I was struck with disbelief when I saw a replica of the 100 Yuan Bill with an inscription Hell Bank Note.
I was like “what kind of sick joke is this? Who will make a replica 100 Yuan Bill with Hell Bank inscribed on it?” Little did I know it was part of the Chinese tradition to send money for the dead in Hell?
I have seen people gathered on cross roads burning paper items, but I never paid attention to what they were doing until I saw a huge pile of Hell Bank Notes set ablaze.
It was there and then I tried to find out what this Hell Bank not was all about.
The wind was strong and the smoke rising from the flaming pile was thick and grayish, the orange and red flames were dancing disjointedly according to the rhythm of the wind leaving a ghost like shadow of those engaged in the rite.
A Chinese lad who was engaged in the fire ritual explained that twice every year different families gather on cross roads burning paper gifts and replica of the real money with a bold inscription on it ‘Hell Bank Note.’
According to Chinese tradition, this burnt offering is for the deceased who might have ended up in Hell. This tradition could be traced thousands of years when Buddhist created paper money which they perceived as a legal tender in Hell.
Contrary to popular Christian belief in which hell is seen as an evil place run by Satan.
For the Chinese, tradition Hell is a place of learning and a place of spirit waiting to be reborn. Simply put Hell is another dimension of life.
Chinese word for Hell is Diyu meaning “underworld prison”, it is also called Difu “underworld court”.
In traditional Chinese beliefs, it is thought to be where the souls of the dead are first judged by the Lord of the Earthly Court (Yan Wang).
After being judged they are either escorted to heaven or sent into the maze of underground levels and chambers to atone for their sins. They believe that even in the Earthy Court, spirits need to use money.
The tradition believes that the use of fire rituals will help them to contact relatives who have gone through death’s gate, and by burning the Hell money cleanses the spirit of greed. The larger the denomination burnt the more purchasing power the loved person in Hell has.
A Chinese explained that the meaning of the word Hell among the Chinese is a classical case of misinterpretation.
They explained that the word was first introduced to China by Christian missionaries who preached that all non-Christian Chinese people would “go to Hell” when they died, and thus they perceived that Hell is the English term of Afterlife
The two most traditional times of the year to burn Hell Bank Notes are during Ching Ming (The Festival of Pure Brightness) which is celebrated on the 15th day from the Spring Equinox (in April date varies) and Yue Laan (The Hungry Ghosts Festival) which is celebrated during the 7th month of the Chinese calendar (which is August in the Lunar Calendar).
The Ching Ming is like the equivalent to the Roman Catholic All Souls Day, while the Hungry Ghosts Festival is believed to be the reborn of evil souls.
During the Ching Ming Festival, Chinese do not only send Hell money to the deceased, they visit the graves or burial grounds and also fly kites in the shapes of animals or characters.
For the Hungry Ghost festival, it is believed that during this month, the gates of Hell are opened up and ghosts are free to roam the earth where they seek food and entertainment.
These ghosts are believed to be ancestors of those who forgot to pay tribute to them after they died, or those who were never given a proper ritual send-off.
They have long needle-thin necks because they have not been fed by their family or as a punishment so that they are unable to swallow.
Family members offer prayers to their deceased relatives, offer food and drink and burn Hell Bank Notes
By Ophaniel Gooding in China