How the Vietnamese cult of heroes promotes nationalism in politics

Kiep Bac temple, Vietnam, where people worship the hero Saint Tran. T.H.H HOANG, Author provided

The Vietnamese government is trying to pass a new law on religion that will separate the nation’s many cults authorised and unauthorised. The move illustrates the government’s control over private cults and how it uses them for its own benefit.

The worship of Trần Hưng Đạo, a legendary warrior-turned-saint, is a good example of the way the Vietnamese authorities use religious figures to push their nationalistic agenda.

The cult of heroes

Government controls on religion have existed throughout Vietnamese history. Tensions over religion arose during communist rule but, since 1986 (along with economic and political reforms), the government has enhanced its legitimacy and power by approving popular cults, in the same way dynasties in the past did.

Vietnam differs from other Southeast Asian countries in that there’s a particular devotion to heroes in its political culture and religious system. Among the Kinh – the main ethnic group in Vietnam – Buddhism, Daoism and Christianity have co-existed alongside traditional religions and beliefs that often involve hero cults.

Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh, Vietnam. Welsh-anni/Wikimedia, CC BY-ND

This kind of worship grew and has remained strong because of Vietnam’s history of invasions. Since 938, when the country freed itself from 1,000 years of rule from the Chinese, heroes from different eras – including from former feudal dynasties and the recent communist period – have been worshipped.

These heroes are honoured as saints or gods and are worshipped in temples and shrines. They form a sacred and spiritual bond between the past and the present.

Although atheism dominated the country during the communist era, many still believe in the existence of souls. Heroes connect people to the world of the dead and of ancestors, which are a regular feature of local cults.

According to French historian Benoît de Tréglodé, more than 60% of the gods worshipped in rural areas and villages are those who once fought in wars to protect the country.

These heroes’ images have played an important role in maintaining power through various Vietnamese dynasties, each of which paid attention to building and maintaining temples to such heroes in order to secure the people’s support.

The making of a national hero

Among Vietnamese heroes, Trần Hưng Đạo is the most popular nationwide. He is regarded as a war hero from the 13th century Trần Dynasty. According to legend, he successfully defeated invaders from the Mongol Empire. People developed a cult of Trần and propagated legends about his life.

In the 20th century, he re-emerged as a symbol of resistance against French colonial power and then against Americans during the Vietnam War.

Trần Hưng Đạo is the only figure in Vietnam to be the head of a wide religious sect that includes his family members and even his close army generals. People refer to him as thần (genie) thánh (deity).

Ritual to the family of Trần in Kiếp Bạc temple. T.H.H HOANG, Author provided

Trần’s powers soon became limitless. He would not only defeat enemies but also eliminate diseases and evil spirits. Ceremonies are conducted for pregnant women and newborn babies in his name, organised by mediums and their disciples, to cure diseases.

The medium asks Saint Trần and the gods in his family to possess him. His cheeks are then pierced by steel sticks. He is suspended from a ceiling or stage until his face turns red enough to scare away evil spirits from the sick, and his tongue is slit to collect blood to make amulets against disease.

A public ceremony in which mediums pierce themselves to scare away evil spirits.

Political use of cults

In the feudal period, the cult received royal support. But by the early 20th century, worship rituals and medium possession were considered superstitions by both Confucians and Vietnamese intellectuals and the practices were condemned. But the French colonial administration supported the cults to divert people’s attention.

During the 1986 Doi Moi reforms, which opened Vietnam to industrialisation while retaining a protected economy, these practices became more prevalent than ever, pushed by a government that saw them as a powerful political tool to glorify the nation while opening it to new markets.

Trần Hưng Đạo statue in Kiep Bac temple (Hai Duong). T.H.H HOANG

The worship of Saint Trần became widely accepted. Civil servants and high administration functionaries were invited to festivals and death anniversaries. Ancient pagodas, temples and shrines that had been closed during the hardline communist rule of the 1960s were reopened and restored. And people were able to visit worship places freely and purchase sacrificial and religious items, such as joss paper.

Village festivals were held and people started to search for their lost ancestors’ graves. These monuments, which were once considered feudal governors’ ruling instruments became national cultural heritage once more.

Possession as intangible heritage?

Today, Trần Hưng Đạo is present in many different forms in the daily lives of Vietnamese people. Roads and streets are named after him; sculptures grace parks and transport interchanges.

Children learn about him in textbooks alongside stories of the Trần Dynasty. And his places of worship have become tourist attractions.

But the practice of medium possession is still a controversial topic and is not recignised by the authorities.

‘Four palaces’ (the four spirits) of Vietnam beliefs have been translated into lively popular culture.

Many argue that the cult of Saint Trần has become a part of Vietnam’s national intangible heritage and goes with medium possession practices found in the religion of Four Palaces. In this Vietnamese cosmology, spirits – old and new – are governed by the Mother Goddess.

Trần Hưng Đạo remains alive in Vietnam but his powers are challenged by more recent heroes such as president Hồ Chí Minh and general Võ Nguyên Giáp, a military commander who led Vietnamese forces against the US and the French.

Could Saint Tran be one day forgotten and replaced by other, more manageable nationalistic heroes?