There is an interesting article circulating around various Vietnamese Internet news sources and on various Vietnamese blogs. It is a story about the “state-icization” (nhà nước hóa) of ritual festivals, and scholar Ngô Đức Thịnh’s fear that this is diminishing the role of the local people in these festivals, as well as the meaning of these festivals for those people.

The reason why this issue is in the news is because the annual festival marking the death anniversary of the Hùng kings just passed, and like some other festivals, such as one dedicated to Trần Hưng Đạo, this festival in Phú Thọ Province for the Hùng kings is witnessing the increasing involvement of local officials.

To make a long story short, and what is not directly stated in this article, is that local and national officials have realized that there is a lot of money that can be made by turning these local festivals into national events. Hence the increasing involvement of the state.

According to this article (Lo nhất: “Nhà nước hóa” lễ hội!), this state involvement in the festival to the Hùng kings began under the Nguyễn Dynasty. The article states, without citing any evidence, that the Nguyễn Dynasty created a ritual to mark the death anniversary of the Hùng kings, and in the process this ritual came to be regarded as a “national ritual” (quốc lễ), although the article states that the Nguyễn rulers rarely attended.

Then after the August Revolution in 1945, the article continues, Hồ Chí Minh and his government categorized various historical sites as “national relics” (di tích quốc gia), including the temple to the Hùng kings in Phú Thọ. The same government also designated one day of the year for honoring the Hùng kings as a national holiday.

At present the Vietnamese government is attempting to get UNESCO to label this temple as a “cultural heritage” site (di sản văn hóa). That will over course increase its value as a tourist site, which of course means $$$.

In consulting the more than 17,000 pages of the Khâm định Đại Nam hội diển sử lệ, the Nguyễn Dynasty’s compendium of regulations, I cannot find any reference to a ritual honoring the death anniversary of the Hùng kings. That work, however, deals with the regulations that were in effect before the Nguyễn Dynasty fell under the “protection” of the French.

While I have yet to see documentation which proves this, I’ve been told that it was the French who first created this ritual, in order to help establish for the Nguyễn Dynasty the “appropriate” “national rituals” befitting a modern monarchy.

That small point aside, what I find odd about this article and Ngô Đức Thịnh’s worries is that while it is true that we can see an increasing “state-icization” of the Hùng kings over the past century, this is just a minor outgrowth of the much more serious push by state-sponsored nationalism to promote the Hùng kings as the ancestors of the nation.

It was only in the late 1960s that the Hùng kings became the unquestioned ancestors of the Vietnamese nation, and that occurred under intense state pressure to “prove” that the Hùng kings had really existed (Hùng Vương có thật!). I’ve discussed this topic in other posts on this site.

So according to Ngô Đức Thịnh the “state-icization” of the festival in Phú Thọ for the Hùng kings is bad. Ok, but what about the past 50 years of state-sponsored nationalism? That’s all ok?