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Burning MoneyThe Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld$

C. Fred Blake

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780824835323

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824835323.001.0001

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Endless Scroll

Endless Scroll

(p.25) Chapter 2 Endless Scroll
Burning Money

C. Fred Blake

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines some of the material forms of paper money, focusing on the galaxy of papers that are cut from an endless scroll dating back a thousand years and canopies most of continental east Asia from Lanzhou to Taipei, from Harbin to Hanoi and its diasporas. A complete inventory and taxonomy of Chinese paper monies is impossible. Labels use terms that are sometimes literary, other times of a local or regional vernacular, and still other times the same terms as used for the real thing. There is also the protean structure (endless in-between, overlapping, and hybrid varieties and purposes) of the paper replicas and facsimiles. This chapter first provides an overview of the taxonomies and replicas of money before discussing paper money and how it is manufactured in China. It also considers the presence and elaboration of silver and gold papers in the various paper money venues around China. Finally, it looks at the existence of a version of paper money throughout China that bears resemblance to the ancient strings of copper cash.

Keywords:   paper money, China, silver paper, gold paper, copper cash, taxonomies

Increase Increase Increase

   —epigraph on a Little Heavenly Gold

My plan to collect all the different paper monies ended very quickly years ago. Trying to grasp the whole galaxy of paper monies soon becomes a bewildering and endless task. Simply walking into a store specializing in paper monies in any sizable city in China is a daunting experience. Some Tian Jiu chain outlets in Hong Kong even provide shopping baskets. Although such shops import paper monies from other regional markets, no one shop can possibly retail the whole corpus of commercial manufactures, not to mention the vast sea of homemade paper monies that extends from Harbin to Hanoi.

Then there is the question, paper money for what? Paper replicas of worldly things are burned for every passage fraught with danger or crisis or anxiety that attention to ritual helps resolve: pregnancy, birth, travel, washing hair at the risk of losing whatever little fortune one possesses, coming of age, marriage, marital estrangement, divorce, dealing with a harasser or other nuisance (or, conversely cursing or harassing an adversary), exorcising a demon, mourning a death or helping the deceased through the hellish ordeal of ridding the body of its worldly corruption, remembering the deceased, giving thanks, opening a business, responding to an entrusted dream, leaving on a trip, taking an exam—the list is endless. Each ritual occasion in different places may entail a different ensemble of papers.

Along a busy boulevard in Guangzhou on a summer afternoon in 1995, I happened on a wheelbarrow outside a construction site in (p.26) which an older worker was feeding a fire with sheets of gold-foiled papers in a nonchalant manner. The giant sheets of yellow-brown tissue were stamped with a wood block of red emblems for longevity and monetary fortune; below these was an incantation that read, “Giving thanks for the kindness bestowed by the divines” (chóudá shén’ēn).

There is considerable overlap in the ensemble of papers appropriate for different occasions, and knowing which papers to use is usually a matter of family tradition or consulting a spirit master or a vendor. Much of the business of assembling papers for maximum communicative effect is a combination of implicit rules of thumb, common sense, individual style, ingenuity, purpose, and sense of aesthetic. This includes the physical motions and gestures that cannot be separated from the papers.

A mother and pregnant daughter-in-law laid out an elaborate offering on the floor of the Wong Tai Sin temple, Hong Kong, on a brisk fall morning in 1999. The food offerings included a small roast pig resting in the long paper shopping bag in which it was transported, while the two women folded the Longevity Gold papers (HK$5 packs) in a novel style. Working in unison, each took a pack and turned each leading edge of a leaf back to its opposite edge, creating a kind of puffed-up tube and giving maximum exposure to the gold foil. Then into each “coiled” pack was inserted the red paper charm of a “noble benefactor” (guìrén fú), and the whole reconfigured pack was placed snugly against a previous pack to create a sea of gold. Then in a manner that was out of the ordinary for this place, the mother and, close behind, her daughter-in-law got down on their knees, upon which the two turned to face away from the main altar and bowed deeply from the waist in a kneeling position to praise the sky. It was a grand gesture and lovely to behold. They did not actually touch their heads to the pavement, but as their folded hands came down with the downward motion of their bodies from the waist, the hands separated, spread down and to the sides, with the palms open to the sky but never touching the pavement. The way they did it was as sweeping as it was graceful and their bodies and offerings became the flesh of the world. After beseeching the firmament, the two turned around and did the same for Wong Tai Sin.

(p.27) Taxonomies

Although a lot of paper money is made by family members for home consumption, most paper money is manufactured and retailed by countless little family-based workshops and hand-labor paper money makers scattered around China. There are also entire village economies that rely on paper money making, one of which I describe at the end of this chapter. Increasingly there are small and medium-scale industrial firms machine-manufacturing increased types and amounts of paper monies, some of which is advertised directly to retailers and consumers online. Not only is a complete inventory of Chinese paper monies impossible, as already noted, but beyond a local system, a particular manufacturing firm or retail outlet, even trying to discern an agreed-upon, formal taxonomy of paper monies is frustrated by the fact that labels use terms that are sometimes literary, other times of a local or regional vernacular, and still other times the same terms as used for the real thing. Once you think you have the labels in hand, there is the protean structure (endless in-between, overlapping, and hybrid varieties and purposes) of the paper replicas and facsimiles. Any attempt to stay true to the spirit of the paper money custom must guard against the tendency to reify its terms or in any other way stop the unrolling of the endless scroll, which bears an uncanny likeness to time itself. Even more, the edge of the paper money corpus is frayed and entangled with other media for simulating value—for example, the offerings that peasants in Yu County, Hebei, make to their ancestors juxtapose replicas of valuables made from paper with replicas made from wheat dough. Or, as we saw in the last chapter, the tradition of pasting “perpetuating money” in Yu County, Hebei, and “new year’s pictures” in Jingshan County, Hubei, and red paper cut frames for gold offering papers in Changsha, Hunan, mixes decorative and magical purposes. The decorative purpose of paper money is manifest when it is offered or displayed unburned, which we have traced to the very beginning of the custom. The example that has always arrested my attention from the time I encountered it in 1992 was on a gravestone in Wan’an cemetery in a western suburb of Beijing. Draped over the shoulders of a large gravestone was a thick shroud of white diaphanous tissues cut to simulate string upon entangled string of the old copper cash. The finesse that went into making this resplendent shroud was as delicate as it was conspicuous—it was the perfect convergence of ritual magic and visual poetry.

This protean structure is further exacerbated, especially nowadays, by the hypertrophy of forms—the sheer replication of forms with minute variations, (p.28) thus exhibiting something of the nature of fashion, which, to the extent that this may be so, seems remarkable for a thousand-year-old custom. The scroll of paper from which paper money is cut is for all intents and purposes endless. Although a neat taxonomy is impossible, Chinese discern as a rule of thumb four big overlapping categories: (1) the monetary forms of paper (zhĭqián), (2) replicas of cloth and clothes (yīzhĭ), (3) paper bindings or sculpted objects (zhĭzhā), and (4) every sort of charm (). These are not mutually exclusive, of course—this is China. Each object is in some sense a charm, and everything is in some sense money—the corpus of offering papers straddles the chrematistic and the ceremonial.

Replicas of Money

Chinese history is replete with the varieties of materials used for real money: shell, precious stone, bark, woven fabrics (especially silk), metal, and paper. The prevalent and longest lasting have been metallic forms of money (qián). Three forms of metallic money have been used in the real world. These are base-metal cash, mostly copper or bronze, and also the more precious metals silver and gold. These three forms represent different levels of corruptibility and thus of concentrating wealth and communicating values in the real world. From the advent of paper money, these metallic forms have been replicated in paper and used as offerings to the world of spirits. The replicated metallic forms shape a hierarchy of value that corresponds more or less with ways of ranking the world of spirits based on various and related criteria such as their closeness and familiarity with the living donor and their different phases of etherealization. As a rule of thumb, copper cash is for common ghosts, including the familiar spirits of the newly deceased; silver bars are for the longer-deceased and more distant ancestors; and gold treasures are for the even more distant spirits and divines. Thus “closeness” and “distance” as told in paper replicas of metals are where time and space intersect in a social and material “chronotope” (Bakhtin 1981). This fits with the notion that with death, the soul begins to separate its heavier more finite material and earthy aspect () from its lighter more infinite ethereal aspect (hún). The recently deceased are often imagined, with the help of funeral rites conducted under auspices of Taoist or Buddhist spirit masters, as having to be purged of their worldly corruptions, a purging that rives and rends the of flesh and bone in the most gruesome ways imaginable; thus, with the passage of time, the ethereal hún is rarified as pure spirit. Rendering the worldly body into pure spirit is signified in the hierarchy of metals from copper to gold, from base to (p.29) precious, from that which is tarnished and corrupted to that which does not tarnish but purifies. I argue below that in some places the gold treasures are further elaborated to dignify the ranks of divinities differentiated by sumptuary rules. This general scenario of paper-replicated metallic signifiers for different time-space horizons of spiritual being(s) is never so explicit nor exact in a native exegesis; it is more an implicit rule of thumb inscribed in customary practice to the extent that the spirit world is a continuum of entities open to people’s imaginations, and it is with these imaginations that the protean structure of paper monies resonates.

Paper Money

The basic paper money, found in every locale, is simply sheets of coarse paper usually with the natural color of the vegetal fibers. Marked only by its grainy texture, it is often called “grass paper” (căozhĭ) or “money paper” (qiánzhĭ). Converted into paper money, it is usually modified (incised, perforated, impressed, embossed, or imprinted) to appropriate either by imitation or contagion the value of real money. No matter where you go in China, you are bound to find people making their own or using commercially manufactured versions of this paper. In most places the paper is modified with rows of perforations to imitate the strings of cash that were the everyday currency of dynastic China. The perforations may be made by folding and cutting with scissors or knife, or punched with a hand-held nail or with a specially made metal punch that is hit with a wooden mallet, or they may be machine punched, printed, or embossed by a family workshop or commercial firm.

One such family workshop is in Yaxi district of Jishou city, western Hunan. This workshop in an old multistory wooden building supplies the surrounding neighborhoods with its paper money, a square sheet of perforated papers. Once a paper mill fed by natural springs, now engulfed by urban sprawl, it imports large sheets of coarse paper, hand-feeding them through an electric punching machine (made by a local machine shop). After they perforate enough papers, or when they have received an order from a local retail outlet, they cut the large papers into the regular 16.5-by-15-cm square pieces, each with three rows of seven perforations (figure 2.1). They call these “yīn-world money” (yīnqián) and sell it by weight. Every 500 grams of finished papers sells for ¥1. Two big stacks bundled together with a ribbon goes for ¥6. These are the bundles we see sitting in Yaxi retail shops. The operation takes up several rooms in the lower part of the domicile and is accomplished by stay-at-home female members of the family as adjunct to daily household (p.30) routines. Each district in this area has the same kind of workshop making the same paper money. Although I do not know how extensive this mode of manufacturing is, I have encountered this particular form of paper money from Hunan to Guizhou and Sichuan. In the towns and villages where this particular form of paper money is the only one, it serves all the ritual needs for a paper money.

Ordinary folks of my acquaintance across China can’t explain much about what the perforations signify beyond the recognition that they resemble old-fashioned cash on a string. Various kinds of spirit masters elaborate the meanings according to their own local and liturgical traditions and idiosyncrasies. For example, while walking through the Rongjiang river market in Qianzhou city (southwest of Jishou, Hunan) on an autumn morning in 2007, I happened on the combined City Temple and Guanyin (Buddhist) Temple, which was established in 1672, according to the earliest stone inscription. Inside I encountered the caretaker, a retired textile worker turned Buddhist nun, who, among other things, explained the liturgy of the local paper money to me. The first point was that this paper money has an obverse side—the

Endless Scroll

Figure 2.1 Perforated money paper replicating strung cash from Yaxi, Hunan

(p.31) yáng-side—and a reverse or yīn-side. This is important because the yáng-side must face upward (outward) when the donor offers the paper. The yáng-side is the surface struck by the perforator such that the edges around the perforations are pushed in, whereas the reverse or yīn-side has the edges splayed outward. Thus the yáng-surface takes the hammer blow, and the yīn-surface takes the flame. This distinction has a certain social salience locally, because a few days later a young Miao minority woman at a remote temple in Shangjiang, Hunan, spontaneously told me that the only thing she knew about this paper money is that it must be offered with the yáng-side facing up. The rest of the nun’s explanation was enveloped in the mysteries of odd numbers. She explained that the basic unit of offering is made from three leaves of paper in three sheaves, that is, nine leaves. For higher divines such as the Jade Emperor, the sheaves of three are folded in half with the yáng-side facing out. For the Ghost Festival a whole stack is separated into five sheaves and put into an addressed envelope (bāo). More arcane is the meaning of the perforations, which in this particular paper are aligned in three columns and seven rows. The three and seven are obvious indexes of divinity (three) in the form of the seven manifestations of Buddha (Rúlái).1 The nun went on to explain how the perforations are like a rosary, counted to prevent the catalog of human misfortunes, all of which left me with the impression that the simplicity and plainness of the paper money in this locale in no way limits its liturgical complexity. I noticed, for instance, that this plain perforated paper was used in this temple in the same way that people in Quanzhou, Fujian, used their gold-foiled paper to suspend sacred altar objects from direct contact with the world of profane things (to be discussed below).

Almost three hundred kilometers southwest of Qianzhou is Zunyi township, Guizhou, where we find several different replicas of stringed cash distinguished by two criteria: the distinction between papers that are machined and handmade, and the distinction between “Short” and “Long” forms. According to my friend who is from there, Wang Lian, the higher-valued paper monies are handmade in Zunyi homes from long strips of grass paper or money paper purchased from local peddlers who are often connected by family ties to local spirit masters (făshī). These long strips of money paper are folded back and forth into layers and perforated by a handheld punch struck with an all-wooden mallet. There is a belief afoot in many parts of China—I have found it mainly among folks in the remoter, western parts of the country—that “paper monies touched by iron lose their soulfulness [líng] and are ineffective.” This belief ignores the fact that an iron punch may be (p.32) used to simulate the metal cash; but the metal punch is a locally made tool, fashioned with the labor of skilled hands, and when used as a tool to make paper money, it is a hand-held tool, or, as Ivan Illich (1973) would say, a “tool for conviviality.”

But most of these paper monies are machine-perforated, cut and stacked in one of two forms: the “Long money” and the “Short money.” These are different-sized pieces with different combinations of odd and even perforations for different ritual purposes, although the numerology of the perforations receives scant attention from many if not most users, and consequently, different specimens of these paper monies exhibit numbers inconsistent with the so-called traditional ideals. These ideals were conveyed to me by my friend, whose regard for the local paper money custom was implanted in him by his grandfather and uncle, a spirit master (făshī). As he put it: “My grandfather is not superstitious, but kind and good natured, and always teaching children to be pious.” From my friend, I learned that the Short money uses odd numbers, preferably seven, for perforations per leaf and leaves per offering sheaf. The Short money I encountered had three parallel lines of five or seven perforations. It was used for all spirits (shén), divinities, and ancestral souls and is most important during the funeral of a family member. The Long money is more compatible with even numbers: for example, it may use two leaves per sheaf, each leaf having three or four lines of nine or eleven or twelve perforations. Some people also refer to this Long form as “scattering-money” (sănqián) in reference to its principal use in showing gratitude for the gifts bestowed by the divinities. In Zunyi households, the divinities that receive this Long form of gratuity are the ones that guard the entrance to the house (ménshén) and the one that watches over the stove (zàoshén), ensuring ample fuel for the stove and guaranteeing that the fire will start when ignited, without which life would be miserable indeed.

The liturgical function of these different paper monies, much of which revolves around the numerology of pieces and perforations, is steeped in complicated mystical reckonings that are the specialty of the spirit master. He is able to command the spirit world by the way he handles the paper monies; as my friend says of his uncle, “He does something subtle to the paper that changes it in ways that ordinary people cannot see.” My sense is that ordinary people are uncurious about what they cannot see so long as the mystery is complicated and, putting it to practical use, it achieves the intended effect. (Of course the intended effects are only achievable to the degree that the laity remain “uncurious” about the actual author of these effects. Sometimes, as (p.33) in the next chapter, they become curious and find answers in folktales.) My point in all this is that the comparatively simple material corpus of paper money in Qianzhou and Zunyi places no necessary limits on the complexity or elaboration of its exegesis in cosmological or liturgical terms. In both Qianzhou and Zunyi we have only elementary elaborations of materials that make up the ensembles of paper monies, but each of these elementary forms is amenable to the elaborate exegesis of spirit masters.

Every place has one or more versions of this elementary form of paper money. In rural parts of the northern plains (e.g., Hebei Province), people buy large sheets of grass paper or money paper, fold it back on itself in multiple layers, and cut incisions with a scissors to simulate the strings of cash when the paper is unfolded and burned for the souls of dead folks. Along the southeastern littoral, where the paper money industry produces a vast array of different kinds of paper monies, there are more varieties of the simulated strings of cash. For instance, In the southern Fujian circuit, including Taiwan, these are called “treasury money” (kùqián).2 When I visited Quanzhou in 2000, these were also called “white paper currency” (báichāo). This white paper currency (20 by 13 cm) is white tissue with a coarse reverse side and smooth obverse side machine-perforated to simulate three undulating columns of eight cash each. Of course, they can also be made at home with a scissors and strips of white paper. They are used mostly for unburied souls, scattered and burned for three days before burial, pasted to bridges across which the funeral procession passes. As such they are also called “tollway money” (măilùqián), a concept that traces back to the medieval custom of making a bamboo and paper “god that clears the road” during funerals, which itself can be traced to the ancient use of “demon quellers” (see Ebrey 1991:115 n. 153).

In Hong Kong and its regional and global hinterlands, the strips of coarse white papers (6 by 18 cm) with three perforations in a single line are commonly called “stream money” (xīqián). I noticed recently in Honolulu (2009) that the red characters stamped by the manufacturer on the edge of large packs let the buyer know that these are “fuzzy-edged stream money” (máobiān xīqián), guaranteeing that these papers are hand-cut rather than machined. This distinction is important for later chapters. Of course, “fuzzy-edged” (like odd numbers) also connotes continuousness, the endless flow. The term “stream money” plays on another ancient word for coins, which is still used: “spring money” (quánqián), or just “spring” (quán), an endless flow of fortune from an unseen underground source. The “stream of cash” are also tollway (p.34) cash, a customary payment to the demonic forces above ground that might otherwise obstruct the path of a neophyte soul to its new home under the ground. This includes using the “stream of cash” to tender the fire at a wake or to ignite a graveside holocaust.

It gets simpler and more generic: the one paper money that I have found littering the roadsides leading to cemeteries, from Hong Kong to Beijing, is a simple disk of white paper with a square hole cut in the center. This type of money can be made at home by folding a piece of square paper in half and cutting an inverted V in the middle of the fold and rounding off the outer corners. There are people who don’t waste time and paper doing this, but simply toss real money on the way to the cemetery. Suffice it for now that paper cash figures prominently at funerals. It is thought that the neophyte soul must pass through numerous checkpoints, to pay off the demonic spirits that man those stations, on the way to rarefaction and redemption and possible rebirth, or, perhaps some happier place of repose. The neophyte souls, still heavy with corruption, must carry plenty of this small-denomination change to pave the way. Enormous amounts are burned, but I hasten to add that these large amounts are also the effect of a ritual practice that keeps a fire burning (the signifier of transition) during the phases of the wake, which last for several days and nights.

But tollway money is not used only for those passing from this world; it may also be used to protect the souls passing into this world as children. Souls passing into the world are even more vulnerable as they seek embodiment. From inside the womb until adolescence the souls of youngsters may be conceived as residing in a kind of uterine limbo or flower garden (huāyuán) in which the soul of a boy is seen as a white flower and that of a girl as a red flower (Schipper 1993:51–52); they are safely shepherded by guardian spirits of the bed (chuángshén), who are known more familiarly in some places as “flower granny” and “flower grandpa.” Thus the incarnation and maturation of progeny happen in parallel spheres: while parents nurture the physical bodies of their children, the flower spirit watches over and helps the corresponding soul to pass obstacles on its way to adulthood. Parents, especially mothers, patronize the flower spirits with a rich ensemble of folk stories, paper charms, and ritual practices (see, e.g., C.-B. Tan 2006). One such charm, the first in an ensemble of four “overcoming impediment charms,” that I found under a pile of other more conventional paper monies in a Chinese general store on Maunakea Street (Honolulu) is dark magenta in color and inscribed with the words for “passage money” (guānqián). Below this are three rows of the old-style (p.35) copper cash, each row depicting the same motif of crossing borders and overcoming impediments, but with a different design.

Thus, the flower garden where souls are embodied is the counterpart to purgatory where souls are disembodied; and just as the dead use tollway money on their passage to the yīn-world, the coming-alive use tollway money on their passage to the yáng-world. Tollway money may be used to pave the way for an infant passing between yáng-world domiciles. The reasoning is the same as for one passing between an above-ground and a below-ground domicile: to purchase a safe journey from the demonic spirits that control the shadowy or invisible nooks and crannies in the alleyways and along the sides of public byways. In the documentary film Small Happiness (Gordon, Kline, and Sipe 1984), two women from Long Bow village, Shanxi, in the 1980s carry an infant along the road while scattering paper money.

The Charm in the Cash

The symbolic power of the square-holed copper cash surpasses its use in replicas of paper money. However trite and kitschy it may be, its ongoing function is neither simple nor superannuated, for it is the most ubiquitous and generic symbol of “fortune” in Chinese culture today. The old square-holed cash is used to tell fortunes; it has been used from ancient times as a therapeutic talisman in China and among non-Chinese in Southeast Asia;3 it provides a template for talismans and lucky charms made from paper or made into plastic baubles; it is a rebus; it is an advertising logo, a corporate logo (e.g., Bank of China), and an architectural decoration.4 One of its most striking uses was as a charm nailed at each of the two joints in the keel of a medieval cargo ship excavated from the harbor near Quanzhou (Fujian) and restored at the Kaiyuan temple complex. (When I saw this, my thoughts went to Malinowski’s descriptions of Trobriand voyaging canoe magic and his theory of how magic complements science at critical junctures where lives depend on things we make.)

Although during the millennia of its actual use, the hole in the cash was used to string the cash for easier transport and counting, some people say the shape of the cash signifies something more original than the utility of having a hole with which to string it. They say that the old cash replicates the shape of the cosmos and continuous movement, a thing that rolls on forever. The outer, round shape of the cash is the cosmic macrocosm in its infinite, continuous motion; the square hole or “eye” at the center is the world of square things, of finite things, of utilities.5 The circular motion and square (p.36) shape are yáng and yīn becoming one another: a common idiom is “Square and circle are mutually inclusive” (fāngyuán hùyù). Squaring the circle and circling the square is a continuous process. In the passage charm described above, the third row of cash depicts the corners of the square hole fusing with the outer circle; this suggests the union of yīnyáng at the peak of vitality and productivity, perfect balance, harmony, motion, and flexibility in all manner of things, from cosmic order and sexual union to a flexible personality.6 The square-holed cash is not only preserved at all levels of ritual architectonics7 and in numerous idioms and euphemisms rich in sarcasm and irony;8 it is so embedded in the everyday discourse that it pops up in ad hoc conversations, for example, a question-and-answer session with a woman in rural Hubei: “Why do you burn incense?” “We burn incense because it gives out smoke like a string going through the eye of the cash.” In other words, like the string that connects and multiplies cash, incense smoke is a connector and a multiplier of worlds. The string through the eye of cash is also consonant with the notion that the cash is a wellspring (quán) of wealth; and in one charm we see how the depiction of two cash (quán) is a rebus for the word quán meaning “both” or “complete” where the cash connect a bat rebus () or “fortune” with the graph for “longevity” (shòu). In other words, the cash rebus signifies “both” luck and longevity.

Alternatively to imitating strings of cash by perforating the paper, many people simply impress the “money paper” with the monetary value of a real RMB note. They simply roll the RMB note over the surface of the money paper, “infecting” the money paper with the value of the RMB. This is not imitation of cash, which perforating the paper accomplishes, but the contagious power of modern bills to transmit their value, their spiritual value, by contact.

People in northern China use large sheets of coarse, yellow-brownish paper, called “grass paper” (căozhĭ) or, just as often, “money paper” (qiánzhĭ), which they may modify using their own homemade devices as just described, while people in south China may be more apt to purchase the commercially made papers cut into smaller sizes. However, in Shijiazhuang, Hebei, in 2006, I came across the large sheets of “money paper”—the vendor called it “burning paper” (shāozhĭ)—which was embossed by a pressing machine in the neighboring city of Baoding. The embossed pattern consists of four rows of cash inscribed with “heaven and earth circulating treasure” (tiāndì tōng băo) interspersed with three rows of Golden First Treasure (jīn yuánbăo).9 So here we have the generic money paper impressed with the lowest coin of the realm (p.37) in even-numbered rows, for common souls heavy with corruption, alongside the most exalted treasure of the realm in odd-numbered rows, for the higher divines.

Paper Silver

Silver was part of the common monetary system of dynastic China; it concentrated exchange value in the form of jewelry, ingots, and coins, especially useful for long-distance trade and tax remissions. Replicated in squares of paper either by bleach or appliqué of a tin and lead alloy, silver also signifies higher concentrations of monetary wealth for special purposes, large expenses, endowments, savings, and so on. In many places, silver is thus used to indemnify ordinary spirits, beginning with the souls of deceased family members. Large amounts are traditionally burned at wakes and death anniversaries.10 Silver is also burned for the ghosts of nonfamilial spirits. Silver, like copper cash, is distinctly monetary and common but, unlike cash, is a more concentrated form of wealth and thus ideally represents a more advanced level of etherealization.

Silver (and gold) papers are known from the medieval advent of the custom and is simulated in different ways depending on region. Along the southeast littoral, silver papers are generally made by pasting a small leaf of tin onto a larger piece of coarse paper. In late-nineteenth-century Amoy, southern Fujian, many families living in easy circumstances preferred to use sheets of good white paper to make “white money” (báiqián), since these were more expensive than the tinned laminated paper and consequently were more valued by the spirits (Groot 1969: 1:154). In Shanghai the leaf of tin completely covers its paper base. In Yu County, Hebei, two tiny leaves or chips of silver paper or foil (2 by 2 cm) and two gold-colored chips are folded into two sheaves of white paper to simulate silver—the peasants simply call it “white paper” (báizhĭ) and offer it to deceased ghosts. In many other places and in different historical periods, sheets of bleached white paper represent silver offerings. Each locale has its way of replicating silver. In regions served by the Hong Kong and Taiwan manufacturers, the foil-laminated papers come in various sizes in order to signify the different ranks of ghostly recipients.11

In Quanzhou, Fujian, in 2000, I found three silver papers; these were referred to variously as “silver,” “silver paper,” or “white gold.” Each was a coarse, thick yellowish bamboo paper (13 by 17 mm) with a small, off-center square of tinfoil pasted on it. The first leaf of each pack was stamped with a current epigraph. One kind was stamped with a big character for “longevity,” (p.38) topped by a “fortune” and flanked by epigraphs: “Lighting incense with great auspiciousness” and “Making everything safe and sound.” A second kind was stamped with four large red characters in the center wishing for “increasing wealth and security” (fācái píng’ān); down the opposing margins, smaller characters framed this wish in “auspiciousness” (jíxiáng) manifesting itself in “wealth and honor” (fùguì). A third kind was an unadorned paper pasted with a square of stannous for common, otherwise unfamiliar ghosts. These silver papers were variously offered on the three ghost festivals in southern Fujian to secure the release of souls suffering in purgatory.

Perhaps the most novel silver paper tradition belongs to Wu-speaking people in regions around Shanghai. It is novel for its prevalence, ubiquity, unadorned simplicity, and singular purpose. Here the silver paper is called what it is, xībó (tinfoil). The foundation paper is traditionally a yellow ceremonial paper (huángbiăozhĭ), which is cut to 7.5 by 11 cm and completely covered by a sliver of tin alloyed with lead to give the metal a silvery sheen. The xībó is glued to the paper. The more expensive xībó uses pristine foil, while the less expensive uses a flakier foil that has been reconstituted from burned and recycled residues (He 1997); to my knowledge the difference in worldly cost has no liturgical significance. Women spend hours folding xībó into auspiciously shaped “First Treasures” (yuánbăo) in the sanctuary of Buddhist temples in order that the objects of their labors be blessed by Buddha, not ostensibly as offerings for Buddha but for the benefit of deceased family members. This configuration of unadorned foils, blessed by Buddha for the deceased members of the family, is by far the prevalent focus of the paper money custom in the Shanghai area, even though there are other paper monies increasingly available in local paper shops, from gold-tinted stannousleafed papers imported from Wenzhou to a series of charmed sutras from the Buddhist canon printed from woodblocks on yellow-brown tissue papers to be burned on special occasions with the xībó. The availability of the papers from other regions is due in part to the presence of people from those regions residing locally. This is also true for places such as Hong Kong, where Shanghai people can purchase their preferred xībó (Scott 2007:127, 212).

To summarize so far, both silver and copper cash are paper simulations of monetary wealth in the form of common currencies, although silver is the more concentrated form of wealth and thus becomes increasingly appropriate as the soul of the deceased becomes fully fledged spirit, often thought to be undergoing rarefaction (disembodiment) in the slicing and dicing chambers of purgatory or the less sanguinary process of simple decay; and as the spirit (p.39) becomes more ethereal, so do the materials, whereupon ever more concentrated and rarified forms of wealth like gold become increasingly appropriate.

Paper Gold

Gold is the most concentrated form of monetary value. Rarely used as a common currency in China, it was (and still is) a ritual currency, often fashioned in the form of jewelry for personal adornment to meet ritual obligations like dowries (Seaman 1982). Gold paper is the only appropriate form of monetary value for addressing personal concerns or making promises to the higher divinities. Neither copper nor silver, as common currencies, would be appropriate. Many people, including devotees and scoffers, say the higher divinities have no need or desire for money or even the food that often accompanies the paper offerings. On the other hand, if gold paper does not simulate a common currency, it clearly simulates a monetary value, but a monetary value of such density that its value seems to take on its own emergent properties. Thus it may serve as a prophylactic charm against the impurities encountered in ritual passages, which include attempts by common mortals to gain access to divinity (see Seaman 1982). Because it is not a common currency, gold is not burned much at funerals; it is not the kind of value that the newly deceased can carry and spend on his passage to the other side. Nor does it fit the image of the newly dead whose carnal corruptions are palpable. A leaf of gold paper may cover the face of a corpse, but this is a prophylaxis for the living against the defilement of death. Likewise, gold papers are used to purify ritual instruments and passageways (see Hou 1975:20–21) and to separate the sacred from the profane; for example, in Quanzhou I noticed household altars where the statue of Mazu (goddess of the sea) was set upon a pile of gold papers. Of course, the altar is a likely place as any for storing paper money, or it could be a simple expression of how much members of the household treasure the presence of Mazu; but more than this, the pile of gold is a ritual gesture that the spiritual purity of Mazu is preserved by separating her from the mundane surroundings of a common domicile. The same function was observed in the Qianzhou (Hunan) temple, where the oil lamps rested on stacks of perforated money papers—as the reader will recall, these were the only paper monies in this region—to separate the lamps from the ceramic tile surface of the altar. This is my interpretation; the nun told me that the paper money was to keep the lamps from slipping off the table; this kind of rationalizing a ritual act typifies explanations in the paper money custom, as we will see throughout the rest of this book. I wondered why the lamps rested (p.40) on stacks of paper money rather than a single leaf, and why only the oil lamps were thus suspended, and wasn’t it significant that the lamps were wreathed in petals simulating the immortal lotus?

A more significant but less apparent example of the purifying function of gold paper comes by way of solving a puzzle noted by Hou (1975:25–26) in Taiwan, where a wife who lives with and serves her husband’s people customarily presents her husband’s forebears with silver paper but when visiting her natal home and ancestors carries gold paper. The facile observation that she makes a gesture of valuing her natal ancestors above her husband’s ancestors only deepens the puzzle. I think the solution lies in the cosmology of marriage, which “preordains” that daughters defile the most sacred of obligations (filial piety); that is, instead of serving her own forebears, a daughter is “fated” in marriage to serve her husband’s forebears by bearing their progeny, hence their posterity, their immortality. This separation from her own family forebears is especially problematic in the Chinese cultural context (see Blake 1994; Sangren 2003; Stafford 2000:28). In the abstract, the “separation” of embodied being from itself is the fated experience of women: footbinding, menstruation, marriage, birthing, and affiliation of the progeny (footbinding prepared a little girl to live in a world of “separations”). In my view, the seemingly insignificant gesture of returning with gold is a way to transcend the stain of “separation” from her own family and forebears to facilitate a reunion.

A second and related characteristic of paper gold is that whereas paper replicas of common cash, silver, and gold differentiate the rank of the recipient, as along the southeastern coast, the paper gold tends to be the most differentiated in reference to the identity of spirit recipients. These distinctions are typical of archaic and feudal social formations where the exaltation of a figure’s status, authority, and power is made to seem right and just by the kinds of valuables that his position entitles him to receive and display. These sumptuary entitlements are designed to maintain the mysteries of dominion, although historically they are not easy to enforce and became altogether unenforceable against the rising tide of the capitalist formation in which a common currency became the universal signifier. Against this tide, in places such as southeastern coastal China, the paper money custom holds to a feudal order of exalted spirits that are differentiated by sumptuary constraints as signified in the different gold papers, although there is a lot of play and pending breakdown even at this level of signification.

The presence and elaboration of gold papers in the various paper money venues around China is highly variable. Outside the southeast littoral, replicas (p.41) of gold are either absent, or ambiguous, or simple and uniform. In most northerly and interior places gold may be represented by yellow paper, and in many places a particularly soft, course “yellow ceremonial paper.” Whether deemed “gold” or known by some other cognomen, clearly they are considered appropriate for offerings within the sanctuaries of the highest divines. In Chengdu, Sichuan, the Wenshuyuan Buddhist temple provided, until a few years ago, a larger-than-life-sized stone elephant, a Buddhist icon, whose belly served as an oven for burning these yellow papers. I first saw it in 2000, before it was removed to discourage burning paper. At the time I saw it, the elephant stood on ground of packed gray ash across which drifted all day, every day, new ash from burning yellow paper. The stone elephant plus two other larger-than-life stone figures (Mílèfó, the all-forgiving happy laughing Buddha, and the Taoist stellar spirit of Longevity) were scorched black by the continuous burning of candles, incense, and yellow papers. The elephant had square holes on either flank and butt-end through which persons placed offerings to feed a seemingly continuous fire, while most other worshippers hunkered down and burned their offerings in the mound of ash along the feet of the elephant. The only papers I saw burned were sheets of yellow paper and yellow ceremonial paper. The same paper was used almost everyplace I traveled from the Sichuan basin, through the great lakes of Wuhan, and the plains of Shijiazhuang.

In Yu County, northwestern Hebei, the distinction between silver for ghosts and gold for divinities is simple; each is known by the color and fold of the paper that holds the little pieces of silver and gold papers or foils. The “white paper” described above constitutes an offering of “silver”; the “yellow paper” (huángzhĭ) that is folded in the shape of an envelope constitutes “gold.” Each folded paper contains small squares of silver-and gold-colored paper or foil, two of each for the white paper and three of each for the yellow paper. The “two” and “three” are widespread signifiers for, respectively, the ghostly spirits still attached to worldly corruption on the finite side and the pure spirits (from house spirits, or jiāshén, e.g., the stove spirit, to more exalted spirits, such as Guanyin) on the side of infinity.

Around the Kaifusi Guanyin temple in Changsha, Hunan, vendors sell a yellow paper (20 by 21 cm) with a shiny golden square near the center and printed with a red décor. Because the paper’s reverse side was coarse and the obverse or printed side was smooth and the shiny gold square was printed rather than a pasted-on foil, I surmised that this was one of the newfangled machine-milled forms of gold paper, in effect, the simulation of a simulation. (p.42) I take this up in chapter 8. Nonetheless, if one is not too finicky about its manufacture, this is an impressive assemblage. Along the top of this paper runs the epigram “The five roads [manifest] the spirit of wealth.” The bottom epigram is “Day and night bringing in treasure.” The two flanks were in the shape of an imperial edict commanding that the order to convey wealth along the five roads by the marshal of wealth, Zhao Gongming, be executed! The five roads are the five cosmic forces of yīnyángwǔxíng (water, metal, earth, wood, and fire), which are depicted in humanoid form, each regaled in marshal dress, at the center of the paper. They are situated around an incense burner over which a First Treasure (yuánbăo) and five cash are rising. This sheet of a simulated gold-foiled paper is folded over three leaves of coarse yellow paper fanned and folded in the shape of a lotus blossom, and this whole ensemble is wrapped by a red cut paper depicting the “great and noble benefactor” (dà guìrén) who, by virtue of his connections with the divinity to whom the appeal is addressed, helps to facilitate the realization of all the desires for good fortune, increased wealth, offspring, safety and good health, and so on and so forth, inscribed thereupon the body of his charm and within the underlying folds of gold. Although I found this paper in Changsha, all the indications of its manufacture, assemblage, and décor indicate that its provenance was the southeastern coast.

There, along the Fujian and Taiwan littorals, all paper money is simply called “gold” (jīn). In 1975, Hou collected and described in detail sixteen types of gold paper on top of eight types of silver and seven types of treasury cash. As the forms of value are increasingly concentrated, they are increasingly differentiated for sumptuary purposes. Hou (1975:19) sorted the sixteen types of gold papers into three subcategories: triad gold, decorated gold, and undecorated gold.12 In 2000, I visited Quanzhou, across the straits from Taiwan, where paper money production was coming back after the ebb tide of the Mao years. Here, the local manufacturers were making at least eight kinds of gold paper divided by size and decoration in a hierarchy reminiscent, but only barely, of the Taiwan gold. Top-of-the-line Big Heavenly Gold (dà tiān jīn) depicted the personified forms of the three stellar divines (figure 2.2). These roughly parallel Hou’s top of the line Triad Gold. They depict in humanoid forms the three stellar spirits of Emolument, Happiness, and Longevity. The central figure overseeing the other two is the spirit of Happiness or Good Fortune, holding his sacred mushroom-shaped scepter (rúyì), a rebus for “as you will.” Second in line is the spirit of Emolument or endless stream of wealth wearing a cap and holding an infant signifying the promise (p.43) of offspring and fertility; he is fronted by the image of a deer (), a rebus for emolument (), in case you don’t recognize him as the spirit of Emolument. In the third position is the balding white-bearded spirit of Longevity, with his long knotted staff and pumpkin gourd in one hand and immortal peach in the other. To digress a bit, it is worth noting that the spirit of Emolument holds an infant to signify connectedness across the generations and thus how closely intertwined are wishes for an endless supply of material wealth with having progeny. Not only do children—the means of immortality—guarantee the flow of material wealth as parents grow old and pass on; in addition, having an emolument or endless supply of monetary wealth without posterity is pointless. Hence, the spirit of Emolument rather than the spirit of Longevity holds the infant. The one only makes sense in relationship to the other, and together they become the spirit of Happiness.

Endless Scroll

Figure 2.2 Big Heavenly Gold from Quanzhou, Fujian

(p.44) The Quanzhou Big Heavenly Gold figures were encased in auspicious graphs and epigrams auguring good fortune, longevity, increasing wealth, tranquility, more sons, a respectful and submissive family. At the base we read “Forever smoothing the way paper stannous” (yŏng shùn zhĭbó), which is likely the name of the shop that manufactures or merchandizes the stannous paper, although the name also means that offerings of paper stannous can be counted on to make one’s life go smoothly. Aside from its imposing size (34 by 43 cm), this paper is distinguished from the other gold papers in this set by having a picture of the stellar divines, epigrams that command deference, plus some unconventional (i.e., truncated and seal-like) graphs to give the mystique of high office, thus making it appropriate for beseeching a celestial divinity.

One of my Quanzhou interviewees pulled out several leaves of the Taiwan top-of-line Triad Gold from a chest of drawers as if she was storing some great heirloom; the way she handled it, I could scarcely imagine her burning it, although burning it is the proper way of storing its value. She had purchased it from a new Taiwan-owned factory in the port of Amoy. It was a double-paneled mirror reflection (72 by 38 cm) on a tissue-thin coarse paper. Each panel depicted the three star spirits framed by two dragons and the “fortune” graph centered above the spirit of Happiness, plus the graphs for “blessing the family with unity and tranquility” emblazoned across the bottom. The gold pigment against which the red-inked pictures and graphs were printed glistened like gold is supposed to. Laid next to the Quanzhou product, the comparison was stark. The Quanzhou Big Heavenly Gold (figure 2.2) was on thick, heavy yellowish bamboo paper, and the red-pigmented ink gave the whole paper a cheesy reddish and orangey countenance. Plus, the Quanzhou paper was encased in epigrams, as already described.

This brings up an important point that is a constant theme throughout this book. Although the gold papers from Taiwan and Hong Kong exhibit a remarkable refinement, perhaps because they are more machined compared to the rugged-looking fuzzy-edged images and orangey-colored “gold” papers of Quanzhou, devotees of a certain region are usually wedded to the papers they have grown up with—what Clark Wissler (1906) called a “psychophysical at home feeling” to explain the persistence of a regional cultural pattern. Plus the fact that as I have found in various places there is a sense that handmade monies, or those that appear to be such, are more genuine and more effective.

Space does not allow a full description of the panoply of Quanzhou gold (p.45) papers from my visit in 2000. Suffice it to say that they all bear the same manufacturing technique and homey effects (described above), and while they are configured in different patterns and cut to various sizes, they all come in sheaves of nine leaves bound by a grass cord at the top right corner. Only the top leaf is stamped with a red-pigmented design of frames, pictures (lanterns, lotuses, and such), and epigrams; the other eight underleaves simply contain the gilded foil. Differentiated by size of paper and foil—the bigger, the more icons and epigrams, and the more intended for higher realms of divinity, although those realms are deeply intersecting. For example, the Little Heavenly Gold (the source of this chapter’s epigraph), which is the larger type of Middle Gold (17.5 by 21 cm), is presentable to heavenly masters (tiāngōng), deities (shén), Buddhas (), native place spirits (tǔdìgōng), and ancestors (zŭxiān) who have completed their stint in purgatory by undergoing a rite of redemption (chāodù) that gives the soul permanent repose in the world of pure spirits or on the road back to a future incarnation.

Also, there is little or no detectable difference in the content of the epigrams from one gold paper to another. Here is a comprehensive list, beginning with those on the Big Heavenly Gold papers for the big divines and ending with the smallest paper, simply called “gold” for the ancestors: “security and increasing wealth,” “good fortune,” “double happiness,” “adding sons and bringing in wealth,” “having a safe journey through life,” “fortune,” “all around safe and sound,” “increasing wealth and security,” “auspiciousness,” “wealth and honor,” “increasing wealth in gold,” “increase increase increase,” “everywhere safe and sound,” “daily increasing wealth,” “longevity,” “safe and sound,” “the whole family safe and sound,” “daily appearance of wealth.”

The epigrams of these papers, along with all the other aspects of design, vary over time and space; one of the features of the modern hypertrophy of paper monies is the turnover in design. But whatever variance there is in design, the motif remains steady; they may be interpreted as wishes, petitions, prayers, urgings, declarations, or promises that describe the good life, the way things ought to be. These didactic messages are redundant, repetitious, and trite, here and in countless other charms; but they are not irrelevant. On the contrary, they bear the central message of the paper money custom, which unabashedly aims to “increase, increase, increase” the good things in life beginning with life itself in the form of adding progeny, bringing in wealth, and adding years to one’s lifetime, all in the spirit of family togetherness in a pervasive and secure tranquility. They paper over the differences between the common currencies and the magical charms.

(p.46) Manufacturing Paper Gold

China is dotted with countless workshops producing paper monies. These range from individual operations to family businesses to small and large-scale industrial firms and whole villages. This is the way it has been from the beginning of the custom, and although it cannot last, it is still this way in many places. Some villages such as Huang village near Nanchang and Xu village near Quanzhou base their economies on the production of paper money. A report in the Jiangnan Metropolitan News (Xie and Jin 2004) tells us that Huang Village got its name “Paper Money Village” not because the people there are preoccupied with sacrificing for their ancestors but because they make the paper money that is sold to others for this purpose. When I visited the southern Fujian village of Xu in 2000, I was struck with the same sense of irony: the folks making the stuff had no special regard for any other aspect of the operation than the fact that they were “making money.” Both villages showed off signs of marked prosperity since the early 1990s. In Huang village the road that had been little more than a path became known as the Street of Paper Money; and in Xu village the rows of old peasant cottages made of brick were giving way to paved roads and multistory stone mansions.

Both villages have a fairly large population: Huang has two hundred households, and Xu around eighty. And in both places, almost every household has gotten into the trade. The primary market for Xu village is the city of Quanzhou. This is where my colleague and host introduced me to a young woman who made these papers in her city apartment at night and sold them in the early morning market of an apartment complex. Every morning she sat at her makeshift table selling her gold along with a few other paper monies and accessories. She made the gold in her apartment, and she made it while sitting at her little table waiting for customers. For her, the work of production and of marketing were incessant, contiguous tasks. She used the same technique and materials as those of villagers in the region, including her natal village of Xu, going back to at least the 1920s, when the trade was not so lucrative.

Space allows only an outline of the process I observed in Xu village, a single-surname village that belonged to a township outside of Quanzhou. Most of the eighty or so small and large households each constituted a workshop (zuōfang) in the production of paper money.13 Although most household workshops produced the finished product, there was a division of labor (p.47) within each household-based workshop and among the village workshops at large. Not all shops made the finished product; some shops specialized in other parts of the process, such as importing and cutting paper,14 or manufacturing paste and dye.15 The finishing unit, which I was able to observe most closely, produced the variety of gold paper locally referred to as Middle Gold (zhōngjīn), although the village as a whole produced a small variety of other gold and silver papers.

Xu village was surrounded by a vast plain of rice fields in full production, and according to traditional agrarian standards, this was a prosperous village; but in the last twenty years, making paper money had become the primary occupation of the inhabitants and the economic base of a new prosperity. Before liberalization, making paper money had been a perennial craft open to villagers who had no other means of support. During the Cultural Revolution, a few people in the village continued to eke out a living making paper money, but it was done furtively (tōutōumōmō). With the Opening and Reform of the early 1980s, however, paper money making became the primary industry. My principal host, a Mr. Xu, came of age during this period and got into the business by hanging around and watching other families in the vicinity. By the 1990s, it proved to be a lucrative trade. The contrast between the old low-roofed brick houses that were now used as dormitories to house the imported labor and the new three-and four-story high-ceilinged stone mansions was stark. The investment of capital was heaviest in the infrastructure of new houses, but many of these units were sufficiently spacious that they were used to house the production process. Xu’s mansion doubled as a residence and a manufacturing site. The front entrance, with its carved marble posts and lintel, opened into a large high-ceilinged hall backed by the obligatory table and mantel serving as altar. High on the walls hung a few portraits of ancestors. The altar seemed perfunctory and, on closer inspection, unkempt, with the few devotional objects lying on their sides, fallen over, covered with dust. There were some pieces of the paper manufactured on the premises, as if for the purpose of display, but otherwise they looked out of place. The hall was a magnificent shell, redolent with the air of manufacturing and the nouveau riche (bàofāhù). Xu made clear that his concern was the proverbial “bottom line.”

The money-making operation was divided by task; each task was a work station that occupied a room or hallway. The first station was down a dark corridor from the entrance hall; the turn of a doorknob revealed a dimly lit room where five girls sat around a large table, each pasting the metallic foil (p.48) onto sheets of paper (figure 2.3). Each girl had a big bowl of yellow paste, stacks of tinfoil,16 and a pile of coarse yellow papers anchored at the top by a brick to enable the worker to flip the paper after each pasting. The girls’ principal tools were the fingers on their two hands: they daubed a sheet of paper with paste, peeled off a leaf of silver foil, and pressed it onto the paper with a squeegee. Separating the foil by blowing on it and pasting it on the center of the papers required the most skill, because a poorly handled or poorly pasted foil ruined the piece, and pieces of “ruined money” (pòqián) lost most of their ritual value; in the old days they could be offered as extras to the main offerings, and were thus sold at a low price.

The paper had been cut into squares at the village cutting shop. Once the foils were pasted onto the sheets of paper, they were carried out the front door to dry in the sun-baked courtyard. When dry, they were carried up the broad staircase behind the entrance hall to an open corridor that was divided between two work stations. At one end several girls under the supervision of a matronly relative of Xu paddled gobs of reddish dye onto boards from which, using rubber rollers, they applied the dye with a single swish across the silver foil. The reddish dye gave the silver foil what passed for a “golden”

Endless Scroll

Figure 2.3 Pasting stannous onto paper in Xu village workshop, southern Fujian

(p.49) sheen. From here, the papers were carried back to the central staircase to continue their journey to the roof, where once again they were left to dry under the sun. When dry, they were carried back down to the other end of the second-story corridor, where a man and woman hand-printed the covering paper on each stack with a carved wooden roller. The roller was rolled over a palette of vermilion pigment and then across the golden-foiled yellow paper, leaving a pattern of icons and epigraphs. Where the vermilion pigment rolled over the paper, the print left a clear and distinct image; where it rolled over the foil, it dulled the gild and obfuscated the overlying pattern. At the time of my visit, the pattern was a configuration of epigrams. The four big graphs in the center formed the popular saying “A favorable wind in the sail makes for plain sailing from beginning to end” (yīfānfēngshùn), which is something like the Westerner’s “God speed you.” This message was framed by three popular epigrams: “Let the whole family be safe and sound” (héjiā píng’ān); “let wealth from its eternal source flow in abundance” (cáiyuán guăngjìn); and “let the business prosper” (shēngyì xīnglóng). The bottom of the message was framed with three characters: zhèng zhuāng jīn which tells us (or, better yet, the spirit recipients) that this “gold is genuine,” which obviates any question about its “realness” (more on authenticity in chapter 8).17 Between the dyeing and the printing, and then once again after the printing, the papers were carried on poles back up the flight of steps to the flat roof, where they were laid out to bake under the spring sun. From Xu’s roof I saw every nook and cranny on surrounding roofs and courtyards covered in drying yellow papers.

Compared to the architectural infrastructure, capital investments in the production process seemed modest. Three principal resources were imported from outside the village: labor, tools, paper, and tinfoil. Most of the labor power was supplied by young women from other provinces. The girls doing the pasting impressed me with the speed of their fingers and the tedium of their piecework. Xu, the owner-boss, and his relatives supplied occasional labor power. Their single workshop consumed ten rolls of paper per day. The paper is trucked in from northern Fujian, where the bamboo for making the thick, coarse, yellowish paper is grown. The rolls of paper are hauled on a trailer behind a tractor to a small building near the village entrance, where the paper is cut by heavy-duty electric machines. Also, the supply of metallic foils is bought from outside, while the pastes and dyes were made in the village. The dyes were made by cooking a combination of plants mixed with ochre. The carved wooden rollers ( or tuīzi) were made in a workshop (p.50) located in the market town about two kilometers from the village. The wood carving was, like the village money making, a household-managed operation, set back from the busy thoroughfare under some shade trees. When I visited, there were four young men sitting at a work bench with chisels, mallets, rulers, pencils, and paper stencils pasted to the wooden cylinders in the vice. A middle-aged boss worked in a rear room, where she entertained and dickered with clients and customers. My survey focused immediately on a clip of white papers, the stencils for the wooden cylinders being carved out front. Hanging on the back wall, stored in sacks and boxes, were the finished rollers. I was mainly interested in tracing the genealogy of the patterns inscribed on those stencils, but was more frustrated than gratified with the kinds of answers I got. At every turn in the process of paper money making the bottom-line mentality was impressed upon me. In the case of designs and design changes, I gathered that in recent years a host of new designs had been introduced, and that their longevity was governed by their popular appeal (i.e., the market). But I was unable to put an active voice on the new designs. Suffice it to say that none of my interlocutors expressed any awareness of, much less interest in, liturgical influences on their designs. It was a money-making operation, in both senses, from start to finish. More than this, some other researcher will have to pick up the ball


My survey of the monetary end of paper money assemblages touched on the major species of monetary forms, leaving the newest one, paper facsimiles of paper banknotes, for the chapter on “ghost bills.” In keeping with the spirit of the custom, we need to keep reminding ourselves of the labile and protean nature of this or any paper money taxonomy. Also, I have deferred the vast oceans of charms () and paper clothes (yīzhĭ) and all the other material blessings, from combs to cars, replicated in pictures and in the round (zhĭzhā), to anecdotal treatment in other chapters. Very generally, every part of China uses a version of paper money that replicates in simple ways the ancient strings of copper cash. These are generic and multipurpose monies burned or not burned for common souls in early phases of disembodiment and dematerialization. The old-style copper cash is a ubiquitous, trite, but powerful ritual icon in the nexus of Chinese civilization. It is the essence of emolument () and wealth (cái). Next are paper replicas of silver, which are burned as a means of indemnifying souls somewhere between disembodiment and etherealization. Silver is sometimes represented in coins, (p.51) but more often in ingots or First Treasure (yuánbăo), as is the stuff of pure treasure, gold. Gold paper is for souls whose etherealization is being consummated in a state of spiritual purity and who are thus more completely removed from the carnal world of the devotee. As we move from the plain copper to the pure golden forms of paper money, the iconographic and epigrammatic messages increase, and these messages all augur an increase in the things that in both this world and the other make life worth living. The language is that of agrarian small producers living in an ancient or feudal society.

The elaboration of different kinds of monies characteristic of southeastern coastal China raises historical questions. The assertion that this area is the historical core of the custom needs more research to establish. There are several historical factors around which such a discussion could take place: first is the early location of paper mills in this region (Hunter 1937); second is that this region, far from the imperial centers in the north, developed a commercial infrastructure, but just what part the paper money custom played in this development provokes other questions, which I address in chapter 5. As a prelude to that chapter, in brief, and in the context of the present chapter, I have observed that the ostensible hierarchy of paper monies is fairly fluid and, in effect, rhetorical in the way it finesses the ranks of spirits, but it also implies a hierarchy of spirits based on sumptuary privilege that is characteristic of ancient and feudal social formations. This hierarchy of spirits fits well with all the iconography and ritual action of the paper money custom. Just what this imagined world has to do with the material world of social relations is a bread-and-butter issue in social anthropology (A. P. Wolf 1974; Ahern 1981; Feuchtwang 1992; Gates 1996; Sangren 2000), and it will continue to dog us throughout the rest of the book. Suffice it for now to say that there is a major disjuncture between the material relations of the world today and the feudal predicates of the traditional paper monies outlined in this chapter. The question is whether this disjuncture is being papered over by the advent, proliferation, and now hypertrophy of a new and different kind of currency, the modern “ghost bill,” which takes the form of a general all-purpose currency (the modern banknote) but still observes the distinction between common spirits among whom it circulates and the more exalted divinities: for instance, the Jade Emperor as the “bank president” who supposedly manages that circulation (see chapter 7). The question is whether or not these general purpose forms will one day replace all the older traditional forms and transform the yīn-world from a feudal image to a (p.52) modern capitalist image. Speculations aside, one thing seems certain: making money is a good business these days. The idea that making money for the dead is a profitable business is actually built into one of the popular folk stories that purport to explain the origin of paper money. I discuss this story in the next chapter.


(1.) Seven is a key number in both Taoist and Buddhist cosmologies and liturgies. Here we were standing in a Buddhist temple, talking to a Buddhist nun. And here, engraved on a plaque behind the incense and paper furnace, in the (p.217) –format of a memorial tablet divided into two sections, was the Buddhist liturgy in a nutshell. The upper part of the tablet listed the seven manifestations of Buddhist blessings, which when murmured over and over save the soul from the awful fates of Purgatory: the Rúlái (1) of gaining nirvanic repose, to stop the infernal anguish; (2) of avoiding terror, to afford everlasting happiness; (3) of quenching the awful thirst; (4) of beautifying the body, to prevent it from turning ugly; (5) of giving the shriveled body access to food and air and preventing food from turning to iron or some other metal; (6) of many treasures, to prevent destitution; (7) of avoiding the punishment meted out to those who engaged in vicious professions during their lives. Below these Rúlái, on the lower part of the tablet, is reference to the miserable manifestations of human mortals, flanked by the terms “males above,” “females below.”

(2.) Groot (1969: 1:1, 1:78) describes the kùqián in late-nineteenth-century Amoy: During the funeral “great quantities of white sheets with parallel rows of small scalloped incisions … have been previously purchased by the family in yellow parcels containing one hundred each. Every sheet of this so-called “treasury money” … is an imitation of regular rows of metal coins; so it is easy to calculate that each parcel represents a considerable amount of currency in the next world.” In Taiwan, Hou (1975:18) divides the kùqián between funeral money, which is often burned in enormous lots, and money for the restoration of destinies, which is burned to prolong the life and fortune of the living after an illness, to guarantee numerous offspring, etc. These come in several subtypes and varieties and include money with a leaf of gold-colored foil on the outer package to signify that this string of cash is destined for the celestial treasury and a plain-foiled leaf for the money that goes to the bank in purgatory. Typically, these Taiwan subtypes are further divided based on décor and inscriptions to differentiate ever finer destinations. This elaboration of distinctions in these elementary forms of paper money has metastasized in the forms of perforated papers that I have found in places as far apart as Quanzhou and Chengdu. For instance, “white cash” is now sold next to the same papers dyed yellow (hence “yellow cash”) and red (“red cash”). This is an example of the hypertrophy of forms that is so rampant today. The same terms are used in everyday discourse to refer to all kinds of real payments, from cash handed to children to cash for gambling debts and sexual services; whether the paper money cash has any such connotations might be judged against the findings reported in chapter 8, but in any case the matter requires further study.

(3.) In a therapy known as “coining” that is popular in China and Southeast Asia, a piece of Chinese cash is rubbed over the skin of the afflicted person.

(4.) An old sign on shops vending paper monies was a string of circles (see Hunter 1937). This logo is still widely used in advertising. The charmed cash is replicated in the gold-colored plastic and attached to the baubles that people (p.218) –suspend from their rearview mirrors. Among the more remarkable ones are those that were popular during Mao’s centennial in 1993, in which portraits of the Great Leader were attached to gold cash, and First Treasures (yuánbăo), to be discussed below.

(5.) There are also historical periods when the hole was round, which does not lend itself quite so dramatically to this interpretation. The square, after all, implies structure: i.e., the earth offsets and gives structure to the round, amorphous infinite cosmos. The graphs on the cash during different dynasties were interpreted in ways that augured the fate of the dynasties that minted them (see Guqian zhi chen 2008).

(6.) Chinese would recognize the English expression “squaring the circle” (bringing order out of chaos), but Chinese would insist that the essence of that which exhibits order and structure is circular, nascent, inchoate, and in continuous interaction. Another mundane and concrete expression of this notion is the round-shaped festive table, which expresses the cosmic equality of those seated in a circle even though there is something very “square” about the seating arrangement, which reflects the worldly structure or incipient violence of unequal social positions. The round banquet table is not just a Chinese notion; Marcel Mauss (1990:83) ends his essay The Gift by discussing the way the round table of Arthurian legend was designed to be an all-inclusive table where “the highest placed will be on the same level as the lowliest … around the common store of wealth,” thus obviating the envy that formerly caused banquets to erupt in bloodshed.

(7.) From the lowest piece of Chinese architectonics (the copper cash) to the loftiest piece (ground plans of imperial temples), the interplay of encircled and squared spaces are laid out, from my observations, as an imago mundi modeled on the interdependence of “the mathematically expressible régimes of heavenly bodies and the biologically determined rhythms of life on earth,” a sort of “astrobiology” (see Wheatley 1971:414). The four imperial temple walls and altars at the four quarters around the imperial city in Beijing (Sun, Heaven, Moon, and Earth), where emperors annually rectified the imperial with cosmic order through grand sacrifices, appear to be laid out by permutations of encircled and squared spaces. The Sun altar to the East, with its circular walls (Heaven) enclosing a square altar (Earth), replicates the Sun’s circulation across the diurnal sky, which is comparable in shape, motion, and function to the square-holed cash’s circulation through this world and the other. The Heaven altar to the south is the mirror opposite of the Sun; here, circular altars are surrounded by square walls, replicating an Earth-centered celestial sphere in which, to paraphrase Wheatley (1971:417), the seasonal sacrifice constituted mankind’s contribution to the regulation of cyclic time. To the west and north, the Moon and Earth altars are square and enclosed by square walls, thus replicating natural rhythms of life on (p.219) Earth. These are my own superficial observations, which yield completely to anything that architectural historians might add or subtract.

(8.) One is an old euphemism for fetishized money, which is not voiced so often nowadays: kŏngfāngxiōng. This plays on a word for money, kŏngfāngxiōng (lit., “square-holed money”). But here the kŏng for “hole” is replaced by the same kŏng that refers to Confucius’ name, and the term for elder brother (xiōng) replaces the word for money (qián). Thus: one who pretends to cultivate true value (the reference to Confucian virtue) instead depends on (as one does an elder brother) a thing (i.e., money) that is as empty of true value as the square hole in the center of the old cash. Another, more common idiom for becoming fixated on money or entangled by desire for it is “to fall into the eye of the coin” (diàojìn qiányănr lĭ).

(9.) Yuánbăo has many meanings. The conventional dictionary definition is “a gold or silver ingot.” The term can be traced to the Yuan dynasty’s shoe-shaped unit of silver, which was worth fifty taels. But its literal meaning, “first treasure” (Scott 2007), has the advantage of not being tied to a particular material referent other than its mystical significance as a “treasure trove” or “vessel” of “uncountable value” that comes in many different shapes, not only shoe-shaped ingots.

(10.) For example, nineteenth-century Amoy residents burned huge lots of silver paper, which they referred to as “coffin paper,” the ashes from which were interred with the coffin (Groot 1969: 1:25, 1:31–32).

(11.) The simple dichotomy of Big and Little Silver papers differentiate the family spirits from nonfamily spirits. The silver paper that circulates through the Hong Kong diaspora exhibits this simple distinction based on size of foil. In Taiwan, according to Hou (1975), the distinction between Big and Little Silver is signified more by the presence or absence of décor. The Big Silver may be decorated with lotus flowers, while the Little Silver bears only the leaf of foil. The Lotus Silver is reserved for the ancestral spirits. However, these two subsets of Big and Little are each divided into three subtypes, according to Hou’s analysis, and it is here that size of foil is definitive. The Big Lotus Silver and the Little Silver have more or less the same foil sizes, called Big Silver, Number Two Silver, and Middle Silver (Hou 1975:25). I say “more or less the same scale of foil sizes” because the differences, based on Hou’s table (1975:25), are measured in fractions of centimeters. Hou does not indicate how these sizes are measured, but in all likelihood they are averages with considerable standard deviations from a sample, as is my experience with measuring sizes of paper monies. Thus the silver for family and ancestors makes more or less the same distinctions based on size of foil as the silver for nonfamily spirits. A family spirit receives more or less the same amount of silver as a nonfamily spirit of commensurate status except for the addition of the lotus emblem, by which the one is designated “Big” and the other “Small.” The lotus is emblematic of immortality; it stands for the promise of fellowship with eternity through the family and its line of descent, a promise (p.220) that payments of silver cannot vouchsafe for other spirits. It seems that silver offerings are attended by notions of commonality and equity, in contrast to the attention to hierarchy and sumptuary rules that become important in offerings of gold papers.

(12.) Hou formulates these three subdivisions in what is otherwise a bewildering assortment of gold papers, each of which has its own designation, the terms for which are often as obscure to native spokespersons as to the investigator: Triad gold includes Topmost Supreme Gold, Supreme Gold, Three Agents Gold, Large Longevity Gold, Longevity Gold, and Small Longevity Gold. Decorated gold includes Celestial Gold, Ruler Gold, and Basin Gold. And undecorated gold includes Gold of Percentage, Three-six Gold, Horse Longevity, Two-five Gold, Blessing (with happiness) Gold, and Small Gold.

(13.) The division of labor within the village reflected a division of labor regionwide, in which other villages specialized in the manufacture of other commodities like shoes, etc. While the household work unit was the primary production and accounting unit, the village was the unit of manufacture that disseminated the knowledge and made the connections with outside markets.

(14.) Near the village entrance there was a shop housing large electric paper-cutting machines. Here huge rolls of the coarse yellowish paper made from bamboo in northern Fujian were carried off trailers to the adjacent room to be cut to size and distributed to the various village workshops.

(15.) Traditionally, the reddish-yellow paste and dye were made from local resources: paste was made from sweet potato starch, and a reddish-yellow dye was made by boiling the branches of a variety of gardenia (huáng zhīzi). There was one workshop in Xu village that specialized in the manufacture of the dyes.

(16.) Traditionally, the stack of tightly pressed tinfoils ate up the bulk of production costs; in the old household-based workshop where labor was family, the tinfoil was 90 percent of the production cost.

(17.) We can appreciate how the message changes but the motif remains the same from a gold paper made in another village in the region during the 1930s. A gold-foiled paper from Yunchuan village of the 1930s was stamped with two woodblocks. The top one read, “The Office of Heaven bestows fortune” (tiānguān cìfú); the bottom read, “Let male members and material wealth flourish” (dīng cái wàng) (Cheng 1999).