Chinese Hell Money

On June 25, 2015 by Tim Newman

Hell Money - JFK

Hell Money is fake currency that is burnt at funerals, particularly in China. This faux cash has been burned as an offering since at least the late 19th century, but quite possibly from much earlier. Fake metal money has been found in Chinese burials as far back as 1600 BC. Paper money has been in circulation in China since the 9th century, but because Hell Money is burned (and, of course, it’s made from highly degradable paper) we’re unlikely to find ancient examples.

Why is the word “Hell” written on the notes? It’s not Chinese, is it? And why not refer to it as “Heaven Money”? Some believe that the word “hell” was misinterpreted by the Chinese people when Christian missionaries went over there to chat to them. The missionaries told them they were all going to Hell and they perhaps interpreted the word “Hell” as the general word for the after life. So the “Hell” they are referring to is actually the underground court where the Lord of the Earthly Court, Yan Wang, judges whether you should go up to paradise or down to Hades for the rest of eternity.

Hell Money is burned at funerals so that the deceased can use it when they’re chatting with Yan Wang, who I assume is partial to the occasional bribe. The deceased can also use the cash when they reach their final destination. Although I don’t know what the shops are like in Hades?

Initially Hell Money was in denominations of $5 and 10$ but when inflation struck China in 1944 the value of the notes suddenly jumped up. Now it’s more common to see them in multiples of ten thousands and even up into the billions.

Hell Money - Brunt Offering

The notes often show an image of the Jade Emperor, the chap which Taoists believe looks after heaven, sat in front of the so-called Bank of Hell. Nowadays shops throughout Asia sell this type of Joss paper with a variety of designs including the Eight Immortals (they’re like Western saints), the Buddha, Yama, or images of dragons. Some even portray famous dead folks such as John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe.

Hell Money is deeply entwined in the Asian psyche and can be bought in specialist shops wrapped in cellophane in bundles of 40 notes. But the Chinese government has made efforts recently to stamp out some of the stranger funeral rites. In 2006 the Ministry of Civil Affairs banned the practice of “vulgar” burnt-offerings to the dead, this includes…

…luxury villas, sedan cars, mistresses, Viagra (real and Papier-mâché replicas) and other messy sacrificial items…

These “messy sacrificial items” include models of “karaoke hostesses” and “Supergirls” (based on the hit TV contest Mongolian Cow Yoghurt Supergirl, which was a bit like our X-Factor). According to the Ministry these bans are in place in an effort to eradicate “feudal” and superstitious behavior.

Papier-mâché replicas of Viagra? What? And people really burned luxury villas and mistresses at funerals? Wow.

The people of China still spend a great deal of money on paper goods to burn at funerals. China Consumers’ Association reports that the nation spends over ¥10bn (about £1bn) of real money on paper funeral goods each year. These items include fake cans of San Miguel beer made of paper and paper iPhone replicas.

Any how. I’m thinking of starting a collection, it’s much cooler than stamps and pretty reasonably priced.

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