In the thousands of years of its history, Chinese religion and culture have evolved and integrated to become what they are today: A tradition that is part of the daily life of a typical Chinese individual.
Currently, the Chinese tradition is a fusion between three primary beliefs, based on the familial and government philosophies of Confucianism, the deities of Taoism as well as the teachings of Buddhism.
The three ideals have also been mixed with the natural habit of religious worship to become the religion that we commonly see in Chinese dwellings today.
With the exception of perhaps Chinese Christians, the Chinese people observe the various festive and memorial days as dictated by the Lunar calendar as well as the many taboos and superstitions that dominate the belief. Most, if not all, festivals require the burning of either joss sticks or paper money, with memorial days and funerals burning both along with representational items made of cardboard.
Instead of concentrating the burning of items in one area, the offerings are usually burned in large quantities by many people on different days within the span of a week.
The burning tends to create large quantities of smoke and ash, which become debris that is scattered around neighbourhoods, while smoke is always present as new offerings are created before the old ones can clear.
During Chinese New Year, firecrackers and joss sticks are used instead for merrier celebratory purposes. Yet during and toward the end of the festival, the smoke created either by joss sticks or firecrackers is also abundant, though not to the same level of severity as is observed during memorial festivals. Garbage created from the firecrackers is problematic even today, when the practice is widely prohibited by authorities.
Although this kind environment was acceptable in the past, with entire cities of households doing the same, it should definitely be called hazardous by today’s standards.
The most obvious downside to these traditions is none other than air pollution.
Molecules that are the byproducts of burning in bulk have been scientifically proven to be harmful to the planet’s atmosphere.
Smog is also known to be harmful to humans, especially when accompanied by smoke.
Along with littering and noise pollution, the requirements of the Chinese tradition is arguably environmentally harmful as well as dangerous to people who live in areas with a high population density like Taipei.
Based on available scientific knowledge and the development of the Taiwanese population today, it is surprising to see that religious practice hasn’t advanced to a form that is environmentally friendly while abiding by cultural and traditional norms.
What the majority of the population fails to understand is that the Chinese tradition itself has advanced so far from what it originally was. Case in point: Mahayana Buddhism, the religion that is now arguably the core of the three pillars of Chinese belief, was a foreign philosophy introduced from India. Following the integration, both the Chinese religion and Buddhist philosophy are not what they were. Other examples include the red envelopes given during Chinese New Year, as Chinese paper money was not invented until the Tang dynasty. As paper notes contained amounts of money not likely given to children, it is not until Chinese paper money developed into the banknotes we know today that the red envelopes came about.
But changes and advancements are about to take effect, albeit at a sluggish pace. The advancement took a big initial leap when Taiwanese actress Gong Huang Jing-liang, professionally known nationwide by her stage name Aunt Wun Ying, advocated for change.
As a figurehead of the older and more traditional generation, the actress was the spokeswoman for a programme set up by the Environmental Protection Administration that advocates community burning of paper money and joss sticks to reduce overall smoke emissions. Unfortunately, the actress' passing soon after the launch of the program lessened the potential impact and change of the program.
The most recent effort likely to impact the way the Taiwanese people observe Chinese culture is popular tourist and believer attraction Xingtian Temple’s announcement that it will remove its incense burners and offering tables for environmental protection purposes.
Effective today, the popular temple will no longer offer places for believers to worship using joss sticks, but will instead encourage temple-goers to pray using their hands and to respect their deities and ancestors with heart and action.
Let's hope that the environmental incentive by an authoritative symbol of the Chinese religion will be the first step for the Taiwanese people to evolve their religion into one that both abides by cultural traditions and is ecologically conscious.