China Elevator Stories

Taoist traditions in China: Burning spirit money on the street

A man lights a fire on an intersection in Siping.


Ruth Silbermayr-Song


It’s fall, 2014. We stay in my husband’s hometown, Siping, in Northeastern China. One evening, my husband and I drive back home from a bathhouse. When we arrive at an intersection, we see a guy light a fire on the street.

My first thought is that he’s trying to get warm on this cold autumn night. The second thought is: “Uhm, why the heck would he light a fire on an intersection?”

My husband explains: “He’s burning Joss paper for the spirits.”

Joss paper, or spirit money, is burned as offerings to gods or to help the spirits of ones ancestors buy the things they need in their afterlives. It’s a Taoist tradition that is very widespread in China. Today, people not only burn paper money. You can buy everything you can imagine, starting from paper houses and paper cars to the latest paper iPhone.

It’s said that there are more spirits on intersections than in other places, which makes it easier to transport the offerings to the underground court.

My husband adds: “When I was younger, I used to do this a lot. I haven’t done it in recent years.”

Have you ever seen someone burn spirit money?