One among the many topics in Vietnamese history which scholars have not examined in any detail is the spirit writing “movement” which took hold in northern Vietnam at the turn of the 20th century. This was a complex phenomenon. It was an outgrowth of the popularity of morality books (thiện thư).
Morality books were texts which had been revealed in China by spirits such as Wenchang Dijun and Guangshang Dijun. They encouraged people to live in accordance with Confucian moral standards, but they used the logic of karmic retribution to encourage people to do so, that is, if you are good, good things will happen to you, and if you are bad, bad things will happen to you.
People would not only attempt to follow the moral standard which these texts promoted, but they would also chant them on a daily basis in an effort to create merit for themselves.
At some point in the late nineteenth century, Vietnamese went from “reading” these texts to creating their own. They did this through spirit writing (giáng bút). A spirit would descend into a medium’s body, and then that person would write out the spirit’s message in a tray of sand. Someone standing next to this tray would recognize the characters and call them out, and a third person would write them down. There were then lecturers who would read and explain these texts to assembled devotees.
After enough such pieces of spirit writing had been revealed, a book would be made by carving these texts onto woodblocks and printing them. Printing and distributing such texts was yet another way to gain merit.
The first spirits to start revealing such messages in Vietnam were male spirits, and were mainly Chinese, such as Wenchang Dijun and Lu Dongbin. Such “Northern” spirits, as they were called, then started to rely on “Southern” spirits to reveal their message. Here Trần Hưng Đạo took the leading role, but there were many other local spirits who assisted him.
One of the first texts revealed in northern Vietnam which included revealed messages by Trần Hưng Đạo and numerous Chinese spirits was the True Scripture for Reflecting upon Oneself (Tỉnh thân chân kinh), which was first printed in 1900 in Nam Định by the Hall for Encouraging Goodness (Khuyến Thiện Đường), a group dedicated to promoting the use of morality books.
In the same year, this same group published another volume of revealed writings called the True Scripture in the Kingdom’s Sounds for Illuminating Goodness (Minh thiện quốc âm chân kinh). This was a collection of spirit writings which also promoted Confucian morality. What was different about this text was that it was mainly written in Nôm, instead of classical Chinese, and the spirits who revealed these messages were women, and were led by the Three Sage Mothers (Tam Vị Thánh Mẫu).
Today the “Holy Mother cult,” as people often call it (I prefer “sage” to “holy” because in the spirit writing texts it is clear that the term “thánh” is used in its East Asian cultural context as a “sage”), has a “pantheon” which many scholars have written about. That same pantheon is not evident in the spirit writing which the Sage Mothers produced in the early twentieth century. Some of the same figures are there, but the organization is more fluid than perhaps it is today, or at least it is different from what scholars today have written about it.
In any case, in 1905 an expanded version of this text was revealed in Sơn Tây Province, and published by a group known as the Hall of Principal Goodness (Chủ Thiện Đường). The collection of spirit writing that they published was called the True Scripture in the Kingdom Sound’s for Taking Joy in Goodness (Lạc thiện quốc âm chân kinh).
A year later, a related but shorter text was revealed and published by this same group in Sơn Tây. This text was also revealed by the Sage Mothers, but it was intended as a concise text for chanting. It was called the True Scripture of the Three Sage Mother’s Warning to the World (Tam vị thánh mẫu cảnh thế chân kinh).
What follows is a translation of the first chapter of this work. I probably have made some mistakes, so if anyone sees something that I have wrong or have mistranslated, please let me know. This chapter is called, the “First Sage Mother’s True Scripture of the Warning to the World.”
[5b] From above I have received [6a] the Thearch’s (Đế) charge and have again descended to the realm of dust. In observing the hearts of people from across the universe, rarely do I see human relations in their proper order. Negative karmic affinities are [as vast] as the sea, and accumulated evil is [as tall] as a mountain. Black ethers surge upward and calamities descend. Alas! The path of the world has led to this. How painful this is!
Previously I respectfully received the benevolence of the Thearch on High (Thượng Đế) who could not bear the suffering of the people. He ordered the various notables to expound upon transformative teachings, and to recover the pure ways of far antiquity. The text, the Illustrated [Book of] Self-Reflection (Fanxing tu, 反省圖), did this first [6b] in the Northern Kingdom, while the revealed writing, [True Scripture for] Reflecting upon Oneself (Tỉnh thân [chân kinh], 省身真經), continued this in the Southern Domain. The two lands have trust in each other, and have come together as one.
I do not avoid the base and vulgar, and crudely extolled the [True Scripture] in the Kingdom’s Sounds for Illuminating Goodness (Minh thiện quốc âm [chân kinh], 明善國音真經) to enable the wise and the ignorant to both understand that officials should be loyal, sons should be filial, elder siblings should be friendly, younger siblings should be respectful, husbands and wives should live in harmony, and friends should have the utmost trust in each other.
That the five relationships will be fully carried out and the myriad forms of ethical behavior never fade: This is what I take delight in. This is what I hope for. Yet I still fear that people are [7a] wavering and do not know the way of the Sages. Yet those on the Ngọc Giang shrine register, in the Hall of Principal Goodness (Chủ Thiện Đường), are thorough in their respect and sincerity, and expansive in their sympathy and benevolence.
The phoenix carriage arrived to again grant a scripture for cultivation. I was ordered to reveal a continuation, the [True Scripture in the Kingdom Sound’s for] Taking Joy in Goodness (Lạc thiện [quốc âm chân kinh], 樂善國音真經), with the hope that it would eradicate misfortune and invite peace. Everywhere there is singing, and chanting is in every home.
If you carry it out tirelessly, you can be sure that retribution will not err. As for those who are respectful in [7b] appearance but false in their hearts, or who speak of goodness but carry out evil, their actions will be clearly recorded, with a single mistake, by the local earth spirit, the kitchen god, and the three corpse spirits. Their myriad calculations will be difficult to evade.
Do not say that those lofty beings do not know or do not have this knowledge. Do not say that [this principle] is not clear. Examine it again and again. Sincerely uphold it without deception, and the merit will be incalculable. It is as fast as an echo, and as efficacious as a stick hitting a drum. Good fortune will arrive in the hundreds, and auspiciousness will congregate in the thousands.
Respect this! Respect this! Reverently carry it out and [8a] do not be neglectful.