There’s always a particular smell of burning incense when one walks through the gates of a Buddhist temple. The smoke looms around in a mist-like form. The air is difficult to breathe and some of the people’s eyes burn from the ashes around. The faithful continue to add more to the already huge amount of incense of all shapes and sizes — the little flames on the top of the incense glows through the misty smoke. Before these incense lays the deities, to whom some ask for divine guidance for their cause.
Today, a girl was burning something else in the temple. I looked down at what she was burning — some form of paper money? It appeared so. She was dropping them into the flames one by one. I had seen something like this before — somewhere in a Chinese movie, a man was dropping paper money in a makeshift grill for his brother who had died. Curiously, I approached the girl.
"May I see one of those?" I asked.
"Of course," the woman replied.
I looked at what the paper money said. "Hell money," it read on the bottom."Hell Money", The Anthropology of Money in Southern California, by Alex Adair, Joanne Choi, Ceasor Dennis, Clara Lin, Lambert Yuen
So, what the Hell — no pun intended — is this stuff, anyway?
When i was child, growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, a friend of mine's family ran a grocery store. They were Chinese, and although almost everything in their store was exactly like the stuff in all the other small groceries in Berkeley, they also carried a few Chinese specialty items up by the counter. One of these was Hell Money. The word Hell was introduced to China, my friend's parents told me, by Christian missionaries who claimed that non-converted Chinese folks were all "going to Hell" when they died -- and the Chinese, thinking "Hell" was the proper English term for the afterlife, adopted the word. Thus, Hell Bank Notes are simply Afterlife Monetary Offerings or Spirit Money.
As they explained it to me, when people die, their spirits or ghosts go to an afterlife where they continue to live on, doing the same sort of things why did while alive, eating, drinking, wearing clothes, playing with their children, and so forth. In order to ensure that they have lots of good things in the afterlife, their relatives send them presents, and one of the best things to send them is Hell Bank Notes -- money to spend in the afterworld. In addition to Hell Bank Notes, some Chinese grocery stores also sell elaborately-made and multi-coloured paper watches, clothes, cars, Hell Credit Cards, and even refrigerators for the purpose of burning in the belief that doing so sends their essence to the afterlife world, where the recipient will be glad to receive such material goods.Hell Bank Notes (Hell Money)
The question I have is what can you buy with fake money? (In the United States, the answer is quite a lot. That's why the Secret Service takes counterfeiting so seriously.) And what about inflation? Does burning more money make your ancestors richer, even if it makes you poorer? Anyway, this is no joke for the Chinese; they take this very seriously:
According to Chinese folklore, there is an increase in the incidence of accidents and deaths during the seventh month of the lunar calendar, an occurrence attributed to underworld spirits visiting the earth during this time. During Ghost Month, people prepare big feasts to indulge the many roaming ghosts.
Festivities to stop the troublemaking ghosts from disturbing the living were held island-wide yesterday, although the rituals have been attacked for polluting the environment.
Tables of offerings and urns of burning ghost money blocked many sidewalks in Taipei yesterday. An estimated 220,000 tons of ghost money is burned every year around Taiwan."Ghost Month Rites Calm Scientists' Consciences" The China Post, 15 August 15, 2000
Wow! Did you catch this part: "220,000 tons of ghost money is burned every year around Taiwan." Just imagine if that were, say, old newspaper. How much air pollution would it cause? A lot, it turns out. So much that the government came up with a solution: (I'm quoting more of the article since their Website may not always be available.)
With the arrival of the arrival of the traditional Ghost Month, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) again urged urban residents to burn spirit money at municipal waste incinerators to prevent air pollution.
Yesterday in Kaohsiung City, an unusual ceremony was held at a newly cleaned municipal waste incinerator in Sanmin District.
In an address to the souls of the dead, Kaohsiung Deputy Mayor Yao Kao-chiao (???) sincerely informed roaming ghosts that the incinerator would be the best place for them to "withdraw" spirit money this year.
"We hope residents cooperate to burn all spirit money at the incinerator on the 29th day of the seventh lunar month," Yao said.
Kaohsiung City environmental officials said that last year 109 communities supported central-ized burning, and that 28 tonnes of money paper were burned in the incinerator. They estimated the move prevented about 3 tonnes of air pollutants from being released in the city.
Officials said that the participation of 408 communities in the program this year might boost the amount of centrally burned spirit money to 100 tonnes. A free service is available to deliver spirit money to the incinerator until the scheduled burning date.
Officials said that burning spirit money outdoors causes a substantial amount of air pollution and could result in fines ranging from NT$5,000 to NT$100,000 for residents and NT$100,000 to NT$1 million for factories and companies.
To attract more residents to use the service, officials have arranged for eminent Buddhist masters to be in charge of the month-end burning ceremony, ensuring a successfully delivery of people's respects to the gods."UNSEEN AUDIENCE: Kaohsiung officials invited spirits to `withdraw' spirit money offered for them at incinerators, where the smoke can be scrubbed for human lungs" by Chiu Yu-Tzu, Taipei Times, 16 August 2004
But I like this description better than the "official" one:
The first report comes from Taiwan, where people traditionally burn paper "ghost money," which somehow reaches their dead ancestors, providing them with spending money in Heaven. But thanks to our huge balance of trade deficit, the Taiwanese apparently have so much money to burn that it is causing an air pollution problem.
So the city officials of Taipei came up with a brilliant alternative to ghost money. No doubt taking a cue from us Americans, who are experts in using credit cards to send our money up in smoke, they are now offering citizens a flammable "Kingdom of the Dead" credit card, which burns without creating pollution. A spokesman explained, "Like people, ghosts will find credit very convenient." Yes, they can now order their sheets direct from the Home Shopping Network! Frankly, when I heard about a government issuing a credit card that provides total security for your dead ancestors, I was incredulous. I couldn't believe that the Clintons hadn't thought of it first."The Skeptic": The Newsletter of The North Texas Skeptics" Volume 7, Number 12, December 1993
Most of the money images seen above comes from Randall van der Woning's blog.
Sources and Further Reading
- Hell Bank Notes for Sale
- "Ghost Month Rites Calm Scientists' Consciences" The China Post, 15 August 15, 2000
- "UNSEEN AUDIENCE: Kaohsiung officials invited spirits to `withdraw' spirit money offered for them at incinerators, where the smoke can be scrubbed for human lungs" by Chiu Yu-Tzu, Taipei Times, 16 August 2004
- Randall van der Woning's blog entry on Hell Money