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Traditional festivals face new challenges

Update: January, 30/2012 - 08:53

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has planned to tighten inspection and regulations so that traditional festivals will be organised more carefully to improve safety and order. Viet Nam News reporters Bich Huong and Hong Minh sat down to talk to a culture official, a culture professor and a Japanese observer, on the current situation of traditional festivals in Viet Nam.

What do you think the position of traditional festivals is in peoples' lives, especially during these modern times?

Ngo Duc Thinh, director of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Culture

 

Ngo Duc Thinh
When it comes to traditional festivals, they are part of Viet Nam's traditional culture, and help honour cultural values and immunise unhealthy culture penetration from outside.

Vietnamese are lucky to have many traditional festivals as these festivals present important values. First, it creates an association and honours community strength at the village, region and country level, when the whole community is moving forward at the same time.

Also, as traditional festivals usually go with a religion or belief, it helps people maintain balance between material life and spiritual life, especially with the stresses of modern life, where people are seemingly programmed to live and work.

Festivals are an environment for people to go back to their roots, to learn about their origins through word of mouth, performance and their own experiences in the festival. It is a way to learn about history, which is much better than reading a textbook at school. They are living and breathing culture museums, ensuring the longevity of the country's culture.

Traditional festivals are environments to nurture traditional culture.

Yoshioka Norihiko, Deputy Director of the Japan Foundation Centre for Cultural Exchange in Viet Nam

I do not know how you define "traditional festivals," but in Japan, there are more than 350 festivals, including major festivals, in 47 provinces. Some are the really traditional ones while others are very contemporary and have developed over decades - say 20 to 30 years. There are also a kind of traditional festival for the younger people, who have grown up with such festivals in their region.

A traditional festival is usually organised by the region, and can be highly sophisticated. People have a very sophisticated ritual for symbolising the unity of the region or the spiritual meaning it might have. For such festivals, there are a lot of challenges since it is very sophisticated, it requires lots of time to practice. It is not only for fun because it has a meaning. So generation after generation, people have developed how to pray to the God or how to perform on the temples and pagodas. In this modern era, it has become difficult for younger generations to take over because they do not have enough time to practise. So the quality of rituals is becoming lower and lower.

In Japan, sometimes the older generations complain that the younger generations are not participating enough. Meanwhile, the younger generations do not understand why they have to take part, and there is a gap of how each generation perceives their region. The elders can feel intimacy, like we are members of the community through such rituals, but for the younger people, they have more choices in festivals in the area, rather than following what the elders tell them to do. On the other hand, the government officers of the region and the community think about how to attract the younger generation to the traditional festivals and also some of the community start to think about how to attract more tourists, too. So they have created new festivals for such purposes or adopted some new tastes, even for traditional ones. We can say that they have been successful in inviting more visitors to festivals than before but again they have the conflict with the elder generation. So one challenge to traditional festivals is whether it should be traditional-oriented or tourism-oriented. Some of the traditional festivals also have conflicts with the environment and contain rituals that damage the environment.

The public have raised concern about the changing nature of festivals and their values for years, as negative images including gambling and overcharged services have been seen in festivals. What do you think about this?

Tran Minh Chinh, deputy director of the Culture Department, Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism

 


Tran Minh Chinh
They have been problems with festivals for years but it will take time to solve them properly. Since the celebration of the 1000th birthday of Thang Long Ha Noi in 2010, we have succeeded in celebrating cultural activities including festive ones. The celebration revealed the shortcomings of festival management and organisation such as wasting money, superstition, gambling, and chaos in the streets. Insufficient infrastructure leading to overcrowding at festivals was a major cause of these problems.

So, last year, the culture ministry was granted Prime Ministerial approval for a directive to improve festival management and organisation. Six ministerial inspection groups were sent to localities last year to examine their management and organisation. Previously, the groups were usually led by the head of culture, heritage or inspection departments but last year, ministry leaders including the minister visited areas to inspect, which presented more care to this field of culture.

It was reported that there has been an improvement in festival management and organisation last year as big festivals at Tran Temple in northern Nam Dinh Province, Huong Pogoda in Ha Noi's suburban district, Yen Tu Pagoda in northern Quang Ninh Province and Ba Chua Xu were successful.

This year, the ministry and localities want to keep improving. Within this month alone, the ministry's leaders and inspectors have travelled to check preparation for festivals nation-wide. Localities are asked to publicise relevant legal regulations and to raise awareness in preserving relics and cultural values, and behaving properly in holy places. Moreover, local government needs to estimate the number of visitors to come so that they can better prepare.

Thinh: Traditional festivals used to be misunderstood in Viet Nam during war time and during the middle of last century. They were accused of wasting time, money and affected the country's production because people thought festivals meant entertainment. Moreover, when traditional festivals went along with religious ritual, they were considered part of feudalism, which needed removing. This resulted in an interruption in the flow of traditional festivals in Viet Nam, making a gap in Vietnamese people's knowledge about the festivals.

Many festivals were inadvertently buried for a long time and have recently been revived. The break in cultural flow caused phenomena threatening the health of the festivals. For example, some festivals lost their typical features, making them the same or similar to others. The monotone nature of festivals could make room for new things, in many cases, the new are not suitable with the old. It's ridiculous to see a beauty contest or play video games in Lim Festival which features "quan ho" (Bac Ninh Province's folk singing.

The most concerning problem now is that festivals are commercialised and distorted. People are secularising festivals, offering different types of services instead of a chance to worship. Many make the festivals an opportunity to make money.

In other cases, festivals became the place for local governments to report their achievements. Professional troupes are hired to perform in traditional festivals, which I think is unusual. Let local people hold the festivals by themselves. Management offices and local governments should focus on orienting, guiding and managing safety and security for the community.

The culture ministry in Viet Nam has planned the inspection and tightening the management and organisation of festivals, especially the traditional ones. Do you think this plan is feasible, given the fact that there are some 7,000 festivals here?

Yoshioka: I have been to some temples and pagodas in Viet Nam in their festive days. One problem I observe is that people there are not "friendly". "Friendly" I mean here in the sense that people around the temples and pagodas just think about the festive days as a good chance to earn money. As I went there by bike, people grasped me to park my bike somewhere and ask for a fee of VND30,000 (US$1.5) [which is five or six times higher than regulated]. It is too expensive! Also for whatever I wanted to buy, they also tried to increase the prices. Those people have ruined the image of the festivals.

 

Yoshioka Norihiko
I think the Government can think more about the platform. I mean the supportive functions, not try to control the festivals directly. For example, if people around there try to earn money from the festivals, it means that they cannot earn enough money in the other days. So maybe the overall economic structure should improve the change.

Also the Government had better have some pilot projects for some festivals. This aims to show people that if we do the festivals in a very effective way, more people will come and visitors will feel more comfortable going there, even more foreigners. And by that way, they can also earn more money without tricks. I think if we can show such examples to people, they can change their minds. I do not know whether people around the event site have a strong affection for the community or not. But it's better to get support from people around the sites. If there is a rule to control them, they might obey the rule. But it is not that they have changed their minds.

Besides some small local festivals, there are some very outstanding festivals in Viet Nam, such as the Hue Festival and Hoi An Festival. I do not see any tricky problems as I mentioned before.

What should be done to better preserve traditional festivals, especially when Viet Nam targets to develop culture tourism in which festivals are identified key tourism products?

Thinh: It's crucial to provide people with a proper understanding about traditional values, religion and beliefs presented through each festival. As they understand, they would change their behaviour. To introduce Vietnamese culture to tourists, Vietnamese people are first equipped with proper understanding and respect for their own values.

Publicising legal regulations is also necessary but it's not enough because many people now don't know about any regulations, others know but they ignore and they still violate them because punishment is not strict enough.

Chinh: With sufficient legal frameworks of this field, management offices and local governments are required to make more efforts to introduce laws to people. However, policy makers also need to improve the consistency of legal documents. For example, there is a ban on burning votive paper and effigy already but votive paper production is still allowed, thus this year, the ministries of culture, finance and industry and trade need to sit together to find a solution. Policies are also needed to encourage people and the private sector join hands to preserve cultural values. There are good examples including privately-built Bai Dinh Pagoda and Do Temple worshipping eight Kings of Ly Dynasty, the temple is wholly operated with donations. As a management office, our major task is to instruct and support people in preservation.

Yoshioka: In Japan, normally we form an organising committee which includes the local governmental officers, heads of temples and pagodas, community leaders, professors and many others. The committee will take charge in planning on the organisation of festivals, including careful estimations of the potential number of visitors to the festivals, garbage sites and accommodation. The government will also support to provide security. The management and organisation of festivals are completely decentralised to local authorities. People in Japan now see that a regulated and well-organised festival is a very good tool to attract more visitors. So localities started to compete with each other. In the past, people used to try to sell things expensively, too. But nowadays I feel people are more "friendly". — VNS

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