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Religion in Vietnam

A World of Gods and Spirits

Temple in Vietnam (vicguinda/Flickr)

Temple in Vietnam (vicguinda/Flickr)

A World of Gods and Spirits


God and Caesar in a Vietnamese Village

There is a Vietnamese saying which likens the village to a smaller version of the imperial court. In thinking about village religion, it is useful to bear this image in mind, for religion functioned within the village in the same way as it did at the imperial court, providing the oil which smoothed its operations.

Village affairs were conducted in the communal house, where all official documents pertaining to the village were deposited. These included village census rolls, tax and land records, and the all important village by-laws. The existence of these bylaws, a mixture of administrative rules, customary laws and religious guidelines, has led observers to give credence to the saying that the laws of the king must bow before village customs. In reality, these by-laws were always scrutinized by officials to make sure that they did not go against the spirit of imperial laws. Villages were far less autonomous than the popular saying would suggest.

As the nation had its patron deities -- the dragon-king and the turtle god -- so had each village its own deity responsible for the well-being of its inhabitants. Sometimes the village god was its founder, but it could also be a particularly famous former inhabitant or a locally-recognized deity. The state exerted control over village religion by investing village gods with its stamp of approval. Thus graciously granted recognition, the god was enthroned in the national pantheon of deities to whom it was permitted to give worship. It came as a shock to 19th century officials that in one village, the inhabitants had chosen a thief as their village god, and in another, a famous rebel. In still another, the village inhabitants had chosen a woman of dubious morals. Religion was too important for peasants to exercise their whimsy. It was the officials' duty to persuade them to choose a more suitable object of veneration. Then there was the vexing question of local cults, in particular fertility rites, which made peasants behave in ways definitely not sanctioned by Confucian ethics. Not to mention the pervasive presence of Buddhist pagodas and Taoist temples, and the possible subversive activities of various practitioners of popular religion. But all this exercised the ire of state officials much more than the peasants. What tore Vietnamese communities apart was Christianity's challenge to village religion.

Just as the court could not function without the proper religious ceremonies, no village affairs could be conducted without the proper worship to the village god. There existed a religious council in each village to ensure that ceremonies were carried out properly. What happened then, when some members of the village did not subscribe to the same religion as the majority of their fellow villagers? What happened if some refused to worship the village god? The court had been spared the dilemma when the Catholic crown prince died. But for many villages, there was no avoiding a confrontation. The Catholic religion expressly forbade the worship of false idols. So how could Vietnamese Catholics participate in village life which always began with the requisite rites to the tutelary god? Either they must be barred from doing so, or else village life would have to be restructured in a fundamental way. Another vexing issue was the authority of the parish priest which took precedence, in the eyes of his flock, over the authority of the village council.

The easiest way out of this dilemma was for Catholics to secede from their native villages and establish new ones under the leadership of their parish priests. Often, the new villages existed side by side with the original ones. Sometimes, however, the priest led his parishioners into uncultivated areas and founded entirely new communities. In these overwhelmingly Catholic villages, it was possible for the Vietnamese Christians to lead their lives according to the dictates of their faith. However, resettlement did not end friction with non-Catholic communities nor with the state, for not only did Catholics refuse to acknowledge as ultimate authority either the village god, or the emperor, they also did not worship their own ancestors, a sign of moral turpitude. Instead they worshipped a cross upon which was nailed a half-naked man, and they believed in the most extraordinary nonsense. At least, so it appeared to Emperor Minh Mang (1820-1840) after he conscientiously perused the Bible:

This Western book says that in the age of Yao there was a flood. Their country' s prince used one great ship and took all the people and birds and animals within the country and fled to occupy the inaccessible top of a high mountain. [The book] also says that at the time of this flood within their country there only existed seven people. Later the people daily increased but all of them stemmed from the ancestry of these seven people. Such a theory is truly unfounded [The book] also says that their country had one prince who led the people of the country to manufacture and erect a heavenly pagoda. Its height was goodness knows how many thousands of truong and he wanted to climb it and roam the heavenly palace in order to examine conditions in heaven. The emperor of heaven was afraid and immediately ordered heavenly bureaucrats to come down and change their tones [languages], causing them to be unable mutually to work together. Hence they were unable to complete their pagoda. That every place in their country now has different languages and customs is attributed to this. This theory is even more irrational.

Throughout much of the 19th century, Catholics were persecuted, for the alien nature of their beliefs, for their insistence on putting God above the emperor, and for their suspected links with the foreigners who threatened Vietnamese independence. Catholics were the victims of the most extreme efforts at suppression, but others also suffered, as the state asserted as never before its claims to ultimate religious and political authority.