What Is Joss Paper?

It occurred to me recently that beginner witches, mystics, and occultists may come across a ritual that mentions or lists joss paper as an element and they have no idea what that is. I’m only touching lightly on the subject as it’s rather involved. As always, make sure to do your own research!

Let’s get into it.

WHAT IS IT?

Sjschen, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Simply put, joss paper (also known as spirit or ghost money) are paper offerings burned during traditional Chinese ancestor ceremonies. It’s also customary to burn it in traditional Chinese funerals or special holidays.

WHEN WAS IT INVENTED?

Going all the way back to the Six Dynasties period (ad 220–589) joss paper was invented as a way to bring fortune to Chinese farmers in ancient China. Life was extremely difficult back then and no matter how hard the farmers worked the fields, the crops would not yield any produce. In order to appease the dead and hopefully gain favor to end their poverty, they would burn joss paper as offerings.

Another issue in ancient China was the dilemma of an emperor’s passing. When an emperor died, his men were executed in order for them to continue serving him in the afterlife. This practice became controversial as time went on and the majority of people saw this act as inhumane. The matter was answered by the Taoists erecting a human effigy out of joss paper act as the emperor’s servants in the spiritual realm.

WHAT IS IT MADE OUT OF?

The traditional material for joss paper is coarse bamboo paper. Another commonly used material is rice paper. Texturally, it feels and looks homemade with visual imperfections. Individually cut squares or rectangles are the usual shapes for joss paper. They can be decorated with a wide variety of designs, stamps, seals, emblems – all meant for specific purposes.

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF JOSS PAPER?

Because there are different types of spirits, so too are the types of joss paper. The types of spirit money are sorted into three main categories: Cash or Copper Joss Papers, Silver Joss Papers, and Golden Joss Papers.

  • Cash or Copper joss papers are burned for the newly deceased spirits as well as unknown spirits.
  • Silver joss papers are burned for ancestral spirits.
  • Gold joss papers are burned for Deities.

In order to avoid confusing or offending the spirits, it’s of utmost importance that the correct type of spirit money is burned.

PURPOSEFUL DESIGN

As made obvious above, joss paper is designed purposefully in order to make sure those who are doing the offering don’t offend or confuse the spirits.

-For instance, gold paper printed with the Three Star Gods of Luck (Fu, Lu, and Shou) can be burned as an offering to heavenly Deities.

-Another example is joss paper featuring a small silver rectangle burned as an offering for close and immediate relatives and ancestors, as well as spirits.

-This type of joss paper is very intentional as it’s imprinted with basic or daily need items like shoes and clothes, cups and scissors.

Kanashimi, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

MODERN PAPERS

Eventually joss paper got a modern makeover with westernized variations. These include designs that make the papercrafts look like money in all kinds of denominations, checks, credit cards, gold bars, toiletries, houses, cars, clothes, electronics like iPhones, and more.

VictoriaDFong, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

HELL BANK NOTES

Sjschen, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This specific type of joss paper features portraiture of Yanluo Wang or Yamla, the fifth official judge in the Underworld. He passes judgement on all of the deceased and as such, makes a fitting choice as the face of Hell Bank Notes.

This specific joss paper functions as the official afterlife currency. They are offered by placing the papercrafts inside of coffins or via burning. It is believed that the ancestors can spend the spirit money on whatever they want or need to make the afterlife as comfortable as possible.

Another thing to mention is the massive value of the Hell Bank Notes. The denominations start at $10,000 making their way up to the $5,000,000,000 mark. Also featured is the Bank of Hell as the headquarters printed on the backside. It’s also common to find signatures of all of the Underworld Judges who also function as the Governor and Deputy Governors of the Bank of Hell, respectively.

WHERE IS JOSS PAPER BURNED?

Traditionally, joss paper is burned at funeral and grave sites, crematoriums, temples, and at certain festivals. However, burning the papercrafts at home shrines has become regular practice for many.

BELIEFS SURROUNDING JOSS PAPER

The evolution from burning joss paper to lift ancient Chinese farmers out of poverty to what it is today is fascinating. The practice stayed the same essentially with the main focus surrounding burning the papercrafts as an offering to the deceased. The motive behind doing so, however, shifted to include a few other reasons to burn joss paper.

  1. Ancestral Veneration – The act of burning joss paper in order to make ancestors happy so they will make your life happy in return. This is based on beliefs that the dearly departed remain in the land of the living and that they hold influence over the fate and fortune of those still alive.
  2. Ancestral Worship – The act of burning spirit money in order for deceased family members to have the ability to pay off debts, purchase necessities, and anything else to make for a comfortable afterlife.
  3. Bribes – Outside of burning joss paper to pay for the needs of ancestors, Hell Bank Notes are also thought of as bribes to Yanluo Wang. Burning Hell Bank Notes is done explicitly in hopes of ancestors being released sooner than they would be without the bribes.
  4. Gifts – Spirit money has been used as a gift to a bride’s ancestors from the groom’s family.

PIN IT!

FESTIVALS

Two main festivals stand out when speaking of joss paper. The first is the Qingming Festival taking place between April 4th and 6th. In English, Qingming translates to ‘Pure Brightness’; however, it’s also been called ‘Tomb Sweeping Day’. This annual festival celebrates and honors ancestors since passed while also basking in the warming temperatures.

The second festival is called the Hungry Ghost Festival. It traditionally commences on the 15th night of the seventh month of the Chinese calendar. Its believed that during the festival the gates of Heaven and Hell open, allowing every ghost to receive food and drink. Burning joss papers during the event is thought to pacify restless spirits – mainly those without any loved ones.

It’s also thought that it is the duty of those still alive to ensure all of the deceased souls are satisfied. When done, the dead will not pester the living or they will metamorphose into guardian angels.

CUSTOMS

  • The majority of Chinese temples have big furnaces on the outside. These are used specifically for burning joss paper as it is maintained it brings good fortune to the society. It is expected of society members to make offerings – but only with papercraft and never actual money as burning real currency brings bad luck.
  • Besides being used for ancestral offerings, joss paper is used for making wishes.
  • Once a person passes from this life to the next, the Chinese keep celebrating important dates as though they are still living. This includes birthdays and death anniversaries. Favorite meals of the dead are prepared, parties are held and stories are shared all while joss paper is burning.
  • Business owners in Taiwan set out offering benches and burn joss paper in portable red braziers in order to appease Deities and spirits. This is done every 15 days to coincide with a primeval calendrical framework divided into 24 15-day periods.
  • Burning joss paper inside of a circle drawn in chalk on the street (typically done in residential neighborhoods) is common practice in modern times.
  • The act of folding joss paper as part of a burning ceremony is customary to make sure that it’s not mistaken for real currency. It’s also thought to bring good luck to those doing the folding.
  • Folding joss paper into specific shapes is also thought to bring good luck.
  • To ensure a burnt offering is recognized and well received, large amounts of joss paper is lit.

POLLUTION

Environmental concerns over the pollution caused by burning joss paper has increased tremendously over the past decade. While some measures like fitting burners with a specialty cover to stop the spread of burning ashes have been put into place, it’s not enough to slow or cancel the damage being done. There are even a few Chinese Buddhist temples that aim to deter people from burning joss papers during ancestral rituals in their tablet hall due to environmental pollution.

In an effort to prevent the decline of interest in traditional culture, China made Tomb Sweeping Day a national holiday over a decade ago. Now, the government wishes to ban one of the major facets of the festivities – burning joss paper. Besides the pollution, authorities are calling the safety of the ritual into question. Statistics show that over 97% of forest fires from the year 2010 to 2019 stemmed from human action – most of which coming from traditions like burning joss paper and lighting firecrackers.

HEALTH CONCERNS

Outside of the pollution issue, analysis of the metal components in ash samples reveal that burning joss paper released a ton of toxic elements that cause health risks. A large percentage of heavy metals in the bottom ash and dust fume was discovered in several studies. Other findings include that burning gold and silver spirit money can promote Parkinson’s disease in the elderly. It also slows child development. Another condition called Metal Fume Fever can be caused by burning joss paper as well.

JOSS PAPER SUBSTITUTE

While the idea of burning joss paper in its many forms may sound appealing to some, others may not agree. Personally, I’ll stick with burning bay leaves. Bay leaf smoke contains no heavy metal toxins, is anti-inflammatory and it helps to alleviate anxiety. You can write incantations, wishes, sigils, notes to your ancestors – anything you can think of, really.

IN CONCLUSION…

Have you heard of joss paper before? Have you burned it in your practice? Let me know in the comments!

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