Ghost Money

Posted by
David Poulter

There is a saying that people are the same the world over, cultural distinctions, racial identities and language differences seem to evaporate when certain topics arise, and from my experience this seems to be certainly true when considering the following. When I first arrived in Taiwan, I was amazed to see people burning large amounts of yellow paper, on particular days a haze of smoke hung in the air, ornamental incinerators glowed with hot ash, and the smell of combusted paper was
everywhere. Later I was informed that people were burning ‘ghost money’. The general idea was
that on certain religious days marked on the Chinese calendar this paper was traditionally burnt as
an offering to appease various gods and ancestors, and help bring good luck to the family or business.

“various noxious gases and
copious amounts of soot had spread throughout the local vicinity,”


Later I considered the idea on my balcony as I brought in what I thought was my ‘clean
washing’. Unfortunately my washing day had coincided with some festival day, therefore huge
amounts of ghost money had been offered to the spirit world. In reality though, in the
three-dimensional space that I inhabited with others, the result could be judged as being slightly
different. Due to the incineration of wads of coarse yellow paper, various noxious gases and
copious amounts of soot had spread throughout the local vicinity, a grey colored miasma choked
the air and my ‘beautiful clean laundry’ was ruined. I cursed the occasion, I hoped the damn gods
were satisfied. Some time afterwards when I had calmed down I tried to view the whole thing
philosophically, I reasoned that I was living in a different culture, one that genuinely did promote
tolerance in most matters, it was just my narrow Western mind that couldn’t cope with this peculiar rite. So keeping this in mind I promised to endeavor to be more understanding and open-minded, and to embrace this new land and its strange beliefs. I also contemplated myself.

“The word that springs to mind now is ‘lip service’,”

Lets face it I thought I’m not religious, the amount of times I had attended a church could be
counted on one hand. I remember as a child going to a local service, just out of curiosity and
perhaps boredom. The beatific smiles on some members of the congregation actually made me
worry, but what really stayed in my mind was the robotic manner in which most of the church go-ers followed the ceremony. The word that springs to mind now is ‘lip service’, an phrase used to describe
an expression of agreement that is not supported by any real conviction. Growing up in my
hometown I came to recognize the ‘placation’ the church received on a Sunday, and the
devil-may-care attitude the same people emanated during weekdays. With this in mind, I planned to examine this ghost money ritual more closely.

“it seemed that Beelzebub himself was stoking the fires of Hell.”

By fate or chance no occasion arose and eventually I forgot the whole matter. Some time later though one evening I decided to go to the DVD rental shop. I parked my scooter in the allotted place
and strode inside. Subsequently emerging with my film choices, I saw the usual night scene had been transformed into a glowing nightmare, it seemed that Beelzebub himself was stoking the fires of Hell. A shop employee had filled up the brazier and the flames shot wildly in all directions, there were only a few wads left to go into the inferno, and he was obviously bored and in a rush to get the chore done, reverence was the last thing on his mind. My actual scooter was only a meter away, ready to commit itself to the sacrifice. I quickly jumped on the bike and rode off thinking that spirituality is sometimes sadly lacking in religious practices world over.

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