The Chinese Afterlife is Exciting Thanks to These Paper Offerings!

I visited the library a few minutes ago, looking for books on Confucian political philosophy. As I was standing at the shelf with all the books on Confucianism, one odd book stood out from the rest. It was odd because it had little to do with Confucianism. It was:

"Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld" by C. Fred Blake
“Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld” by C. Fred Blake

I thought to myself: Oh, how apt! It’s now the Hungry Ghost Festival according to the Chinese Calendar. (This is the festival where Chinese people would burn paper offerings for their deceased relatives and ancestors)

I’m amused at how papers offerings have evolved from mere paper money to paper clothes, paper houses, paper cars, and even paper iPhones and iPads (I wrote a post about this some time back. If you’re curious to see how they look, see The History and Idea behind Chinese Paper Offerings and the Variety of Paper Goodies!)

I was curious to know, other than paper iPhones and iPads, what else might Chinese people around the world be burning?

As I was flipping through the pages of this book, I found this:

Sex Supplies, Guns, and Beautiful Ladies As we move to "sex supplies" and "guns" and "beautiful ladies," we encounter ostensibly new items in the galaxy of paper offerings. Sex supplies have captured a disproportionate share of the press in recent years. The sex supplies receive the most limelight, even thought their inclusion in actual ritual offerings tends to be furtive, motivated more by the spirit of self-gratification than by public self-aggrandizement, and of course they are the least ubiquitous in their public presence in shops and offerings. Source: C. Fred Blake, Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2011), p.181
Sex Supplies, Guns, and Beautiful Ladies

As we move to “sex supplies” and “guns” and “beautiful ladies,” we encounter ostensibly new items in the galaxy of paper offerings. Sex supplies have captured a disproportionate share of the press in recent years. The sex supplies receive the most limelight, even thought their inclusion in actual ritual offerings tends to be furtive, motivated more by the spirit of self-gratification than by public self-aggrandizement, and of course they are the least ubiquitous in their public presence in shops and offerings.

Source: C. Fred Blake, Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011), p.181

 

I’ve hit gold!

It turns out that in China, there are people selling paper mistresses, paper sex toys, paper Viagra, and even paper condoms, so that you can burn them and offer them to your dead relatives. They may be dead, but their libido is still very much alive and kicking!

Don’t believe me? Here’s proof from the book:

p182b
Here, for instance, an official Chinese web page displays a box labeled G-dian-tao (translation: G-spot device) amid other “sacrificial offerings to the ancestors.” The other offerings include a box of Viagra and a box of ordinary condoms. The caption under the pictures of the three boxes reads (in Chinese): “‘Viagra’ and ‘condoms’ and other quite-enough-already sacrificial offerings for the ancestors.” …

Source: C. Fred Blake, Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011), p.182

 

A reporter visited one of the shops selling paper offerings, hoping to buy a paper condom offering. Here’s what the saleslady said:

p182a
The the proprietress uttered the perfect repartee to the reporter: “You might as well burn a real condom; they only cost several yuan; for sure your ancestor can use it.” This recourse to the real McCoy raises the possibility, rare though it may be, that a paper replica (such as a matchbox-size box of paper condoms for 20 yuan) costs more than the item it replicates. The likelihood of this happening probably increases when the paper replica has to be special ordered and made by hand! …

Source: C. Fred Blake, Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011), p.182

 

Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is: WHY WOULD DEAD SPIRITS NEED CONDOMS?!?!?!?!

Here’s what people in China are speculating:

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The online discussions express a panorama of attitudes and rationales. To a blogger’s question (Qixing de boke 2010) “Can there be fewer appalling sacrificial offerings?” some respond with outright expressions of skepticism that such offerings as condoms exist, while others use the opportunity to have fun with the possibility that they do: “Offering condoms to a deceased father is a way to alleviate the fear that deceased father might sire a younger brother (to the donor) in the yin-world.” Or, as another puts it, offering condoms helps “the deceased to observe the one-child policy, which prevails even in Purgatory.” Others point out that such beliefs could be inspired by popular ghost stories in which ghost children are sired by the deceased, which is bound to have a bad end for the living.

Source: C. Fred Blake, Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011), p.183

 

So in the traditional Chinese world view, you can be fertile both in the realm of the living and of the dead! I guess if you’re having a series of bad luck in your life lately, your ancestors might have been screwing around in the afterlife, producing ghost children who are now busy bothering you (because, what else could you do for the rest of eternity, right?).

But of all the sex-related products out there, why are condoms and Viagra so popular as offerings to the dead?

To this question, the author has this to say:

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“The condoms signify a new kind of antifertility pleasure-oriented reproduction, the reproduction of sensual pleasure (especially for women) without “children to foul the bed,” while the other, Viagra, connects sexual pleasure with longevity in ways that undermine reproductive intentions, Viagra being age-related. Without “children to foul the bed,” however, there is no paper money to recompense the ancestors (Smith 1894:185).

Source: C. Fred Blake, Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011), p.185

 

Wow… Ok… I seriously did not see that coming…

Hur hur… I guess you could say that the afterlife is very pro-choice.

Anyway, things get more interesting! The Chinese afterlife isn’t just a world full of trillion dollar currencies, credit cards, houses, servants, luxury cars, iPhones, iPads, Viagras and condoms, there’s more!

p187
In the lane close to Shijingshan Moshikou morning market this reporter encountered two peddlers selling sets of paradise mahjong, paradise checkers, and heavenly kingdom handguns, etc. All these mahjong and checkers are made of paper and were packaged in dictionary-size boxes costing 15 Yuan per set. The two peddlers were shouting: “Buy these sets of mahjong and checkers for the deceased old people in case they are getting bored there!” When a young man bought a paradise mahjong set, the peddler recommended that he also purchase a Heavenly Kingdom handun. It’s a “54 handgun” about the size of a matchbox, costing 3 Yuan each. The peddler said, “Why don’t you buy a gun for the deceased old man so when he plays mahjong and the loser tries to cheat him, he can use the gun to deal with the cheat?” Someone asked the peddler in a joking way, do you have any missiles? The peddler answer, “I can make an order for you. We have whatever you want. Even if you want an American aircraft carrier, we can make it for you.” According to the peddler, because the paradise mahjong is a new item, a lot of people think it’s entertaining and accordingly it sells well.

Source: C. Fred Blake, Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011), p.187

 

Guns! They sell paper guns and aircraft carriers!

But wait, if the people in the afterlife are already dead, what damage could you do with guns? You can’t kill them, right?

Or can you? Guess these are the mysteries of the afterlife which we can only discover once we go there. Might be useful to ask your children or relatives to burn some paper weapons for you.

But then again, other than preventing cheats from cheating you, why would dead people need a gun? This passage might enlighten some of the mystery:

The reporter pretended to be curious and asked: "Previously people burned the cars, I can understand that, but how come you sell those tanks and assault rifles?" The woman answer, "Nowadays, it's not so secure, even in the yin-world. If you burn some weapons and send them down to your forebears, they won't be bullied." (Zu 2006) Source: C. Fred Blake, Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2011), p.187
The reporter pretended to be curious and asked: “Previously people burned the cars, I can understand that, but how come you sell those tanks and assault rifles?” The woman answer, “Nowadays, it’s not so secure, even in the yin-world. If you burn some weapons and send them down to your forebears, they won’t be bullied.” (Zu 2006)

Source: C. Fred Blake, Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011), pp.186-187

 

The Chinese afterlife is beginning to sound a lot like the wild wild West!

Of course, if everybody’s burning paper weapons so that their dead relatives won’t get bullied, you can be sure that there will be an arms race! And sure enough:

p188
The dead kid’s parents burned a big stack of paper for him. Can you guess what was inside? If I tell you, you will be really aghast. There were all kinds of self-defense weapons like handguns, assault rifles, automatics, machine guns, mortars, tanks, fighter airplanes, aircraft carriers; and there was one big elliptical thing, which I could not identify. I asked the dead kid’s brother. He told me that it was a thermonuclear bomb because his brother had been a military freak and he liked the hydrogen bomb the best. I was really sacred and at that point I said to myself, with all these weapons in the otherworld, the kid could set up the Republic of Yellow Spring [euphemism for the otherworld].

Source: C. Fred Blake, Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011), p.188

THERMONUCLEAR BOMBS!!! You can burn paper thermonuclear bombs for your ancestors! Wow… Chinese hell is literally a place of hell! Imagine a place where nuclear bombs go off almost every day! And who’s responsible for that? We are! We’re burning all these paper weapons and causing a whole nuclear arms race to go on in the underworld!

Wow…

Anyway, what’s interesting is analysis provided by the author about this sociological trend. While it’s so easy to laugh at the absurdity of paper offerings for the ancestors, these trends nonetheless reflect something about our human condition:

[T]he paper money custom is becoming harnessed to a new, urban folklore that satirizes and allegorizes the tensions in modern society. The current hype of a perennial, often acute anxiety around male potency, the common assumption today that every man has a mistress outside marriage, the debate over whether condoms should be easily available in dispensing machines in hotel rooms and universities (to reduce the use of abortion for contraceptive purposes), the growing resentments between emerging economic classes (the nouveau riche, especially the ones who profited from the privatization of the collective economy, versus the masses of ordinary folks who didn’t), is being told and retold in the idiom of paper money.

– C. Fred Blake, Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011), pp.188-189

One big lesson we can draw from this is that popular trends in religions are reflections of the problems and struggles people face on a day to day basis. It’s easy for us to ridicule religion for all its superstition and craziness.

As Karl Marx says, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” What it means is that religion is a pain-killer. People turn to religion because life (or existence) is painful. Religion provides the means for us to alleviate the pangs of life. This can be said of all religions. The Chinese practice of burning paper offerings is no different. It provides a form of relief from the pains, woes, and struggles that we face on a day-to-day basis.

Before I end, let me say this: I highly recommend this book! (You can buy it online from Amazon)

This book is an easy read and it’s certainly very interesting and entertaining. More importantly, this book will help you to understand the whole idea behind the practice of burning paper money, and how all that has developed into a whole enterprise of paper products, like the ones I mentioned above. Many Chinese here in Singapore do it blindly. They buy paper products and burn as much as they can (the more the merrier, right?) without much clue as to how it works. After all, they are just following the practices of their parents and grandparents. Many are giving up this practice because they feel that the lack of understanding makes the whole act insincere, mechanical, and even pointless. For those who feel that way, this book will help to open up new insights and understandings of the practice. And for those who don’t practice this ritual, this book will certainly provide you with the understanding of the whole point behind paper offerings, so that you can see the rationale behind it and come to a better understanding of the Chinese rituals, and be able to empathise with those who practice it.