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Burning Paper Money – Good or Bad?

burning a votive horse

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Vietnamese Tet Tradition or Environmental Disaster?

The tradition of burning paper money / houses / cars / iphones / laptops / passports you name it, is a very long standing one all throughout Asia. To put it simply, these gifts (hang ma as they are generally known) are burnt to send them to the heavens where they can be used by the ancestors of those who burn them. However, we now know that there is a price to pay for burning these offerings and that is the pollutants that they pour into the environment.

Burning paper offerings

When does it take place?

Spirit money, Ghost money, Hell money whatever you want to call it is burnt on the 1st and the 15th day of every month in the lunar calendar. This is seen as a regular ‘top up’ to the deceased celestial bank account. On top of this, more money and other items are burnt at funerals and death days with a particular emphasis on the 1st and 3rd anniversary.

Another significant time for burning paper money is Lunar New Year (Tet) as people wish to have happy ancestors, good luck and no evil spirits around them at this time of year.  

burning incense at the family altar

Why does it take place?

It is believed that the deceased ancestors are still interested in the affairs of our earthly existence and can have an influence on this. Therefore, in order to make their lives comfortable the items deemed necessary for a happy life, hence iPhones, laptops as well as money nowadays, are burnt. The more that is burnt the better their lives will be.

Most people will make these offerings on special occasions such as death day anniversaries and very much so at Tet, Lunar New Year (check out our guide here).

It is easy to find these items for sale, especially if you go to Hang Ma St, named after the very item sold there as with many other streets in the old quarter. The most commonly used item is stacks of fake 100$ bills and this is burn to help the deceased pay back any debts they accrued in life. Generally, people believe that the more that is burnt the more luck they will potentially benefit from in this life.

Some also believe that when deceased one will face a celestial court and the more money one has to pay any debts or fines the lighter the punishment or the happier the after-life will be.

Also, at Tet, this burning paper money can be used to deter unwanted spirits or bad luck so that the New Year starts in a happy and lucky way. This is significant because as with the tradition of first footing, what happens at the beginning of the year will set a precedent for the course of the year ahead.

There are many reasons why people burn this money but these are the most common understandings of the tradition.

burning at home

The Origin of the Tradition

There is an old tale telling of a man named Cai Lun in China, who sold paper for a living. Due to the fact that most people at that time were illiterate, paper was not a sought after commodity and it was a tough busines to be in. So, Cai Lun came up with the cunning plan of faking his own death and then having his wife arrange an elaborate funeral for him.

At this funeral, she burnt paper offerings and as she did so, Cai Lun’s coffin opened up and he exited, very much alive. His wife exclaimed that the paper had been transformed into money as payment to the God of Death and this had been sufficient to release Cai Lun. Everyone around her was convinced and they too began burning paper money. Naturally, this greatly helped to increase sales of paper. 

vna_singapore_votive_papers_burningvna_singapore_votive_papers_burning

The Environmental Cost

This small scale burning of paper money, when combined, can add up to a considerable amount of pollution. This is very much the case at Tet when hundreds of thousands of people are burning offerings. It is not so much the the CO2 that is released but more the harmful substances used in the production of the paper. There are all manner of carcinogenic compounds used and many people will also burn the plastic that is used to wrap certain items.

All in all, a bunch of nasty stuff is thrown out into the atmosphere during this burning and it doesn’t seem to be a wise choice to be too close by. Whether or not anything will be done about this, only time will tell. But, the tradition is very firmly entrenched so it seems like it will remain for quite some time.

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