Vmenkov/Wikipedia

Instead of burning paper money to honor their deceased relatives, many Chinese people are choosing to just write a check.

When it comes to mitigating climate change, any little act of self-sacrifice helps. That's why it's commendable that some Chinese people are shunning the traditional way of honoring ancestors – by burning large wads of fake money – in favor of greener kinds of tribute, like writing a fake check.

News of this trend surfaced recently in Harbin, a city in northeast China of about 10 million residents. While it's no Beijing or Tianjing, where the air can smell like 18-wheeler exhaust mixed with burning camel hair, Harbin has its share of days when the atmosphere turns foul, bringing an unhealthy dose of second-hand smoke to regional lungs. China's distinct musk is all part of the price of being the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

A reporter for news agency Xinhua went out on a fact-finding quest right before April 4's Qingming Festival, otherwise known as Tomb Sweeping Day, when loads of Chinese burn fat stacks of what Westerners call "hell notes." Here's one lower-denomination hell note (the bills, which are not legal tender, can range all the way up to the billion-dollar kind):

Hell bank note courtesy of Immanuel Giel.

Why do Chinese people torch this hellish moolah? Traditional Chinese beliefs have it that the flames transfer the money to the realm of the dead, where ancestors can use the cash to live the good life. Anyway, the Xinhua journo found one elderly man who had chosen to honor his late wife by dropping a voided check into a box labeled "Bank of Heaven." And that was just one example of how Chinese across the country are embracing greener memorials, according to the report. Some others:

• In Inner Mongolia, officials have requested that tribute-givers switch from faux cash to flowers (although flower-plucking would seem to carry its own ecological ramifications).

• In Jiangsu province, authorities asked that people just plant trees in honor of the dead.

• Younger citizens are simply creating online memorials to ancestors.

The ordinary Chinese citizen cannot demand their city switches to solar and wind energy, or climb an industrial smokestack to install a carbon scrubber. But they can choose not to burn stuff. Will this change actually make a difference to the thickness of Asia's toxic brown cloud

China is one big smokestack. In this 2007 satellite image from NASA, a trail of brown haze can bee seen drifting over the Yellow Sea to South Korea and Japan.

That's probably too much to hope for. But it could make the air in cities on festival days more breathable, given the sheer amount of this deathly currency that the Chinese turn to smoke. As Xinhua notes:

It is not unusual to see thick clouds of smoke in the streets during the holiday as people burn thick wads of yellow-colored paper money on the sidewalk.

According to the China Consumers' Association (CCA), over 1,000 tonnes of paper is burned each year during the [Qingming] festival. The total value of the paper is estimated to be about 10 billion yuan ($1.59 billion) nationwide, said CCA.

Above: Chinese people in Jiangsu Province burn imitation cash at ancestors' graves during 2008's "Ghost Festival." Photo by Vmenkov.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Design

    A New Plan to Correct a Historic Mistake in Pittsburgh

    A Bjarke Ingels Group-led plan from 2015 has given way to a more “practical” design for the Lower Hill District. Concerns over true affordable housing remain.

  2. A photo of a closed street in St. Louis
    Equity

    The Curious Tale of the St. Louis Street Barriers

    Thanks to an '80s mania for traffic calming, the St. Louis grid is broken by hundreds of bollards and cul-de-sacs. Critics say it’s time to get rid of them.

  3. Life

    How to Inspire Girls to Become Carpenters and Electricians

    Male-dominated trades like construction, plumbing, and welding can offer job security and decent pay. A camp aims to show girls these careers are for them, too.

  4. A young girl winces from the sting as she receives the polio vaccine in 1954.
    Life

    How Mandatory Vaccination Fueled the Anti-Vaxxer Movement

    To better understand the controversy over New York’s measles outbreak, you have to go back to the late 19th century.

  5. A crowded room of residents attend a local public forum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
    Life

    Are Local Politics As Polarized As National? Depends on the Issue.

    Republican or Democrat, even if we battle over national concerns, research finds that in local politics, it seems we can all just get along—most of the time.