Vietnamese folk religion

People forgather at the new Trần Nhân Tông Shrine in Huế
Gateway to Bà Thủy Long Thánh Mẫu Shrine, or simply Bà Shrine, in Dương Đông
Altar dedicated to Tây Vương Mẫu in a shrine in Sóc Trăng

Vietnamese folk religion or Vietnamese indigenous religion (Vietnamese: tín ngưỡng dân gian Việt Nam, tôn giáo bản địa Việt Nam) is the ethnic religion of the Vietnamese people, dominant in Vietnam, where it is practiced by 45.3% of the population.[1] The Vietnamese folk religion has many similarities with southern Chinese folk religion.

Vietnamese folk religion is not an organized religious system, but a set of local worship traditions devoted to the thần, a term which can be translated as "spirits", "gods" or with the more exhaustive locution "generative powers". These gods can be nature deities, or national, community or kinship tutelary deities or ancestral gods, and the ancestral gods of a specific family. Ancestral gods are often deified heroic persons. Vietnamese mythology preserves narratives telling of the actions of many of the cosmic gods and cultural heroes.

The Vietnamese indigenous religion is sometimes identified as Confucianism since it carries values that were emphasized by Confucius. Đạo Mẫu is a distinct form of Vietnamese folk religion, giving prominence to some mother goddesses into its pantheon. The government of Vietnam also categorises Cao Đài as a form of Vietnamese indigenous religion, since it brings together the worship of the thần or local spirits with Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, as well as elements of Catholicism, Spiritism and Theosophy.[2][3]


The large Cô Shrine in Long Hải.
Bùi Hữu Nghĩa Shrine in Cần Thơ.

The Vietnamese folk religion was suppressed in different times and ways from 1945, the end of the dynastic period, to the 1980s. The destruction, neglect, or dilapidation of temples was particularly extensive in North Vietnam during the land reform (1953-1955), and in reunified Vietnam during the period of collectivisation (1975-1986).[4]

Debate and criticism of cultural destruction and loss began in the 1960s.[5] However, the period between 1975 and 1979 saw the most zealous anti-religion campaign and destruction of temples.[6] On the eve of the Đổi Mới reforms, from 1985 onwards, the state gradually returned to a policy of protection of the religious culture,[7] and the Vietnamese indigenous religion was soon promoted as the backbone of "a progressive culture, imbued with national identity".[8]

In the project of nation-building, the public discourse encourages the worship of ancient heroes of the Vietnamese identity, and gods and spirits with a long-standing presence in folk religion.[9] The relationship between the state and the local communities is flexible and dialogical in the process of religious renewal; both the state and the common people are mutual protagonists in the recent revival of Vietnamese folk religion.[10]

The holy: linh

In Vietnamese folk religion, the linh is the concept equivalent of holy and numen, that is the power of a deity to affect the world of the living.[11] Compound words containing the term linh indicate a large semantic field: linh-thiêng "sacred", linh-hiễn "prodigiously manifest", linh-ứng "responsive", linh-nghiệm "efficacious", linh-hồn "spirit of a person", vong-linh "spirit of a dead before 'going over'", hương-linh "spirit of a dead that has 'gone over'".[11] Thiêng is a Vietnamese equivalent of linh, this last coming from the Chinese ling.[11] Thiêng is itself a variation of tinh, meaning "constitutive principle of a being", "essence of a thing", "daemon", "intelligence" or "perspicacity".[11]

Linh is the mediating bivalency, the "medium", between âm and dương, that is "disorder" and "order", with order (dương) preferred over disorder (âm).[12] As bivalency, linh is also metonymic of the inchoate order of creation.[13] More specifically, the linh power of an entity resides in mediation between the two levels of order and disorder which govern social transformation.[13] The mediating entity itself shifts of status and function between one level and another, and makes meaning in different contexts.[13]

This attribute is often associated with goddesses, animal motifs such as the snake—an amphibian animal—, the owl which takes night for day, the bat being half bird and half mammal, the rooster who crows at the crack between night and morning, but also rivers dividing landmasses, and other "liminal" entities.[13] There are âm gods such as Nguyễn Bá Linh, and dương gods such as Trần Hưng Đạo.[14] Linh is a "cultural logic of symbolic relations", that mediates polarity in a dialectic governing reproduction and change.[15]

Linh has also been described as the ability to set up spatial and temporal boundaries, represent and identify metaphors, setting apart and linking together differences.[16] The boundary is crossed by practices such as sacrifice and inspiration (shamanism).[16] Spiritual mediumship makes the individual the center of actualising possibilities, acts and events indicative of the will of the gods.[16] The association of linh with liminality implies the possibility of constructing various kinds of social times and history.[17] In this way, the etho-political (ethnic) dimension is nurtured, regenerated by re-enactment, and constructed at first place, imagined and motivated in the process of forging a model of reality.[17]

Distinct branches


Altar within a Cao Đài temple in Mỹ Tho.

The Cao Đài faith (Vietnamese: Đạo Cao Đài "Way of the Highest Power") is an organised monotheistic Vietnamese folk religion formally established in the city of Tây Ninh in southern Vietnam in 1926.[18][2]The full name of the religion is Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ ("Great Way [of the] Third Time [of] Redemption").[18] Followers also call their religion Đạo Trời ("Way of God"). Cao Đài has common roots and similarities with the Tiên Thiên Đạo doctrines.[19]

Cao Đài (Vietnamese: [kāːw ɗâːj], literally the "Highest Lord" or "Highest Power")[18] is the highest deity, the same as the Jade Emperor, who created the universe.[20] He is worshipped in the main temple, but Caodaists also worship the Mother Goddess, also known as the Queen Mother of the West (Diêu Trì Kim Mẫu, Tây Vương Mẫu). The symbol of the faith is the Left Eye of God, representing the dương (masculine, ordaining, positive and expansive) activity of the male creator, which is balanced by the yin (âm) activity of the feminine, nurturing and restorative mother of humanity.[2][18]

Đạo Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương

Đạo Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương ("Way of the Strange Fragrance from the Precious Mountain") is a religious tradition with Buddhist elements, originally practiced by the mystic Đoàn Minh Huyên (1807–1856) and continued by Huỳnh Phú Sổ, founder of the Hòa Hảo sect. The name itself refers to the Thất Sơn range on the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, where Huyên, claimed to be a living Buddha.

During a cholera epidemic in 1849, which killed over a million people, Huyên was reputed to have supernatural abilities to cure the sick and the insane. His followers wore amulets bearing the Chinese characters for Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương, a phrase that became identified, retrospectively, with the religion practiced by Huyên, and the millenarian movement associated with the latter. The faith has roughly 15.000 adherents mostly concentrated in the provinces of An Giang, Đồng Tháp, Bà Rịa-Vũng Tàu, Long An, Sóc Trăng, Vĩnh Long, Tiền Giang and Bến Tre.

Đạo Mẫu

Main article: Đạo Mẫu

Đạo Mẫu ("Way of the Mother") refers to the worship of the Mẫu, the Mother Goddess and the various mother goddesses, constituting a central feature of Vietnamese folk religion.[21] The worship of female goddesses by the Vietnamese dates back to prehistory.[21] It is possible that the concept of a Mother Goddess came to encompass the different spirits of nature as one only spirit manifesting itself in a variety of forms.[21] Along history, various human heroines, emerged as protectors or healers, were deified as other manifestations of the Mother Goddess.[21]

As a distinct movement with its own priesthood (made of shamans capable of merging the material and the spiritual world), temples, and rituals, Đạo Mẫu was promoted since the 1970s in North Vietnam and then in the newly unified country.[22] In the pantheon of Đạo Mẫu the Jade Emperor (Ngọc Hoàng) is viewed as the supreme, originating god,[23] but he is regarded as abstract and rarely worshipped.[24] The supreme goddess is Thánh Mẫu Liễu Hạnh.[25] The pantheon of the religion includes many other gods, both male and female.[26]

Đạo Tứ Ân Hiếu Nghĩa

Tam Bửu Temple, of the Đạo Tứ Ân Hiếu Nghĩa, in Ba Chúc, Tri Tôn District.

Đạo Tứ Ân Hiếu Nghĩa or just Đạo Hiếu Nghĩa is an organised Vietnamese folk religion founded in the late 1800s. It has roughly 80.000 followers scattered throughout southern Vietnam, but especially concentrated in Tri Tôn District.[27]

Minh Đạo

The Minh Đạo or Đạo Minh is a group of five religions that have Tiên Thiên Đạo roots in common with, yet pre-date and have influenced, Caodaism.[28] Minh Đạo means the "Way of Light". They are part of the broad milieu of Chinese-Vietnamese religious sectarianism.[29] After the 17th century, when the Ming dynasty saw its power decline, a large number of Minh sects started to emerge in Cochinchina, especially around Saigon.[29]

The Chinese authorities took little interest in these sects, since, at least until the early 20th century, they limited their activities to their temples.[29] They were autonomous structures, focusing on worship, philanthropy and literature.[29] Yet they had embryonic Vietnamese nationalistic elements, which evolved along the development of their political activity in the early 20th century.[29]

Five Minh Đạo movements appeared in southern Vietnam in the 19th and 20th centuries: Minh Sư Đạo ("Way of the Enlightened Master"), Minh Lý Đạo ("Way of the Enlightened Reason"), Minh Đường Đạo ("Way of the Temple of Light"), Minh Thiện Đạo ("Way of the Foreseeable Kindness") and Minh Tân Đạo ("Way of the New Light").[29]

The founder of Minh Lý Đạo was Âu Kiệt Lâm (1896–1941), an intellectual of half Chinese and half Vietnamese blood, and a shaman, capable of transcend the cultural barriers of the two peoples.[30] The primary deities of the pantheon of the sects are the Jade Emperor (Ngọc Hoàng Thượng Đế) and the Queen Mother of the West (Tây Vương Mẫu).[30]

Symbolic, liturgical and theological features of the Minh Đạo sects were shared with the Caodaist religion.[31] From 1975 onwards, the activities and temples of some of the Minh Đạo religions have been absorbed into sects of Caodaism, while others, especially Minh Đường Đạo and Minh Lý Đạo, have remained distinct.[32]

Confucianism and Taoism

Altars to disciples of Confucius at the Temple of Literature of Hanoi.
Further information: Taoism in Vietnam

The Vietnamese folk religion fosters Confucian values, and it is for this reason often identified as "Confucianism". Temples of Literature (Văn Miếu) are temples devoted to the worship of Confucius that in imperial times also functioned as academies.

Taoism is believed to have been introduced into Vietnam during the first Chinese domination of Vietnam. In its pure form it is no longer practiced in Vietnam, but elements of its doctrines have been absorbed into the Vietnamese folk religion.[33] Taoist influence is also recognisable in the Caodaist and Đạo Mẫu[34] religions.

According to Professor Liam Kelley during the Tang dynasty native spirits were subsumed into Daoism and the Daoist view of these spirits completely replaced the original native tales.[35] Buddhism and Daoist replaced native narratives surrounding Mount Yên Tử 安子山.[36]



Lạc Long Quân Shrine in Phú Thọ.
The largest Ca Ong in Vietnam at Vạn Thủy Tú temple.

A rough typological identification of Vietnamese gods categorises them into four categories:[37]

Some of the most popular gods are: Kinh Dương Vương and his son Lạc Long Quân—who, with his wife Âu Cơ, gave rise to the Vietnamese race—, The Four Immortals (Tản Viên Sơn Thánh, Thánh Gióng, Chử Đồng Tử, and Liễu Hạnh), the Four Palaces' goddesses (Mẫu Thượng Thiên, Mẫu Thượng Ngàn, Mẫu Thoải, and Mẫu Địa Phủ), Trần Hưng Đạo, Sơn Tinh and Thủy Tinh, Bà Chúa Kho, Bà Chúa Xứ, Thần Nông, Bà Đen, Quán Thế Âm, the bà mụ, and others. The Vietnamese mythology is the body of holy narrative telling the actions of many of these gods.

Forms of worship and practices

A lên đồng ritual being performed.

The linh of the gods, as it is appropriated for social construction, is also appropriated in self-cultivation.[17] It provides a locus for dialectical relations, between the individual and his or her social others, and between the self and the spirits, to intersect and overlap.[38] This is especially true of the experiences provided through shamanic practices such as lên đồng.[17]

Within the feld of self-cultivation, action of self-empowering is expressed in a cluster of Vietnamese terms: tu "to correct", "to improve", as in tu thân "self-perfecting with meditation", tu hiền "to cultivate gentleness/wisdom", or tu sứa "to correct", "to repair"; the word chữa "to repair", "to correct", as in sứa chữa "correction", "repair", or chữa trị "to cure an illness"; the word cứu "to rescue", as in cứu chữa "to cure", "to heal", in cứu rỗi "to save souls", and cứu nước "to save the country".[38]

The practice of self-cultivation knits together the individual and the social in an orientation of discourse and action.[38] The individual project gives rise to a matrix of potentials, with which the individual deals with personal crises by constructing new meanings, seen as modalities of perfectibility.[39]

Places of worship

Altar inside Liễu Hạnh Công Chúa Shrine in Hanoi.

Vietnamese temples are generically called miếu (meaning "temple") in Vietnamese language. In the northern regions, the miếu are temples hosting the "main worship" of a deity and usually located at secluded places,[40] while đình, đền, điện, đài or tînh are temples for "emissary" or "secondary worship" located nearer or within habitation places.[40] In southern regions the two categories tend to blur.[40] Nhà thờ họ are family shrines of northern and middle Vietnam, equivalent to the Chinese ancestral shrines.

Another categorisation proposed by observing the vernacular usage is that: miếu are temples enshrining nature gods (earth gods, water gods, fire gods), or family chapels (gia miếu); đình are shrines of tutelary deities of a place, and đền are shrines of deified heroes, kings, and other virtuous historical persons.[40] Actually, other terms, often of local usage, exist.[40] For example, in middle Vietnam one of the terms used is cảnh, and in Quảng Nam Province and Quảng Ngãi Province a native term is khom.

Phủ ("palace") refers to a templar complex of multiple buildings, while one single building is a đền.[21] In English, in order to avoid confusion with Vietnamese Buddhist temples, đền and other words for of the Vietnamese folk religion's temples are commonly translated as "shrine".

See also



External links

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