"In ancient times, a person named Cai Lun invented paper. People were anxious to buy the paper to use it to write on. His business flourished. Cai Lun’s sister-in-law [Hui Niang] noticed how profitable his business was. She asked her husband Cai Mo to learn how to make paper from his younger brother. As he was leaving to study his little brother’s trade, his wife enjoined, “Just study for a short while, then come back to start making money as soon as possible.” Cai Mo went to Cai Lun’s home. Three months later, he came back and opened a paper store. Because the paper he and his wife made was too coarse, they could not sell it. The paper piled up all over the place. The couple looked at the paper and they were much worried.
Hui Niang was an astute person. She came up with an idea. She whispered in her husband’s ear and asked her husband to follow her plan.
That night, Cai Mo wailed loudly. Neighbors did not know what happened to his family. They came over and found that Hui Niang had died. She had been put into a coffin. When Cai Mo saw that all his neighbors had come, he cried for a while and carried a bundle of grass paper (căozhĭ) indoors. He lit the paper in front of the coffin. He cried, addressing the coffin: “I learned the paper-making skill from my younger brother, but I was not so earnest, and the paper I made was not so good. This made you so angry and you died as a result. I will burn the paper into ash to quench your hatred.” He burned paper while he was crying. After he had burned the whole bundle, he carried in another bundle and continued to burn. He burned and burned, suddenly there were sounds from inside the coffin. It seemed that he did not hear the sounds, for he kept burning and crying. Suddenly, Hui Niang shouted from inside the coffin, “Take off the lid quickly, I came back!” All of the people were startled, they tried to be brave as they took off the lid.
Hui Niang sat up. She put on an act and sang, “In the yáng-world money can be used everywhere, but in the yīn-world business is also transacted; were it not for my husband’s burning paper, who would let me return home!” After the song, she tried to collect herself saying, “Just now I was a ghost (guĭ), now I am a human. When I got to the yīn-world, they had me push the mill to torture me. I suffered a lot. My husband sent me money. Little ghosts struggled to help me push the mill just for a little money—it was just like the proverb: with money you can buy the ghost to push the mill. The judge (pànguān) knew I had money so he asked me for it. I gave him a lot of money. This was the money my husband was sending to me. Then the pànguān furtively opened the back door of the earth bureau (dìfŭ). I was set free and came back.”
After hearing what his wife said, Cai Mo pretended to be lost and asked, “But I didn’t send you money, did I?”
Hui Niang pointed to the pile of paper on fire and said, “That is the money you sent to me. In yáng-world we use copper for money, whereas in the yīn-world, paper is used for money.”
Having heard this, Cai Mo ran out and carried two big bundles of grass paper inside. As he proceeded to burn it he cried, “Pànguān Pànguān, you let my wife come back, I am so grateful. I’m giving you two more bundles, please treat my parents well in the yīn-world; don’t let them suffer. When you run out of money, I will send you more.” With these words, he carried in two more bundles of grass paper to burn.
The neighbors were fooled by the couple. They thought that burning paper was really feasible. They scrambled to spend their money to buy paper from Cai Mo. Then they went to their ancestors’ tombs to burn paper. In no less than two days, the piles of paper in Cai Mo’s house were sold out. Ever since that time, the custom of going to the tombs to burn paper has continued."
- C. Fred Blake's Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld (USA: University of Hawai'i Press, 2011)
released April 8, 2017
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