One among the many topics in Vietnamese history which scholars have not examined in much detail is a spirit writing (giáng bút) “movement” which took place in northern Vietnam at the turn of the 20th century. This was a complex phenomenon. It was an outgrowth of earlier practices associated with a type of text known as morality books (thiện thư).
Morality books were texts which had been revealed in China by spirits such as Wenchang Dijun and Guangshang Dijun. They encouraged people to live in accordance with Confucian moral standards, but they used the logic of karmic retribution to encourage people to do so, that is, if you did good things, good things would happen to you, and if you did bad things, bad things would happen to you.
People would not only attempt to follow the moral standard which these texts promoted, but they would also chant them on a daily basis in an effort to create merit for themselves.
At some point in the late nineteenth century, Vietnamese went from “reading” these texts to creating their own. They did this through spirit writing. A spirit would descend into a medium’s body, and then that person would write out the spirit’s message in a tray of sand. Someone standing next to this tray would recognize the characters and call them out, and a third person would write them down.
There were then lecturers who would read and explain these texts to assembled devotees.
After enough such pieces of spirit writing had been revealed, a book would be made by carving these texts onto woodblocks and printing them. Printing and distributing such texts was yet another way to gain merit.
The first spirits to start revealing such messages in Vietnam were male spirits, and were mainly Chinese, such as Wenchang Dijun, Guangshang Dijun and Lu Dongbin. Such “Northern” spirits, as they were called, then started to rely on “Southern” spirits to reveal their message. Here Trần Hưng Đạo took the leading role, but there were many other local spirits who assisted him.
One of the first texts revealed in northern Vietnam which included revealed messages by Trần Hưng Đạo and numerous Chinese spirits was the True Scripture for Reflecting upon Oneself (Tỉnh thân chân kinh), which was first printed in 1900 in Nam Định by the Hall for Encouraging Goodness (Khuyến Thiện Đường), a group dedicated to promoting the use of morality books.
In the same year, this same group published another volume of revealed writings called the True Scripture in the Kingdom’s Sounds for Illuminating Goodness (Minh thiện quốc âm chân kinh). This was a collection of spirit writings which also promoted Confucian morality.
What was different about this text was that it was mainly written in Nôm, instead of classical Chinese, and the spirits who revealed these messages were women, and were led by the Holy Mother Trinity (Tam Vị Thánh Mẫu), three of the main figures in what many people now refer to as the Holy Mother Religion (Đạo Thánh Mẫu).
This True Scripture in the Kingdom’s Sounds for Illuminating Goodness was printed and distributed, but hand-copied versions of it were made and passed around as well. It was apparently in response to the many mistakes that seeped into the text in these versions that the Holy Mother Trinity received permission from the Jade Emperor to reveal the text again in 1904.
This Expanded True Scripture in the Kingdom’s Sounds for Illuminating Goodness (Tăng quảng minh thiện quốc âm chân kinh) contained the same information as the original text, and added some additional revealed writings.
From this start in Nam Định, the Holy Mother Trinity soon began to reveal messages in others parts of northern Vietnam, a topic that I will address in the next post.