Laurel Kendall, a professor of anthropology affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History, has been visiting Viet Nam and working with Vietnamese researchers for many years. Most recently, she helped the Vietnamese Women's Museum organise an exhibit on Mother Goddesses worship, a Vietnamese folk belief with a long history. She talks with Culture Vulture.
Why did you select Viet Nam's Mother Goddesses worship as the subject of your research?
Personally, I became interested in Mother Goddesses worship more than 10 years ago, when I had the opportunity to witness a hau dong (mediumship) ritual.
I have extensive experience with kut (shaman rituals) in South Korea and have researched and written about them for more than 30 years now. There seemed to be many similarities between the two sets of practices: the costumes are borrowed from the ancient dress of royal courts and officials, and the shaman or medium performs as a sequence of gods wearing different costumes. The costumes help to make the god present.
Also, in both traditions, there is a sense that the god is being entertained with music, dance, and beautiful offerings. That said, the style of hau dong is completely Vietnamese – the music, dance, the cut of the costumes and of course the identities of the gods. These similarities and differences attracted me.
As a research topic for an exhibition, we chose this because there was a high level of interest among the team and because this is a very visible phenomenon that we could translate into an effective and beautiful exhibit. We were also able to do most of the research in and around Ha Noi.
How did you go about trying to understand the Mother Goddesses beliefs?
I have attended many hau dong rituals throughout Viet Nam and have observed the beauty and joy of the performances.
The spiritual rite is a type of performance art during which the medium wears beautiful costumes and jewellery, dances and tells stories of the gods and heroes through music.
Each god has his or her own story and appearance so the medium changes costumes and movements in order to attract the audience.
After the performances, I talked with the mediums and Mother Goddesses' followers who explained their beliefs.
They venerate Mother Goddesses and the gods, who reward their good deeds, punish immoral acts and bestow health and fortune.
The central principles of the faith were selected to be the exhibition's title: Heart, Beauty and Joy. We spent a very long time thinking about what we wanted to say and reaching an agreement about what we would like to present. I can't do better than that.
Was it difficult to be a foreigner researching this topic?
Language is always the most difficult issue for me. The most important thing about this kind of research is to try to understand not just what people are saying but what they really mean and feel. Research is an on-going process. Just as Vietnamese people deepen their understanding of the Mother Goddess over time, the researcher also hopes to broaden her knowledge through acquaintance.
You organised an exhibit called Viet Nam, Journey of Body, Mind and Spirit in the US and released a book with the same name. Would you please say something about the book and the exhibition?
When one plans an exhibit, one establishes some modest goals for the visitors' understanding. In the case of Vietnam Journeys, we understood that the American public knew very little about Viet Nam beyond the American War. In the exhibit we wanted to present Viet Nam today as a very dynamic place. We wanted to also show how Vietnamese traditions are alive in the country today.
We wanted our visitors to be curious, to want to learn much more than we could include in a single exhibit.
You have spent much time and effort researching Vietnamese culture. You also received the noble Friendship Medal. Can you reflect on your experience in Viet Nam?
I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work in Viet Nam with Vietnamese scholars and researchers. My field of interest is popular religion and I am very happy to have met many scholars who share these interests. I would have been able to do nothing in Viet Nam without the team of Vietnamese researchers both at the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology and the Vietnamese Women's Museum, and my understanding would have been very limited without my conversations with Vietnamese scholars. — VNS