Hell Bank Notes: Hell/Spirit/Ghost Money, Joss Paper

What the Hell is Hell Money?

Click to view full image In Hong Kong, the word Hell doesn't carry the same negative connotation as western Hell.

The most popular legend has it that zealous Christian missionaries warned all non-Christian Chinese they'd "go to Hell" upon death.

Click to view full image In a classic case of misinterpretation, the locals believed Hell was the English term for the afterlife, rather than equating it with Chinese Hell, which is pretty darned nasty in its own right.

Click to view full image True or not, it sounds plausible. However it came about, the word was incorporated and printed on the traditional Chinese Afterlife Monetary Offerings, otherwise known as Hell Bank Notes.

Click to view full image Some refer to the notes as Spirit Money, Ghost Money or Joss Paper, but whatever name they go by, I love the outrageous denominations.

Click to view full imageThe first set shows the highest dollar amount I've found to date: $50 billion, followed by $8 billion and $5 billion.

What's It Made From?

Click to view full image Hell Bank Notes come bundled in various numbers, depending on the currency. The paper ranges from smooth and thin to coarse and thick. The huge denomination notes were printed on low-grade paper — cardboard-like in consistency — such as this $2 billion note.

Click to view full imageIt doesn't matter, as they're made to be burned. The Chinese believe that when someone dies, his spirit goes to the afterlife, where it lives on, doing much the same things it did in life. Surviving relatives want to send gifts to make the afterlife as comfortable as possible. Aside from intricate paper objects such as houses, cars, clothing, watches, mobile phones, appliances and even domestic helpers, Hell Bank Notes are most popular. Burning sends them on their way.

How Is It Used?

Click to view full image The two most traditional times of year to burn Hell Bank Notes are during Ching Ming (The Festival of Pure Brightness) and Yue Laan (The Hungry Ghosts Festival).

Another delivery method is to toss it in the air during the funeral procession or leave it on the grave of the deceased any time one desires. A dead person needs some spending cash, right? Some believe burning Hell Money distracts evil spirits that would take the other goodies for themselves if given the chance. While they chase the cash, the valuable goods pass in safety to the intended relative.

Click to view full image What kills me is the notes come in such a huge variety of denominations: everything from one cent up to billions of dollars. This means one of two things: either everyone in the afterworld is wealthy beyond imagination and lives in lavish luxury, or inflation is staggering. Maybe the dead need a single $1 billion bill to buy a loaf of bread, rather like the 1923 German Reichsmark. Ouch!

Who's The Guy In The Hat?

Click to view full image Common on the faces of all Hell Bank Notes is the image of the Emperor of the Afterworld: the Lord of Hell.

Legend has it he was once a living Chinese Emperor. As a reward for his great leadership, he earned the right to reign over the afterworld. He's shown wearing a beard and a flat-topped hat with beads hanging from the front and back.

Click to view full image The backs of the notes vary. They will depict a pavilion or pagoda, with tiled roofs. This may be the Bank of Hell, or just a temple.

Sometimes these buildings are adorned with dragons or foo-dogs, and sometimes only the animals appear.

Click to view full image Foo Dogs are ancient, sacred animals with the appearance of a lion; their duty is to guard Buddhist temples.

Foo Dogs are not just the protectors of sacred buildings, they're placed in front of government buildings, businesses, homes and estates to frighten away evil spirits. Perhaps they are guarding the Bank of Hell.

Click to view full image Most bills carry the words Hell Bank Note. The more inventive state the notes are printed by The Hell Bank Corporation, or The Sky and Earth Corporation Limited.

Only the fronts of these notes are shown, as their backs are identical to the three already shown.

How Do The Notes Differ?

Click to view full image Most of the Hong Kong-made notes are colourful and pretty. Some notes make an attempt to look like real money, with serial numbers, signatures and bank chops.

Click to view full image The notes vary in size. The $50 billion note measures a hefty 13 5/8 x 7 inches, while the $1 million note is a more normal 6 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches.

Many notes are fanciful and filled with loads of Chinese symbolism. Click to view full imageThe $50,000 note depicts a carp with a golden bowl strapped to its back. The bowl is filled with traditional Chinese gold ingots, polished red coral and ancient gold coins.

Click to view full image The carp is special because the Chinese word for fish sounds similar to have something left over (meaning extra spending cash). Often the carp will be shown in pairs or being held by children: symbols of good luck.

Click to view full image Sometimes the notes are made to mimic U.S. currency. These are amusing, not because the listed amount is TEN TIIOLSWD DOLLNRS, but because I'm certain that ain't Alexander Hamilton.

Click to view full image The line art on the back is nice. It would make a good-looking back for real money, but I doubt the United States would use it.

What About The Lower Denominations?

Click to view full image This $500 note is based upon real Hong Kong currency, in its shades of brown and in its choice of numerals. Instead of showing the temple on the back, this note has the Hong Kong Governor's mansion on the face.

Click to view full image The reverse is different. For some reason it's in shades of red and bears no resemblance to existing Hong Kong $500 bank notes. It leans toward the $100 note in likeness.

Click to view full image The $100 note multiplies the Emperor of the Afterworld. Considering the word for four is a homonym of the Chinese word for death, which is viewed as bad luck, it's odd the note was drawn with four Lords of Hell.

Click to view full image On the other hand, this is money for dead people, it may not have been a mistake. Maybe the Emperor became bored and made three copies of himself to get up a game of mah jong.

Click to view full image This $50 note differs from the $100 bill in that one of the quartet has vanished. Were they wearing sombreros they could pass for a mariachi band.

Click to view full image I don't know who drew the reverse of this note, but like the mariachi, he must have been knocking back the tequila; those have to be the silliest-looking foo-dogs I've ever seen.

Click to view full image The $10 note returns to a more colourful state. It depicts three more common themes in Hell Bank Notes, that of the junk, the phoenix and a pair of thistles. The phoenix is said to foretell good luck.

Click to view full image Though the bank of the note is drab, it features another common element, that of the Ch'i Lin, sometimes known as the dragon horse. It's said to promote luck, prosperity, success, longevity and best of all, grand success to one's descendants. In a sense, burning Hell Bank Notes with this creature on them should result in a boomerang of blessings — should you be the descendant, that is.

Where Can I Find Hell Money?

Check Chinese stores in any major city. If they don't carry it, chances are they'd know where you could get it. If you live in a smaller town, you'll have a more difficult time locating it.

By now you should have a good feel for Hell Bank Notes. Whenever you encounter them, you'll recognise them.

And if someone ever tells you to go to Hell, you can tell them you're looking forward to it.