Should Vietnam abandon custom of burning paper offerings?

By Editorial   February 11, 2018 | 04:03 am PT
The Lunar New Year is a time for excess fun, food and flowers, but also smoke and ash.

Every year, as the Lunar New Year nears, blossoming trees announce the arrival of spring in Vietnam. Across the country, family members reunite, exchange new year greetings, decorate their houses and pay gratitude to the gods and deceased relatives.

Though Tet (Lunar New Year) is undeniably the most important festival in Vietnam, some of its traditions and customs have become burdensome, notably the practice of burning votive paper offerings.

The practice is followed by the majority of Vietnamese people, where over 70 percent of the population are either atheists or follow folk religions, according to statistics provided by the U.N. in 2014.

Vietnam’s folk religion bears many similarities to that in southern China, where followers worship the thần, or gods and spirits, who range from bygone national heroes and natural deities, to simply ancestors.

The votive paper offerings, which are burnt throughout the year during special religious occasions, but mostly during Tet, symbolize how family members continue to remember and care for the deceased, as well as the gods and spirits.

Offerings include money, gold, daily essentials like clothes, and sometimes even luxuries like houses, private jets, cars and smartphones - all made of paper. This way, people can ensure a good life for their deceased loved ones in heaven.

"We burn this for our dead relatives so that they feel happy. And if they are happy, they will bless us with good health, happiness and luck," Do Mai Hoa, a villager on the outskirts of Hanoi, told AFP.

But in recent years, the practice has become associated with wastefulness, fire hazard and environmental concerns, with pollution becoming a major public health issue in Vietnam’s biggest cities.

According to unofficial reports, up to 50,000 tons of paper money and genuine belongings worth millions of dollars are burned every year in Vietnam, AFP reported.

But to many, the practice reflects their spiritual needs.

"Burning votive paper offerings doesn’t bring wealth and prosperity to the deceased, but it allows those still alive to feel closer to their late relatives, and lets them share their inner feelings with the other world," wrote VnExpress reader Thanh Hiep Nguyen.

It’s a way to "buy peace of mind", Thanh Hiep added.

Critics, however, argue that while the practice is a symbolic way to remember the deceased, it has also got out of hand with extravagant paper offerings like villas, luxury cars, smartphones and even concubines.

"In the contemporary market economy, many businessmen and top officials burn votive offerings in the hope of protecting their wealth and position," Tran Dai Vinh, deputy chairman of Hue's Fatherland Front Committee told Vietnam News in 2014, when the city banned burning offerings in its streets and parks.

Vinh added that the custom was introduced to Vietnam during early feudal times and was unrelated to Vietnamese religion. The superstitious practice was adopted by the emperors who wanted to protect their power and continues to this day, he said.

So is burning offerings a way to find peace or bribing the conscience? Given its environmental effects, does it have a place in modern society, where there’re therapies, self-help books, charity work, etc to help you feel at peace? There are also more environmentally friendly ways to remember deceased relatives, like visiting their graves or lighting incense at the family altar.

Or is burning votive paper offerings an essential element of Vietnamese culture and identity, where the living are taught to remember and honor the deceased and the gods who are their guiding spirits?

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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