Money for the Dead

Wandering in the streets of Hong Kong, you may notice a burnt, charcoal-like scent rushing towards your nostrils. You will then look for the source of the smell and soon see some burnt paper contained by a metal pot. What is going on? Is someone committing arson with extra steps? Well, while this is debatable, what you experienced is a local tradition involving burnt joss paper.

Joss paper, or ghost money (Chinese: 紙錢, as shown in the first image), are paper crafts representing the underworld’s currency. In Hong Kong, joss paper will be burnt on special occasions associated with deceased family members and act as an offer. In some versions, this tradition is carried out to aid financially the deceased members, where the burnt papers will be transferred to the members. Apart from this, joss paper are sometimes burnt to bribe the underworld spirits and gods so that the deceased members can secure a better afterlife. But to the locals, it is often just a tradition to be followed without specific reasons.

As joss paper serve different purposes, they also come in various forms. They can be made with bamboo or rice paper with various shapes and decorations, depending on the offering target. The most intriguing type of joss paper is perhaps the hell money. Hell money (Chinese: 冥鈔) are made to resemble legal tender bank notes, which acts as an offering to the deceased ancestors aforementioned. Interestingly, like the banknotes in Hong Kong, hell money are printed with their issuer. In this case, it is the hypothetical “Hell Bank” (Chinese: 冥通銀行) that is responsible for the issue of hell money and being printed out. Besides, the Hell Bank is expected to provide financial services like loans and deposits in the underworld. With such a ‘concrete’ economic structure, no wonder rumors say that the constant mass production of hell money led to hyperinflation in the underworld! In fact, the denominator of hell money skyrocketed from a few dollars in the past to a typical fifty million in Hong Kong. Nowadays, the phrase ‘fifty million’ (五千萬) refers exclusively to Hong Kong hell money. It may be the result of underworld hyperinflation!

The ritual of burning joss paper reflects the importance of money to our society. In Hong Kong, we may believe there is an underworld economy for the deceased. We may even worry about the financial wellbeing of our ancestors and perform money-related rituals to show care and respect. Living in a society, there seems to be no way to get rid of the concept of “money,” sometimes even for the dead. Meanwhile, this joss paper tradition has shown massive decline with mostly elderlies maintaining to it. The government also discourages such practices due to the environmental risks it poses to the city. So, what are your thoughts? Should this tradition persist?

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