WORSHIPPING THE MOTHER GODDESS IN VIET NAM –
A MAIN AXIS OF TRADITIONAL-CULTURAL IDENTITY
A CELEBRATION FORM OF WOMANHOOD IN VIETNAMESE CULTURE
Doan Thi Doan Trinh
Researcher in the field of Cultural
History – Deputy Director of
Vietnam UNESCO History &
Culture Information Center.
Stimulated by the melodious drumbeats and gongs, the spring ceases
raindrops and calls for opening the Gate to Heaven connecting Three Worldsi.
This is also the moment when people’s consciousness falls into spiritual world
intended to gain help, good fortune throughout the year from the Mother
Goddess (also called Mother of Universe). People do believe that:
“Mother’s heart is passionate like the overflowing Ocean,
Her love is sweet and gentle like kite’s flute.”
Through the practices and beliefs of Maus, Viet Nam can be seen as a
country which promotes the democracy at the commune level, and the equity
among community always has a reflection in gender equality.
Scientists, through literature studies and practical research showed their
characteristic findings of the formation of Vietnamese nationality. They fold that
the Vietnamese traditional society is different from China, India, and other
neighbor countries in the Southeast Asian region. To describe the Vietnamese
society, researchers have jokingly put it as a common truth that there is none
man in Vietnam who did not excessively respect his wife”. The Vietnamese
expression which goes that an order from the Man is not of equal value like a
gong from the Womanii showed that although the power of the Woman is not
i Three worlds: The three levels of the state of existence in Samsara: (1) the world of desire, which comprises
hell, the realms of hungry spirits, animals, humans and some of the heavens; (2) the world of form, which
comprises some higher heavens; and (3) the world of non-form, which consists of supernal heavens.
ii in Vietnamese “lệnh ông không bằng cồng bà”
great, it anyway could be amplified via the decision of the Man relating to
societal matters. History also offers us many examples from national heroines
like the Two Sisters Trung, like Madam Trieu, and later during modern times
like Bui Thi Xuan and others during the two liberation wars where women never
have been underestimated.
In the field of religion (or belief), the Goddess usually was a Sacred
Mother with unlimited power, a Creative Mother, the Creator of all species and
all things, a Measureless Super Mother leading all other deities.
But just here, there is an interesting difference between Deities from
China, India and Vietnam. The Ones from China relied mainly on The Reasoniii
and on The Quintessenceiv
; the Ones from India relied mainly on philosophical
Transcendency, while our Vietmamese Mothers relied mainly on common sense
feelings thus feeding the thinking system of Vietnam with lyrical, flexible and
harmonious elements. One can see that unlike Chinese’s or Indian’s, the
Vietnamese wisdom focuses on the compassion … “Give to others the same pity
you want to give to yourselves”v, such feeling embraces generosity and
tolerance that later were realised in everyone’s behaviour.
In reality this is the soul and the feeling of the Mother and its incarnation
into one Woman. In the past, Vietnamese people once had access to many
ideologies worldwide, such as Brahmanism, Buddhism, then Christianism. But
the Mother element was the one that attracted people the most. People used to
follow any religion where the major element is the Goddess. And people also
invented their own Goddess they need in exchange for the original One. For
example, when Buddhism was widespread into Vietnam, people did not mind
about the philosophical theory of this religion, their main concern was the sacred
Mother Buddhavi. In fact, the Indian Buddha was a male character, but it has
changed into the Mother Quan Am while entering Vietnam to become a kind of
powerful and generous (Buddhist) Goddess. The same Goddess had also the
iii in Chinese “Lý”
iv in Chinese “Khí”
v in Vietnamese, thương người như thể thương thân
vi named in Vietnamese Quan Thế Âm Bồ Tát or Quan Âm
power to self-transform into different personalities bearing different names as
Phật Bà, Phật Mẫu, Quan Âm. We now can see in the Tien Son pagoda, Bac
Ninh province, the transversal wooden plate with transcriptions in Chinese
characters Quan Âm Thánh Mẫu i.e. the fusion of Buddha with the Mother
Buddha. One can also see in the Hương Tích pagoda, Ha Tay province the
fusion of the Water Goddess (Mẫu Thoải) into Quan Âm (the female Buddha)
greening the land during spring time festivities.
The same thing happened to Christianism in Vietnam. In the Bui Chu
region (Ninh Binh province), a great character Mẫu (Mother Goddess) has been
carved in the main window of the cathedral. Later, the “appearance” of Maria in
the famous cathedral of La Vang (Quang Tri province) entirely bore the profile
of the Mother Forest in the Mother Goddess worshiping.
When we enter in depth into other ideological systems like Confucianism
and Taoism, we’ll see that, when these systems were lacked of any Mother as
representative character, they would have less and less followers. The systems of
Confucianism and Taoism had a great impact on the elite of the society, mainly
consisting of men, buts they meet great obstacles to reach the mass. It is easy to
explain this by condemning its male gender centered confucianist position. One
can also explain the event by the lack of attractiveness of these male systems due
to the absence of any Confucianist or Taoist “Mother”. The results are shown in
daily exercises of the woman during the festivities far going beyond Confucianist
and Taoist worshiping rites …
Via the role of the woman in Mother Goddess, researchers also saw the
close link between different steps of development of Mother Goddess
Worshiping in Vietnam with the development of this nation (at least in the
Going through the chaotic prehistoric period, the animistic belief and
worshiping of plants and trees, stones and rivers, animals (with totemic
element)… , to reach the period of anthropomorphic deities, the role of Mother
Goddess have got their most important place. One can see the long period of
time when Vietnamese people were living in the forest and subsisting with
natural food, the distribution of task to women was the collecting of plants and
fruits. Certainly this source of food was more stable than the hunting. This
reality has led to the exclusive respect of the mother of the forest thus making
Her the first anthropomorphic deity, later called as Great Mother Forestvii, then
focused into Madam Dong Cuong (in Van Chan district between the two
provinces Yen Bai and Lao Cai), Her temple was close to the embankment of
the Red River – where the late professor Tran Quoc Vuong has found many Son
Vi Mid-Stone Age toolsviii.
The development tendency following the Red River down stream was a
Vietnamese historic necessity so that this nation could become later a wet rice
culture nation. The starting place was in Hien Luong (now in Phu Tho
province). In this area many thousands years ago beside the picking and hunting
economy Vietnamese people already grew plants and trees and knew how to
defend their domesticated land. A mother of the nation would then appear as a
national necessity, it was Madam Au Co. Naturally, this was a cultural heroin
born in the prehistoric time bearing the same character common to all humane
beings, i.e. the “flirting and copulating” with outsiders. This event clearly
demonstrated the combination of forestry, agriculture and fishing (later
integrated into the historic king named Lac Long Quan. From the legend of
Madam Au Co giving birth to one hundred eggs one can see the union of
different systems as Mon Khmer, Burmo-Tibetan, Tay Thai, Polynesian and
others to create the Viet-Muong system. The land for this union was Phu Tho
closed to the Viet Tri confluence of three rivers (the Red River, the Da River
and the Lo River). Since then and from there, Vietnamese people re-affirmed
their wet rice economy and gradually left the hills and mountains to reach the
delta, and to give birth to new cultural heroes and heroines like Tan Vien, Phu
Dong Thien Vuong …
vii In Vietnamese Thánh Mẫu Thượng Ngàn
viii although not yet the conclusion of my own.
Also from this area happened the period of splitting up after the period of
union: one branch would go down the River to become the Kinh ethnic group;
the other branch would cross the Da River then crossed the Son Tay, Hoa Binh,
to get the Center Vietnam to become the Muong ethnic group. The historic
immigration of the Kinh ethnic group seemed to stop at the borderline between
the High level Delta and the Low level Delta, namely the Phuc Yen-Bac Ninh
region. From there, the Viet folk would meet up with foreign cultures like
Brahmanism, Buddhism, and also from there begun their new life with northern
Han invading elements. These historic realities were closely linked to the path of
the religion and affected the change of the worshiping of Mother Goddess,
resulting in the birth of the Four Mother Elements. These are the Goddess linked
to the nature like the Mother Cloud, the Mother Rain, the Mother Thunder-
storm, the Mother Lightningix.
One dare to say that on the migrating way to the sea the pioneer was
Mother Au Co then appeared another cultural peak to give birth to a new Mother
Nation, namely Mother Man Nuong. Her “affairs” with Khau Da La was nothing
else than a common profile of the humanity, i.e. the “l… making” with
outsiders. More than that, this state of things reflected the fusion between
Buddhism and the local belief, in which there were not only the Brahmanist
elements, but also the Chinese thinking in the development from One Mother to
Four Mothers. The development of belief inside an agricultural economy in the
Low level Delta led to the Four System worshipping four powers linking to four
worlds: the Sky, the Water, the Earth and the Forest. Researchers have divided
them up according to their functions as:
– The first system with the creation function including these Mothers: Sky,
Forest, Water and Earthx.
– The second system with the realisation function as given by the Mothers
including Five Man Deitiesxi.
ix Later, under the Chinese influence, changed their names as Vân – Vũ – Lôi – Phong
x In Vietnamese: Thượng Thiên, Thượng Ngàn, Nước, Đất
xi In Vietnamese: Ngũ vị tôn ông
– The third system with the function as defenders of the creation
achievements including heroic people in the domain of building and
preserving the nation.
– The fourth system as an awarding one including people with good deeds
when they were alive and they would be reborn in the Universe of the
Mothers and become Young Men and Young Womenxii.
Seen generally, the first three systems were linked to deities in the world
of agriculture and in the domain of building and preserving the nation. The
fourth system can be seen as universal to the human kind now “appropriated”
into the Mother Goddess belief and religion.
The agricultural economy of Vietnam people once developed has pushed
up the development of the manufacture and the trading especially since the
XVIth century with the exploitation of the Red River by trading boats. The new
development has made room for a new Mother in the legend of Chu Dong Tu.
He has transformed himself from a Fish deity to a Trader deity to combine with
the Mother Agriculture Tien Dung and the Mother Forest Tay Sa to form a new
Mother Nation made by the Agriculture, the Trading and the Forestry as seen in
the prosperous Pho Hien in Hung Yen.
Then increasing role of the Trading and the trading spirit have strongly
influenced the worshipping of the Mother Goddess. We then witnessed the
appearance of the South Sea Mother Buddhaxiii closely linked to trading boats
and occupying an important place in the Vietnamese Buddhist shrines – the
favourable conditions as for the birth of the Mother Lieu Hanh as well as for the
union of Lieu Hanh and Mother Buddha.
All things well considered and after leaving away all elements of
superstition (necessarily taking shape in the process of development of the
folkloric belief) we can se in the Vietnamese tradition of the Mother Goddess
worshipping almost all steps of development of our nation and its decisive
xii In Vietnamese: Cô and Cậu
xiii In Vietnamese: Bà quan Âm Nam Hải
relation to the making of different Mother Deities. Speaking differently, we can
say that the development of deities inside the worshiping of Mother Goddess has
relatively demonstrated different steps in the Vietnamese long history.
Generally speaking, all modern religions in Vietnam were imported from
outside, we dare to say that only the folkloric belief in the worshipping of the
Mother Goddess can reflect the Vietnamese soul seen as the Vietnamese identity
and the protection of this state of mind so that Vietnamese people could never
become a copy or a version of another nation – could it be either a good copy or
a very good version.
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