Hell Money – The Ritual of Ancestor Worship

The photo to your left is of a shrine which forms the basis of a Chinese ancestor worship ritual. We took a series of photos of this event on our first trip to Singapore in 2005. We were wandering around the edge of Chinatown near our hotel when we suddenly heard a cacaphony consisting of banging of drums and cymbals and loud chanting. We stood on the sidewalk next to an apartment building where the noise was coming from and soon a succession of men in colorful robes and their assistants came down the stairs carrying all manner of items including paper lanterns, stacks of bank notes and other adornments along with a makeshift shrine which they proceeded to erect on the street not far from where we stood.

Much to our delight they set the whole thing on fire after it had been carefully constucted. Throwing yet more items on the shrine as it burned, causing the flames to go ever higher. Most of the procession left after the shrine had been assembled and the Taoist priests had performed their ritual, leaving a couple of people to make sure the whole thing didn’t get out of control and that everything got burned up. It was fascinating to watch and we had no idea what the whole thing was about. We had already decided we liked Singapore, this event really fueled our desire to return in the future.

When it was mostly burned down the remaining men left, I suppose to let the whole thing cool down so that it could be disposed of later. We were the only ones on the street who seemed to be fascinated by the whole thing, leading me to believe it’s a fairly common ritual, so I did some research to find out what it had all been about.

The lanterns and such are gifts to the ancestors, but the primary focus is the paper money, called Hell money, that can be printed in the style of western or Chinese paper bank notes. In Chinese cultures, the hell bank note has no special name or status, and is simply regarded and referred to as yet another form of joss paper. The notes are always in large denominations ranging from $10,000, $100,000, $1,000,000 or even $500,000,000. In Singapore, it is extremely common to find 10 billion dollar banknotes in shops. We eventually saw these for sale once we were aware of their usage.

Every bill has an image of the Jade Emperor, considered the monarch of heaven in religious Taoism. The back of each bill features a portrait of the bank of Hell. The reason it’s called Hell money is that in Chinese mythology, the name of hell does not carry a negative connotation. Hell in chinese mythology is called Di Yu, a maze of underground levels and chambers where souls are taken to atone for their earthly sins. When the word hell was introduced to China by Christian missionaries who preached that all non-Christian Chinese people would “go to hell” when they die, it was believed that the word “Hell” was the proper English term for the Chinese afterlife, and hence the word was adopted.

As such, the word “Hell” usually appears on the notes used for ancestor rituals, however, some printed notes omit the word “hell” and replace it with “heaven” or “paradise”. These particular bills are usually found in joss packs meant to be burned for Chinese deities.

There are considerations concerning the use of Hell Bank Notes that some Chinese people take seriously. It is not advised to give a hell bank note to a living person as a gift, even as a joke; it is often considered as wishing the person’s death, which is a grave insult. Hell bank notes are usually kept in places nobody can see, such as cupboards, as having these notes around in the house is considered bad luck.

So that’s the lowdown on Hell Money and Chinese Ancestor worship as it’s practiced in Singapore.

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2 responses to “Hell Money – The Ritual of Ancestor Worship

  1. This was a very interesting read. Surely, this Hell Money ritual is not the sole reason you wish to return to Singapore, eh?

  2. godlessmonkey

    No, not at all. That was just one of the first interesting thing we encountered there. There are many reasons to go to Singapore. Read my piece about Smith Street.

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