What Does Joss Paper Mean? (Ghost Money)

Do you believe in the existence of life after death? If yes, you are not alone. The Chinese burn incense papers on special occasions to cater to the needs of the spirit of people who are dead. They call these incense paper joss paper or ghost money. Read on to learn everything regarding it.

What is joss paper?

The Chinese believe that their ancestral worship is not complete without joss paper. These are sheets of paper that the Chinese make into burnt offerings. They use joss paper to honor the dead members of their family during occasions like funerals or festivals. They believe that the dead need material wealth that can make them comfortable in the afterlife and therefore burn joss paper as a way of sending money to them.


Joss paper history

In China, joss paper burning has been practiced since the Qin dynasty. Archeologists reveal that the practice of offering the paper to the deceased started about 1000 BC. In ancient China, life was very challenging since farmers would work hard and end up with no produce from their farms. They started burning joss paper to try and get out of poverty.

In ancient days when an emperor died, his soldiers were killed to go and proceed to work for him in the afterlife. After some time, people felt that this was wrong and therefore opted to burn joss paper so that the deceased could continue living comfortably even in the spiritual realm.

What is joss paper made of

Joss paper is made from bamboo paper or rice paper. Ghost money made from bamboo paper feels handmade and has some imperfections. These papers sometimes have certain words printed on them.

Types of joss paper

Traditional Joss paper

This is cut into rectangles or squares. Every square contains a piece of glued square foil. Some joss papers are also endorsed with an ink seal from the traditional Chinese seal. The square of silver or gold foil in traditional joss paper represents money.  

Traditional joss paper is often decorated with engraved designs, stamps, or seals. Traditional Joss paper comes in different types, such as golden, copper, and silver joss paper. While silver joss paper is offered to ancestral spirits, golden joss paper is offered to deities. The Chinese also offer traditional copper joss paper to newly deceased spirits.

Contemporary Joss paper

Apart from traditional joss paper, some people offer westernized joss paper to the dead. This type of joss paper comes with particular symbols, patterns, and colors that imitate valuables like money, cars, houses, or gold.

There is also a modernized version of this paper called Hell bank notes. Some people consider this to be the official currency for spirits in the afterlife. Hell bank notes come in different denominations, such as yuan or dollars. Contemporary joss paper resembles the material wealth that the deceased either possessed or not.

What is joss paper used for

Burning of joss paper has always been a custom among the Chinese. These spirit papers are used to appease the deceased. The Chinese believe that burning joss paper is a way of paying spiritual debts and can help one prosper. Appeasing the dead is also believed to bring transformation and fertility to those who do it.

The Chinese believe that the deceased visit the living during the Hungry Ghost festival to seek food. They, therefore, burn joss paper to absolve the ghost. This practice ensures that the souls of the spirits are satisfied.  

How to make joss paper

You can make joss paper from rice paper or coarse bamboo paper. You have to cut this kind of paper into a specific shape, such as a square or rectangle, then glue a piece of foil on the center part.

Each color on joss paper has a certain meaning. For instance, the white part represents mourning, while the square foil you glue on it has a metal shade that represents material wealth. Once you make the joss paper, you must fold it a particular way before burning it. You can fold it in the shape of a gold ingot or in half.

When to burn joss paper

Joss paper is mostly burned during funerals. The Chinese believe that this is the currency used in the spiritual realm. Burning joss paper in such events ensures that the deceased will have money they can use in the afterlife. They also burn joss paper during death anniversaries or birthdates of the deceased to honor them.

We mentioned the Hungry Ghost festival, which also involves burning joss paper. The Chinese also burn joss paper during other special occasions such as New Year to remember their loved ones and bring luck to their businesses.


How to burn joss paper

You require the joss paper, urn, and pot to engage in this practice. You can stack joss papers into lotuses or pagodas before burning them. Feel free to write the name of the deceased on the back of this paper before burning.

The Chinese believe that burning joss paper changes the nature of this offering as it escapes from the living world and transitions to the spirit world. People say a quiet prayer as the joss paper burns and smoke rises.


Why burn joss paper

Burning joss paper is a traditional practice that enables the living to send money to the deceased in the afterlife. The Chinese believe that once the spirits of the deceased receive the joss paper, they can leave a prosperous afterlife and even bring good luck to the living.

Burning joss paper is a great way for people to remember the dead. They also burn joss paper to help the deceased pay off their debts.


Practices such as burning joss paper exist due to the honor and respect people have for the deceased. One of the cultures in the globe that takes care of the dead is the Chinese. Joss papers are sold in local stores and used to maintain a good relationship with the ancestors.

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