There is an interesting post on the blog Archeological*Highlights about a stone inscription that was recently found in Bắc Ninh Province. Dated to 601 CE, it is now the earliest stone inscription in classical Chinese that we have from the area of what is today Vietnam.
This particular inscription records the establishment of a reliquary pagoda (xá lợi tháp 舍利塔) by Emperor Wen of the Sui at a certain Thiền Chúng Temple (Thiền Chúng tự 禪衆寺). Emperor Wen ordered many such structures built across his empire [See Tansen Sen, Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade: The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600-1400 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003), 62.]
The inscription was unearthed by a man who lived right near Huệ Trạch Temple (a.k.a., Chùa Trí Quả and Chùa Giàn) and in the blog post, author Nguyễn Quang Hà tries to find evidence to demonstrate that Huệ Trạch Temple is the same as the Thiền Chúng Temple mentioned in the 601 inscription.
The evidence is unfortunately too limited to make a convincing argument. The earliest mention of the name Huệ Trạch comes from an inscription from 1700, and it is not clear where the earlier Thiền Chúng Temple was actually located.
In any case, what I found most interesting about this post was that in contrast to the lack of textual information about the histories of Huệ Trạch and Thiền Chúng temples, local people have “remembered” a story that goes back to the thirteenth century.
According to the author, local villagers say that Trần Hồng, one of Trần Hưng Đạo’s sons, was assisted by the Buddha in fighting the Mongol-Yuan bandits, and was therefore victorious. As a result, the temple was named “Benevolence/Kindness” [Huệ Trạch 惠澤] Temple.
[Hiện nay các vị trong làng kể lại về lai lịch của chùa: Vào thời Trần, con trai của Đức vua Trần Hưng Đạo là Trần Hồng khi đánh giặc Mông Nguyên được Phật độ cho nên đã đánh thắng giặc do đó ban cho tên chùa là “Huệ Trạch tự) (惠澤寺).]
I find it interesting that the memory that the local people have fits so nicely with what is now repeated endlessly about Vietnamese history, namely that it is all about “resistance to foreign aggression.” Surely their memory, having persisted through the centuries, is proof that this has always been the main concern of people, is it not?
I’m reminded of a story I once heard about the late Professor Trần Quốc Vượng. I heard that he once visited Cổ Loa and found that the villagers there did not know about Cao Lỗ, the person who made the magic crossbow for An Dương Vương, the man who in turn (some stories say) built Cổ Loa. Professor Trần Quốc Vượng thereupon “taught” the villagers and a shrine was built in Cao Lỗ’s honor.
I’m also reminded of how Ngọc Sơn Temple changed at some point probably in the 1950s, and how the figure that had been the main spirit worshipped there – Wenchang dijun/Văn Xương Đế Quân – was moved aside to make way for Trần Hưng Đạo.
Somewhere around that time, temples in the North dedicated to Ma Yuan/Mã Viện were also eliminated.
My point is that the sacred landscape of Vietnam has changed a lot over time, and particularly in the past half century, where it has been altered to fit the narrative of “resistance to foreign aggression.” What is more, the “memories” of villagers have likewise changed.
What I wish someone would do, would be to conduct a study that tries to determine what information villagers know that is NOT historical. If we had a good sense of how the elite have changed their ideas over time, as well as how they have changed information themselves, then we might be able to develop a more critical understanding of “local/village knowledge.”
Without a good sense of when the main times were that local people were encouraged/forced to change the way they think, and when new stories were created, and how all of this happened, we really cannot make any use of local memories.
It’s clear after all that they are not “timeless.”
The two images above come from gallica.bnf.fr/Bibliothèque nationale de France.