Hell bank notes are a more modern form of joss paper, an afterlife monetary paper offering used in traditional Chinese ancestor veneration, that can be printed in the style of western or Chinese paper bank notes. In Chinese cultures, the hell bank note has no special name or status, and is simply regarded and referred to as yet another form of joss paper (冥幣, 紙錢, 金紙).
Hell bank notes are known for their large denominations, ranging from $10,000, $100,000, $1,000,000 or even $500,000,000. In Singapore, it is extremely common to find 10 billion dollar banknotes in shops. Hell bank notes usually bear an image of the Jade Emperor, the presiding monarch of heaven in Taoism and what is supposed to be his signaturen in the Latin alphabet (Yu Wong, or Yuk Wong) and the signature of Yanluo, King of Hell (Yen Loo). There is usually an image of the bank of Hell on the back of the bill.
The name "hell"
In Chinese mythology, the word hell does not carry a negative connotation. The hell referred to is Diyu (Traditional Chinese: 地獄, Simplified Chinese: 地狱; literally: "underground court"). Diyu is where the souls of the dead are first judged by the Lord of the Underworld (Yan Wang) to be either escorted to heaven or sent into the maze of underground levels and chambers where souls are taken to atone for their earthly sins.
A popular story says that the word hell was introduced to China by Christian missionaries, who preached that all non-Christian Chinese people would "go to hell" when they died, and through a case of misinterpretation, it was believed that the word "Hell" was the proper English term for the afterlife, and hence the word was adopted.
However, some printed notes omit the word "hell" and sometimes will replace it with "heaven" or "paradise". These particular bills are usually found in joss packs meant to be burned for Chinese deities. They usually have the same design as Hell bank notes but with different colors.
A commonly sold Hell bank note is the $10,000 note that is styled after United States Federal Reserve Notes. Apart from the portrait of the Jade Emperor, the front side depicts the seal of the Hell bank. The seal consists of a picture of the Hell bank itself. Many tiny, faint "hell bank note"s are scattered on the back in yellow. These are sold in either packs of 50 to 150, and are wrapped in cellophane.
Stores that specialize in selling ritual items, such as the Gods Material Shops in Malaysia, also sell larger and elaborately decorated notes that have larger denomination than the usual $10,000 note. Some bills do not portray the Jade Emperor, and will portray other famous figures in Chinese mythology, such as the Eight Immortals, the Buddha, Yama, or images of dragons. Some even portray famous people who are deceased, such as US President John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe.
Consideration when using hell bank notes
It may be offensive to give a hell bank note to a living person as a gift (even as a joke); it is often seen as wishing the person's death, which is grave insult. Hell bank notes are usually kept in places nobody can see (e.g. cupboards), as having these notes around in the house is considered bad luck.
When burning the notes, the notes are treated as real money: they are not casually tossed into the fire, but instead placed in a loose bundle, in a manner considered respectful. Alternatively, each bank note may be folded in a specific way before being tossed into the fire. This practice is an extension of the belief that burning real money brings bad luck.
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