2008-07-27

Closing the Furnace

The ritual of offering money to ancestors and deities is well established in Taiwan. Adherents of traditional religions acquire special money, sold at temples especially for this ritual purpose, and burn it in a furnace.

In recent years public health officials have begun confronting the environmental toll exacted by the widespread practice. The smoke, now known to be full of carcinogens, goes up in vast amounts during holy days with little thought given to dissipation. The smoke has plainly negative effects on the health of people exposed to it.

The Taipei Times reports that a temple in Taoyuan County found its furnace closed last week.

Citing air pollution, the Taoyuan County Government's Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) posted a notice sealing a Land God Temple's (土地公廟) furnace that was used for burning 'ghost money' on Wednesday, shocking many locals.

The temple, located in Bade Village (八德) in the county's Lungtan Township (龍潭), has been there for almost a century, village chief Chang Yun-huan (張運煥) said.

'For the Environmental Protection Administration to seal the furnace is not only hard for the villagers to accept, but how would the Land God feel about it?' he asked.

Although the temple does not have an administrative board, it represents the religious beliefs of nearly 1,000 village residents, Chang said, adding that the sudden sealing of the furnace upset villagers, as it prohibited them from practicing the traditional, everyday ritual of burning ghost money and incense.

The bureau fined the temple NT$5,000 for violating the Air Pollution Control Act (空氣污染防制法).

The bureau said a notice was posted at the temple at the beginning of the month, requiring that an administrative board be organized to maintain the temple and prevent pollution if the furnace were to remain in use. However, in the three weeks prior to Wednesday, no one took on the responsibility, forcing the EPA to seal the furnace, it said.

A number of temple administrators will take the closing of the furnace in Taoyuan County as a cautionary signal. Next month brings the Chungyuan Festival (中元節), or Ghost Festival, when huge amounts of smoke are produced. The Taipei Times reports that bureau officials are making suggestions for environmentally safer practices 'such as worshipping without incense or virtually burning incense or paper money via the Internet.'

The suggestion may be naive (I'm new here), but I've always wondered if an environmental improvement couldn't be made as the ritual is still observed by changing the form and denomination of the currency. Could a worshipper offer a suitably vast amount of money in a more compact form? One sheet of paper is prefereable to a stack, certainly. Could a coin, made of some suitably environmentally friendly material, do the work of a paper stack?

It willbe interesting to see how things work out. It's another situation of long-standing traditions being challenged by modern awareness. Every culture gets its turn at jolts like this, as attested by the number of people in the United States who still find it hard to accept that they live on a planet four billion years old. The Taiwanese have often proved adaptable and resilient, though. The new transition, though as difficult for some, is unlikely to prove as chronic.

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