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The art of mediumship as performance

Update: February, 21/2016 - 10:36
Spiritual journey: To bring worship of Mother Goddesses closer to the public, many hau dong performances have been held on stages to attract people's attention. — VNS Photo Manh Minh

Modernity threatens to wash away the old rituals of Mother Goddess worship, but it has found new life as meaningful entertainment for the public. Minh Thu reports.

When a spirit is about to be incarnated, a red cloth is placed over the medium's head by assistants who surround the medium.

Following the onset of possession, the assistants remove the head cloth and dress the medium in the special clothes of the spirit incarnated. The medium then performs a conventional sequence of ritual acts and dances.

Although some individual spirits carry out distinctive acts and have their own dances, the ritual sequence for each spirit rank exhibits some similarities.

That is the performance of hau dong, a ritual of dao Mau (Mother Goddess worship), which originated in Viet Nam centuries ago.

While Viet Nam is seeking UNESCO recognition of this distinctive belief as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity, cultural authorities and activists have been trying to promote the heritage and preserve its identity, especially in the context of modern time and integration process.

Ngo Duc Thinh, director of Viet Nam Belief Culture Research and Preservation Centre in Ha Noi and vice chairman of the Asian Folklore Council, is known as a leading expert in the Mother Goddess religion in Viet Nam. He has spent years researching this heritage.

He pointed out that the Mother Goddess religion has four issues, which are associated with the community. First, it considers nature as the mother and worships her. Second, it brings to people living in this world three things: happiness, prosperity and longevity. These are the eternal wishes of humans. Third, it clearly reflects patriotism, which has become the people's spirit and belief.

This is shown by the fact that almost 50 genies worshipped by the Mother Goddess religion are historical celebrities who have rendered great services to the nation, such as Tran Hung Dao worshipped as Saint Tran.

Fourth, the Mother Goddess religion is a multi-cultural belief. This is the sole significance because it exists only in Vietnamese belief. Of these 50 genies, over ten are from ethnic minorities, showing that from the early time the Vietnamese people were aware of cultural integration.

"The Mother Goddess religion is fair to everybody, regardless of ethnicity, (majority or minority), and is willing to open the door to receive multi-cultures. This is the issue of mankind that the whole world is calling for," Thinh said.

The Four Palaces include Thien Phu (Heaven), ruled by Mau Thuong Thien (Mother Goddess of the upper sky), Nhac Phu (Forest) ruled by Mau Thuong Ngan (Mother Goddess of forest), Thuy Phu (Water) ruled by Mau Thoai (Mother Goddess of Water) and Dia Phu (Earth) ruled by Mau Dia (Mother Goddess of Earth).

The Four Palaces are where spirits of the Four Palaces reside in Vietnamese indigenous religion. The colours of the clothes of mediums reflect the token colour of each of the four spirits of which they are possessed. The chair of the four spirits is found in many temples in Viet Nam.

The Mother Goddess is commonly associated with spirit mediumship rituals known as hau dong, in which followers become mediums for 36 various deities. Sessions involve a number of artistic elements, such as music, singing, dance and the use of costumes.

Although the cultural authorities had initially proscribed the practice of such rituals, deeming them to be superstitions, they relented in 1987, once again legalising their practice.

Thinh was born in the northern province of Nam Dinh where there are many pagodas, temples and shrines dedicated to Mother Goddesses.

Polytheistic: Hau dong is a Mother Godddess ritual in which followers become mediums for 36 deities. VNS Photo Viet Thanh

"When I was young I used to go to pagodas to watch women performing a trance singing and dancing and receive a gift from them. The gift was only a string of five jujubes, not as abundant as the gifts today."

"When I grew up I still had a question: 'Why does the spirit medium ritual still exist although it was prohibited by the authorities for a period of time?' The work I am doing now is to find an answer for this question," Thinh said.

Mother Goddess worship and hau dong have become part of Vietnamese people's spiritual life. The belief comes from people and lives in people's hearts, according to researcher Thinh.

Cultural treasure

Nowadays, hau dong is not seen as a religious ritual only but also plays as a part in the traditional cultural treasure. It combines performing art, singing, dancing and music.

"The spirit medium ritual is simply known as a performance based on the use of music with spiritual identity and refined lyrics together with the solemn rites and forms of dances," Prof Barley Norton from Goldsmiths University, London said.

"It is believed that this ritual can help people communicate with the deities via the mediums," he said.

He suggested that mediumship may be understood as an affective system in which emotions are embedded in a spiritual and human landscape, which relates to the ethnicity, gender, and place of spirits.

To bring the worship of Mother Goddesses close to the public, to retain the beauty of Viet Nam's cultural heritage and introduce it to global audience, Viet Theatre produces a series of hau dong performances.

There are two shows each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at Cong Nhan Theatre, 42 Trang Tien Street, Ha Noi. They are the combination of traditional art and contemporary stage techniques.

Every six months, the content of the programme will be changed so that the audience can enjoy the entire 36 sessions of the full trial.

The Viet Nam National Commission for UNESCO hosted a performance on Thursday night, free of charge, and drew the attention of many people.

Ethnomusicologist Tran Quang Hai highly appreciated the effort of artists and cultural managers to bring hau dong to perform on stages.

"I appreciate artists like Hoai Linh and Xuan Hinh who love traditional art and want to promote it," he said, adding, "They actually use their fame and influence to lure audience to come to enjoy and understand hau dong."

However, Hai also warned that developing hau dong as a kind of performing art can result in it losing or changing its true value and original features.

"I agree that the promotion of hau dong heritage needs the support and involvement of famous artists. However, organising hau dong performances on stages can harm the traditional art."

"I attended one such performance of Xuan Hinh and I realised that the artist committed an error of costumes and gestures that did not suit the traditional ritual."

The audience surrounded the stage and the very loud music also destroyed the required solemn atmosphere for the ritual, he said. — VNS

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