The History and Idea behind Chinese Paper Offerings and the Variety of Paper Goodies!

The Chinese festival of Qing Ming (清明節 Qingming Jie) just passed a few days ago. This is the time of the year where Chinese would pay respects to their dearly departed relatives and ancestors by visiting and cleaning up their tombs, and to offer both paper offerings and food.

Historically, the ancient Chinese (around the time of Confucius and before) never had paper offerings. Instead, they would offer actual goods instead of paper replicas. The ancient Chinese used to offer ceramic pots, musical instruments, books, silk clothings, and even HUMAN BEINGS! (Did you know the Chinese still offered human beings during the Zhou Dynasty? That’s during Confucius’ time! Confucius might have probably offered human sacrifices too. I shudder at the thought.)

From then till now, so much has changed! There are no more human sacrifices, no more offerings of expensive pots, instruments, silk and other delightful things. I’m not sure how and when offerings changed to paper replicas, but it has.

Those unfamiliar with Chinese (folk) religion may sometimes wonder how burning paper replicas (or offering food and drink) works. To many, it seems like a very irrational practice. After all, why bother burning paper offerings or putting food and drink on the floor? If they’re dead, they’re dead, right? How is it possible for a spirit to acquire these offerings?

Well, here’s the thing: Chinese religion does not work on the same framework as the Western world. In the Judeo-Christian world view (which has influenced much of Western/modern thought), the soul is non-material while the body is material. The soul cannot be affected by material things, but it can be affected by non-material, e.g. other spirits. In this framework, material offerings do not make sense since the non-material soul of the dead cannot interact with these material offerings.

But the Chinese religion does not operate on such a framework. In the Chinese religious framework, there is no duality between body and soul. Rather, both body and soul are material and they are both made of the same “stuff” which we call qi (氣 vital essence). And since everything – body, soul, and offerings – are just as material and made of the very same “stuff” (i.e. qi), it is therefore possible for the soul of the dead to acquire and consume these offerings. In fact, it is precisely this conceptual framework that enables the Chinese to conceive of the idea of working your way to become a divine being (sage/immortal). (For some fun/disturbing facts about Chinese immortals, see Why do Chinese Immortals have such Huge Foreheads?)

Anyway… Personally, I’m very fascinated at how Chinese paper offerings have evolved over the years. Today, paper offerings are not just limited to paper money and paper houses (complete with paper servants). There are many fascinating products on sale for you to buy and burn for your ancestors. It’s really fascinating (and amusing). You can find these paper offerings sold in paper offering shops and even in the supermarkets! I’m actually quite surprised to see that supermarkets like NTUC Fairprice and Sheng Shiong sell these things like any other daily necessity. Well, in a way it is a daily necessity if you have to buy and burn offerings for your dearly beloved on a regular basis.

The first aspect I will cover is the aspect of Chinese paper money, commonly referred to as Hell Money. (Hell is actually a really bad translation. It isn’t Hell in the Christian sense, but more of a kind of underworld for the dead). Traditionally, hell money is sold in stacks that resemble traditional Chinese paper money. Here’s how a bundle of cash looks:

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Here’s more hell money:

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What’s interesting is that the idea of burning Chinese hell money is very VERY similar to the Catholic idea of Indulgences.

In Catholicism, though God may forgive your sins through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, you still have to do something to make up for the “damage” caused by your sins.

The classic example to illustrate this is: Let’s say you broke a window in school. The principal may forgive you for your misdeeds, but the window still remains broken. You can make up for your misdeed by repairing the window, or doing something else to make up for the damage (e.g. 10 hours of community service).

In Catholicism, though your sins are forgiven, you still have to somehow make up for all of the damage caused by your sins. But this task is almost impossible because of the many faults we make. If you are unable to make up for all your faults before you die, then you’ll have to spend time in Purgatory as reparation to make up for all the remaining sins that haven’t been made up for. Acts of charity or piety can help you to gain some Merits (think of them as Heaven Points) and they can help to make up for the damage one has done in one’s life time. It is believed that some very holy people have done more than is required to make up for their sins. In fact, the heroic act of Jesus’ Passion and Death has also gained infinite Merit too.

All these excess Merits (i.e. Heaven Points) are stored in a divine treasury (think: Heavenly Bank). The Pope, who holds the Keys to Heaven, has access to this divine treasury and can dispense these Merits to the faithful by prescribing certain actions that people can do to acquire it. That’s what Indulgences are.

In short, carrying out actions that grant Indulgences is like going to withdraw Heaven Points from the divine treasury to “pay” for your sins, or more precisely, to make up for the damage caused by your sins.

How’s that similar to the Chinese hell notes? Well, the idea of burning paper money is originally closely related to a syncretic Buddhist-Taoist idea of salvation (or rather, enlightenment). When you sin, you gain bad karma. But, thankfully, there’s a Celestial Bank where you can convert hell money currency into salvation points so as to “pay” for your sins, to pay for all the bad karma that you’ve acquired, and maybe even buy good karma points. If you have more than enough, congratulations! You can acquire enlightenment and be saved!

If you don’t have enough good karma points, you might spend a long time in hell and be tortured, or be reincarnated as an insect or rodent. If you have just enough points to avoid becoming an animal, you get to be reincarnated as a a human being.

It is this celestial treasury (or bank) idea of salvation and conceptions of modernity that has inspired modern-day designs of hell money, like this:

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Note the words: “The Hell Bank Corporation.” It stemmed from precisely that idea of converting hell currency into salvation points. Anyway, it’s pretty amusing that these notes are designed to look like the Malaysian dollar notes. The design is almost exactly the same, minus the face of the Jade Emperor.

Here are more contemporary-looking hell money:

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Wow! You can burn stacks of $800 billion, $1 trillion, and $2 trillion dollar notes!

You know you’re in hell when the inflation is so bad that you need billion and trillion dollar notes to buy basic necessities.

Here’s one that looks like the American dollar:

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You’d probably need this if you are in American Underworld. Interestingly, it’s not a US president’s face on the note, but once again, the Jade Emperor! Even he rules in the American Underworld!

More hell money:

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I love the design of this one:

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I suppose the dead need coins if they ever get thirsty and need to buy a drink from an underworld vending machine:

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And in the event of economic uncertainty, it’s probably good to hold some gold and silver bars in stock. You know… Just in case…

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Anyway, I think the basic idea of the purpose of hell money has long been forgotten. I only found out about this salvation aspect of hell money while doing my readings on Chinese religion and culture. Much of these information never got passed on from one generation to another. So most people today think that for whatever reasons, people in the underworld need lots of money to enjoy a good life down there.

As a result, paper offerings have been greatly influenced by consumerist culture. Now, there’s all sorts of paper offerings that you can buy and burn for your ancestors and departed relatives.

For starters, you can get them a long-sleeved shirt with tie!

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Or even an oral hygiene set complete with toothbrush, toothpaste, mouth wash, and tongue scraper! And hey! Since most of our ancestors never had access to toothbrushes and toothpaste, they probably have lost their teeth! Why not offer them a set of dentures?

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You could also offer them cigarettes! Since they’re already dead, they won’t have to die (again) from lung cancer, and they can enjoy smoking for all eternity.

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Or how about a beauty gift set? Complete with lipstick, facial cream, face whitener, and perfume?

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Well, maybe they might need a new pair of shoes.

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Or even a black Mercedes complete with a chauffeur (can you see the driver in the paper car) to travel around the Underworld:

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Well, if a car isn’t enough to get them around the underworld, you could get them a Hell Passport complete with aeroplane, train, and bus tickets! I have no idea where else in the underworld you can go with such tickets. Maybe the Chinese underworld is huge. Well, there might be an American underworld since they do sell hell notes that look like American currency. Maybe that’s why our ancestors will need a plane ticket and a passport.

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What amuses me about this gift set in the picture above is that it even comes with a Savings Bank book, a cheque book, and THREE credit cards! Really… I have no idea what our dead ancestors will need to buy if their living descendants can just buy all these things and burn for them anyway.

Here’s one underworld credit card that really amuses me!

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Now the dead can do online shopping in the underworld!

I’m saving the best for last!

Here’s one that made me laugh! It’s a gift set complete with branded wallet, branded watch, branded pen, and even an iPhone!
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Here’s a close-up of the iPhone’s screen:

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I suppose if our ancestors are going to make a trip to the American underworld, they’ll need to use some sort of underworld GPS to locate the nearest underworld Starbucks.

Here’s a close-up of another iPhone:

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It’s the iPhonie 5!

If your ancestors aren’t Apple fans, you could get them a Galaxy S2 by Samsong!

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Hmm… Personally, I don’t know if I want to give my ancestors a smartphone. It’d be really creepy if I get an SMS or Whatsapp message from them. 

Well, before I end, here’s a really hilarious picture. This picture below has been going viral here in Singapore. It’s about someone’s experience with the sales person while trying to buy paper offerings for the Qingming festival.


[Translation from Singlish to Standard English (for non-Singaporean readers):]

Yesterday, I went to buy Qingming paper goodies. The boss asked, “Do you want to buy iPhone for your ancestors?”

I said, “Ok, but do they know how to use it?”

The boss said, “Steve Jobs is there to help, so it should be ok.”

I said, “Oh ok…”

Then the boss asked, “Do you need a casing?”

I said, “Ok…”

Then the boss asked, “Do you want to buy a bluetooth [headset]?”

I said, “Might as well…”

Then the boss asked, “How about a phone charger?”

I said, “Do I really need a charger?”

The boss said, “If you don’t buy one, and the iPhone ran out of battery, I’m sure that you do not want to personally send them the charger all by yourself, right?”

I said, “Errmmm… That’s true. One please! I might as well get one.”

Then I asked the boss for his name card.

The boss asked, “Why do you need my name card?”

I said, “I will burn your name card for my ancestors so that if they have any warranty claims, they can look for you directly!”


Well, I do hope you’ve learnt something interesting from this post! =)