"For hundreds of years, Chinese have burned stacks of so-called "ghost money" for their ancestors to help ensure their comfort in the afterlife. Traditionally, paper money burned in China came in small denominations of fives or tens. But more recent generations of money printers have grown less restrained. This year, on the narrow Hong Kong streets that are filled with shops that specialize in offerings for the dead, there appeared a foot-long, rainbow-colored $1 trillion bill. "What we have right now is hyperinflation," says University of Hong Kong economist Timothy Hau. "It's like operating in Zimbabwe."
"Inflation is everywhere, so of course it happens in the underworld too," says Li Yin-kwan, 42. The $1 trillion bill is the most popular note in her shop, she says, "because it allows the ghosts to buy many things, such as a fancy car and a big house." Still, she said that there is also a place for burning smaller-value bills. "The ghosts need spare change to buy daily necessities, too," she says, such as clothes and food. On a recent Friday, all the trillion-dollar bills in her shop and the shops next door were sold out. "I'm sorry," Ms. Li said to one customer. "There are still some $100 billion notes left."
Vendors like Ms. Li point to other worrying signs of an underworld economic crisis, including the proliferation of paper credit cards from the Bank of the Underworld—some adorned with pink diamond motifs and VIP stickers, and others colored mint green like American Express. While he does sell $1 trillion bills (HK$50, or about US$6.50, gets you a stack worth $100 trillion in underworld currency), as well as ghost money closely resembling U.S. greenbacks, he draws the line at paper credit cards. "I don't think it's a good habit for the living or the dead," he says.
Hong Kong's central bank, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, says it is powerless to address underworld inflation because it lacks the regulatory authority. "As a result, [the HKMA] does not collect monetary statistics on the amount or value of currency in circulation in the 'afterworld' or seek to regulate its issuance activities," said a spokeswoman, who apologized for not being funnier in her reply.
According to Chinese tradition, burning ghost money—which in many ways is more of a cultural than religious practice—is a vital part of ancestor care. The traditional view of the Chinese afterlife is that it closely mirrors the real world, with its own otherworldly bureaucracy full of officials that need careful cajoling—not to mention bribes. "We've got corruption in the underworld as well," says Maria Tam, Chinese University of Hong Kong anthropologist. For example, she says, if you burn a paper house for your ancestors, you have to burn money as well. "Otherwise some petty bureaucrat down there will probably take it for their own," said Ms. Tam. "So you need money to bribe them."
BURNING WEALTH in EFFIGY
"Eskimo life is based upon communism. What is obtained by hunting and fishing belongs to the clan. But in several tribes, especially in the West, under the influence of the Danes, private property penetrates into their institutions. However, they have an original means for obviating the inconveniences arising from a personal accumulation of wealth which would soon destroy their tribal unity. When a man has grown rich, he convokes the folk of his clan to a great festival, and, after much eating, distributes among them all his fortune. On the Yukon river, Dall saw an Aleonte family distributing in this way ten guns, ten full fur dresses, 200 strings of beads, numerous blankets, ten wolf furs, 200 beavers, and 500 zibelines. After that they took off their festival dresses, gave them away, and, putting on old ragged furs, addressed a few words to their kinsfolk, saying that though they are now poorer than any one of them, they have won their friendship.
Like distributions of wealth appear to be a regular habit with the Eskimos, and to take place at a certain season, after an exhibition of all that has been obtained during the year.30 In my opinion these distributions reveal a very old institution, contemporaneous with the first apparition of personal wealth; they must have been a means for re-establishing equality among the members of the clan, after it had been disturbed by the enrichment of the few. The periodical redistribution of land and the periodical abandonment of all debts which took place in historical times with so many different races (Semites, Aryans, etc.), must have been a survival of that old custom. And the habit of either burying with the dead, or destroying upon his grave, all that belonged to him personally -- a habit which we find among all primitive races -- must have had the same origin. In fact, while everything that belongs personally to the dead is burnt or broken upon his grave, nothing is destroyed of what belonged to him in common with the tribe, such as boats, or the communal implements of fishing. The destruction bears upon personal property alone. At a later epoch this habit becomes a religious ceremony. It receives a mystical interpretation, and is imposed by religion, when public opinion alone proves incapable of enforcing its general observance.
And, finally, it is substituted by either burning simple models of the dead man's property (as in China), or by simply carrying his property to the grave and taking it back to his house after the burial ceremony is over -- a habit which still prevails with the Europeans as regards swords, crosses, and other marks of public distinction."