Lecture II: Spirits and currency in China

The goal of these first two lectures is to see how ordinary people, people subject to oppressive state or economic structures, look at their world, to see what ideas people outside the central institutions of power and control have about the institutions that control them. In some contexts, it is surely true that the “ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas” (Marx and Engels 1970: 64). Sometimes people do internalize ideas that serve the purposes of their rulers. Many have elaborated the ways in which the content of ideologies, as well as the educational, artistic, and political institutions that produce them, are in the control of the few at the top, not the many at the bottom (Therborn 1980; Williams 1981). Lewis Henry Morgan himself thought that “capital can rest when labor must be busy; it can contrive when labor is much too occupied to think” (Resek 1960: 53). But I do not believe the story ends here. Those who hear these ideologies, produced by the powerful in the quiet of their mental labors, find ways, amidst the din of their manual labors, to construct their own stories, and organize their own activities.

Last time, I looked at Chinese peasants’ and rural workers’ concepts of shared substance, shared property, and income, their representations of profit and usury, their valuation of marriage and its relationship to the exchange of money and goods. I argued that in all these contexts, the two contrasting faces of money—its ability to make transactions denser, on the one hand, and its ability to act as a node of personal freedom, on the other—were held together within the same institutions. This is part of why, I think, in late traditional China but continuing into the modern PRC and present-day Taiwan, social considerations govern marriage, labor, property ownership, and credit arrangements and take precedence over the strictly economic ones more characteristic of developed capitalism, such as accumulation for accumulation’s sake.

Today I am not going to look further at the movement of money and other commodities around communities per se. Instead I am going to look at ways people represented money, commodities, and the prospect of developing capitalism symbolically, (or indirectly) in ritual. I have three cases that I think serve best: spirit money offered to ancestors and gods; a strange transformation in the character of gods that occurred in north China; and domestic architecture.

In Chinese practice, the living are responsible for the care of their dead relatives in the afterlife, in several different contexts. One context is the underworld, located in some sense physically below this world. Most people say one of the souls of the dead travels to the underworld after death, passing through wild mountainous terrain and narrowly escaping liminal monsters along the way. Once there the soul is subject to judgment for deeds and misdeeds in life before a court like this one, fashioned exactly on the model of the earthly imperial bureaucracy, the magistrate pictured behind his desk meting out punishments to those below. This judgment can be influenced by written petitions for pardon sent by relatives in the world of the living. Eventually, the soul takes up residence in the underworld, living in a house and carrying on the same activities s/he did while alive, until some indefinite time when s/he is reincarnated into another life back on earth.

The living who have recently deceased kinsmen in the underworld try to see that the dead are provided with food, clothing, and shelter or the wherewithal to get it themselves. This is accomplished in two ways: by conveying currency which the dead can use to buy the things and services they need in the underworld or by conveying the objects themselves—houses, clothing, and so on. The currency is made of paper; the objects are constructed of paper and bamboo: all are transferred to the underworld by burning.

The currency includes ritual coins made of silver paper, as well as several kinds of money that are exclusively for the dead in the underworld. The objects range from sheets of paper stamped with the outlines of clothing or household utensils, through paper replicas of rolls of cloth, to extremely elaborate miniature households. Consider this mid-nineteenth-century description of a “splendid paper house” (Figure 34 shows a Hong Kong version),

Paper spirit house
Figure 34: Paper spirit house from twentieth-century Hong Kong.

It was some four feet wide in front, extended about three feet back and displayed all the characteristics of Chinese architecture. The interior was furnished after the taste of these people, in the most approved style. In one apartment was a paper dish, out of which a paper pig and a paper fowl were feeding. In another apartment was a paper servant sweeping, and other paper servants were carrying various things about in paper baskets swung on the ends of poles laid across their shoulders. Away in the back part of the house was a paper shrine, with its paper gods and other appurtenances. The whole structure was elevated about two feet above the ground, and presented a very rich and gaudy display. (Anonymous 1849: 372)

Eventually the entire paper mansion would be burned up to send it to the underworld.

Other sources from the nineteenth century describe paper and bamboo horses, sedan chairs, bedding, opium pipes, rugs, spectacles, and furniture (Doolittle 1865, I: 193; Dore 1966: 128; De Groot 1967, II: 717). Ironically, one popular nineteenth-century item was a replica of a fireproof safe, which would be burned up like the rest. In a modern set-up I saw in 1970, a paper house was constructed in a square around a central court. Arrayed inside the court were: two figures of doormen, an electric fan, two television sets, an electric rice pot, a washing machine, a Cadillac, a radio, a refrigerator, and several paper figures of servants wielding mops and brooms.

In part, the hope of the living is that these gifts will prevent the dead from suffering destitution in the underworld, but in part they are also intended to permit them a better life than they were able to have on earth. Consequently, paper houses are often modeled on the houses of officials, or wealthy merchants. One rationale is that “the departed will be treated more courteously and leniently by the constables and judges in Hades if he appears there as a rich man with many possessions” (Fielde 1887: 55). But another, which I heard commonly in Taiwan, is simply that “We try to give the dead the means of living the most comfortable life we can.” Hence, the houses are decorated with replicas of aesthetically pleasing gold and ceramic ornaments, and include the most sought-after appliances and vehicles, as well as the prerogatives of wealth: servants and door guards.

When I first saw these paper objects in the field, I initially made the assumption that they should be described as “symbolic,” representing the real things they replicate. J. J. M. De Groot, a nineteenth-century sinologist, proceeded along this line, constructing a historical account which sees the paper objects as substitutions, “counterfeits” of real things. Whereas in earlier eras, real objects were burned for the dead or buried with them, by the Han dynasty (second century BC–second century AD), cheaper substitutions began to be made, constructed of clay or wood. Houses small or large and complete with accoutrements like animals and servants were buried in Han tombs. The paper objects used in the present day, which are largely adopted for economic reasons, are seen in this view as survivals of the real things once used (De Groot 1967, I: 706). But even if a case could be made that the present custom of burning paper objects has replaced the original custom of burning or burying real objects, we would still be left with the question why any objects, real or counterfeit, are given to the dead.

A possible answer to this question is that people do not literally intend the dead to benefit by these gifts; rather, they intend them as expressions of wishes or hopes toward the deceased: that they be comfortable in the afterlife and live in the same fashion as the wealthy and powerful. Yet even the meager published accounts of these practices point to a different interpretation. De Groot says,

It would be a great mistake to suppose that sending mock articles of paper to the next world through the agency of flames was ever considered in China as only an expression of the good will of the survivors to enrich the dead on yonder side of the grave. Numerous exhortations, addressed to the people in sundry books, never to neglect such sacrifices because they really do enrich the dead, point unmistakably to the contrary. (1967, I: 719)

Beyond this, Adele Fielde gives us a hint about what the mechanism is believed to be by which the dead are actually benefited. “These things are supposed to be transmuted, in burning, into the articles which they represent, and to enhance the comfort and wealth of the spirit to whom they are offered” (1887: 55).

Let us look at how my Taiwan informants explained why they offered paper objects, beginning with paper money. The most frequent explanation I was given is that paper things are the currency of the underworld. One farmer said that just as America and Taiwan have different money, so do this world and the underworld, the yang world and the yin world. He pointed out that when one travels from one country to another, one must go to the bank and exchange one currency for another. In the same way, he said, when one wants to provide things for the ancestors in the underworld, one must make sure to exchange the money and goods we use for those that can be transferred and used in the underworld. In other words, spirit money is just as real as our money; it is just that one must choose the appropriate medium of exchange for the country one is in.

Although they are not money per se, paper replicas of houses and other objects can also be seen as money-like tokens. I had many conversations with a craftsman in a market town, a man in his fifties who constructed paper houses and their furnishings for a living. On the one hand, I asked him whether a very rich man who really wanted to serve his ancestors well could buy actual objects and houses and burn them for his ancestors. The paper house maker said, “No one would do this no matter how rich he was. The real things simply wouldn’t burn. A television, for example, is full of wires and all sorts of metal parts. There is no way it could be completely burned.”

On the other hand, pursuing my inquiry in what I now see was a doggedly literal way, I asked him whether what arrives in the underworld is a house made of paper, or one made of the usual materials. He replied, “The things that arrive in the underworld are made of real materials. If we make paper bricks on the roof or paper stucco on the walls, the underworld house has a brick roof and stucco walls. The things used in the underworld are also the same size as their equivalents here: they turn into something bigger.” Still pressing on, I asked whether the underworld house would have details of construction that were not actually present in the paper house, such things as water pipes, electric wires, and so on. He replied, and would not elaborate further, that the house in the underworld has these things: “They just naturally appear in the finished house.” Another villager extrapolated: “The houses and other things are made to show what you see when you look at these things. It doesn’t matter that paper is used instead of bricks and plaster as long as the paper looks like the real thing, and since you can’t see wires and pipes inside the walls of real houses, they don’t have to be in the paper house.” These objects are something like Peircian icons, three-dimensional blueprints. The craftsman closed the link to money: “Just as ritual paper money becomes legal tender in the underworld though it is useless here, so paper houses become appropriate for living in the underworld though they would be useless here.“

Sometimes money for the dead is made to look as closely as possible like money for the living. Shops in Taiwan that cater to immigrants from Hong Kong sell boxes of coins made of cardboard painted gold or silver and tiny imitations of silver ingots made of silver paper. Nineteenth-century accounts for China refer to mock money for the dead representing “[silver], gold, dollars and cash” (Doolittle 1865, I: 193). In some cases a completely unique form of currency is devised. Taiwanese often burn a form of money for the dead—usually for the amorphous category of ghosts rather than for remembered ancestors—that looks somewhat like American dollar bills. On one side is a picture of an airplane with the inscription “fifty dollars” in English words and Arabic numerals, and on the other side is an oval drawing that appears to be a city of skyscrapers, titled “heaven.” Since, as we saw above, people believe that the underworld is, like America, a foreign country that uses different currency, they find foreign-looking money (lettered mostly in English) to be appropriate.

The currency of the world of the living and the currency of the world of the dead are interrelated: I was told that people have to be careful not to give too much money to the yin world because it would deplete the stores in the yang world. I am not sure I entirely understand the link between yin and yang stores of money, but one aspect of the link lies in how the values of the two currencies are figured. People said gold and silver spirit money is very cheap to buy—you can get all you need for most occasions with the loose change in your pocket. But paper houses are very expensive, costing several months’ income at least. This difference, people said, is because spirit money is simple to manufacture (most of the labor is done as a cottage industry by poor women) (Doolittle 1865, II: 276–77), while paper houses have to be made by a specialist and take several months to complete.

Perhaps one way that sending too many spirit commodities would deplete the money stores of the living is simply that it would use up people’s store of cash. Families often have to save for several months or years (or join a rotating credit society) to accumulate enough to pay for a paper house for someone who has died. By the time they purchase it, other relatives have often died and joined the first in waiting for somewhere to live. In such a case, several paper figures representing all the needy ancestors are made and burned, with a deed, at the same time as the paper house. The interdependence and the exchange of one currency for the other can be seen quite literally when Taiwanese “visit the underworld” by traveling there in trance or by listening to reports of others in trance. Often the traveler, whose soul is said to wander about the underworld while s/he is in trance, meets up with someone s/he knows and tries to carry on a conversation. Sometimes, either because the traveler can see that the dead is in need of clothing or money, or because the dead asks specifically for it, the traveler instructs that paper money be burned. Then, those standing by (not in trance) ask anxiously whether it has arrived, and the traveler eventually says yes, the money has materialized in the yin world. Sometimes the exchanges go the other way. I was told a story in Taiwan of a hairdresser who washed and set the hair of a female customer late at night. She told him she was to be married the next day. In the morning he heard there was to be a “ghost marriage” (in which the souls of two people who died before marriage are brought together in a wedding ceremony) in the next town. Thereupon he pulled out of his pocket the money his night-time customer had given him and found that it was in fact ritual paper money for the dead.

Just as Chinese currency would be useless in the United States, so ritual money was useless to the hairdresser. This fact is reciprocal: even if Chinese money for the living could be transferred to the dead, numerous people made it clear to me that the money would not be of any use because it would not be legal tender. Spirit money is not so much “counterfeit” as a form of currency one can transform into another currency through burning, on analogy with exchanging one currency for another at a bank.

For the case of modern Taiwan, it makes sense that people should offer the analogy between different currencies themselves because of the exposure all segments of the population have to foreign countries, through television, movies, and employment at subsidiaries of foreign companies. However, one is left wondering what comparable understanding of the function of different currencies peasants in mainland China in centuries past could have had in eras or places where foreign currency was not prevalent. The answer, I suspect, lies within the operation of Chinese currency itself. With regard to copper coinage, we know that there was extensive local variation in the acceptable number of copper coins on a string and in the standard of payment (Lee 1926: 9–11; King 1965: 65).

With respect to silver, the number of different standards of payment was extraordinarily high. Silver was measured by weight and fineness, but there were many different standards, called taels. In one town, Chungking, in west China, the standard weight for silver transactions was 555.6 grains. But this was a strictly local value.

Frequently, … a modification of the scale is provided for, depending in some cases upon the places from which the merchant comes or with which he trades, and in others upon the goods in which he deals. A merchant coming from Kweichow, or trading with that place, will probably, but not certainly, use a scale on which the tael weighs 548.9 grains; a merchant from Kweifu, a town on the Yangtze … will buy and sell with a tael of 562.7 grains; and between these two extremes are at least 10 topical weights of tael, all “current” at Chungking. … This seems confusion, but we are not yet at the end. Up to this point we have dealt only with the weight on the scale, but now comes in the question of the fineness of the silver with which payment is made. At Chungking three qualities of silver are in common use: “fine silver”, “old silver”, and “trade silver”, and payment may be stipulated in any of these three qualities. Taking the score of current tael weights in combination with the three grades of silver, we have at least 60 currencies possible in this one town. (Morse 1913: 145–46)

Even worse, in the eyes of the foreign observer,

Every little district has its own scale, and every shop in that district differs just a trifle from other shops in reading the scale. If one weighs out 10 taels of silver at home and then goes to a cash shop to turn it into cash, he will find that he has 9.98 taels in one shop, 9.97 taels in another, and perhaps 9.99 taels in another, but never quite 10 taels. (Spalding, quoted in Lee 1926: 14)

However bizarre Westerners found this, only foreigners considered the multiplicity of measures to be a problem in itself:

These chaotic eccentricities would drive any occidental nation to madness in a single generation. … Under these grave disabilities the wonder is that the Chinese are able to do any business at all; and yet, as we daily perceive, they are so accustomed to these annoyances, that their burden appears scarcely felt, and the only serious complaint on this score comes from the foreigners. (Wagel, quoted in Lee 1926: 10)

A more tolerant Western observer sums up:

In China you must prove your axioms. We are accustomed to currencies in which the unit of value is a defined and accurate weight of an alloy of a precious metal … of an exact and known degree of fineness. In China the silver currency is an article of barter, of which neither the weight nor the quality is anywhere fixed. (Morse 1913: 146)

With regard to paper money, or bank notes, the area within which they passed as tender was even more circumscribed: they “rarely passed current beyond the immediate trading area of the town in which they were issued, and some, issued by merchants, might pass current only in a particular street” (King 1965: 105; see also Yang 1952: 69–70). So ordinary people in late traditional China had to be used to converting one currency to another, even from one street to the next. Converting money to spirit money is just another example of the same thing. As for why burning was the means of exchange, I am not sure. It is of course preeminently a means of transformation of physical substances into another form. Burning paper obviously alters it from paper to ash. Speculatively, I might also suggest that there is some resonance with the use of fire to change mere metal to “coinage.” Furnaces were used to mint copper coins; passing through this fire, they transmuted from a metal with use value to a coin with exchange value, a value that was intended to be held timeless and unchanging by the state (King 1965: 139; Sohn-Rethel 1983).

Now let us look at the major types of spirit money and compare them to money for the living. Spirit money is divided into three major categories, each with numerous sub-types. First, the highest category—gold money—is usually considered too valuable to burn for your ancestors, and so it is burned for powerful, high gods, such as a market town deity. Second, silver money is burned for lower, less powerful gods, like the earth god, as well as for ancestors and unrelated spirits, the ghosts. Although spirit money is made of paper, it is meant to replicate the metals gold and silver. “Many families prefer to fold each sheet into the shape of a hollow ingot, a procedure which involves much time and labor, but which is thought to enhance greatly the value of the offering” (Hunter 1937: 52). Third, representations of copper coins, and objects of daily use, either stamped schematically on sheets of paper or constructed in three dimensions, were only burned for dead relatives and ghosts.

These three categories of specie correspond roughly to the three major spheres of exchange that were dominant in late imperial China. Local purchases, retail transactions dealing with subsistence matters, were made in copper cash. Remittances to officials for taxation had to be made in silver, and this was the metal in which interregional trade was carried out. Unlike copper, silver was not made into coins; even foreign coins such as the Mexican silver dollar were valued by purity and fineness of metal content (Lee 1926: 13–20). The third sector—gold—was reserved for very large payments and for the removal of wealth from circulation, as in the ceremonial treasures of gold wedding ornaments, gold hat pins for successful examination candidates, or the gold statues of the gods (Seaman 1982: 82, 86).

In dealings with living people these three spheres of exchange were kept separate (cash in the market town shops, silver to the magistrate for tax), as was normally the case with spirit money categories. Whether gold or silver paper was being burned at a shrine was nearly always an important clue to whether the spirit being honored was thought of as a powerful god or a minor ghostly spirit. The status of a spirit could change over time if it demonstrated greater powers, and a common marker of this was that the type of money offered would change from silver to gold (Harrell 1974).

In the realm of the living, conversions from one sphere to another were always highly significant. In the conversion of the cash in which taxes were often assessed, to the silver in which they were paid, lay an opportunity for the costs of administration to be hidden. Since copper was generally more available locally than silver currency, taxpayers were allowed to hand in copper coins in lieu of silver. A conversion rate from copper to silver was established by the highest provincial authority and local magistrates were not permitted to exceed this. “However, the prevailing custom among the magistrates was to insist upon payment in copper coins in lieu of silver” (Ch’u 1962: 135), and to change the rate of exchange in their favor. As Gary Seaman (n.d.) points out,

Although payment could be made in [copper] cash, the central government insisted upon remission in silver, thus it was possible for the official to speculate on the [copper]/silver exchange rate, in addition to whatever margin could be extracted from the taxpayer. The local official and his runner were in a position to increase or decrease the friction in a very large volume of payments, those involving the government.

In the realm of spirit money, conversions from one sphere to another were also highly significant, but for different reasons. Higher-order spirit money, with large ornate gold patterns on paper, was used to mark temporary increases in people’s and the ancestors’ status and social worth (see Seaman 1982: 87–88). Ancestors, whose offerings were normally held to the sphere of silver, could be offered gold money on the occasions of a son’s birth, a wedding engagement, moving into a new (and fancier) house, or large-scale community celebrations like the slaughter of the Honorable Pigs festival (see Lecture I). They were also offered this money when they moved into a new paper house in the underworld. All these are “hi-su, happy occasions where families and communities are growing in wealth, members and social standing” (Ahern and Gates 1981: 402). Whereas local people lost and magistrates gained when taxes were converted from copper to silver, here any friction from the exchange is kept within the same kinship system.

Just as the worth of any kind of currency, especially paper currency without intrinsic worth, depends on the consensus of those who will use it, so does the worth of paper articles for the dead. Perhaps this is the force of what people commonly said in Taiwan: that paper things are burned for the dead because “it is the custom.” The paper house maker told me, “This is a very old tradition that began in the T’ang dynasty and has been handed down ever since. We just follow that tradition.” It could be that these are simply ways of stressing the necessity for conventional acceptance of the worth of these forms of currency, a necessity that applies to paper money for the living as well.

The notion that the worth of paper spirit money and articles is held in place by public trust and political authority is made explicit in the formulas that are recited by Taoist priests when these things are transformed by burning:

Heaven knows the renown of money.

Earth knows the reputation of money.

From yang to yin it reaches its destination.

The bundles and the “hundreds” [different sub-types] are not mixed.

Transformed to burning hot by the fire.


These four words are equally clear.

These ritual formulas are followed by the customary legal phrase paralleling similar communications sent to earthly officials: “Conforming to the order of Tai shang [highest god] and executed with all urgency” (Hou 1975: 93).

Now that we have seen something of the logic of spirit money, its forms and uses, let us turn to its significance. This will lead us to a better understanding of the culture of commerce, profit, debt, and money in China. In short I think that the significance of this practice of offering spirit money differs radically among different segments of the population. The two segments we have some insight into are the petty bourgeoisie in Taiwan (relatively wealthy shopkeepers, craftspeople, and small-scale industrial producers), on the one hand, and rural families (engaged in a combination of wage labor and farming their own land), on the other.

Let us look first at the petty bourgeoisie described by Hill Gates. She discovered in her fieldwork that her entrepreneurial informants constructed a particular version of why spirit money must be burned for the dead, especially a certain kind called “Treasury money,” which was burned inside an envelope, called a “suitcase.” When a soul in the underworld seeks rebirth, it must first obtain a body and a fate through which to play out its karmic course.

To do so, it must contract the mystical debt which encumbers each person throughout life. This debt is a sum advanced as a loan to the spirit waiting for reincarnation by one of a large number of Celestial Treasuries, each with its governing official. Part of the money is used to purchase a body for reincarnation; the rest defrays the cost of the individual’s particular lot in life, a matter determined prior to birth. Some, indebted for large sums, will receive wealth, high rank, and other blessings in life, while those given less must live with correspondingly straightened means. (Gates 1987: 268)

During one’s life one can strive to reduce the debt through the performance of virtuous acts, prayers, and donations of spirit money to the gods. “But, of course, no one ever completely repays the debt. When a person dies, at his funeral relatives must pay off the account by burning great sums of spirit money, if the spirit is to enter unencumbered into a new and presumably more fortunate incarnation” (1987: 268).

Gates ingeniously relates this practice to the form of enterprise her informants were engaged in, suggesting that in these rituals “we see sketched out … Marx’s classic distinction ‘between the circulation of money as capital, and its circulation as mere money.’” As money circulates and returns bearing interest, it becomes “money that is worth more money, value which is greater than itself. It has acquired the occult ability to add value to itself. It brings forth living offspring or at least lays golden eggs” (Marx, quoted in Gates 1987: 273).

Gates asks,

Are these not the transactions in which Taiwan’s gods and humans engage and which conclude in the payment of the debt? For human beings, money is a medium by which they exchange part of the fruits of their life’s labor for the most essential of “commodities”—a human body and life fate—both of which when consumed, cease to be. Gods, by contrast, lay out money as interest-bearing capital, with an expectation of receiving more than they originally lent: a series of offerings over the lifetime of the individual in the course of normal religious activity, and a final repayment which is usually supplemented with extra amounts. This money returns to the Celestial Treasury to recirculate and expand itself through further capitalist transactions with human souls. (1987: 273)

Gates’ explanation for this conception is as follows: first, in late imperial China and present-day Taiwan, the full operation of capitalist markets was (and is) held severely in check by a powerful state. Studies of industry in Taiwan confirm this: firms struggle to obtain the cash, credit, raw materials, land, imports, and access to exports they perceive themselves as needing to do business (Silin 1976: 18, 23). Second, under these conditions, the Chinese populace saw a capitalist world-view as a counter to the feudal-like bureaucracy enforced by the state. Among the attractions of a capitalist world-view, which Simmel would understand perfectly, were that “it offered a social model of upward mobility based directly on wealth rather than on connection with the state through the highly limited channels of degree- and office- holding” (1978: 3).

Consequently, capitalism has come to have a representation in ritual that has a counter-hegemonic aspect. The operations of money could be extolled on shop doors and in proverbs. And its effects as capital could be spelled out in positive terms in ritual. As these small businesspeople see it, they would be better off if the market governed all sorts of transactions, without the intervention of political or social power: using ritual to show capitalist relations lying at the heart of the transactions between people and gods is a way of saying they should lie at the heart of transactions between common people and authorities.

Ingenious as this account is, there are some elements that raise questions in my mind. Is not the ceaseless round of debt, endlessly owed and never repayable, not a somewhat onerous prospect? And what about the Celestial Treasuries: are they the only source of money to secure reincarnation? In De Groot’s account, for example, the soul wishing to reincarnate has to borrow from its fellow spirits in order to pay the heavy ransom demanded by the underworld king. The money sent along when a person dies is for paying back a “host of creditors, who are all anxious to collect the funds necessary for their own release” (De Groot 1967, I: 80). This is a picture of a rotating fund, not unlike a rotating credit society, in which the pooled money is used by each person in turn.

I think this puzzle can be resolved if we turn to the second group I have information about, the small farmers and wage earners I did fieldwork with. In these people’s view, the money offered to the underworld king is payment in return for services he rendered when the soul was reincarnated, that is, allowing the soul to pass along the roads and through the gates in the underworld. The amount, figured in strict equivalences (1 bill of treasury money = $10,000 NT), is determined by one’s date of birth and its associated astrological correspondences. No one mentioned anything about interest, profit, or even debt, simply payment in return for services rendered in the past. In addition the money has to cover current expenses. Every spirit, underling, or god encountered in the underworld, like their earthly counterparts, expected his fee (his squeeze), and dutiful relatives tried to make sure the deceased had enough to cover these expenses. But this is a model of a tributary state, in which surplus is syphoned off from below and held by the center, not, as with Gates’ entrepreneurs, a model of capitalist accumulation.

In a description of funeral custom in Peking in the early twentieth century, the model of the tributary state is represented by paper images. Treasury money is packed into chests made of heavy paper and sealed with paper locks. The chests are presided over by “two paper puppets, and the whole under the custodianship of a ‘treasury officer’, also fabricated of paper. The bearers of the chests are liberally provided with food and drink. Sheets of mock-money, representing advance wages, are tied around each paper figure” (Hunter 1937: 61).

When people talked about the burning of treasury money, their concern lay with keeping it from being robbed by other people or spirits. It was burned at the very end of the funeral ceremonies in large iron stove pots that were old and broken. All the descendants made a ring around the mound of money and stayed in place until it was completely burned up. If they did not, or if outsiders or affines were allowed to be present, “they could steal our wealth.” Patrilineal kin linked hands around the stove pots, emblem of their common labor, now broken in death. The emphasis here was on making sure one’s own descendant got the amount he or she needed, not, as in Gates’ case, on being sure the amount was more than was originally borrowed. I should note that most people I asked had no specific idea what these items were for beyond believing that they somehow helped the dead. Several people stressed their function as a document of communication with the gods of the underworld, showing me that inside the white cover (symbolic of death) you could see the same yellow imperial papers that were burned to the highest god, and hung (maybe you recall?) about the necks of Honorable Pigs. These yellow papers, though called “money,” are really “circulators,” memorials to officials on imperial yellow paper.

Some written accounts also seem to stress De Groot’s idea of a circulating treasure. While describing the debt interest theory, Hou says it is tending to disappear in our day in Taiwan (1975: 29), and stresses that the financial organization of the underworld treasury is not limited to loaning and receiving fees. “It is also a cash deposit box and it may constitute for everyone a reserve where payments are effected in favor of others. Moreover in case of necessity one can make a special payment to augment the account of those interested” (1975: 99). This is far more an image of a corporate community, sharing wealth in turn according to need and trusting that a return will come as one needs it.

Why would these villagers have such a different view of these processes? Their station in life is certainly different from the petty bourgeoisie Gates describes. When I collected this material, most of these people were farmers, and in addition depended on the wage earnings of one or two young people in factories. Sharp distinctions were made between these farming households and those that had successfully made a living in business enterprises: the small shopkeepers, knitting machine operators, owners of a saw mill, cookie factory, or tea processing-operation all paid homage to the village earth god on the 2nd and 16th of the month, in contrast to farmers, who did so on the 1st and 15th.

Although in these ways everyone was aware of the clear difference in modes of livelihood in the community, everyone was also aware of the difficulty of successfully entering business as a livelihood. Business enterprises were perceived as risky, and were known to fail frequently. My landlord and his brother, while not exactly models of caution, attempted to make a go of manufacturing bricks (four times), cans of foam for fixing flat tires, and counterfeit cosmetics (for which I was asked to proofread the English). Over the years I lived in their house, they also tried repairing clocks, and running a printing shop. All these enterprises eventually failed. Operators of small firms were also clearly aware of the risk they bear that as world market demand changes, they may be forced to bear the cost.

For these Taiwanese farmers, capitalism does not represent any kind of sure improvement on life, and it is consequently regarded ambivalently. Perhaps this is why some people (unlike Gates’ shopkeepers) tell proverbs that express ambivalence about money and wealth: “Money brings destruction with it.” “The poor are happy, the rich have many cares.” “Money is as dirt, benevolence and goodness are worth one thousand taels of gold.”

I have said, on the one hand, that Gates’ petty bourgeoisie embrace capitalism and resent the state’s limiting of market forces, and, on the other, that rural farmer-workers express ambivalence to capitalism. This leaves us with the question of how peasants regarded the state. Working from this material on spirit money and objects, we can begin to form the outlines of a hunch. First note it was usually the state’s prerogative to coin currency. The exchange value of money was supposed to be held constant by the authority of the state. Traditionally and currently, tampering with currency, counterfeiting it, was (and is) a serious crime and could (and can) be punished by death (Yang 1952: 66). That said, now notice we have here masses of people in local populations making, issuing, selling, and exchanging their own currency in the form of spirit money for the gods and ancestors! Was this a kind of parody of state power, tongue-in-cheek mimicry of the authority of the state, or an outright usurping of it?

The burning of spirit money to exchange it for another currency even had its direct analogue in state practice of earlier dynasties. In the Yuan dynasty (thirteenth–fourteenth centuries) it was the responsibility of provincial magistrates to oversee the burning of counterfeit paper money. This was done monthly with considerable ceremony, and with increasingly careful governance because the occasion began to be abused by officials, who would embezzle the counterfeit bills instead of burning them (Franke 1949: 49–51; Yang 1952: 66).

At first I thought the idea local populations were imitating state power by issuing currency was a pretty far-fetched one, partly because the spirit money used in Taiwan looks so dissimilar from state money. But then I came upon an actual piece of spirit money used in Peking in the 1930s, and this money could conceivably be mistaken for state money. It was elaborately engraved, numbered, stamped, and printed on heavy crisp paper, “in imitation of genuine money of [that] present day” (Hunter 1937: 63). So it may be local people were not only registering ambivalence to capitalist uses of money, but also, in the very making, issuing, and burning of that money, usurping forms of power meant to be reserved for the state.

In other times and places in China, there were other languages in which ambivalence to capitalism was expressed. In north China the first decades of the twentieth century were a time of profound civil disorder, civil war, invasion, recurrent famine, and breakdown of political control. Local people believed that the images in gods’ temples had been taken over by lower animal spirits called euphemistically “the four great families”—fox, weasel, hedgehog, and snake. The story of how this happened was recorded in great detail by a Chinese ethnographer, Li Wei-tsu.

Although these animals were subordinate to the true gods’ power and would flee if an earthly official came into their presence, they still had great powers of their own (Li 1948: 21–22). Known politely as the “the gods of wealth,” they could protect families of farmers and make them prosperous (1948: 8). In one case all the ripe melons in a field had been collected. The next day, there were as many ripe melons as the day before. In another, a third threshing of wheat yielded an improbably great amount (1948: 11).

However wondrous these abilities, local people were eloquent about their underside. These evilly disposed animals could absorb one’s vigor during sexual intercourse (1948: 4) and stir up quarrels among people. “The wicked animals feel greatly satisfied if they can see the anger of the opponents increase and eagerly wait for a final great clash” (1948: 4–5). Furthermore, they were inconstant:

If they are satisfied with the offerings they receive, they will keep the house in peaceful and prosperous condition, but if the offerings are somewhat meagre they will bring the family to ruin. The gods of wealth are incapable of producing goods, but they can transport goods from one farm to another. The natives call this “Hsing i chia, pai i chia”, to make one family prosperous by ruining the other. The prosperity of one family may last for several years before it is bestowed upon another family. The losing family loses much more than it has gained through the grace of an animal’s spirit. And the Ts’ai-shen yeh [i.e. the gods of wealth] are commonly very greedy. Every now and then, they demand the repair of their lodgings and more offerings from the family, If their demands are somewhat neglected, they at once get angry, change their minds and confer their favours upon another house. (1948: 11)

There are a number of aspects of this account that make it sound like a commentary upon the risks and shortcomings of developing capitalism. This was an era when, despite many social disruptions, opportunities for some to increase their income were growing: cash cropping, non-farm income, handicraft industries like a rattan factory or tea business were all aided by the growth of Treaty Ports and expansion of the railroads. But these activities may have been seen as risky to the small entrepreneur, as well as capricious and difficult to control. In a sense, this ideology of the “gods of wealth” is a quite accurate view of the nature of these enterprises in which the social division of wealth is seen holistically: the accumulation of wealth in the hands of some means that it will be taken away from others at the same time; wider participation in the market outside the village means that individual fortunes may differ even within families. Accordingly, the attachment of these spirits is not to a family but to an individual: “the native view is that the Ts’ai-shen yeh helps only that member of the family which is predestined to be fortuned” (Li 1948: 10). Here we see a picture, not of corporate pools of rotating wealth and family members sharing a destiny and identity with their family, but of individual nodes of wealth, which come and go capriciously and can only do so at the cost of someone else. In a sense this is capitalism unmasked: nowhere here is the misleading ideology so common in the United States that everyone, from General Motors’ corporate executives to assembly-line workers, can prosper at once.

For our final case, let us return to Taiwan. In the previous lecture I argued that in various ways people are able to hold off the full development of capitalist forces within the family and community. The question concerning us today is whether people nonetheless see the possibility of more involvement in capitalist processes as a threat (as north China farmers apparently saw it) or whether they would welcome it (as Gates’ petty bourgeoisie apparently would). But I have not yet given more than a hint about how the rural people I worked with viewed the prospect of increased involvement in the market economy, commerce, and capitalist enterprises. For this I turn to what they say about domestic architecture.

In looking at the relationship between a society and its cultural attitudes, on the one hand, and house plans and architecture, on the other, I am following in a path opened by Lewis Henry Morgan. In Houses and House-Life of the American Aborigines (1881), he contrasted simple house forms and simple social structures with more complex forms. In the villages where I did fieldwork in Taiwan there were considered to be two types of houses: first, a traditional rural house (Da-cu or big house), a rectangular structure with a large ceremonial room in the center and bedrooms stretching to either side. As the family grows, wings may be added to either end, forming the classic U-shaped compound. In contrast is the Yang-lou, or foreign-style house, usually associated with towns or marketing centers and built (like a Baltimore row house) so that it shares side walls with its neighbor. While Da-cu expand out laterally as families grow, Yang-lou expand up.

It is obvious that Da-cu are suited to places where there is room to expand laterally and Yang-lou to places where lateral expansion is unfeasible or prohibitively expensive. The fact that land values are often at a premium in commercialized urban centers means that Yang-lou are characteristically found there. In Taiwan there is a dichotomy between rural areas devoted primarily to agriculture, where Da-cu are common, and commercial urban areas, where Yang-lou are common. This opposition is a key to understanding an important difference between Da-cu and Yang-lou: when Da-cu are built, they must be carefully oriented to the environment according to the principles of geomancy, known in Taiwan as Di-li. Normally a professional geomancer is hired to make sure the house faces in the most propitious direction, given the configuration of shapes in the surrounding landscape, the presence of trees, stones, or bridges, the flow of water, and so on. If the fortunes of the inhabitants are doing poorly, one strategy they may adopt is to alter the shape of the landscape or even change the orientation of the house. In sharp contrast, Yang-lou are not oriented according to the principles of Di-li when they are built. One house builder said, “It’s a bother to build a Da-cu because you have to be so careful about the Di-li. With Yang-lou you do not have to build according to the Di-li; Yang-lou are built according to the road.”

The many people who spoke about this distinction between Da-cu and Yang-lou seemed to have in mind two paradigms.On the one hand, for a farming household located in a rural, relatively unpopulated area and dependent for its livelihood on its own labor and the workings of rain and sun, the Da-cu will be oriented according to geomantic principles, stressing this reliance on the environment. On the other hand, for a household engaged in commerce, located in a densely populated, highly commercialized central place, and dependent for its livelihood on its business judgment and the fluctuations of the market, the Yang-lou is oriented not according to geomancy but according to the road, stressing reliance on the man-made environment of market demand. The reason for the stress on roads is immediately apparent: they not only provide the physical means by which customers reach one’s door, but are also a primary determinant in whether a commercial area will be able to intensify its commercial activity. The two paradigms are relevant not only in the present: informants were sure to stress that even far back in Taiwan’s development Yang-lou in towns were built “according to the road.”

The different ways the houses of farmers and businessmen relate to Di-li implies something about different attitudes to the outside world in each case. It could be that people say Yang-lou cannot be oriented or reoriented according to Di-li simply because the form of architecture (houses in contiguous rows) makes it difficult to change their alignment with the compass, and the small size of the plots they are built on makes changes in the surrounding environment impractical; but even very small adjustments in alignment or in the immediate surroundings could in theory affect the Di-li. Yet people declare that bad Di-li in a Yang-lou cannot be fixed; one can only move out. Hence it seems possible that what people say about the Di-li of Yang-lou is an indirect way of talking about something else. Perhaps what they are saying is that if one lives in a Yang-lou, assuming one engages in commerce, one has a different kind of control over one’s fate than if one lives in a Da-cu, assuming one engages in farming.

If a farmer’s life goes poorly, he can, on the one hand, change the Di-li of his Da-cu and, on the other, alter his cultivating techniques or plant a different crop. Of course, he might perceive the activity of farming itself to be a failure, sell the land, and switch to another livelihood entirely. But before resorting to that, there would be ample room for changing his methods of dealing with the same raw material, land. Land, after all, can nearly always produce something, especially in Taiwan’s generally favorable climate. In contrast, a small industrialist or businessman who found himself without a market for his goods might well have no recourse but to cut his losses and switch to some other line of business. Machinery and raw materials are often more specialized than land: if tatamis (Japanese-style sleeping mats) went out of fashion or the overseas market for sweaters declined, the machines and materials for their production could not readily be put to another use. Like the families in north China with their magical animal families, when the animals fled to another household, they took more with them than the family had earned by their presence. Perhaps this is the parallel in the world of business to the Yang-lou whose Di-li cannot be altered, but only abandoned. In this connection, it is of the greatest relevance that failure in the small-business sector is very common in Taiwan, partly because of the increasing extent of commercialization and concomitant competition.

What people seem to be saying is that aside from the great potential for wealth and success commerce has, when one abandons a base of agricultural land, one incurs the risk of total failure because one’s ability to respond flexibly to changing market conditions is reduced. Or in other words, farmers may be prey to the vagaries of the climate, but over time they can recoup their losses; businessmen are even more prey to the vagaries of the market, and as a consequence may be unable to repair the damage caused by a crisis, just as they are unable to repair the Di-li of their houses.

Perhaps the only kind of commercial transaction that is not likely to work this way is one based on spirit money, used as farmers do to pay tribute to powerful officials and to give their ancestors a better life. It may be significant that as religious freedom comes and goes in the People’s Republic, so does the open sale of spirit money. I was able to buy ceremonial money fairly openly in Fukien in 1984, and many people were patronizing the nearby temple, where they did not quite dare burn the money, given state opposition to “wasteful superstition,” but only set it out as an offering on the altar instead. Spirit money, symbolic in the sense people are relatively in control of what it is believed to “do” in the world, may be the only kind of money people can surely (even in the face of fully sprouted capitalism) prevent from enmeshing them in homogenizing and capricious market forces.

I would like to know how people in China are imbuing the resurgence of spirit money with meaning. Are they eager, incipient entrepreneurs constructing the underworld in the image of a state that (unlike the People’s Republic) wholly relishes capitalist relations? Are they, dedicated to socialist principles, returning to old communal forms of rotating wealth that echoed in the land reforms and collectivizations of the thirty years after 1949, but are now being set to one side? Or are they constructing new meanings that reflect on the unique particulars of the present? If we could know, we would have one more way of seeing how this truly “ghostly” spirit money is used by ordinary people to construct their own stories about the forces that bind them.

In the next lecture, I will turn to elements of the second paradox involving money, as I promised earlier: how it causes a socially disintegrating effect by creating feelings of greyness about life as all things come to be measured in the same coin. A final speculation: can it be that one reason money seems not to have done this in China or Taiwan is precisely that money did not operate as a common measure of all things? This claim has been made for economies like the African Tiv, where separate spheres of exchange create incompatible moral values between women, say, and goods (Bohannan 1967). China did not have entirely separate spheres of exchange: conversions could be made, at greater or lesser cost, across the boundaries of the gold, silver, copper, and paper spirit money sectors. But these were surely “bounded sub-systems” (Crump 1981: 131), and they may have served, as people experienced these monies in use, to demarcate different kinds of things: dealings with spirits (through spirit money), dealings with officials and wholesale merchants (through silver), buying objects of daily use (through copper or paper), removing value from exchange (through gold).

Conversions could never be taken for granted because the outcome of them could not be known in advance: conversions were highly particular and specific to different times and places, each with its local configuration of power and politics (Crump 1981: 131). Simmel thought our money would “become the common denominator of all value; … hollow out the core of things, their individuality, their specific value, and their incomparability” (1950: 414). But perhaps Chinese money forms, many as they were, served to maintain the incomparability of different things. Instead of the abstract, timeless disembodied value measured by our money, as we will see next time, the value that Chinese money measures is concrete, time-worn, messily embodied, and socially embedded.