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What is Joss Paper?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Joss paper is paper printed with various representations of earthly goods, such as money, which is burned during ceremonies meant to honor ancestors or deities in some parts of Asia. Paper designed to represent money is the most common form, although it can also represent houses, cars, credit cards, and an assortment of other things. It is typically made of white bamboo or rice paper, and may be decorated with seals or stamps.

By tradition, people burn joss paper as an offering to deities, and to provide their deceased relatives with things they might need in the afterlife. This practice is not performed in all parts of Asia; some Buddhists, for example, find the thought of sending representations of earthly goods to their relatives inappropriate. It is common enough, however, that this type of paper is often found in Asian markets, and street vendors often sell it near temples.

Joss paper is also called ghost or spirit money, and sometimes as "hell bank notes." In Asia, "hell" doesn't carry quite the same connotations that it does for Westerners; it simply refers to the afterlife, where people are judged. Hell bank notes are sent to relatives by burning so that they can bribe the king of hell to escape early, and so that they can spend lavishly in the afterlife. These papers are often quite elaborate, and they typically feature a portrait of the Jade Emperor, who rules the afterlife.

In addition to burning joss paper, people typically burn incense and provide offerings of food during ceremonies held to honor the dead and various deities. The paper may be folded into specific shapes which are meant to bring on good luck, and people typically burn lavish amounts to ensure that the offering is well received. Depending on the region, the paper may be decorated with seals, stamps, pieces of contrasting paper, engraved designs, or other motifs. Folding joss paper is often an important part of the ceremony, as it distinguishes the paper from actual money — burning money is considered to be unlucky in Asian cultures.

A number of superstitions surround joss paper in Asian society. As a general rule, it should never be given to a living person, because this is viewed as highly offensive. It is also kept concealed when it is stored at home, because it is supposed to bring down bad luck when left on display. Joss paper should never be used for anything other than its intended purpose, and while Westerners may be tempted to use it for decorating, they should be aware that Asian guests may be offended or feel uncomfortable when it is on display, as it is associated with death.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon341359 — On Jul 10, 2013

I've been given some joss paper to put up in my house as decoration. I am uncomfortable doing this. How can I "get rid" of the joss paper so as not to offend spirits or bring bad luck upon me and my home? Can I return it to my friend, or will this bring bad luck to them?

By googlefanz — On Sep 10, 2010

When I was in Hong Kong, I saw a set that you could burn for a kid that had school supplies, toys, and clothes for the child.

Oh, and if you don't expect it, seeing somebody hurling big piles of money into a fire pit will definitely throw you off. The first time I saw someone doing it I had no idea that the money was fake, so I was completely bewildered.

It really is a very thoughtful tradition, though, and a good way to feel connected to your loved ones.

By StreamFinder — On Sep 10, 2010

Did you know that many Asian people don't only burn the money -- they've got whole sets of things made out of joss paper to burn.

Seriously, everything you could think of, from three piece suits to packs of cigarettes to sushi.

A lot of times you can get things in sets; for instance, a set to burn for a woman might have two or three dresses, some jewelry, a purse, and a makeup compact -- all made out of paper, of course.

They even have houses, and whole dining sets, for the truly ambitious. What's really creepy though, is that sometimes they have little people that you can burn too, so your loved ones can have servants in the afterlife. I'm still not quite sure how I feel about that...

By rallenwriter — On Sep 10, 2010

Joss paper is so cool -- but you're right, people do get really uncomfortable around it. It's actually really beautiful, what with all the designs and engravings, and a lot of times joss paper money has all kinds of different colors, even gold on it.

It is so beautiful that when I first saw it, I wanted to use it as stationery -- but then I thought about how that would probably creep out everybody, getting letters on "hell money".

Too bad...it really is very beautiful.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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