Picture: The burning of votive objects. The objects pertain to the life of the departed or the wishes of the family for him or her. Photo: An Thanh Dat

Vietnam Heritage, August-September 2011 — There is a kind of votive object that is made of inflammable material, especially paper, or bamboo or wood, and painted, so it can be incinerated after it has been offered to the dead for use in the world of the dead. The useful items are such things as clothing, money and cattle.
Items of this kind are generally given the adjective ‘votive-paper’. Votive-paper money may include notes with Chinese characters, which were current in Vietnam’s feudal period, as well as notes like money current now. Denominations range from VND5,000 ($0.25) to VND500,000 ($25). The world of the dead is in some ways similar to that of the living, so there are dollar bills, mostly $100 ones, but with Vietnamese words printed on them, like ‘Ngân Hàng ??a Ph?’ (Bank of the Other World). Paper banknotes are the most common kind of votive object, and are obligatory in worship.
There are bars of gold and silver made of bamboo, with white paper coverings for silver and yellow for gold.
Shopping cards or credit cards of Amphubank (Âm Ph? also means the other world) are gradually gaining in popularity.
Clothes include traditional and modern styles. Traditional clothes for men include turbans, white trousers, white shirts, violet-embroidered silk shirts and black shoes. Clothes for women include black, square scarves, breast-covers (y?m), white blouses, velvet trousers, black skirts and shoes with up-curved toes. These were the clothes of the upper class in feudal society, but are chosen by poor worshippers today with the aim that their dead relatives should be prosperous in the other world.
Modern clothes are of wider variety and of the correct size for the relative in earthly life.
Ms Hoa, owner of a famous votive-paper-clothing shop in ?ông H? Village, Bac Ninh Province, in the north-east, related how she had got into the craft. In 2009 she learned to make earthly clothes and opened a shop, but business was bad. Ms Lan, in the neighbourhood, received an order to make a wedding dress of paper for up to VND3 million ($150). The client’s family had a daughter who had died in an accident a few days before her wedding. The family had dreamed and seen her and she had said she was going to get married. The size of the dress had to be the daughter’s earthly size. Nobody in Lan’s family was able to make the dress, so they asked Ms Hoa, because she had learned to make earthly clothes. The project took more than two weeks to realise. Mrs Hoa had to go round and round to find different kinds of wedding dresses and look at a lot of pictures. She said it was harder to make an other-worldly dress than an earthly one. She received further orders for votive clothes and  changed her business to making only votive clothes, to order. In Ms Hoa’s shop, there are many kinds of examples and fashions, jeans, D&G-branded items, blouses, underwear and scarves. They are all of paper, colourful and elaborately made.
Mr Nguyen Van Sy, 80, originally from ?ông H? and now living in C?t Village, Yen Hoa Ward, Cau Giay District, Hanoi, told of a family in Hai Phong City who had asked him to make them a votive-paper aeroplane to burn to offer to their dead son, a pilot killed in a crash before he was 30. Mr Sy said he had been given a month to make a beautiful plane, which the family had duly found beautiful, then asked to make seats for passengers. ‘[They] even asked me to make an air hostess,’ he said. Then [they] hired a truck to carry the paper plane to Hai Phong.’
Means of transport for dead people range from bicycles to motorcycles and cars. Motorcycles have the most variety. And as soon as the Government required motorcycle-riders to wear helmets, paper helmets appeared.
Mr Nguyen Nhu Duc, whose family was a pioneer of votive-paper helmets, said that since December 2008, when the helmet regulation was issued, his family had sold more than 5,000 paper helmets. Now paper helmets can be found at probably all the shops in Hang Ma Street, Hanoi, a street specialising in votive offerings. Driving licences and motorcycle-registration certificates are available (with the dead person’s name and date of births printed on).

Votive paper a must, shaman says

A conflagration of votive-paper objects
Photo: An Thanh Dat

In his book Vân ?ài Lo?i Ng? (Classifications of Topics on the Cloud Platform) the classical scholar Le Quy Don (1726-1784) wrote that the custom of burning votive paper in Vietnam had originated from China. That standpoint has been agreed on by many scientists.
In the period 1934-1954 there was a mobilisation against the burning of votive papers. It was organised by Buddhist associations in North Vietnam. And, with addition of the conditions of wartime (in the anti-French resistance), the custom was greatly restricted.
After 1954, France withdrew from Vietnam, and North Vietnam was under the rule of the communist government. In line with the reconstruction and development of the economy and society in socialist direction in the North, a cultural revision bloomed. Burning votive papers was considered superstition and waste, especially when life was still difficult economically.
After the American War ended, in 1975, and the nation was reunified, votive papers were prohibited. Mr Tran Van Chinh, formerly in the People’s Committee of Song Ho Commune, said the prohibition was so strict that ‘all remaining votive papers got burned completely’, but ‘people were too poor, and only knew that occupation. I did not have the heart to burn all their stock. How could they live, then? With prohibition during the day, they fabricated at night on the sly. It was also work with the hands, a handicraft for a living.’ ‘Some families with sick members, beyond cure, had only the remedy of praying to Heaven and Earth. They bought votive papers to pray covertly.’
C?t Village, in Hanoi, and ?ông H? Village, Song Ho Commune, Thuan Thanh District, in Bac Ninh Province, in the north-east, are the two largest centres of manufacture of votive papers, but ?ông H? is historically more ancient and of a larger scale of production. ?ông H? Village is considered the ancestor-land of the profession of votive-paper-making. Today, there are 287 households in the village and almost all are in the craft. Every year the village produces tonnes of votive items.
Mrs Ti, an old person in ?ông H? Village, said, ‘From the time of Mr Nguyen Van Linh [Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Vietnam from 1986-1991, when the market economy was introduced to replace the centrally-planned, subsidy one] my village openly resumed its activities of votive-paper-manufacturing.
‘Many people need these papers to celebrate ancestor-worship. We are living in the sunny world and perhaps we can be hungry to starvation but we could never let our people living in the dark world suffer.
‘At first, only one or two families manufactured, as a trial, but they sold out, and the whole village followed suit.’
According to Mr Nguyen Van Sang, since 2000 the Village of ?ông H? has abandoned the handicraft of wood-block printing of new-year paintings to devote itself to votive-paper-making.
In 2001 and 2002 there was a votive-paper boom. The government decided to tax the craft but did not collect the tax. Mr Sang, formerly the chief of Dong Khe Hamlet, in the village, said, ‘The people were in opposition, because the government did not support them in anything, did not teach them the job. They had to buy materials with their own money, and do the work with their own hands. Besides, it was a traditional handicraft of every family in the village and a supplementary occupation in addition to farming. They did not open a company, so no tax could be raised. Furthermore, the custom is spiritualistic, not materialistic . . . A tax policy is non-applicable.’
In 2001, the government promulgated Decree No 31, prohibiting the burning of votive papers in public places. In 2006, the government promulgated Decree No 56, prohibiting the burning of votive papers at public celebrations and festivals at historical and cultural sites. But regulation remained ineffective. Especially in pagodas, the burning of votive papers was regularly practised, even on a grand scale, and the government pretended to ignore it, in view of the people’s spiritual needs.
With the concept ‘the underworld is like the sunny world’, from time immemorial the people of Vietnam have shared their belongings with the dead, as the Chinese have. Ancestor-worship is the basis of burning of votive paper. Shaman Manh, in ?ông H? Village, stressed: ‘Without votive papers, no worship service. Incense joss-sticks and votive papers are the two musts. Without them the spirits could not receive the gifts in the service.’
In most cult, anniversary or worship ceremonies, votive papers – ‘votive papers’ is a general term for votive objects destined for transmission to the other world on incineration – are present in either large or small quantity. They serve as a ‘ticket’ to the world of spirits, as a bridge between the two worlds, this sunny one and the next world of darkness.
While votive papers originate with ancestor-worship, in Vietnamese families other gods and spirits also are venerated, and votive papers are burnt in services to them as well.
Celebration of death anniversaries is of utmost importance in ancestor-worship. After the funeral and burial according to traditional rites and customs, to commemorate the event, an annual ceremony is kept in the family by all children and grandchildren. On the first anniversary votive papers are usually furnished so that the dead have all the necessary utensils for a comfortable existence in their new world. On the second anniversary, more votive papers are burned than the previous year, because people think the dead can now really use the items. Most of the items sent in the first year are used as gifts to evil guardian spirits and bribery to corrupt officials of the other world to stop them making trouble. The goods in the second year are mostly utilitarian – clothes, hats, shoes, cooking utensils, bowls, dishes, coins and paper currency. But from the third anniversary onwards money predominates.
Some rituals concerning tombs, such as the leave-taking of the tomb, the annual visit to the tomb or when a tomb is unfortunately disturbed or fortunately raised into a mound by ants or termites, a ceremony is in place to rectify it or to give thanks, under the advice of geomancers or shamans, and votive papers are used as they dictate.
On the occasions of worship on the first and the fifteenth days of a lunar month, or at a the ceremony of ground-breaking, house-building or removal to a new house, only votive money is burned.
The fifteenth night of the seventh lunar month [r?m tháng b?y, or T?t Vu Lan, 14 August] is unique during the year as the marking correspondence between the sunny world and the netherworld, and at this moment people from the two different places may get in contact with each another. According to a Buddhist tradition, on this night all the gates of Hell are opened wide to forgive the ghosts at the expiration of their punishments and to set free all hungry, thirsty ghosts so they can wander on earth to receive alms in food and drink. During this festival different rites are held at the family altar to ancestors, in the open air to give offerings to the unknown, lonely and missing ghosts in the yard and in all pagodas. On this occasion the most important rite is the burning of votive papers to the dead.
There are rules governing the manner of burning of votive papers. It is specified that they be burned only when the joss-sticks have been consumed to one-third of their length, because people believe that when the incense is burning the ancestors are present at the service and so able to receive the offerings. The place of incineration must be clean and not polluted. It is better if a particular vessel is reserved for the purpose. When the votive papers are burned to ash, a small amount of rice wine should be poured on them. This helps the votive objects become real in the next world – and one become many and the tiny large.
In the funeral ceremonies of the Vietnamese people, the principal votive objects are gold and silver paper, gold and silver ingots and clothes. When the coffin travels to the place of burial, the custom is to scatter these gold and silver papers or ingots along the way with the purpose of offering them to the dead and the spirits and lonely ghosts accompanying the unfortunate. Another source of information says that the spreading of votive papers in this way is intended to show the dead the way for whenever they want to visit their former homes in the return from the netherworld.

* For her two articles about votive paper on these pages the author uses information from her graduation thesis in Human Science in the Faculty of History at the University of Social Science and Humanities. The thesis was submitted in June 2009.n

By Sen Thi Hien*