UNESCO, Hùng Kings, and the Benefits of Being Vague
So UNESCO just placed the worship of the Hùng Kings on its “List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” News of this announcement is spreading quickly, and it’s already interesting to see the differences in what is being said.
The first account that I read of this in Vietnamese said that this announcement by UNESCO recognizes that the spiritual life of the people of Vietnam has existed for thousands of years.
(Việc Tín ngưỡng thờ cúng Hùng Vương ở Phú Thọ được UNESCO công nhận, cho thấy thế giới đánh giá rất cao, đồng thời cũng thừa nhận đời sống tâm linh của người Việt Nam, vốn đã có từ hàng nghìn năm nay.)
Switching to English, I quickly found a Báo Mới article that said “The 18 Hung Kings are worshiped in more than 1,400 relics across the country, which reflects the Vietnamese people’s respect to the ancestors.”
This made me wonder – did UNESCO actually indicate that it was recognizing a “national” intangible cultural heritage that had existed for “thousands of years”?
Going to the UNESCO page, I found this official announcement under the heading “Worship of Hùng kings in Phú Thọ, Viet Nam”:
“Pilgrims converge every year on the Hùng temple at Nghĩa Lĩnh mountain in Phú Thọ province to commemorate their ancestors and pray for good weather, abundant harvests, good luck and good health. The important Ancestral Anniversary festival is celebrated for one week during the third lunar month. Local villagers dress in splendid costumes and compete to provide the best palanquin and most highly valued objects of worship. Communities make rice-based delicacies and enact verbal and folk arts performances, bronze drum beating, Xoan singing, prayers and petitions.”
So there is nothing here about the nation, and nothing about time. It’s just acknowledging a contemporary annual festival where “pilgrims” commemorate “their ancestors.” Does that mean their personal ancestors? The founders of the nation?
Turning to the UNESCO page that describes this intangible cultural heritage in more detail (here), I found this one additional sentence: “The tradition embodies spiritual solidarity and provides an occasion to acknowledge national origins and sources of Vietnamese cultural and moral identity.”
What a wonderfully vague statement!
“The tradition embodies spiritual solidarity” for whom? The pilgrims? The people of Phú Thọ? The people of the entire nation?
And “the tradition” also “provides an occasion to acknowledge national origins and sources of Vietnamese cultural and moral identity.” What exactly does that mean? Does it mean “Hùng vương [đã] dựng nước” (the Hùng kings established the nation)? Does it mean “Hùng vương có thật” (the Hùng kings really existed)? These are the points that scholars in North Vietnam strongly argued for in the late 1960s. Does UNESCO agree with this?
Well if you read Vietnamese newspapers then one would assume that UNESCO must agree with something along those lines. But if you read what UNESCO actually wrote, then you can see that the people at UNESCO are extremely careful in what they say, and in some ways they are very precise in their vagueness.
In the end, the one sentence that caught my eye as particularly accurate, however, was one in a Vietnamese report that mentioned that this is particularly happy news for Phú Thọ Province. (Niềm vui này đối với tỉnh Phú Thọ còn tăng lên gấp đôi. . .). Regardless of what anyone thinks about the larger Hùng kings issue (and people obviously have various views) more tourists will be going to Phú Thọ now, and that will certainly make some people there very happy. And on a less cynical level, certainly this will make some people feel genuinely happy and proud. So it’s good news for them. But as for historians. . .
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