Plague-Dispelling Rituals

Sarah Hall and Emily Vasquez


China’s immense territory, political influence, economic presence, and culture have led to the development of a religious scene that is incredibly intricate, and at times, complicated. During the 20th century, American Methodist missionary, Harry Caldwell, travelled to Southern China in an effort to spread the ideas of Christianity to the people of Fujian. Through a series of films taken over the course of his stay, Caldwell was able to bring these observations back to Tennessee. Of the various clips that were taken, one in particular is the focus of this analysis. Titled “The Burning of Paper Boats,” this clip showcases calculated processions, significant spiritual landmarks, and, most importantly, the launching of spirit boats. The spirit boats, which were carefully handcrafted out of paper and wood, are shown being wheeled around the town to collect bad luck and disease from the surrounding area. Once the misfortune of the region was symbolically collected, young men set the ship ablaze and released it along the shore to soon meet the gods along its voyage. Traditionally, this has been regarded as a Daoist rite that is performed to prevent harmful outbreaks or catastrophes. Dating back as early as the Song Dynasty (960-1279), plague spirits have been known to play a large role in the Daoist religious bureaucracy, as well as the health of individual Daoist’s. These deities have been known to punish those who do not cultivate themselves correctly by afflicting them with severe illnesses. The burning of spirit boats allows the Daoist community a way to honor these deities and ensure well-being and prosperity for years to come. 

Extended Explanation

In the early 20th century, missionary Harry Caldwell traveled from East Tennessee to Fujian, China in an attempt to spread the message of Christianity. Interestingly enough, the Chinese people he encountered were quite taken with the information that he had to offer, despite the large amount of suspicion associated with previous missionaries that had traveled to Fujian.[1]  In addition to his attempts to spread Christianity in China, Caldwell discovered several religious practices already occurring in Fujian. Throughout a series of detailed film clips, Caldwell was able to capture these discoveries firsthand and bring them back to Tennessee. Primarily, he found that the practices carried out by the people of this region were of a Daoist origin. One particular religious practice demonstrated in this specific film clip is the sending off of paper boats.

Although this clip includes detailed processions, significant landmarks, and other activities, it only makes sense to begin by uncovering the importance of spirit boat launching. The rite of sending off paper boats is a common ritual used to expel the demons associated with disease and hardship. In the Daoist religion, it is commonly believed that these plague spirits bring wrong-doers bad fortune and disease. To protect themselves from these misfortunes, people participate in various practices to try and ward off the demons.[2] This also demonstrates the significance of the role of fire in these practices.  Fire is used to burn paper replicas of valuable things, such as boats. This practice was done with the purpose of honoring and making offerings to the deceased, to demons, and to divinities.[3]  The process begins with a small boat, usually crafted from joss paper and small pieces of wood, that is carried through the town by young men. The parade of the boat through the town allowed for collection of disease, misery, and misfortune, as well as, immaculate joss paper goods.[4] As the ship is returned to the shore, the deities of disease are invited to board the boat. These boats are then sent away, and occasionally burned. This not only eradicates any harmful demons or misfortune that may be present, but also leaves room to welcome additional gods who will bring good fortune and prosperity into their lives.

Plague expulsion rituals were also commonly performed during religious festivals in China. Typical practices included burning items such as spirit money, candles, coals, and boats.[5]  The use of fire was a regular occurrence in these rituals, as seen in this film clip. Fire played a significant role in these offerings because it not only provided an avenue of satisfying the gods, but also cleansed the lives of the Daoist believers. As a result of pleasing the gods, people believed that it would bring them favorable outcomes in future endeavors. The majority of offerings that were performed were used as a way of ensuring that the gods recognized a family’s virtuous nature and blessed them accordingly.[6] The burning and launching of paper boats continues to serve as a significant example of efforts to steer away demons that are causing harm in the human world.

Aside from the significance of the particular events that comprise the plague expulsion rites, it is also vital to understand the individuals who participate in them. Throughout this clip, both Daoist and Buddhist references are observed through actions of the individuals. These references, in relation to demons of disease, exhibit the ways in which the Five Elements, in regard to medical practice, and physical and mental healing play an influential role in Chinese society. A few specific elements of Buddhism are demonstrated quite clearly in the film clip, as shown by the stone Buddha at the end of the clip. Within Buddhism there is an emphasis on becoming one with the Buddha, as this is believed to be the utmost goal.  This includes mind-body connection and use of each of the Five Elements in Chinese society. The Five Elements bear endless applications, but most importantly they allow for identification of the internal causes of disease, and can aid in ridding individuals of these plagues.[7]  The use of fire as a healing medium is shown explicitly in Caldwell’s film clip when paper boats, along with other moss paper goods, are burned to cleanse the region and ensure future health and prosperity.

Harry Caldwell’s missionary endeavor into Fujian, China ultimately resulted in the discovery of several Chinese religious practices previously unheard of in the United States.  The particular practice shown in this film clip, burning and sending off of paper boats, has provided insight into the significance that paper goods and fire as a medium hold in Chinese religion, as well as, the common beliefs associated with these rites.  In conclusion, the carefully crafted paper boats are believed to collect bad luck and disease from individuals and families in the area. These boats were then set ablaze to release misfortune and make room to welcome good luck and prosperity for years to come.

[1]  Caldwell. “A Rifle as a Calling Card.” 13-24.

[2] Harper. “Spellbinding.” 241-250.

[3] Blake. Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld.

[4] Katz. Demon Hordes and Burning Boats : The Cult of Marshal Wen in Late Imperial Chekiang.

[5] Katz. “The Pacification of Plagues: A Chinese Rite of Affliction.”

[6] Katz. “Festivals And The Recreation Of Identity In South China: A Case Study Of Processions And Expulsion Rites In Pucheng Zhejiang.” 67-85.

[7] Zhang. “Iconographic Representations of the Five Elements.” 21-34.


Blake, C. Fred. Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld . Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2012.

Caldwell, Harry R. “A Rifle as a Calling Card.” In Harry R. Caldwell, Blue Tiger, 13-24. New York and Cincinnati: The Abingdon Press, 1924.

Harper, Donald. “Spellbinding.” In Religions of China in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., 241-250. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Katz, Paul R. Demon Hordes and Burning Boats : The Cult of Marshal Wen in Late Imperial Chekiang. SUNY Series in Chinese Local Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press. 1995.

Katz, Paul R. “The Pacification of Plagues: A Chinese Rite of Affliction.” Journal of Ritual Studies 9, no. 1 (1995): 55-100.

Katz, Paul R. “Festivals And The Recreation Of Identity In South China: A Case Study Of Processions And Expulsion Rites In Pucheng Zhejiang.” Journal of Ritual Studies 19, no. 1 (2005): 67-85.

Zhang, Lan. “Iconographic Representations of the Five Elements.” The Tibet Journal 38, no. 3-4 (2013): 21-34.

%d bloggers like this: