In September of 1942, Nguyễn Duy Tinh and some friends journeyed from Hanoi to Kiếp Bạc in Hải Dương province to visit a “hero,” Trần Hưng Đạo, the thirteenth-century general who held off Mongol invasions. There was a temple dedicated to him there (it’s still there today), and it took Nguyễn Duy Tinh quite some effort to reach it, having to travel by train and boat.
He wrote an article about this trip and published it in the journal Tri Tân (#79, 7 January 1943, 18-20). It’s a fascinating document. Nguyễn Duy Tinh describes the difficulties of reaching the temple, and then when he arrives, he is overwhelmed by the noise made by groups of people who were engaged in “ghost catching” (bắt ma) rituals.
Nguyễn Duy Tinh then goes on to describe this ritual. A ritual master (thầy cúng) wraps a black turban around the head of a “sufferer” (khổ chủ), that is, a person who is been afflicted by a ghost.
The ritual master then whacks a rattan cane and mumbles some incantations. He then waits for the ghost to enter the sufferer’s body, which is indicated when the sufferer’s head starts to rock back and forth. Once this happens, the ritual master entices the ghost to state its name and indicate its intent.
While there are apparently men at the temple engaged in this practice, Nguyễn Duy Tinh expresses particular distain for a group of women whom he observes.
He then attempts to enter the main temple to pay his respects to Trần Hưng Đạo the hero only to find that there is no space to stand as the temple is filled with common people seeking blessings from Trần Hưng Đạo the deity.
After observing this, Nguyễn Duy Tinh states that “Southerners (i.e., ‘Vietnamese’) naturally have the psychology of worshiping heroes, but we should make arrangements so that this sentiment does not err or go astray down the path of superstition.”
Not all is lost, however, as Nguyễn Duy Tinh does succeed in reading some of the many plaques in classical Chinese about Trần Hưng Đạo which adorn the temple, and which praise him in terms which accord with Nguyễn Duy Tinh’s view of this “hero.”
At the end of the article Nguyễn Duy Tinh then makes three suggestions. He suggests first that performances should be staged at the temple at Kiếp Bạc during festivals to teach the people the actual history about Trần Hưng Đạo. He also suggests that a place should be set up away from the main temple for people who want to perform the ghost catching ritual. And finally, Nguyễn Duy Tinh also suggests that more effort needs to be made to ensure that the roads and inns that travelers use when they visit the temple remain clean and sanitary.
This is a beautiful document. While Nguyễn Duy Tinh appears to have been quite earnest and sincere in recording his feelings and thoughts, today it reads like a comedy. The serious intellectual, Nguyễn Duy Tinh, goes on a pilgrimage to honor a “national hero” only to find that his hero is all but inaccessible as the hero’s temple is overrun by common people who do not appear to know anything about national heroes, nor do they appear to care. They just want to be cured of their ailments and to obtain good fortune.
This doesn’t weaken Nguyễn Duy Tinh’s nationalist convictions. To the contrary, it leads him to call for efforts to transform the common people by teaching them about who Trần Hưng Đạo “really was.”
In fact, Trần Hưng Đạo was a potent deity who cured illnesses and brought good fortune to people long before he became a national hero. If you visit Kiếp Bạc today, it might not be as active as it was on the day Nguyễn Duy Tinh visited in 1942, but people still go there for the same reasons that they did back then, and that they did for centuries before that.
National heroes are ephemeral. The need to catch ghosts is eternal.