Paying respect to our deceased loved ones during the Qingming Festival, or Tomb-sweeping Day, is a time-honored tradition that shows the traditional reverence for ancestors in Chinese culture.
Observed for more than 2,500 years, the festival has shown no sign of waning. Around April 5 every year, millions of people travel a long way to visit the tombs of their deceased loved ones, while others worship their ancestors at home.
However, as urbanization has brought tremendous changes to the way people live and work, the way of observing the festival and other occasions deserves reconsideration by the whole nation.
During the festival and other worshipping occasions, people burn joss sticks and joss paper as an essential part of the traditional rituals, in addition to preparing lavish foods. It is the burning of joss sticks and joss paper offerings that are now presenting big problems.
The burning of such offerings not only produces air pollutants, but also may cause fires. Hill fires have been reported in recent years in the Chaoshan area of eastern Guangdong, where probably the most meticulous rituals in China are practiced.
The modern city of Shenzhen is not immune to such hazards. On Friday, a fire broke out in an apartment in a housing estate in Futian District, as the family was burning paper offerings for a Qingming Festival ritual. Fortunately no casualties were reported after firefighters quickly put out the fire, rescued four people trapped inside the home and evacuated dozens of neighbors.
People in urban areas now mostly live in apartment buildings, vastly different from the independent houses or less-crowded compounds people used to live for thousands of years. Burning paper offerings inside apartment buildings creates huge fire hazards, in addition to polluting the air, and thus is no longer suitable for urban dwellers.
Shenzhen is home to a large number of Chaoshan people, who are known to practice rigid worshipping traditions. People from some other regions, like Fujian, also stick to such traditions. It is time for news media to initiate discussions on whether we should keep the tradition of burning paper offerings, and people should come to the realization that any tradition needs to be tweaked if it causes problems in today’s society. Firecrackers have been banned in most cities even though they remained a Spring Festival tradition for thousands of years.
In 2017, Baiyin City in Gansu Province banned the burning of paper offerings on roadsides and near schools, hospitals and government buildings. Some other cities, like Dalian in Liaoning and Tongling in Anhui, have imposed similar restrictions. Shenzhen should also consider new regulations aimed at reducing fire hazards associated with worshipping rituals.
(The author is head of the Shenzhen Daily News Desk.)