HK Magazine Archive

What's the Origin of Hell Money?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 September, 2015, 2:47pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:48pm

Dear Mr. Know-It-All,
This month everyone’s burning “Hell Money” in the streets. Where does this come from? – Paper Boy

Hungry Ghost Month is the seventh month of the lunar calendar, this year falling between August 14 and September 12. Over the month you’ll see the streets alight with joss paper, offerings burned to our ancestors. After all, if your civilization invents paper—and paper currency— you’re going to find things to do with it.

Joss paper dates back to around the mid-200s AD. They were paper representations of goods or coinage, intended as offerings to the dead. Paper currency itself first appeared in China, between the 7th and 11th centuries. Add ‘em together and you get “Hell Money.”

The name “hell” is an approximation most likely added by Christian missionaries. The “hell” is actually the dei yuk, the underworld where Yun Wong, the ruler of the dead, judges the souls of those who appear before him. It’s not a place of permanent suffering, but rather a place to “burn off” your bad karma until you can be reborn on a higher plane.

But hell ain’t free. Money talks, even in the afterlife. Greeks and Romans were buried with a coin to pay for passage through the underworld: In the Chinese afterlife, money can be used to shorten or escape punishment—or even buy luxuries.

A question: Why are the denominations on Hell Money so high? After all, Hell Notes are a fiat currency, meaning that they’re not backed by a tangible commodity but instead derive their value from being backed by the Bank of Hell, which you’ll see on the reverse of almost every note. Presumably the Bank of Hell is a state-backed institution providing currency to the whole of the afterlife, and as such can control the value of its notes.

While Hell Money started off roughly equal to its earthly equivalent when first introduced in the late 1800s, over the years the units have increased exponentially. Nowadays Hell Money is available in the tens of thousands and the millions. One theory is that it expanded to keep pace with China’s own hyperinflation during the 1940s and never declined, even after the Chinese economy was brought back under control.

It’s evident that the economy of the afterlife isn’t pegged to the RMB. But the problem is there’s no cooling mechanism built into the Hell Money economy. In the afterlife either inflation is rampant, or the cost of unliving ridiculously high. But with the supply of Hell Money to the afterlife governed by the amount of paper burned in the living world, we hit a precarious bottleneck of faith and veneration. The only way the Bank of Hell can keep up with demand is by issuing larger and larger bills.

Meanwhile, the Bank of Hell has to back its ever-inflating currency—unless the administration of the afterlife is willing to put up with riots in the labyrinths of hell as the undead find themselves unable to afford the luxuries they’ve become accustomed to.

The truth is, the Bank of Hell is too big to fail. The only thing that we can do is to keep burning that Hell Money, in ever- increasing quantities...