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Burning joss paper is a traditional Chinese-Taoist practice that sends money and materials goods to deceased relatives in the afterlife. It’s common to burn joss paper at funerals, on ancestor birthdays and during important holidays like the Qingming Festival and the Hungry Ghost Festival.
Arguably the most famous place to buy joss paper is in Hong Kong, where there’s an entire district in Sheung Wan dedicated to these types of goods. American Chinatowns have had dedicated joss paper stores since the first immigrants arrived in this country.
Joss paper customs are rich with symbolism and family history, the type of tradition you can imagine being shared in Chinese from grandmothers to their grandchildren. Consequently, adopting joss paper customs here in the United States without a direct cultural connection can be intimidating. Settle in — this comprehensive guide is here to help.
What is Joss Paper?
Collectively, joss paper offerings are physical representations of money and daily necessities like clothing, personal electronics and household goods. The basic notion behind burning joss paper is that an offering is conveyed into the spirit world through the fire’s smoke.
The most traditional type of “everyday” joss paper is made from sheets of coarse bamboo paper, each decorated with a square of gold or silver foil to represent money. They come in all different sizes and can be burned “as is” or after being folded into the shape of the traditional gold ingots used as currency in ancient China. Here are a few examples.
Chinese Joss Paper – Gold and Silver Foil
This is the most common kind of traditional joss paper, 5.5″ x 6″ sheets of bamboo paper decorated with a small gold or silver square in the center. Beautiful as is, or folded into the shape of gold ingots.
Chinese Joss Paper – Large Gold and Silver Foil
These sheets are identical in size to the squares above, but feature a larger rectangle of gold or silver foil in the center. There’s no meaningful difference between the two styles, choosing one over the other is just a matter of personal preference.
Chinese Joss Paper – Longevity
Each sheet is made from bamboo paper and decorated with a square of gold foil, the Chinese character for longevity and wishes for wisdom, smooth sailing and prosperity.
The Chinese joss paper “spirit money” known as Hell Bank Notes are commonly used in all manner of contemporary ancestor ceremonies. The most traditional notes bear the seal of the afterlife’s “Bank of Heaven and Earth,” while others are printed to resemble legal tender currency from various countries. Bills feature an image of the Jade Emperor, the Taoist monarch of heaven, and come in outrageous denominations from 10,000 to 1,000,000,000 dollars to help an ancestor purchase services, pay off the God of Death or escape punishment. Here are a few popular designs.
Joss Paper Money – Bank of Heaven and Earth
These Hell Bank Notes are printed to resemble currency from the traditional “Bank of Heaven and Earth.” Each of the included designs is decorated with an image of the Jade Emperor and auspicious symbols like gold ingots, dragons and peonies.
Joss Paper Money – Bank of Heaven and Earth
These Hell Bank Notes are printed to resemble currency from the traditional “Bank of Heaven and Earth.” Each sheet is decorated with an image of the Jade Emperor in a 50,000,000 dollar denomination.
Joss Paper Money – Bank of Heaven and Earth
Measuring 17″ x 7.5″, these notes are just about the largest joss paper currency you can find. Each of the included designs is decorated with an image of the Jade Emperor and auspicious symbols like gold ingots, a sailing ship and peonies.
Joss Paper Money – U.S. Dollar
These Hell Bank Notes resemble the U.S Dollar. Each bill comes in 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500, 5,000 or 10,000 dollar denominations with an image of the Jade Emperor. They’re a fitting way to memorialize family members who spent their lives in America.
Joss Paper Money – Chinese Yuan
These Hell Bank Notes resemble the Chinese Yuan. Each bill comes in 5, 10, 20, 50 or 100 Yuan denominations. Use these bills for family members who would be used to spending Chinese currency.
Joss Paper Money – Hong Kong Dollar
These Hell Bank Notes are printed to resemble the Hong Kong Dollar, each of the 3 included designs is decorated with an image of the Jade Emperor in a 100, 500 or 1000 dollar denomination.
300 Piece Joss Paper Money Collection
This 300 piece collection is appropriate for funerals, ancestor birthdays and holidays like the Qingming Festival and the Hungry Ghost Festival. The set includes bills resembling the U.S. Dollar, the Chinese Yuan and the Hong Kong Dollar.
Finally, joss paper crafts are burned to send ancestors the luxuries they lacked while living. Crafts are most commonly burned for specific relatives at funerals, on birthdays and death anniversaries and during the Qingming Festival. You’ll see joss paper houses, cars, servants, airplane tickets and flat-screen TVs. No extravagance is too large. Here are just a few examples.
Joss Paper Crafts – Male
This box of essentials is designed to provide a male family member with everything needed in the afterlife, including a mobile phone, wallet, credit card, glasses, a watch, a lighter and belt.
Joss Paper Crafts – Female
This box of essentials is designed to provide a female family member with everything needed in the afterlife, including a watch, jade bracelet, gold bracelet, lighter, necklace and ring.
Complete Ceremonial Joss Paper Set
A complete ceremonial joss paper set suitable for funerals, birthdays and major festivals. Each set includes joss paper squares, bamboo money, Hell Bank Notes, good fortune papers, joss sticks, candles and spirit papers.
Depending on your source, the earliest joss paper rituals date back more than a thousand years to when paper coins were burned to please the spirits. Burning joss paper at funerals became standard practice by the 12th century and the custom arrived in the United States with the first Chinese immigrants who arrived in California during the 19th century.
As you shop for joss paper, note that variations abound. Joss paper may be decorated with different seals, stamps, pieces of contrasting paper, engraved designs or other motifs. Different regions of the world have preferences for the type of joss paper that is used. For instance, Hell Bank Notes are commonly found in regions where Cantonese populations dominate, but are rarely seen or used in places such as Taiwan or Macau, which predominantly use bamboo paper sheets.
Why to Burn Joss Paper
Taking time to care for ancestors in the afterlife ultimately reflects the value the Chinese place on filial piety and respect for one’s elders and ancestors. Put in more contemporary terms, burning joss paper provides the opportunity to make space and take time to remember the loved ones in your life.
According to tradition, the Chinese believe that the deceased have needs similar to those in the natural world. Joss paper is burned at funerals and during important dates thereafter to help the deceased pay off debts, trade for goods and exist comfortably in the spirit world.
With this context, joss paper ingots and currency with denominations reaching into the billions serve an obvious purpose. More contemporary additions like joss paper clothing, shoes and lengths of fabric also seem practical. I’ll leave you to form your own opinions about joss paper iPads, sports cars and mansions complete with servants.
When to Burn Joss Paper
There are many occasions to burn joss paper throughout the year, and each instance carries a slightly different meaning and requirements. For some people, burning joss paper is a near-daily spiritual practice; for others, it’s something that’s done only during holidays and important family gatherings. Here’s how to decide what’s right for you.
The Chinese believe that it’s unlucky to arrive in the afterlife empty-handed or indebted. Consequently, burning joss paper is an essential part of Chinese funeral customs. Funeral offerings can be elaborate and typically include joss paper squares, lots of currency and household necessities like clothing, electronics and jewelry.
Ancestor Birthdays and Death Anniversaries
Recognizing the anniversary of a relative’s birth or passing is something like a family party for the deceased. You can prepare a relative’s favorite meal, exchange family stories and burn a small offering of joss paper money in remembrance.
As part of a tomb sweeping ceremony, joss paper currency and personal craft items are burned to honor the deceased. Larger offerings are emphasized, as this is the primary opportunity during the year to remember a family’s ancestors.
Hungry Ghost Festival
Joss paper offerings during the Hungry Ghost Festival are less elaborate because they are intended to appease wandering spirits without families to care for them. Setting a up makeshift altar at the curb outside your home with joss paper offerings and food for the ghosts is common.
Many Chinese families keep a supply of joss paper at home to burn during moments in everyday life when a deceased relative is remembered. For instance, some people burn joss paper on the 1st and 15th of every lunar month, at family gatherings like a Chinese New Year dinner or even simply after thinking fondly of an ancestor during the day.
There are many different ways to incorporate the burning of joss paper into the rhythms of the year. For what it’s worth, we see the biggest sales of joss paper at the Chinese American Family store in the 5th (prior to the Qingming Festival) and 7th (prior to the Hungry Ghost Festival) lunar months, as well as immediately prior to Chinese New Year.
How to Burn Joss Paper
There’s really no coherent theology behind the practice of burning joss paper — all you really need is the paper items, a pot or urn to burn them in and the time for reflection. The underlying belief is that burning changes the nature of the offering, allowing it to escape the natural world and reach ancestors, gods and ghosts in the spirit world.
Joss paper burning is usually the last act performed in a Chinese ancestor worship ceremony. Joss paper squares may be burned as is, folded in half or stacked into elaborate pagodas or lotuses. People may write the names of loved ones on the back of the offering, before saying a quiet prayer while the item burns and the smoke rises into the air.
As you prepare to burn joss paper, remember that the practice is meant as an expression of sincerity and a gesture that honors those who have come before us. The act respects, honors and cares for ancestors in the afterlife, guaranteeing their well-being and positive attitude toward the living.
There are a few superstitions to observe while burning joss paper. Joss paper is treated as real money for gods and ghosts — don’t casually throw joss paper onto the fire, step on joss paper and the burned ashes or throw away unused joss paper. Each of these acts shows disrespect to the very ghosts that we’re trying to please.
Joss Paper Practices Today
The growth of Christianity, the loss of language skills and the dispersal of the Chinese American community each threaten the practice of traditional cultural customs in the United States. Those who burn joss paper often do so in small, quiet ceremonies within their immediate families, resulting in less understanding of the practice across the broader community.
Consequently, it’s up to us in the 2nd generation to preserve and pass along joss paper customs to our children, many of whom have lived their entire lives in the United States and may not speak even a word of Chinese. Visit a joss paper store in Chinatown, spend time with grandma and then share why and how we burn joss paper with loved ones.
Your turn! Do you have any other questions about joss paper practices? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!