For Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors

For Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors: The Chinese Tradition of Paper Offerings

Janet Lee Scott
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    For Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors
    Book Description:

    Offerings of various kinds – food, incense, paper money and figures – have been central to Chinese culture for millennia, and as a public, visual display of spiritual belief, they are still evident today in China and in Chinatowns around the world. Using Hong Kong as a case study, Janet Scott looks at paper offerings from every conceivable angle – how they are made, sold, and used. Her comprehensive investigation touches on virtually every aspect of Chinese popular religion as it explores the many forms of these intricate objects, their manufacture, their significance, and their importance in rituals to honor gods, care for ancestors, and contend with ghosts. Throughout For Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors, paper offerings are presented as a vibrant and living tradition expressing worshippers' respect and gratitude for the gods, as well as love and concern for departed family members. Ranging from fake paper money to paper furniture, servant dolls, cigarettes, and toiletries – all multihued and artfully constructed – paper offerings are intended to provide for the needs of those in the spirit world. Readers are introduced to the variety of paper offerings and their uses in worship, in assisting worshippers with personal difficulties, and in rituals directed to gods, ghosts, and ancestors. We learn of the manufacture and sale of paper goods, life in paper shops, the training of those who make paper offerings, and the symbolic and artistic dimensions of the objects. Finally, the book considers the survival of this traditional craft, the importance of flexibility and innovation, and the role of compassion and filial piety in the use of paper offerings.

    eISBN: 978-988-220-052-4
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    Some months into the formal research on paper offerings, during a visit to a retail shop in my old Kowloon neighborhood of Phoenix New Village (鳳凰新邨), a woman shopkeeper jokingly asked me and my assistant, “Why are you spending so much time trying to understand the details of these items? You young people should be doing other things rather than working so hard to get this information.” While we were flattered to be described as young and hard-working, the question did make us stop for a moment and consider the reasons for studying paper offerings; after all, weren’t there other,...

  4. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  5. 1 The Practices of Paper Burning
    (pp. 19-52)

    It was the middle of the month, when people burn paper offerings to the gods for luck and protection. A young woman, obviously a shop assistant from the trendy boutique behind her, carried a battered old oil tin with its top removed across the sidewalk to the curb. She was dressed in the height of fashion — leather mini skirt, lace bra and matching blouse, rhinestone-studded hip belt and knee-high red boots — and with hair sculpted and tinted pink. She opened a large red plastic bag, and took out a variety of spirit money, mostly gold and silver, with...

  6. 2 Individual Worship and Personal Concerns
    (pp. 53-78)

    Hong Kong’s many temples are lively with devotees during the birthdays of the deities, the Lunar New Year, and other religious holidays.¹ At other times, worshippers visit the temple or worship at home for more personal reasons. As Marjorie Topley once observed, “A good deal of ‘popular’ religious activity — performances of the kind I would call ‘Little Tradition’ — is in fact individual. People act singly, or with the aid of a companion or sometimes a ritual expert, to change circumstances in their lives” (1966: 99). Topley classified rituals as either “regular” rites, those with broad objectives such as...

  7. 3 Gratitude to the Gods, Charity for the Ghosts
    (pp. 79-102)

    The numerous discussions of the heavenly pantheon of Chinese religion (see, for example, Hayes 1924; Heinze 1981; Harrell 1986; Irwin 1990; Stevens 1997, 2001), describe a world populated by a myriad of supernatural beings. In old Hong Kong, gods were given honor as protectors (see, for example, Bone 1889a: 367) and many holidays have long expressed worshippers’ gratitude for the gods’ care and attention. Today, Hong Kong’s temples (Savidge 1977; Stevens 1983; Lang and Ragvald 1993; Lang 1997) serve a significant population of faithful worshippers and seasonal visitors and house deities of diverse origins, both great and small. “In a...

  8. 4 Remembering the Ancestors
    (pp. 103-136)

    A 1939 photograph of the elaborate funeral procession in Beijing for the leader of the Zhili clique Wu Pei Fu (吳佩孚, 1874–1939) shows three nearly full-sized paper soldiers, mounted on horseback and fully uniformed, and no doubt meant for the lord’s protection in the next world (Zhu 1997: 450; see also Bonavia 1995: 85–97; Schoppa 2000: 199). H.Y. Lowe’s [Luo Xinyao] 1941 writings in the Peking Chronicle describe a set of three paper houses, one a storehouse holding paper ingots and a model of an automobile, all destined to be burned for the funeral of the old grandfather...

  9. 5 The World of Shops and Customers
    (pp. 137-158)

    If visiting today, Burkhardt would find Hong Kong’s retail paper shops (衣紙舖) little changed from the ones he knew and described in this passage written over fifty years ago. Hong Kong’s paper shops still present a feast for the eye, attracting foreign residents and tourists (Anderson 1970: 154)¹ as well as a regular clientele of local worshippers. Paper shops have been a feature of Chinese villages and towns since the Song (Cave 1998; Qin 1958), and are established features of Hong Kong’s urban landscape.

    In Hong Kong, those seeking paper offerings for worship can make their purchases in a variety...

  10. 6 Learning the Trade, Learning to Craft
    (pp. 159-184)

    A master of funeral offerings summarized his experience by telling us:

    When I first came to Hong Kong, I came across the paper shops. I thought that paper pitching was so beautiful and I thought that it was not just a superstition, but an art. You have to make whatever the customers want, so my interests developed. I went to the shops and stood in front of the doors to observe, when the people finished [making] an object, I used a ruler to measure. I learned by myself, and not from a master. When I opened a shop, I continued...

  11. 7 Colors, Sounds, and Symbols: The Making of an Auspicious Object
    (pp. 185-200)

    The widespread use of paper offerings in Hong Kong rituals underscores their identification as auspicious objects. While objects can acquire power in a number of ways,¹ one method is the extensive use of elements which are themselves auspicious. The decorative elements in a paper offering not only enhance its beauty but also convey ideas and associations to the worshipper. In a sense, the offerings can be read as texts, in which the combinations of auspicious elements are understood by the worshipper.

    The first feature of paper offerings that attracts the eye is their brilliant, exuberant color — red, gold, rose,...

  12. 8 Customers and Customs
    (pp. 201-214)

    The actual number of Hong Kong worshippers using paper offerings is difficult to estimate. Results of the June 2003 survey revealed that 26 percent of respondents described their religious belief as, “ancestor worship/Chinese folk belief.” Within the sample as a whole (776), 85 percent disagreed with the statement, “I do not believe in burning paper offerings,” and respondents burned paper offerings for the following occasions: Qing Ming (56.7 percent), Chong Yang (43.7 percent), Festival of the Hungry Ghosts (39.9 percent), and the Lunar New Year (37.5 percent). Interviews with the owners of retail paper shops, wholesalers and workshops have already...

  13. 9 Life in Paper
    (pp. 215-236)

    While Arthur Wolf’s comments described the modernizing Taiwan of the 1970s, they are appropriate for Hong Kong, especially his recognition that beliefs endure. How has this customary practice, the crafting and use of paper offerings, proven so enduring and successful? The settings and context for the items and the meanings they have for worshippers and professionals are part of the answer. First among these are the political attitudes towards religious belief and practice and the flexibility of the trade.

    An important factor is the attitudes of national and local government, as such attitudes may constitute serious impediments to the continuance...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 237-260)
  15. Glossary
    (pp. 261-272)
  16. References Cited
    (pp. 273-292)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 293-311)