TidBits 023: Paper prayers

The south of China, on the delta of the Zhujiang River (the River of Pearls), has maintained ancient roots in which the Confucian doctrine – based on the centrality of the family and on its hierarchies – and the Buddhist cult that believes in a spiritual cycling, come together, according to a Chinese tradition that Maoism was not able to annihilate.

This translates into a close tie with life, death and the transient world, inhabited by ancestors, gods and ghosts. And to them, in ways that can be either protective or auspicial, are addressed vows and prayers, officiated in temples or on small domestic altars, in private, according to a direct dialogic relationship with the netherworld. The means is paper. Reelaborated in the most imaginative ways according to a variety of motley objects that answer every wish to be sent to the netherworld: fake money, templates for gold bars, parures of jewelry, and also simple containers for dim sum (raviolis), clothes, chicken drumsticks. In few words, material life is translated and illustrated to the sky through these paper images that are burned in braziers of different sizes and shapes. Basically, all the elements are involved in this syncretistic-propitiatory rite that wards off the evil eye: the earth that generates a tree that gives paper, the water to nourish it, the fire to transfer it to the air to bring the wishes all the way to the unknown, in the (materialistic?) hope that they will return – in their real form – to the living.

Every day in Canton, Macao or Hong Kong, wealthy managers, workers, fishermen or housewives silently officiate this rite, slowing down for a moment the frenetic rhythm of the modern cities, trying to flee from the “money god” towards an indefinite pantheon that can be modeled to one’s own imageand desires. Today’s worldwide economic downturn has reinvigorated this rite, exporting it to the nearby areas of China where it was previously erased, for the joy of salesmen. In a time of crisis, it may be well worth it to send a little something extra to the gods or to ancestors in heaven rather than to the specters of hell! You never know.....

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