It was noon on the last day of the 9th month, and Qin Ming hurled himself along the busy streets of Kaifeng, hunted by ghosts.
He passed the looming Iron Pagoda with its red, green and blue bricks, bells trilling in the wind, carved Buddhas watching him with bland rictus grins.
The process had started with the fingers on the left hand. The tip of the pinky finger had been snipped off by the executioner, to the polite fascination of the crowd. The executioner had tossed the nub into a bucket. The work had only just begun, and he had too much toil ahead to to tarry over trifles.
Qin Ming passed the water wheel-driven clock tower, with the statues of scholars in its windows showing the time, the day, and the phase of the moon.
Why not beat the counterfeiter? Why not fine him? Why not brand his cheek with the mark of a criminal, exile him to a distant province, and force him to expiate his crime in penal service? Why not sever his head with one clean swing of a sword?
No. Those punishments were not enough for the mandarins. Kaifeng was the home of young Emperor Huizong, and it needed to be a city pure of debris, physical and moral. Paper money was new, easier to trade than cumbersome, snaking strings of copper coins, and fortunes depended on these talismanic scraps. The officials needed a dreadful example, so the people would fear the crafting of fake banknotes as much as the touch of devouring fire.
Qin Ming tumbled into the Imperial Way, the immaculate, almost infinite promenade that stretched from the city wall to the Emperor’s palace. Along the sides of the path were covered arcades with endless stalls, where chestnuts and pomegranates were sold alongside chess sets and crickets in cages, food for hungry minds and stimulation for curious bellies.
It had been his family’s fault, really. He sat for the public service exams like his three older brothers, but everyone knew that only one in a hundred candidates would win a place in the scholar-aristocracy of government officials. Since early childhood, he had studied the sayings of the sages and the dates of government edicts and the artful fractal shapes of classic poetry. But the breezy platitudes of Mencius perplexed him, history was a broken clock of unsolved problems, and the Book of Odes had too much pining for absent lovers for his taste. He made three bold attempts on the exam sheets without distinction, and then his stern Confucian father ordered his beating and packed him off to take up the printing trade.
And he had worked at it, learning how to carve a wood block and ink it for a clean impression, adopting movable type to get an edge on his competitors, and even making a foray into lascivious prints, although this had earned him the stern attention of the censors and a heavy fine.
Near Qin Ming there was a scuffle at a crossing, with a scholar’s sedan chair contesting right of way with a gaggle of third-class courtesans and a courier for the public pharmacy burdened with baskets on a bamboo shoulder pole. With a murmured three-way exchange of flattery, bribes and promises, the parties separated in smug content.
It had been his friend’s fault, really. As a printer Qin Ming knew how to mix the six colours, he understood the regional variants of paper fibre, and he could carve a printing block with flair and precision. His friend worked in the state warehouse that protected the goods of visitors to the city, and the premiums extorted from visiting merchants were ample opportunity to pass a few fake notes. When his friend floated the scheme over silver cups of wine in one of the private upper-story booths of a tavern, it seemed so easy.
And the arrangement worked for a time, until the duo branched into fabricating tax-exemption certificates for monks, a popular informal currency. As good as Qin Ming was at his craft, when it came to money, nobody had as sharp an eye as a Buddhist monk. His friend was undone when he skimmed a share of the certificates marked as collateral for a new wing for the Xiangguo Monastery.
And now his friend was dead, chopped to pieces to express the establishment’s displeasure.
When the jailers brought the condemned to the execution ground, he was sick and emaciated from confinement in a filthy, sunless cell, his neck was bruised from the heavy wooden collar fastened on him as a criminal, and his body was marked with welts from the beatings used to extract a confession.
Qin Ming went to see the execution, hungry for any hint of whether his friend had betrayed him under torture. Instead, he saw a feeble man pass out as soon as an eye was plucked, followed by the brisk confiscation of limbs and organs. The complete process took no more than ten minutes. Scrupulous functionaries carried off the bucket of unwanted body parts to dump outside the city, and street cleaners scrubbed the site of blood and viscera.
And so Qin Ming ran, addled by fear, until he came to the market on the Imperial Way. It had not been prudent to panic, as there were police spies everywhere, but he could tell them he was overcome by the gruesome spectacle, and in any case he had just enough money to bribe curious investigators.
And in this market, he saw a stall with paper goods for the dead.
A thousand years ago, it had been the fashion to entomb items the dead would need, whether it was a jade drinking vessel, a terrified horse, or an unusually loyal servant. With the supremacy of the Han rulers, economy-seeking officials decided small statues of objects would serve the same purpose with less wrangling of screaming sacrifices. In the turbulent hundred years of war before the Song emperors enforced order, paper objects were adopted as an even cheaper expedient.
This stall sold paper shoes, mats, hats, and other useful trinkets that the grateful living could burn for departed parents and friends, to make the wait for reincarnation more comfortable. Tomorrow, on the first day of the tenth month, with the chill of autumn tickling them, countless people would stream out of the city to visit graves and shrines and burn these paper objects.
Qin Ming thought of his friend languishing in the afterlife, and decided to buy a paper offering to burn in tribute. But what could he get him? The body his friend had received from his parents was now a jumble of squirming lumps. Perhaps cheeky imps would carry the pieces in a basket to the audience with King Yan, the judge of the underworld. Perhaps he would be too much for one basket, and need to be split across two, couriered on each end of a bamboo pole.
It was Qin Ming’s fault, really, because this was when he had his idea. This was when he wondered if his friend could bribe the officials of the underworld, and obtain a more favourable next incarnation, or at least faster processing in the celestial bureaucracy. For that, he would need appropriate paper money. Fortunately, this was Qin Ming’s expertise.
He sprinted to his workshop, and began to carve his masterpiece. He had never made a note worth more than a 1000 coins, and this would be a note for a million coins. An extraordinary amount of money, but why not? This wasn’t a forgery, but his invention, so how could it be of concern to the officials of the Song? He featured the scowling face of King Yan as the centerpiece of the design, and marked it with appropriate seals declaring it legal tender of the underworld. As a final flourish, he included a warning of a grisly fate that would await anyone who forged this note.
Business always began before dawn in Kaifeng, and Qin Ming was on the streets early with his lantern. With a typhus outbreak earlier in the year, there was a larger crowd of shuffling mourners than usual. He was on his way to the city gates, to find a shrine and burn the stack of notes he printed overnight, when in the faint light he collided with a lurching drunk. Qin Ming tumbled over, the papers scattering.
The drunk was a young man, flushed with his father’s inheritance and wine. The man picked up a note, and was shocked to see the fearsome grimace of King Yan, and then flabbergasted at the apparent value of the note.
Scrambling to gather the notes, Qin Ming explained that it was ghost paper of his design, and he was on his way to burn it for a departed friend.
The drunk thought of his dead father, and the wasteful gamboling with courtesans in the weeks since his demise. To dispel the rush of guilt he asked to buy one of the notes. Qin Ming demurred that they were not for sale, but then the young man offered him a note for 1,000 coins. With that, Qin Ming’s mercantile instincts took over, and he made a sale.
He made many similar sales that morning, discovering that the grieving would pay extraordinary amounts to show their devotion, especially on a day where fidelity was public and scrutinised by the government as evidence of correct conduct. And with these notes at a million coins, every customer considered the deal a bargain.
Inevitably, his dealings attracted the attention of a pair of patrolling police, who confronted Qin Ming. Qin Ming explained with the perfumed words of a salesman that this was only ghost paper for the dead, no different from paper shoes or paper coats. The police were persuaded, thanks to the gift of a note to each of them - perhaps the greatest bribe either of them had ever been offered.
Qin Ming sold the rest of his ghost paper that day, and never made it out of the city. His sleeves heavy with coins, banknotes and promises, he trundled home, reflecting that this was a business with potential.
The years passed, counted by the unceasing rotation of the wheels of statues inside Kaifeng’s clock tower. Emperor Huizong’s reign entered its twentieth year, and Qin Ming prospered. With Cai Jing as Chancellor, gifts were the central to success in public life, and from his hardscrabble beginnings Qin Ming knew how to incentivise and flatter.
Just the night before, Qin Ming had visited the Chancellor to present the gift of a jade belt. The two spent the night drinking fine wines, laughing over the uncouth soldiers who fought the barbarian tribes in the north, and competing in calligraphy games for forfeits. Qin Ming made sure he lost, of course, but only by small margins, to maximise the Chancellor’s enjoyment.
He didn’t need to mention the memorial that would soon go to the Emperor, criticising the ghost paper business as debasing respect for ancestors. The memorial would be lost, and the scholar would find himself transferred to a distant province, perhaps somewhere in the south where marsh diseases shortened careers. In the captial, people took care of their friends.
His business had unfurled across the empire, helped by a hard-bought imperial edict that gave him exclusive commission to print money for the dead. These days, he did not work as a printer, instead taking his considerable stipend from factories across the country managed by others, while he lived the respectable life of a gentleman of leisure.
Once turfed out of the family home for failing the public service exam, Qin Ming now had a splendid mansion of his own in the capital, and a dutiful son who had just passed the exams. At first, the son would be given a low rank in a province, but Qin Ming’s friends at court would ensure that he would soon be promoted and returned to Kaifeng, where opportunity was richest.
As wealthy as Qin Ming now was, wealth was always expensive: he needed to maintain servants commensurate with his position, had recently taken on a second wife to help manage a complex household, and was expected to make voluntary contributions to the right institutions and persons. Even so, approaching 50 and now an old man, he was rich and free in a city of unlimited pleasures. He had even been able to pay for 60 nights of prayers for the soul of his dead friend, surely enough to purge his friend’s karma and cancel any obligation from Qin Ming.
And so Qin Ming came once more to the last day of the 9th month, the day before the burning of ghost paper.
That night, he was woken by an icy breeze. He called for a servant, but there was no response. Usually, serving girls were poised outside his room, to satisfy any caprice he had during the night. He called again, louder, but there was no answer.
The door to his bedchamber slid open. Two men entered, naked except for loincloths. They were tall and burly with curly hair all over their bodies, but so thin you could see their ribs. One had the head of a horse, and then the other the head of an ox.
They unrolled an enormous woodblock print between them. Qin Ming had seen this kind of image before, in Buddhist monasteries. He had even designed a few of these prints himself. It was a print of Diyu, the realm of the dead, where souls atoned for their sins through repulsive tortures.
As such, the scenes in these prints were familiar to Qin Ming: the stock of punishments included warriors impaled on mountains of swords, famished hungry ghosts fighting over orange rinds, and illicit lovers boiled together in oil. Since seeing his friend’s death by slow slicing many years before, these images held little horror for Qin Ming. But what he saw here transfixed him. Rather than anguish, this was a portrait of malaise.
Captivated, Qin Ming crawled to the foot of his bed for a closer look. He saw that the lines on the print wriggled as though alive, and he knew that this print was a window to the infernal realm.
On the field where the dead were trampled by wild animals, sinners waited patiently for their turn with the goat. A few elephants could do batches promptly, but it took an eternity for even one person to be properly crushed by a goat. The bored dead passed the time with group exercises.
The pool of filthy blood where sinners drowned over and over was pristine, with the devil responsible for topping up pus and maggots nowhere to be seen. A few of the damned had even improvised driftwood kickboards, and were holding races.
The flaying racks were somehow the worst, for with no demons present, and with nothing better to do, cursed souls were cutting the skin off each other. The results were mixed, demonstrating that flaying was a skilled job that called for a proper apprenticeship.
And so it was throughout the underworld, with the mills for grinding bodies into powder dilapidated, the mortars and pestles for smashing bones broken, and the infernos and icebergs reserved for chastening the naked both lukewarm.
And everywhere Qin Ming saw his notes of ghost paper, discarded as trash, not valuable enough even for wallpaper. And he realised why the court’s punishment of his friend for counterfeiting had been so severe, for money loses its value when there is too much of it. Thanks to Qin Ming, the world had stopped sending useful objects to the afterlife, and instead dispatched endless sheaves of paper money, worthless now there was nothing to buy. Unpaid, most demons had fled the underworld. Stripped of the opportunity for penance, souls could not be reborn into new lives. The beloved dead, doted on by their families after death, had become the equal of the most malignant wrongdoer.
Qin Ming realised that this broken realm would be his home within a few years, and his reception would not be welcome.
Out of a palace in the corner of the print, a sedan chair emerged, carried by a coterie of emaciated demons. It became larger as it moved towards Qin Ming, until the screen was blotted out by the glare of King Yan, his scowl pinched by suffering.
And King Yan explained, patiently and firmly, what was expected of Qin Ming.
Later, Emperor Huizong would make a groveling ceremonial apology, taking personal responsibility for any offence to Heaven that had caused the disaster. Rent relief would be declared across the city, with greater levels of relief for the poorer households. Key products such as waterproof rushes and timber would be given tax exemptions, to encourage rebuilding. And of course, new government contracts would be awarded to restore public buildings, and a select few would emerge from the tragedy richer than ever. And when the origin of the fire was discovered, a neglected memorial on ghost paper would be resurrected, and given serious consideration.
Qin Ming awoke in his bed, and for a moment thought the vision of Diyu, and his frenzied actions after that, had been a dream. Then he looked out his window and saw the bloodshot eye of a giant cyclops, before the giant ripped out the entire wall. Qin Ming ran downstairs though the crumbling house, to see imps ransacking every box and dresser in hunt for anything interesting or valuable, a beast that was mostly hands carrying away both his wives, fox spirits trying on the household’s robes and dresses, and humanoid snails throwing bones for the servants.
Outside, Qin Ming saw the neighborhood of the city that he had brought to the afterlife with him being dismantled and carried off by playful abominations. Even a few human souls participated in the looting, yearning for nostalgic trinkets. Just like the execution of Qin Ming’s friend a few decades before, the process did not take more than ten minutes. Any paper money they left, whether the currency of the Song or Qin Ming’s ghost paper, for there was no longer appetite for it in the underworld.
Finally, goblins stripped Qin Ming of his clothes, and left him naked in a sprawling plain of discarded banknotes.
And so the old man wept, picked himself up, and began his lonely hike to the palace of King Yan, to face judgement, and the final reconciliation of his balance sheet.