Joss Paper – Spiritual Currency

What do we really know about so-called ’hell money’ beside the fact that it circulates somewhere in East Asia as a sacrificial currency? I assume not much, so let’s clarify a couple of things.

A famous story says that the word ’hell’ was introduced to China by Christian missionaries, who preached that all non-Christian Chinese people would go to hell after death. The word ’hell’ was thus misinterpreted to be the proper English term for the afterlife and hence adopted as such. Some printed notes attempt to correct this by omitting the word “hell” and sometimes replacing it with “heaven” or “paradise”. These particular bills are usually found in joss packs meant to be burned for Chinese deities, and typically have the same design as hell banknotes but with different colors. Source: Wikipedia

In short, the custom of burning joss paper as offerings for one’s ancestors, wandering ghosts and gods can be commonly classified as the superstitious solution to settle monetary issues in the afterlife. Assumingly, anyone getting stuck in the other realm is facing hard financial times, too. Let’s also suspect that there is a spiritual bank in the other realm from which the spirits can withdraw the transferred cash for their everyday use – Well, there must be, also papery credit cards are getting increasingly more popular now.

The spiritual currency’s intended purpose is to be sacrificed via the act of burning – so ’fire’ is of vital importance for every tribute. According to the two owners of a joss paper shop downtown Taipei, Chang Paihan and her husband Fu Chiawei, the symbolism of ’fire’ is highly spiritual, as it can bridge dimensions. Fu explains that sending joss paper through fire has an intellectual significance for most Taiwanese, more important than just delivering the printed value on the newer replica notes into the beyond.

Given the discovery of entombed spiritual currency at imperial burial sights in ancient China, the cult of joss paper has been practiced since 1000 BC. Newer versions of replica banknotes also feature Euros, American Dollars or Chinese Yuán, with partly exorbitant denominations, ranging from 10,000 to several billions. On a side note, these vast sums are neither meant for one’s departed loved ones nor vagabonding ghosts; they’re for deities only. The gods receive a wide array of colorful joss paper. Some feature the drawings of horses or armor which the gods might need to either escape or defeat their foes. As I was discussing values and intended purposes with Fu & Chang, an hour must have passed, until I had a rough idea, whom to sacrifice when what kind of item. Obviously, all joss paper is intended to appease the dead, but many bear an ulterior motive, be it transformation, prosperity wishes, payments of spiritual debts, or even fertility. The color of the papery gift may also imply what the meaning is. However, the coarse bamboo papers in various sizes with an embossed square of gold or silver foil, are suitable to be offered the ancestors and ghosts. One specific type of joss paper even comes with an official cash-back guarantee (plus customer service number) in case it proves not being 99% gold as stated on the leaflet. All handcrafted papers have a nice touch and feel, bearing many variances and imperfections. There are the classic slips of paper Jingyi with imprinted clothing, which will after burning pop up in the parallel world as real pants, shirts and shoes (yes, the imprinted scissors icon is meant for remeasuring). The modern version of Jingyi features more sophisticated clothing, all what’s needed to dress swag in the afterlife.

Chang & Fu are preparing my invoice. They ask for 88 Taiwan Dollars, not because that would make the overall value for five pieces each joss paper item, but because all Taiwanese like the lucky number eight!

Taiwanese are the most superstitious people in the industrialized world.

Ed Lin (Taiwanese-American author of the book Ghost Month)