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Chanel shoes, McDonald’s french fries, iPhones, cognac, lacy lingerie, and machine guns are just a few of the consumer goods you can purchase for the dead in China. Made from bamboo-based joss paper, they’re meant to be burned. The torching of offerings for ancestors goes back centuries in Chinese culture, but it’s only in recent decades that the objects have taken on the shape of commercial comforts. Joss paper goods are now such a cultural presence that Gucci sent a legal warning to a couple of stores for selling flammable knockoffs of its luxury wares.
Supermarket of the Dead: Burnt Offerings in China and the Cult of Globalised Consumption, edited by Wolfgang Scheppe and recently released by Walther König, Köln, documents some of these paper objects, with essays by Scheppe and other scholars exploring their cultural context. The three-volume catalogue follows Scheppe’s 2015 exhibition of the same name at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (Dresden State Art Collections) at the Residenzschloss. That show was arranged like an actual store for spirits.
In an essay in the book, Scheppe explains the meaning of the paper tradition:
The act of burning the paper replicas of money and goods transfers the objects, in the very moment in which they crumble to ashes and go up in smoke, into a world beyond the terrestrial world, where they are placed at the disposal of the chaotic pandemonium of ancestors, spirits, and gods that need to be appeased, serving to feed them and meet their needs so that they may be favorably disposed or their hardships assuaged.
He adds that from this point of view, the posthumous realm is, like our own, “committed to money as a means of, and synonym for, happiness.” In another essay, Uta Werlich of Stuttgart’s Linden-Museum notes that there’s “a firm belief in an afterlife, and the assumption that this afterlife is subject to similar needs and desires as the here and now.”
It’s not easy to find evidence of what form these offerings took in the past, since they are, by their nature, ephemeral, but Supermarket of the Dead includes an essay and images of some rare cardboard examples from the early 20th century. They’re mostly religious or ceremonial objects, and aesthetically subdued compared to the gaudy colors and items of today. During the Cultural Revolution, the burning of paper money and offerings was banned, yet the practice endured, morphing as the country did too. (Mao’s portrait even sometimes shows up on Hell Money.)
Back in 2012, Kurt Tong had a photography exhibition on joss paper offerings at New York’s Jen Bekman Gallery; he documented the objects against a black background before setting them alight. Called In Case it Rains in Heaven, Tong’s solo show considered the practice as a poignant reflection of beliefs about the hereafter, where you might need a paper umbrella to defend against a netherworld storm. Likewise, Supermarket of the Dead features wheelchairs and walkers alongside a host of shoes designed for ghostly strutting, from metallic blue Louis Vuitton slippers to silvery heels that glisten like wrapping paper on a promising present. Ultimately, these joss paper items are a sort of “representational magic,” as Scheppe puts it, creating a connection between our world and the one we cannot know as they are consumed by fire.