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Local festivals embody cultural identity

Update: February, 21/2016 - 05:32

by Hoang Anh

It's that time of the year, again. Following the end of Tet, the first month of the year in Viet Nam is filled with numerous spring festivals and celebrations, many of which can trace their origins back to ancient times. They have helped to preserve Vietnamese cultural identity and historical value.

Besides major festivals such as the Chua Huong (Perfume) Pagoda Festival, which have been elevated to become a part of tradition, there are also local festivals that are playing an important role in not only showcasing the unique cultural heritage of all Vietnamese communities, but also in maintaining spiritual links to their roots.

However, a number of practices at local festivals have come under strong scrutiny in recent years. Notable cases are those at the pig sacrifice festival in Nem Thuong Village in the northern province of Bac Ninh and the Giong festival in Phu Dong Village on the outskirts of Ha Noi. Both were labelled as inappropriate and not suitable to modern social standards.

The Nem Thuong festival was mainly criticised for one of its main acts that showed the slaughtering in public of two pigs.

Hong Kong-based charity organisation Animal Asia Foundation (AAF) went so far as to describe the pig-slaughter scene as a "barbaric cruelty" in an attempt to mobilise public support to stop the festival in 2015.

The sacrificial pigs were slaughtered out of public sight in this year's festival, which took place last week, disappointing many local people who said the slaughter was crucial to the festival's meaning, as it was the enactment of an historical event that started the tradition hundreds of years ago.

According to legend, a famous general of the Ly Dynasty more than 10 centuries ago slaughtered a wild boar to feed his soldiers to fight off northern invaders. Local people believe that the festival is an opportunity to teach younger generations about patriotism and bravery.

They fear that with the enactment event taken off, the festival may fade away in obscurity.

Distinguished figures such as historian Duong Trung Quoc and Professor Nguyen Chi Ben, member of the National Council for Cultural Heritage, had voiced their support for the continuation of the festival, saying that the local community's will should be respected in this matter and its cultural value preserved.

It is understandable that outsiders, without a full understanding of the origin as well as the historical and cultural value of the festival, may find it difficult to appreciate the bloody scene.

Not everyone knew that the pigs were carefully raised and revered as holy sacrifice to the local patron saint, Professor Tran Ngoc Them from the Viet Nam National University-HCM City said.

Them said in comparison to Spanish bullfighting in which the bulls were slowly bled before being killed, the pigs in the Nem Thuong festival were killed as quickly as possible (usually in one clean cut) to avoid unnecessary suffering by the animals.

Another local festival that has been criticised by the public is the Giong festival. Many said the festival allegedly promoted violence as it allowed people to scramble for a piece of offering after the ceremony was completed. It is believed that it would bring luck during the year to those who managed to get their hands on some offerings.

Locals said they joined the fray for fun and most wouldn't get upset or disappointed even if they did not get anything. Just being a part of their hometown's long-time tradition was enough.

The scramble was never meant to include hundreds of outsiders, most of whom took part thinking about themselves only and, caring very little about the meaning of the tradition to the local people, would swoop in for the offering before the ceremony was over.

The situation got out of hand when the festival organisers couldn't foresee that the mob would get angry because they were stopped from taking the offerings.

Perhaps some of us, who were too quick to judge, should take a more understanding approach when we look at these local festivals. When it comes to traditions, it takes a lot more than just logical minds and common social standards to fully comprehend the meaning behind them.

In addition, the organisers of such festivals should also understand that their local events are no longer local in this day and age, when modern media can provide detailed coverage of their festival for the rest of the country and beyond.

Measures must also be taken to communicate the meaning and value of such festivals to visitors and the media. Ensuring that visitors get a better understanding of their cultural and historical value would help the organisers not only to manage their events, but also promote local heritage.

This is especially important in the age of globalisation, where countries face a daunting challenge to preserve their own cultural identities. — VNS

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