Hell Bank Notes

Dandelionsmith has a great story about a family memento; a stone that he took from the foundation of his great grandfather’s house. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here are some excerpts. First, he recounts the hike out to find the old homestead:

To get a picture of the continuing saga, imagine a square section of land (640 acres) bounded on all four sides, first by six strands of barbed-wire fence, and beyond that, either a gravel or a tar road. Inside the fence was close-cropped pasture grass, lichen-covered rocks, clumps of thistle, and at least a quarter-mile walk. The sun was high, the air was dry, and the wind was imperceptible. Our sweat flowed while the grasshoppers jumped. I took the tyke on my shoulders when she couldn’t keep up the pace set by my septuagenarian parents (and their pace is another story).

And taking the stone from the foundation:

The house, like many others of its time in the late 1800s, had a stone foundation. That is, many large stones from the surrounding land were gathered together and with mortar added, formed the foundation of the building. In time, the old foundation crumbled, leaving the stones somewhat exposed. Figuring the building’s lack of integrity would cause total collapse before I had another chance to return, I pulled out a rock the size of a Thanksgiving turkey. It wasn’t supporting the structure, anymore, and I thought it might be nice to have the rose-tinted stone as a way to remember the old place.

And finally, the effect that this memento has on the family:

That rock moved with us from Iowa to Montana, from Montana to Granite Falls, from Granite Falls to our former country house, and from that house to this. Every time I look at it, I remember. Every time I look at it, I think of sharing the story with the younger children.

This story really resonated with me, because it’s almost identical to an experience of mine, but also quite different.

My story involves a visit with the kids and the spry septuagenarian in-laws to see the graves of the ancestors. We, too, had to get permission from a suspicious tenant before hiking through the sweltering heat in a rural area outside Shanghai. And I, too, had to carry the youngest, while the oldsters soldiered on ahead. I had explained to my kids that we were going to pay our respects to the ancestors, much as we would by laying flowers on a grave in America.

Before setting out on the hike, the in-laws had spent some time haggling with a local merchant for things to burn at the grave site. I liked the fact that our kids would be able to see the graves of their ancestors going back several generations, and form lasting memories. I was somewhat less enthused about the ritual of sacrifice to dead people, and we agreed that the kids needn’t participate.

When we arrived at the grave site and opened the bag of merchandise, the kids and I had quite a surprise. The bag was full of fake paper money emblazoned clearly in English with the words “Hell Bank Note”. I immediately assumed that someone with a cruel sense of humor had played a prank on the unsuspecting Chinese by stamping the money with “Hell Bank” in a foreign language. Startled, I asked my wife, “Do Chinese people know what this says in English?” She assured me that, yes, Chinese people were intentionally burning Hell bank notes for the ancestors. Of course, the first question the kids asked was, “Does this mean the ancestors are in Hell?!?”. The next question was, “How will they spend the money if it just burned up?”

It certainly left a lasting impression on the kids, but not exactly the impression I expected.

I have to assume that the burning of paper money is relatively new, since China hasn’t had paper money for more than a few centuries. And I’ve since learned that people burn paper houses and paper Porsches. I’m well aware that there is some semblance of a rationale given for these practices. But I can’t shake the feeling that some cruel person played a malicious joke on the unsuspecting population by introducing these relatively new traditions.

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