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HELL MONEY – Chinese funeral coins for underworld

The Chinese have traditionally burnt paper replicas of household objects as part of funeral rites, such as miniature houses. By the end of the 19th century copy paper money (joss paper money) was used instead of representing all the usual household objects.  Due to mistranslation of the Chinese diyu  地狱; (meaning underworld prison) these quintessentially ephemeral numismatic items have acquired the name of hell money.

Portrait side of Chinese paper funeral silver dollar

Portrait side of Chinese paper funeral silver dollar 37mm. similar to Yuan Shih Kai dollar, c. 1930s

The pictured item is unusual in that it is a silvered card copy of a silver dollar coin. The portrait is a very rough copy of the Yuan Shih Kai dollar made between the 3rd and 10th year of the Republic  of China (1914-22).  This looks like it is dated to year 10 so probably this was made in the early 1920’s  and before the recoinage of the early 1930’s.

Card or paper coins of this style were meant to burn and as a result are very rarely seen. This one came with a small (and not very interesting) group of Chinese cash coins that were probably collected by a tourist to China in the 1930’s.  The collection did include some fakes of ancient coins made at this time, e.g. spades, knives purporting to come from 2000 years previously.  So perhaps all were purchased as curiosities, including this piece.  It is very similar to the toy money or play money that is so familiar to European children.   Note that according to Chinese custom, it is highly offensive to give funeral coins to a living a person. 

Reverse of paper Chinese silver dollar.

Reverse of paper Chinese funeral silver dollar. 37mm.

While looking for other examples of a funeral coin on the net, I came across the following article; a coffin found minus its corpse in Suqian, Jiangsu Province at a multiple tomb archeological site.  However, in the manner of a memorial, just a Yuan Shih Kai dollar was left inside. The best guess is that it was a ‘memorial’ tomb for someone whose mortal remains are buried elsewhere.

Just to show the difference, here’s an image of a real Yuan Shih Kai dollar so that you can compare the two coins.



Republic of China year 10 (1931-2) Yuan Shih Kai portrait silver dollar

Republic of China year 10 (1931-2) Yuan Shih Kai portrait silver dollar – 40mm.

Reverse of Yuan Shih Kai silver dollar, year 10 (1931/2)

Reverse of Republic of China Yuan Shih Kai silver dollar, year 10 (1931/2) 40mm.


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