Around the time of the Tomb Sweeping Day, when you stroll down the streets, you can see many shops selling ritual goods. Among the customs related to the Qinming festival, burning so called Hell Money is probably one of the most interesting. You just couldn’t resist yourself and did some research on the topic…
Hell Money (紙錢) is also referred to as Spirit Money. It’s been in use since 19th century. It’s a traditional monetary offering for deceased. According to Chinese believes the soul after death first enters so called dìyù (地狱) [underworld court]. Until it gets judged by the King Yangluo (ruler of the dead), it still lives like it did, when the person was alive (meaning – it also needs money). That is why living relatives burn this spirit money near the tomb in order to send to the afterlife.
The word ‘hell’ in the name of those notes might be confusing for Westerners. In Western culture it always carries pejorative meaning. For Chinese it not necessary is the case. The word ‘hell’ was introduced to Chinese by missioners who preached that Christians go to heaven and non-Christians go to hell (which by the way isn’t exactly in the line with the current teachings of the Catholic Church). Due to huge cultural differences Chinese people misunderstood the concept and thought of ‘hell’ as general English word for the afterlife. Thus it was later introduced to their monetary offerings (the name ‘Hell Bank Note’ is printed at the backs of the notes).
How does the money look like? Well it certainly doesn’t resemble traditional Yuan (they come in denominations from 5-100 RMB and always have portrait of Mao on the front). Hell Banknotes are very colourful. At the front page there’s an effigy of the Jade Emperor (the king of heavens in Taoism). The backs of the notes usually show picture of the Bank of Hell. The notes come in denominations from 10 to 10000. Interesting thing is that, currently you can buy Hell Money also in foreign currencies (in case your ancestor would like to go abroad). Euro for spirits pretty much resembles the originals beside the fact, that according to the note on the banknote, it was issued by the “Hades Bank Corporation”. The Hell Dollars are also quite amusing. Just like the originals they have a caption “In God we trust” which in connotation with Hell Money makes it a total cultural misconception.