Spirit Money

Pronouns: He/Him

Age: 21

Nationality: Malaysian

Primary Language(s): Malay, English


“On the ninth day of the Chinese New Year, Hokkien people – a subgroup of Chinese people – stay up til midnight to pray to the Jade Emperor, the ‘Chinese god big boss’. My mom happens to be Hokkien which is why we do it every year. Before the ritual, we would fold thousands of joss papers into specific shapes to burn during the ritual. The joss papers symbolize ‘spirit money’ and the act of burning them symbolizes giving money to the Jade Emperor. On the night of the ninth day of Chinese New Year, we would set up a table in front of our house filled with food offerings. Common food choices include a bunch of vegetarian stuff and a big roasted pork. We would also place two large sugar canes and three large dragon joss sticks in front of the table. By 11pm, we start by praying to the Jade Emperor with incense while making a wish. Then we burn all the joss papers that we prepared before, and by the time the dragon joss sticks are burned to around their midpoints, we stop burning the joss papers and start eating the food offerings.”


This informant is one of my close friends and classmates. He celebrates the Chinese New Year every year, although he has been apart from his family in Malaysia for the last couple years while studying at university.


This ritual is practiced in the presence of change with the purpose of eliciting a positive outcome for the family’s future in the Chinese New Year. It is a ‘transition rite’ (as defined by Arnold van Gennep) because it ritually marks the transition from one year to the next. This ritual also follows James George Frazer’s homeopathic Principle of Sympathetic Magic – the informant’s family folds joss papers into specific shapes (symbolizing ‘spirit money’) which are burned to represent the offering of ‘spirit money’ to the Jade Emperor.