother died last week and yesterday evening I noticed a funny smell coming from outside my room.
    When I opened the door they were burning all her stuff in the circle like you said. It kind of worried me that they had a fire going indoors but hey. When I asked they were adament it was tradition not religion.

  2. Chinese people have the tradition of burning stuff for ancesters or “ghosts”. For example, during the ghost festival, many people burn “hell money” in metal buckets on the streets. When our family visits my grandpa’s grave, we burn paper shirts, watches, money etc. Apparently, it’s a rather profitable business, making these paper things (they also produce really modern things like mobile phones!)I don’t know if my grandma actually believes that my grandpa would get these items in his afterlife, but most of us do it for tradition, to show respect for our ancesters.

  3. We brought from the States those fake dollars (from the dollar store proper) and burned them on grandma’s grave while murmuring “this is foreign money so please you ask them to exchange it for you before spending and it is worth quite a bit you know.” This kind of ritual may have started as superstition but to many has become simply a part or prop of such memorial prayers. I think of it as quite innocent.

    But is it superstition? Once a son-in-law whom grandma had often openly despised went to the grave on a routine occasion, and sure enough his sleeve caught fire from the buring of paper stuff and, trying to shake off the flame on his sleeve, he bumped into one of the cypree trees planted there for grandma and in it he agitated a hive of bees who stung him. Everyone’s sure he had been thinking insincere thoughts right before this happened and grandma’s ghost got him for that. Haha.

  4. Da Xiangchang Says: August 14, 2004 at 7:10 am

    A very silly Chinese superstition, but no more silly or superstitious than thinking some carpenter who died 2000 years was the son of God and died for our supposed sins. Or that a shaky old guy in a funny hat is somehow closer to God than I am myself. Or that I have to confess my own shortcomings to some 40-year-old virgin behind a screen or else risk eternal damnation. Once I was having dinner with some laowais, and one laowai actually had the audacity to say, “There is a difference between superstition and religion,” when talking about Chinese beliefs. In my book, everything’s superstitious if it can’t be proven rationally. I don’t care if it’s Chinese popular religion, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, voodooism, Scientology–if I can’t see it, I don’t think it exists.

  5. In Taiwan, on the morning news programs and most of the newspapers, they have a section for how that day is favorable ÒË or unfavorable ¼É for which random, ausipicious events. This even gets put into the English language Taipei Times. So today might be good for installing doors and naming your child while it might be bad for burning ghost money and giving birth.

  6. From the very beginning, Chnese people burning things after family members passed away to express their love and respect, also show a kind of yearning for a better future for those who still lived. People belive that the burned things could be well received by the died, then he/she may get peace afterlife. It could be considered as supstitous at that time, but gradually, when all or nearly all Chinese do such, it became tradition. Tradition need to be respected.

  7. Tatianna Says: May 1, 2006 at 10:46 am

    Well I am asian chinese and Da Xiang Chang…. Im afraid was me 10 years ago when I thought if I cannot see it then it is not believable. Well since then every corner I visit in life it seems there are signs telling us differently and if we cannot pick up on those signs then we live through life with blinkers. I experienced religion and unknown spirits who knew things that I did not know until I had asked a member of family that a member of family had passed away by the name I was given. How did someone in the middle of China where I have never visited before know that detail whilst I lived in the UK for 3 decades??? You start to question life that there are things like that that exsist because we only see in three dimension does not mean that the Universe is limited to only our sight. Take heed you are not alone when you sit in your own home.

  8. I was working in Hong Kong during that week. I also noticed the tradition and asked my co-workers about it. He told me that during the month of July (on the Chinese calendar, the mouth of hell is said to open and offerings are used to appease the gods). Check out this video I made while witnessing the whole thing.

  9. anything wrong with that?That’s just the way people do just as other religious people worship. Don’t have to be the same as your own thoughts!

  10. Marco,

    Easy, there. No need to get defensive.

  11. 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

    i was defensive because of this.don’t tell me you ‘ve never thought about this thing being “poverty-generated’ or “uncivilization-generated” when you wrote this.

  12. somebody told me this joke

    There were two graves side by side. There came a Chinese with offerings of food, wine, incense, paper gifts and he spread the goodies and got down on his knees and prayed to his ancesters to come enjoy. Along came a Foreigner in long coat and hat, carrying a bunch of flowers. He put down the flowers on the next grave and took off his hat, placed it over his heart, and bowed his head in a moment of silent respect. When he looked up the Chinese was still so busy pouring wine, burning paper gifts, and yelling and yaping to his ancesters to come drink, eat, and receive his gifts. The Foreigner look kind of annoyed and snapped “You really think your ancester is going to sit up on his grave and eat your duck and drink your wine?” The Chinese replied, “No, no more than yours is going to sit up on his grave and sniff your flowers.” Hee Hee.

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