top of page
  • Writer's pictureJohn Lombard

Inspirations - Ghost Paper

This story has a lot going on! To start, I first got into Chinese history a few years back through the History of China podcast. Initially I wanted to get a little context for the events of novel Romance of the 3 Kingdoms, but I was captivated by its epic scale and endless, unsolvable dance of idealistic philosophy and realpolitik.

This story is set during the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127), at around the same time as the novel Water Margin (written hundreds of years later during the Ming Dynasty). This was a period that valued academic and artistic achievement, with an all-star scholar bureaucracy and enormous innovation in technology, art and commerce. The dark side of this period was endemic corruption and military weakness, with creeping restrictions in the freedom of women.

The last Emperor of the Northern Song, Huizong, is a symbol of the contradictions of the era - although a brilliant painter and poet with works still respected today, he presided over catastrophic foreign policy that resulted in the loss of northern China to Jurchen invaders, and ended his life in humiliating captivity. Like Water Margin, my story finishes just a few years before the fall of Kaifeng and the end of the Northern Song.

This story is set in Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song, and for information on daily life in the capital I drew on Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion by Jacques Gernet. Mostly, this book talks about Hangzhou, the capital of the Southern Song, but it does have some detail on Kaifeng, and records a period close enough in time and culture that I felt a few inferences here and there would be safe. For example, unlike many medieval and plenty of modern cities, according to records Hangzhou had very clean streets. And, apparently, sex workers were organised into four classes (and even had to participate in a parade once a year).

As an aside, the famous painted scroll Along the River During the Qingming Festival depicts life in Kaifeng at the time of this story, and depicts a vibrant and bustling commercial city.

Of course, while life in Kaifeng was luxurious, the life of Chinese peasants was pretty miserable, and plenty of residents of Kaifeng lived wage-to-wage. Chinese history was written by the scholars, and they represent a comparatively tiny, priviliged elite. For the endless pontificating about values and tradition by Chinese elites, poverty and suffering were the brutal reality of life for the overwhelming majority of Chinese, who lived hard and short lives.

As for details in the story...

- Gernet gives the first day of the 10th month as the day where people in the Song burnt paper goods to the dead. There are actually several historical festivals where the Chinese honoured their ancestors, famously the Qingming festival on 4 April. Yes, I called my main character Qin Ming, and it just felt right - hopefully to a Chinese reader, it doesn't have a vibe like 'Hal O'Ween'.

- The Iron Pagoda still stands in Kaifeng. Although it has bricks of different colours, from a distance they blend together and look iron-grey.

- The water wheel-driven clock tower was built by astronomer Su Song, and a technological marvel of the era. It was destroyed when the invading Jurchens dismantled it to take it north, but couldn't put it back together. The Southern Song couldn't recreate it, although it has been remade in the modern era. The clock was in Kaifeng, but I couldn't find out where in the city, so I took a liberty here and have it somewhere in the city for Qin Ming to run past, rather than tucked away in the royal palace.

- Qin Ming's friend is executed by slow slicing, the famous 'death of a thousand cuts'. This was a severe punishment practiced under the Song, generally for traitors, and I have used some dramatic licence to have it applied to a counterfeiter. The other punishments are from the era (physical punishments called the 5 Punishments), and Water Margin frequently shows them in action.

- Broadly, the timeline I give here for the adoption of paper in offerings to the dead is accurate (at least according to my research). My character Qin Ming and his paper money for the dead are both my inventions. I'm not sure where the modern practice of burning money for the dead actually started, although it's a safe bet that it evolved out of the burning of paper goods and adoption of paper money.

- Paper money starts in China during the Tang in the form of promissory notes, and it is during the Song that the government gets into the printing of paper money. I have done my best to get the details and denominations right (again, with a little creative licence and inference here and there). As it so happens, tax exemption certificates for monks were indeed used as a form of paper currency (as we see in Water Margin).

- The high-pressure government official exam is accurate for the Northern Song, although the rigid focus on the Five Classics (including the Book of Odes) dates to the Southern Song onwards.

- For Diyu, the Chinese/Buddhist Hell, and its ruler King Yan, I've drawn on a few sources. First, Journey to the West (best known in Australia through Monkey Magic) has a sequence where the Tang Empeor Taizong tours Hell, and sees how it operates. Secondly, the deathsploitation Japanese movie Jigoku by director Nobuo Nakagawa has an extended sequence showing the grisly punishments of this version of Hell. Third, there is a touch of Akutagawa's short stories Hell Screen and The Spider's Thread here, with their depictions of the various tortures of this version of Hell. Obviously, conceptions of Hell in China have changed over the years, but as Buddhist ideas had seeped into Chinese daily life by the Song, it felt safe to depict this a temporary realm in the cycle of reincarnation. For the tortures and monsters, in part I drew on these sources, and in part I just had a bit of fun throwing weird things in!

- Inflation! To prepare for this story, I grilled an economist friend, and coupled that with general knowledge of periods where hyperinflation caused havoc, such as Weimar Germany and France during the Revolution. In the end, I found it hard to take the core idea too seriously... After all, if the afterline depends on imports from the world of the living, wouldn't it have a balance of payments problem? That's another story right there!

I said that was a lot! The last thing I want to talk about with this story is the ending. I knew this would be a story about the paper money for the dead causing an inflation problem in the afterlife, but I had a lot of different ideas for how it would end. The other frontrunners:

- Qin Ming gets turned into paper by a vengeful King Yan

- Qin Ming vanishes, but all that is left behind is a banknote, and the picture on it shows him falling into Hell

- Qin Ming prints himself an unfathomly large note, so when he dies he is the richest person in the afterlife

- Qin Ming creates lots of paper soldiers, so when he dies he can fight off the demon hordes

I went with the arson ending, because this was a story about Kaifeng, and it needed to be part of the climax. Also, with real sacrifices being suplanted by paper sacrifices and then ghost paper, it made sense to me that the dead would demand a primal sacrifice - a return to older, bloodier, and more powerful traditions. Qin Ming is rougish, but really the Song's corrupt practices are to blame, and their divine retribution will come just after the end of the story when invaders destroy Kaifeng, and a good chunk of the court including the Emperor are dragged off as slaves.

When I started the podcast, I warned you I was going to dip into Chinese history. Can my other historical interest, the French Revolution, be far off? Well... Wait and see...

19 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page