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‘Following Uncle Hồ to save the nation’: Empowerment, legitimacy, and nationalistic aspirations in a Vietnamese new religious movement

  • Chung Van Hoang

This article investigates new religious movements that have emerged in post-Renovation Vietnam. The formation and development of movements that worship Hồ Chí Minh will be examined through the Way of the Jade Buddha. My analysis of this indigenous movement will discuss its controversial attempts to establish communication with the spirit of Hồ Chí Minh. It is argued that the movement is a channel through which people can empower themselves, seek legitimacy, and promote nationalistic aspirations. The emergence of such movements demonstrates the ongoing millenarian dream of social transformation in the face of the challenges of international integration and the tensions caused by maritime conflicts with China.

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1 See Philip Taylor, Goddess on the rise: Pilgrimage and popular religion in Vietnam (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2004); Pham Quynh Phuong, Hero and deity: Tran Hung Dao and the resurgence of popular religion in Vietnam (Chiang Mai: Mekong Press, 2009); Salemink, Oscar, ‘Embodying the nation: Mediumship, ritual, and the national imagination’, Journal of Vietnamese Studies 3, 3 (2008): 269. On the spirit and ancestor world, see Kirsten Endres and Andrea Lauser, ‘Introduction: Multivocal arenas of modern enchantment in Southeast Asia’, in Engaging the spirit world: Popular beliefs and practices in modern Southeast Asia, ed. Kirsten Endres and Andrea Lauser (New York: Berghahn, 2011), p. 4; Endres, Kirsten, ‘Engaging the spirits of the dead: Soul-calling rituals and the performative construction of efficacy’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14, 4 (2008): 755–73.

2 Hoang, Chung, ‘New religious movements in Vietnamese media discourse since 1986: A critical approach’, Journal of Australian Religion Studies Review 3 (2012): 293315; Chung Van Hoang, ‘Alternative pathways to heaven: Religious reconfiguration and new religious movements in contemporary Vietnam’ (Ph.D. diss., La Trobe University, Melbourne, 2014), pp. 70–78.

3 The term ‘Ngọc Phật’ (the Jade Buddha) is not new and appeared in earlier Hòa Hảo Buddhist prophecies (sấm giảng). According to these prophecies, the Jade Emperor commanded that the Jade Buddha be sent down to earth to save good people and punish evil-doers. However, the ‘Jade Buddha’ has a different meaning in contemporary new religious groups where it is used to indicate Hồ Chí Minh's spirit.

4 Pseudonyms are used for all the people that I interviewed and talked to for this article.

5 Malarney, Shaun Kingsley, ‘The emerging cult of Ho Chi Minh? A report on religious innovation in contemporary northern Vietnam’, Asian Cultural Studies 22 (1996): 121–31; Pham Quynh Phuong, ‘Hero and deity: Empowerment and contestation in the veneration of Trần Hưng Đạo in contemporary Vietnam’ (Ph.D diss., La Trobe University, 2005), pp. 252–63.

6 Ban Dân vận Trung ương [Central Commission for Mass Mobilisation], Hỏi đáp một số vấn đề về đạo lạ ở nước ta hiện nay [Q&A of some issues of strange religious pathways in our country at present] (Hanoi: Religion Publishing House, 2007), p. 17.

7 See the definition of a legal religious organisation in the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, The Party-State's legal documents of religion and belief (Hanoi: Religion Publishing House, 2012), p. 32.

8 For the Party's official definition of ‘superstition’ since 1975, see Norton, Barley, ‘The moon remembers Uncle Ho: The politics of music and mediumship in northern Vietnam’, British Journal of Ethnomusicology 11, 1 (2002): 75.

9 The adjective ‘mê tín’ is used to refer to someone who ‘excessively and unconditionally believes in supernatural symbols, imaginary beings and creations which do not conform to natural rules. This belief causes him or her the loss of rational thinking and consciousness thus causes negative effects on individuals, families, and communities in terms of health, time, money and even on life and society’. See Ban Dân vận Trung ương, Hỏi đáp một số vấn đề, pp. 10–11.

10 Trương Văn Chung, ‘Về thuật ngữ “Tôn giáo mới”’ [Regarding the concept ‘new religion’], in Postmodernism and new religious movements, ed. Trương Văn Chung (Hồ Chí Minh City: VNU-HCM Publishing House, 2014), p. 147.

11 Phóng, Phạm Văn and Nhụ, Nguyễn Văn, ‘Nhìn nhận về ‘đạo lạ’ ở nước ta trong những năm gần đây’ [A view of ‘strange religious pathways’ in our country in recent years], Tạp chí Nghiên cứu Tôn giáo [Religious Studies Review] 10, 9 (2008): 49.

12 Hưng, Đỗ Quang, ‘Hiện tượng tôn giáo mới: Mấy vấn đề lý luận và thực tiễn’ [New religious phenomena: Some theoretical and practical issues], Tạp chí Nghiên cứu Tôn giáo 5 (2001): 11.

13 Đỗ Quang Hưng, ‘Hiện tượng tôn giáo mới’: 11–12.

14 Võ Minh Tuấn, ‘Những hiện tượng tôn giáo mới ở Việt Nam’ [New religious phenomena in Vietnam], in Tôn giáo ở Hà Nội [Religion in Hanoi], ed. Đặng Nghiêm Vạn (Hanoi: Hà Nội Publishing House, 2001), pp. 799–801.

15 Ban Dân vận Trung ương, Hỏi đáp một số vấn đề, pp. 33–4.

16 Đỗ Quang Hưng, ‘Một số nhận định về ‘Hiện tượng tôn giáo mới’ ở Việt Nam hiện nay’ [Some notes on ‘new religious phenomena’ in contemporary Vietnam], in Postmodernism and new religious movements, p. 236.

17 Ban Dân vận Trung ương, Hỏi đáp một số vấn đề, p. 36.

18 Nguyễn Tấn Hùng, ‘Chủ nghĩa hậu hiện đại: Một số quan điểm triết học và triết gia tiêu biểu’ [Postmodernism: Some typical philosophies and philosophers], in Postmodernism and new religious movements, p. 15.

19 Tuấn, Nguyễn Quốc, ‘Về Hiện tượng Tôn giáo mới’ [Regarding new religious phenomena], Tạp chí Nghiên cứu Tôn giáo 1 (2012): 1115.

20 Đỗ Quang Hưng, ‘New religious phenomena’: 12.

21 See, for example, Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Millenarianism and peasant politics in Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983); Tạ Chí Đại Trường, Thần, Người và đất Việt [Spirits, human beings, and the Viet land] (Westminster, CA: Van Nghe, 1989); Sergei Blagov, Caodaism: Vietnamese traditionalism and its leap into modernity (New York: Nova Science, 2001); Pascal Bourdeaux, ‘Những ghi chép từ một tài liệu đầu tiên bằng tiếng Pháp thuật lại sự ra đời của một giáo phái ở làng Hòa Hảo (15–3–1940) [Notes from the first French text relating to the birth of a cult in Hòa Hảo village (15 Mar. 1940)], Tạp chí Nghiên cứu Tôn giáo 6 (2005): 36–42. Literally, ‘ông’ means ‘an old man’ and ‘đạo’ means ‘a religious pathway’. These men would speak to any person they met about their own ethical and religious ideas.

22 Taylor, Goddess on the rise, pp. 23–56.

23 Benoît de Tréglodé, Heroes and revolution in Vietnam: 1948–1964, trans. Claire Duiker (Singapore: NUS Press in association with IRASEC, 2012), p. 307.

24 Malarney, ‘The emerging cult of Ho Chi Minh?’: 129–30.

25 Pham Quynh Phuong, Hero and deity, p. 163.

26 Phương, Phạm Quỳnh and Eipper, Chris, ‘Mothering and fathering the Vietnamese: Religion, gender, and national identity’, Journal of Vietnamese Studies 4, 1 (2009): 73.

27 Maclean, Ken, ‘Book review: Benoît de Tréglodé, Heroes and revolution in Vietnam’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 45, 2 (2014): 308.

28 Hue-Tam Ho Tai, ‘Monumental ambiguity: The state commemoration of Ho Chi Minh’, in Essays into Vietnamese pasts, ed. Keith W. Taylor and John K. Whitmore (Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, 1995), p. 278.

29 Malarney, Shaun Kingsley, ‘Culture, virtue, and political transformation in contemporary Northern Viet Nam’, Journal of Asian Studies 56, 4 (1997): 918.

30 Malarney, ‘The emerging cult’: 128.

31 Pham Quynh Phuong, Hero and deity, p. 166.

32 Malarney, ‘Culture, virtue, and political transformation’: 918.

33 Pham Quynh Phuong, ‘Hero and deity: Empowerment and contestation’, p. 261.

34 ‘Spirit texts’ here refer to messages that a person claims to have received from ‘spiritual beings’ through dreams, their subconscious, or mediumistic practices. They are similar to texts received through ‘giáng bút’ (spirit writing) practices found in the South, especially in Caodaism and Hòa Hảo Buddhism, in the first half of the twentieth century. Such messages are also found in Chinese shamanic movements in Malaysia and China.

35 All of the translations are mine. It should be noted that Madam Xoan does not have official permission for these desktop-published booklets, hence they are technically illegal.

36 The script is written in ballpoint pen on ordinary notebook paper and is similar in form to Sino-Vietnamese characters (Nôm). Yet only Madam Xoan can read or write this script.

37 Most of the Society's spirit poems are written in thơ lục bát, a popular and much used Vietnamese verse form.

38 This is the indigenous Vietnamese belief in the spirits who reside in four different palaces: Heaven, Earth, Water, and Forest, which typically involves spirit possession.

39 Ban Dân vận Trung ương, Hỏi đáp một số vấn đề, p. 46.

40 Nguyễn Ngọc Phương, ‘Hiện tượng thờ cúng Hồ Chí Minh: Quá trình hình thành, đặc điểm thờ cúng và bản chất tôn giáo’ [The cult of Hồ Chí Minh: Formation, features and religious nature] (M.A. diss., College of Social Sciences and Humanities, Hanoi National University, 2014), p. 59.

41 Interview with Mr Danh from Hanoi, 26 July 2010, Hải Dưoơng.

42 Sang Taek Lee, Religion and social formation in Korea: Minjung and millenarianism (New York: Mouton de Gruyter 1996), pp. 94–8.

43 Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Millenarianism and peasant politics in Vietnam, p. 107; Sang Taek Lee, Religion and social formation, p. 23.

44 Interview with Mr Phạm Khiêm, 1 Sept. 2010, Hanoi.

45 Tạ Chí Đại Trường, Spirits, human beings, and the Viet land, p. 292.

46 Đỗ Quang Hưng, ‘Suy nghĩ về Tôn giáo ở Nam Bộ thời cận đại’ [Thinking about religion in the South in the near modern times], Tạp chí Nghiên cứu Tôn giáo 1 (2000): 15.

47 Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Millenarianism and peasant politics in Vietnam, pp. 156–7; Blagov, Caodaism, pp. xi–xii.

48 Peter van der Veer and Hartmut Lehmann, ‘Introduction’, in Nation and religion: perspectives on Europe and Asia, ed. Peter van der Veer and Hartmut Lehmann (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 7.

49 Hy Luong, Van, ‘The restructuring of Vietnamese Nationalism, 1954–2006’, Pacific Affairs 80, 3 (2007): 445–7.

50 Spohn, Willfried, ‘Multiple modernity, nationalism and religion: A global perspective’, Current Sociology 51, 3–4 (2003): 265.

51 During the 1990s, some emerging religious groups were heavily suppressed or closely watched by the local authorities and negatively reported by the media. For more details, see Chung Hoang, ‘New religious movements’: 298.

52 See Hue-Tam Ho Tai, ‘Monumental ambiguity’; Norton, ‘The moon remembers Uncle Ho’; Pham Quynh Phuong, Hero and deity.

53 Liên, Claire Trần Thị, ‘Communist state and religious policy in Vietnam: A historical perspective’, Hague Journal on the Rule of Law 5, 2 (2013): 242.

54 Chung Hoang, ‘New religious movements’.

The author would like to thank La Trobe University, Melbourne, for funding his research on new religious groups in Vietnam between 2009 and 2014. A special thank you to Dr Barley Norton from the University of London who provided valuable comments and suggestions on a draft of this article.

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Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0022-4634
  • EISSN: 1474-0680
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