Every culture has its own funerary traditions. In China, it’s traditional to donate money to the deceased’s family. But how much money are you supposed to give at a Chinese funeral?
To help pay for the funeral, guests attending Chinese funerals are expected to give at least 101 Yuan ($16), with the amount increasing for closer associates. The given amount must be an odd number and presented in white envelopes on the day of the funeral or the day before.
This article will explain the Chinese tradition of condolence money, and the amount of money funeral guests are expected to give.
What Is “Condolence Money”?
Condolence money is a gift that people give to the grieving family. In China, it’s traditional for guests at the funeral to give money to the bereaved family to help pay for the funeral, since funerals in most societies are very expensive.
Chinese funerary traditions are considerably more elaborate than more western funeral traditions. Traditional Chinese funerals feature precessions that can last 49 days, dozens of postmortem gifts, flowers, imitation paper money, and occasionally exotic dancers.
All of that is expensive.
In China, condolence money is commonly called “pek kim” or “bai jin,” which translates to “white gold.” It’s presented to the deceased family in white envelopes, contrasting to the red envelopes used to give money at traditional Chinese weddings.
Why White Envelopes?
Chinese culture applies special meaning to many colors, and white is associated with death and mourning. Western cultures typically associate black with death. But in China, black is the color of authority, and white is associated with death. White is also associated with metal.
It’s traditional to wear white to Chinese funerals.
How Much Money Are Funeral Guests Supposed To Give?
In mainland China, the minimum expected financial gift is 101 Yuan ($16). The amount is increased by multiples of 100 Yuan for close associates, with extended family members expected to give the most. The amount of money varies in Chinese exclaves and immigrant communities.
Part of the idea of the Chinese tradition of condolence money is to buy honor for the deceased in the afterlife. It’s traditionally assumed that the deceased’s family and close friends would want to buy the most honor.
Giving condolence money isn’t compulsory for funeral attendees. It can be substituted with gifts of flowers or traditional paper burial money. Some more affluent Chinese families even designate a charity for funeral guests to donate to.
If a funeral guest isn’t able or willing to give a donation of any kind, it might be taken as an insult. Especially if older, more traditional family members hear.
Why Does the Given Amount Have To Be an Odd Number?
In Chinese culture, even numbers such as 2, 4, 6, or 8 are associated with auspicious events. Funerals aren’t auspicious events. To avoid bad luck, “white gold” must be odd-numbered amounts, such as 1, 3, 5, 7, or 9.
In Chinese numerology, numbers are said to be auspicious/lucky or inauspicious/unlucky based on the words they sound similar to. For example, the Chinese word for the number “2” is homophonous with the words for “easy” and “bright” and is therefore believed to be lucky.
But the Chinese word for the number “4” is homophonous with the Chinese character for “death” and is therefore considered unlucky. Because of this association, condolence gifts must not be a multiple of 4.
The association between the number “4” and death has resulted in a widespread cultural phobia of the number “4”. This phenomenon is called “tetraphobia.” As a result, many Chinese and Southeast Asian buildings omitted floor numbers that use the number “4”.
How Much Do Traditional Chinese Funerals Cost?
Traditional Chinese funerals are quite expensive. The average cost of a traditional Chinese funeral is between 20,000 and 80,000 Yuan ($3,150-$13,000). That equates to over three months of the average Chinese salary.
According to Reuters, the average cost of a traditional Chinese funeral in 2007 was between 10,000 and 20,000 Yuan ($1,500 to $3,000). Since then, due to increased land and funeral speculation, the average cost has ballooned to between 20,000 and 80,000 Yuan ($3,150 to $13,000), with urban citizens paying the most.
That’s a lot of money for a family in a majority world economy to spend.
The Chinese government has announced measures to mitigate the soaring cost of traditional funerals and burials while encouraging citizens to consider less expensive burial options.
Why Are Traditional Chinese Funerals So Expensive?
Traditional Chinese funerals are so expensive because the culture has developed many rituals that must be performed to give the deceased a proper sendoff. Many families also purchase expensive funeral offerings for the deceased.
Furthermore, the cost of burial plots has skyrocketed due to China’s poorly regulated real estate market.
In Chinese culture, it’s believed that the deceased will use anything that’s buried or burned with their body in the afterlife. So to provide them with the goods they’ll need in the afterlife, funeral attendees are expected to make offerings of paper replicas of money, household goods, and food.
Joss paper, also called “incense paper,” is the latest material used in the long history of Chinese funeral offerings. It can be made from bamboo fibers or rice husks.
Joss paper is used to make imitation currency and many household goods, including but not limited to food, clothing, jewelry, smartphones, electric shavers, and other consumer electronics.
These crafts can be nearly as expensive as the consumer goods they’re meant to imitate.
The most common type of funerary offering in China is burial money. Burial money is meant to allow the deceased’s soul to buy themselves the best possible afterlife. Originally people would use actual currency, but this attracted grave robbers.
Burial money has existed in Chinese culture for thousands of years. Its oldest incarnation was clay replicas of cowry shells, the oldest money used in Chinese and human history. The Chinese have also used clay and wooden coins, silk replicas of paper money, and bronze charms.
One popular variation of burial money is “hell money,” which is joss paper replicas of Chinese Yuans issued by the “Bank of Hell.” The denominations of hell money are ridiculously inflated, with values ranging from 10,000 to several billion Yuan.
The largest contributor to the cost of traditional Chinese funerals is the cost of burial plots. Due to a combination of the unstable Chinese stock market and insufficient government regulation of the real estate market, the cost of land in and around Chinese cities has been rapidly increasing for the last 20 years.
China’s domestic stock market has proven to be unusually volatile, prone to rapid boom and bust cycles. As a result, people in the growing Chinese middle class often prefer real estate for their investments. That has created an ongoing housing boom.
The Chinese housing boom has created some bizarre phenomena. Chinese property developers have built entire sections of cities full of unoccupied or even unfinished high-rise housing complexes.
These urban areas are colloquially referred to as “ghost cities.”
The rapid construction of new developments has driven land values in Chinese metropolitan areas ridiculously high. Chinese cemetery owners must charge more for plots to maintain economic viability.
Another problem is that despite having a population of 1.4 billion people, China only has 3000 officially sanctioned cemeteries. The USA has over 50,000 cemeteries for a population of just under 330 million.
A related factor contributing to the increasing cost of burial plots is speculation, a rather ghoulish offshoot of traditional real estate speculation. Investors buy up burial plots in major cities hoping that demand and scarcity will increase the price.
When the price increases, the speculators sell their plots at massive profits.
In China, some local governments attempt to curb burial plot speculation by requiring prospective plot buyers to present a valid death certificate.
The ongoing Chinese construction boom, scarcity of cemeteries, and unregulated burial plot speculation have caused the cost of urban funeral plots. According to Business Insider, the cost of burial plots in major Chinese cities reached an average of 112,545 Yuan per square meter ($5,384 per square foot).
That’s more than twice the luxury housing real estate cost in Beijing or Shanghai.
According to the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, a standard burial plot is 0.762 m by 2.44 m (2.5 ft by 8 ft), or 1.86 sq. m (20 sq. ft). In Beijing or Shanghai, that can cost 209,334 Yuan, or nearly $33,000.
The Chinese government is attempting to mandate cremation as an alternative to conventional burial. Plots for burying cremains are officially limited to 1.5 sq. m (16.15 sq. ft), most being 1 sq. m (10.76 sq. ft).
Chinese Funerary Rituals
Chinese culture is old, having existed in recognizable forms for over 4000 years. It has developed complicated rituals for the burial of friends and family members in that time. The two largest influences on the development of Chinese burial customs were Confucianism and Buddhism.
Confucianism is an ancient ethical and philosophical system dating back to the Chinese philosopher Confucius, circa 551-479 BCE.
Confucious described himself as a transmitter of values from much earlier eras, dating back as far as the possibly mythical Xia Dynasty (2070-1600 BCE). Confucianism has been a massive influence in Chinese culture and governance for the last 2000 years.
Buddhism is an offshoot of the Hindu religion, which originated in India in the sixth century BCE. It was introduced to China late in the third century BCE.
Chinese Buddhism and Confucianism both feature a strong emphasis on filial piety and ancestor veneration. Filial piety is overt respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. These traditions require that the dead be treated with the utmost respect.
According to Chinese tradition, family members and close friends should hold vigils for a dying person. The practice is called “shou ling” and is the last display of filial piety.
It provides company for the dying until they enter the afterlife.
After the death, the deceased’s family will hang a white banner over the door to notify the neighbors that a death has occurred. Obituary notices are sent out, and extended family members and friends of the deceased are summoned to participate in the funeral.
Immediate family members are expected to wear white clothes, and more distant relatives will wear white, black, green, or blue clothes. It’s traditional to avoid wearing the colors red, yellow, and brown during the mourning period.
The funeral will usually be scheduled on an auspicious date from the Chinese calendar.
An “auspicious date” is one where the day of the month numeral is homophonous with a positive word. Traditionally families would consult a Feng Shui master to select an auspicious date, but these days you can do so for free on the internet.
Before the funeral, the deceased will be cleaned and dressed in formal funeral attire. The funeral hall is decorated before the arrival of the body. A wake is held before the funeral, where attendees pay respects to the deceased.
Many Chinese wakes will have collection boxes for condolence money.
Chinese custom dictates that elders shouldn’t show respect to someone younger than themselves. Funeral rites aren’t traditionally held for deceased infants and young children.
On the day of the funeral, the body is carried to the burial or cremation site in a hearse. Funerary offerings are presented during the funeral to reinforce the interdependence between the living and dead and provide the deceased with the money and goods they may need in the afterlife.
The actual funeral is a somber affair, not dissimilar from western funerals. An officiant delivers a eulogy, usually a member of the deceased’s immediate family or a close friend. If the deceased were religious, prayers might be delivered by a priest of their religion.
Many Chinese funerals feature prayers recited by Buddhist or Taoist monks. These prayers aim to help the deceased find their way to the afterlife and avoid becoming a “restless ghost.”
For a variety of reasons, Chinese funerals are surprisingly expensive. To offset the cost, funeral attendees are expected to make financial gifts to the deceased’s family.
- Chinese Calendar Online: Auspicious Dates
- Classroom: Chinese Condolence Gifts
- CNN Business: China’s Booming Business of Burials
- Global Times: Average Funeral Costs for Urban Beijingers $12,877: Report
- International Cemetery: Cremation and Funeral Association, Frequently Asked Questions
- Pinterest: Joss Paper Offerings
- Reuters: Chinese “Can’t Afford to Die” as Funeral Costs Soar
- Royal Palm Memorial: Chinese Funeral Traditions
- The Economic Times: China’s Cemetery Plots Become Costly as Cities Run Out of Burial Space
- The New York Times: China Curbs Fancy Tombs That Irk Poor
- Wikipedia: Chinese Burial Money
- Wikipedia: Chinese Funeral Rituals
- Wikipedia: Chinese Numerology
- Wikipedia: Confucianism
- Wikipedia: Color in Chinese Culture
- Wikipedia: Hell Money
- Wikipedia: Joss Paper
- Wikipedia: Tetraphobia
- Wikipedia: Real Estate in China
- Wikipedia: Under-Occupied Developments in China
- Business Insider: A grave now costs more per square meter than high-end property in China, thanks to overpopulation