Mother Goddess Cult / Folk Religion


Booming Mother Goddess Cult
(No.2, Vol.2 Feb 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine) exquisitely in elaborately embroidered silk robes, heavy hooped necklaces and flashing hair adornments, Mrs Nguyen Ngoc Dan steps gracefully into the center of the room. Around her cross-legged believers watch her every movement, their eyes wide and bright in anticipation. Suddenly the musicians strike up and the crowd cheers in delight as Mrs Nguyen Ngoc Dan throws her arms open wide to begin the dance of the Second Dame. Onlookers thrust bundles of paper money into her hands and she throws them into the air like confetti. The crowd scrambles eagerly to collect as much as they can.
This is ‘Hầu Đồng’, an ancient, theatrical ritual that is at the heart of Mother Goddess worship. This uniquely Vietnamese folk belief is currently the subject of the Vietnamese Women’s Museum’s special exhibition ‘Worshipping Mother Goddesses: Pure Heart – Beauty – Joy.’ As the exhibition explains, worshippers believe that the Mother Goddess is the mother of all things and rules over four palaces; Heaven, Earth, Water and Mountains and Forests. Underneath her is a complex pantheon of nearly 60 deities, both male and female, who are thought to provide good health and prosperity for those who request it.
Mother Goddess 1The costume of the Princess of Mountains and Forests. The museum’s information about her says, ‘Her loc [magic] comes from mountains and forests/ Good and fresh, it lasts for generations/ Giving nine, getting back ten/ In business, selling briefly and getting rich.’

Mother Goddess 2A museum dummy of an interceder at an altar to the Mother Goddess.
Photos: Dan Ton

In recent years, Mother Goddess worship has gone from strength to strength, with the annual festival in Nam Dinh attracting tens of thousands of followers a year. Museum staff conducted hundreds of interviews with followers from Hanoi and the Northern provinces to provide answers as to why the cult attracts such a widespread and devoted following. One follower, Mr Bui Dac Truong, a 23-year-old student, explains that followers find great emotional support from Mother Goddess worship; ‘The Mother Goddess is our spiritual mother. Whenever we are happy and joyful, we come to Her and whenever we feel sad, we talk and share with Her. Whenever we face difficulties, we look for Her and find Her support and protection. The Mother Goddess means everything.’
The importance of ancestor worship in Vietnamese culture is essential in understanding the Mother Goddess cult. Many of the figures in the Mother Goddess pantheon are deified historical figures, such as the Trung Sisters and Lady Trieu. Spirit mediums such as Mrs Nguyen Ngoc Dan evoke these figures using ritualized dances and gestures accompanied by traditional music and singing from the ‘Chầu Văn’ musicians. As each deity has his or her own story and appearance the medium must be able to change costumes and movements flexibly. By channeling these figures, the medium allows worshippers to make a connection between the past and their hopes and desires of everyday life.
Followers believe an atmosphere of beauty and joy helps evoke the deities and attracts their good favour. Followers spend large sums of money on decoration and offerings, such as elaborate votive papers styled into representations of the goddess or symbols connected to them. As Ms Nguyen Thi Ngai, an 80-year-old spirit medium and temple keeper from Hanoi explains, ‘If the votive paper is beautiful, the Goddess will stay with us longer.’ However, there are concerns that followers have put too much emphasis on extravagant and ostentatious offerings and there have been cases of followers’ bankrupting themselves in the process. Purity of heart, says Ms Mai Thuy Vinh, 60, spirit medium, is the only thing that really matters. ‘A rich follower can offer a bundle of things; a humble follower can offer a stick of incense.’
Nevertheless, supporting the needs of worshippers is big business for many of the craft villages around Hanoi. As plastic products became more widespread, the wickerwork industry in Phuc Am village began to die out. However, after switching to votive-paper-making workshops which supply the Hanoi market, village income has been on the increase. Similarly, the Son Dong carving village benefits from the Mother Goddess cult. Mr Nguyen Van Thang, 37, owner of one of the many statue-carving workshops in the village, says that they show their respect for the Mother Goddess through well-made and honest trade; ‘If (a follower) orders a statue worth 5 mil dong then the final product must be worthy of the price. We must not deceive our customers.’

Mother Goddess 3
The costume of the Third Dame.
Photo: Dan Ton

However, the exhibition highlights aspects of the booming Mother Goddess market that do not preserve the ideals of the ‘pure heart’. Some spirit mediums have been known to exploit followers who have fallen into misfortune. They put pressure on the follower to hold expensive and unnecessary initiation ceremonies and out of fear and desperation they accept. Followers spend a great deal of money to meet the master medium’s demands, which can be two or three times more than the real cost.
Despite the difficulties of a growing market, followers insist that Mother Goddess worship offers them something unique. Ms Nguyen Thi Thoa, a 70-year-old farmer, describes her feelings after attending a ‘Hầu Đồng’ ritual: ‘I feel very happy, spiritually refreshed, and have a sense of pleasure which cannot be described in words.’ The exhibition, which took museum staff four years’ extensive research and development, aims to express this. ‘We wanted to recreate this meaningful and sacred experience, both for worshippers and for visitors who have no previous knowledge of Mother Goddess worship,’ says museum director Ms Bich Van. The exhibition offers a fascinating insight into the contemporary worship of the Mother Goddess, a growing belief with ancient roots that shows no sign of slowing in an increasingly modernized Vietnam.
The exhibition was officially launched on 5 January, 2012 and is expected to last for about two years at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum on 36 Ly Thuong Kiet Street, Hanoi. Entry: VND30,000 ($1.43). Open: 8 a.m. to 4.30 p.m., closed on Mondays.n

By Camilla Rooney




Locating in the southern west part of the Red river delta, Ha Nam is a half-mountain half-plain area and heavily agricultural dependent. The farmers here are now still preserving the ancient custom of worshiping the agricultural divinities; the most outstanding one is the worship for the four Dharma.

This is the cult of worshiping the four divine super-natures who have the decisive role in the goodness of crops, they are: Phap van (the divine of rain), Phap vu (the divine of cloud), Phap Loi (the divine of thunder) and Phap Dien (the divine of lightning). The origin of this custom is written in a book named “Linh Nam Chinh quai” (Legends in Linh Nam). It was the story about a girl name Man Nuong who was born in Thuan Thanh, Bac Ninh province. She went to Phuc Nghiem pagoda one day with the determination to follow the holy. The nun of this pagoda is an Indian monk named Khau Da La.

One day, the nun accidentally stepped over Nuong’s body. She became pregnant. Too ashamed, she left the pagoda and returned home. After giving birth to the child, she gave it back to the monk, who then put it into a tree and gave her a stick and said whenever there were droughts she could use this stick to plant into the earth to get water and save the lives of people. When Man Nuong was 80, the tree that carried her child collapsed and floated to Dau water place. A lot of people tried to pull the tree out of the water but failed. Only when Man Nuong touch the tree did it move. She had it chopped and sculpted into four statues. Khau Da La named them as Phap van, Phap vu, Phap loi, Phap dien. These four statues were worshiped in a pagoda. Man Nuong’s child was turned into stone. It was so hard that no one could break it. People also brought this statue into the pagoda and surprisingly it shined brightly and beautifully right after it was carried into the pagoda. People from every region came here to pray for rain and their wishes always became true. Since then Man Nuong was called the Mother divine. On April 8th she suddenly petrified. People took this day as the birthday of the Mother divine. Since then people often go to the pagoda to worship and commemorate the Mother divine.

At first the Four Dharmas were only worshiped in pagodas within Luy Lau area, however their miraculousness, they are gradually worshiped in many other provinces in the Red river Delta, especially the area by Day river, Ha Nam province.

It was said that, people in Ha nam province heard the reputation and come to Bac Ninh to bring the censer to their hometown to worship. Since then, there were no more droughts and floods in the region and the crops were evergreen. The Four Dharmas were worshiped in the following pagodas:

Phap Van (the divine of rain): in Que Lam pagoda (Van Xa, Kim Bang), Do le pagoda (Lien Son, Kim Bang), Thon Bon pagoda (Phu Van, Kim Bang) and Tien paoda (Thanh Luu, Thanh Liem).

  • Phap Vu (the divine of cloud): in Ba Danh pagoda (Ngoc son, Kim Bange), Trinh Son pagoda (Thanh Hai, Thanh Liem).
  • Phap Loi (the divine of thunder): Dang Xa (Van Xa, Kim Bang), Nua pagoda (Bach Thuong, Duy Tien)
  • Phap Dien (the divine of lightning):in Ba Bau Pagoda (Phu Ly town).

The Four Dharmas were also worshiped in many other pagodas such as Quyen Son (Thi Son, Kim Bang), Thanh Non, Phu Yen, Lat Son, Thanh Thon (Van Xa, Kim Bang). The four Dharmas were called in a more familiar way, such as the divine of rain was called Ba Danh (mrs Danh), the divine of cloud was called Ba Ben, and the divine of lightning was called Ba Bau.

Every year at lunar festival, the first full moon, the 7th full moon and especially on April 8th, people folk to the pagoda to enjoy the festival, pray and jointed the palanquin procession. In drought time pagodas become more crowded. Since 1990, the practice of worshiping the four Dharmas has been organized in greater scale. Pagodas are restored to welcome more prayers.

The cult of worshiping the four Dharmas originated from the belief that all things have its own spirits. This is the ancient belief rooted from the early time when people have to struggle with the natural calamities. The ancients believed that behind each natural phenomenon was a divine who took control over the universe, who can change people’s life and more importantly decide the prosperity of the crops, which is of crucial importance to a wet rice cultivated area. The belief in Natural divines had long been embed in the ancient Viet’s mind, before the Buddhist religion came to Vietnam. The Buddhist evangelists understood that in order to introduce the Buddhism successfully into Vietnam, they had to mix it with the local spiritual belief. It was symbolized in the spiritual harmonization between a local girl, Man Nuong, and a monk – the representative of a great religious. The result of this harmonization is a system of four Dharmas with special local cultural characteristics. Some even said that the Buddhism had been localized and carried Vietnam’s cultural features.

In Vietnamese culture, women played an important role in the creation of a new religion that embed the native culture characters and are both holy and close to the people. They are called the Mother Gods. This is the way people showed their gratitude to the creator of a new religion worshiping the divines personifying natural phenomenon: rain, thunder, and also the religion of the harmonization between the mysterious universe and the earthly life. This is the origin of the cult of worshiping the Four Dharmas in Vietnam’s spiritual life.


The Goddess, The Ethnologist, The Folklorist And The Cadre: Situating Exegesis Of Vietnam’s Folk Religion In Time And Place
The Australian Journal of Anthropology; 12/1/2003; Taylor, Philip

Vietnamese anthropology has been portrayed as a project in close alignment with the goals of a progressivist, culturally assimilationist and security-oriented state. This paper explores unexpectedly positive assessments by anthropologists and folklorists of a recent popular upsurge in goddess worship, which many local scholars deem an example of local, time-honored and integrative cultural practice. Such assessments may be viewed in the context of state attempts to strengthen national identifications as a counterbalance to its policies of economic liberalization and integration with the capitalist world. Yet there is more to these interpretations than a story of intellectuals following an official script. In particular, we can factor in the effects upon these commentators themselves of rapid social and cultural change, particularly in urban areas where the majority of them are based. The paper argues for the need to move beyond a view of the Vietnamese state as the only or most critical factor in the shaping of local intellectual responses to popular practice.

Popular religion and its observers

Vietnam has experienced a renaissance in popular religious activity in recent years. This has included the intensification of fife-cycle rituals and communal festivals and resurgence of religiously mediated ethnic, regional and local identities (Luong 1993; Endres 1999; Kleinen 1999; Malarney 2002). A rise in attendance at churches, pagodas, temples and mosques has occurred in tandem with an increase in non-institutionalized religious activities from household rites and individual propitiation at neighborhood shrines to participation in local festivals and pilgrimages (Soucy 1999; Taylor 2002). Practitioners of the spiritual arts, be they geomancers, mediums, fortune-tellers or soul-callers, have increased in prominence as their formerly proscribed services become eagerly sought-after. Translocal cults, such as those that condense around the shrines to goddesses, have grown dramatically in size and scope. This resurgence of religious practices and identities is all the more remarkable for taking place during a period in which the country’s social and cultural landscape has been comprehensively remade in a period of sustained political and economic transformation and increased global integration.

Vietnam’s intellectuals have closely followed the revival in popular religion and their interpretive responses have both drawn inspiration from and shaped such practice. Numerous books have been published in the Vietnamese language, including studies of religious philosophies and traditions, surveys of folk beliefs and customs, guides to traditional festivals and compendiums of myths, rites and deities. The phenomenon of goddess worship is a case in point. This practice has drawn the interest of cultural commentators like few other subjects. Portrayals of female spirits have become common fare in ethnological and folkloric studies and a number of collections are dedicated exclusively to this focus. Perusing this literature, one is struck not only by the richness of Vietnam’s religious culture and the cultural passions of its intellectuals but also by the commonality of interpretive themes that pervade such studies. Interpretations illustrate an all-consuming preoccupation with the question of ‘cultural roots’ (nguon goc van hoa) and ‘national identity’ (ban sac dan toc). Analyses of goddess worship argue for the typicality of such phenomena, and their status as emblematic and fundamentally sustaining of the nation. Another theme informing many of these studies is the effort to preserve and guide the revitalization of cultural forms whose distinctive features, beauty and social value are perceived to be under threat. This is all the more intriguing because not much more than a decade ago much of this activity was stigmatized among such commentators and indeed banned by the state as ‘superstitious’.

How can we account for this switch to a positive evaluation of such beliefs and practices among Vietnam’s elite commentators? As Vietnam is a country in which a solitary party remains firmly in control of the public sphere and most of its ethnologists and folklorists are on the state’s payroll, one plausible explanation of the scholarly interest in these symbols is that it reflects a new policy direction taken by the state towards religious practice. The Vietnamese social science context does indeed conform to what Feuchtwang and Wang Ming-ming have noted of China, where ethnological and folklorist interpretations of popular religion at any given time have been consistent with state policy (1991). Another explanation, which recognizes that Vietnam has switched to a market economy, would be to attribute this to the profit motive. Books that exploit the exotic, the rustic, and the colorful dimensions of popular religious culture could be seen as the product of publishers’ hunt for maximum sales. Clearly one can find in the publishing boom on Vietnamese religion evidence of this mixture of censorship and self-interest. However, these explanations cannot account for the passion of cultural observers nor the readings they take of particular cult objects. Neither do they explain why the consumers of these books share the enthusiasm of their producers, and why particular interpretations hold sway.

This study of scholarly exegesis of goddess worship goes beyond the political and economic factors that influence the writings of Vietnamese ethnologists and folklorists to explore the cultural and social factors that shape their interpretations. The portrait of goddess worship as ‘folk culture’ (van hoa dan gian), while consistent with state policy is tribute to the role of the imagination in social science writing. The outpouring of books dedicated to goddesses reflects a growing interest among Vietnam’s intellectuals in origins, place-based traditions, cultural essences and social solidarity. Such emphases can be understood in the context of profound changes in the socio-economic landscape of late socialist Vietnam. They are a reaction to the pressures faced by a scholarly elite in the country’s rapidly transforming urban centres. Such pressures are shared by educated urbanised elites beyond the borders of Vietnam, not only in other ‘late’ or post-socialist contexts but in diasporic settings where similar cultural and social conditions obtain.

Embodying the nation

On one recent count, seventy-five goddesses are worshipped in Vietnam (Do Thi Hao and Mai Thi Ngoc Chuc 1984). Rivers, mountains, forests and oceans are symbolized in female spiritual form, as are the five primordial elements (metal, wood, fire, water and earth) and vital staples such as rice. At least one altar to a goddess, be she Me Sanh (the goddess of birth), the Bodhisattva Quan Am, or Mary, is found in most people’s homes. Shrines to Quan Am and Mary, as well as the female deities Lieu Hanh, Ba Thuong Ngan, Thien Hau, Ba Den and Ba Chua Xu, attract translocal followings whose size, extension and diffuseness are unparalleled among all sites in the Vietnamese religious landscape. These figures are important focal points for a range of symbolic, ritual and social projects in Vietnam. Not only do they draw people together on pilgrimages and at festivals, they symbolically ‘front’ a variety of collective identities and excite commentary from a host of different interpreters. (2) It is little wonder then, that these figures have captured the attention of local observers who have put forward a variety of theories that account for the popularity and vitality of such practices.

True to their socialist heritage, many Vietnamese ethnologists and folklorists adhere to an evolutionary schema of development, into which goddess worship has been slotted, as an enduring survival from what is claimed to be Vietnam’s matriarchal and hence primitive period of history (Nguyen Minh San ! 996). One of the most common hypotheses is that goddesses represent an anthropomorhisation of natural forces of growth and reproduction (Do Lai Thuy 1996). One frequently encounters the assumption among some urban intellectuals in Vietnam that people living in rural and remote areas, with a ‘low level’ of education are more prone to misapprehend the forces of nature or redress their failings in the face of a potent nature through a religious lens. However, rather than disparage goddess worship as an example of ‘low’ knowledge or cultural ‘levels’ (trinh do thap) or ‘superstition’ (me tin di doan), folklorists and ethnologists accord this practice integrity by glossing it as a ‘folk belief’ (tin nguong dan gian). In this formulation credit is given to ordinary Vietnamese people for the originality and aesthetic elegance of their spiritual solutions in the face of massive hardship. Such spiritual inventions as goddesses are said to have nurtured and sustained the Vietnamese people in their millennial national history of overcoming natural obstacles and military invasions (Thach Phuong and Le Trung Vu 1995).

One tendency in recent approaches to female spirit veneration in Vietnam, construes this practice as a phenomenon that is local, reflecting grassroots folk culture, peasant consciousness, autarchic village customs or regional distinctiveness. A custom of farmers, rather than those whose cultural affiliations have been regarded as problematic, such as court officials or urban dwellers, these spirits symbolize non-elite views, people’s enduring ties to place and the bounded sociality of the rural world. Studies of goddesses worshipped in the southern third of Vietnam (Nam Bo) interpret these as spiritual supports of the ethnic Vietnamese farmer (Thach Phuong et al. 1992; Nguyen Phuong Thao 1997: 182). The culturally hybrid Lady of the Realm (Ba Chua Xu) has been depicted by some folklorists as typical of the multi-ethnic, heterodox, constantly mutating cultural landscape of southern Vietnam (Huynh Ngoc Trang 1992) and as an ‘original’ cultural accomplishment, which has enriched the ‘storehouse’ of Vietnamese national culture (Nguyen Minh San 1993). The significance of these readings is that they have discovered in the region a powerful local challenge to orthodox court culture, especially Confucianism (which, in the past, has been evaluated negatively as elite, feudal, Chinese-imposed and enervating to the nation). Significantly, none of the theorists who endorse the view of southern culture as multi-ethnic deny the cultural ‘baggage’ of the Red River delta and central Vietnam a key role in this mix. According to this view it was the southwards migration of non-elite ethnic Vietnamese people rather than the extension of court culture that facilitated the cultural incorporation of the southern region into the nation.

In the minds of commentators the rural, mountainous or coastal regions, where shrines to many of Vietnam’s goddesses are located, are closely associated with the survival or maintenance of traditions and with cultural conservatism. Hence, one should not be surprised to find in a predominantly rural region like the Mekong delta such practices as the annual festival to the Lady of the Realm, timed to the rhythm of the seasons and the cycles of the moon. The Lady of the Realm’s stature in the Mekong delta has been attributed to her symbolisation of this region’s distinctive environment, the fertile lands and plentiful waters that sustain its human life (Nguyen Dang Duy 1997: 142).3 The central rites of bathing this goddess have been described as a rain-invocation ceremony, which reveals an agricultural cosmology tied closely to seasonal rhythms (Nguyen Minh San 1993: 33; Nguyen Dang Duy 1997: 162). Reflecting practices of wet rice agriculture that are described as ‘ancient’ (Nguyen Phuong Thao 1997) the custom of worshipping the goddesses of the southern plain is counterpoised to the winds of change that have swept through other, more economically and culturally dynamic, parts of the country (Thach Phuong et al.. 1992: 93). This view posits such goddesses as flag bearers for a primordial economic relationship, marked by simplicity, subsistence and autarchy. Rather than condemn this as superseded, as one might expect a Marxist to do, such an economic mode is endorsed as authentically Vietnamese or Southeast Asian, and its associated religious expression a place-based practice finely calibrated to local ecological conditions.

Goddess worship is a subset of the cult of spirits (dao tho than), a practice that has been seized upon by many authors (e.g. Dang Nghiem Van 1998) as an ‘authentically Vietnamese religion’ (mot dao thuan tuy Viet Nam). (4) The veneration of spirits is often described as a practice preceding later, foreign or elite, cultural accretions–be they Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam, or various modernist rationalities. According to some theorists, female deities are spiritual personifications of the lands and waters (dat va nuoc) of the Vietnamese people (e.g. Ta Chi Dai Truong 1989; Vu Ngoc Khanh 2001). For others, Vietnam’s pantheon of goddesses represents particularly telling evidence of the nation’s ancient roots in a matrifocal culture (Ngo Duc Thinh 1996). Such purportedly indigenous heritage can be distinguished from the patriarchal traditions of Confucianism emanating from China, one of Vietnam’s former colonial powers. The supposed survival of these female elements for more than two thousand years suggests that they obtain such qualities as constancy, vitality and integrity. Their persistence, despite the spread in Vietnam of court-favored Confucianism, marks them out as an oppositional counterculture, their endurance encoding the triumph of folk over elite culture, locality versus the centre and the domestic versus the foreign. Qualities such as these make goddesses a perfect foil to counter new forms of cultural colonization. (5)

Some ethnologists view goddess worship as the veneration of ancestors whose meritorious acts served the country, another practice sometimes considered as a quintessentially Vietnamese custom (e.g. Dang Nghiem Van 1998). Interpreted as an ancestral cult, the worship of heroes is said to highlight common origins, and local debts to a specifically Vietnamese past, as well as debts to the predecessors who carved out and defended the national space (H/l Hung Tien 1997). Among the most famous goddesses venerated in Vietnam are female heroes of nation building and defence, such as the Trung sisters, whose temple in Hanoi is one of the best-known shrines to female spirits among foreign visitors to Vietnam (Nguyen Minh San 1996). The festival to the Lady of the Realm, so the accounts go, was inaugurated after she extended her protection to a Vietnamese general who was repulsing an attack by the Cambodian enemy. The annual sacrifice was instituted and subsequent generations continue to thank her for this act of preferential patronage (Nguyen Cong Binh et al. 1990; Thai Thi Bich Lien 1998). Other goddesses such as Ba Den, Ba Thuong Ngan and Ba Chua Kho are also associated with national defence.

In-depth studies of these cults focus on the rites conducted by community leaders that request the spirit’s protection on behalf of the local community (e.g. Mai Van Tao 1995; Thai Thi Bich Lien 1998). Such festive practices are viewed as integrative forces: uniting disparate sectors of rural society; transmitting across generations values such as piety, gratitude and respect; and reinforcing a communal ethic (Truong Thin 1990: 24). Similarly, they have been described as cultural processes which reflect and reinforce a distinctly Vietnamese communalist spirit, particularly in rural areas (Ho Hoang Hoa 1998). On socially functional grounds, the festivals to goddesses are seen as elaborations of traditional harvest festivals or mating rituals, phenomena that had preceded and outlasted Chinese and court overlays (Do Lai Thuy 1996). As such they are seen as vehicles of creativity and renewal. On this theme can be heard frequent rhapsodies about the role of traditional festivals as opportunities for boys and girls to meet, and the sanctioned breaking of taboos at festivals, thought by one writer to revitalize society (Dao The Hung 1995).

In the nation’s interest

There is little in the literature on Vietnamese political and intellectual culture to prepare us for the overwhelmingly positive interest in female spirits shown in recent years by Vietnam’s ethnologists and folklorists. Practices such as spirit worship, sorcery, geomancy, physiognomy and trance possession have long been grouped by this country’s intellectual elites under the pejorative category of ‘superstition’ (me tin di doan). In the early 20th century the practice of spirit worship, along with a host of other religious practices, was assailed by urban intellectuals for its purported backwardness, ignorance and harmfulness (Marr 1981).

Under the post-colonial regime in the north and again in the south after 1975, the Communist Party attacked many religious, customary and cultural practices (Kleinen 1999: 171; Malarney 2002). As scientific evolutionists, Vietnam’s leaders saw the spirits worshipped in Vietnam as primitive survivals from an early stage of social evolution when people deified the forces of nature due to their inability to control or overcome them (Tran Huu Tien 1977: 69). Belief in the power of spirits was illusory and rendered people ‘impotent’ (bat luc) and fatalistic. It undermined people’s confidence in their own agency and did not encourage them to believe they could solve their problems with their own mind and hands (Bui Thi Kim Qua, 1986). As social radicals, the communists saw the spirits as tools of ‘feudal’ elites, mystifications of relations of social exploitation. For example, titles awarded to Lady Lieu Hanh by the feudal authorities showed her use as a tool by the elite to validate their oppressive rule. Belief in her spiritual qualities was

also considered an imported Taoist belief, a Sinicised accretion. Practices associated with her worship, such as mediumship and fortune telling were described as legacies of Chinese colonization (Trurong Chinh and Dang Duc Sieu 1978: 122-42). Spirit worship was condemned for its implication in foreign political control, the use of religion to mystify colonial and neo-colonial domination (Bui Thi Kim Qua, 1986).

Vietnam’s ethnologists have made their mark in the ethnographic record as agents of this progressivist, assimilationist state, involved in the dismantling of particularistic affiliations in the name of ‘the great unity’ (dai doan ket), a new and unified national culture (Evans 1985, 1995). In one of the most pertinent examples of this, anthropologists criticized matrilocal residence among groups in the Central Highlands for its implied association with a ‘primitive’, benighted phase of history. These matrifocal tendencies indicated a ‘low level’ of culture, their persistence a decadent survival from the past (Evans 1995: 264). Such attitudes among ethnologists have been attributed to the influence in Vietnam of Soviet-styled evolutionism (Evans 1985). It can also be attributed to the pervasive influence in much of East Asia of Social Darwinism, and the anti-traditionalist radicalism of a generation of intellectuals alienated by the stifling neo-traditionalism of the colonial context in which they grew up (Marc 1981; Ninh 2002). Yet these approaches can also be linked to a much longer history of Vietnamese state centralism, a civilizational chauvinism towards peripheral, ‘barbarian’ cultures (Woodside 1971), and a political culture strongly influenced by Confucianism’s intolerance of heterodox folk culture (Evans 1985).

How then does one account for the recent positive interest in female spirits among this group, hitherto known as modernity’s champions, socialist universalists and Confucian centralists? Their celebration of these folk icons as durable, governed by ecological time, unmistakably local and vital to the reproduction of rural sociality, is something of a puzzle. One explanation for this set of views is that it reflects a response to the changing priorities of the state. This would be consistent with a post-colonial history marked by several significant policy shifts, in which Vietnamese social scientists have constantly conformed to the current national orientation, be it the building of socialism, striving for national unification, promulgating economic liberalism or aiming for industrialization and modernization. In a like way, according to this hypothesis, the focus on goddesses could be seen as a response by Vietnam’s ethnologists and folklorists to the state’s demands for a new national charter.

Indeed, in the changing national and international climate of the reform era, the Vietnamese state has sought to renew both domestic bases of cohesion and external markers of identity. The first of these demands is not especially new. The search by Vietnam’s political elite for effective symbolic bases around which to build a national community has received much attention by students of Vietnamese political culture (Woodside 1976; Marr 1981). In the days when two Vietnamese polities were fighting a civil war, one of the main issues on which victory hung, was which of these state apparatuses could most effectively bind a culturally diverse peasant population to the leadership elite, and hence deny the support of the bulk of the populace to their rivals. History records that it was the socialists that were the more successful in this venture. The Communist Party’s employment of virtuosic cultural intellectuals to orchestrate cultural particularity in service of the party’s centralizing project was undoubtedly a key reason for its success (Woodside 1976; Ninh 2002). Although most of the finest works in the discipline of folklore came out in the post-war era, the detail, verve and comprehensiveness of Vietnamese folklorists’ studies into folk music, dances, theatre chants, architectural styles, proverbs and oral tales can be attributed to the seriousness of the Party’s commitment to communicate effectively to a culturally diverse population. Ethnologists played a role in this project, due in no small measure to the Party’s need to co-operate closely during the wars with the ethnic minorities living in the resistance zones of forests and mountains located on or near borders (Pelly 1995).

Vietnam’s ethnologists and folklorists may well have been paternalistic agents in the ‘selective preservation and development’ of the country’s diverse cultures. Yet they worked within a vision of a multi-ethnic nation (Pelly 2002: 95), which stressed the integrity and harmonious co-existence of these groups. This viewpoint has been depicted by such metaphors as the ‘flower garden of cultures’, the multi-coloured ethnic ‘tapestry’, ‘cultural mosaic’, ‘family’ of nationalities, and even an orchestra of many parts conducted by the late leader Ho Chi Minh. In a similar way, it should be recalled that the modernist or rationalist bases for the Party’s hostility to religion co-existed with a more integrative orientation. As one analyst has observed, in its targeting of religion the Party’s main aim was to effectively dismantle the political (and one might add cultural) bases of opposition to its rule, aiming for a culturally unified society as much as a ‘modem’ or classless one (Marr 1986).

As distinct from their contribution towards building internal cohesion, the involvement of Vietnam’s communist intellectuals in the search for and promotion of external markers of difference, has received relatively little attention in Vietnamese studies. This may be because the problem of internal divisions preoccupied the Communist Party leadership during an anti-colonial struggle to restore unity and independence to the Vietnamese polity. The war of decolonisation (1946-1954) was followed by a post-colonial war (1955-1975) in which millions of people died in two Vietnamese states’ pursuit of the mantle of authentic nationhood. Vietnam’s transition from wartime division to post-war unity and further incorporation into the socialist bloc underscored the Party’s commitment to universalistic socialist values as a path to national integration. However, stirrings of cultural nationalism came to the fore in the late 1970s, when erstwhile allies Vietnam and China went to war. From that time can be dated the serious quest among the communist nation’s social scientists to seek out and deliberately emphasise in their accounts the traits that made Vietnam culturally distinctive.

When the socialist bloc crumbled in the late 1980s and, with it, more universalist bases for identity, Vietnam’s government found itself confronting the prospect of integration with socialism’s cultural alternative: a triumphal capitalist globalism with renewed universalist pretensions and the threatening potential to swamp all grounds for a local identity. Globalization has been soft-sold in the anthropological literature using the liquid terminology of translocal ‘flows’ (Appadurai 1996). However, this process was conceptualized in Vietnam as an impending invasion, the opening of a new front, culture, in an ongoing war. (6) Not only did Vietnam’s socialist leaders find themselves aligned with anxious social democrats everywhere, looking at a borderless dystopia of rootless affiliations, hyperreal publics and the mass defection of patriotic citizens into global consumerism, it saw itself addressing a set of affiliations that looked certain to attach the Vietnamese people, in cultural terms, to a historically untrustworthy and extremely destructive enemy. Neither the ubiquitous bearded patriarchs of communist universalism nor images of peasants with a rifle in one hand and hoe in the other, the mobilisational symbolism that had sustained a rural insurgency, held the potential to guide the nation intact through its daunting process of integration with the capitalist world. There was an urgent need to search for new and yet durable identity markers, primal enough to secure maximal universality and yet sufficiently flexible to give a state, which was taking the reform process one step at a time, sufficient room to move.

One solution to this problem was to rehabilitate the world of folk religion, hitherto regarded as backward, unscientific and harmful, as a serviceable basis for national identification. In the doi moi era, demeaning evolutionist perceptions towards local religious traditions were phased out. Superstition was rebadged as ‘folk belief’, ‘ignorant’ practices became ‘culture’, ‘outmoded backwardness’ became tenacious survival, insular particularity became local distinctiveness. The world of proverbs and folk genres, local dialects, myths, rites and customs, regional and occupational cultures and food taboos became the focus of renewed research. Habitual disparagements of such supposed matrilineal elements as goddesses were replaced by more positive evaluations. The breakthrough in this respect came with the listing of 75 goddesses in a slim compendium issued in 1984 and since reprinted several times (Do Thi Hao and Mai Thi Ngoc Chuc 1984). This book marked the beginning of an avalanche of studies on goddesses and flags, the beginning of their apotheosis in local scholarship as exemplary national icons.

Although they espouse quite a variety of explanations for goddess worship, Vietnam’s ethnologists and folklorists have found in the popularity of this phenomenon clear signs of the endurance of the nation’s traditions and of its cultural integrity. Construed as touchstones of identity and imagined consociality, they help to ‘materialize’ the Vietnamese nation and make affiliations to this collectivity salient and real. Questions of origins, survivals, identity, function, structure and reproduction, all of them familiar concerns in the intellectual history of the anthropology of religion, have been turned consistently to the relationship between these religious symbols and the nation.

With a symbolically vital function of this kind, goddesses have been considered vulnerable objects, whose meaning needs to be carefully tended and maintained. Commentators have placed emphasis on how to refine and shape what are seen as positive expressions of popular engagements with these icons and expel negative aspects that have persisted or grown up around them. Published commentaries on the Lady of the Realm’s festival make critical references to ‘superstitious’ practices such as fortune telling or trance possession in the precincts of her shrine. These are regarded as unbefitting of an important historical and cultural heritage site or ‘customary’ practice. Nguyen Phuong Thao attempts to detach the furtive acts of mediumship on Sam Mountain from the real meaning of the Lady of the Realm’s festival, which he understood to be an agricultural rite (1997:210). (7) Folklorist Nguyen Chi Ben considers fortune telling, divination, and the acquisition of amulets, still practised in the shrine to the Lady of the Realm, as the work of opportunists exploiting the sanctity of a shrine to engage in an execrable ‘trade in spirits’ (buon than ban thanh). He describes these as ‘parasitical’ (ky sinh) activities, strictly outside the true structure of her folk festival (Nguyen Chi Ben 2000:188). Some commentators dwell on the simple and wholesome quality of communal festivals as expressions of folk culture, reminding readers of their former appropriation by feudal elites who used festivals to prop up their power or compete in extravagant expenditure (Thach Phuong et al. 1992: 86,93). In a similar way, many commentators lament the cut-throat prices charged at the stalls around the shrine to the Lady of the Realm and some express regret at the commercialization of such festivals (e.g. Thach Phuong 1993: 21). Observers of the festival to the goddess Dinh Co on the coast at Long Hai, decry ‘inappropriate’ gaudy and faddish elements like jeans, neon lights and pop music as swamping or mingling haphazardly with its locally distinctive, elegant and time-tested aesthetic practices (Thach Phuong et al. 1992: 89).

The people generating this critique are inheritors of Vietnam’s rich, albeit diffuse, traditions of centralist scholars and bureaucrats acting as cultural authorities and their sometimes heavy-handed cultural ‘policing’ is hardly novel. In Vietnam’s bureaucratic polity, officially licensed interpreters have long helped regulate and standardize local practices so that they emit messages appropriate to the state’s concerns. As agents of the state, these ethnographers and folklorists have steered popular processes into evocation of the nation and, by quashing or co-opting competing interpretations, have tried to attach the population to citizenship, unity, obedience and patriotism. At the same time, given the increasing involvement of economically powerful urban-based merchants and traders in the veneration of these female deities (Le Hong Ly, 2001; Taylor 2002), a strategy of acknowledgement appears to have been well calculated to accommodate real shifts in social relations and realignments in people’s cultural identifications and to enable the more flexible incorporation of such change and diversity into the ‘great national unity’.

Interpretive improvisation

This pattern in the published views of this influential group of commentators could be taken as evidence that the state has been able to secure the compliance of ethnologists and folklorists in the implementation of its policies towards culture in the reform era: ‘to build and develop culture and the arts impregnated with Vietnamese national identity’. (8) Indeed as they are agents of the state, one might hardly expect any other result. On the official payroll, obliged to register their research projects with the authorities, their reports subject to censorship and limited to publication in state-owned presses, they would appear to have had limited scope to do otherwise.

And yet it would seem that there is more to this story than one of paid, politically-coerced intellectuals following the state’s script. The systematicity, not to mention artfulness by which these practices have been woven into the new national narrative suggests that these objects of analysis have captured the imaginations of these analysts. Although in line with the state’s interests, the kind of intense preoccupation with goddesses that is so evident today seems to considerably overstep the demands of dutiful implementation of state policy. Rather their interpretations appear to be of an improvisational nature drawn from a fund of deeper images and affiliations.

Clearly something about these goddesses has excited the anthropological imaginations of Vietnam’s ethnographers and folklorists. With these images in mind they have made passionate statements about ancient origins, enduring traditions, wholesome values, cultural vitality and social renewal. One gets a sense of these intellectuals rising to the occasion, staging a decisive break away from the obsolescence of universalistic symbols of identification, socialist developmentalism and antagonistic or conflictual models of society. Their discovery in goddesses of a guiding symbol, of a primordial centre of gravity, of a creative life-giving, cultural core and oppositional culture, represents an inspired way out of a cultural impasse. Neither reheating trite platitudes nor imposing alien forms, goddesses represent an elegant and powerful solution to a problem. Far more than professional culture brokers their interpretations of goddess worship cast Vietnamese ethnologists and folklorists as virtuoso improvisers, taking old material and breaking new ground and yet doing so in terms of familiar cultural themes and personal experience so as to open up these symbols as items for widespread identification.

As theorists such as Gellner (1983) and Smith (1986) have noted, the wellsprings of folk culture have been a rich source of inspiration for nationalist theorists worldwide. Although the lack of universality of cultural practices such as goddess worship was once a liability to Vietnam’s modernist intellectuals, in more recent times these practices have come to serve as flags of the nation, precisely because of their supposedly parochial status. Tied to locality, embodying ecological rhythms, symbolising distinct economic practices, apparently ancient and markedly rural, these female icons could scarcely be mistaken for the totem of another nation. They satisfy the two demands that Ericksen notes motivated Norwegian urban intellectuals’ quest for folk roots in the mid 19th century: the search for a symbolic point around which to unite rural and urban populations, and the hunt for markers of distinctive identity (Ericksen 1995). Embedded in history, particularist experience and collective memory these loci answered the call for symbols that could resonate in some ways with the realm of personal experience.

This creativity is conditioned by the particular cultural environment in which these commentators are located. Vietnam’s goddesses are all designated as mothers (me) and most commentators regard this practice as mother worship dao mau (Ngo Duc Thinh 1996; Nguyen Minh San 1998: 33), be that a fertility cult, a celebration of human origins and nurturance, an expression of respect for the role of mothers in society (Nguyen Minh San 1996: 258) or, in the case of those described as ‘mothers of the nation’ (quoc mau), the nurturers of its heroes and leaders. The ethnogenetic female spirit Au Co, described as the mother of the Vietnamese nation, has also been described as the ancestor of all of Vietnam’s mother goddesses (Ngo Duc Thinh 1999: 34). Readings of Vietnam’s goddesses as symbols of the nation’s origins, nurturance and renewal draw inspiration from Vietnamese kinship roles, which accord mothers primacy as providers of life, nurturance and familial reproduction. Mothers are held to be authoritative arbiters over children, mediators between lineages and representatives of the household in such extensive institutions as the market. This perhaps is why maternal spirits also feature in Vietnamese popular religious practice as preferred symbols of responsiveness, nurturance, and mediation, as well as possessing ultimate authority over the fates of their supplicants and the power to punish transgressions.

It is noteworthy that many of the goddesses singled out by cultural commentators dwell on the fringes of the polity. These include the Lady of the Realm and the Black Lady, enshrined on the border with Cambodia, Dinh Co, the Palace Damsel, venerated on the southern Vietnamese coast in Long Hai and Mau Thuong Ngan in the highlands of the northern border province of Long Son (Nguyen Minh San 1999). Ba Chua Kho, so commentators report, is located on former lines of defense against China (Khanh Duyen 1994; Le Hong Ly 2001). Figures like Thien Hau and Sri Marriamam are located in ports, markets and ethnic enclaves. Tales about these goddesses mention their resistance to rape, abduction or marriage, likening the nation’s integrity to a woman’s defense of her physical security, chastity or independence. Commentators relate tales about these goddesses’ preferential acts of patronage of the Vietnamese state, such as the Lady of the Realm who offered support to the Vietnamese state against the Khmer enemy and manifested her unwillingness to be abducted by Thai troops by killing them on the spot. In a situation of choice and plurality, there are clear limits to their inclusiveness and these goddesses have demonstrated to whose side they belong. In the compelling imagery of Nira Yuval-Davis (1997), such feminine symbols serve as ‘border guards’ of the collectivity’s identity.

Although from one perspective these spirits may be considered to be at the ‘frontline’ of the imaginatively threatened polity, the selection of these female spirits as symbols of the nation’s cultural identity also comes from their being as far from the political ‘centre’ as possible, and thus remote from changes sweeping through the capital, elite political circles, market places and streets. A metaphoric association between femininity and domestic interiority is a key attribute of such feminine spirits. Examples of rural (thon que), or ‘folk’ (dan gian) beliefs such as the Lady of the Realm are considered cultural wellsprings and vessels of originary identity. Associated with rural and remote regions considered in nationalist imagery to be uncorrupted and still pure (trong), they are thought to remain unscathed, out-of-reach. Stories relate how these goddesses have sacrificed themselves, preferring an early death to marriage or sexual relations with outsiders. Construed in opposition to Confucianism and court culture they remain the creations of the people, faithfully and reliably serving them in their everyday needs (Nguyen Minh San 1998: 54).

In short, through the readings proffered on these spirits, the Vietnamese nation is imagined as an enlarged version of the household, its continuity and cohesion symbolized through images drawn from the realms of biology, kinship and familial politics. One of the ironies of contemporary Vietnamese interpretations of goddess worship is that these cultural icons are almost unfailingly associated with the high status of women and the survival of matriarchal cultural values despite centuries of patriarchal imposition. Yet the selection of these feminine images to symbolize such qualities as regeneration, nurturance, purity, continuity, sacrifice, duty and constancy, which are held to sustain the nation and its people, draws on a patriarchal familial metaphor reflecting the expectations placed upon women in Vietnam to reproduce and sustain lineages and embody their family’s honor. Such interpretations have been issued during a time when women’s access to employment in the state sector has declined, the state’s support for vital social services has shrunk, the household-based economy has been promoted as a primary economic unit and women’s work has become increasingly informal (Werner 2002: 34). They have emerged during a time when women’s access to education has decreased markedly (Le Thi 2001:133) and male dominance of the formal sphere is more pronounced than ever (Werner 2002: 39). Although drawing inspiration from the types of dilemmas that women in Vietnam face in confronting the options and obligations presented by kinship, these goddesses also affirm these options as natural and inevitable.

If the nation is imagined as a household and its culture, in the material form of these goddesses, is imagined as a female member of that household, then Vietnam’s ethnologists and folklorists, the majority of whom are male, can be viewed as paternalistic householders piously tending to the origins, warding off potential threats and effecting the reproduction of such familial project. (9) The interpretive role played by social scientists replicates the role played by household heads as ritual custodians of familial integrity and representatives of household interests in the public sphere. In serving the cause of political cohesion and acting as flags of national identity, these goddesses are triply disciplined into performance of maternal duty, patrifilial loyalty and filial obedience towards the national polity. Their positive virtues are praised, while their alternative meanings are constrained to silence.

In these writings we see a state that is hostage to a partial social perspective and a cultural politics that fails to serve its citizens’ interests in equitable or universalistic terms. The nation’s culture is imagined through the eyes of a fraction of the educated elite and its imagined predicaments are refracted through their eyes. In other words, the state’s cultural policies are dependant on the subjectivity of socially positioned, culturally embedded individuals. The tales told about these culturally iconic goddesses, reflect a proprietary relationship to phenomena of the imagined past and cultural ‘interior’, through control of whose meanings, cultural elites reproduce their assertions of social centrality. And yet these commentators’ investment in these icons reflects something more than entrenched traditionalist paternalism. The very palpable sense of ownership, anxiety and threat to which their interpretations give voice can be seen as a response to recent destabilizing and disempowering cultural and social processes in which they, as intellectuals, have been caught up.

Culture of threat

The renewed interest in goddesses came at a time of rapid change in Vietnam. The ‘open door’ (mo cua) and liberal reform (doi moi) policies were beginning to produce their anticipated effects of stimulating production, and unleashing economic growth. The feeling that life was improving and possibilities expanding was very widespread. Yet there was equally a sense of foreboding that such positive changes were accompanied by a downside: materialism, pragmatism, the cult of money, selfish individualism, social rifts, crime, corruption, and moral decline (Taylor 2001). A growing generation gap, migration to the cities, increased crime, demands for new cultural competencies, changing gender roles and a sense that life is speeding out of control (Marr 1996) added to the sense, shared by many, of a generalized societal crisis. The commercialization of society, intensified transnational communications and proliferation of new cultural forms, which all dramatically increased at the beginning of the decade, gave rise to anxieties about the loss of cultural sovereignty. Although the ruling Communist Party has tried to reinvent itself as a friend to global capital, many people consider the nation’s cultural identity under attack like never before. Even in a city like Ho Chi Minh City, there was a strong feeling that Vietnam would need to fight to preserve its traditions, national essence and distinctive psychology in the face of the incursions of global culture.

Such concerns are situationally specific. They have been very acute among the cultural pedagogues of this education-oriented society whose role as culture brokers is in accordance with a strong vocational sense of being custodians of, and instructors in, the spiritual and cultural life of the collective. In the 1990s, as the political economy shifted to a decentralized commercial basis, people in such positions experienced a destabilizing loss of power. As intellectuals, they were witnesses to a society changing at a breakneck pace, moving in directions that often seemed very much out of control. Retaining a status as cultural experts in the culturally volatile world of reform era Vietnam was a difficult task, as a bewildering variety of new competencies were demanded of them. A generation of Soviet-trained academics stumbled from Russian to English, from the foxtrot to rap, from writing copy for the People’s Army’s televised news to generating advertising copy for youth magazines. The intellectuals with whom I spoke in the early 1990s used images such as floodwaters, storms and surging tides to describe the tumultuous cultural context in which they worked and fretted about the negative effects of foreign cultural influences on their children’s sense of self-esteem and loyalty to their own country.

As the effects of the International Monetary Fund- and the World Bank-inspired reforms have taken the economic levers out of the hands of these former societal leaders and have shifted the centre of gravity to the marketplace, there has been, if anything, a renewed emphasis on remembering past sacrifices, the value of the communal, the respect for old knowledge. In rendering folk practices such as goddess worship as ancient survivals, and in their zealous dedication to the faithful preservation and transmission of their meanings, the project of Vietnam’s ethnologists and folklorists might be understood as an attempt to stem a decline in cultural capital, a loss which they felt more acutely than most. The ancient and enduring status claimed for practices such as goddess worship are compelling notions for people who, in recent times, have encountered sustained challenges to their way of life. Idealistic and romantic, anthropologists in a conservative turn, the image they projected of these cultural elements was often static. Their studies of folk religion were turned to the arrest of time.

The unifying and integrative functions that these intellectuals attributed to goddess beliefs and practices reflect the perspective of the moral preceptors of this formerly bureaucratic, militaristic and collectivist society confronting its increasing social fragmentation, individualism and moral confusion. Their construction of goddesses as symbols of authentic local identity and place-based traditions casts these religious practices as a source of replenishment for a society losing its moral bearings. This helps explain readings of goddesses as icons of traditional cohesion. During a time when fears were being voiced about the risks of social and cultural disintegration due to the regime’s policies, goddesses have been taken as touchstones of cultural identity and their well-attended annual festivals indicated in a reassuring way that Vietnam still retained its traditional integrity. Such images resonate with some poignancy, with the personal situation of many commentators. The ecological rootedness and local distinctiveness attributed to goddess beliefs and practices served as an antidote against their own experience of cultural disenfranchisement.

Anthropology’s urban identity

One notable feature of ethnological discourse in Vietnam, as elsewhere, is the predominantly urban origins of its exponents. This reflects the overwhelmingly urban location of museums, research institutes, universities and libraries: places sustaining ethnological work. Also home to the majority of the nation’s newspapers, television stations, publishing houses, cultural associations and theatres, urban areas are the centres for the reproduction of national public culture: they are where those who imagine the nation, and sustain it with their symbolic reproductive work, are located. Although globalization is sometimes portrayed as a challenge to borders and territoriality (Appadurai 1996), it is not at the territorial borders but in the cities where the imagined nation encounters its greatest challenges. This is particularly true in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s commercial capital and centre of technology, financial production and support services. As such it has many of the characteristics of a ‘global city’, in which translocal economic forces have more weight than local policies in shaping urban economy, social structure and cultural identity (Sassen 1991). Urban areas such as this are deluged by strong flows of peoples, goods, images, ideas, affectations and orientations that know no borders, following paths opened through migration, trade, military occupation and colonialism. Hanoi, the national capital, has experienced a lower intensity of cultural traffic than Ho Chi Minh City, but the psychic disorientation registered by its residents as it has travelled, in the space of a generation, from being the capital of an agrarian socialist country to a city in full embrace of capitalist lifestyles, has possibly been greater.

Among the greatest contemporary cultural challenges to Vietnam’s literate bureaucratic elite are the proliferation of video cassettes, tapes and compact discs, mushrooming of discos, karaoke saloons and music cafes, explosion in glossy magazines, and advertising imagery, the rise of supermarkets and shopping malls and growth of cyber cafes, all of which are phenomena overwhelmingly concentrated in urban centres. For those who define the national orientation through the work of culture, these unfamiliar cultural codes and modes challenge their ability to reproduce messages of relevance to their national constituency. They have become tongue-tied and inept in the face of rapid cultural change. And few of their traditionally-defined constituency are indeed listening, as Vietnam’s youth are patched into more heady and highly accessible cultural offerings from MTV to Hello Kitty (Mart 1996). In many respects Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are ‘informational cities’ (Castles 1989) marked by rapid flows of information and proliferation of cultural signals. In such urban contexts, Setha Low has noted that there is a tendency for individuals to react by representing their values and interests through the reassertion of primary identities of self-identified communities, which results in the rejection of other communities, increasing racism and xenophobia (1996: 394).

The commentary on goddesses by Vietnam’s ethnologists and folklorists can be situated in this context, underlining the need to understand the discipline of anthropology not only as incorporating the study of cities (urban anthropology) but as a project that is conducted in the city. In a country like Vietnam where more than 70% of the population lives in rural areas, the urban cast of ethnology is very significant. Putatively about a rural based goddess, in many ways the experience to which the studies of Vietnamese ethnologists and folklorists give voice is the complexity of urban existence. A view of temples and festivals as bases of unchanged traditions reflects in a romantic (lang man) manner urbanites’ idealization of the countryside and longing for a stable point of purchase in their rapidly changing environment. Given its articulation from the ever-mutating world of Vietnam’s cities, this pre-occupation with cultural constancy is understandable. A view of folk festivals as simple and time-honored can be seen as an imaginative counterweight to the complexity and unpredictability of urban life. With Vietnam’s cities the main nodes for foreign investors, new foreign cultural impacts, and home to the troubling feeling that cultural sovereignty is being lost, the search for viable forms of national inclusion is nowhere more urgent. If goddesses serve the function of patrolling the nation’s imaginatively threatened boundaries, nowhere have these boundaries been more at risk than in the urban world.


This view of Vietnam’s ethnologists and folklorists goes well beyond a representation of them as a caste of professional culture brokers, mechanically doing the bidding of the state. Although the hand of the state is never invisible, one finds considerable analytic daylight between the political and the social bases of interpretation. Even though their fascination with goddesses reinforces the state’s own message about the border-marking function of national cultural traditions, the views of these theorists are somewhat autonomously driven.

For this reason one needs to be mindful of social affinities between the position of intellectuals and that of cadres, both of which groups are bureaucrats, literate and disproportionately male and share some affinities with the country’s history of paternalistic and culturally assimilationist rule. One also needs to be apprised of the continuing ability of the state to recruit to its ranks people who are cultural nationalists and who feel that it is through state service that these goals are best to be realized. In addition, the state itself is subject to the diverse cultural pressures and social fissures to which intellectuals, in their writings about folk religion, give voice. The state’s own investment in research projects that highlight the purportedly ancient, place-based and socially integrative functions of goddess worship reflects the fact that the state in Vietnam has itself become increasingly urbanized, staffed by people who share the dislocations and cultural anxieties of those based in the economic strongholds and tumultuous cultural contact zones of the big cities. Rather than seeing in cultural nationalist readings of such religious symbols a ‘popular’ realm beyond politics, perhaps one can appreciate how they figure in the articulation of social differences including those which divide the state apparatus.

Given the commercial imperatives that inform the work of cultural interpretation and the concentration of the benefits of such work in urban centers, one cannot simply reduce the production of knowledge about these goddesses to a cultural nationalist backlash against them. The books about these goddesses are very often themselves gorgeously packaged and highly priced commodities that can earn their writers, institutes and publishers a considerable income. They are spun off as journal articles that win the writer a handsome advance. Accounts spiced by poignant nostalgia for a lost way of life are viable and marketable in the Vietnamese cultural marketplace. The expert knowledge of folklorists and ethnologists is also in demand in the tourist and development industries and their academic writings are a cachet to earning consultancies and contracts. The publication of books about far-flung rural-based folk goddesses also contributes to the delocalization of ritual and cultural authority away from the agents and mediators located in the vicinity of the goddesses’ shrines and into the city where the research institutes, publishing houses and newspaper offices that employ folklorists and ethnologists are located. This represents the delocalization of that knowledge as an urban product, which then circulates back to the shrines as authorized knowledge. The knowledge industry in which these intellectuals are involved is a significant dimension of the urbanization of folk religion, which makes it impossible to find in such domain anything like the pristine antithesis of urban life.

At the same time, this celebration of rural-based goddesses as guarantors of collective identity has not been exclusive to those who are resident within Vietnam. For example, many among the diaspora of more than two million people are very interested in the works of folklorists and ethnologists and they number among the prime consumers of these works. To returned migrants with immense spending power, these not inexpensive works serve as packaged memorabilia, cultural souvenirs of an exotic experience. They also speak to people nostalgic for a homeland to which they feel some sense of connection and responsibility. Many overseas Vietnamese are bearers of unreconstructed cultural nationalist positions that date from 1960s and 1970s’ Sai Gon, Da Nang and Hue, when Vietnam was involved in a similar period of profound social dislocation and loss of cultural sovereignty. These nationalists again have access to the very same works many of them first bought in the late 1960s and early 1970s, thanks to cheap reprintings of these works in Vietnam. At the same time and possibly in combination with this, they have brought with them to Vietnam a reinforced sense of cultural particularism that is the product of difficulties encountered in integrating into their new societies and the surging back to a central position within those societies of particularist and exclusionary ethno-nationalist discourses.

One should not underestimate the possibilities for collaboration and reinforcement among these positions. A sense of duty towards the country and inheritance of an assimilationist, centrist, paternalist orientation towards culture is one legacy shared across national boundaries by cadres, intellectuals and many members of the diaspora. A view of goddesses which positions these symbols as cultural reference points and moral exemplars to a broader population living in Orange County or Ho Chi Minh City, reflects the key role that such symbols are put to by a cultural elite in securing appropriate cultural affiliations from sections of the broader population. Given that many people in these diverse locales are subject to similar cultural and economic processes and generational and gender pressures, the social context of their thinking about these goddesses can be quite similar. As urban-based migrants and exiles from the countryside, the nostalgia for rural traditions and focus on origins felt by the urbanised diaspora and Vietnam-based intellectuals has significant overlaps. Viewed from Sydney or Saigon the Vietnamese countryside as a place of nature, traditions, cultural purity and simplicity is framed through similar lenses. Their views of the countryside as a reservoir of traditional culture to be pleasurably consumed are shaped by a shared subject position as educated wealthy urban people who travel to the countryside as tourists, thanks to a disposable income and similar work structure that affords them holiday time. Very much fellow travellers, they meet and exchange ideas with each other while in transit to rural destinations and read the rural landscape through the same set of mass-mediated images that circulate in print, CDs, karaoke laser discs and video formats wherever Vietnamese people live.

Conceptions of these goddesses as touchstones of identity, cultural reference points and beacons of moral constancy speak to, and are shaped by, the very similar dilemmas people face in these different national contexts. For the same reasons that certain readings of these icons are shared across Vietnam’s borders, one finds a considerable variety of beliefs about them within the country. Views of these goddesses as magically potent patrons, business partners, underwriters of smuggling and escape from the country or, alternatively, as shameful marks of backwardness and ignorance, sit side by side with those expressed by folklorists and ethnologists that tie them to the expression or sustenance of the national collectivity. Such diversity of opinions reflects the complexity of the society in which these goddesses are located just as it suggests the inability of the state to constrain a unified reading of cultural practice. These goddesses’ role as markers of a range of status, ethnic, gender, occupational and class distinctions also reminds us that there are more subtle borders than those of state/non-state membership or of national territory to which these goddesses give expression. Such plurality of interpretations points to the multiplicity of social concerns that animate religious practice and underlines the need to carefully attend to the time and the place in which interpretations of goddesses are situated.


(1.) I would like to thank Andy Kipnis, Nicholas Tapp, David Marr, Andrew McWilliam, Lene Pederson and Tamara Jacka who made helpful comments on drafts of this work.

(2.) For discussions about the role of female spirits in the delineation of ethnic, gendered and occupational distinctions in Vietnamese society see Taylor (2002).

(3.) This could not be further from the sneering dismissal of Tran Van Giau, a former party leader in the south, who mockingly attributed the rich profusion of local religions in the Mekong delta to the unusual fertility of its soil (1996: 508).

(4.) See also Toan Anh (1997: 109). This assertion was perhaps first and certainly most famously put by the French ethnographer Father Leopold Cadiere (1958).

(5.) This recuperation of female spirits as autochthonous expressions contrasts markedly with what was, until recently, the most common interpretation of female spirit worship in Vietnam: as an imported Taoist practice, compromised by its Chinese origins, yet also presenting an intriguing alternative to Confucian patriarchy and elite court culture.

(6.) For a discussion of the ways in which Communist Party conservatives conceptualised global integration in the 1990s, see Taylor (2001:132-4).

(7.) Authoritative religious commentator Dang Nghiem Van similarly debunked mediumship in Hanoi as an unfortunate practice of those wishing to profit from others’ credulity and lamented the commercialization of religious practice (Dang Nghiem Van 1998).

(8.) Resolution on culture promulgated at the Fifth Plenum of the Eighth Party Congress in 1996.

(9.) Notable exceptions to the masculine bias in commentary on goddesses include works by Thai Thi Bich Lien (1998) and Do Thi Hao and Mai Thi Ngoc Chuc (1984).


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Philip Taylor

Anthropology, Australian National University

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