You Can’t Take It With You – Taiwan’s ‘Ghost’ Money
On my first day in Taiwan, I remember thinking how strange it was that people seemed to be burning their rubbish in small bins outside of homes and offices. Seeing more and more people do it, what was even more strange was that the smell was really quite pleasant, and stranger still, everybody’s rubbish seemed to be small yellow pieces of paper. Almost everyone who comes on one of our cycling tours asks questions on the same thing, and the answer doesn’t really clear things up much either: “it’s ghost money”.
Joss, or as it is sometimes referred to, ghost money, is a way of remembering and venerating both the gods and deceased family members. Burning the fake printed currency is supposed to transfer it from the mortal world to the spiritual realm. It ensures that all your family can continue to live in comfort, even if they aren’t actually with you any more (although, quite which spirit runs the local ghost store is a question that I have never had answered).
OK, so far, so different. It’s an interesting practise that most people in the west will never have heard of, but it is relatively common in Chinese culture and is seen as a standard weekly or monthly ritual to honour and remember family and religious beliefs. However, as with almost everything in Taiwan, you can guarantee it gets stranger.
Let’s say that you think Great Aunty June has had enough of just using her ghost money to buy the daily groceries and wants to keep up with the other ghouls in the 21st century? Fear not, you don’t just have to burn paper money for her. In Taiwan it is now possible to by paper mobile phones, credit cards (surely contactless!) and cars. Think Grandad might fancy a spell away from Granny? You can burn him a paper house for a bit of space, or even a paper girlfriend!!
It gets stranger still though! As it turns out, everybody burning paper on their doorstep is not particularly good for the environment. Ghost money has been sited by environmental reviews in Taiwan as a major source of pollution, and some groups are even trying to get the practice banned. One temple in Kinmen, where large quantities of paper are normally burned, has even taken the step of replacing their fire pit with a wide-screen TV showing footage of people burning the money on a loop! More eco friendly certainly.
However, there has been backlash to the proposed ban, and not just from the religious minded. The paper feeds a whole industry in Taiwan. There are factories in Taoyuan and Kaohsiung dedicated to the manufacture of the paper and shops in every city across the country that sell nothing but Joss Paper. If you are short of time, there are now even a growing number of money burning services that will burn the money for you in incinerators on your behalf!
For all that this may seem a little eccentric, many Taiwanese people who do not necessarily believe in religion at all still practice money burning. They claim that it is a cathartic experience when dealing with the grief of a loss of a loved one. Respect for family elders is more important in Taiwanese culture than in many other countries, and taking the time to think of them can, for many people, be separate from the spiritual overtones.
Whilst not particularly eco-friendly, it is probably not a terrible practice, and if it brings people a little peace we say go for it! Now, where did I leave my paper bicycle?
You might also like to check out some of our other fabulous locations for road cycling. Learn more about Pedal Sri Lanka to discover the island paradise by bike!
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