Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld
288pp. September 2011
Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld
Author: Blake, C. Fred;
For a thousand years across the length and breadth of China and beyond, people have burned paper replicas of valuable things—most often money—for the spirits of deceased family members, ancestors, and myriads of demons and divinities. Although frequently denigrated as wasteful and vulgar and at times prohibited by governing elites, today this venerable custom is as popular as ever. Burning Money explores the cultural logic of this common practice while addressing larger anthropological questions concerning the nature of value. The heart of the work integrates Chinese and Western thought and analytics to develop a theoretical framework that the author calls a “materialist aesthetics.” This includes consideration of how the burning of paper money meshes with other customs in China and around the world.

The work examines the custom in contemporary everyday life, its origins in folklore and history, as well as its role in common rituals, in the social formations of dynastic and modern times, and as a “sacrifice” in the act of consecrating the paper money before burning it. Here the author suggests a great divide between the modern means of cultural reproduction through ideology and reification, with its emphasis on nature and realism, and previous pre-capitalist means through ritual and mystification, with its emphasis on authenticity. The final chapters consider how the burning money custom has survived its encounter with the modern global system and internet technology.

Innovative and original in its interpretation of a common ritual in Chinese popular religion, Burning Money will be welcomed by scholars and students of Chinese religion as well as comparative religion specialists and anthropologists interested in contemporary social theory.

16 illus.

“Blake fully illustrates the common practice of burning paper money in the daily lives of many people throughout China, exploring the forces that have continued and transformed this old tradition from old times up to the present. His book is innovative and comprehensive in its interpretation of this common custom in China and will be welcomed by anyone interested in the living traditions and cultures of China.” —Asian Ethnology (71:2, 2012)

“We can all be glad that Fred Blake has given the subject of burning paper money the serious attention it deserves.” —Journal of Chinese Studies (56, January 2013)

“A highly original ethnography that will appeal to specialists and students of Chinese culture and civilization as well to those who wish to read a good ethnography that relates data to theories and philosophical reflection.” —Asian Anthropologist (11, 2012)

“A remarkably sophisticated analysis of the custom [of immolating large amounts of paper] as well as some thought-provoking critique of anthropological concepts of ritual and cultural relativism.” —Anthropology Review Database (March 2012)

“Although focused on the topic of paper money, this study is in fact a much more ambitious consideration of Chinese life and civilization. Employing a distinctive mix of philosophical meditation, ethnographic vignette, historical narrative, folk tales, and more conventional anthropological analysis, Blake has constructed an impressively literate picture of what he clearly and persuasively views as the elusive ‘spirit’ of Chinese culture. This is a unique, highly original, and wide-ranging book.” —P. Steven Sangren, Cornell University

“This innovative and original work shows that what initially appears to be a simple custom is actually much more complex and meaningful, expressing ideas that cannot easily be articulated in words, as is common in religious rituals. The book is important in showing the deeper meaning of paper money, providing a structuralist interpretation of the ritual service and of the role of money in ritual, and examining how religious ritual creates a theory of value.” —Joseph Bosco, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Author: Blake, C. Fred;
C. Fred Blake is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i.
Read the Introduction (PDF).

1 Chiasm 
2 Endless Scroll 
3 Origins 
4 Liturgy 
5 Ideology 
6 Sacrifice 
7 Ghost Bills 
8 Burlesque 
9 Value 
A Postscript on the Grain of Sand