I guess it is Halloween time for some of you and for others a time to mark the coming of winter with bonfires and marshmallows. Well, here in Xi’an, there has been a lot of money burning going on in the street outside my block of flats this week. Old ladies have been squatting on the pavement at night selling large rectangular sheets of joss- paper money and little hand-made paper shoes. People have been buying them and then burning them in the street in ceremonial fashion. I was fascinated and asked my translator what it all meant.
She said it is known as the festival of Han Yi Jie and takes place around the week of the 1st October in the lunar calendar. Usually people who have lost family members in the past three years will buy the” money” or paper shoes and clothes and then burn them. This is so the ancestors can have enough money to buy warm clothes and shoes for the winter. Some of the joss- paper money or spirit money has the picture of Yan Wang imprinted on it – he is Emperor of the Underworld. Other pieces have a picture of the old Chinese currency or a large monetary value stamped on them.
Further research on the subject showed that this is an ancient custom dating back as far as about 1000BC. Archaeologists have found imitation money in the form of stones, cowrie shells and bones in tombs and imitation metal money in the tombs of wealthy people from The Spring and Autumn period (1600-1046BC). Initially they thought that the imitation money was for the poor.
Jade Emperor – monarch of Heaven in Taoism
Spiritually, the money is used as a symbol of transformation. By burning, it increases in value and the deceased member uses it to pay the remainder of his earthly debts in order to get a body and fate to continue its karmic journey. The living are paying back their spiritual debts by fulfilling their filial duty and paying respect to the ancestors.
It is obvious that old customs and spiritual beliefs are still flourishing here given the number of people buying the money. It might also be the only country that can afford to burn money in the present economic climate!