Vietnamese lose burning desire to please the deceased with joss paper

By Long Nguyen   September 1, 2020 | 05:01 pm PT
Vietnamese have gradually abandoned the traditional custom of burning joss paper during festivals as perceptions change.

Like many others, Tran Thi Hoa, 42, of Hanoi used to buy a lot of paper replicas of jewelry, cars, cellphones, luxury villas, and cash to burn for her ancestors on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, the Yulanpen Festival when prayers make rituals to pay tribute to parents (September 2 this year).

But this year she has made up her mind not to buy or burn any.

She says: "My mother told me to buy paper clothes and jewelry because she is worried our ancestors will be displeased, but I refused. It is a waste of money and it harms our environment."

The banker in Long Bien District is among many Vietnamese who have abandoned the deep-rooted custom of burning joss paper at homes, pagodas and temples.

With increasing discouragement from authorities in the last few years, people seem to have realized that burning joss paper is a wasteful superstition that hurts their living environment and are gradually giving it up.

Burning hell notes for the dead. Photo by Shutterstock/Zay Nyi Nyi.

Burning hell notes for the dead. Photo by Shutterstock/Zay Nyi Nyi.

In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, many households buy less joss paper and replicas for Tet (the Lunar New Year) and the Yulanpen Festival, the most common occasions on which people burn them.

Nguyen Thi Luong, 34, a teacher in Saigon’s District 4, said she stopped buying paper replicas last year and "only bought some hell notes to please my ancestors."

"My family used to spend up to VND1 million $43) buying paper houses, clothes and even hi-tech gadgets to burn, that was a waste."

With millions of people like Luong abandoning the practice, many joss paper sellers have lost their business.

In Saigon’s Thiec Market, which has a number of shops selling them, there is not the usual hustle and bustle this year. Many have to lay off staff.

"I sold more than 100 packages during this time last year, but this year just a few dozens," Lien, who has years of experience in the business, said.

On Hanoi’s Hang Ma Street, another joss paper hub, people stopping their motorbikes to buy hell notes and joss paper are not to be seen these days.

Joss paper and offerings makers in Thuan Thanh District in the northern province of Bac Ninh, said their sales are down to 60-70 percent this year.

"I have made joss paper and replicas for dozens of years and never seen a year as bad as this," Nguyen Thi Tuyet said.

Behind her, paper houses, motorbikes and other items lie in a pile.

Between fires

The social and economic changes that are concomitant with rapid industrialization, modernization and international integration have changed people’s attitudes toward burning votive paper, especially as young people become more conscious of the environment and less superstitious.

"I rarely see young customers; most of the people buying my products are old women," Nguyen Thi Ha, a seller on Hanoi’s Hang Ma Street, said.

Studies show burning joss paper discharges harmful substances into the air.

Nguyen Van Tuan, residing in Bac Ninhs Thuan Thanh District and the helicopter taking him seven days to finish. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Nguyen VanTuan of Bac Ninh's ThuanThanh District with a replica of a helicopter that took him seven days to make, August 2019. Photo by VnExpress/NgocThanh.

Authorities are not keen on votive paper either, and frequently urge people to abandon the wasteful ritual.

In 2019 the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha too sent out a similar call, especially at Buddhist sites, saying it is not a Buddhist ritual as people think and a waste of money.

This year the Covid-19 pandemic is also a factor since many people have lost their jobs or seen incomes cut in the last few months.

"The living are struggling, and so we take care of ourselves before buying and burning these papers and massive replicas," a customer of Ha said while buying some hell notes and gold bullion replicas.

Ha has reduced her stocks of expensive paper replicas and instead displays cheaper products for people to see.

"They do not spend hundreds of thousands of dong (VND100,000 = $4.3) on paper clothes and gadgets any more; most only buy some hell notes," she said.

According to the Vietnam General Statistics Office, the country spent some VND16 trillion ($688 million) on burning paper in 2016, eight times the money spent on children’s toys and books.

"We can’t prohibit the practice, but just raise people’s awareness of the harm burning joss paper causes in the hope that people will gradually change their minds and habits," Thich Gia Quang, vice president of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha Executive Council, once said.

Hoa has had a number of arguments with her mother, who believes firmly that afterlife is similar to life on earth.

"I bought some hell notes instead of huge paper replicas for Tet, but this month I buy none. We should save money instead of buying things to burn and blindly believing that our ancestors will be happy."

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