A study on Vietnamese beliefs of the Hung King

Xu Fangyu 徐方宇. A study on Vietnamese beliefs of the Hung King 越南雄王信仰研究. Guangzhou: Shijie Tushu Chuban Guangdong Youxian Gongsi 广州:世界图书出版广东有限公司, 2013.11

Reviewed by Phuc-Anh Nguyen

Keywords: folk memory 民间记忆, national identity 国家认同, ethnic identity 民族认同, political symbols 政治象征

This monograph focuses on the role of the belief in and worship of the Hung King in the process of Vietnamese state and nation-building from the the 14th Century to today. Xu Fangyu works with a range of theories associated with scholars such as Eric Hobsbawm, Maurice Halbwachs, Michel Foucault, Benedict Anderson, Victor Turner, Henri Bergson, and Pierre Bourdieu, combining their theoretical frameworks to deal with the phenomenon of the Hung King. While occasionally misunderstanding or poorly defining its terms, the book is nevertheless notable for providing a new account of the Hung King as folklore. Departing from conventional accounts of the Hung King as a “historical fact” 历史事实, the author considers the Hung King to be a “social fact” 社会事实 (pp.16).

The book’s most important theoretical contribution is to study the Hung King as the “‘institutionalized’ choice of Vietnam to build a nation-state identity across the country as well as throughout the world” (pp. xxii). This contrasts with positivist historical approaches that take history to be the practice of confirming or denying the existence of the Hung King. Xu approaches the legend and worship of the Hung King as a form of “collective memory” 集体记忆, which was created at the intersection of views by the Vietnamese government and by ordinary people (pp. 16). By refering to well-known works on memory, Xu holds that “collective memory” can be transmitted through religious ritual (Emile Durkheim), ceremonial ritual (Paul Connerton), and performance (Henri Bergson). Xu also draws on Eric Hobsbawm’s theory of invented tradition. She describes collective memory as a strategy for inventing traditions of a community comprised of people who share the same memory of historical events. In her interpretation of Hobsbawm, the invented tradition, when applied to a nation, turns into the essence of “nationalism,” the “nation-state,” and its “national symbol.”

Although Xu cites Halbwachs, her understanding of “collective memory” is at odds with his original conceptualization, using “collective memory” mainly to refer to what Halbwachs terms “historical memory” (Halbwachs 1992, pp. 222). The “owner” of Halbachs’ “historical memory” does not remember the events directly, but perceives them through social institutions that combine individual memories for people who share a past experience. In Halbwachs theoretical framework, the Hung King can only be historical past, not individual past or personal memory. Reconstructed through archival and written materials, archeological discovery, and administrative and cultural activities, the author’s arguments about the Hung King are more convincing when she uses terms such as “imagined community” and “invented tradition.” The memory of Hung King has influenced the process of inventing the so-called “Vietnamese four-thousand-year-old tradition.” As Xu points out, the worship of the Hung King helped to trigger national consciousness, nurturing patriotic feelings and national identity, while promoting the Vietnamese tradition of respecting and memorizing ancestors (226).

Xu links the theory of collective memory to Anderson’s work on national identity, and to Foucault’s theories of power, to explain why the belief of the Hung King still has tremendous influence in contemporary Vietnamese society. Xu is one of the first scholars to examine Hung King using theories of collective identity and power. She demonstrates that after Ho Chi Minh visited the Hung King’s Temple in 1954 and 1962, the Hung Kings became central to the new official narrative of history, which was constructed through academic activities of state-managed institutions in northern Vietnam and gave the socialist state new cultural authority. This historical narrative remains at the core of socialist Vietnamese identity as promoted by the Communist Party, especially after the beginning of the reform period in 1986. The author’s ethnographic research on the Hung King Temple Festival and her analysis of recent policies demonstrate that the worship of the Hung Kings is a ritual performance of state politics (218) with the active participation of both the central and local government (222). These rituals, in her words, represent so-called “characteristics of Vietnamese traditional culture of offerings and sacrifices” (225). The argument would have been more consistent if Xu had not at times described “tradition” as something newly created or invented, but at other times used it in the sense of a deeply engrained Vietnamese culture.

Reading the belief in the Hung Kings as a political project, Xu shows how the state actively established the Hung King as the ancestor of all 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, redefining national identity, and creating a homogeneous nation. Since the late 19th century, the belief in the Hung Kings was no longer limited to communities around the Hung King Temple, which instead turned into a new sacred space symbolizing the origin of Vietnam as a nation-state, accompanied by state power, collective memory, ritual, and nationalism (184). Concentrating on the socialist state in northern Vietnam, the book fails to deal with the democratic state in southern Vietnam, which during the second Indochina War was creating a competing image of the Hung King. Although they were constructing different kinds of nationalism, both regimes depicted Vietnam as Hung King’s territory, whose integrity had to be protected against foreign invaders.

In short, the book is an ambitious project to apply a number of concepts, originally developed for different historical contexts, to the discussion of Vietnamese history. The author ultimately fails to fully achieve this task. For instance, she evokes Foucault without fully laying out how his concepts illuminate how Vietnamese governance techniques lead people to change their private lives according to standards of civility and morality. Nevertheless, the book is stimulating, casts new light on Vietnamese history, and might encourage others to carry out an even more accurate application of established theory to the Vietnamese context. Such an enterprise may not only change the way we think about Vietnam, but might also invite refinements of the original theories.

Halbwachs, Maurice (1992) On collective memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hobsbawm, Eric J. (1992) "Introduction: Inventing Traditions". In The Invention of Tradition. Canto ed. edition. E.J. Hobsbawm and T.O. Ranger, eds. Pp. 1-14. Cambridge University Press.