If you are a culture lover, especially a fan of Vietnamese culture, this will be a great article for you to read. Culture has always been known to have many variations. However, one of the longest and the most significant special cultures in Vietnam is the Mediumship, also known as Lên Đồng. This article does not only guide you through the fundamental knowledge of Lên Đồng, but it will also take you through a culture tour in Vietnam to see what you can learn.
Supernatural abilities are present in every culture. As they have no scientific basis and cannot be explained, these abilities are considered superstitions by some, while others believe they have religious meaning and should not be given a bad reputation. No matter which side you are on, there is no denying these abilities’ cultural significance. They have been so integrated into society that despite scientific advancement, people do not seem to doubt their soundness.
As well as clairvoyance and precognition, Mediumship is one of the inexplicable yet not uncommon abilities around the world. The main idea is about getting into contact with the dead, but the process and the rituals differ from country to country. Today, let’s gain some insight into Vietnamese psychics, also known as tongjis, and their abilities.
Tongjis are those with special abilities to contact with gods and higher beings. Spiritual beings can talk to mortals by possessing the psychic’s body. Of course, in order to summon the god, a complicated procedure needs to be performed without any errors.
This ceremony does not stem from Buddhism or Confucianism but from the oldest religion in Vietnam: the worship of mother goddesses. The regligion believes the Mother Goddesses control every aspect of our lives. Each of them blesses one element of mortal life: Earth, Fire, Water, Forest and Mountains. This religion began before the Chinese’s invasion of Vietnam, which explains why it is even older than Buddhism and Confucianism. Despite its early origin, people often dismiss it as superstition due to its insignificant popularity compared to other religions.
As gods and goddesses cannot simply appear in informal surroundings, the ritual must take place in a temple which worships the four mother goddesses of Fire, Water, Earth, and Mountains and Forests. The Heaven mother goddess’ statue will be placed in the middle, Earth on the right, and Water the left.
As Vietnamese tradition requires important ceremonies to be performed on carefully chosen days, Mediumship is no exception. The psychic will determine the specific date to connect with the spirits.
Tongjis also need assistants. They need to prepare their costumes carefully, including a red cloth to cover the tongji’s face, 5 ao dais and white trousers, a coloured belt, and some jewellery: ear piercings, necklaces, etc.
Traditional costume of the Mediumship
Just like other Vietnamese ceremonies, Mediumship requires quite a lot of offerings from the followers, including:
- Silver bowls, chopsticks, and rystal cups.
- A mirror covered with a cloth placed in the middle of the room
- An effigy
- A tray with 13 parts, with 1 in the centre and 12 around. Each consists of screw, shrimp, crab, squid, glutinous rice, raw coconut, etc. Therwise, the followers can use vegetables such as starfruit, lemon, pineapple, etc.
- A dragon-shaped ship with 12 mannikins in front of the altar, a couple of horses and a couple of elephants with saddles.
To begin with, performers light incense sticks to get rid of evil spirits, and all the offerings are placed on the altar. The follower then steps forward and rubs his face and clothes with flowers. The musicians then prepare their trings and play.
A Mediumship ceremony
The psychic then must clasp his/ her hands together and wait for the assistant to cover his/ her face with a piece of cloth. Next, he steps forward 3 times and bows really close to the floor. This process is repeated, and each time the effigy must be replaced with a new one. After a while, the psychic’s body staggers, he lets out a scream, and points his left index finger upward. This indicates the tongji’s body has been possessed.
A step in the Mediumship
The follower can then speak to one of the Mother Goddesses to ask for blessings and instructions. Usually, only those stuck in miserable situations ask for help from the Goddesses.
There are strict rules to be followed:
- Costume: As each god/goddess has her own distinctive colour, the psychic must choose the corresponding colour for each one.
- The dance: After the possession, the medium is no longer him/herself. Therefore, his/her body can move and dance much more flexibly than normal people. The gods/goddesses also have their distinctive dances, many requiring extra tools such as swords, flags, paper fans, etc.
- The pattern: In a Mediumship eremony, about 20 gods/goddesses show up in order from high to low in rank: for instance, the mother goddesses will come before the male gods.
After finishing the dance, the god/goddess will enjoy the performance of Chau van and reward cung van- the singer- with money. Then he/she will consume the offerings, listen to the believers’ pledges and talk to the followers to give them instructions. Finally, the medium crosses his hand right in front of his forehead, the Chau van artists start playing again and the spirit departs.
The crew prepares for the next spirit to arrive.
This form of ritual singing has become a representative of Vietnamese culture. Even though its original purpose was solely for performing rituals, Chau van has made its debut on many entertainment shows and its prominent artists have received recognition from critics in the entertainment industry. For example, the popular Vietnamese show “Gương mặt thân quen” often features artists imitating chau van artists, and these performances receive great comments from the judges as well as the audience.
Unlike other forms of Vietnamese traditional music, Chau van’s lyrics do not originate from everyday life or normal activities, but from Shamanism and the belief in heavenly beings. Chau van songs often praise a god, a king, a hero, or ometimes just a normal person. The art is a mixture of rhythms, tempos, pauses, stresses, and pitches. The main singer is called “cung văn”, while others play instruments, often đan Nguyet (a string instrument with only 2 strings), a moon-shaped flute, and a set of phach – wooden sticks beaten together against hollow bamboo.
Mediumship came into existence in the Northern Delta Region, so consequently, it is most popular with Northern people. Though it has spread to the midland and the south for quite a long time, the number of followers is much less noteworthy. Most well-known Chau van artists also come from Northern Vietnam, especially Ha Noi (artists Ca Ma, Vinh Hang Tre, Pham Van Kiem, Hoang Trong Kha, Le Ba Khoa) and Nam Dinh( artists Bui Trong Dang, Xuan Hinh, Trong Quynh). The most famous pieces include Tu Phu, Van Co Chin, etc.
Despite the reputation as mere superstition and fraud, the culture of Mediumship has been recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in December 2016. Even though some con artists o trick impressionable victims into paying a large amount of money and pretend to be possessed by gods, this tradition has not lost its meaning as well as its followers.
A modern Chau Van Show
On 7-5-2016, the Worker Theatre, Hanoi, hosted a show called “Mediumship: Religion and Life” to honour the ceremony with Vietnamese Chau van artists. The show featured one of the most well-known pieces of Chau van named “Tu Phu”, and awarded many artists for their contribution to the country’s heritage. The show had a long-lasting impact on our own people’s view of the religion, and also successfully presented it to the international community.
Chau Van in Hue
Little do young generations known that Mediumship had to undergo a really long and tough fight to recover from the reputation as mere superstition. Professor Ngô Đức Thịnh – vice president of Asian Folklore club, who had a passion for Mediumship and Mother Goddess worship, spent most of his time trying to promote the culture to Vietnamese youths. He appreciated the virtues of the religion, for it worships Mother nature and national heroes who helped build the nation, which encourages patriotism inside our own people.
The professor stated his opinion that we should not blame Mediumship for promoting superstition, for it is not the sole reason, and the problem lies in people’s mindset. What should be done is not banning the ceremony, but educating our citizens to avoid con artists and support the real religion.
Mediumship, just like many other ceremonies, has caused controversy and criticism. Whether to promote or to limit it is likely to remain debatable for quite a long time. However, no religion is bad- intentioned, and we should be able to distinguish between healthy traditional rituals and frauds’ tricks.
Last but not least, promoting our cultural values is of utmost importance. Hence, young people should also learn to appreciate Mediumship and its irreplaceable companion- Chau van.