How to be Rich in your Afterlife? The Chinese Tradition of Burning Joss Paper

Yesterday was the Double Ninth Festival, also known as the annual Chung Yeung Festival (重陽節). According to the I Ching theory (易經, an ancient Chinese classic giving thoughts to Chinese religion, psychoanalysis, literature, and art…etc.), ‘nine’ is the typical ‘yang’ (陽, a positive power) number in Chinese numerology. Hence, the 9th day of the 9th lunar month each year is regarded as a day with potential danger due to the overloaded amount of ‘yang’ energy. To protect ourselves, people have their own traditional practices, including climbing mountains, drinking chrysanthemum wine, as well as carrying sprigs of Dogwood.

Some people also visit their ancestors’ graves on the Double Ninth Day. During the visit, it is not a rare sight to see people burning joss paper, which is a traditional Chinese-Taoist practice. People believe that such act sends money and goods to their loved ones who had passed away. They also burn joss paper on ancestors’ birthdays and Qing Ming Festival as an act of remembrance and filial piety.

The Preparation

Joss paper customs are rich with symbolism and family history. If you ask anyone from the Chinese community if they had burnt joss paper before, it is likely for you to come across the same answer — yes I did. It is a common experience for most Chinese people to squat on the floor helping their grandparents to fold up golden and silver metallic paper, all in preparation for the Double Ninth Festival since childhood.

Being born and raised in a Chinese family, there is no exception for my case too. We sweep our grandfather’s grave twice a year – on both Ching Ming Festival and Double Ninth Festival. My grandmother would always remind me to pack the joss paper into a big bag and carry them to the grave. I could always recall her nagging about how grandfather is lonely and miserable in the afterworld, and that’s why we should send him a large sum of money to purchase anything he wants and prevent him being bullied by the others.

Not only bringing joss paper, but also my grandmother would prepare all the dishes grandfather liked and put them in front of his grave. There would always be 3 cups of liquor neatly placed in front of his grave – Just like what my grandmother would say, the liquors prevent him from suffering from hunger or thirst.

How does Joss Paper works?

So what exactly is joss paper? Joss paper offerings are mainly physical portrayal of money and daily necessities such as clothing, personal electronics, and household goods. The underlying belief of burning joss paper is that the offering would be conveyed into the spirit’s world through the smoke of fire.

The most traditional type of joss paper is made from sheets of rough bamboo paper, each decorated with a square of gold or silver foil in all different sizes to represent different values of money. They are often folded into the shape of traditional gold ingot, which is the currency used in ancient China and in the spirit’s world, before being burned as offerings.

Apart from that, Hell Bank Notes are also commonly used in all styles of modern ancestor ceremonies. The most traditional notes bear the seal of the afterlife’s “Bank of Heaven and Earth” (天地銀行).

The Modern practice

Moreover, the tradition of burning Chinese joss paper has evolved to keep up with modern practices. For example, burning paper form of credit cards, cheques, life-size replicas of TVs, computers, Louis Vuitton handbags, BMWs and even the most popular “must-have” items such as iPhones and iPads, is a common practice among younger generations.

In Hong Kong, Sheung Wan is the most popular place to buy various types of joss paper. You can see all kinds of paper watches, phones, suits and plane tickets…etc. hanging from the stores’ awning or standing on the sidewalk at 136–150 Queen’s Road West. Here is a video demonstrating how to burn joss paper as well as people’s views towards this tradition practice. 

Joss Paper: The Chinese Custom You Might Not Know

As a result of the current traffic conditions and the chaos in the society, a decline in sales among the local shops is observed this year. Not only is that a worrying phenomenon, the shopkeeper also added that people who buy joss paper are mainly the elderly and middle age group, implying fewer and fewer youngsters actually know and respect this tradition. Nevertheless, such precious cultural custom is a way of showing respect to our ancestors and is extremely important to the Chinese community.

It is no doubt that the new generation should also play a role in preserving and inheriting the joss paper customs to the next generation. Otherwise, just like how my grandmother warned me, “There would be no one burning you offerings in your afterlife – While others are enjoying immeasurable wealth and the newest model of the iPhone, you will get nothing in the afterworld.”

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