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  • Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Life World by C. Fred Blake
  • Michael Saso (bio)
C. Fred Blake. Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Life World. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2011. ix, 275 pp. Hardcover $90.00, isbn 978-0-8248-3532-3.

This unpretentious, thoroughly researched work of anthropologist/sinologist Fred Blake covers the topics of spirit money and other symbolic offerings used in the rites, ceremonies, and customs of China in a lively and intellectually stimulating manner. Undergraduate students, graduate seminars, and scholars in the field of Chinese studies will benefit greatly from this well-written work based on fieldwork as well as textual research, which Blake uses to explain the meaning, various uses, and folk story accounts associated with the use of paper items, food, and other symbolic offerings, in customary Chinese ritual.

Designed as a tertiary-level textbook for students of Chinese religion, Burning Money introduces to the reader the vocabulary and disciplinary methods of [End Page 51] cultural anthropology using classical Chinese texts, along with field-acquired anecdotes, to explain one of the most popular and widespread nonliterary customs of China. The daunting task of explaining to college students from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds, as well as their teachers who use the book as reference, the symbolic meaning of totally unfamiliar Chinese customs and rituals is no small task. To do this in a way that is meaningful at all levels, Blake has divided the presentation of his research into nine diverse segments, with field anecdotes and classical literary sources to match each chapter heading.

The first chapter, “Chiasm,” suggests that a cross-over or X-shaped structural model is needed to fathom the belief systems of both ancient and modern China, and the high-class intellectuals and ordinary folk who still preserve Chinese rites of passage and annual festivals in today’s profit-based world. Believers and what the author calls “nay-sayers,” agnostic and devout, foreign missionaries and native Daoist-Buddhist experts, all enter the discussion. The visual images found on paper money provide a wealth of symbolic meanings: gold for yang and silver for yin, are peeled off from a packet, folded, and thrown into the flames for merit, as part of a cultural tradition, expressing devout personal belief. The custom of burning paper money at funerals and gravesites, Blake notes, is still used by all levels of society inside socialist China as well as overseas. The act of burning paper money is more than a symbol; it is an occasion to dialog with and offer images of items cherished by deceased loved ones as a means to show compassion, as it benefits the deceased loved in the next life. All of the above images, textual as well as pictorial, provide a deep, personally felt understanding to the reader.

Among the wealth of items to note for further student inquiry, we suggest the following as supplemental topics to discuss during seminar and graduate level.

On the use of paper money: the significance of the square hole in the center of the circular coin, offered at the gravesite (pp. 35–36), is a symbol used since Neolithic times in China. The square symbolizes earth, while the circle represents heaven at ancient burial sites, as well as in early Han dynasty Yin-yang school writings. The Neolithic square jade cong 琮 and circular bi 璧 are found in the Liangzhu, Sanxingdui, and other fifth- to second-century b.c.e. royal burial sites. Later discoveries in Shang and Zhou dynasty commoner graves found similar images imprinted on clay pottery, with leaves of inexpensive paper money stamped with gold or silver included with all burials.

Today, the manufacture and purchase of paper money printed to resemble gold and silver ingots, is used for burning at burial rites and grave visits, including the Qingming festival (105 days after the winter solstice) and All Souls Day on the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the seventh lunar month (pp. 35–50). The custom is found throughout modern socialist as well as overseas Chinese communities. The custom, recorded by local mandarins in memorials to the imperial court since the Song dynasty (960...


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