Recently, Danny came to visit my field site in Shanghai. As he remarked on his on-the-spot tweet, one of the biggest ‘shocks’ he could feel immediately was that: “Curious that in this age of supposed global homogeneity, here in China you really don’t seem to be able to do anything without a QR code, while in Europe you can’t do anything with a QR code.” We ordered food, rented bikes, hailed taxis, booked a hotel…all by scanning QR code here – actually since I came to Shanghai in February 2018, I only used cash twice.
Having said so, I felt Danny was a bit exaggerating about the ubiquity of the QR code in Shanghai until more recently I visited Jing’an temple.
On the last day of the seven-day shui lu fa hui (the water and land rite) of Jing’an temple, I visited this famous temple with more than 780 years history in the very center of the most flourishing and buzzing downtown area of Shanghai. Besieged by a proliferation of high-rise shopping malls, Jing’an temple is the only place where people burn ‘money’ not in luxury consumption, but for the benefit of their ancestors.
One woman who was busy burning ‘ghost money’ (ming bi) explained that the money made by tin foil paper is for the ghosts and deities so that the souls of the deceased persons will find some peace during purgatory, so called chao du, she added earnestly: “Today is the last chance of this year that ghosts would receive money!” According to her, basically, in the after-world ghosts have to be bribed to treat the passing ancestors without too much torture and hardship.
The air was full of choking smell of the dense smoke of the burning ‘ghost money’ and burning incense. The smoke which indicates immaterialization symbolizes the transformation from the tangible material world to the intangible spirit world.
On the other side of the raging flames one could sees a big standing electronic screen called ‘Prayer merit and credit list’ (qi fu gong de bang). Standing in front of the big screen, people is were busy reaching the deities in a more ‘environment friendly’ way: holding their smartphones against the screen to scan the QR code on the top so that they could make a prayer online. The prayers they made would pop up in the form of vertical red scroll on the big screen immediately after submitting, and many take a photo of the screen for the record.
Last time I saw such a fancy way of interaction was during the exhibition ‘from selfie to self-expression’ of Saatchi Gallery in London which was supposed to be the pioneering art experiment in the digital age.
In that exhibition, visitors could post selfies on their personal twitter accounts with given hashtag and the selfies would be projected immediately against the wall of the exhibition hall. As I recall, a young lady who just saw her selfie popped up on the wall, exclaimed thrillingly “Oh my god… isn’t it amazing?!”
I guess she was not really asking god’s opinion about it, but I really wonder which way ghosts and deities in China prefer to be reached… smoke or QR code?
(check the short video here)