Photo credit: William @ VietnamDaily
On certain auspicious days in Vietnam, the streets of major cities will be smokey with a thousand small fires, especially on the first and 15th day of the Lunar month, and major holidays like the Kitchen Gods’ Day.
What are the Vietnamese burning and why? — Look closely and you’ll see the flames engulf paper-simulacra of luxury items — there are paper versions of money, cars, houses, iPhones, suits, watches, Gucci purses, and even Pfizer vaccines.
The ritual burning of “joss paper” is a part of the Vietnamese religion known as “ancestor worship”: the ritual offering of gifts for the sake of deceased relatives, to earn their blessings and to take care of them in the after-life. The belief is that relatives in the spirit-realm need to be cared for just as in the physical world — what we need here, so they need there (like iPhones and suits and money). It is the duty of Vietnamese to take care of their family members, both living and dead.
The fire and smoke facilitate the connection between the two worlds, and so burning the paper-versions of gifts is a way to transport them to one’s deceased family.
A huge artisitic community has evolved to make beautiful paper simulacra. Whole towns may be dedicated to this craft, supplying the cities and shops for the many religiously-significant days that follow the Lunar Calendar.
Rằm Tháng 7 – Festival to Remember the Dead
The peak of paper burning occurs during “Rằm tháng 7”, the 15th of the Lunar month of July. It is the Vietnamese festival to remember the dead.
In order to make them happy and cared for, people buy lots of paper simulacra to burn and send to the spirit world.
A Controversial Practice of Burning Paper
The ritual of burning paper-gifts is controversial: the government is trying to dissuade people from creating so much air pollution. Similarly, younger generations find the practice parochial and wasteful.
Decades ago, the neighbouring Chinese Communists ruthlessly beat the practice out of their citizens as part of the purge of “old” traditions and manners.
In that gloomy historical context, the Vietnamese ritual persists as a delightful and colourful expression of cultural continuity, in defiance of what outsiders and skeptics may think.
Wealthy Vietnamese – Payback One’s Fortune
Vietnam’s wealthy citizens are known to use paper-burning as way to pay-back their debts to the gods and their spirit-benefactors.
For example, if someone had a lucky year and accrued a lot of wealthy, the belief is that such fortune was only borrowed temporarily from the beneficence of the gods/spirits. The fortune should be returned to the spirit-realm — both physically, through charity in one’s community, as well as spiritually, through the burning of paper money and other paper luxury items.
A Symbol of Sacrifice
The burning of paper-simulacra is also a symbolic act of sacrifice. Most ancient religions valorize the act of sacrifice, either symbolically or explicitly — for example, the 4th story in the Old Testament pertains to sacrificial burning (Cain and Abel).
Sacrifice is paramount to the religious transmission of wisdom down through the ages and generations: it is a way to represent and communicate the lessons of delay-gratification and investment, i.e. to do without today in order to reap greater rewards in the future (see Prof J. Peterson’s lecture on the topic).
So many hallmarks of great civilizations depend on the enlightened sacrifice of pleasure today for benefits tomorrow. Symbolic sacrifice is the story-telling version of that wisdom.
Burning in Vietnam: The Non-Religious Religious Ritual
The Vietnamese do not consider the ritualistic burning of gifts to be part of a religion. Neither are ancestor worship nor beliefs in the spirit realm considered to be religious. “It is just our culture,” a Vietnamese colleague explained.
Instead, Vietnamese consider “religion” to refer only to hierarchical institutions and doctrinal beliefs, such as Catholicism or Buddhism, and not to the collection of ancient stories, rituals, and supernatural beliefs that are loosely held by ~70% of the Vietnamese population without any overarching leader.