Di Yu, or Chinese hell, is apparently a kind of bureaucratic spiritual immigration control station. Almost everyone spends some time in Di Yu, atoning for sins and wrongs before the judges of Di Yu allow their spirits to be reborn. (Di Yu seems somewhat similar to the Catholic concept of limbo, which was, as you may recall, itself recently banished to limbo.)
Most often, Di Yu is depicted as having 18 different levels, with different chambers for various offenses. Examples include the Chamber of Ice, where children who mistreat their parents are sent to be frozen in ice, and the Chamber of Pounding, where murderers are pounded.
To help the spirits of departed loved ones navigate the underground chambers and courtrooms of Di Yu, relatives burn "hell bank notes". The idea appears to be that the bureaucracy running Di Yu, like so many bureaucrats above ground, suffers from susceptibility to corruption:
Hell bank notes . . . are a special form of joss paper, an afterlife monetary paper offering used in traditional Chinese ancestor veneration, that can be printed in the style of western or Chinese paper bank notes.Wikipedia. Kind of gives a new twist to Visa's "It's everywhere you want to be" motto
In order to ensure that spirits have lots of good things in the afterlife, their relatives send them paper presents, and one of the things that are usually sent to ancestors are Hell Bank Notes – money to spend in the afterworld.
In some mythology, the Hell Bank Notes are sent by living relatives to dead ancestors to "bribe" the King of Hell for a shorter stay or to escape punishment, or for the ancestors to use themselves in spending lavish items in the afterlife. In these more modern times, the creation of Hell Bank Notes credit cards and checks have become very popular. The designs on these "credit cards" vary from the very simple (with just a basic "VISA" stamped on a gold cardboard card), to very elaborate (with custom artwork and names).
Though hell bank notes present a particularly colorful example, the idea of currency given to aid the dead seems to show up many places. For example, in ancient Greece, relatives would often place a coin under the tongue of the deceased: fare for the ferryman Charon to cross the River Styx.
I find it fascinating that Chinese hell is a kind of Kafkaesque, bureaucratic nightmare. All these spirits floating through endless hallways in some labyrinthine government building, their fates decided by the whims of various corrupt magistrates, trying to grease the wheels of cosmic justice with special hell money, checks, and credit cards. They must play a lot of Portishead over the P.A. system. And the Western Union office down there must be mobbed. I wonder if any grieving relatives ever worry that the Chinese government's efforts to keep the yuan artificially low may be negatively affecting ancestors in Di Yu.
Hell money comes in all sorts of denominations and styles