Lesson 04

Far Eastern Field Trip

Objective: Observing Confucianism and Taoism in Vietnamese culture

– Characteristics of Confucianism in Community hall and in the capital city of Thăng Long;

– The Yin Yang philosophy, the Five Elements of Taoism represented in the Tết Holiday, in the ancestral altars, in prostration…

The Far Eastern cultural area includes China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet … The whole area is covered by a thick layer of “varnish” of the Chinese culture, such as:

– In terms of religious culture: the Three Great Religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism);

– In terms of philosophical culture: the Book of Changes and Taoism with the philosophy and cosmology of the Great Absolute (Thái cực), the Two Basic Energies of Yin angd Yang (Lưỡng nghi âm dương), the Three Treasures (Tam tài: Thiên- Địa-Nhân; Sky-Earth-Man) ;

– The written languages emanating from Chinese characters;

– Custom, such as: New Year Tết, Mid-Autumn Tết …

– Martial arts: with doctrine based on the Yin Yang philosophy, on the Hard / Soft theory (e.g., Vovinam);

– Medicine heavily based on Qi with acupuncture …

– Music with the principle of Five Sounds (ngũ âm).

Because of their Far Eastern cultural characteristics, the cultures of the countries in this region bear several resemblances. That was the result of acculturation displayed under several forms. For the Vietnamese people, the cultural assimilation can be observed in two forms:

– Forced assimilation under the domination. Many Chinese administrators have forced the Vietnamese people to live like the Chinese people, to learn Chinese characters, philosophy, and custom;

– Voluntary or natural assimilation under independence (from 949 AD) accepted by Vietnamese leadership or by the co-existence of Lạc Việt and Chinese cultures, due to the presence of the written language, the philosophical thoughts and the social-political system.

The Far Eastern cultural characteristics within nthe Vietnamese culture can be recognized in studying the following structures:

– The organization by Confucian format of these two cultural centres: the village community hall, and the capital city of Thăng Long;

– Taoist cosmology within the cultural meaning of the New Year Tết, the Mid-Autumn Tết, and the way of ancestor worshipping.

The village community hall

Rural cultural centre

During the time when the social class of Nho intellectuals was developing with people such as Phạm Sư Mạnh (rising Trần Dynasty) and Lê Quí Đôn (declining Lê Dynasty), they used the Chinese cultural system as their thought framework with an orientation called “Nam nhân Bắc hướng = South people looking North.” That was why the organization of the village community halls and the capital city were impregnated with Confucian characteristics.

Short history

The community hall for the worship of Thành Hoàng was dated back to ancient times in China. Thành Hoàng[1] means the Deity who protected the fortresses, districts and provinces … In Trung Quốc thần bí văn hóa (China’s mystical culture) we can read this statement: “Thành hoàng tức là thành hào, hào có nước gọi là trì, không có nước gọi là hoàng. Đắp đất làm thành, đào hào làm hoàng = Thành hoàng also called thành hào, hào (trench) having water in it called trì (pond), without water in it called hoàng. To earth up to make fortress, to dig up earth to make trench.”

In 823, the Chinese adminikstrator Li Yuan Jia (Lý Nguyên Gia) constructed La Thành and built the temple for Su Li (Tô Lịch), Thành Hoàng of La Thành. In 866, Gao Pian (Cao Biền) elevated Tô Lịch to the rank of Đô Phủ Thành Hoàng Thần Quân (Guardian Diety of the Capital City).

Under the Đinh Dynasty, community halls were built in the ancient capital city of Hoa Lư to provide resting places for ambassadors. Immediately after the construction of the new capital city of Thăng Long, King Lý granted deity status to Bạch Mã and Tô Lịch with the rank of Quốc đô Thăng Long Thành Hoàng đại vương (Great Guardian Deity of National capital city Thăng Long).

Under the Trần Dynasty, community halls became resting places for the king and the madarins, relay stations for the communication of the royal court’s news to the local regions, and, finally, the places for the worship of thành hoàng, and also the office for the local administrators. The King issued instructions to “build Buddha statue for worship anywhere there is a community hall.” (Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư = Complete Book of History of Great Việt).

From the XV century onward, the Lê Dynasty, with deep respect for confucianism, had community halls built everywhere to serve as administrative centres for villages. The function of worshipping Thành Hoàng began and was formalized under the Mạc Dynasty[2].

When introducing community halls to villages, the Vietnamese people already had their original belief in deity worshipping. The combination with the Thanh Hoàng worship from the North was, therefore, easily made by bringing our local gods into the community halls and worshipping them as Thành Hoàng. The community hall was a foreign entity but carried a local Vietnamese content.

Within the background of the developing Nho studies, and the dominating Confucianism, the cultural centre of the community hall was formalized next to the cultural centre of the pagoda in villages.

About the Thành Hoàng

Temples are places for the permanent residence of deities with their statues while community halls are places for Thành Hoàng, for the worship of their spirits. The deities who are worshipped are of two categories: Deities of Heavenly Origin (legendary personalities) and Deities of Human Origin (real historical personalities) with their legends.

In 1572, King Lê Anh Tông ordered Nguyễn Bính to compile the legends of all of Thành Hoàng in order to issue decrees canonizing them placing them in three ranks (superior, medium, and inferior ranks).

From the reign of Lê Thánh Tôn onward, the royal court frequently issued these decrees. The deities’ genealogical data and their legends were recorded in texts or engraved on steles.

The royal decrees for the Thành Hoàng were issued based on the two following criteria: serving the king and protecting the people. Any decree would bear the following statement: “The deity was courageous, intelligent and talented, fighting the enemy, protecting the country, keeping the people in safety and peace.” No royal decree would be issued if Thành Hoàng had been a king.

The location for the construction of the community hall should be chosen according to feng shui, most often on a high mound, in front of a body of water like a river, a lake or a pond, and facing to the right direction, otherwise, “having rheumy eyes is caused by the direction of the community hall, everyone in the village has rheumy eyes, I am not the only one having them.” Often, community halls are facing south, which is also the preferred direction for people’s houses, according to the following popular belief: “number one to avoid is the corner of the pond, and number two is the roof corner of the community hall.”

Functions of the community hall

Community halls are the cultural and religious centres, symbolizing the collectivity and the democratic self-government of villages. Their most obvious cultural manifestation is the festival. The community hall has three main functions: religious, administrative and cultural.

Religious centre

The worshipped deity is the Thành Hoàng, the spiritual king and the guardian god of the village. Thành Hoàng could be:

– Natural deities playing roles of deities of human origin with earthly biographies, such as Sơn Tinh (God of Mountain), Thủy Tinh (God of Water);

– Deities of Human origin, who are historical personalities, such as Trần Hưng Đạo, Đinh Tiên Hoàng, the generals serving under the Trưng Sisters’ command, people having cleared new lands and established new villages …

Administrative function

Community halls are the centres of the administrative power of villages: the Council of Notables, the Council of Officials (resolving all village affairs) combined with the village charter, and called village rule. They are also the office and meeting hall for the village council and for ritual ceremonies, the tribunal, and the depot for collected taxes …

Cultural function

Community halls are the cultural centres of villages. “The banian tree, the river landing, the community hall yard” are deep-rooted in the minds and souls of the villagers. Community halls are centres for the preservation of:

– Custom such as the village festival, the anniversary of Thành Hoàng, ritual worship of deities, habits, architecture and sculpture, music, folk songs, folk games;

– Spiritual culture heritage, beliefs in the life of the village such as theatre, festival, legends, especially legend of Thành Hoàng’s compassion and attachment to the illagers. Therefore, every year each villager has its own festival, celebrating the anniversary of Thành Hoàng, the ritual ceremonies of preparing the rice growing season (thượng điền) and ending the rice growing season (hạ điền). The festival organized at the community hall is the peak of cultural activities of the village.

The festival is consisted of two parts:

– Lễ (ceremony): related to belief, religion. The ceremony is carried out in accordance with procedures determined by the royal court: when to offer alcohol, when to offer tea, when to offer fruits, and when to offer foods;

– Hội (festivity): Activities characterized by the participation and amusement of the villagers (the community hall yard is transformed into the stage for theatrical performces like quan họ, chèo…), also by some spiritual practices (praying for the season, praying for rain), and still by some rituals, performing the activities of the deity during the procession from the community hall to the terminal point called nghè, usually a shrine.

The functions of the community hall have provided the basic characteristics of the village, which are: the communityness and the self-government:

– Communityness: the close link of the community members expressed through the familiar image of the rural culture.

– Self-government: with village rules provided in the village contract, independent management of the economic, tax collection, thus the saying “phép vua thua lệ làng = the king’s rules come after the village rules,” and the following observation by a French researcher: Việt Nam is formed by thousands of governments.

Up to the August 1945 Revolution, the pagoda and the community hall were the two rural cultural centres:

– The pagoda was the centre for the preservation of local culture dated from Hùng Vương era (Mẫu Cult with medium rituals, betel chewing, black teeth, skirt wearing…) and the culture imported from China (Buddhism, Taoism, witchcraft…).

– The community hall was the administratie centre as well as the cultural centre for the preservation of the custom of the villagers such as festivals, village contracts.

From the XIV century, the community hall system has greatly developed in parallel with the development of the social class of Nho intellectuals and outshone the historial role of the pagoda in the old days. From that time on, the pagoda has become the main cultural activity centre for women (Buddhist ceremonies, pagoda festivals, praying for deities’ favours…) and the community hall for men (village management, rituals, classification of villagers…). Having survived though the thousand years of our history, these two cultural centres have created the well-established traditional cultural life of the Vietnamese rural environment.

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  1. Thành = fortress, hoàng = internal trench (Trench inside and wall outside to protect the village.

  2. Thanh Hà community hall (Hà Nội) has the oldest stele dated the third year of Thuận Thiên (1433); many old community halls, still existing today, are dated from the Mạc Dynasty era. There are now about 6 community halls dated from the XVI century (e.g., Phù Lưu community hall in Bắc Ninh province, Tây Đằng community hall in Hà Tây province …). Beginning with the XVII and XVIII centuries, community halls were built almost everywhere.