Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Dollarization of Vietnamese Ghost money./Viet-Nam: La Dollarisation Des Offrandes Aux Fantomes

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Dollarization of Vietnamese Ghost money./Viet-Nam: La Dollarisation Des Offrandes Aux Fantomes

Article excerpt

Money-burning is an increasingly familiar activity in Vietnam. In the evening on the first and fifteenth day of the lunar month, one will often see on the street or in someone's courtyard that a large amount of paper notes is in flames. Money turning to ashes in this way is of specific types and meant for specific beings. The Vietnamese say, 'Money is as important for the dead as it is for the living'. They burn money to supply it to gods, ancestors, and ghosts as part of their commemorative rituals or communal feasts. Burning money within this ritual context is to transform it from one economic order to another. Since the introduction of US dollars to this magical financial economy is this article's main concern, I will begin with an episode that describes the foreign currency from the perspective of a somewhat unusual native informant.

Nghe Chien Xa is one of the helper spirits of a village medium near Danang, the commercial centre of central Vietnam. Among the villagers, this deity is known as the hero of an ancient war waged about five thousand years ago who allegedly shot down six suns out of the mythic seven-solar system and brought the chaotic universe back to order (I will call him Sharpshooter). The day he spoke in a seance about a financial problem in the world of the dead, he did so in response to my question on a political issue. Encouraged by some friends who thought I should settle my preoccupying thoughts about the legacy of the Vietnam-American War (1960-75) empirically rather than speculatively, I asked the deity if the soldiers of the bipolar conflict were continuing to fight after their death. My question was whether political ideologies of duong (the world of the living in Vietnamese) extended to the world of the dead, am. I asked Sharpshooter, 'Is there an "our side" and "their side" in your world, too?' Sharpshooter said, 'No, people in my world do not remember the intentions and the objectives of the war they fought while they were in your world'. Following this revealing account of cultural difference between the living and the dead and the characteristic amnesia that constitutes this difference, Sharpshooter said, 'Foreigner friend, since you put a question to me, I'd like to put a question to you. People in my world receive money, lots of foreign money, from people in your world. We don't know what to do with it yet. Will you ask your people to stop sending this foreign money and instead send the money we're used to?'

I was fascinated to hear from the ancient deity that the world of the dead was oblivious to the ideologies of the living world. Sharpshooter said that people in his world did not respect the frontiers between ben ta and ben kia, or our side (the revolutionary side) and theirs (the American side). Following him, it transpires that the frontiers of the bipolar conflict are thoroughly demilitarized in the afterlife and that liberation from the cold war political ideologies is not only possible but also natural in the great chain of life. In his account, war death comes to mean the death of the very ideology of war. The ancient culture hero added that people in his world were concerned about money. From his perspective, ideology is not a social problem but money is.

The money that worried Sharpshooter was the votive currency made in the form of the US dollar. It is new to the Vietnamese ritual currency market and coexists with other more traditional kinds. Transaction of ritual money had been forbidden until recently. Its emergence was part of 'the commemorative fever' (Tai 2001: 1) and the popularity of viec ho, or 'the work of family ancestral worship' (Pham 1998: 189-97; Tan 2000), which had been increasing since the late 1980s when the geopolitical structure of the cold war began to disintegrate and a general economic and social reform was initiated in Vietnam. The nationwide de-collectivization of agriculture, privatization of property, inception of foreign investment, and other market-economic reform measures provoked a forceful revival of ancestral and other related ritual activities in local communities in the 1990s (Luong 1993; Taylor 2004). …

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