Tuesday, June 4, 2013


                                                   by Jim Goodman

Liẽu Hạnh, Phủ Tây Hồ
    In the third lunar month the festival schedule for northern Vietnam kicks off with a ten-day program at Phủ Giầy temple, Vũ Bạn village, near Nam Định city. It includes traditional chèo drama in the evenings and several other events.  But the main feature is the continuous hầu bóng dance performances in honor of the deity honored in the temple—Liễu Hạnh, the top-ranking member in the pantheon of Holy Mothers.  She is the focus of a cult developed in Vietnam’s feudal period, a cult that has survived every challenge from royal disdain to the secular influences of modern times, a truly indigenous cult that has no counterpart anywhere in Asia.
    The 16th century was a chaotic time to live in the Red River Delta.  A civil war between the Mạc family who had usurped the throne and the Lê family who sought their own restoration periodically raged across the countryside. Armies trampled the crops, confiscated the food, took away the young men for their armies and conscripted others for building their fortifications.  Buddha, Quan Âm, Taoist gods and the village guardian spirits seemed to have all become helpless.   The people began craving new deities to aid them in these chaotic and dangerous times.
bà đông with flaming incense
    The most prominent and enduring of the people’s new spiritual allies was Liẽu Hạnh.  According to legends she was the daughter of the Taoist Jade Emperor.  At a heavenly banquet hosted by her father, in a fit of anger she broke a jade cup containing an elixir of immortality.  As punishment, her father sent her down to earth, to be born in a poor family in Ý Yên district, Hà Nam province. She grew up, got married, bore a son at 18, died at 21 and returned to Heaven.
     Having enjoyed her stint as a mortal she beseeched her father to let her return.  So she was reborn as Liễu Hạnh in Nam Định province, one of the major battlegrounds in the war at that time between the Mạc and the Lê-Trịnh armies.  She grew up beautiful and intelligent and married a poor student who was the reincarnation of the husband she had in her first spell on earth.  She is said to have traveled widely throughout the north, something women rarely did in those days, and to have composed poems in the company of Confucian scholars.
young bà đông
    After her death she was entombed in Phủ Giầy, Nam Định.  But she is said to have been reborn once more, this time in Sòng Sơn district, Thanh Hoá, and to have visited many places in that province and Nghệ An.  At the end of her third incarnation she returned to permanent residence in Heaven, but periodically made secret journeys to Earth to reward the virtuous and punish the wicked.  It was the latter trait that distinguished her from the principal Buddhist deity Quan Âm, who never brought harm to anyone.
    Another, obviously Buddhist version portrays Liễu Hạnh as a rebel who refuses to return to her celestial abode after her 21 years exile on Earth.  She travels around the country stirring up passions everywhere, arousing royal ire and eventually the Buddha’s intervention.  He persuades her to change her behavior and follow the Way of the Buddha.  As a result, she becomes a Buddhist goddess as well, associated with births and fertility.
    Thus Liễu Hạnh became connected with all the religious belief-systems prevailing in the country.   A member of a celestial Taoist family, she was also a Buddhist deity.  Born into poverty she grew up intelligent enough to impress Confucian scholars.  And as the most important Holy Mother, she was part of a pantheon that included deities from the northern ethnic minorities and the ancient Chăm goddess Po Nagar.
The cult of Liễu Hạnh and the Holy Mothers never became a religion.  Even now it has no organization, no order of priests or anything similar, no missionaries trying to spread the faith.  Access to Liễu Hạnh is via a medium, usually but not always female, who becomes one in much the same way shamans come to take on their roles in pre-industrial societies.  An inexplicable illness strikes the person.  No medicine or remedy works.  Then someone already a medium comes to inform the afflicted person the illness comes from the spirits, who are demanding that person become a medium.  Agreement leads to instant recovery and a new commitment for life.

Temples to Liễu Hạnh started going up in Thanh Hoá at the end of the 16th century.  The restored Lê government, distrusting any new religious cult, ordered them demolished.  Epidemics and other natural disasters ensued, causing the superstitious, as well as members of the Lê Court, to believe they were the wrath of the offended Liễu Hạnh.  The Court ordered the temples rebuilt and later erected the Tây Hồ Palace, on a finger of land jutting out into West Lake, as Liễu Hạnh’s place of worship in the capital itself.
ông đông performance
keeping it up with rice liqauor breaks
    To contact the Holy Mothers the medium goes into trance, real or simulated, and dances before their altar, changing costumes to incarnate different members of the pantheon. The performance known as hâu bong, which means “service to the spirits [of the deities, in this case the Holy Mothers].”  Vietnamese also refer to it as lên dông, “falling into trance,” while the medium carrying out the performance is called ba dông, if a woman, or ông dông if male.  Attendants sit to the side and provide the elaborate, colorful costumes and props for each skit.  (Sets of these costumes are sold on Hanoi’s Hàng Quạt.)  The dancer maintains energy for the hours-long performance by periodically drinking a cup of rice-spirits, smoking cigarettes and chewing betel.  Musicians on two-string lute and small drums sit to the side, accompanying a singer whose soft, lilting, melodious tunes greatly enhance the entertainment aspect of the medium’s performance.
Holy Mothers images
    The choreography for each skit is similar, though the performance depends on the nature of the deity being incarnated as well as the personality of the dancer, variations which are easily apparent when, as at Phủ Giầy’s festival, several dancers perform at the same time, each before a separate altar.  The most popular prop is a pair of flaming bundles of incense, which the dancer twirls in circles.  Halberds, swords and umbrellas are among other props used.  The dancer also periodically hands out to the crowd of devotees the items piled up at the altar as offerings to the temple.  These include fruits, soft drinks, cans of beer, crackers, cookies, cigarettes and crisp, clean currency notes of 1000, 5000 or 10.000 đồng and one U.S. dollar.  Sometimes the medium distributes the money by flinging the notes into the air above the devotees’ heads.  Other times attendants pass them around.
different props for different goddesses
    Besides the show at Phủ Giầy, hầu bóng performances take place at many smaller temples, both inside Hanoi and in the countryside, the third lunar month because that is Liễu Hạnh’s birth and death month.  Hầu bọng performances are part of several festivals in the eighth lunar month, too.  And anytime a devotee wants to call upon Liễu Hạnh for a favor and is ready to sponsor the performance, and many still do, including the nouveaux riches, a hầu bóng dancer is ready to perform.  It could happen anytime anywhere. 
    So the next time you are out wandering through the back streets of Hanoi, or any big northern city, and you happen to hear some enchanting music coming out of a little temple, take a look inside.  You might be witnessing a four hundred-year-old custom, persisting into contemporary times, just as popular, authentically Vietnamese and downright entertaining as it has always been.


distributing rewards to the devotees  

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