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Global Perspectives

Global traditions: Chinese deity

December 11, 2019

Introduction: As writing instructors in UWRF’s English Language Transition (ELT) Program one of our missions is to involve English learning students in campus activities while strengthening their knowledge of English. We could think of no better way to do this than to have them publish an article in the Student Voice. What you are about to read is the final product of several sessions of brainstorming and writing followed by consultations with native speakers including some from the TESOL program and the Student Voice. — Kiki Augustin (ESL 211 Intermediate Writing) and Alex Hatheway (MODL 310 Advanced Composition)

Joss money, also known as ghost or spirit money, are sheets of paper or paper-crafts made into burnt offerings common in Chinese ancestral worship. Burning joss money is an important custom for Chinese people to commemorate the dead. Chinese believe that the deceased will receive the money and benefit from a happy and prosperous afterlife if you burn it.  

People burn the joss paper on in traditional Chinese deity or ancestor worship ceremonies during special holidays. Qingming Festival and the Hungry Ghost Month are two special Chinese holidays related to the dead and ghosts. Qingming Festival is a Chinese Memorial Day, Chinese families visit the tombs of their ancestors to clean the gravesites, pray to their ancestors, and make ritual offerings on this day. The process of burning joss sticks and joss paper is usually arranged after displaying traditional food dishes in front of the tomb. The holiday recognizes the traditional reverence of one’s ancestors in Chinese culture.

As for the Hungry Ghost Feast held on the fourteenth day of the seventh month, family members offer prayers to their deceased relatives, offer food and drink and burn joss paper too. Such paper items are only valid in the underworld, that is why they burn it an offering to the ghosts that have come from the gates of hell.

The afterlife is very similar in some aspects to the material world, and the paper effigies of material goods would provide comfort to in the afterlife. People would also burn other things such as paper houses, cars, servants and televisions to please the ghosts.

Families also pay tribute to other unknown wandering ghosts so that these homeless souls do not intrude on their lives and bring misfortune and bad luck, by bringing samplings of food and placing them on the offering table to please the ghosts and ward off bad luck. Joss paper is also burned in traditional Chinese funerals.