I visited the library a few minutes ago, looking for books on Confucian political philosophy. As I was standing at the shelf with all the books on Confucianism, one odd book stood out from the rest. It was odd because it had little to do with Confucianism. It was:
I thought to myself: Oh, how apt! It’s now the Hungry Ghost Festival according to the Chinese Calendar. (This is the festival where Chinese people would burn paper offerings for their deceased relatives and ancestors)
I’m amused at how papers offerings have evolved from mere paper money to paper clothes, paper houses, paper cars, and even paper iPhones and iPads (I wrote a post about this some time back. If you’re curious to see how they look, see The History and Idea behind Chinese Paper Offerings and the Variety of Paper Goodies!)
I was curious to know, other than paper iPhones and iPads, what else might Chinese people around the world be burning?
As I was flipping through the pages of this book, I found this:
I’ve hit gold!
It turns out that in China, there are people selling paper mistresses, paper sex toys, paper Viagra, and even paper condoms, so that you can burn them and offer them to your dead relatives. They may be dead, but their libido is still very much alive and kicking!
Don’t believe me? Here’s proof from the book:
A reporter visited one of the shops selling paper offerings, hoping to buy a paper condom offering. Here’s what the saleslady said:
Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is: WHY WOULD DEAD SPIRITS NEED CONDOMS?!?!?!?!
Here’s what people in China are speculating:
So in the traditional Chinese world view, you can be fertile both in the realm of the living and of the dead! I guess if you’re having a series of bad luck in your life lately, your ancestors might have been screwing around in the afterlife, producing ghost children who are now busy bothering you (because, what else could you do for the rest of eternity, right?).
But of all the sex-related products out there, why are condoms and Viagra so popular as offerings to the dead?
To this question, the author has this to say:
Wow… Ok… I seriously did not see that coming…
Hur hur… I guess you could say that the afterlife is very pro-choice.
Anyway, things get more interesting! The Chinese afterlife isn’t just a world full of trillion dollar currencies, credit cards, houses, servants, luxury cars, iPhones, iPads, Viagras and condoms, there’s more!
Guns! They sell paper guns and aircraft carriers!
But wait, if the people in the afterlife are already dead, what damage could you do with guns? You can’t kill them, right?
Or can you? Guess these are the mysteries of the afterlife which we can only discover once we go there. Might be useful to ask your children or relatives to burn some paper weapons for you.
But then again, other than preventing cheats from cheating you, why would dead people need a gun? This passage might enlighten some of the mystery:
The Chinese afterlife is beginning to sound a lot like the wild wild West!
Of course, if everybody’s burning paper weapons so that their dead relatives won’t get bullied, you can be sure that there will be an arms race! And sure enough:
THERMONUCLEAR BOMBS!!! You can burn paper thermonuclear bombs for your ancestors! Wow… Chinese hell is literally a place of hell! Imagine a place where nuclear bombs go off almost every day! And who’s responsible for that? We are! We’re burning all these paper weapons and causing a whole nuclear arms race to go on in the underworld!
Anyway, what’s interesting is analysis provided by the author about this sociological trend. While it’s so easy to laugh at the absurdity of paper offerings for the ancestors, these trends nonetheless reflect something about our human condition:
[T]he paper money custom is becoming harnessed to a new, urban folklore that satirizes and allegorizes the tensions in modern society. The current hype of a perennial, often acute anxiety around male potency, the common assumption today that every man has a mistress outside marriage, the debate over whether condoms should be easily available in dispensing machines in hotel rooms and universities (to reduce the use of abortion for contraceptive purposes), the growing resentments between emerging economic classes (the nouveau riche, especially the ones who profited from the privatization of the collective economy, versus the masses of ordinary folks who didn’t), is being told and retold in the idiom of paper money.
– C. Fred Blake, Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011), pp.188-189
One big lesson we can draw from this is that popular trends in religions are reflections of the problems and struggles people face on a day to day basis. It’s easy for us to ridicule religion for all its superstition and craziness.
As Karl Marx says, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” What it means is that religion is a pain-killer. People turn to religion because life (or existence) is painful. Religion provides the means for us to alleviate the pangs of life. This can be said of all religions. The Chinese practice of burning paper offerings is no different. It provides a form of relief from the pains, woes, and struggles that we face on a day-to-day basis.
Before I end, let me say this: I highly recommend this book! (You can buy it online from Amazon)
This book is an easy read and it’s certainly very interesting and entertaining. More importantly, this book will help you to understand the whole idea behind the practice of burning paper money, and how all that has developed into a whole enterprise of paper products, like the ones I mentioned above. Many Chinese here in Singapore do it blindly. They buy paper products and burn as much as they can (the more the merrier, right?) without much clue as to how it works. After all, they are just following the practices of their parents and grandparents. Many are giving up this practice because they feel that the lack of understanding makes the whole act insincere, mechanical, and even pointless. For those who feel that way, this book will help to open up new insights and understandings of the practice. And for those who don’t practice this ritual, this book will certainly provide you with the understanding of the whole point behind paper offerings, so that you can see the rationale behind it and come to a better understanding of the Chinese rituals, and be able to empathise with those who practice it.