Burning Money Like You’ll Die Tomorrow

Burning money is an ancient Chinese tradition. Real money isn’t being burned, it is being spent on paper imitations which are burned. What these imitations are called can change depending on who you talk to.  Many refer to them as zhĭ or paper but this does not create a difference between the paper that is burned and the paper that is used every day. Popular terms that are more specific include Shāozhǐ meaning “burning paper” and zhǐqián meaning “paper money”. The names for this burnable substance are subject to change but widespread practice is largely the same. When something is burned as an offering, it passes through the threshold between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

The world of the dead, or the yin world is different from the yang world in which we exist. The differences between the worlds seem to be lesser so in the physical attributes of the land of the dead but more so in the nature of the land of the dead. People view the yin world in different ways, this intern changes the nature of the yin world. Many people view it as a realm of nothingness that exists if you believe in it. Another common way people view the world is that it is a form of purgatory in which extistence is indefinite and life is more of the same. Although people have different ideas about the world of the dead, it is commonly thought that daytime in the world of the living is nighttime for those in the world of the dead. It is for this reason the dead communicate to the living in dreams. Many people have dreams of their deceased loved ones. The dead usually express that they need something and that the living need to get it to them. Whether it be money, food, or literally anything, if the living deliver the requested items the dead will leave them alone.

Much more than paper money is burned. Flammable imitations of anything from cars to designer clothing are also burned. The dead do not simply live in a world entirely full of paper the items become what they represent when burned. Fire is believed to have transformative properties and burning the paper money or replicas is viewed as a transformative process rather than the destructive one it appears to be. These goods for the spirit world aren’t just for dead loved ones. People will burn money to gods to not only in exchange for blessings but also to thank gods for the blessing that they have been given. Sometimes a specific paper reconstruction is burned to hint at a specific blessing. This can be done by burning an item with a particular symbol meaning what the person asking needs. Another interpretation of this is that the specified blessings are burned and then redistributed by the gods to people who need them. Money can even be burned as acts of charity for ghosts who have not been receiving offerings. Ghost may not be receiving offerings for many reasons; they may have been the last of their lineage and had no descendants to offer them money or they may have been died unbeknownst to their relatives because they were murdered or simply far away. Having rough circumstances at the time of their death has left them lacking necessities for existence such as food, a home, and/or clothing. People frequently burn these donations to the less fortunate. The burned items for loved one are generally more personal because the partakers know the dead individual. People will burn models of the type of car the deceased liked or an imitation dog of same breed the departed owner had. The sizes of the items burned vary in size as well. Some people will pay for full size car replicas to burn and others will buy ones off the shelves of local stores. The size depends on how concerned the buyer is about size and if they can afford it. The items burned have changed with time but so has how people feel about these burnings.

There is a sharp divide about the place of this tradition in modern living.  Many people heavily support this tradition used in religious dealings and the passing of loved ones. These people contribute to the massive industry by combined purchasing billions of yen worth of paper. One man in the 1980s burned two truckloads of money for his dead mother costing 20,000 yen. This is not common but shows the importance of this tradition to partakers. The aftermath of burning the money further “burns” more money. Public workers are expected to clean over 70 tons of trash produced from the festivals that feature burning paper. This the immediate results excluding the environmental pollution further polluting the air in areas of high population. People argue that this tradition needs to go in further preservation of life in the world of the living contradicting the views of those concerned with the world of the dead.

8 thoughts on “Burning Money Like You’ll Die Tomorrow

  1. Carolyn Harnois

    The explanation of the two worlds, yin and yang, allow for us to better understand the afterlife connection to our world. It builds up the reason why we need to burn money for them. I also wrote about paper offerings and having this build up allows the reader to connect things better. I agree that this tradition is very important but how do you think this tradition will carry on when people move away and out of China? Will they keep the tradition that their family has done for centuries or will they modernize it by also incorporating customs of where ever they may be? I think this would also be an interesting topic to look into.

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  2. Alexus Van Helmond

    So for my class we talked about Yemen and how there are so many obstacles going on in the war and after reading this, it gave me another prospective and more questions to think about. The first thing that came to my mind was does Yemen do something like that? In their belief system do they have rituals because they are going through a extremely long war right now which is taking multiples of lives a minute. It’s interesting to see different cultures because ours are so different and we all do things differently with how we handle situations. As Americans we don’t constantly live in that state of fear of death. where as they are in the mists of of seeing it every day and don’t know when or if they are next. What’s even worse about Yemen is that they are going through a giant famine as well as not receiving any support medically or financially. It’s as if the whole world cut ties off with Yemen. Back to the traditional burning’s it amazes me how most of the culture believes in a concept like this and that it would help them later in life or when they pass. It’s also building that bridge/connection. I do also enjoy the different lenses you looked at it from for example how they impact them environmentally vs culture.

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  3. Brian Roman

    This was really interesting to read about, as I have seen people burn money or valuables before, but never truly understood the deeper sentiment behind it. Connections to afterlife and spiritual give/take aren’t as common in “Western” cultures, but I saw parallels in your abstract to the Islamic practice of Sadaqah. I read about the practice when researching Jordanian-Palestinian businesses; it involves skimming 5-10% of your personal earnings and donating them to the poor. I think it is interesting how both these groups make active economic sacrifices to enhance their spiritual benefits, but do so in different ways. The Chinese practice invests money back into their economy through the purchase of zhi paper or valuables, while Islamic practices invest money or time to aid the poor who cannot contribute to society themselves.

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  4. Stephanie Yanaros

    I really enjoyed reading about this Chinese tradition of burning money. I am really fascinated with different cultures and how their rituals impact their lives. This past semester I took a course on Istanbul and for one of my presentations I researched how amulets, jewelry, and religious pictures were used to ward off illness and satan. I found this related to your essay because in both cultures it was common to take an object and attach a spiritual meaning to it. In the eyes of the Chinese, burning money is used to connect with the dead and/or to also for blessings. Whereas in Istanbul, they also used objects to ward off the bad and bring in the good. In both cultures they found meaning in objects that may not have meaning. I would be curious to know if this tradition is still practiced and where they originated. I am also curious to know if other cultures also had the same type of spiritual attachment to inanimate objects. Learning about other cultures has been really fascinating, especially when you get to hear & compare with others and what they have learned over the course of the semester.

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  5. Tara Alexander

    “Although people have different ideas about the world of the dead, it is commonly thought that daytime in the world of the living is nighttime for those in the world of the dead. It is for this reason the dead communicate to the living in dreams.”

    This line from your paper was really well said and just made so much sense. I feel like many people may know about the Yin & Yang saying, and know that it connects to the ideas of good and bad or life and death, but they may not be able to make the connection that you did here. I know I wouldn’t have made this connection without reading you paper or doing extensive research of my own. Being that you mention the idea of Yin and Yang right before this sentence in you paper if flows nicely into the fact that dreams and exist in the realm of Yin and Yang, and that the worlds of the living and the dead exist in opposite time zones. Having the dead communicate to the living in their dreams shows that when the living are sleeping the dead are up and active. I think that being that this paper is about the tradition of burning thing, especially money as way to connect to the dead world is interesting but it does leave me with a question, and perhaps you talked about this throughout your course already, or plan to talk about it in the future, either way it might be an interesting to have on your radar. I will be China, this summer and one thing that I’ve been reading a lot about is the very poor air quality, I know that this is caused by many things, but do you thing that this burning tradition could potentially make this situation worse? Keeping in mind I’m not sure how often this tradition happens, or if there is a specific place it happens, but air quality is just a huge problem and China and I wonder if there is any correlation?

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  6. William Murphy

    I haven’t hear of this practice before, and the more I read, the more interesting it becomes. What makes it so interesting to me is the underlying elements of consumerism as well as tradition. The concept of burning fake money that has been purchased for the dead because they need it is fascinating to me because it essentially means that the consumer lifestyle is so engrained in society, that it naturally is a part of the afterlife. Anyway, though it may be a little of a stretch, this reminds me of a documentary that we viewed in our Amazon class called: “The Cannibal Tours.” It showed this encounter of consumerism and traditional ways of being by following westernized tourists visiting a tribe in the Amazon. These wealthy individuals spent all of their time snapping pictures of the people in the tribe – how they dressed, what they did, almost as a form of entertainment. It was painful to watch, given the angle the filmmakers portrayed the tourists. I find these two relatable because it seems like consumer culture can tap its way into everything, really nothing is sacred. So it leaves us with a question, whether or not this is excusable and a part of life itself? Or are there things that should not be exploited at all?

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  7. Danielle Adams

    Using fire as a transformative property is a fascinating topic. In Shaking the Spirit (about Haitian Vodou), we discussed how burning things can bring them to Ginen (Africa/where spirits live). We specifically spoke about burning money in a different context than giving it to spirits though, it is often used in Vodou to bring luck surrounding money to the living. However, fire is used frequently in Vodou. There is a term for burning or heating things up, “echofe;” this often correlates with ceremonies for the spirits and possession.
    It is also interesting that you describe the yin world as a world of nothingness. In Vodou when someone goes to Ginen, it is under the water so it is also a land of nothingness. Spirits want to come back into the world of the living because there are pleasurable things in the world of the living. Do the Chinese spirits try to comeback or are they content with what the living sends to their world?

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  8. Emily Tiche

    I’m really glad someone decided to do their final project on this because, when learning about it in class, I have to admit I was a little troubled about all of the waste that went into burning paper offerings. My project was about festivals in China so I did touch on the paper offerings but not in depth. Now that I have read your paper, I feel as though I have a better understanding of why they feel so strongly about making these offerings as they are a culture that pays very high respects to their elders and ancestors. As much as I appreciate their preservation of traditions and want to give their culture the utmost respect, I agree that they need to watch out for the environment and burn less and/or find new ways of making offerings and showing their respect for the dead. How do you feel China should handle this growing problem? Do you feel as though PSAs would be enough or do you think laws would have to be enforced?

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