Offerings To The Ancestors #1: 20 Yuan (China, 2006)-Article

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

This colorful Chinese novelty note is 冥鈔 (míngchāo), more commonly known in Western nations as "Hell Money. These notes are produced by a wide array of companies making proper documentation difficult. As many competing companies will copy, combine, and modify designs. As these notes are designed for ritual burning to the ancestors, during funerals and traditional festivals.


To our understanding this note was produced by the brand "Wthree". A popular wholesaler of novelty notes, to the domestic and overseas Chinese markets. Notes produced by "Wthree" during this era follow a general aesthetic. Making them somewhat easier to recognize by novices, by their double Jade Emperor artwork.


Notably the term "Hell Note" is a western misnomer. As the notes refer to dìyù (地狱, "underworld prison") or dìfǔ (地府. "underworld court"). Which is more nuanced then the traditional western concept of hell. As all souls are sent to dìyù to undergo judgment, prior being sent to heaven (天/Tiān). With those souls judged of ill deeds, forced to wonder the mazes of dìyù. Until being judged of being worthy of entry into Tiān. Making dìyù more akin to a form of purgatory, than hell.


Observe

The right side of the observe is dominated by an image of the Jade Emperor (玉皇/Yù Huáng). Who is the presiding ruler of heaven (天/Tiān). The background includes numerous colorful traditional Chinese patterns. Notably if looks closely, they notice false underprint patterns and microprint. In the area surrounding the Jade Emperor, emulating traditional banknotes.


More of these false security measures can be seen on the far right. At the upper right is a number "20", marking the note's false 20 Yuan value. Below is a false black security stamp and "bleed lines". This followed by a traditional stamp and a false denomination indicator.


To the left of the Jade Emperor, along the center left. Are additional embellishments and hànzì (Chinese characters). The upper characters (which extend toward the far left) roughly read "World Bank Co., Ltd.". Below is a number "20" and additional Chinese characters, that read "Twenty Yuan". The before mentioned characters rest above a black lotus flower. Representing death, as opposed to the white lotus of purity/life. The final line text below roughly translates to "currency paper".


Moving to the "watermark area", on the far left. Is a small image of the Jade Emperor, a false Omron ring array can be seen on the upper right. Notably on a proper banknote this feature would prevent scanning. Below is a serial number, it reads "GP: 76995688". Further below are 2 additional elements, false registration element (left) and a small number "20".


Reverse

The reverse is less colorful than the observe, with a reddish-pink scheme. The majority of the reverse is dominated by an illustration of the Wuyi Mountains, Fujian providence. The waterway depicted is the fabled Nine-bend River (九曲河/Jiuqu Xi). The river is renown for the caves and temples, which line its path. Rare and unique teas can be found on the nearby cliffsides. Growing within a sheltered microclimate, fed by warm distant sea air. That has be channeled by the tall-narrow mountains.

Retuning back to note, one can view numerous decorative guilloché patterns. The largest of which is overlaid by the text "HELLNOTE", in large letters. The note's false "20" Yuan value is listed 3 times, along the upper-right, upper-left, and lower-left corners. Notably the number "20" on the upper-right has been rotated leftward, making it vertical.


Similar to the observe, a number of false security elements are present. They can be particularly seen along the "watermark" area. Which features angular fingerprint-like microprints and a pair of Omron ring arrays. The note print year is listed as "2001 年", simply translated as the "Year 2001". Further below is additional Hanzi, roughly translates to "Currency Paper".


Offerings To The Ancestors

"Hell money" is the western term for East Asian joss paper notes. These novelty notes are often burnt as offerings, during Chinese ancestral worship ceremonies. Over the centuries this traditional Chinese practice. Has extended to other religions throughout East Asia. Being adopted by Buddhist, Taoist (China/Taiwan) and Shinto (Japan) temples.


The revenue from selling these notes, often helps to maintain the temple grounds and finance renovations. Although in general, the notes are most often burned during funerals, the Chinese Ghost Festival and Tomb Sweeping Day. The universal tradition being so one's ancestor "has good things in the afterlife".


The act of burning the notes, symbolically represents it's transition from the material to sprit realm. The practice also extends to burning yuánbǎo ("valuable treasure"), special imitations of gold and silver ingots. Although in modern times has extended to paper credit cards, cell phones, and cheques. Since 2006, the burning of more extravagant items (imitation clothes, electronics and cars), has been banned in mainland China.


Traditionally joss paper offerings were handmade from course bamboo paper. Cut into squares and rectangles shapes, hand applied stamps and seals. These handmade notes can be identified, by their personal imperfections and styles. It should be noted the collection of of handmade joss paper notes. Is it's own sub-field within numismatics. As a general rule, one should only buy antique joss paper notes, from reputable dealers.

This it in contrast to to modern mass produced joss paper "banknotes". Which are often made of cheaper rice paper, rather than bamboo. These modern notes almost universally feature whimsical takes on banknotes. Although a few past example have appeared so close to real banknotes. That they've been mistaken for counterfeits, leading to criminal investigations.

Stacks of joss paper "Yuan" and "Dollars". Can bought at many common shops in mainland China.
Stacks of joss paper "Yuan" and "Dollars", in the foreground.

Despite this, most common examples are brightly colored. And can be easily recognized, as novelty notes. Keeping in line with the more playful nature of modern joss paper notes. Unusually high denominations, ranging into the the millions are common. Their observe often features an imagine of the mythical Jade Emperor. While their reverse made differ, may say "Hell Notes", along with their Hanzi (Chinese characters) equivalent.


That said, the collection of joss paper notes, is well suited for youth and causal collectors. As they're low cost and lack the risk attached to potentially purchasing imitations. They're often sold in small sets, making it easy to create a collection, at minimum cost.


Additional Notes

  • Joss paper offering are intended to persuade Yama, Lord of Dìyù for better judgment.

  • The term "hell" was a western concept introduced by Christian missionaries.

  • Some newer "Hell Notes" replace the word "Hell", with "Heaven" or "Paradise".

  • This "Hell Note" features a relatively false low value, making it somewhat uncommon.

  • Most common "Hell Notes" feature absurdly high fictional values, within the millions.


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