Chinese ancestral worship is an integral part of Chinese society. Based on the Confucius concept of filial piety – virtues of respecting one’s elders and ancestors, ancestral worship is a means to provide the deceased with continuous happiness and well-being in the afterlife.
Now, I wouldn’t consider my family religious but there are certain aspects of Chinese ancestral worship that our family practises. I remember during the Chinese New Year celebrations watching my Grandma perform some rituals to welcome the spirits back into the family home. Approaching the alter that was covered with plates of fruits and candles, a black and white photo of my deceased Grandpa hanging high above, my Grandma lit the candles and flamed the joss sticks. With the joss sticks in her hands, my Grandma bowed her head in front of the alter and said a quiet little pray. She then slowly made her way outside to the front porch and suddenly began calling out to the deceased family spirits.
‘Come, come everyone! It’s Chinese New Year and everyone has returned home! Come along! Enter! We welcome you back!’ she yelled.
It was intensely intriguing watching my 90-year-old Chinese Grandma going through the ceremonial process. I couldn’t say for certain that I felt a sudden change of ambience in the house, but I did enjoy the thought of ghost reunion; all my past ancestors floating above us, getting together and gossiping about the living.
‘Oh my, look at Brendan, he got a bit chubby over the years~!’
Prosperity is an important ideal in the Chinese mind frame. Former Chinese Community Party Chairman, Deng XiaoPing, once famously declared that ‘To be rich is glorious!’ I strongly believe this ideal of striving for prosperity stems from the basis of all Chinese tradition: Family. One strives to acquire fortune and prosperity in order to provide for one’s family and health. Now, the interesting thing about prosperity in the Chinese psyche is that it doesn’t necessarily stops once you’re dead, in fact it actually continues.
Joss paper, or alternatively known as Ghost Money, is the currency of the dead. When a loved one recently departs, joss money is used to honour the living memory of that person. The offering is made in order for the deceased to be able to buy all their needs or wants in the afterlife. The traditional joss paper has a basic design featuring golden Chinese characters representing the sum of money.
The more contemporary and absurdly fascinating form of joss money is the bank note, also hauntingly known as Hell Money. This spiritual monetary note looks almost identical to the US dollar note; except for the fact that it features an outrageous large sum of money ($10,000-$500,000), the official seal from the ‘Bank of Hell’ and the image of the Jade Emperor – the ruler of the Chinese afterlife.
Recently I have heard that ‘spiritual credit cards’ are becoming more common form of spiritual money exchange. You can purchase a credit card and offer it to the deceased, where they will be able to continually live in debt in the afterlife. I know people who are currently under heavy credit card debt; I don’t think they would wish to continue this habit once they’ve moved on to the afterlife.
Additionally, other forms of offering that one can deliver to the deceased are commercial goods. Throughout Asia, wherever there are a large population of Chinese, you can find stores that supply perfect papier-mâché replicas of common material goods. Everything from papier-mâché whisky bottles to papier-mâché Calvin Klein suits can be purchased and then burnt as an offering to your ancestors. Most of these replicas are beautifully made and unmistakably resemble their real-life counterparts. I once remembered seeing an uncanny life-size papier-mâché BMW 7 Series being completely torched to the ground, which begs the questions: what kind of traffic laws do they have in the afterlife? Do they drive on the right side of the road or the left? Had it not been for my dad, I honestly would’ve thought it was a senseless act of vandalism.
These rituals are an interesting way at how a culture deals with death and what happens once we’ve move on from this life. We all deal with grief and loss in our own unique ways. The Chinese way at looking at the afterlife is fascinating not only because of their obsession with prosperity and fortune, but this aspect of the Chinese culture helps create a warm image that the deceased will live in eternal happiness. The papier-mâché BMW 7 Series that I previously mention isn’t just about the recently deceased’s taste in high-class automobiles, but perhaps it represents the hard-working aspiration that the person strived for throughout their life. A friend once told me of a touching story of how they made prawn dumpling offerings to their departed grandmother because it was her favourite food. It’s all relative to the living memory; honouring that special someone and their life’s journey.
For me, I’d like to think that once I’ve departed, my descendants will make offerings of all the things that I could’ve never afforded or was denied during my living years. Just to name a few of my list:
- A papier-mâché PS3
- A papier-mâché Ferrari Enzo
- A papier-mâché Ducati Desmosedici RR
- And perhaps, an endless supply of papier-mâché onion rings.
I just only hope that these goods translate as real working goods in the afterlife. It would really suck if I find out that a papier-mâché Ferrari Enzo end up being exactly just that, a papier-mâché replica that doesn’t drive and is completely useless.