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Religion in Vietnam

A World of Gods and Spirits

Temple in Vietnam (vicguinda/Flickr)

Temple in Vietnam (vicguinda/Flickr)

A World of Gods and Spirits


Confucianism: Heaven, Emperor, and Man

Across the Perfume River from the imperial palace that the Nguyen kings built in Hue, stands the seven-story pagoda of the Heavenly Mother. Built in 1601, it is the last large-scale monument dedicated to Buddhism. Despite the fact that it was the ancestors of the Nguyen dynastic founder who ordered its construction, it was this dynasty which saw the triumph of Confucian orthodoxy.

It is easy to contrast the here-and-now orientation of Confucianism with the other-worldliness of Buddhism. Confucianism is often thought of merely as a code of ethics and as a philosophy of government based on merit, which made possible the rise of bureaucratic rule in the countries of East Asia, curbing both the power of the ruler and of the aristocratic clans. Education, rather than brute force, became the path to power. Merit, that is to say suitability for governmental service, was determined through a system of civil service examinations testing a candidate's knowledge of a body of canonical texts -- the Four Classics and the Five Books. Suitability for office was determined by one's ability to write essays on literary themes, historical topics and current events according to rigid rules (for instance the rules governing avoidance of imperial names). A superior man was a man with a broad education, not an expert in a specific field. Furthermore, a stringent code of ethics guided the behavior of all from king to commoner, providing clear rules for their daily relationships and the ordering of society.

What needs to be underlined is the religious dimension of Confucianism. Confucian scholars, and many Western observers after them, may have emphasized the rationalist, humanist, and rather prosaic dimension of Confucianism. But it was founded on a base of religious assumptions, no less strong for being unstated. Since the 11th century, the emperor had assumed the role of First Plowman. He launched the agricultural year by plowing the first furrow, a ceremony that was maintained in Vietnam until 1942, three years before imperial rule came to an end in revolution. This was one of many such religious duties to be performed only by the emperor.

Ancestor worship and filial piety were the cardinal virtues that governed the lives of all. When still only a pretender to the throne, the eventual founder of the Nguyen dynasty, Gia Long, allowed his heir to be converted to Catholicism as a means of gaining support from Christian missionaries. The young prince was so thoroughly converted to Catholicism that he refused to perform the all-important rites of worship to his ancestors. Gia Long complained that not only his heir but also a great many of his courtiers refused to perform the rites that were a necessary part of court life. How would the court function if no one was left to carry out these ceremonies? Fortunately, the young Christian prince died before his father, allowing the succession to go to a half-brother who had been brought up in the strictest Confucian tradition. The calamity of having on the throne an emperor who would not perform the religious duties that went with his imperial functions was thus averted. Had the Catholic prince inherited the throne, not only would court life have been brought to a halt, but the well-being of the whole nation would have been jeopardized as well, for the emperor was the Son of Heaven. To him, and him only, devolved the duty to mediate between Heaven and man, and to ensure the welfare of his people by acting according to Heaven's will in all things, political as well as personal. If he sinned in any way, Heaven might choose to punish him by visiting disaster upon his people. Thus, any calamity, any instance of misfortune was interpreted as a sign of Heaven's displeasure with the emperor.

Gia Long's great-grandson, Tu Duc, ascended the throne by edging out his two older brothers. Not unnaturally, both were incensed and rebelled. For reasons of state, Tu Duc was forced to put them to death. But to kill one's brothers, especially one's older brothers, was to go against the most basic Confucian ethics. No wonder that Tu Duc, faced with the threat of colonial conquest, blamed himself for visiting misfortune upon his people. Believing himself solely responsible for this calamity, he dealt with the French threat with a heavy dose of fatalism that perhaps sealed the fate of his nation. French rule over Vietnam lasted for eighty years.

Tu Duc's acceptance of responsibility for the national calamity underlined the Confucian idea that only the emperor had religious duties. As his representatives, officials shared in these functions, performing at the local level ceremonies which the emperor performed in his court. It was feared that if common people were to usurp these religious powers, only evil spirits would answer to their call, and disorder would reign throughout the land. All that common people were expected to do was to support the emperor and his representatives by paying taxes and being loyal and obedient subjects.

Obviously, it was impossible to enforce such an ideology which deprived common people of any religious role. Confronted with the ineradicable nature of popular religion, the state tried to make use of it for its own ends. One particular area of concern was the role of religion at the village level.