Last update: 09:10 | 13/03/2016
Associate Professor, Dr Nguyen Thi Hien from the Vietnam Institute of Culture and Art Studies talks about the true effect of this ritual recently.
Spirit possession ritual and cultural identity
Q: Is the len dong (spirit mediumship) ritual popular around the world? And to what extent do local communities concern themselves with this ritual?
A: Spirit mediumship or shamanism is a global phenomenon and considered a form of religious practice among many communities in Africa, the Middle East, Asia-Pacific, South Asia and Southeast Asia.
Kut or gut, a ritual of Korean shamanism, was previously considered a primitive and superstitious practice which needed rooting out, but such efforts have failed because the practice is based on the fundamentals of human nature.
In the late decades of the 20th century, the government of the Republic of Korea recognised the kut ritual as a national heritage, reflecting important aspects of the Korean cultural identity which need to be passed on to future generations.
Q: The worship of Mother Goddesses, which is pending UNESCO recognition, has been often mistakenly identified as len dong or hau dong. What do you think about this misunderstanding?
A: Hat van (a form of hymn singing) and len dong are only the practices of the worship of Mother Goddesses.
Vietnam’s dossier for the worship of Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms represents a consistent view of the Vietnamese people’s Mother Goddesses worship custom, comprised of many spiritual, ritual and traditional cultural elements.
What we want to highlight is cultural identity and spiritual tradition passed on from generation to generation.
Here, len dong is not the only practice but there are also festivals, pilgrimages and a system of knowledge and traditional culture of the Vietnamese people, all manifested in the worship of Mother Goddesses.
It is also a narrow view that Vietnam submits this nomination file only to emancipate the len dong ritual. We should have a broader view about the worship of Mother Goddesses in a cultural entirety.
Q: Some foreign researchers regard the Vietnamese worship of Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms (particularly the len dong ritual) as one of the most appealing among nominations submitted to UNESCO for inclusion in its list of intangible heritage of humanity. What about experts in the advisory bodies?
A: The len dong ritual is noted for its inviting combination of pulsating rhythms, and attractive and mystical body language.
We all know that ethnic communities across Vietnam possess plenty of cultural heritages of significant value to their spiritual life.
In the spirit of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, the importance is that communities, groups or individuals recognise the practice as part of their cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation.
The heritage provides them with a sense of identity and continuity. For intangible heritage, UNESCO recommends not using a number of descriptions such as characteristic, unique, most distinctive, original and authentic to avoid misunderstanding of the Convention.
Q: In your opinion, what is the most attractive to participants in a len dong ritual -- music, costumes, the order of spirit manifestations or the giving of blessings?
A: The len dong ritual is a practice of folk culture, which combines many elements: belief, music, ritual activities, costumes and the giving of blessings. Its appeal depends on practitioners and participants.
Some, because of their beliefs, become practitioners or take part in the ritual to pray for blessings from divine beings.
Some partake because of their enthusiasm for music and some join simply because they find it joyful, interesting and like to receive a lot of favour.
The appeal of len dong is its ability to entice many to practise and participate in the ritual.
Safeguarding measures needed to avoid desecration
Q: Recently, the len dong ritual has been put on stage and popularised for entertainment purposes. The ritual is performed in theatres, cafes and even fashion shows. In your opinion, is this ritual being desecrated and deprived of the religious aspect of Mother Goddesses worship?
A: I think the performances of len dong on stage for artistic purposes will enhance the value and appeal of this ritual.
Such performances will help more people to understand this religion as well as the fate of those who have the ‘root’ for mediumship and have to present themselves to their spirits.
As a result, society will have a more positive attitude towards mediums and hymn singers, the ones who safeguard and transmit Vietnamese cultural values in the practices of the worship of Mother Goddesses.
Theatrical performances should be used to promote artistic elements of the len dong ritual.
The audience should have an opportunity to appreciate aesthetic and elegant performances as works of art.
On the other hand, I think half-theatrical and half-ritual shows are offensive and violate the procedure and format of a folk ritual.
Rituals should be performed in a proper way, otherwise performers will be ‘punished’ by the spirits.
When len dong is performed on stage, ritual elements should be removed and only artistic elements should be kept.
Similar to what happens during then [a religious ritual of the Tay people] singing festival, it is simply performances of dan tinh [a type of stringed instrument] and singing, independent of religious rituals.
Q: If the worship of Mother Goddesses is recognised as a cultural heritage of humanity, what steps will the Institute take to preserve and promote this belief?
A: For the worship of Mother Goddesses, we have no intention of organising performance festivals, separating the ritual from its original space within the palaces dedicated to Mother Goddesses.
We plans to restore festive elements which have fallen into oblivion, continue to document expressions of the heritage such as music, and continue to make an inventory of practices of the religion.
We want to have more active measures to honour hymn singers, understand the life and role of mediums in performing the len dong ritual, as well as the active role of community members and temple guardians who organise traditional festivals to honour deities of the Mother Goddess pantheon.
Thank you very much.Nhan Dan