- For Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors: The Chinese Tradition of Paper Offerings
A sustained interest among Occidental scholars and travelers in the thousand-year-old Chinese custom of burning paper for the spirits goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century. We have countless anecdotal descriptions and references to these papers, a few studies that explain and theorize the social and historical function of the custom, and a few monograph-length studies that describe the production and uses of the papers in their material form. To this last group Janet Lee Scott now adds her work. Scott's descriptions are rich and evenly distributed among the various regimes of value through which the papers move—manufacturing, marketing, and offering. The fact that the size of the corpus of paper-made offerings is so enormous and growing does not allow anything close to an equal treatment of all the material items in that corpus, but none has made the effort at comprehension with greater alacrity and modicum of success than Scott. Where former monographs spotlight the monetary side of the offering papers or the paper charms, Scott attempts to view the whole spectrum of paper offerings by extending the light to include the so-called pitched end of the offering spectrum. These are the three-dimensional bamboo-tied-and-paper-pasted replicas of the things of daily life. Still, Scott's endeavor is inevitably confronted with the overflow of paper items that constitute just the Hong Kong corpus; she is [End Page 259] compelled to select the parts that stand out as icons of the Hong Kong tradition. The author's description of "pitched" and "non-pitched" paper offerings is a lucid, intricately detailed, and seemingly encyclopedic narrative.
The impetus for Scott's interest in the custom, as well as for the encyclopedic quality of the work, is the sheer artistry of the papery materials. In addition, the adventure of finding places where it is made, sold, and used quickens the desire to collect the stuff, and in the author's case, to amass the world's largest private collection of offering papers. The first chapter takes up the problem of sorting and classifying the papers available in Hong Kong and describing some of the iconic forms in that corpus. The primary distinction in the offering industry is between the pitched replicas and the flat paper replicas of metallic monies and charms. Chapter 1 concentrates on the flat papers. One of many examples is the "honorable person" (guiren) charm, which comes in various forms, two of which are the "round" red perforated paper and the "long" green perforated paper, used in ensembles of offerings to the gods. This charm augurs the helping hand of an "honorable person," which takes the character of a benevolent stranger, a concept that is intriguing given Chinese sensibilities about anonymous benevolence, fate, and luck. Scott's narrative sticks closely to the way this honorable person is variously represented in the materiality of the charm.
Chapter 2 concentrates on how ceremonial papers are used to address personal concerns. The description runs between special accoutrements such as pinwheels for the gods and the special ensemble of papers to rid ceremonially the world of small persons (bothers and nemeses). Both of these ensembles, and a host of others described in this chapter, are characteristic of the Hong Kong offering orbit. The next chapter describes how paper offerings address concerns to different categories of spirits known to English readers as "gods" and "ghosts." These distinctions and subdivisions (e.g., the higher gods and the lower gods) form hierarchies that are finessed by different kinds and varying ensembles of paper offerings. When we address the basics of offering practices, these general categories dissolve into particularly named spirits, each known by a more or less unique ensemble of papers. The description is further complicated by the protean nature of this hierarchy and by the fact that the sea of available papers for finessing it are...