Some of the earliest writings about the Red River Delta region were about its spirits. More specifically, they were about the appropriation of local spirits by the ruling elite.
This is a practice that we have clear evidence for from the period of the Tang Dynasty. At that time, an administrator by the name of Zhao Chang wrote a work in the early ninth century called a Record of Jiaozhou (Jiaozhou ji 交州記) that documented this phenomenon, and later in the fourteenth century, Lý Tế Xuyên compiled a text which also recorded information about the same phenomenon entitled Collected [Records] about the Departed Spirts of the Việt Realm (Việt Điện U Linh Tập 粵甸幽靈集).
Zhao Chang’s book is no longer extant, but it is cited at times in the Collected [Records] about the Departed Spirts of the Việt Realm, and it is also cited in an inscription that was inscribed on a bell at a Daoist temple somewhere between 1314 and 1324 known as the “Record of the Bell at Thông Thánh [Daoist] Temple in Bạch Hạc” (Bạch Hạc Thông Thánh quán chung ký 白鶴通聖觀鐘記) that was written by a Daoist master from Fujian who had taken up residence in the Red River Delta by the name of Xu Zongdao/Hứa Tông Đạo 許宗道.
This is how the inscription begins:
According to Master Zhao’s record [i.e., Zhao Chang’s Record of Jiaozhou], during the Yonghui era [650-655 AD] of the Tang, Ruan Changming served as protector general [military commissioner] of Phong/Feng Prefecture. Observing the vastness of the land, surrounded by mountains and rivers, he ordered that Thông Thánh [Daoist] Temple be constructed on the outskirts of Bạch Hạc and that statues of the Three Pure Ones [i.e., three Daoist deities] be placed inside to create a sense of majesty. He also ordered that two spaces be opened, one in front and one behind, where he planned to have statues of guardian deities of the temple created [and placed.] Unable to determine which deity was numinous, he burnt incense and incanted, “Whichever spirit here is numinous, reveal yourself so that I can create a statue in your image.
That night he dreamt that two peculiar men with gaunt faces arrived with their apprentices in tow, scolding and insulting each other, and proceeded to Changming’s Temple of Tranquil Residence.
Changming asked, “What are your names?” One was called the Earth Magistrate and the other was called the Stone Chief Minister.
Changming stated, “Whoever’s techniques are superior will reside in the front.” The Stone Chief Minister leaped over to a riverbank, but then suddenly saw that the Earth Magistrate was already there. The Stone Chief Minister leaped again to the other side of the river, but saw again that the Earth Magistrate got their first. The Earth Magistrate thereupon earned [the right to take the front position]. He has presently been invested as the Martial-Aiding Loyalty-Assisting Awe-Manifesting King.
From the Tang to the present, for centuries, his land has been divinely numinous, and prayers are fulfilled. Such has it been from past to present.
This is a very clear example of the use of Daoism to appropriate/subjugate local spirits. From this account, we see that a Tang Dynasty administrator, Ruan Changming, built a Daoist temple in Bạch Hạc, and that he summoned local spirits to appear so that they could serve as guardian, or protecting, spirits of the temple.
The description of these local spirits is negative. They are “uncivilized” in the way that they come in a group and are arguing with each other. They do not have a sense of a higher purpose.
However, Ruan Changming, the Tang Dynasty administrator, did have a sense of higher purpose. His goal was to get local spirits (and by extension, local people), to follow the way of imperially-accepted spirits, and that is what this record documents. The local spirits were given the task of “protecting” the Three Pure Ones (sanqing/tam thanh 三清), just as local people were supposed to “protect” the Tang Dynasty.
In appropriating/subjugating these spirits, Ruan Changming ultimately began to erase the original meaning of those spirits to local people. By creating statues of those spirits, he created an image of these deities that had never existed. His story about their willingness to serve as protecting spirits for Thông Thánh Temple was also new.
As time passed, however, this information became the only information that people knew about those spirits and that temple. Indigenous beliefs were thus erased, and a new culture was created in its place. It is that culture that we today refer to as “Vietnamese culture.”