Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

'Following Uncle Ho to Save the Nation': Empowerment, Legitimacy, and Nationalistic Aspirations in a Vietnamese New Religious Movement

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

'Following Uncle Ho to Save the Nation': Empowerment, Legitimacy, and Nationalistic Aspirations in a Vietnamese New Religious Movement

Article excerpt

Renovation since 1986 in Vietnam brought changes in religious policies and a general lessening of government regulation of religious activities, providing the conditions for religious dynamism. New regulations issued in the early 1990s relaxed the government's control of religion and religious practices. Although some emerging religious groups were suppressed or closely watched by the authorities, there has been a phenomenal revival of religion throughout the nation since then. Mainstream and institutionalised religions such as Catholicism, Buddhism and Protestantism have regained their vitality in the public domain. There has been official recognition of Vietnamese religions such as Hoa Hao Buddhism and Caodaism, while many newly-introduced Protestant denominations are now registered with local authorities. At the same time, international new religious movements have found their way into Vietnam through the missionary activities of visitors and expatriates and by Vietnamese returning after a period of living abroad. Gradually, the Vietnamese public have become aware of movements such as Soka Gakkai, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Falun Gong, I-Kuan Tao, Transcendental Meditation, and the Way of the Supreme Master Ching Hai. All these phenomena have contributed to the growth and diversity of religious beliefs and practices in contemporary Vietnam.

Evidence of a religious revival can further be observed in the dynamics of popular faith-based activities. There has been a visible increase in the material resources mobilised to support these activities, such as the restoration and maintenance of sacred buildings and sites, and the restoration of rituals and festivals. At the same time, abandoned spiritual practices once deemed superstitious have resumed, as can be seen in the popularity of the worship of goddesses and national heroes; the practice of mediumship; as well as enthusiastic engagement with the world of the dead, spirits, and ancestors. (1) Notably, a number of practices formerly stigmatised as 'superstitious', even as technically 'illegal', are now considered by the state as 'legitimate beliefs' which convey cultural and moral values. These trends demonstrate an expansion in popular religion under Renovation.

Numerous new indigenous religious groups have appeared throughout the North. Prominent among them are: the Way of Maitreya (dao Long Hoa Di Lac); Heavenly Secrets (dao Thien Co); The Way of Immortal and Dragon (dao Tien-Rong); To Duong's Field of Extrasensory Perception (Truong Ngoai cam To Duong); the Way of Yellow Heavenly Dragon (dao Hoang Thien Long); the Way of Jade Buddha Ho Chi Minh (dao Ngoc Phat Ho Chi Minh); the Way of Ha Mon (dao Ha Mon); and the Canh Tan Dac Sung movement (Christian Charismatic Renewal). These groups appear to be thriving despite the cautious approach of the authorities and domestic scholars, and criticism in the media and from established religious organisations. (2)

My research has shown that the most popular new movement is the worship of Ho Chi Minh as the Jade Buddha. (3) Religious ideas and practices surrounding the worship of Ho Chi Minh are diverse and the scriptures (kinh) vary, however. In the 1990s, Madam Lang from Hai Phong was the first to spread the idea of the advent of HO Chi Minh's spirit in the form of the Jade Buddha. (4) That idea has since then been replayed, reworked, and changed variously among many groups.

The popularity of new religions based on belief in the advent of the Jade Buddha calls for further enquiry into their emergence and nature as a religious trend in the post-Renovation period. In this article, I examine one of these movements, the Peace Society of Heavenly Mediums (Doan dong thien Hoa Binh) in the northern province of Hai Duong. I first explore earlier studies of new religious groups and indicate my contribution to this scholarship. The arguments and predictions provided by Shaun Kingsley Malarney in 1996 and Pham Quynh Phuong in 2005 about the deification of Ho Chi Minh will be revisited. …

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