Death and dying is highly taboo in Chinese culture, and even more so around the Lunar New Year, when even uttering words that sound similar to “death” could get your relatives staring daggers in your direction.
So when British newspaper The Observer used joss paper—an offering traditionally burned for deities and the dead—as a prop in an article about dishes for the Lunar New Year, many were aghast.
The article, published on the website shared with its sister publication The Guardian on Jan. 16, details recipes such as buckwheat noodles and char siu pork. In the photo accompanying the recipe for pork and crab dumplings, the plate of pan-fried dumplings is accompanied by a few Chinese feng shui coins—symbolizing wealth and good luck—as well as a single piece of joss paper.
Along with other paper offerings, heaps of flaming joss paper are a common sight at Chinese funerals and during the annual hungry ghost festival—but certainly never on festive occasions like the Lunar New Year.
Shortly after the article was published, culture journalist Vivienne Chow took to Twitter to point out the faux pas while explaining the significance of joss paper as “hell money” that’s meant for the deceased in Chinese culture.
Joss paper comes in a variety of designs for different purposes—including worshiping specific deities and paying respects to ancestors. It’s unclear whether the type of joss paper featured by The Observer was meant for deity worship or an offering to the deceased. Nonetheless, many expressed shock at the obvious error.
When contacted by VICE, The Guardian pointed to a footnote that was appended to the article after it was published, explaining that the image has been amended to remove joss paper from the dumpling shot.
“We apologise for this cultural error,” the footnote reads, adding that the chef who provided the recipe was “not involved in this mistake.”
But having garnered thousands of retweets and online reactions, the issue has kickstarted intense discourse surrounding yet another instance of cultural ignorance. In particular, many Twitter users are highlighting how Chinese cultural elements are too often repackaged for Western consumption and “aesthetics,” without paying attention to their cultural context.
Some revealed an embarrassing trove of similar mistakes, including images of crossed chopsticks accompanying Chinese food, also an arrangement reserved for food offerings for the deceased.
While they’re on the topic, one Twitter user drew attention to a recipe published on BBC Food which featured an envelope traditionally distributed at Chinese funerals. The website has since issued an apology statement on Twitter and removed the offending image from its article.
Last year, a United States-based company found itself at the center of a controversy about cultural appropriation, after launching mahjong tile designs that were geared towards “stylish masses,” marketed to a Western audience at hefty prices. Asian household items have also been conspicuously co-opted into the fashion industry, repackaged and sold as luxury goods.
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