Friday, October 17, 2008

Season of smoke

The air has been freakishly clear for the past week or so. One rather suspects that the country's entire manufacturing industry has been shut down until further notice because of the global economic meltdown. Then again, maybe we've just been lucky to have a long run of cleansing easterly breezes (rather than the more usual westerly ones that bring in the industrial fug from the rest of the country, or the occasional southerly ones that pin the city's accumulated smog up against the mountains to the north and west).

Clear, that is, by day. The nights have been horrendous. The beginning of the tenth lunar month in the Chinese calendar is yet another of those appeasing-the-ancestors festivals. At other times of the year, they burn money (or, more and more often, elaborate paper effigies of consumer goods) to make sure that their departed forebears can continue down the capitalist road in the afterlife. In autumn they burn clothes - so that the dead can dress warm in winter. I think it's the first day of the month that is supposed to be devoted to this, but in practice it drags on for a week or more. Every night, hundreds of thousands of people are out building mini-bonfires on the streets. And the damp autumn air quickly becomes saturated with the soot this produces. This year has been worse than ever, the very worst I can recall. The air quality after dark has been just poisonous this week.

The decades of hardcore Communism were remarkably ineffective in rooting out these antique superstitions; and now these fatuous practices are once again freely tolerated (if not actively encouraged, as a charming manifestation of China's "rich and ancient culture"). How long can we continue to condone a quaint tradition that is so massively pointless and so shockingly deleterious to the environment? There are a lot of Chinese customs that irritate the shit out of me, and this is one of the worst. And I don't suppose the majority of Chinese really believe in this ancestor-worship nonsense - any more than we Westerners believe in Father Christmas. But our customs - hanging out stockings, etc. - are innocent, non-noxious. The Chinese custom of lighting millions of small bonfires across the country every night for a week is a massive assault on the environment - and it needs to be ended. Soon.

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