The use of ‘spirit money’ dates back to as early as 1000 BCE.
Archaeological evidence suggests that imitation money made from paper dates as far back as 1000 BCE. In the earliest period of Chinese history, ancestors were offered real objects of value, such as ceramic and wood artifacts. Later, these were replaced with paper representations. Paper replicas of houses, horses, servants and clothing began to appear in the Song dynasty (960-1279).
They are offered to deities, ancestors, and neglected spirits.
They are given to gods to ask for blessings or assistance and to ancestors to express filial duty and devotion.
There is also a third type of offering: a charitable gift to the neglected souls of those who died far from home or were not given a proper burial – circumstances where their descendants are not able to take care of them properly. Thus, paper clothes and money are sent to ease their misery in the afterlife.
Apart from money, the offerings encompass paper replicas of objects ranging from cars to luxury bags.
The offerings are traditionally made from bamboo or rice paper and can be bought at so-called ‘paper shops,’ which are distinctively known for the brightly colored paper items on display. In Hong Kong, imitation money is referred to as gum zi, or ‘gold paper.’ There are also handcrafted paper objects and accessories called zi zaat, which are made to resemble anything from houses and phones to Gucci handbags.
Different offerings are given to ancestors, deities, and ghosts.
Deities are usually given gold money and paper clothing, often in the form of classical robes adorned with dragons. On the other hand, ghosts are given the less valuable type of joss paper, ‘white money.’
Offerings to ancestors are more personalized, and in addition to money, they can include luxury goods and items such as cars and houses with paper servants.
Holidays accompanied by paper offerings include the Ching Ming Festival and the Hungry Ghost Festival.
The Ching Ming Festival, which occurs during the third lunar month, is known as the ‘grave-sweeping’ festival. This is the day that the Chinese visit the graves of their ancestors, tidy the area, and make food, incense, and paper offerings.
Another important holiday for ancestor worship is the Hungry Ghost Festival, which occurs during the seventh month of the lunar calendar. During this month, it is said that the gates of heaven and hell are opened, and ghosts roam the earth. On the 15th day of the month, Chinese people make offerings to both their own ancestors and restless spirits.