Joss Paper

Joss Paper, also known as ghost or spirit money, are sheets of paper that are burned in traditional Chinese deity or ancestor worship ceremonies during special holidays. Joss paper is also burned in traditional Chinese funerals.

Joss paper is traditionally made from coarse bamboo paper, although rice paper is also commonly used. Traditional joss is cut into individual squares or rectangles. Each square of paper has either a thin piece of square foil glued to its centre or it may be endorsed with a red ink seal from a traditional Chinese seal. The colour of the paper is white, white colour representing mourning, the square foil normally has a golden or silver metal shade and hence representing wealth or money, leading to the name ghost or spirit money. Another appearance form of joss paper is “gold paper”, shaped like ingots or towers.

When burning the joss paper, the sheets are treated as real money: they are not casually tossed into the fire, but instead placed respectfully in a loose bundle. Alternatively in some customs, each joss paper sheet may be folded in a specific way before being tossed into the fire. This practice is an extension of the belief that burning real money brings bad luck.

The joss paper is folded in half, or folded into a shape of a gold ingot before being burned in an earthenware pot or a specially built chimney. Joss paper burning is usually the last performed act in Chinese deity or ancestor worship ceremonies and at funerals it is the last ceremony before the deceased is lowered into the ground.
Note that incense sticks are sometimes called joss sticks.In Taoist rituals, the practice of burning joss paper to deities or ancestors is acceptable.

Incense paper differs slightly from joss paper, though serves the same purpose. Incense paper is a yellow coloured paper with a gold foil printed on it representing a gold tael or with a silver foil representing a silver tael. (A tael is a weight measurement similar to the Thai baht, part of the Chinese system of weights and the currency).
A further form is a single-coloured paper with one side having a rougher surface and the other side a smoother one. Such papers come in varying colours and are supposed to represent cloth for the ancestors.

The use of spirit money (also known as hell money or heaven money) in different rituals is deeply rooted in Asian culture. Archaeological evidence of ‘fake/spirit money’ can be seen as far back as circa 1000 BC. Imitations of money in the form of stones and bones (along with cowrie shells) were found in tombs. In the Spring and Autumn period (1600 – 1046 BC), archaeologists have found evidence of imitation metal money. The imitation metal money was thin and fragile, made of lead and bronze. There were also imitations in clay of gold plaques. Initially, archaeologists believed that imitations were for the poor; however, that belief changed when they discovered imitation money in the tombs of the wealthy.
The spirit money are a modernisation of joss paper, an afterlife monetary paper offering used in traditional Chinese ancestor veneration.

In order to ensure that ancestors or ghosts have proper items in the afterlife, their relatives send them paper and papier-mâché presents. The burning of the spirit money and paper objects allows for the object to be transferred to the ancestors and ghosts, materialising in the afterlife and even increase in value.

Note that according to Chinese belief all who die will automatically enter the underworld of Diyu to be judged before either being sent to heaven, to be punished in the underworld, or to be reincarnated. The word ‘hell’ is not to be compared with the western understanding of the word, but rather as ‘Chinese afterlife in general’, a more neutral platform.
Lately, instead of the word ‘hell’ or ‘Bank of Hades’, one can see banknotes showing the name ‘Bank of Universal’, ‘Bank of Heaven’ or even ‘Bank of Paradise’.

The bank notes can be printed in various styles, i.e. showing currencies like the Chinese Yuan, US Dollar, Thai Baht or Vietnamese Dong.
The afterlife money is known for its large denomination, at times up to various billion dollars. All bills will feature the Jade Emperor, the representing monarch of heaven in Taoism. On the back of each bill, the ‘Bank of Hell’/ ‘Bank of Universal’ or alike will be featured. When burning the notes, the notes are treated as real money: they are not casually tossed into the fire, but instead placed respectfully in a loose bundle. Alternatively in some customs, each bank note may be folded in a specific way before being tossed into the fire. This practice is an extension of the belief that burning real money brings bad luck.
Practitioners of the ritual, derived from a mix of Taoism and regional folklore, believe that burning paper money equates to making advance deposits into an afterlife bank account that the deceased’s spirit can access in heaven.
Hell Bank Notes are sent by living relatives to dead ancestors as a tribute to the ‘King of Hell’ for a shorter stay or to escape punishment, or directly to the ancestors to be used for spending on lavish items in the afterlife.

Paper objects aiding the ancestors’ move include paper passports, flight-, rail- and bus tickets, all can be paid by paper credit cards, of course preferred as platinum or gold cards. Daily items such as a rice cooker, dishes, a flash lamp, a fan, TVs, entertainment equipment and such alike can be found as well.

Paper objects, such as clothing, jewellery, mobile phones, accessories, cars including a liveried chauffeur, lavish models of paper villas with manicured gardens, home interiors, medicine, fancy foods and liquors, cosmetics and others, should be extravagant, luxurious and will most likely be showing a high end brand name of an earthly company; simply speaking: the more expensive- the better. The ancestors will be given all the luxuries that were eluded in life.

Ancestor worship is a religious practice based on the belief that deceased family members have a continued existence, take an interest in the affairs of the world, and possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living.

Burning Joss Paper
Burning Joss Paper at a temple in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo ©

Spirit money and objects are used as a symbol of transformation, by burning the money and objects they increase in value, and serve as a payment of spiritual debts.
When a living person worships a god at a local temple, it is to ask for some favour that can be granted by the powerful spirit.
The living person attempts to pay off this mystical and celestial debt by praying and making monetary donations to the gods and temples.
However, no one pays off their debts entirely while alive, so their remaining family burns spirit money which is transmitted to their deceased family member.

The deceased family member uses this money to pay down the remainder of his debt to be able to obtain a body and fate to pursue its karmic journey.
Thus, the living are paying respect and homage to the ancestors, since the ancestors are the ones having brought us into the world, nourished us and having prepared the conditions under which we grew up, hence it is a pay back of spiritual debts, again mystical and celestial.
Ancestor worshipping is not asking for favours, but to fulfil one’s filial duties. The act is a way to respect, honour and look after ancestors in their afterlives, guaranteeing the ancestors’ well- being and positive disposition towards the living, as well as the living descendants possibly seek the ancestors’ guidance or assistance.
The social or non-religious function of ancestor worship is to cultivate kinship values like filial piety, family loyalty, and continuity of the family lineage.

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