Hell Money

Wednesday (April 4) is Qing Ming Jie, or Grave Sweeping Festival in China.  It’s sort of like Memorial Day in the US, but with more religious overtones.  On this day, Chinese are supposed to tend to the graves of the ancestors.  This is done out of much more than respect, but as a way of actually caring for and looking after the departed ancestors.

In traditional Chinese folk religion, the deceased enter the realm of the spirits, and continue to exert influence and control on the living.  In other words, they’re still there.  And in a Confucian society, people have an obligation to not only worship, but look after the spirits of the deceased.  One motivation is the duty-driven notion of filial piety, that each generation venerates and cares for the generation above it.  Another is a bit more pragmatic.  Since these spirits have powers, it’s best to stay on their good side by caring for them and their graves.

Besides tending to the graves of the ancestors, Chinese traditionally use this day to send the deceased things they might need in the afterlife, but that apparently are not available.  Money, of course is the main thing.  So on this day, the living burn paper money that will be carried to the after world in the smoke and ashes.  But since no one actually wants to burn real money, there is special “hell money” that is sold in the days and weeks preceding the festival.  Hell money vendors suddenly appear everywhere.  In modern times, it’s not just money that is sent, but other things the ancestors might need as well, such as paper cars, paper bank books, paper villas, all of which are burned on the streets in the evening.

In the evening the street corners all over town will light up as people will make small fires to burn the hell money and things to send to their ancestors.

It’s an interesting contrast to the upcoming Fuhuo Jie, or “Return to Life Festival” that will be celebrated on April 8.

(Note: this is a re-post of a blog from several years ago)

Here is an interesting article from the Economist about a phenomenon related to this festival called “ghost brides.” Tomb-sweeping and Body-snatching


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3 thoughts on “Hell Money

  1. Last month when we were traveling on a remote mountain highway in Sichuan, we found ourselves behind an ambulance which was transporting a dead body. Family members inside the ambulance were throwing hell money out the window as they drove.