When i was child, growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, a friend of mine's family ran a grocery store. They were Chinese, and although almost everything in their store was exactly like the stuff in all the other small groceries in Berkeley, they also carried a few Chinese specialty items up by the counter. One of these was Hell Money. The word Hell was introduced to China, my friend's parents told me, by Christian missionaries who claimed that non-converted Chinese folks were all "going to Hell" when they died -- and the Chinese, thinking "Hell" was the proper English term for the afterlife, adopted the word. Thus, Hell Bank Notes are simply Afterlife Monetary Offerings or Spirit Money.
As they explained it to me, when people die, their spirits or ghosts go to an afterlife where they continue to live on, doing the same sort of things why did while alive, eating, drinking, wearing clothes, playing with their children, and so forth. In order to ensure that they have lots of good things in the afterlife, their relatives send them presents, and one of the best things to send them is Hell Bank Notes -- money to spend in the afterworld. In addition to Hell Bank Notes, some Chinese grocery stores also sell elaborately-made and multi-coloured paper watches, clothes, cars, Hell Credit Cards, and even refrigerators for the purpose of burning in the belief that doing so sends their essence to the afterlife world, where the recipient will be glad to receive such material goods.
The Hell Money i used to buy as a kid was always green, like the 10,000 dollar bill shown above, because it was made for American Chinese people to use, and American money is green. But in Hong Kong and Singapore, there is no such drab restriction on the colour of money. There, as witness the lovely Hell Bank Note for 5000,000,000 dollars, Hell Money can be a real work of art. Hell Bank Notes are printed on thin paper, and their designs change from year to year, making them quite collectible. Like earthly notes, they bear serial numbers, and the denominations vary, as do their sizes. They are sold in packs of 30 to 50 bills, wrapped in cellophane.
The images found on Hell Bank notes printed in Asia convey quite a bit of symbolic information that is missing in their American-Chinese counterparts. On the front, they always feature the Lord of Hell (better thought of as the Emperor of the Afterworld), a middle-aged bearded man who wears a characteristic flat-topped hat from which strings of beads dangle fore-and-aft. I am told that he was once a living Emperor of China, and a great leader, and thus was given dominion over the Underworld. The backs of the bills usually show the Bank of Hell, an old-fashioned tile-roofed temple-like building, presumably where deposits of Hell Money are kept in the accounts of the deceased; a few feature foo-dogs instead of the building. The words "Hell Bank Note" always appear on the back in English as well as Chinese.
Others symbols on the faces of the Asian Hell Money deserve individual description: To the left of the Emperor of Hell on the 500,000,000 dollar note there is a golden bowl piled high with offerings -- slipper-shaped gold bullion bars, polished branches of red coral, and peacock feathers. To his right is a stylized lotus flower. At 4" by 7 1/2 ", this is the largest Hell Bank Note i have seen in terms of size, although larger denominations do exist.
The 3 /1/2" x 7" bill from Singapore for 500 dollars carries images of the Emperor of Hell; a phoenix bird (feng huang). said to foretell good luck; and a happy boy holding a large carp fish. The carp symbolizes money in Chinese iconography because the Chinese words for "fish" and "money" are homonyms. Pictures of children holding a carp or of two carp leaping together are a common symbol of monetary luck, found on Chinese key chains, fabrics, and wall-hangings. Items imprinted with the double-carp image are often given as New Year's gifts.
Both the 100 dollar and 50 dollar Hell Bank Notes shown here feature the ch'i lin, a propitious fire-horse-tiger figure from Chinese mythology said to grant illustrious progeny. On the 100 dollar note the ch'i lin is ridden by a young boy (the veritable illustrious progeny), who holds a single blooming lotus stalk, with the additional image of a luck-foretelling phoenix bird to the right. On the 50 dollar note the ch'i lin is prancing by himself, a vase of flowers to the right. The vase of flowers also appears on one of the 10 dollar bills shown here, along with a pair of thistles and a junk-style boat with words written on the sail.
Another pretty 10 dollar Hell Bank Note from Singapore depicts a baby holding a carp. Lotus flowers bloom behind the lucky child and a stylized lotus also appears to the far side of the Hell Emperor. The back side of this bill, like most other Hell Bank Notes, features a monotone picture of the Bank of Hell; this one is especially nice -- it is rendered in delicate shades of blue and the bank sits beside a small lake, unlike most of the bills, on which the bank is rendered in the form of simple line-art and located on a city street.
There are several ways to send Spirit Money to one's departed relatives -- it can be thrown to the winds during the funeral procession, left on a grave at any time, or burned in ceremonial fires during the yearly Hungry Ghost Festival.
In addition to its traditional use as an offering among Chinese
and Chinese-Americans, Hell Money has also found a niche
among practitioners of various forms of eclectic magic in
the United States. Some people employ it as symbolic money
when working money-drawing spells, using it to decorate
their altars, adding it to money-drawing mojo
bags, or money-drawing lodestone spells. Others utilize it as a form of attractant or
pay-off for benign or infernal spirits when engaging in Black
Arts such as necromancy, invocations, crossroads work, or
performing a ritual in a graveyard.
copyright © 1995-2003 catherine yronwode. All rights reserved.
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