Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Potent Rituals and the Royal Dead: Historical Transformations in Vietnamese Ritual Practice

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Potent Rituals and the Royal Dead: Historical Transformations in Vietnamese Ritual Practice

Article excerpt

In contemporary Viet Nam, the landscape of the dead is an overgrown one, marked by a plethora of departed souls whose posthumous fates preoccupy the living. These souls include celebrated war heroes, benevolent dead kin, malevolent ghosts and glorious kings of the past. Focusing on Hue, the former imperial capital of the country (1802-1945), (1) this article considers the current rejuvenation of ritual practices pertaining to the Nguyen kings, the last Vietnamese monarchs. It examines how the Nguyen kings, long excoriated by the socialist state, are being rapidly reinstated as extraordinary ancestors and acknowledged as potent spirits to whom many turn for blessings. Tainted because of their role in the colonial conquest of the country and subsequently denounced as 'feudal' despots, the Nguyen kings appeared in socialist state-sponsored annals mostly as traitors and villains. (2) The forces of the revolution struck further blows to the Nguyen legacy, most importantly by dismantling their sacred sites and defiling imperial temples. Now, however, previously banned rituals for the Nguyen kings are turning into lavish and conspicuous affairs taking place in newly restored imperial temples and tombs which are now much-visited local pilgrimage and tourism sites. Drawing on ethnographic and historical material, this article traces changes in local ritual engagements with the royal dead and pays attention to fluctuations in the posthumous fates of the Nguyen royals while highlighting Hue's transformation from imperial capital to tourist marketplace, via the horrors of the battlefield.

The changing modes of Vietnamese religiosity and the current proliferation of practices relating to the dead and other spiritual entities have been explored in a number of writings by anthropologists as well as historians. (3) This growing body of literature charts the impact of the country's turbulent history on religious life and the effects that recent shifts in the political economy have on ritual practice. It explores how war and revolution, as well as socialist and post-socialist reforms, have shaped the sacred landscape of the country. These studies point in particular to a surge in spirit-related practices since the introduction of doi mdi policies (economic 'renovation') in 1986 and chart the effects of the country's capitalist transformation on its ritual economy. Focusing on the ritual commemoration of the victims of massacres during the Cold War, Hoenik Kwon points to the changing fates of 'ghosts of war' in post-conflict Viet Nam and highlights the effects of market reforms on the shifting fates of these troubled souls and their potential for emancipation. (4)

This body of work throws light on important areas of Vietnamese religiosity, examining the changing dynamics in ritual engagements with a host of ordinary and extraordinary dead who were previously occluded from public worship and the socialist state's glorified pantheon, which is dominated by revolutionary heroes and martyrs. (5) Alluding to the crowds of previously excluded spirits that are today propitiated in domestic rituals and local festivals, these studies focus on war victims and more particularly on those who fell fighting on the opposite side in the course of the recent conflict as well as a host of 'exceptional dead' and heroic figures of old who faded into obscurity under socialist rule. (6) The present article focuses on the rejuvenation of rituals given in honour of the royal dead. With a few notable exceptions, (7) former royalty and their increasing significance as spirits with exceptional potency have been largely disregarded in ethnographic reflections on religious change in Viet Nam. Focusing on the last kings of the realm, this article seeks to highlight the rich diversity of historical figures that swarm the nation's sacred landscape and require or even demand ritual attention by locals. The Nguyen kings present an interesting case for one added reason. …

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