• Burning Paper Money (烧纸钱 shāo zhǐ qián)

    纸钱 (zhǐ qián) has many different translations, including but not limited to, paper money, joss paper, funeral money and hell money. In order to understand why Chinese people burn paper money, you need to understand what they believe happens to the soul in the afterlife. 

    The Chinese believe in a place called Di Yu (地域 dì yù), where all souls go before they are reincarnated. Your stay in Di Yu is not eternal, instead, you will remain in Di Yu for a period of time that the Ruler of Di Yu deems necessary in order for you to atone for your sins. Similarly, how comfortable your stay in Di Yu is will be also be determined by the ruler and the 9 other Yama he presides over. And trust me when I say they have many inventive methods at their disposal to make you wish for a swift return to mortal realm! 

    Read A Journey Through Di Yu - "Chinese Hell" to learn more about Di Yu

    So, during your not-so-wonderful stay in Di Yu, you will need money and material goods to get around, bribe officials and demons, to make your stay as comfortable as possible. And that money, as well as material goods, are sent to you by your decedents on earth through the burning of paper money in your name. Below are a few pictures of my mother and father-in-law - who were kind enough to agree to being photographed - burning paper money for their ancestors at Chinese New Year:

    In this picture I hope you can make out a white circle drawn on the floor with an opening at the bottom. It is drawn with an opening so that the souls of the deceased have a way to enter the circle to collect their money.

    The paper money is then placed within the un-closed circle in preparation for being burned.  

    In the centre you will see written the following characters:

    "先母 XX 收用" - roughly translated: "for my mother, NAME"

    I have purposefully hidden the name out of respect for my wife's grandmother. 

    This is written so that the souls know which money is for them.

    Note that in this case, bags of paper money have been used, this is not always the case. In fact, oftentimes people will burn bundles of paper money, paper folded to resemble gold, clothes, cars, even houses, and throw them on as the fire continues to burn. Traditionally these were made by hand, but now they can be store bought and are becoming more and more ellaborate with time. 

    In the picture below, see the smaller bundle burning toward the right of the last picture? That is being burned for any wandering souls who are considering stealing the money that's burning for their ancestors - a small offering to politely ask them to keep their mittens off!

    As the paper money is lit a few words are spoken, but rarely out loud. You will see family members gathered around these fires, lips moving with no words coming out.

    My mother-in-law told me she asks her relatives to look after themselves, to spend their money (rather than save it as they will always burn more for them), to help protect her daughter, me and her grandson, and to bring the family luck. 

    Her eyes well-up every time she performs this ritual, I can tell it means a great deal to her. And I know that she hopes we will do the same for her after she is gone - though she would never ask - and we will.  

    Paper money is burned during the Spring Festival (春节 chūn jié) - specifically on New Year's Eve (除夕 chú xì), Tomb Sweeping Day (清明节 qīng míng jié), Winter Solstice Festival (冬至 dōng zhì) and the Ghost Festival (中元节 zhōng yuán jié). Though you will also see people burning paper money when a relative has recently passed, and/or on the anniversary of their passing (especially within the first few years of them passing).

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  • A Journey Through Di Yu - "Chinese Hell"

    Daoism and Chinese Buddhism

    Daoism originated in China and forms the basis of all belief systems and teachings that are prevalent in China today. It is said to have been established by a man called Lao Tzu (老子 Lǎo zǐ) somewhere around 500 BCE, however the roots of Daoism go back as far as 4th Century BCE. Daoism is considered to be both a religion and a philosophy, and is where the concept of the Yin-Yang (balance between chaos and order) was established.

    Daoism, above all, is centered around the human body and health. Daoists believe that only by following "the way" (道 dào), by living in harmony with natural order and the universe, may one reach "perfection" and be truly content in life. 

    Chinese Buddhism is believed to have been "imported" from India somewhere between 206 BCE and 220 CE. Upon entrance to China, Buddhist religious and philisophical practices were adapted to better suite the Daoist practices of the time whilst maintaining its core value system. 

    Chinese Buddhism, above all, is centered around psychology and the mind. Chinese Buddhists believe that we are stuck in an endless cycle of death and reincarnation, and that the only way to break free of this suffering is to attain enlightenment by abstaining from evil, striving for nirvana, and constantly cleansing the mind. 

    Today, Daoism and Chinese Buddhism are so interwoven that it is often difficult to differentiate between the two. To make things even more complicated, each of the core systems have also spawned various adaptations, like branches from a main tree trunk, so there are multiple versions of each spread across the country with slightly different interpretations of the orignal teachings. 

    In view of this, I have attempted to summarise the most commonly accepted path that a spirit takes in the afterlife, from death to reincarnation. If you know any different versions of this journey, please leave a comment below, I'd love to hear from you.


    3 Hun & 7 Po (三魂七魄)

    According to Daoism, the soul is made up of 10 individual components; these are known as the 3 Hun (魂 hún) and the 7 Po (魄pò). Put simply, the 3 Hun – often referred to as the “cloud spirits” – make up the ethereal component of a soul, and the 7 Po – often referred to as the “white spirits” – make up the corporeal component of a soul. Upon death, the 7 Po dissipate along with the body, and the 3 Hun each take separate paths.

    The 3 Hun are known by many names, here, I will be referring to them as:

    Tian Hun 天魂 (tiān hún) – “Heaven” Hun

    Di Hun 地魂 (dì hún) – “Earth” Hun

    Ren Hun 人魂 (rén hún) – “Human” Hun

    Upon death the Tian Hun takes the pathway to Heaven (天 tiān) and is detained in the Celestial Prison (天牢 tiān láo). The Di Hun takes the pathway to Di Yu (地狱 dì yù) and is detained and tortured accordingly (more below). The Ren Hun remains on earth, wondering around the grave of the body, and it’s only upon reincarnation (rebirth) that the 3 Hun will be reunited, alongside 7 new Po, to start life anew. But in order for reincarnation to occur, a Di Hun must pass through the 10 courts of Di Yu to atone for their earthly sins.


    Di Yu (地狱)

    Di Yu is a subterranean “hell” located in the Shadow Realm (阴间 yīn jiān) where virtually all spirits must go to be judged and atone for their earthly sins. Only those few that are able to live their life in accordance with “the way” (道 Dào) may go straight to Heaven.

    The two major differences between Di Yu and the Catholic concept of Hell is that, one, virtually all spirits go to Di Yu as opposed to the Catholic either/or approach, and two, the stay in Di Yu is not eternal. In this regard, Di Yu is closer to the Catholic concept of Purgatory than Hell.


    The Path Through Di Yu

    Upon entrance to the Shadow Realm, a Di Hun will be shackled and escorted by the demons Hei Bai Wu Chang (黑白无常 hēi bái wú cháng) to the Gui Men Guan (鬼门关 guǐ mén guān), which stands as the official entrance place to Di Yu – often referred to in English as the “Gates of Hell.” It is here at the Gui Men Guan that the Di Hun must now produce a pass in order to enter Di Yu. In Chinese, the pass is called a Gui Guo Tong Xing Zheng (鬼国通行证 guǐ guó tōng xíng zhèng) and should be burnt back on earth as an offering by family and/or friends of the recently deceased in a ritual known as Paper Money Burning (烧纸钱 shāo zhǐ qián).

    When burning paper money for the recently deceased, family and friends will often also burn paper effigies of other earthly possessions such as clothes and accessories, a house, a car, etc., all for the departed to use in Di Yu to make their journey and stay as comfortable as possible.

    From here, two demons named Ox-Head and Horse Face (牛头马面 niú tóu mǎ miàn) escort the Di Hun to Ming Fu (冥府 míng fǔ), which literally translates to “the Official House of Darkness,” where judgement awaits.

    To get to Ming Fu, the Di Hun must first walk down Huang Quan Road (黄泉路 Huáng quán lù). On either side of Huang Quan Road there are rows of Bi An Flowers (彼岸花 bǐ 'àn huā), with beautiful blood-red petals and no leaves. Apart from the ghosts of people who “died too early,” they make up the only scenery along this road.

    If a person on earth dies “before their time,” meaning a death that was not due to old age, they are unable to continue on their path down Huang Quan Road and must wait until their “time comes."

    The 10 Courts of Di Yu

    Once the Di Hun arrives at Ming Fu, they will enter the First Court to be judged by the Ruler of Di Yu, and Keeper of the Book of Life and Death (生死簿 shēng sǐ bù), King Qin Guang (秦廣王 qín guǎng wáng). If deemed worthy enough, the Di Hun will be sent directly to the Tenth Court for reincarnation, however, more often than not, they will be sent to the Second Court for further judgement and possible torture. In order to help make his decision, King Qin Guang will place the Di Hun in front of a mirror called Nie Jing Tai (孽镜台 niè jìng tái) – a mirror which shows a reflection that is a representation of the persons’ sins, not of the physical body – and will pass judgement in accordance with what he sees. In English, the mirror is often referred to as the “Mirror of Retribution.”

    As the Ruler of Di Yu, King Qin Guang presides over 9 other Yama. Each Yama govern their own Court and pass judgement on a Di Hun in accordance with the sins committed that are under their jurisdiction. For example, rapists are tortured in the Seventh Court, so rape related sins will not be judged in any other Court but the Seventh.

    Below is a list of the remaining 9 Yama and the Courts they govern. In a later blog I will provide a breakdown of the types of sins that are handled in each Court and their corresponding torture methods.

    Second Court of Di Yu: King Chu Jiang (楚江王 chǔ jiāng wáng)

    Third Court of Di Yu: King Song Di (宋帝王 sòng dì wáng)

    Forth Court of Di Yu: King Wu Guan (五官王 wǔ guān wáng)

    Fifth Court of Di Yu: King Yan Luo (閻羅王 yán luó wáng)

    Sixth Court of Di Yu: King Bian Cheng (卞城王 biàn chéng wáng)

    Seventh Court of Di Yu: King Tai Shan (泰山王 tài shān wáng)

    Eighth Court of Di Yu: King Du Shi (都市王 dū shì wáng)

    Ninth Court of Di Yu: King Ping Deng (平等王 píng děng wáng)

    Tenth Court of Di Yu: King Zhuan Lun (转轮王 zhuǎn lún wáng)

    I will add here that despite the fact that all torture methods used in Di Yu would result in death to a physical body on earth, there is no such escape in Di Yu. When a Di Hun “dies,” it will be brought back to life, limbs will be reattached, cuts will be healed, so that the torturing can continue until the sentence has been served. Then it’s on to the next Court for further judgement and possible torture. Only once a Di Hun has been judged in each Court and suffered the torture deemed necessary by the Yamas may it enter the Tenth Court for reincarnation.


    Reincarnation – Nai He Bridge

    Once free of the 10 Courts of Di Yu, the Di Hun will return to Huang Quan Road and continue its journey until it reaches Wang Chuan River (忘川河 wàng chuān hé). The river is said to flow blood-yellow and is full of Gu Hun Ye Gui (孤魂野鬼 gū hún yě guǐ) – which translates literally to “Lonely Spirits and Feral Ghosts – that cannot be reincarnated, as well as insects and snakes. The stench that rises from the river is said to be a repugnant fish odour.

    孤魂野鬼 – Lonely Spirits and Feral Ghosts are those poor souls of people who were not buried correctly, have no descendants, or have not received any offerings from family or friends back on earth. They may also be the souls of people who died with rage in their heart, a rage so strong they cannot let go and will not be able to continue on their journey to reincarnation until they release that anger.

    In order to cross the river, Di Hun must cross over the Nai He Bridge (奈何桥 nài hé qiáo). The bridge is divided into three layers; the upper layer is red, the middle layer is dark yellow, and the lowermost layer is black. The lower the level the narrower the bridge becomes, and the more dangerous it is to cross, for in the river, close to the bridge, there are Ti Si Ghosts (替死鬼tì sǐ guǐ) – literally translates to “substitute death ghost.” If a Ti Si Ghost is able to drag a Di Hun into the filthy water, they may swap positions with them and be reincarnated in their place. The Di Hun will be stuck in the river, bitten by copper snakes and iron dogs, unable to continue their path until they successfully drag another Di Hun in to replace them. 


    Reincarnation – One Last Glimpse

    Beside the Nai He Bridge, on the bank of Wang Chuan River, there is a cyan stone called San Sheng Stone (三生石 sān shēng shí) which has written on it detailed records of your previous lives. The words on the stone are a bright blood-red, and there are four large characters engraved on it: "早登彼岸,” which can be interpreted in two ways:

    1. 早日投胎 – may you be reincarnated soon(er rather than later)

    2. 不要犹豫,早日投胎 – don’t hesitate, get reincarnated soon

    Once over the bridge, the Di Hun will come to a mound of earth called the Wang Xiang Tai (望乡台 wàng xiāng tái) – which literally translates to "See Home Platform." Standing on this platform will allow the observer to take one last look at earth, their family, and the loved ones they left behind. The platform is narrow at the base and wide at the top. The front is shaped like the limb of a bow, and the back is as straight as a bowstring. Apart from a winding set of narrow and steep steps, the entire mound is covered in sharp rocks like a thousand daggers and swords. But despite being so dangerous, Di Hun that pass the Wang Xiang Tai cannot help but make the climb, to take one last look at the life they left behind. As a Di Hun makes its way up the narrow steps, Ghost Soldiers (鬼卒  guǐ zú) shout angrily and try to dissuade them.

    Once at the top, a Di Hun is able to see all the continents and oceans on earth. They take one last look at their hometown and loved ones, then drink a cup of water from Wang Chuan River, and forget their previous life.


    Reincarnation – Five-Flavoured Tea of Forgetfulness

    Next to Wang Xiang Tai there is a small stall run by a little old lady called Meng Po (孟婆 mèng pó). If a Di Hun wishes to be reincarnated, they must drink Meng Po’s Soup (孟婆汤 mèng pó tāng) – the Five-Flavoured Tea of Forgetfulness – and wipe all memories of their previous life completely. There are a few variations of how Meng Po’s Soup is made but all versions have one unifying ingredient –  all the tears the Di Hun cried on earth, both sad and happy.

    At this point one might ask, why does the memory need to be wiped twice? Once by Wang Chuan River water and again by Meng Po’s Soup. And though I’m not 100% sure on the answer to this question, there are two things that stick out to me when researching the subject:

    1. A Di Hun is not forced to climb Wang Xiang Tai and take one last look at their hometown which is where the Wang Chuan River water is consumed. Meng Po is therefore there to serve those who did not make the climb and didn’t have their memories wiped already.

    2. Stories and legends about Meng Po’s Soup – outside of but still closely linked to Daoist beliefs – always have one thing in common, they are always about love. As you will see below, before drinking Meng Po’s Soup, Di Hun are given a choice regarding the love of their life (soulmate). It is, therefore, conceivable that the Wang Chuan River water erases all memories of previous life apart from the knowledge of who your soulmate is. That is a job for Meng Po.

    If a Di Hun does not want to forget who their soulmate is and refuses to drink Meng Po's soup, they have another option; they can voluntarily jump into the Wang Chuan River and stay there for over a thousand years. By doing so, they will endure a fate worse than death, but when their time is over, they can be reincarnated with the knowledge of who their soulmate is and seek them out on earth again. Another downside, however, is that during their time in the river, if their soulmate does not make the same choice (i.e. opts to be reincarnated immediately), the trapped Di Hun will be forced to watch their soulmate be reincarnated, often over and over again, before they are set free. For the trapped Di Hun can see their soulmate, but the soulmate cannot see the trapped Di Hun.


    Reincarnation – The 6 Realms

    It should be noted here that not every Di Hun follows the exact same path after death. For those who are deemed worthy (lived a virtuous life in accordance with Daoist/Buddhist teachings), upon death, the spirit will not enter the Shadow Realm, instead, it will join Buddha in the Western Paradise (西方极乐世界 xī fāng jí lè shì jiè), also known as Sukhāvatī. And for those who are deemed sufficiently evil, upon death they will be sent directly to King Qin Guang for judgement. For the large majority however, the path described above is accurate.

    And finally, depending on the varying levels of good and evil, when it comes to reincarnation, there are 6 different realms to which a spirit can be reborn:

    天人道 (tiān rén dào) – Deity

    修罗道 (xiū luō dào) – Demigod

    人道 (rén dào) – Human

    畜生道 (chù shēng dào) – Animal

    恶鬼道 (è guǐ dào) – Ghost

    地狱道 (dì yù dào) – Resident of Di Yu

    Those who were primarily good will be placed into one of the top three realms, and those that were primarily evil will be placed in one of the bottom three realms.