Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Word for the day: JOSS

One of the more bizarre customs we've encountered here in Hong Kong involves burning paper gifts for family and friends who have passed away. Whole market stalls are dedicated to the sale of these paper offerings, called joss paper in English. As with other cultures around the world, precious possessions  such as gold and silver used to be buried with the dead to ensure ancestors were well-supplied in their afterlife. Unfortunately, many graves were robbed and this practice proved too expensive, so Chinese people began burning paper money offerings instead. The act of burning the offering  with incense ‘sends’ them to the underworld. The offerings are burnt during specific festivals or on the anniversary of the person's death.

Nowadays you can purchase miniature paper representations of just about anything that an ancestor might possibly need in the afterlife. Some offerings look just like paper money. Others look like gold bars. Others resemble official documents like passports. I find that the most interesting paper offerings are detailed miniature representations of houses, cars, mobile phones, televisions, clothing, and other personal possessions. Over time these paper products have become more elaborate, some reflecting traditional culture while others are testament to modern consumerism and Western influence.

You'll see what I mean with these photos of joss representations I found online. Remember that these products are all made out of paper or cardboard...

Tennis shoes


Rice cookers

Toothpaste, brushes and dentures

Mobile phone



Fast food


Personal products




Man's suit


Men's outfits

Women's outfits


Digital camera with charger and battery



When I see joss products at the market I am intrigued by the detail and cunning designs. Two things prevent me from purchasing joss paper jewellery or other items for our children to play with or as souvenirs. The first is that it would likely cause offence to Asian people, as the products are associated with death. The second is my belief that as a Christian I shouldn't have anything to do with ancestor worship.

And here's something to ponder...As strange as I find the Chinese practice of burning paper offerings to help deceased relatives in the afterlife, it must be just as bizarre for other people contemplating Christianity when they first hear of the virgin birth or Christ's many miracles.


  1. WOW! Those are amazingly well done. Before I read all the way down and saw your feelings on these items, I was thinking how wonderful they would be for a play center. And then I thought again about what they are intended for and realized the same as you. I would also be curious to know if those who convert to Christianity would still hold on to this part of their traditional religion. It's common in Africa for African Christians to hold on to traditional beliefs without feeling an internal conflict.

  2. Renée, I understand your reluctance to buy any of them. I felt the same way -- they would be cool toys for the kids, but they feel somehow wrong.