Culture

The money that Chinese people burn for the dead

Oct 05, 2018

There are many ways to honor the dead. For Chinese people, a preferred method is to burn things for them to use in the afterlife.

The ritual involves joss paper—pieces of paper meant only for the spirits. They’re usually made from bamboo or rice and folded to resemble money or goods such as designer handbags, clothes and even dim sum.

Paper dim sum
Paper dim sum / Photo: Ashley Yue / Illustration: Skyler Rodriguez

The idea is that spirits in the afterlife still enjoy the trappings of the real world. Burning joss paper is a way of sending those goods to the heavens, with the smoke symbolizing delivery.

Families make painstaking efforts to please their loved ones by regularly burning joss paper. Some claim to have been visited by the dead in a dream and will burn items they request in joss paper form.

It is not unusual to find piles of ash and incense sticks outside storefronts and inside apartment buildings. In Hong Kong, the practice is so widespread that the government has issued guidelines because of concerns about air pollution.

Joss paper burning in Hong Kong's Wan Chai district during the Hungry Ghost Festival in 1998
Joss paper burning in Hong Kong's Wan Chai district during the Hungry Ghost Festival in 1998 / Photo: Wan Kam-yan/SCMP

Although joss paper can be burned anytime, there is one occasion that is particularly associated with the practice: the Hungry Ghost Festival, which falls on the 15th night of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, usually around July or August.

According to legend, the gates of the spiritual world open on that night and ghosts are free to roam the earth. Loved ones seek their families, while restless spirits with unfinished business in the real world haunt the living.

To appease the wandering ghosts—who might be seeking revenge because they met untimely deaths, have no family in the real world or refuse to move onto the afterlife—Chinese people burn barrels of joss paper in hopes that they won’t cause any mischief to homes and businesses during this time of year.

How to ward off bad luck

Appeasing the spirits involves several steps that, according to tradition, must be followed in precise order to satisfy them.

It usually begins by sticking a pair of red candles into a fruit or vegetable to create a shrine. Apples, oranges and melons are typically used. Oddly-shaped fruits such as durian and dragon fruit are avoided.

Apples and oranges are commonly used in joss paper rituals.
Apples and oranges are commonly used in joss paper rituals. / Photo: David Wong/SCMP

To invite the spirits, a person will then light three incense sticks and bow. Conventional wisdom dictates that Guanyin joss paper, embossed with the image of the goddess of mercy, should be burned first to summon her presence. She is said to maintain order among the spirits and ensure that each gets a fair share of the tribute.

Guanyin joss paper
Guanyin joss paper / Photo: Ashley Yue / Illustration: Skyler Rodriguez

Next comes the “postage fee.” These long, rectangular slips of coarse bamboo paper, paid to the courier of the afterlife, ensure the offering’s safe delivery to the spiritual world.

Afterward, various forms of paper money are thrown into the fire. The most traditional is a sheet of bamboo paper with a square of gold or silver foil embossed in the middle.

Paper gold
Paper gold / Photo: Ashley Yue / Illustration: Skyler Rodriguez

Some people burn the money as is; others fold them into gold and silver taels. Because the shape is so popular, most joss paper shops sell already folded taels in bulk for those who can’t be bothered to do it themselves.

Another variation of joss paper money resembles real legal tender and comes in different units such as dollars and yuan.

Paper money
Paper money / Photo: Ashley Yue / Illustration: Skyler Rodriguez

The denominations can get absurdly huge—up to $100 billion—and like their real-life counterparts, the bills are printed with the name of the issuing bank, often called the “Bank of Heaven and Earth.” The front usually has a portrait of the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven.

Next comes a stack of colored paper that represents the fabric used by ghosts to make their clothing. Thick sheets represent fabric for the winter, thin ones for the summer.

Paper clothing
Paper clothing / Photo: Ashley Yue / Illustration: Skyler Rodriguez

The final pieces of paper to be burned are a ticket for the spirits to line up for their offerings and a sutra encouraging these spirits to continue in the afterlife. The entire ritual concludes with the pouring of Chinese wine and placement of rice, longan, peanuts and coins in front of the fire.

The flame itself is left to die out, and the food is supposed to remain untouched because disturbing the offerings in any way is said to anger the ghosts. That said, street cleaners usually clear out any remnants of the ritual by the next day. Though the spirits might be restless, life in the real world must go on.