Winter 2005

Paper offerings for the dead

Paper replicas of consumer objects are burnt as offerings to the dead at Ching Ming

Paper products in all shapes and sizes are produced in China to be burned as offerings to dead relatives, either at the annual Ching Ming Festival (Spring Remembrance) or on the anniversary of a relative’s death.

These objects are copies of a vast array of products, mainly luxury goods or items indicating wealth and affluence: gold bars, gold credit cards, cash from Hell’s Bank, mobile phones, laptop computers and digital cameras. On a more practical level, a clean shirt and tie, or a pair of paper trainers are also available.

Some people even buy paper mansions with a full complement of paper servants for their departed loved ones. But perhaps the most bizarre item available is a paper mistress; one shop owner is said to be selling more than a dozen a day. Often these paper objects are a copy of branded goods offering the dead the same illusion of status and wealth as the living. Which begs the question ‘is this a breach of copyright?’ Most manufacturers do not appear to feel threatened, and turn a blind eye.

Many shops also offer a bespoke service: they will make you anything from a bamboo and tissue paper copy of your dead relative’s dog to a copy of a favourite car.

Especially poignant are the paper versions of bicycles and toys, some bearing the familiar figure of Mickey Mouse, left by parents for their children. Disney (who recently opened Disneyland in Hong Kong) are said to ‘frown’ on copies of their products being produced in paper to burn, albeit as an offering to dead children.

According to traditional Chinese beliefs, it is up to the living to make sure that their departed relatives are looked after financially and materially, as the dead cannot take anything with them to the next life. The act of burning the paper products ‘sends’ it to the underworld. If the departed live well on the other side, it is believed they will bestow blessings on the living.

First published in Eye no. 57 vol. 15.


Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.