Burning Money

The word-processing icon on my laptop is a pen with a cup of coffee.  Do you really think the archaeologists and historians are going to be able to figure that one out in 800 years?

In many ways my project is about stating the obvious.  Obvious to me that is.  Unfortunately what is obvious to me is sometimes my imagination.  And sometimes, it’s just hard to know.

In my first week here, late at night across the street form my hostel, I saw a group of well dressed women standing out on the sidewalk burning large amounts of hell money in a big metal burner that looked a bit like a burned out trash can with holes.  I asked what was going on and a woman said, “ We are burning money so that we will do well in business, we always do this at the end of the day.  We want to make a lot of money!”  I noticed that their business was a beauty parlor.

I thought to myself, they are ritually and symbolically paying off emotional “debts” they have accumulated from dealing all day with people who vainly wish they looked better that they do.  That night I saw a few other small groups of people burning stuff in front of their businesses, and evidence of many others.

I brought this up with a local in Kaohsiung and she said, “No, no, they don’t do it all the time, only on the new moon and the full moon.”  “Why are they doing it,” I asked.  “Every business does it.”  “Really?”  “Yes,they do it twice a month at the end of the work day, and they put out offerings on a table too.”

So I had to throw out my perfectly elegant theory about emotional baggage and vanity, and look for another one.  I theorized that this was some kind of deception meant to take place in the unseen world, in hell perhaps, where it would appear that the business was loosing money hand over fist.  Demonic forces hate commerce and are trying to destroy successful businesses using underworld bureaucratic tyranny at every chance they get; however, when they see that this business is already losing money, they don’t bother with it.

Alternately we could see this ritual as paying bribes to smooth the business through that bureaucratic hell realm; or as extortion payments, again with the goal of getting local demon elites off your back.

This created several questions.  What do 24 hour stores like 7/11 do?  Do foreign owned operations like Starbucks also burn hell money?  Since I’m not in Kaohsiung anymore I don’t know if my informant was correct about what happens there, but here in Taipei only about 15% of businesses are visibly participating in the New moon ritual.  7/11 and Starbucks did not put on a show.  Still 15% means there are altar tables on every block.  The increase in smog may effect the ability of demons to see and breathe.

(How come Youtube doesn't have a Business or a Religion category?  I filed this under "How To.")

Professor Yeh met with me again last night along with one of his graduate students in anthropology, Yves  from Holland.  Yeh seemed stunned by my knowledge of Daoism, even though he disagreed with half of what I said.   During dinner he started badgering me to explain the mechanism by which talisman are efficacious.  After that he had me work on the translations into English of the museum’s Daoist artifacts.

So, if burning hell money twice a month is good for business, what is the mechanism?  Perhaps it is somehow linked to cleaning? or accounting? or community expectations of what a good business does?  Perhaps it is like moon rituals of an earlier era in which everyone participated in the public renewal of precepts and commitments.  I think this is likely.  Standing around a pot of burning money with your business colleges must imprint the metaphor in language and image.  If you don’t do your part and consistently look for ways to improve the business, you will find yourself staring into a pot of burning money (real money this time).

What do you think?