For my final project in my Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors I decided to make a National Geographic article. In this article I discussed the tradition of Joss Paper in Asia. I looked at several sources for this both in books, articles, and popular sources. The following is an abridged version of my final project.
Joss Paper, at it’s most basic, is a paper offering that is burned to allow the offerings to go beyond the living world and to their gods, ghosts, or ancestors. Purchased, these offerings are generally not kept or held for very long. The offerings are considered useless in the living world and must be burned to have any purpose. It is believed that burning the offerings allows for the transfer of the objects from the physical world to the spiritual world. Even though many of the offerings may just be paper, the process of burning the offerings transforms them into the real deal in the spiritual world. These offerings can come in the form of literally anything. The two main categories for Joss Paper are spirit money and paper objects. Spirit money is fake money that is supposed able to be burned for use in the spiritual world. Just like in the physical world you need money to get by in the spiritual world. A person’s deceased ancestor is able to use this money in the afterlife just as you would use real money in the physical world. If just sending money is not enough, you can also opt in for sending offerings of objects. Let’s say your father passed away and he always wanted a hot new ride, but couldn’t afford one. Well all you have to do is either buy or craft a paper replica of such a car and burn it. The will allow him to receive that new ride in the afterlife. The same can be done with any object; anything from clothing, a computer, a credit card, even a house can be sent to the afterlife with this tradition.
These offerings have several uses outside of just sending a former loved one a gift. In Chinese culture if someone passed away under bad circumstances, had an improper burial, or were never married they may remain in a state of being a ghost. These ghosts can disrupt many people’s lives by making them have bad luck, injury, illness, or even death. When events and misfortunes like these affect someone they may turn to paper offerings. People will make offerings of clothes, shelter, money, and other things to either apologize or make the spirit happy again.
Paper offerings are not just used for ghosts and people’s personal reasons though. They are also used as gifts and offerings to the gods. When offering Joss Paper to the the gods you still use the same basic things. This can be clothes, money, or other objects, but some of these offerings are special. Many pieces of paper clothes for god are inscribed with dragons and are much larger sizes than normal. It is also agreed that with your offering you should include Longevity Gold. You may include Honorable People Papers among a large variety of other documents.
The third and most common use case for burning Joss Paper is to honor your past ancestors or loved ones. In many places you can order paper offerings to be burned at a funeral. These items include things that would be used on a daily basis. This way your loved one doesn’t have to live in the afterlife without common necessities. These everyday items are often included in a set of offerings you can order for a funeral. This can be appliances, TVs, smartphones, batteries, chargers, clothes and of course money.
Outside of a funeral there is another major event that has people burning paper offerings for their past ancestors and loved ones. This occasion is known as the Hungry Ghost Festival. On the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, the ghosts that have returned to earth are hungry, therefore, people make offerings to feed and please them. The festival serves as a reminder to those who had improper burials and/or were mistreated by their families. The festival dates back over 2,000 years. It is a Taoist tradition celebrated on the birthday of Lord Qing Xu.
The final part is about the history of the tradition. There are no commonly agreed upon origins, but it is widely considered to have been what may be known as a scam today. The events that started this tradition that are argued often involve a paper sales man who had a large stock of low quality paper.