Festivals and the Dynamics of the Exceptional Dead in Northern Vietnam

Article excerpt

A brief review of the contemporary Vietnamese media presents the image of a nation in which 'festivals' (le hoi) are a popular and revered part of Vietnamese cultural life. Be it in newspapers, books, television shows, advertisements or calendars, festivals receive extensive coverage. Even the Communist Party's daily newspaper Nhan Dan provides detailed descriptions of various events, and its official website provides a long list of 'traditional' festivals for its readers. Among the people, festivals have also become a popular destination for pilgrimages, and some receive hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, such as the Hung Kings Death Anniversary (Gio To Hung Vuong) in Phu Tho province. Although this image accurately captures the contemporary status quo, it conceals the fact that from the early 1950s until the late 1980s, the Vietnamese socialist state prohibited many festivals and significantly restricted the organisation of others. The state did implement ambitious cultural reforms in other areas, yet festivals were not a major component in its cultural agenda. Far from celebrating and encouraging festivals, the Vietnamese state restricted or prevented their performance; thus, for decades festivals remained a remembered though minor part of social life.

This article's purpose is to examine the socio-political implications of the resurgence of festivals that has taken place in Vietnam since the early 1990s. Scholarly research has demonstrated how, over the past 15 years, citizens and communities across the country have been a driving force behind the return to the organisation of previously abandoned festivals or the expansion of those that had been previously conducted on only a modest scale. (1) While the results of this research are indisputable, in this article I seek to explore one specific dimension of this resurgence, the manner in which both state and non-state actors in contemporary Vietnam have been involved in ritual engagements with what I shall describe as the 'exceptional dead'. Building upon a detailed examination of the exceptional dead and the state's ritual appropriation of them in the period from the 1950s through the late 1980s, my goal is to show that while there are significant continuities in this ritual engagement in Vietnamese social life, the resurgence of festivals since the early 1990s in fact involves several profound changes, particularly with regard to such issues as the control over sacred space, political legitimation, the changing definitions of which exceptional dead to ritually engage, and their role in the participants' lives. As Le Hong Ly has noted, a common feature of most festivals is the ritual engagement with 'historic celebrities', but what I seek to demonstrate is that when looked at in the aggregate, engagements with the exceptional dead in festivals make significant statements about contemporary Vietnam's social world. (2)

Festivals and the exceptional dead in revolutionary Vietnam

Defining the exceptional dead

Every society and nation has certain individuals who, after their deaths, become the focus of a relatively greater level of social attention and awareness. While some dead fade into seeming obscurity, others are more deeply engaged by the living. These engagements can include, among other things, organised research into their lives, the transmission of information about their achievements, the performance of commemorative activities devoted to them, the construction of memorials for them, the designation of them as models of virtue or the engagement with them in ritual, be it to simply commemorate them or to mobilise the supernatural potency some dead are regarded as possessing. Compared to others, certain dead stand out in social life.

For the purposes of this article, I have defined these dead as the 'exceptional dead'. My definition is informed by Max Weber's conceptualisation of charisma. Weber's writings on the subject were built upon the recognition that in social life some individuals stand out from others, and one category of such people is made up of those who possess charisma. …