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Burning Money To The Death: A “New” Vietnamese Custom

Burning Money To The Death: A “New” Vietnamese Custom

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    It is likely that any traveler in Vietnam has seen the Vietnamese burning votive paper offerings at least one time. It is a widely-practiced custom in Vietnam to burn paper money, gold and things to send them to their dead relatives or genies. But what is the nature of this custom? 

    In this ancient land of Vietnam, there are many bizarre customs and traditions. Some of them have been around for as long as we can remember, and they are so common and widely-practiced it makes us wonder why people do so. Like this custom of burning votive paper.

    The Origin of Votive Paper Burning

    Votive offerings originated from ancient Chinese culture.


    Votive offerings originated from ancient Chinese culture. There had been many myths spread by word-of-mouth about how it was created, but no official historical record regarding the issue. However, the common story of all myths was that at first, when they died, the kings and high officials buried their slaves, real money and valuable possessions together with them down the grave. 

    There had been various versions of how this custom disappeared, then replaced by the practice of burning paper models on death anniversaries and other designated days, such as Lunar New Year’s Eve, the first and fifteenth day of the lunar months, and so on. Until today, the exact origin remains unclear, however, this custom had gradually become widely-practiced.

    Votive Paper Burning


    After all, the burning of paper models for the spirits did not derive from Buddhism or any religions but some ancient Chinese rituals.

    Vietnamese adoption of Votive Paper Burning

    Being colonised for thousands of years, Vietnam’s culture is heavily affected by China, hence, people adopted the custom, which had been passed on through generations and prevailed until today. 

    burning votive paper


    In Vietnam’s context, from the past to present time, most people assumed that votive offerings are a way of expressing reverence towards their ancestors. It stemmed from the belief that both human bodies and material objects are essential to spiritual possession. That is why burning paper models of material objects is thought to provide the spirits with vehicles to travel and appear. 

    paper clothes


    On the other hand, the custom of burning votive paper was practiced with the belief of the hereafter world as a mirror image of this world. The living people burned daily supplies and money made of paper with a view to providing the dead with necessary items. These items can be money, shirts, dresses, sandals, combs, cigarette packs. The practice was believed to showcase descendants' dutifulness towards the deceased. 

    Meaning of burning paper smartphones, cars and mansions

    If you take your time and wander around Hang Ma Street in Hanoi, you will realize a lot of paper models sold. Apart from the original forms of paper models mentioned above, there are also paper mansions, cars, smartphones and even modern clothes, sneakers and accessories. 

    paper mansion


    As time passed by, there have been some significant changes in the practitioners' purpose. Throughout the history of its development, the meaning of votive paper burning has been changed in multiple ways. 

    As practitioners think that the hereafter world is a reflection of this world, today they prefer paper models in the shape of smartphones, tablets and other technology tools. It's interesting how people assume that the hereafter world is developing at the same rate with this world, so as to be able to “contact” with their ancestors, similar means of communication must be sent to the other world, by burning them. 

    paper motorbike


    In the course of time, there have been some inevitable changes in shape and size of paper models. However, the meanings and motives behind it remained the same.

    Changes in the meaning of burning votive paper offerings 

    On the other hand, here is a different assumed meaning of burning papers. 

    After the American War, the whole country suffered from poverty. It was then that votive paper replicas of daily necessities started to appear and referred to as a medium to express the living’s desires. 

    Some people burn paper models with a view to receiving similar assets in their real lives. This belief was further spread at the beginning of the Doi Moi era, affecting the way Vietnamese practiced this custom. 

    votive paper


    Ever since, people have started to consider paper models as dream worlds where they can send their ancestors expensive goods and assets that they cannot afford in real lives. In doing so, they wished to gain such fortune. That’s when the meaning of burning votive paper shifted from spiritual values to material possessions. Or in short, materialism.

    votive paper

    The development of the economy brought wealth, and also aroused people’s desires for material possessions. That is why votive paper offerings are becoming more and more overused as people burn them in large amounts and pray to receive equal values of money. 

    This way of practice has even caused competitiveness among followers and consequently encouraged them to invest more into votive paper offerings, which worsened the situation. 


    Burning votive paper offerings is a widely-practiced custom in Vietnam despite many objections against this tradition. 

    votive paper


    Although this custom is often mistaken as Vietnamese-originated, it actually derived from ancient Chinese rituals. As time passed by, there have been some changes in the way Vietnamese practice this custom. Particularly, votive offerings come in new designs such as mansions, cars, tablets and smartphones. Besides, today people tend to overuse this custom for personal desires instead of ancestor veneration like in the old days.

    Whatever the motive of the followers is, this custom is still widely practiced until today despite having been through the modernization process and various social changes. Good or bad, original or distorted, burning votive paper proves its indispensable existence in Vietnamese’s spiritual lives.

    09 Aug 2020

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