Saturday, August 18, 2007

What about joss papers? What is the history behind it?

Below is an extract from a book on Daoism that I did not managed to finish writing. Nevertheless, I have put it up here to share the parts I have written on joss papers since now is the seventh lunar month aka Ghost Month.

What about joss papers? What is the history behind it?

The earliest record of the use of joss papers is found to be during the Six Dynasties. Life in ancient China was extremely difficult. The people lived simple life and most were farmers. Most of them toiled year after year without enough to eat and wear. To fulfill their desires and hopes for a good fortune, a great harvest, a baby boy, an official promotion, or simply freedom from the corrupt authorities, the Chinese people and the rural population in particular created various deities to suit their needs. Literally everything can be deified and worshipped, be it a beast or a historical human figure. Through the indigenous form of early printmaking called Zhi Ma (literally means paper horse), these hopes and desires were then expressed. Zhi ma was also called Jia Ma (first horse). Images of deities, gods and immortals that the Chinese worshiped were carved onto blocks of wood which was then used to print on paper. These prints were then burned as offerings and sacrifices. This ancient form of paper joss was called paper horse as many had images of horses on them.

Eventually, these beliefs were complied and presented as two scriptures, which were claimed to be direct celestial instructions from Lao-zi in Heaven. The two Daoist scriptures are generally known as the Shou Sheng Jing (The Rebirth Classic). Like many other texts, the authors were never mentioned nor were there any indications of the time they were written. ‘Shou’ here means to receive and accept while ‘Sheng’ stands for birth. Together, they represent the acceptance of undertaking a human life. Tradition has it that before we are born into the human realm, we are given certain amount of wealth from the spirit world’s treasury for us to use once we successfully take up our human forms. This amount of wealth must be returned to the treasury during our lifetime. Failure to do so will bring forth illnesses and catastrophes upon oneself. And the method to return the wealth will be to burn paper money. A later Buddhist imitation of these scriptures also appeared with the word ‘Shou’ changed to the one meaning longevity. This new version preached a similar theme as that of the original Daoist version.

But why the use of paper and not other materials? Well, there is a tale on how it all started. A man named Cai Lun invented paper, however the people did not take a fancy to what he created. He pondered very long on how to market his invention and came up with the idea to collaborate with his wife to stage his death and bury him for seven days. Breathing through a tube while buried in a coffin, Cai Lun managed to stay alive for seven days, all the while his wife was burning away his stockpiles of paper. She pretended to blame the husband’s death on the paper because he was depressed about not being able to sell his invention and his health deteriorated. On the seventh day, Cai Lun miraculously came back alive from his grave and everyone attributed his resurrection to the burning of his invention, paper. And from then on, the belief spread far and wide among the Chinese. Whether this event actually happened, no one knows for sure.

In present day Daoism, there are many types of paper joss but mostly are representations of money in forms of gold and silver ingots. Paper josses of gold ingots are offered to celestial gods while silver ones are meant for deceased family members. There are also josses for requesting favors as well as paying back the deities for any tasks performed by them. Stemming from the belief that the netherworld is an exact replication of our world and to fulfill families’ obligation of filial piety, joss images of daily essentials and luxuries like clothes, cigarettes, cars, houses, handphones, etc are sold as offerings to be burned for deceased relatives. All for the sake of giving them a good life in the netherworld that they probably were unable to do so while still alive.

Alvin Chua

Written by Alvin Chua. All rights reserved. Copyright @. Not for commercial use of any kind.

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