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Burning Money

The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld

C. Fred Blake

Publication Year: 2012

For a thousand years across the length and breadth of China and beyond, people have burned paper replicas of valuable things—most often money—for the spirits of deceased family members, ancestors, and myriads of demons and divinities. Although frequently denigrated as wasteful and vulgar and at times prohibited by governing elites, today this venerable custom is as popular as ever. Burning Money explores the cultural logic of this common practice while addressing larger anthropological questions concerning the nature of value. The heart of the work integrates Chinese and Western thought and analytics to develop a theoretical framework that the author calls a “materialist aesthetics.” This includes consideration of how the burning of paper money meshes with other customs in China and around the world.

The work examines the custom in contemporary everyday life, its origins in folklore and history, as well as its role in common rituals, in the social formations of dynastic and modern times, and as a “sacrifice” in the act of consecrating the paper money before burning it. Here the author suggests a great divide between the modern means of cultural reproduction through ideology and reification, with its emphasis on nature and realism, and previous pre-capitalist means through ritual and mystification, with its emphasis on authenticity. The final chapters consider how the burning money custom has survived its encounter with the modern global system and internet technology.

Innovative and original in its interpretation of a common ritual in Chinese popular religion, Burning Money will be welcomed by scholars and students of Chinese religion as well as comparative religion specialists and anthropologists interested in contemporary social theory.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix

Over the course of years that I have been working on this study, I have benefited enormously from the hospitality and help with logistics, data collections, translations, and criticisms from my kin, students, friends, and colleagues, none of whom are responsible for shortcomings in my interpretations or conclusions. These include Wang Li, Ginger Harris, Terry Blake, James ...

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pp. 1-8

I simply walked away from this experience with a heavy heart and the consolation that it was, after all, “only a dream.” As an anthropologist I am familiar with the notion that dreams of deceased loved ones are a common experience among people around the world and in many places are treated as actual communications, for dreaming is an experience the reality of which cannot be denied. Many Chinese will tell me that this was a message entrusted to me ...

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Chapter 1 Chiasm

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pp. 9-24

Many people in China burn paper effigies of things to send to the world of spirits. The paper effigies are often accompanied with burning sticks of incense and offerings of real food, although an offering may be composed of any one of these three items or any combination of the three. The ostensible purpose is to circulate worldly goods on a cosmic level in order to include beings, spiritual beings, who reside outside the mundane world of the ...

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Chapter 2 Endless Scroll

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pp. 25-52

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 ...

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Chapter 3 Origins

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pp. 53-75

Sending valuables (including food and money) to accompany the dead on their journeys to a netherworld, or presenting such things to the visitors from the shadowy regions, is neither novel nor unique to China. There are at least three ways that people in China and people in other parts of the world send valuables to the netherworld. The first is to place the thing of value — Chinese often refer to it as a vessel (qì) —in a ritual venue and invite visiting ...

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Chapter 4 Liturgy

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pp. 76-93

Asked why they burn paper money, people say it’s what they’ve learned to do from the old folks; it’s an obligation; they desire a blessing of good fortune; they are afraid not to; it’s just a gesture of respect; it’s superstition; and so on. These individual reflections may be studied as social facts, but they do not explain the custom. Explanations require a structure of relevance that transcends the reflections of individual participants, that frames the custom as a ...

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Chapter 5 Ideology

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pp. 94-116

The charm cited above is one of countless wallet-size pieces of grainy paper, dyed green in this case, and printed with the image of a horse next to those auspicious words. The whole edifice is a bricolage of “feudal” and “capitalist” expression: the horse is the ancient message bearer and sign of strength and swiftness; the inscription uses words like “emolument” (lù), the store of cosmic fortune with which one enters this world and which one exhausts in ...

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Chapter 6 Sacrifice

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pp. 117-141

When things of worldly value are willfully destroyed—immolated—in ritual fire or by some less dramatic medium, it is widely regarded as a sacrifice. There are other definitive elements of sacrifice, but complete immolation requires the fewest qualifications. Of the three offerings in the common ritual service (incense, food, paper), paper is the only part that is a sacrifice in this unqualified sense, for it is completely immolated. Devotees are acutely ...

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Chapter 7 Ghost Bills

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pp. 142-169

The thing that makes ghost bills stand out from other items in the traditional corpus of paper monies is their likeness to real currencies, a mode of representing that I refer to as simulation (less exact likeness) and facsimile (more exact likeness). An important feature of this sameness is the absence of a shift in medium by which the replication is effected. In the other replications of money, there is an explicit shift signified in the term itself: “paper ...

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Chapter 8 Burlesque

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pp. 170-197

The ghost bills described in the last chapter provide the opening wedge for a new category of paper monies that has increasingly penetrated the custom and divided it between the older, traditional replicas of value and the newer, modern, and exotic simulations of value. These simulations pay greater attention to realistic detail, the things of modern life —the commodities of the modern system—and its mode of reproduction in machined mimicry, ...

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Chapter 9 Value

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pp. 198-211

... No less than kula, burning money is a novel ethnographic fact, a “type of phenomenon, lying on the borderland between the commercial and the ceremonial” and “deeply connected with fundamental levels of human nature.” Malinowski might have added that what is for us “a borderland” is for Trobrianders a prototype. ...

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A Postscript on the Grain of Sand

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pp. 213-214

The long-dominant structure of the Chinese lifeworld saw little daylight between what is real (natural) and what is artificial or man-made. That which is real, that which is relevant, that which holds value, is man-made. The glare is seen between imperfection and perfection of workmanship in creating an authentic world. The purpose of work is not to change the world, but to live in it, to improve on “nature” by re-creating it in such a way that the ...


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pp. 215-236


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pp. 237-243


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pp. 245-261


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pp. 263-276

E-ISBN-13: 9780824860103
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824835323

Publication Year: 2012