Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Deifying National Heroes in Vietnam

                                                          by Jim Goodman

Trần Hưng Đạo, Ngọc Sơn Temple
            It’s the 8th lunar month and time for a run of festivals in Vietnam.  The whole nation observes the Mid-Autumn Festival, or Tết Trung Thu, the Children’s Tết, and over a dozen Red River Delta villages stage their annual festivals honoring their local protective deities.  As several of these villages have chosen the famous 13th century general Trn Hưng Đạo for this role, the month thus becomes a time to celebrate the nation’s tremendous victories over three separate massive Mongol invasions, in 1257, 1285 and 1288.
            Trn Hưng Đạo was born in 1228, less than three years after the foundation of the Trần Dynasty.  As a boy he was witness to the machinations of the regime’s godfather Trần Thủ Độ when the latter forced his father Trần Liễu to divorce his pregnant wife so that she could marry the childless king, Trần Liễu’s brother, and provide the new Dynasty an heir.  Trần Liễu protested by raising a revolt against Trần Thủ Độ, but his brother intervened and compensated him with a fief in the northeast.  Before he died Trần Liẽu enjoined his son to take revenge on Trần Thủ Độ. 
            But by this time the Mongol threat was imminent and Trần Hưng Đạo decided to rate national interests higher than filial piety and did not carry out his father’s dying wish.  Instead, he served as Trần Thủ Độ’s leading commander in the 1257 campaign.  Employing a strategy of “empty houses and gardens,” evacuating all people, food and animals before the Mongol advance, the Vietnamese forced the enemy to have to forage immediately, while their guerrillas picked them off easily.  It took the Vietnamese 18 days to expel the invaders. 
Trần Hưng Đạo in the Mongol Wars, woodblock print
            By the time of the second Mongol War in 1285, Trần Thủ Độ had died and Trần Hưng Đạo was now Generalissimo of the Vietnamese armed forces.  The Mongol forces numbered around 400,000, nearly half of them attacking the Chăm state of Vijaya to the south.  The Chăm abandoned their capital and waged guerrilla warfare from the nearby hills.  Soon enough the Mongols, suddenly also susceptible to tropical diseases, gave up and marched north, only to fall into trap after trap until they had no more army left.  As for the Mongols who had marched into Vietnam, the Vietnamese employed the same strategy as in the first war and by the end of the campaign the Mongols scurried back to China with less than 20% of their forces.
            Outraged by the defeat, Kubilai Khan order another in 1288, dispatching a half million troops, half by land and half by sea.  The Mongols defeated the Vietnamese navy, occupied the capital Thăng Long and waited for their supply ships to bring them their provisions.  But Trần Khánh Dư, loser in the first encounter, rebuilt the navy in time to attack and sink all the supply ships.  Faced with the same quandary as in the first two wars, the Mongols decided to evacuate and go home.  Trần Hưng Đạo’s generals harried and decimated the land forces, such that only handfuls managed to cross the border
Trần Khánh Dư hears his royal orders 
As for the Mongols on board their 400 ships, as they proceeded down the Red River to the Gulf of Tonkin, Trần Hưng Đạo laid a trap for them that he took straight out of the nation’s history.  Like two 10th century kings foiling Chinese naval invasions, he had sharpened stakes placed in the river bed that would be below the water’s surface at high tide.  When the Mongol armada arrived his side’s smaller boats engaged the enemy not to defeat them, but to slow them down so that when the tide receded they found most of their fleet impaled on the stakes.  That made them easy targets for the Vietnamese. Those ships that swerved away from the part of the river with the embedded stakes found themselves assaulted by rafts full of kindling, which the swimmers rammed into the Mongol boats and set them alight.  The entire fleet was destroyed and there were few, if any, survivors.
            As the man who led the nation to these great triumphs, a man who valued patriotism above family loyalty, who strove to unite not only rival factions in the Trần clan but the whole country in a noble cause, it is easy to see why Trần Hưng Đạo is a paramount Vietnamese hero.  Major streets across the cities of Vietnam have been named after him.  Statues of him stand in various places, even as far south as the riverfront in Hồ Chí Minh City.  In addition, though, many temples are dedicated to Trần Hưng Đạo and it is this phenomenon that gives a very different significance to the meaning of a national hero in Vietnam compared to, for example, my own country.
            We have our national heroes like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, with a national holiday that honors them.  We built monuments to them, and to Thomas Jefferson, too.  These are on the itinerary of every visitor to the capital, whether citizens from around the country or tourists from abroad.  But the holiday doesn’t involve much more than a day off from work or school.  No publicly performed dramas of events from the men’s lives.  No processions in period costumes.  And those who visit Lincoln Memorial do not light candles, burn incense, kowtow or bring food offerings for the spirit of Lincoln to bless.
devotees with offerings toTrần Hưng Đạo, Kiêp Bạc Temple
            These are precisely the characteristics of the festivals honoring Trần Hưng Đạo and other Vietnamese heroes.  The events are not national holidays but local village affairs.  The heroes are not just role models of exemplary behavior.  They are deities, part of the ancient tradition of the thành hoàng, the tutelary deity or guardian spirit of the village, conscripted on its behalf because, having been so successful fighting temporal enemies while on earth, he will be equally formidable fighting spirit enemies in the afterlife. Unsurprisingly, in view of his character and accomplishments, Trần Hưng Đạo became thành hoàng for more villages than any other national hero.
            The cult began right after his death in 1300, with the erection of a temple to him in his home village of Kiếp Bạc, Hải Dương province.   The temple has been rebuilt several times but nowadays hosts a six-day festival, beginning full moon day, in honor of Trần Hưng Đạo.  Devotees bring trays of food on their heads for him to bless, spirit-mediums dance before the altar and merchants set up booths outside offering drinks, snacks, toys, games of skill and chance and sundry other items.  The festival program varies each year, but at times will include battle re-enactments, boat races or even a visiting water-puppet troupe, besides the endless rituals within the temple.
            Besides Trần Hưng Đạo, northern villages honor other heroes of the Mongol Wars, including the Quan Lạn Island festival for Trần Khánh Dư [see my earlier article The Island That Remembers], featuring a drama narrating events of the times.  But Vietnamese national heroes are not always men, nor are they always victors.  Just as dear to Vietnamese hearts are the Trưng Sisters, who launched the first rebellion against Chinese rule way back in the year 40 C.E.   
Lâ Chân, Nghè Temple, Hải Phòng
the Trưng Sisters at the Dồng Nhên show
            The revolt began when the local Chinese Governor murdered Trưng Trắc’s husband.  With her younger sister Trưng Nhi and the support of native lords, she raised the banner of revolt and evicted the Chinese garrison.  Proclaiming independence, she established her capital at Mê Linh, northwest of Hanoi, and announced an immediate two-year tax exemption for the population.  The Chinese sent down a large expedition the following year, but the Trưng Sisters managed to keep their regime alive another two years before final defeat, upon which they drowned themselves.
rites honoring Lê Chân, Nghè Temple, Hải Phòng
Besides the Trưng Sisters’ temples in Mê Linh and elsewhere, especially Hanoi’s Đồng Nhân Temple in Hải Bà Trưng district, other places honor her female generals, such as Lê Chân, legendary founder of Hải Phòng.  The city’s Nghè Temple worships her at a festival 8th day 2nd moon, an event that sometimes includes a procession of flags and men in ancient warrior costumes.  The biggest related event, though, is the celebration at Đồng Nhân from the 6th day of the 2nd lunar month. 
            Like other hero-honoring festivals, it will have streams of people bearing offerings to be blessed, usually balanced on their heads, rituals within the temple, a palanquin procession, quan họ singers on a boat in the pond, dragon dances, entertainment in the courtyard--one year bird-fighting matches, another year a cooking contest.  Like the Quan Lạn festival for Trần Khánh Dư, Đồng Nhân Temple will host a drama about the Trưng Sisters, in particular how they launched the insurrection, for the festival marks that particular day and not, like Kiếp Bạc’s, the day of the heroes’ deaths.
The Trưng Sisters review the troops.
            Dressed in resplendent gowns and robes, wearing feathered headdresses and brandishing swords, actresses playing the sisters enter the courtyard and stand on a platform in front of the temple.  There they make proclamations and speeches for a while and then review the troops.  Several performances follow as different contingents dance with their weapons, including female warriors wielding longbows.  A bit of comic relief interrupts the set in a skit depicting three terrified Chinese soldiers fretting about their safety in the wake of the insurrection.  The scene ends with one soldier shaking so much from fright that his companions have to carry him away.  After some more martial displays the show concludes with a double dragon dance, celebrating the initial success of the uprising. 
frightened Chinese soldiers in the Đồng Nhân show
Though the Trưng Sisters’ revolt ultimately failed, another Hanoi festival marks a victory over the Chinese that was every bit as dramatic as the expulsion of the Mongols.  It occurred at the end of the Lê Dynasty period in 1789.  In the years previous an army of rebels led by three brothers from Tây Sơn village in Bình Định province in south central Vietnam had overthrown the Nguyễn Lords ruling in the southern half of Vietnam and had marched north, expelled the ruling Trịnh family from Hanoi and reinstated the Lê King.  But by late 1786 the Trịnh family had squirmed back into power in the court of the youthful, inexperienced Lê sovereign.  To deal with this de facto usurpation, the Lê King had called on the Chinese to restore his authority.  
performers take a break at Đống Đa
bringing offerings to Quang Trung
            The Qing Emperor in Beijing obliged by dispatching an army of a few hundred thousand to oust the Trịnh supporters and occupy the capital.  Nguyễn Huệ, the Tây Sơn general who had recently restored the Lê to power, decided that by bringing in the Chinese army the Lê King had forfeited his legitimacy.  He proclaimed himself Emperor Quang Trung and assembled forces to march north.  It was early 1787 and the Lunar New Year was approaching.  Quang Trung ordered his troops to celebrate the New Year early this time and then, with the official holidays just beginning, led his army on a quick march to Hanoi.
Quang Trung and his soldiers, Đống Đa festival
            Those who know of 1968 are inclined to think of this campaign as the First Tệt Offensive.  Quang Trung had sent a messenger ahead to the Chinese commander, demanding his withdrawal.  But the Chinese commander executed the messenger and refused to reply.  Over-confident, complacent and pretty well inebriated since the start of the holidays, the Qing troops were in no condition to fight.  Quang Trung’s army launched their surprise attack on the 5th day of Tết.  After routing the defenders south of the capital, the Tây Sơn army swarmed into Hanoi, surrounded the main Chinese force at Đống Đa, southwest of Hanoi’s Citadel and completely annihilated them.  Very few survivors managed to flee all the way back to China.
            The Vietnamese mark this victory with a grand festival at Đống Đa, beside the hill where the accumulated bones of the slain enemy were buried.  Besides a procession, the usual presentation of offerings to Quang Trung and two rounds of human chess, the day features a stage show re-enacting scenes from the famous campaign.  While not of such a sterling character as Trần Hưng Đạo, and not a thành hoàng of any particular village, Quang Trung is likewise a spiritual protector of the nation and, by extension, the well-being of those who live in it.  And in the light of periodic tensions with their northern neighbor, nowadays the Vietnamese regard their deified national heroes as more relevant than ever.
Quang Trung at the victory dance, Đống Đa festival

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1 comment:

  1. Dear Jim Goodman!
    Thank you for your interesting article and photos, especially - about Vietnam.
    Sorry, my knowledge English is not very good. I'm from Russia and my native language – Russian. I am interested in history, especially ancient. This is not my profession, but only a hobby. Now I'm writing an article (in several parts) of Trung sisters (Hai Bà Trưng) on the site Russian-speaking LiveJournal ( ).
    I am very interested in this period of the history of ancient Vietnam, associated with the Trung sisters, and I want to tell about it to my compatriots in Russia.

    I do not get any commercial benefits from their articles.

    I really hope that you will not mind if I add to my article illustrations some photos from your that page.
    However, I am certainly going to give active links to your page with these photographs and the main page of your site:
    Sincerely, Julia N.I., (yulia_enka: ),
    St. Petersburg, Russia
    P.S. I hope for your answer by my e-mail:
    or by my another e-mail: