Book review on Burning Money -The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld
In Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld, Fred Blake delves into the intricate and often enigmatic relationship between materialism and Chinese culture. In this book, Blake explores the practice of burning paper money in China. Burning paper money is a ritual practised across Chinese descents throughout history and reflects the Chinese cosmology of the afterlife. When the paper money is ignited and swallowed by the flames, the care from the people to their beloved in the netherworld is carried through the ashes that fly in the wind. Apart from the deep exploration of the function of ritual itself within the book, the continuity and change in the form of paper money over time raises an interesting discussion on how paper money develops in diversity under the influence of globalisation and consumerism.
What is paper money?
In China, the spirits of the dead are considered to have the same life as the living. Similar to this world, the netherworld also follows the same rule. The spirits of the dead are sentient and subject to cold and hunger. Dead people need money to support their livelihood. Therefore, the money people burn in this world will be sent to the netherworld for the spirit to consume in the netherworld. The netherworld is like a reflection of reality on the surface of the water; burning money serves as a bridge of communication that connects the two.
Paper money refers to paper replicas of things that take the form of money. The imitation of cash is accomplished by perforating sheets of coarse paper manufactured from grass straw, while imitations of silver and gold include colouring paper or applying yellow paint to shining foil. The basic paper is simply sheets of coarse paper with the natural colour of the vegetal fibres. Marked only by its grainy texture, it is often called "grass paper" (căozhĭ) or "money paper" (zhĭqián).
Another type of paper money, so-called 冥币 (ghost money), is usually modified to appropriate, either by imitation or contagion, the value of real money. For this type of paper money, it looks quite similar to the real money design (colour, typography, size), but the profile on the money is the Jade Emperor (the emperor of the netherworld) instead of Chairman Mao's head on the yuan; the People's Bank of China on the left top of the money is replaced by the Bank of Sky and Ground. Here, the sky refers to the netherworld that people who passed away lived in, and the ground refers to the world that we live in.
More than paper money
In Chapter Burlesque, Blake provides a thorough examination of the role of consumption and foreign culture in changing the mode of production of paper money and its form. He argues that there are two forces that are changing the practice of burning money. Firstly, the influence of consumerism increases the diversity of paper money in contemporary China. The form of paper money is no longer confined to the form of actual money but has been reified to the actual objects of modern life. As the society we live in changes, so does the netherworld. The machines that started to appear in the 20th century, such as laptops, iPhones, aeroplanes, and sports cars, have been imitated into a new type of paper money and sent to the netherworld by burning flames. The dead can enjoy modern life as well. It is not only new machines that are being imitated; paper money products encompass all aspects of a person's life: food, shelter, entertainment, friendship, marriage, technology, etc. Blake's research on money burning is in the 21st century, yet in China today, you can see paper-made KFC family buckets, iPhone product gift packs, and even some people burning ChatGPT to programmers that live in the netherworld. We might imagine there will even be paper UFOs burnt to the netherworld in the future. The diversity of paper money will only increase along with the changes in the material life of society.
Secondly, the production of paper money shifted from handmade to machine-made. As paper money was no longer limited to the appearance of "money", a large number of paper products were printed by machines, and rough designs and bright colours became the common features of these new types of paper money. Regarding the authenticity of paper money, Blake asks whether this less-hand-produced paper money is still valid. These include manufacturing processes that transfer labour from hand to machine, from flesh to steel. They lose the domesticity and rusticity of artifice in their mass production due to an industrial order.
As the type of paper money becomes more and more diverse and closer in appearance to real objects, people's depictions of the netherworld become more and more specific. The beliefs of Chinese people on how the netherworld looks are highly linked to their practice in the "real world". The spirits of the dead are not free, they need to follow the rules, and obey the law, with the responsibility for forming a family, and carrying on the family line. Burning a lady made of paper for my dead single brother was in the hope that he might be able to have a wife and children in the netherworld; burning a paper-made condom for my father so that he wouldn't have a brother in the netherworld, which would be a violation of the one-child policy in China. All those practices are built upon the social norms of the world they live in, rather than the pure fantasy of an afterlife world. And such deceptions of the netherworld are grounded specifically in the context that people are living in.
While many researchers delve into the realm of belief concerning the ritual of burning paper money, Blake's unique emphasis on material culture offers audiences a fresh perspective on this ancient practice. As we conclude, I leave you with a compelling quote from his book. If the topic piques your interest, I invite you to start the journey and wish you happy reading!
“The paper burning custom is not simply the product of people who use it “religiously” or whose livelihoods depend on its manufacture and distribution—these two sites form a chain of values from the commodity to the sacrament—but is constituted in a manifold of discursive practices that extend from remote villages to urban apartment blocks, from ritual manuals to the mass media, from groups to individuals, from the multitude of devotees to legions of scoffers, and every position in between, each with as much say as the other in what the custom means.”