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Hell money: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

Meet the Jade Emperor and the King of Hell

Hell money springs from a very old tradition in Chinese culture, arguably stretching back as far as 1600 BC. Archaeologists have found tombs of that era in China with imitation metal money placed among the human remains.
        China has been using some form of paper money since the 9th Century, and paper money's been dominant there for nearly 800 years. Joss paper copies of this money have been burned at funerals and graves for almost as long, and some people still prefer to use this form of spirit "cash" in paying their respects today.
        The first Chinese currency resembling a modern banknote was printed around 1890, and it's reasonable to assume that Hell's currency appeared soon after. "The earliest Hell notes I've seen that look like banknotes were printed in the mid-1930s," Anderson told me. "In the past decade or two, they have become increasingly elaborate and colourful."
        When hyperinflation gripped China in the 1940s, Hell banknotes followed suit, producing the denominations of $1bn, $5bn or even $50bn we see today.
        The name "Hell money" is thought to derive from a misunderstanding between the first Christian missionaries to reach China and the people they tried to convert there. Thinking "Hell" meant merely the afterlife in general, rather than the zone it sets aside for evildoers alone, Chinese people were happy to use this word on their dead relatives' offerings.
        The habit's stuck ever since, with a dozen "Hell Money" designs appearing for every one which labels itself "Heaven Money" instead. For western collectors like me, this has the added appeal of giving the notes a sexy, badass name which "Paradise Money" or "Afterlife Money" simply can't match. (3, 4)
        The Chinese concept of the afterlife is that the dead person's spirit lives on, doing much the same things it did in life. It follows that money will be needed to buy all those little treats that make death worth living, as well as the occasional gift like the consumer goods I found in San Francisco.
        Sometimes, the hope is that sending your loved ones cash in this way will help to speed their progress through the afterlife's various stages to a happy reincarnation. This can be achieved either by supplementing the offerings they made in life to atone for their sins, or simply by bribing the spirit world's ruling administrators. (5)
        Chief among these are Yu Huang, also known as the Jade Emperor, and Yan Luo, the King of Hell. Their twin signatures appear on many of these banknotes, though the Romanised spelling often varies.
        Yu Huang was a wise and kindly Chinese leader whose good deeds in life and cultivation of his Tao won him immortality. When he defeated a terrible demon who was set to take over every realm of existence, the gods rewarded him by giving him command of what Christians would call Heaven, Hell and the mortal world.
        Yu Huang delegated part of these duties to Yan Luo, who presides over Diyu. Everyone has to go to Diyu when they die, where Yan Luo's first job is to judge whether their next stop should be the Taoist version of Heaven or Hell. It's this decision - or perhaps the length of a stay in Hell/Limbo - which people hope to influence when they offer Yan Luo these banknotes as a bribe. (6)

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