Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Joseph Rock in Northwest Yunnan

                                  by Jim Goodman

dawn over Dayan, Lijiang's old city
       After a long and arduous journey overland starting from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, up through northeast Burma, into Xishuangbanna and then through Simao Prefecture to Dali and further north, Joseph F. Rock arrived in Lijiang in spring of 1922.  As a professional botanist who had made a solid reputation for himself working in Hawaii, Rock had an assignment from the U.S. Agriculture Department to collect specimens of a blight-resistant chestnut tree, to help alleviate a blight crisis with the tree in the American species.  He was also to collect seeds of any other previously unknown ornamental or useful plant, native birds and small mammals.   For Rock, the job gave him a chance to go to China, a long cherished dream.
typical red wooden Dayan houses
one of the canals running through Dayan
       Lijiang lay on a high-altitude plain (2400 meters) dominated at the north end by Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5596 meters), its heavily wooded slopes filled with thousands of different plant and flower species.  It was certainly an attractive place to work.  But although he frequently visited Dayan, the old town of Lijiang, for picking up supplies and taking photographs, he took up residence in Nguluko, a village close to the mountain and the last settlement north of Dayan. 
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain  and the Dry  Plain above Lijiang
       Fascinated by China since his teenage yehen he was still in Austria, (he had already learned to read the language) Rock was there at last, in the peak of health in his late 30s.  It wasn’t a very Chinese part of China, though, for most inhabitants were Naxi, a separate minority with their own distinct traditions.  Eventually, when he completed his botanical assignment, he got more involved in recording and studying Naxi customs, culture, history and especially their unique dongba tradition. 
       The dongbas were a kind of shaman, versed in myriad ceremonies minor and major, who read their prayers with the use of books with a mostly pictographic script, unique in Yunnan.  Over time, Rock with his meticulous devotion to detail, collected the books, learned to read them and translated many.  He also wrote a long and detailed two-volume history of Lijiang.
Dayan waterway
       Rock enjoyed both his work and that he was doing it alone, on his own terms.  He got along fine with his Naxi neighbors, learned their language, too, employing many of them, but did not develop; anything like friendship with them.  He taught them how to collect, preserve and press plants, taxidermy on wildlife specimens, how to cook Western-style food for him, assist his photography sessions and photo processing, but never hung out in a tavern for a drink with them or otherwise be socially engaged.  He was kind to them, looked after their health and family matters, but always viewed them paternally, likening the villagers to children, as he wrote in his diary, unsophisticated and innocent.
old town street
       Lijiang was not the only place with chestnut trees and when Rock felt his work crew was trained enough he took them on botanical caravans to Tengchong, Dehong and northern Burma.  Aside from his botanical work, the journey whetted Rock’s appetite for exploration.  When his work for the Department of Agriculture concluded Rock got jobs from National Geographic for organizing expeditions of discovery to remote parts of western China. 
Rock's photo of a Dayan market day
       Beyond Lijiang he traveled up to Deqing through Shangrila County and the forests of the Baima Mountains.  From Deqing he turned south through the Lancangjiang canyon to the Christian settlement of Cizhong.  From there he ascended the Biluo Mountains, crossed the crest of the range and descended to Dimaluo in Gongshan County.  Mountains still dominated the landscape, peaks of the parallel Gaoligongshan Range across the Nu River already visible. 
       It was certainly a photogenic route and Rock stopped often to take dramatic photos.  He chose his angles carefully and produced wonderful shots of scenery, hilltop churches, remote temples and local lifestyles, like caravan ponies being sent across the swirling rapids of the Nu River on rope-bridges.  
rural road in autumn
village north of Dayan
       Technically speaking, it was quite a chore not only to set up and take the photographs, but also to process and print them in the field.  The camera was big and bulky, required a sturdy tripod and used large plates with a very low film speed, and thus long exposures.  This was fine for still-life landscape shots, but for portraits Rock had to ask his subject to remain absolutely still for half a minute or more to avoid any possibility of blur.
Tibetan village, Deqing County
       On these expeditions Rock brought a portable darkroom tent where he developed the negatives and later made prints.  He dried them by pinning them to lines strung across the shadier parts of his campground.  If the expedition were to be a long one, he sometimes dispatched a couple of his workers to take the plates and prints back to Lijiang.
       Never in a hurry, fascinated by everything exotic he encountered, he also traveled in grand style, intentionally designed to impress folks along the way.  Besides the contingent of workers and aides, the caravans included armed guards.  These were turbulent times in southwest China, with warlord armies and local armed gangs on the loose.  He brought a portable rubber bathtub so he could stay clean and a fully outfitted kitchen for his cook to prepare his Western food.  His meals were served on a proper dining table with Western chairs and Rock always dressed for dinner, even though he rarely dined with a guest, and listened to Western operas and symphonies on his portable phonograph.
Baimashan forest, Deqing County
       He was passionate about detailing everything he witnessed, eager to learn the precise meanings and intentions of the rituals, for example.  At times he included so much detailed esoteric information that his editors felt that they had to take much of it out.  Rock fumed, but in the end worked out some sort of modus vivendi with National Geographic.  They sponsored more expeditions to even further remote places in Gansu, Sichuan and Qinghai, where he discovered new unknown mountains and recorded elaborate Tibetan rituals.
Meiile Snow Mountain group, highest in Yunnan
       All that suddenly came to an end with the Wall Street crash at the end of 1929 and the beginning of the Depression.   National Geographic could no longer financially support expeditions like Rock’s.  The explorer lost his job. 
         Rock returned to his Nguluko home and absorbed himself even more in Naxi history, traditions and religion.  In his view the village dongba tradition, unique to Naxi culture, was in danger of extinction.  Rock was already familiar with it and had written one National Geographic article about it early in his career.  Now he decided to record and preserve for posterity everything he could learn about this tradition, from the purpose and meaning of every ritual detail to the deciphering of the manuscripts.
Rock's portrait of a Naxi woamn
Rock's portrait of a dongba in action
       He was on the alert for any kind of dongba rite anywhere in the vicinity and was there with his camera and notebooks.  Some were simple, involving a single dongba and lasting less than a day.  Others, like special funerals, required a group of them and a series of rites, maybe even with dances, that carried on for several days and nights. 
Lion Mountain rising above Lug Lake
       In his eagerness to get everything exactly right he won the confidence of his informants.  Once, very early in his studies, the performing dongbas asked him not to photograph the rites so as not to upset the attendant spirits.  Rock put away his camera and just took notes.  When it was over, and they agreed that the spirits were no longer around, he persuaded them to re-enact the rites for his camera.
       Not many Westerners were ever in Lijiang in the 1930s, other than a few temporary travelers.  Dayan had two Christian missionaries and a church, but they made no converts the entire time they were there and Rock usually avoided them.  Peter Goullart, a White Russian emigrant, was the only other Western resident.  He had a government job forming co-operatives and personally a naturally gregarious personality who enjoyed socializing with the locals in the Dayan wine shops.  Rock, of course, was the opposite, quite content at being a loner with his own worthy mission. 
Rock's retreat at Lugu Lake
       Rock viewed Dayan as a place already compromised culturally by Chinese Han influence. He fretted the same would happen to Naxi culture in the villages, with the demise of the dongba tradition.  He went to Dayan for supplies or research or photography, but for social calls only occasionally when he felt unbearably lonely and craved some time with fellow Westerns.  The encounter might just be for a dinner or an overnight stay and then we was back to his research work.    He got along with Goullart, but didn’t cultivate a friendship with him.  Rock also knew Edgar Snow, the American reporter covering the Chinese Revolution, and traveled through central Yunnan with him.  Snow was a bit of a libertine compared to Rock, and his willingness to indulge in some of China’s illicit pleasures shocked the rather sanctimonious Joseph Rock.
A Yongshan and his family
       With his dongba informants Rock kept a strictly professional researcher relationship.  In all his time in northwest Yunnan the only true friend he made was A Yongshan, the tusi (local magistrate) of Yongning, who lived on Nyorophu Island in Lugu Lake, northeast of Lijiang and the most beautiful body of water in Yunnan.  As the tusi’s guest Rock stayed in the island palace in an environment of peace and natural wonders, perfect for working on his manuscripts and enhanced afterwards by his long and interesting conversations with his host.
       The majority of Yongning District’s inhabitants are Mosuo, a branch of the Naxi minority nationality.  The primary difference between them is that the Mosuo are still mostly matrilineal, with property owned by the women and passed on to the daughters.  Mongol armies conquered the area in the 13th century and Kubilai Khan left some of his officers behind to govern the territory.  These men married Mosuo women, but within their clan retained the Mongol patrilineal inheritance system.  This clan, the A, was the smallest of the five Mosuo clans, so that matrilineality still characterized nearly 90% of the Mosuo.
self-portrait in native garb
from the northern shore-- Nyoropho (top)
       With his innate aristocratic, mandarin prejudices, Rock considered the Mosuo system primitive.  The Mosuo had no marriage ceremony to formalize sexual relationships, employing the ‘walking marriage’ custom wherein the male only comes to the female at night, returns to his own mother’s house in the morning, and all children belong to the mother’s side.  This left the woman free to change partners to try to get pregnant, since it didn’t matter who the father was.  Rock simply assumed that meant they were naturally promiscuous.
       Rock didn’t go to Lugu Lake to research the Mosuo, anyway, but as a place to relax and put his Naxi research findings in order.  From Nyoropho he had a direct view across the 2700 meters-high lake to Lion Mountain, rising to over 4000 meters on the northwest shore.  He rarely left the island on his sojourns there and relished the relationship he had with A Yongshan, his best friend in China.  Unfortunately, this friend died in the summer of 1933 and Rock never found an equivalent replacement.
witness to a dongba rite
Rock took solace in his work, for he was convinced of its importance.  Other scholars were specializing in Tibetan studies but he himself was the only one working with the Naxi tradition.  Besides, he didn’t particularly like Tibetans; interesting rituals but as a people dirty and uncouth.  He didn’t like the Yi in the mountains, either, partly for the same reasons but also for their slave system.  He was never inclined to visit them, but given Rock’s mandarin pretensions, one wonders what might have happened had he visited a village and been hosted in grand style by a Black Yi aristocrat.  Maybe he would have learned about the bimaw, the Yi dongba equivalent, and the Yi books with a separate alphabet, covering Yi myth and history, legends, prayers, riddles and pharmacopoeia.  A change of opinion, then?
       Rock quite liked Naxi people, however, and maintained friendly relationships with his staff and his neighbors.  The aim he had set for himself, to record the entire history of the Naxi nationality, translate the dongba manuscripts, record and explain all the traditional rituals, was enormous.  And in view of the cultural threat coming from modernization and assimilation, Rock was in a race against time.  He devoted as much time and energy to his projects as humanly possible, until the new post-Revolution government in August 1949, forced Rock to pack up his boxes of research and leave China.  He was never allowed back.
       Just as Rock had foreseen, changes soon overtook the old ways.  The dongba tradition was all but forcibly wiped out, surviving only in remote villages.  Decades later, with the launch of the Reform Era, minority culture was no longer disparaged.  It didn’t mean every ancient practice revived, but it did enhance pride and interest in ethnic culture and history.  For the Naxi, with a very unique history and culture, the prime source of information is the work of Joseph F. Rock, the prescient preserver of their ancient traditions, a man who worked passionately to achieve just this kind of legacy.

Dayan 45 years after Rock's departure
                                                                   * * *           
.  for more on Joseph Rock, Lijiang and the Naxi, see my e-book Children of the Jade Dragon

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Land of Opportunity: Chinese Migration to Southern Vietnam.

                                                                      by Jim Goodman

modern Chinese temple in Chợ Lợn, Hô Chi Minh City
       With the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, many Chinese who were not confident about their future under their new Manchu overlords, opted to leave China altogether for overseas relocation.  A popular choice was Faifo, today’s Hội An, a thriving port in Central Vietnam that already had a resident Chinese community since the mid-15th century.   In 1567 the Ming Court legalized overseas trade to the south, though not to Japan, and more Chinese arrived to set up trade, joining the Japanese and Vietnamese already there.

street in old Hội An
       The new wave of immigrants after 1644 made the Chinese community the largest in Faifo.  Known as the Minh Hương (Ming loyalists), they first moved into Trần Phụ and Lê Lợi Streets  and later organized themselves into separate communities linked by place of origin in China.  Each built its own temple and communal house, still in use and among the city’s main tourist attractions.  The principal Chinese trade item was silk, which mostly went to the Japanese in exchange for silver. 
       At that time Vietnam was divided.  Though the Lê Emperor was the figurehead ruler of the nation, two families, both from Thanh Hoá province, formed competing governments.  The Trịnh Lords ruled the north down to what is now Quảng Bình, while the Nguyễn Lords governed the lands south all the way to Nha Trang.  Hostilities between the two sides broke out periodically for two generations.  Four Trịnh invasions failed and one Nguyễn counter-invasion also failed.  In 1672 the two sides signed a truce and established a boundary between them that remained intact for over a century.
Chinese assembly hall in Hội An
       Faifo was the Nguyễn regime’s first and most important port.  During the trading season the city hosted great fairs featuring both luxury goods like silk, aromatic woods and jewelry and local products like sugar, pepper, rattan, cinnamon, musk, eaglewood, lac and gold.  Taxes collected on Faifo’s commerce, while deliberately moderate, nevertheless were the single biggest source of state revenue.
       Meanwhile, back in China, though the Manchus had declared a new dynasty, they did not yet directly control all of the country.  In the south they made agreements with ex-Ming generals to rule on behalf of Beijing with a large degree of local autonomy, even the right to collect taxes of their own and keep their armed units.  Eventually the local governors decided they could ignore the Qing Court entirely and revolted in the 1670s.  Under the young, untested new sovereign the Kang Xi Emperor, Qing forces subdued all the revolts and extinguished the last Ming restoration attempt.
Chinese temple courtyard, Hội An
       In the waning years of the revolt a group of 3000 armed Ming soldiers arrived in the Nguyển Lords’ realm seeking asylum.  For security reasons the Nguyễn Court did not want them settled anywhere near the capital.  And to refuse them asylum was to invite trouble.  So the Court split them into two groups and dispatched them to Biên Hoà and Mỹ Tho in the Mekong Delta.  It didn’t actually have any authority to do this, for the Nguyễn state’s borders then were only as far south as today’s Khánh Hòa province.

Hà Tiên harbor

Nominally, the Delta was part of Cambodia, but it was largely swamp back then, with most Khmer settlements near the mouth of the Mekong, too far for direct government control and so autonomous from the beginning.  Moreover, instability at the Cambodian Court was the norm, as royal factions fought each other for power.  Too weak to prevail on their own they sought allies from Siam or Vietnam.  In 1679 a pro-Vietnamese king ruled in Udong, Cambodia’s capital, so getting permission to settle the Chinese in Biên Hoà and Mỹ Tho was no problem.
       Now that the truce with the Trịnh regime was in effect, the Nguyễn Lords began turning their ambitions to the south.  Vietnamese had just started clearing land in Đông Nai and the Nguyễn Court hoped the admission of Chinese settlers would enhance river commerce and provide stability for further Vietnamese immigration.  In Biên Hoà this worked out according to expectations, but in Myỹ Tho Yang Yandi set up a pirate regime that preyed on all commerce.  He was later killed by his subordinate Huang Jin, who built a fort at Mỹ Tho and continued to harass river traffic.

Chinese temple in Hà Tiên
imported deity--the Jade Emperor, Hô Chí Minh City

       In 1686 the Nguyễn Court dispatched 6000 soldiers to defeat Huang Jin’s forces and took control of the fort, which became their base for eliminating the piracy threat.  In 1698 they demolished it.  That year the regime also took formal control of Biên Hoà and Prey Nokor, to be renamed Saigon, while more Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants arrived.  Many of the Minh Hương took Vietnamese wives and learned to speak Vietnamese, while retaining their Chinese identity and customs. 
Tuê Thánh Chinese temple, Hô Chí Minh City
       A large proportion of the Minh Hương came from Fujian, one of the provinces in the Revolt of the Three Feudatories.   Another group of Ming Chinese exiles, from Guangdong and led by Mạc Cưu, at first settled in eastern Cambodia and in 1700, with the permission of the Cambodian Court, Mạc Cưu founded a new city, called Hà Tiên, at what is now the southwestern tip of Vietnam.  With an excellent harbor, a mixed population of Chinese, Vietnamese, Khmer, Malay and Siamese, Hà Tiên became the most important port in the Gulf of Thailand.
temple interior, Chợ Lợn
      The third group of Chinese immigrants, called the Thanh Nhân, came during the 18th century, from different parts of south and central China.  They maintained the hair braids and clothing style of Qing China, did not intermarry with Vietnamese, nor learn their language.  They organized themselves in associations called bang, based on regional affiliations, and raised military units to keep the peace.  Saigon drew a great number of them and they were responsible for the city’s commercial growth.
       Among the three groups, the Minh Hương came closest to assimilation.  Some of them rose to become ministers and advisors in the Nguyễn Lords’ government.  Mạc Cưu’s faction from Guangdong became an early and faithful ally of the Nguyễn Court.  While the Thanh Nhân group stayed aloof from Vietnamese society, they were reliable Nguyễn allies.  Their armed units even put down an uprising led by a renegade messianic Lao prince near Mỹ Tho in 1731.  The Chinese had less interaction with the indigenous Khmer, but in general got along with them. 

herbal medicine ship, Chợ  Lợn
residential neighborhood, Chợ Lợn

The Mekong Delta continued to lure immigrants in the 18th century.  Chinese set up shops in other towns, like Sóc Trăng, Trà Vinh and Cần Thơ, while Vietnamese continued to migrate from Central Vietnam to drain swamps, build canals and clear new farmland.  They did not attempt to displace the Khmer, just moved into vacant land in their vicinity.  The Khmer were still the largest community in the Delta, but they had always been autonomous, self-contained communities.  Even when the Nguyễn took administrative control of the Khmer areas the Court left them pretty much as they were.
       The same could be said for the Vietnamese and Chinese communities.  The Delta, still largely wild land, was a patchwork of little autonomous areas, with their own military units that sometimes cooperated with the Nguyễn Lords’ regime, sometimes ignored it entirely.   Even the regime’s own military units often acted according to their own interests.
local commerce on the Saigon Rive

By allying with Cambodian royal factions in the endless succession quarrels, the Nguyễn regime could extract greater territorial concessions whenever their side won the contest.  But it never established the direct authority in the Delta that it enjoyed in central Vietnam.  Subject to its own palace intrigues, the Nguyễn system began collapsing in mid-century.  In 1771 the Tây Sơn Revolt commenced, named after the village in Bình Định province that was home to the three brothers who commanded it—Nguyen Nhạc, Nguyen Huệ and Nguyen Lữ.
       The Tây Sơn forces steadily advanced north, but halted short of Phu Xuân, the Nguyễn Lords’ capital near modern Huế.  Meanwhile, the Trịnh Lords broke the truce and in 1774 captured Phu Xuân.  The Nguyễn family fled to the Mekong Delta.  But the Trịnh forces retreated north later and the Tây Son took over the city.  In 1777 they sent an army into the Delta, shattered the Nguyễn defenses, captured and publicly executed every member of the Nguyễn royal family except for 14-year-old Prince Nguyễn Ánh.  After that the invaders returned to Phu Xuân.

modern architecture in Hô Chí Minh City
skyscrapers dominate Hô Chí Minh City

       For the next 25 years Nguyễn Anh patiently organized his restoration campaign.  His family had not really established a strong base in the Delta and he could only win support by arousing loyalty to him personally.  He did this by cultivating personal relationships with regional commanders and keeping promises to those who joined his cause, even surrendered Tây Sơn officers.  He had several reverses along the way, barely escaped with his life at one point, but eventually united the Mekong Delta people and marched north, took the Tây Sơn capital and established the new Nguyễn Dynasty in 1802.
       To a great extent the Tây Sơn aided his cause by their extremely harsh rule when they occupied the Delta.  Learning of his survival, in 1782 Tây Sơn forces invaded the Delta, advanced into Saigon and slaughtered at least 10,000 Chinese residents.  Their purpose was to crush the Nguyễn economy (Portuguese merchants in Saigon then were also murdered).  They’d done that before in Hội An and Đà Nẵng, but after this incident Chinese in the south threw all their support behind Nguyễn Ánh. 
the Chinese-built Clay Pagoda in Sóc Trăng
       Three years later the Tây Sơn returned to defeat a Siamese naval expedition in support of Nguyễn Ánh.  This time they left a residual military force to administer the region, so brutally as to alienate those parts of the population that had previously been unaffected.  Regional militias from all three major communities joined the Nguyễn side and helped expel the Tây Sơn in 1788 and marched all the way to Hanoi for his final victory.
       The new emperor took the name Gia Long and appointed one of his southern commanders to govern the Delta.  Chinese businesses revived and grew, though the Delta was still very under-populated and the Vietnamese not a majority there until well into the 19th century.  When the French took Cochinchina, as they called the Delta provinces, they promoted policies that favored the Chinese.  Along with the British and Russians, they had already forced on China the First Convention of Peking, which permitted Chinese to seek overseas employment, especially to their colonies.
       The colonial regime also sponsored the internal migration of northern farmers to unoccupied lands in Cochinchina to make new farms.  Chinese immigrants came to set up commerce in the new towns, though most 19th century immigrants settled in northern and central Vietnam.  But in the 1920s and 30s, around 600,000 Chinese fled the civil war and moved to Vietnam, mostly in the south. 
Chinese temple in Trà Vinh
opera  performers, Hô Chí Minh City

They thrived in their new locations, thanks to French favoritism, and continued to dominate business and commerce with the creation of South Vietnam.  With the northern conquest in 1975 and the imposition of a state-run economy, the Chinese community suffered enough to lead many of them to try to escape, like the ‘boat people’, especially after the Vietnam-China War in 1979, when all Chinese residents’ loyalty to Vietnam was under suspicion.
       That suspicion disappeared after the 1990 normalization of ties between the two countries.  Vietnam had already launched its new, semi-capitalist economic renovation program and the Chinese in the south were quick to take advantage.  Hô Chí Minh City, ex-Saigon, became the most prosperous city in Vietnam, with towering skyscrapers comparable to other Southeast Asian metropolises like Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.. 
Chinese opera performance, New Year in  Hô Chí Minh City
       It’s still the most modern-looking city in the country, even while development has sponsored similar changes throughout Vietnam’s cities.  Hô Chí Minh City has a few old temples, but no real Old Quarter like Hanoi, just some remaining European buildings from colonial times.  Chợ Lợn, the city’s main Chinese quarter, (the name means Big Market) has also modernized, but is still a tourist attraction for its very Chinese atmosphere, food, market, Buddhist temples and Catholic Church.  The Chinese temple to the Jade Emperor, in another part of the city, still attracts devotees and visitors.
       Vietnam’s Chinese, officially the Hoa minority, are now fully integrated into Vietnamese society.  While they may retain many Chinese customs and practices, the exclusivity that used to mark the Thanh Nhân Chinese has vanished.  Vietnamese have historically been wary of China, often with good reason, but in general accept the Hoa community as fully Vietnamese.  Relations between the two countries flare up at times, usually over competing offshore sovereignty claims, but local anger tends to target recently established Chinese business enterprises and not the home-grown Chinese community.  
       The Hoa are the main engine driving Vietnam’s industrial and commercial growth.  The government is not likely to upset their role, no matter what happens with China.  Vietnam’s Chinese, in turn, are not going to do anything politically to undermine their enhanced economic condition.  To them, more than ever, Vietnam is a Land of Opportunity.

Chợ Lợn Market, Hô Chí Minh City
                                                                 * * *

Monday, May 25, 2020

Red River Rituals in Vietnam

                              by Jim Goodman                                 

ritual boats on the Red River at Thô Khôi
      The Red River originates in central Yunnan, southwest China, flows southeast through the province and enters Vietnam at Lao
Cài.  From here it continues running southeast all the way to the Gulf of Tonkin.  The alluvial plain alongside it, straddled by many tributaries, is the heart of ancient Vietnam.  Ancestors of its contemporary inhabitants tamed the mighty river, prone to flooding, with dikes, canals and irrigation channels, turned the land into prosperous farms and created a civilization to go along with the achievement.
dancing at the  Thô Khôi đình
       Such incidents were rare, however.  The river and its biggest tributaries also provided a transportation route for the movement of goods and people, knitting scattered and remote settlements together into a social whole and laying the foundations for a nation.  Waters drawn off from the river system nourished the crops that fed the people.  When the French conquered Vietnam they named it the Red River, after the reddish brown color of its water, a name which persisted after Independence.  But to traditional Vietnamese in the Delta it was Sông Cái—the Mother River.  And the aspects of the material life enabled by the river’s exploitation, like wet-rice cultivation and fishing, would be replicated along other rivers, further south, as the Vietnamese community gradually expanded out of the Red River Delta.
all dressed up for the Thô Khôi festival  
       It was inevitable that the river, so essential to everyday material life, also acquired a sacred character.  Whether ancient animist Vietnamese had a divine name for the river, or believed it the dwelling place of supernatural beings, is not known, for the mythology has not survived.  But even today people still believe in the sacred character of the river.  Water from the middle of the Red River is considered the most efficacious for any kind of ritual act requiring some kind of ‘holy water’.
       Ancient Vietnamese traditions include a ritual designed for collecting such water.  Called mộc dục, it involves taking a large jar aboard a boat that heads out for the middle of the river, where the officiating priests collects water from the river and pours it into the jar.  Back on land, people will then use this water to bathe images, ancestral tablets and gravestones.  In theory, any organized party can carry out a mộc dục rite for their own private purposes, but if it were ever a widespread occurrence, it is not at the present time.  Nevertheless, it remains the central feature of two major festivals each year, at the riverside villages of Thô Khôi and Chèm.
stately  procession of the guardian deities
girls bearing one of the 'reluctant' deities
      Thô Khôi is in Gia Lam, on the other side of the river from Hanoi, about 16 km south, on the way to Bát Tràng ceramics village.  The village đình and its temple sit behind a pond a little below a bend in the embanked main road.  Houses and fields stretch out behind.  Together with four associated villages, Thô Khôi stages its annual festival for three days in the latter half of the second lunar month. 
boys carrying one of the 'fickle' deities
       The first day is rather sedate, with no scheduled activities.  Five palanquins which will be used to carry images of the tutelary deities stand in the temple yard and devotees occasionally come to venerate them.  In front of them stands the rack with the very large blue and white porcelain jar, with dragons on the side and little animal heads near the brim, which will be used to store the water.
       On the second morning participants dressed in bright costumes arrive at the đình.  While one woman beat a large drum, a group of women perform dances around the parked palanquins.  After they conclude, bearers pick up the palanquins, six to each, to take the deities on a procession, along with the water jug, to a point on the riverbank just north of the Vĩnh Tuy Bridge.   Their purpose is to invite the deities to witness the mộc dục ritual.
boarding the boat with the vessel for mộc dục 
       Three of the palanquins proceed in a slow and solemn march along the 2 km or so of paths to the riverbank.  But two of the deities are reluctant to leave Thô Khôi, one borne by young men and one borne by young women.  They do not follow the others in a measured and stately straight line.  Instead they dart back and forth, move in circles and loops, go zigzag and back and forth, careen and teeter wildly.  Crowds have to jump out of their way.
      Yet despite coming precariously close, they never fall over or hit anyone.  No director stands in front of either palanquin to guide the movements.  The bearers themselves claim that they have no control over their bodies once they pick up the palanquin.  The deity makes them go forward or backward, bend down or straighten up, lean this way or that and run or walk.  The bearers cannot make conscious decisions of their own and the deity manages to control the movements of all six bearers, simultaneously and in synchronization.
after the duck in Thô Khôi
chèo theater performers
gathering of forces--chèo theater
       Eventually the reluctant deities arrive at the bank with the others.  The water jug goes aboard, robed and mitered priests climb on and the boat sails off to the middle.  There a priest uses a long-handled scoop to collect river water and pours it into the special jug.  That done, the boat returns to the shore, where the palanquin bearers and dancers have been taking a break, and when all are ashore, the bearers pick up  their loads and the long procession back to the đình begins.  The same antics performed by the bearers of the troublesome deities prevail and after some wild diversions from the route the two finally wind up joining the others in the đình courtyard.  They stay there for the rest of the festival.
dragon on the prowl at Chèm
       The ritual part of the festival is over, but the very definition of lễ hội, Vietnamese for festival, implies more.  Lễ is the ritual and hội is the entertainment.  The hội for the second afternoon is quan họ, a special style of romantic singing, in solo or duets, a well known tradition of nearby Bắc Ninh province.
women's rituals at Chèm
       The entertainment for the third morning is competitive duck-catching.  Four ducks are set loose in the pond and when they have swum out to the middle five youths jump in the pond to catch them.  On the occasion I witnessed one boy quickly grabbed two ducks and after a few minutes another boy caught one after cornering it.  That left one duck and three hunters.  The last duck continued to elude them so long that one boy tired and left the pool.  The other two tried to corner it, but when they dove under the water to grab it, the duck popped up several meters away.  The crowd began to cheer for the duck.  It managed to stay free several more minutes.
       The evening hội was chèo theater, a dramatic tradition dating back to the tenth century   Đinh Dynasty.  The cast can be rather large, and the stories somewhat involved, but the costumes are attractive and the dialogue is both sung and spoken.  They are usually dramas of good and evil and the good guys win in the end.
mộc dục on the river at Chèm
tổ tôm điếm booth
       Later in the year, during the three days around the full moon of the fifth lunar month, an even bigger mộc dục ritual takes place in Chèm, a riverside village just west of the Thăng Long Bridge.  Sited on the south bank of the river, the đình’s layout and architecture date from an early 19th century renovation.  But the original construction was in the Tang Dynasty years and the village is quite old. It is reputedly the birthplace of the hero Lý Thang, a general employed by China’s first Qin Emperor in the 3rd century BCE. to fight Xiongnu invaders.  After vanquishing the enemy he was given the emperor’s daughter in marriage and invited to stay. 
after the duck, blindfolded
      He declined because he wanted to return home to take care of his sick mother.  The emperor gave permission and the princess accompanied the warrior to Vietnam.  The Qin Emperor allegedly then had a big statue of Lý Thang erected on his northern defense lines to try to fool the Xiongnu into believing their menace was still around.
       At Chèm the mộc dục ritual boat goes out on the river all three mornings, accompanied by a dragon and lion.  Supported by a team of energetic young men, the dragon writhes and prances all over the courtyard and then marches along the dike with the lion to the landing pier.  The pair descends the steps and clambers aboard the boat, which is a little bigger than the one at Thô Khôi.  Priests in ceremonial robes follow, along with other ritual participants and some of the festival crowd. 
cockfighting at Chèm
       After a dragon dance on deck, the boat departs for its short journey to the middle of the river.  Apparently the need for the sacred water is greater for the five villages participating in the ritual, for the priest fills three large porcelain jars with it each morning, not just one. When this is completed the boat returns to the pier and the dragon, lion, ritual participants and spectators disembark. The dragon dances back to the đình and salutes the guardian deity with a couple bursts of fiery breath.  That’s it for the dragon and lion performances, but activities in the compound persist.
taking positions for human chess
       The main temple is busy with rituals involving two groups of elders, one male, one female, who take turns lining up inside in ranks facing each other, while the group leader in front center makes the bows to the image and leads the prayers.  The men wear long silk coats, usually blue, black miters on the head with cloth tails hanging down the back and fancy shoes with upturned, pointed toes.  The women dress in matching pink silk jackets and skirts. Sometimes the participants twirl banners or make slow and stately candle processions, but for a show with more action, spectators can turn to one of the festival’s entertainment programs.
       The program will always include a quan họ performance at least one of the afternoons.  There may be a cockpit, where gamecocks go after each other while the observers (and owners) anxiously await the outcome.  A different mood entirely pervades the Chèm version of duck-catching.  Instead of a pond, they release a single duck into an enclosed corral and just one lad, blindfolded, goes after it
human chess participant
dragon descending to the pier
       Another entertainment venue in the compound will be an area for tổ tôm điếm, a unique Vietnamese card game.  Unlike Western playing cards, those used in tổ tôm điếm are much bigger, long and narrow, with 120 cards to a deck.  The obverse side features traditional portraits in the center and Chinese ideographs above and below depicting the card’s rank and suit.  The dealer operates from a booth and the players sit in front at a narrow table.  Players draw and discard until they have a set of 21, the value of which depends on how many cards are identical, of a progress in a suit, whether of the same rank, etc. Unless they’re also aficionados of the game themselves, spectators are unlikely to decipher what’s going on,, or whether the player whose cards they can see has a good set or not.
men's rituals at Chèm
       In some years the đình also sponsors a performance of human chess, wherein people play the parts of the chess pieces.  This is an easier event to follow, even for those who don’t play chess.  The participants, one side of boys dressed in red silk and one side of girls in yellow silk, hold staffs with a Chinese character identifying the ‘piece’ they represent and after a ceremonial entrance they take their assigned spots on the chessboard painted on the ground.
       The two players carry pennants, walk around to survey the set and then indicate a movement by flagging one of the pieces and leading its move, either to another spot or off the board altogether.  Because they are operating at the same eye level as the ‘pieces’ and not bent over a board, it is more difficult to judge which moves to make.  Meanwhile a singer narrates the progress of the game, suggests moves and makes comments.  Like the mộc dục ritual itself and the tổ tôm điếm card game, human chess is yet another unique aspect of Vietnamese festivals, still part of the culture many centuries after their creation.

leaving the pier at Chèm for  the mộc dục ritual