[I haven’t written for a while, so I don’t feel like my thoughts below are expressed very clearly in this post, but I think the topic is an important one, so I hope readers will be able to get some sense of what I’m talking about.]
Mount Tản Viên (also known as Ba Vì Mountain) is a mountain range that rises up from the western edge of the Red River Delta. For centuries it was viewed by people in the region as possessing some form of numinous power (thiêng liêng) and the spirit of the mountain was worshipped.
However, the spirit there was worshipped in different ways at different times. Fifteenth-century works (Lĩnh Nam chích quái, Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư) contain a story about a spirit on the mountain called “Sơn Tinh” (山精), or the “mountain sprite.” Then by the nineteenth century the story of that spirit was incorporated into a long and elaborate tale about a man named Nguyễn Tùng 阮松 (later renamed Nguyễn Tuấn 阮俊) who, according to this tale, eventually became Sơn Tinh, the spirit of Mount Tản Viên.
Looking around on the Internet I see that there are some web pages that mention Nguyễn Tuấn, but I cannot find any evidence that anyone has ever looked closely at his story. When one does, however, one sees that it is deeply influenced by what I would call a Daoist worldview.
For instance, his mother magically conceives Nguyễn Tuấn without ever having sexual intercourse (a common theme in Daoist writings), and over the course of his life Nguyễn Tuấn encounters certain extraordinary individuals from whom he receives magical objects, such as a magic cane (or staff) and a magic book.
After obtaining the magic cane, Nguyễn Tuấn came across a boy who had killed a snake that had the Chinese character for “king” (王) on its head. Nguyễn Tuấn bought the dead snake from the boy and then used his magic cane to bring it back to life, after which point the snake thanked Nguyễn Tuấn and revealed that it was in fact something much more significant than a mere snake, it was a “dragon prince” (long vương tử 龍王子).
Today it is difficult to determine what details like this would have meant to people in the past, but they do give us a sense of how different their cultural world was from ours.
This magical/Daoist world is one aspect of the Nguyễn Tuấn story that needs to be examined further. Another aspect of this story that needs to be examined further is its origins in a non-ethnic-Vietnamese world.
In the late nineteenth century there was a temple dedicated to the spirit of Mount Tản Viên that was located on the actual mountain at a place called Thủ Pháp. Not far away, on opposite side of the Đà River (or Black River, Rivière Noire), a river that flows by Mount Tản Viên, was a temple that was dedicated to what we can call a Daoist cult dedicated to female spirits known as the Holy Mothers (Thánh Mẫu) at a place called Lăng Sương.
Lăng Sương is also where, according to the story, Nguyễn Tuấn’s mother was from.
When the Nguyễn Dynasty created a geography of the kingdom in the late nineteenth century (Đồng Khánh địa dư chí), both Thủ Pháp and Lăng Sương were listed as “sách” (册) a term for a mountain village occupied by non-Vietnamese peoples, a term which was similar to an earlier term – “động” (峝), a term that is sometimes translated into English as “aboriginal settlement.” And in fact, in some versions of the story about Nguyễn Tuấn his mother is said to have come from Lăng Sương “động.”
In 1885, a French officer by the name of G. Baudens visited the area around Thủ Pháp and stated that it was inhabited by people known as Mường. Baudens claimed that the Mường had been the original inhabitants of this region, but had been defeated by the Vietnamese (Annamites). Nonetheless, Bauden had a high opinion of the Mường, arguing that they were “braver, stronger, and smarter” than the Vietnamese, and that they would be able to help the French to police the area of the Đà River. . .
While Frenchmen in the nineteenth century employed terms like “Mường,” it can be difficult today to determine what exact ethnic group they were referring to, in part because they could not distinguish clearly between groups, and part because the various peoples in the region shared many cultural practices and their languages also shared many terms (and there were plenty of people who were bi- or multi-lingual).
A few years after Bauden traveled through this region, a French scholar by the name of Gustave Dumoutier visited this same area and compiled a list of words that were spoken by the “Thổ [土] or Thai or Mường” on the Đà River, and while Dumoutier referred to different groups of peoples, the words that he compiled belonged mainly to the Tai language family.
That said, Dumoutier’s word list could have been compiled further up the Đà River, and the people around Mount Tản Viên at the time might have been people whom we today refer to as Mường (a people who are more closely related to the Vietnamese than Tai-language-speaking peoples, although their language has been influenced by Tai languages).
The point, however, is that the people who lived around Mount Tản Viên were not Vietnamese (as late as the late nineteenth century), and the therefore, the cult that developed for the worship of the spirit of Mount Tản Viên was not a “Vietnamese” cult. However, it also wasn’t distinctly “non-Vietnamese” either.
The information that we have about the story of Nguyễn Tuấn was written in classical Chinese (a language that educated Vietnamese used to record information) and it is what we can call a “Daoist story” (Daoism being a belief system that was part of the world of popular belief among ethnic Vietnamese too, but which was not officially approved of by the “official” world of the dynastic elite).
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Holy Mothers cult experienced a particularly prosperous period, as there were many texts of revelations (giáng bút 降筆) that were revealed at that time, and the spirit of Mount Tản Viên (i.e., Nguyễn Tuấn, Sơn Tinh) revealed many messages at that time.
What the story of Nguyễn Tuấn therefore represents is a space on “the edge of empire.” His story was part of a cult that emerged in the somewhat-Sinicized (or Việt-icized) world of the Mường on the periphery of the Nguyễn Dynasty empire. The Mường elite near Mount Tản Viên did not necessarily aspire to follow the Confucian norms that the court at Huế promoted, but they probably had faith in the magical powers of Daoist teachings and deities, and they viewed the power of Mount Tản Viên in such terms.
What is interesting is that today the spirit of Mount Tản Viên is considered a part of the common/collective heritage of “the Vietnamese nation” (dân tộc Việt). The reality, however, is more complex. Instead, what the spirit of Mount Tản Viên reveals is the complex process by which the diversity of the past (both ethnic and religious) gets erased and homogenized in order to create the common national culture of the present.