hell money
May 5, 2005 2:26 AM   Subscribe

Hell Money "the Chinese believed Hell was the English term for the Afterlife. The word was incorporated and printed on the traditional Chinese Afterlife Monetary Offerings, otherwise known as Hell Bank Notes."
posted by dhruva (21 comments total)
In Viet Nam I saw locals burning paper models of TVs, cars and washing machines - seems there's a need for consumer goods in the afterlife too.
posted by the cuban at 2:36 AM on May 5, 2005

posted by fixedgear at 2:57 AM on May 5, 2005

Interesting. Cheers
posted by ZippityBuddha at 4:03 AM on May 5, 2005

From either the market or from ladies toting around cane baskets, you can buy stacks of photocopied $US100 bills in Hanoi to be lit for the fortnightly ancestral burn-a-thons. As you say, consumerism is the rage in the afterlife.
dhruva, you trawl the net's inscrutable lintlined underbelly. Goodonyamate!
posted by peacay at 4:21 AM on May 5, 2005

I first ran across Hell Money years ago via Archie McPhee's, who used to sell bundles of the stuff. Looks like they no longer carry it, though.

(And isn't this the site of an ex-MeFite?)
posted by mkhall at 4:57 AM on May 5, 2005

There was a karaoke bar in Toronto on Balmutto street (behind where the late Uptown theatre used to be...sniff) that was called the Hell bar, it always puzzled me. I wonder if you could get change for some of those large denomination bills at a Walmart. Good link dhruva.
posted by phirleh at 5:06 AM on May 5, 2005

You mean these guys are right?
posted by TimothyMason at 6:00 AM on May 5, 2005

TimothyMason, the real scary thing about that link is that it took a little while to find out whether it was a joke/satire site or not. It's a toss up with these folks. It was the Jesus Thong ads that gave it away!

I'm a chinese-american and I grew up in an Old Italian neighborhood in NYC. I wouldn't put it past them to have a real site with those type of sentiments. But the younger generation is generally more tolerant since they're gotten more exposure to different people.
posted by pez_LPhiE at 7:16 AM on May 5, 2005

I remember burning this over my grandmother's grave in Taiwan after we cleared it of various weeds and brush. As part of the ceremony my cousins and I got to see and touch her skull in its urn. Then I managed to singe my hand on some lit incense. Not sure if she was trying to tell me something.
posted by Mercaptan at 7:30 AM on May 5, 2005

I wondered what Hell Money was for. I got some $1,000,000,000 dollar bills in Chinatown and usually put them in Christmas cards.
posted by bendy at 11:08 AM on May 5, 2005

I don't care to today, but I've written a lot about this topic before (unfortunately not webbed). The two festivals I'm familiar with doing that involve Hell Bank Notes are Ching Ming (Spring) and the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts (Autumn).

Twice a year, my family, when we were less spread out, would fast after dinner, and fast in the morning, preparing for a festival of nebulous date (I think most Chinese American families had it together to do the ceremony on time according to the lunar calendar, but we never did. I think my uncles liked doing it a few weeks early or late - fewer crowds). Anyway, hell bank notes were just the tip of the iceberg. We bought (to burn) paper money, paper gold, paper clothing, and all sorts of things symbolic for material goods for the dead. We bought and brought food offerings (grandfather's favorite Sherry, fried pork, 3 or 4 big pink boxes filled with dim sum, a boiled chicken, and various kinds of soda). We bought and brought incense and fruit and candles. And fireworks to scare the evil spirits away.

The deal is, you go to your ancestors' cemetery. You take half of your food offerings and half of your burnables and half of your incense and half of your fireworks, and you burn/set off/lay out the offerings as appropriate, and you stick around, talking and catching up with your relatives while the (ceremonial) candles burn all the way down. Takes about 30 to 60 minutes.

Then you pack up all the food offerings and take them uphill to the actual grave sites. You clean up the gravestones and tidy up the general area. You put flowers in the vases (our ancestors have vases built into their gravestones) and you lay out the food, and you burn the incense and light off more fireworks and burn the offerings (money included), and you again hang out and chat while your ancestors' spirits eat the spirit portion of the food, and you wait until this set of candles, too, burns down (by which time it's about 2:00 or 3:00 and most people who are used to breakfast and lunch are a little light-headed).

Then you respectfuly pick up after yourselves and retreat from your ancestors' gravesites and eat the physical portion of the food they left you right there, because you no longer live in China where you'd leave it for the monks, so you eat in your cars, laughing and talking with your relatives that, without these festivals, you might not even see once every few years. And you catch up.

And that's where the Hell Bank Notes fit in, at least in my life. They're trivial compared to the Family.
posted by kalessin at 11:29 AM on May 5, 2005

I should have made it slightly more clear: When you get to the cemetery, there's a shrine for the spirits who are "gaurdians of the cemetery". They're the ones you give half of the offerings to.
posted by kalessin at 11:32 AM on May 5, 2005

When I visited home last November, I was surprised to see some old ladies in the neighborhood sitting outside folding up origami Yuan Bao - gold or slilver ingots used in the old days as hard currency. I used to do that with my grandmother.
posted by of strange foe at 12:53 PM on May 5, 2005

Ex? Someone's not paying attention.

This content has been on my site for a long time, but only recently someone sent it to BoingBoing.

Since then people have been "discovering" it.

It was a lot of fun walking into local shops to browse their selections of Hell Money. I got some strange looks.
posted by bwg at 4:55 PM on May 5, 2005

Kalessin, your experience sounds so festive. I've never been able to do this at any actual gravesite because all the sites are overseas. My immediate family celebrates at home... the "hell money" is definitely peripheral. Your ancestors and your living family are what it's about.
posted by halonine at 9:54 PM on May 5, 2005

Ex? Someone's not paying attention.

Mea culpa. I hadn't noticed your name for a while, nothing personal. I've spent many happy, non-productive hours on your site.
posted by mkhall at 10:11 PM on May 5, 2005

If only we had hell credit cards, the air would be a lot cleaner.
posted by Poagao at 2:00 AM on May 6, 2005

No worries, mkhqall, I was teasing.

Poagao, that's a Hell of an idea! (you may commence groaning ... )

The Bank of Hell Visa or Mastercard: apply today!

Those would be perfect in Hong Kong — deceased debt collectors would have the perfect job in the afterlife if the dead relatives default on their payments.
posted by bwg at 4:12 AM on May 6, 2005

I know ya'll are probably teasing, but for what it's worth in case you aren't, the point of sending hard cash would be to make sure the ancestors have no worries up in hell/heaven.
posted by kalessin at 4:58 AM on May 6, 2005

kalessin, do you know how the term 'hell money' originated? The story given in the post sounds like a folk-tale to me; the concept of differentiation between a 'heaven' and a 'hell' existed in Chinese culture before the arrival of Christian missionaries so far as I know. Perhaps it was a joke at the missionaries' expense.
posted by TimothyMason at 6:10 AM on May 6, 2005

As far as I know, Timothy, 'hell' and 'heaven' are kinda muddly and mixed up in most Chinese worship. The kind of spirituality my Chinese family practices is a weird mishmsh of folk religion, Taoism and Buddhism, so it's hard to say. Most of the stories within the family that I've heard about heaven and hell are very buddhist in flavor. Hell is kind of a processing zone for the dead. There are circles of hell reserved for different crimes/punishments. Some dead spirits don't even get so far as hell and get lost and become ghosts and evil spirits, but assuming you do get to hell, you make your way through it (assuming you haven't done anything bad enough to warranet punishment), sometimes escorted by demons who are really sort of immortal/undying/non-processed police, to the center, where stands the great wheel (of transmigrations) which will turn you back into whatever you're next slated for in the reincarnation chain. If you've become enlightened, though, you go to "heaven", where you sit at Buddha's feet for all eternity, meditating, since you are now done with the whole reincarnation business.

So I don't know if it's a joke more than a sort of lack of translation. Heaven and hell don't really mean the same sorts of things, except in the long view. But whatever's going on, your ancestors, if dead, are much more likely to spend a great deal of time in hell than in heaven. So maybe that's why it's hell bank notes. Who knows.
posted by kalessin at 5:23 PM on May 6, 2005

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