dzi dzat

by William B. Guthrie

"folded paper." "Folded paper" in Macau and Hong Kong and Guangdong village-Cantonese, though this phrase's Putonghua equivalent seems to mean nothing in modern mainland Chinese, perhaps because of recent government suppression of traditional religion. Dzi dzat is the generic name for the paper grave goods and ancestral sacrifices burnt to make a comfortable life for the dead.

Photographs and written accounts of sacrifices before World War II illustrate that paper and bamboo mansions were burnt at funerals and at regular festivals. These dwellings for the spirits of the dead were filled with paper representations of everything the ancestors knew or had wanted in life: favorite food, books, signs of rank, a pleasure boat or a young mistress, all in painted and folded paper.

Nowadays dzi dzat is most frequently smaller than the 3-meter-long paper Ford automobiles of 70 years ago, or the 10-meter high paper houses. Perhaps that is for ease of transport in the crowded cities. Perhaps it is to keep these things private in a world that is torn between old and new. Modern dzi dzat may be small, yet it is just as elaborate and creative as in the old days. The dead receive the things they knew and wanted — "jade" and "gold" treasure made of folded paper or molded plastic, or traditional clothing printed with mythical beasts. Then descendants lavish modern conveniences on the spirits as well: paper electric rice cookers, computers, video cameras and televisions decorated with travel posters glued over their meter-wide screens, and matching black-paper video cassette recorders featuring shiny silver plastic logos of real Japanese electronics companies.

Dzi dzat shops are usually small and grubby, and usually in poorer neighborhoods where the fishers and laborers live, but there is a growth business in middle-class dzi dzat. Macau has a law that all places of business must have a prominently-displayed Portuguese name, so dzi dzat shops incorporated as such all display the business designation papellaria, or paper goods. Of course this is the same word in Portuguese which designates a stationer's store. Fortunately this never confuses the Macau Chinese, who rarely know a word of Portuguese. In Hong Kong and Macau there are now a few large shops, the size, brightness and cleanness of an American 7-11 Store, which display the best dzi-dzat: Western-style yachts of paper; Mercedes Benz limousines formed in transparent plastic (so they have smooth skins, and clear windshields and headlights) painted in shiny black or red, briefcases marked Jordano or Benneton, and mobile phones by the hundreds. The Chinese have honored their ancestors with sacrifices intended for use in the afterlife for 4,000 years that we know of, and they are reluctant to give up the comfort and sense of history which rewards them for this ritual.