spirit paper

The Anthropology of Money in Southern California

This is from 2004, but worth revisiting. I wish more exhibitions were recorded.

The following passages are copied from the website:

The Anthropology of Money in Southern California is an exhibition of the uses of money and money-like objects in the cultural, religious or ritual practices of various communities of Los Angeles and Orange Counties. It was created from original research conducted by the students in an undergraduate class at the University of California at Irvine, on the anthropology of money (Anthropology 125S) in the Fall of 2004. For about four weeks out of a ten week quarter, in addition to conducting their regular assignments for this class, students worked in small groups to collect data on monetary uses of non-monetary objects and the non-monetary uses of legal tender. They employed participant-observation, interviews, archival and web-based research. The goals of the project were: (1) to introduce students to ethnographic research methods and to give them the opportunity to conduct independent, original research on a little-studied phenomenon; (2) to illuminate and document the diverse practices involving money and money-like objects in which many Southern Californians participate; (3) to contribute to research in the humanities and social sciences on the social meanings and uses of money.

…Some of these practices gain their force from an imagined “Chinese culture,” described to students in various terms by Chinese and non-Chinese alike. The pervasiveness of “Chineseness” is perhaps best illustrated by the Honduran woman one of the research terms interviewed about Feng Shui. There are also traces in the research represented here of Middle Eastern, South and Central Asian cultural and political histories that transcend religious and ethnic divides, or that intertwine those divides to the point where they almost disappear. Students were surprized – and frustrated, at times – by the fuzzy and often flat-out contradictory lineages their interviewees recounted for these money objects, their “cultures,” and their associated uses and beliefs.

…Some of these practices have rarely been documented. Even the most ubiquitous – ghost money, or hell money – has received only cursory scholarly attention. This may be because many of these practices are assumed to be “women’s work” or “women’s knowledge,” and/or activities involving the sustainance of family and kinship across the generations and back into the time of the ancestors. Or it may be because, like legal tender itself, they are so ubiquitous that they seem to go without saying.

… The student researchers on this project discovered more than the earmarking of money for special purposes, or the inherent tension between gift and commodity that becomes so difficult to sustain when faced with cultural economies of money and money-like objects. They also discovered that money is a complicated tangle, ultimately representationally inadequate to the notions of value, community and sociality it is purported to index. And that inadequacy opens money up to reveal its deep sociality, its metaphysical meanings side by side with its earthly pragmatics.



Money lei with intricately folded bills (original source: http://leisofhawaii.com/money.htm )

“…this project presented one of the greatest challenges of my college studies to date.”   – Dave Eggers, Anthro 1255, Fall 2004

“It  not only takes skill, communication, and good research techniques, but the ability to look at a project that lies in fragments, see the whole it can become, and turn it into that very thing.”   – Alexandria Ostowari, Anthro 1255, Fall 2004

Treasures in the Netherworld (lecture in Oxford, 19 July)

“Treasures in the Netherworld – a nineteenth-century Chinese local handicraft industry of mock money” – is the title of a talk by Dr PAN Weilin 潘玮琳 on Wednesday 19 July in the Heberden Coin Room, at the Ashmolean Museum.

Dr Pan, of the Institute of China Studies, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, is currently a visiting scholar in the Dept of Coins and Medals, at the British Museum. Her visit is funded by the E.S.G. Robinson Charitable Trust, which commemorates the legacy of Sir Stanley Robinson (1887-1976), a former Head of the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum, and Reader in Numismatics at Oxford, and “unquestionably the greatest Greek numismatist of his time”.


Pan Weilin’s publications include a long article (in Chinese) on this subject:

潘玮琳:《”祀鬼之业”:近代社会变迁中的江浙锡箔业》,复旦大学历史学系、复旦大学中外现代化进程研究中心编:《近代中国的物质文化》 (近代中国研究集刊 5),上海古籍出版社,2015,1-42页。ISBN978-7-5325-7958-7。[“The business of making offerings for ghosts”: the tin-foil industry in Jiangsu and Zhejiang during modern social changes]

Auspicious Symbols – ONS Study Day, London, 18 Nov 2017

 On 18 November 2017 the ONS Study Day will focus on auspicious symbols. Coins (bank notes, tokens, and charms) are not decorated just with images or inscriptions. They also preserve a range of symbols and devices which might be considered under the term auspicious. This is a somewhat imprecise term but is often used to cover those parts of a design which cannot be considered either images or inscriptions. These symbols are amongst the most ambiguous elements in coin iconography with it being very unclear why an engraver added them to the coin. (more…)

Supermarket of the Dead 冥間超市

“Supermarket of the Dead. Burnt offerings in China and the Cult of Globalised Consumption”  – an exhibition by Wolfgang Scheppe with the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (Dresden State Art Collections) in the Northwing, Reception Floor of the Residenzschloss (Royal Palace), 14 March to 14 June 2015.  (more…)