Paper charms, whether used as talismans to encourage good fortune or to prevent harm, have a millennia-long history in Chinese society. Known as fu, these papers were traditionally used for numerous ritual purposes.
Fu could be deployed as a protection against illness – the paper burnt and the ashes dissolved in a cup of water and then swallowed. On the principle that its consumption could cause little or no harm, and might actually do a lot of good, this practice was widely adopted. Burnt fu paper, apparently, could be especially effective in dealing with nightmares, other forms of psychological disturbance and the inexplicable tantrums that often afflict young children. One popular fu paper warded off the “hundred calamities” that could befall an individual without warning.
Purchase of such items for uses other than burning shortly afterwards was regarded at the very least as somewhat weird, if not actually sinister. Foreigners, of course, were exempt from these strictures as they knew no better.
An intriguing example of misplaced use of a perceived fu design perpetrated by a well-meaning foreigner occurred at one of Hong Kong’s leading institutional academic publishers a decade or so ago. The publisher, intrigued by cross-cultural artistic possibilities, deployed a stylised corporate logo designed by a Chinese artist famed for writing words in English that – at first glance – looked like Chinese characters. These were rendered in four-character couplets, which added to the visual curiosity. Only on close examination did the intended meaning reveal itself. The possibilities for catchy, quirky, postmodern cross-cultural interpretations offered by this design schema seemed too good to miss.
Unfortunately, opportunities for making the wrong interpretation were also not missed, and an internal backlash swiftly followed. Numerous authors – and, according to rumour, more than a few academic staff members – objected to the use of what they regarded as inauspicious fu paper designs on their publications. The design feature was, eventually, quietly dropped.
Along with fu, various forms of ritual paper money have been used in Chinese societies for millennia. The background to this practice is the belief that many of life’s missed opportunities, personal ills and misfortunes are caused by having an insufficient supply of money to positively influence events. To help correct this deficiency, inexpensive paper money, in high denominations – popularly known as “hell banknotes” – is burnt for the dead. This enables those who have passed to the next world to do there what they couldn’t do in this one and, in return, to steer their descendants in directions more profitable and worthwhile than might otherwise have been possible without a timely infusion of cash.
According to traditional Chinese beliefs, one can never have too much money. This applies in “the other world” – just as in this one, which it mirrors and exaggerates – where there are lavish weddings and funerals to be paid for, personal and professional disasters to be offset, and unexpected expenses to be covered. Before the Independent Commission Against Corruption came along, presumably “high officials” also had to be paid off.
Whether the other world and its currency have experienced intermittent hyperinflation along the lines of Weimar Germany in the 1920s or Robert Mugabe’s collapsed Zimbabwe 80 years later has never been satisfactorily explained by soothsayers. But whatever the reasons, hell money always comes plentifully supplied with multiple zeroes. As with everything about the other world, you can never be sure, but it’s best to be on the safe side – just in case …