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In Vietnam, Joss Papers Link Life and Death, Modernity and Tradition

Joss papers and effigies consumed my experiences before I began to even question their meaning. On the anniversary of my grandfather’s death (giỗ), my grandmother routinely set up a large pot in our tiny front yard and burned a stack of replica paper money. It is quite a scene to watch - the fire turned the paper to smoke and ash, and within minutes it was as if the paper never existed.

Burning joss paper is a ritual offering of money and wealth to the dead which is most popular during death anniversaries, Tet, and the ghost month festival. People who grew up or live in Vietnam, or other parts of Asia such as China and Japan know it well. Its popularity hasn't seemed to wane: just stroll through any market in Saigon – from small, local markets to the biggest and most claustrophobic like Binh Tay, and you'll pass at least one shop selling joss paper and incense.

People burn joss paper as a standalone activity or incorporate it into larger occasions. One of the most popular times to do so is during the Hungry Ghost Festival (rằm tháng 7 or xá tội vong nhân), a month dedicated to giving offerings to wandering ghosts who had no families or homes while alive. Paper replicas of currency and other effigies are accompanied by fruits, sugarcane, sweets, and incense, arranged on a round tin tray. They await immolation while the host murmurs prayers. The ritual is called cúng cô hồn, and halfway through the process, it is likely that a number of young kids from the neighborhood have already arrived at one's house gate, anticipating the goods (giật cô hồn) that remain after the ritual is complete.

I asked a random person in a market and was showered with advice on how to burn spiritual money correctly: “You have to make sure that everything is well-burned, in order for them [the ancestors] to be able to receive them,” said a lady in a local market in Phu Nhuan.

There is no single philosophical or moral explanation for the practice. People, however, often claim that the afterlife resembles the world of the living. Anthropologist Heonik Kwon explains that Buddhism spread the idea that life is a type of bank loan and when a person dies, it is up to their descendants to pay their debts. Kirsten Endres and Andrea Lauser connect this notion to the concept of filial piety (hiếu). In Confucian philosophy, it is the duty of one's descendants to repay a person's moral debts (trả ơn). Kwon suggests that wealth retains relevancy in the afterlife, and thus can be given to those who cross over.

Although it is hard to pinpoint a particular period when such practices emerged in Vietnam, researchers attribute it to Chinese colonization, since the money offerings date back to the country's feudal period.

The names giấy vàng mã or giấy vàng bạc refer to the traditional form of replica paper money which is made from white coarse bamboo paper and features a thin edge of gold or silver, which gives it the name vàng (gold) and bạc (silver). Effigies such as horses and clothes are other popular forms of spiritual money. Today, one can easily find these types of paper money in standard joss paper shops, adjacent to more modern and foreign replicas.

In Burning Money, Fred Blake, while comparing historical joss paper examples with contemporary ones, laid out two main differences: one being the emergence of foreign currencies such as dollars and euros; and two being the inclusion of modern commodities such as smartphones.

Such diversification of votive commodities can be seen in shops throughout the country. Besides the ubiquitous replica dollar bank notes (đô la âm phủ), a walk around the outer rim of Tan Dinh Market revealed a mass of Ipad paper effigies; and while wandering through Binh Tay market, I spotted houses, and clothes with superimposed luxury brand names. The second most popular type of items besides the đô la âm phủ is pre-made packets that include all necessities a typical middle-class earner would own: modern clothes, smartphones, perfume, credit cards, and watches.

Despite being associated with a tradition dating to feudalism, money burning only regained its popularity after the late 1980s. The practice was banned in the 1970s for being wasteful and ideologically opposed to the building of a socialist society. However, the socialist project that involved a centrally-planned economy was quickly abandoned in favor of a capitalist market-based economy. After Doi Moi, money burning became legal and it resurfaced alongside many ritual practices. In The Country of Memory, historian Hue-Tam Ho Tai called this turn a “commemorative fever," and explained how public memory is reconstructed as part of a larger framing narrative in which is “embedded a sense of progression and vision of the future for which the past acts as prologue.”

Gates described the plethora of spiritual currencies today as “a material symbol of the penetration of the religious imagination by petty commodity capitalism.” Fred Blake also touched upon this notion of commodity capitalism pointing out the differences between the traditional way of producing these effigies (handmade gold silver) as a symbolic reconstruction of money or wealth compared to the printed and mass-produced bank notes that resemble the real things being no longer a symbolic reconstruction, but a simulation. In Vietnam, these replicas looked so realistic that in 2010, the state bank of Vietnam had to ban all varieties of Vietnamese dong replicas to prevent forgery.

Current discourses surrounding the practices place a great emphasis on framing burning money, or at least, the excessive forms of this practice, as superstitious. The term superstition, despite its pan-Asian equivalence (mê tín in Vietnamese, mixin in Chinese, meishin in Japanese), is a neologism adopted from a European phrase coined at the turn of the 20th century. means being deluded or illusory, and tín refers to beliefs and religions, so mê tín refers to a deluded or wrong religion, which therefore suggests that there is a proper and legitimate religion. The term finds itself at paradoxical odds with a society arguing for modernity, science, and secularization.

After Doi Moi, the nationalistic discourse in Vietnam turned its focuses simultaneously to "modernity" and "tradition." Thanks to the move towards a market economy, “modernity” became a term referring to development and wealth. Authorities, however, feared that modernization would invite Western influences. Thus, in the hope of counterbalancing these forces, there has been a call to return to the Vietnamese traditional culture, including a consistent national identity amidst the inevitability of opening up to global markets. The ubiquity of ritual commodities involved in modern Tet celebrations now seems like an embodiment/reflection of such conditions: a range of social and political forces at odds with each other. 

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