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The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division [1967], at

Use of Votive Paper as an Act of Worship in Vietnamese Temples

Among the sights to be seen in South Vietnam are the temples of ancestor worship which normally have a fire into which worshippers throw money made of tissue-like paper. History reveals that in times past, when a member of royalty died, and was buried, living persons were often buried along with him so that he might still be waited upon by servants. His personal possessions were often included in this rite. Such customs seem to have been practiced in many lands. In at least one land, the widow was also slain and cremated when the husband died, so that he might have a wife in the "next world". This custom was condemned by Confucius as being inhuman.

Feeling that such a custom might be unkind, or at least expensive, someone came up with the idea of using wooden or straw figures, representing common objects used in the persons lifetime. These figures were burned or buried with the deceased. Incidentally, such burial customs have provided archeologists with valuable information of bygone ages. According to tradition, about the first century B.C. a government official developed the idea of making votive offerings from the bark of a palm tree known as cay gio. These were used to imitate silver, gold, clothing, common objects, and could be burned as an offering during the funeral in place of valuable objects or human beings.

Vuong-Du, the legendary inventor of the votive paper idea, was apparently not able to sell much of his product. But then struck by a "clever" idea, he decided upon a surefire gimmick to sell his product. By agreement with his fellow-makers of votive paper, he arranged for one of his sickly companions to be put to bed and told everyone that he was seriously ill, and a few days later that he was dead. Placed in a coffin (with a previously bored air hole) the funeral proceeded toward the tomb accompanied by a great number of figurines made of votive paper.

Just as the heavy coffin was to be lowered into the tomb, the "dead" man was heard to groan and moan; then as the lid was raised, the haggard and pale "corpse" sat up and spoke to the mourners. He told them that while he had been taken to the Infernal Regions (Hell), he had been released because his family had substituted money and paper figures for his person. Apparently, the story was believed at the time, for sales boomed as many hurried to buy these votive items and burn them to the spirits of their ancestors.

Regardless of the truth of this legend which is recorded in a number of documents, the burning of votive paper seems to constitute one of the essential rites in homage or worship to the dead. In the courtyard or temples where worshippers may be found will be seen an open fire into which the worshipper casts votive objects including paper money as a part of their worship. Such votive paper, along with joss sticks and candles, can be purchased for a very small fee either on the sidewalk or in front of the temple, or sometimes in the temple itself. Votive paper burning in Vietnam preceded the arrival of Chinese colonists in the first centuries of the present era according to some students of culture.

While we may not understand or appreciate just what the burning of such votive items is to accomplish, the sincerity of the worshippers can be commended. Perhaps many of the worshippers who burn these items as acts of worship cannot give you an idea of why they do so, maybe it is done because that is the custom of the culture in which they grew up! How about you in your own worship? Do you ever question yourself or others why certain things are said or done? If not, a suggestion that you do so, if followed up, may really surprise you! At any rate, it would surely help to establish

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rapport with those people among whom you are privileged to serve on this tour of duty.

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