Daily Needs in the Next World

Ghost money in a small shrine in Taichung
An unusual form of joss paper in a small shrine in Taichung.

Spend any amount of time in Taiwan and you’ll invariably see people burning ghost money, more generally known as joss paper in English and zhǐqián 紙錢 in Chinese. Pictured here is a particular kind of joss paper known as jīngyī 經衣, which features iconographic representations of the everyday goods spirits are likely to use in their daily lives. This batch is emblazoned with clothing, hats, shoes, combs, mirrors, scissors, cigarettes, matches, and various modes of transportation among other things I can’t reliably identify. The idea here is that you can burn this paper and these goods will be sent to the next world—and ghosts lingering in the area, their material needs met, will be more kindly disposed to the living. Ironically, burning joss paper is not exactly good for anyone’s health , nor is it environmentally-friendly to say the least.

For whatever reason I had not seen this form of joss paper until peering into a glass case next to a small hilltop shrine just off Fùtái Street 富台街 in Fùtái New Village 富台新村, East Taichung 台中市東區. I found it while snooping around several abandoned buildings near a bend in the road obscuring the community air raid shelter, another element of Taiwanese history that has recently sparked my interest. From a quick search it would appear that this military community was founded in 1953 after KMT general Huang Chieh 黃杰 and his troops retreated from Phú Quốc in Vietnam to Taiwan. Usually I might wonder if anyone still came around to make burnt offerings to the ghosts of old soldiers that no doubt haunt the neighbourhood—but I am quite sure this is being taken care of. Taiwanese treat this sort of thing as a matter of grave importance.

By the way, there are indeed more modern versions of this sort of joss paper for sending smartphones, laptops, cameras, luxury cars, and other fashionable consumer goods to your departed love ones. I somewhat doubt this is common practice though.