The Chinese have always held strong beliefs about spirituality, ancestors and the afterlife. Ancestor worship is a strong tenet in most forms of Chinese religion and usually includes the offering of sacrifices and gifts to deceased relatives. Ghost money is one such gift.
Known also as ‘joss paper’, ‘spirit money’ and ‘hell bank notes’, ghost money can be any of several types of fake currency that are burned as a sacrifice to deceased ancestors at auspicious times. The burning of ghost money is a very common practice at Buddhist and Taoist temples, as well as during certain festivals devoted to the dead.
There is archaeological evidence that ghost money was being used as far back as 1000 years ago, when imitation currency was created out of bones, rocks and other natural materials. Later forms of ghost money were made from metal, paper and eventually plastic. Today, ghost money is most commonly made of paper notes, but plastic credit cards are also used as a modern form of the fake currency.
Traditionally, Chinese ghost money was made of bamboo paper, giving it a homemade feel to the touch. Today’s spirit money may be made of colored paper and often has stamps, seals or other images of important deities imprinted on it. The money may also come folded in half, or into auspicious shapes, which is said to distinguish it from real money, which is unlucky to burn.
Joss paper and other types of ghost money can easily be purchased at shops in China and is most readily available during Qing Ming Jie, the Chinese Tomb Sweeping Day, similar to All Soul’s Day. During this festival, which usually occurs around April, the streets are often littered with partially burned ghost money. Additionally on this day, the graves of dead relatives are cleaned and swept, and other offerings may also be made, such as food and gifts, which are usually left on top of the tombs.
Worshipers at Chinese temples can often be seen burning fake currency near doors or at the feet of important deities. This ritual is believed to earn favor with the gods, who will later provide benefits on earth and in the afterlife. Burning ghost money is also said to help already deceased ancestors, providing them means to purchase goods and better their existence in the afterlife. Some people also believe that the burning of ghost money may provide them a guarantee of a better afterlife for themselves, as well.