Vietnam 100 years ago: religion and superstitions

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Religion and superstition are so intermingled in the mind of the Annamese and in his performance of all rites and ceremonies, that it is impossible to speak of one without the other.

Different religions are recognised in the country, but none has a distinct body of adherents : an Annamese will worship indifferently at a Buddhist or Taoist pagoda, the distance or a pecuniary consideration alone guiding him in his choice. It is not, indeed, rare to find on the same altar, side by side with the image of Buddha, a statue of Confucius and of Laotseu, the founder of the Taoist religion.

This illustrates the confusion which reigns in the religious systems of Annam ; their original distinctiveness lost, superstition and sorcery have had no difficulty in introducing themselves.

Europeans can hardly understand this attitude of mind, which makes no effort to reconcile conflicting theories. It is in a great measure this eclecticism which has enabled missionaries to convert such large numbers to Christianity.

Toleration, a good trait in a nation’s character, is here so wide as to lead to scepticism and apathy. The Annamese is often Buddhist, Taoist, Confucianist, all in one, while quite incapable of distinguishing the creed and ceremonials belonging to each faith.

The precepts of Confucius are those which make the strongest appeal to his intelligence, but none influence his daily actions or call forth anything beyond an ignorant veneration.

It is the worship of the various spirits and genii, which, as he believes, hover about him at work or in sleep, and still more ancestor-worship, which guide and control his whole life.

These two creeds embody all the hopes and fears of the mass of the population. The first regards the elements and all natural phenomena as endowed with a living spirit, and assigns not only to men and animals, but even to things and places, a rank and gender.

The spirits commonly worshipped in Annam may be divided into three classes : the Celestial, or those in space, from one of whom all the great dynasties declare themselves to be descended ; the Genii of the Waters (it is in the depth of the sea that the land of departed spirits is placed) ; and the Genii of the Earth, who protect certain portions of the country as well as the village and the home.

Every trade again, with the particular tools belonging to it, is under the protection of some supernatural power. The peasant makes a sacrifice not only to the Celestial Genii, but to the spirit of his buffaloes; the fisherman not only to the Genii of the Waters, but to those of his nets; the merchant to those of his baskets, etc.

Small shrines are erected in every conceivable corner to these spirits, so that, including the pagodas, where Buddha, Confucius, and Laotseu are promiscuously worshipped, it requires all the goodwill of the credulous Annamese to perform his religious duties properly.

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Vietnam 100 years ago: religion and superstitions
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Text: Gabrielle Vassal
On & off duty in Annam, London 1910
Photo: old photo from internet

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