Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld

Hardback: $52.00
ISBN-13: 9780824835323
Published: September 2011

Additional Information

288 pages | 16 illus.
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  • About the Book
  • 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.

  • About the Author(s)
    • C. Fred Blake, Author

      C. Fred Blake is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i.
  • Reviews and Endorsements
    • 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
    • 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
    • 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
    • This is 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. It also shows how an informed anthropologist can do good ethnography through multi-sited research without having to spend too long a time at each site.
      Tan Chee-Beng, Asian Anthropology
    • One of its strengths is the many anecdotes drawn from his experiences in overseas Chinese communities and the many parts of China where Blake has lived or travelled.
      Susan Naquin, Princeton University, Journal of Chinese Studies
    • Blake has written a remarkable book on a ubiquitous Chinese practice.... The book's strength lies in the recombination of historical materialism and anthropological structuralism in the analysis of value being created, burned and transmuted as the Chinese constantly switch back and forth between socioeconomic and religious-spiritual registers.
      Daniel Goh, National University of Singapore, Pacific Affairs
    • 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