Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Hầu Bóng | The Cult of The Immoral

I found this fascinating short movie on my Facebook timeline. The many readers of my blog know of the recent publication of my book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam (on Amazon), and this short movie which was filmed in 1934 not only fits perfectly fits in the book's narrative, but also provides me with an incomparable view of the past, and how the ceremonies I documented were conducted over 80 years ago.

If the movie doesn't play, click here to watch it on YouTube.

Let me start by the title of the movie: in French it reads the cult of the immoral. French colonialism in Vietnam lasted more than six decades, and by the late 1880s it controlled Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, which it referred to as Indochine Francais. It became one of France’s most lucrative colonial possessions.

The French justified their imperialism as being a ‘civilising mission’, a pledge to develop backward nations. Consequently, most indigenous traditions were considered as barbaric, especially those that related to religion.

In my book, I highlight the role of Père Léopold Michel Cadière (1869–1955), a French missionary who wrote 250 research works about Vietnamese history, religions, customs, linguistics and who described Đạo Mẫu (the worship of mother goddesses in Vietnam) as being a cult, ignoring its ancient history and indigenous character throughout Vietnam. The French, through brutal force, intimidation and jail sentences, tried to eradicate the religion but this only reinforced its practice, but pushed it underground.

I've attended a large number of hầu đồng ceremonies during my research, and have not encountered female singers in the chầu văn that perform during the ceremonies. I was told that only males could be chầu văn singers, however in the movie it is most certainly a woman's voice that is heard accompanying the medium during her performances.

By the way, hầu đồng, Hầu Bóng or Lên đồng are interchangeable names for the ritual of spirit mediumship practiced in the Vietnamese indigenous religion, Đạo Mẫu.

The socialist government frowned on the practice but relented a few years ago as it was viewed as extolling the traditional values of the Vietnamese, their virtues, history and culture. It is now being considered by UNESCO for inclusion in its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List.

However, many Vietnamese I met in New York City and elsewhere in the United States still consider it as a prohibited activity, or as superstition. A few have never heard of it.