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November 2, 2013

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Paper clothing burned on day warms ancestors

With winter coming, it is time to prepare winter clothes for the family, as well as for the ancestors.

Han Yi Festival, or the Winter Clothes Festival, is one of the three big ghost days in traditional Chinese culture, with the other two being Qingming Festival and Zhongyuan (Hungry Ghost) Festival. 

The first day of the 10th month in the Chinese lunar calendar was often considered the start of winter in ancient China. With the temperatures dropping, Chinese worried that the ancestors in the underworld would suffer with the chill. Therefore, apart from burning common sacrifice items like food, candles, incense and paper money, they would burn paper clothes so that the dead would have warm winter garments.

Putting on heavy clothes, eating hot soup and sending winter clothes to family members far away from home are all common practices on the day. The Winter Clothes Festival falls tomorrow this year.

There are different versions of the festival’s origin. One story suggests it started with Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) who prepared an official ceremony on the day every year. The emperor always put on winter clothes, officially declared winter’s arrival and gave hot, sweet soup made of red beans and glutinous rice to officials.

Some people believe the festival started with the legend of Meng Jiangnu, who sent winter clothes to her husband, who was assigned to work on the Great Wall during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC).

She traveled a long distance to see him, but found that her husband had died and his remains were buried under the wall.

She cried so much that several miles of the Great Wall collapsed and her husband’s remains appeared.

Some think that burning paper clothes on the festival may have started for commercial reasons.

Cai Mo opened a paper shop with his wife Hui Niang after learning paper-making from his brother Cai Lun, who invented paper during the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). However, failing to fully master the technology, all the paper they made was of low quality and sold poorly.

To change the situation, Hui faked her own death. When the family members came over, they found Cai Mo burning paper while crying at a coffin. Suddenly, the coffin opened from inside and Hui came out.

She said that she was able to return from the underworld because her husband sent money to her so that she could bribe the ghosts and the officials there to release her. The paper that Cai burned was money that was used in the underworld.

Hearing the news, all the neighbors bought bunches of paper to burn for their dead ancestors and family members. When the word spread, Cai’s shop’s paper sold out quickly.

Since Hui returned from the underworld on the first day of the 10th month, paper burning became an annual tradition on the day.

The tradition is still practiced by some Chinese, but with a much wider range of paper products to burn.

Paper of five colors — red, yellow, blue, white and black — along with some cotton is burned as “clothes” at an ancestor’s grave. Paper houses, cars and money are also popular. 

Some people will burn some extra products for wandering ghosts so that they won’t rob their ancestors of property.

It is said that the paper products have to be fully burned for them to be transformed them into real products used in the underworld. Therefore, visitors to the graves carefully check the ash before leaving.



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