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

No comments:

Post a Comment