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“Water” in 19th Century Vietnam: Politics, Religion, Literature

1330–1530, Thursday 14 April 2016, L6

Organiser:
Barbora Jirkova
Charles University in Prague
bara.jirkova@gmail.com

Chair & Discussant:
Pascal Bourdeaux
École Pratique des Hautes Études
pascalbourdeaux@yahoo.fr

Water in the variety of its forms is a focus point of many aspects of Vietnamese culture. It is a major force in Vietnamese physical environment influencing people’s lives, being crucial for wet rice agriculture, fishing and transport. In historical perspective water management in the broadest sense was a major concern for all Vietnamese dynasties. At the material level the state realized water management through building and maintenance of system of dikes to prevent flooding and supply the fields with water. At the spiritual level the rulers sought to control the weather through rituals, since calamities such as drought or flood were not only damaging the crops, but were also considered to be an indication of rulers personal incompetence to harmonize the realm. Similarly, common people sought to control the water powers through worship of various local deities, and were the ones who suffered the burden of labour constructing the dikes. It is not surprising that the theme of water, an omnipresent power in Vietnamese realm, is abundantly reflected in mythology, various religious beliefs and literature. This interdisciplinary panel aims at exploring the topic of “water” in 19th century Vietnam from diverse points of view – historical, political, geographic, literary and religious – to understand its importance and the role it played in Vietnamese history and culture.

 

Paper 1: Water and Mountains in the Work of Nguyễn Du

Jan Komárek
Charles University in Prague
komret@gmail.com

The opposition of water and mountains just as their complementarity is one of the key concepts in Vietnamese mythology and literature. It is distinctively present in the founding myth of u Cơ and Lạc Long Quan and in various other influential myths and legends. In Vietnamese literature mountains and rivers are a synonym for landscape, as well as for political territory. Poets also referred to mountains as realm of seclusion and meditation, a place where they could forget about worldly affairs, while rivers, as a main means of transport, were associated with sorrows of long travels, official duties and contemplation of their vanity. Both territories were often inhabited by men not following the Confucian order – Taoist hermits and Buddhist monks in the mountains and witty, unrestrained fishermen by the rivers – and therefore being admired by some of the poets. The paper explores the motif of water and mountains in Vietnamese literature and focuses on the work of the most esteemed Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Du, whose poems from travels to China in early XIX century are especially concerned with surrounding landscape.

 

Paper 2: Water Deities in 19th century Vietnam – evidence from administrative geography

Barbora Jirkova
Charles University in Prague
bara.jirkova@gmail.com

Water deities are omnipresent in all strata of Vietnamese religious beliefs ranging from official state cult to local shrines, however not much scholarly attention has been paid to them so far. In the 19th century, after unifying the country, Nguyễn dynasty paid increasing attention to religious sphere of their realm. Not only the proper performance of state sponsored rituals securing the prosperity of the realm, but also regulation and control of local religious beliefs through their registration and incorporation into hierarchical system became a major preoccupation for Nguyễn rulers. The paper will examine the records of water deities and their shrines in 19th century Nguyễn administrative geographies and, comparing them with administrative records of local deities recognized by state as worthy, aim at answering some of the questions about the nature and geographic distribution of water dieties.

 

Paper 3: Water as a Symbol in the Ê Đê Ethnic Minority’s Epic and Rituals

Thi Hiep Nguyen
Centre Asie du Sud-Est, CNRS
ngochiep77@yahoo.com

Vietnam’s mountainous Central Highlands region is home to diverse ethnic minority populations. The Ê Đê ethnic minority, with their archaeological and literary heritage, are considered to be a typical group of this region. The Ê Đê epic is a genre of the oral tradition, including poems ranging from hundreds to thousands of verses long, which are sung to special melodies. These epics, also referred to as heroic songs, are a blend of blessings, eulogies, magic spells, fairy tales, myths, and folk songs. They are one of the typical vehicles of the oral tradition perpetuating the memory of heroes of Ê Đê history. This art form was first discovered in the 19th century, together with a number of special rituals in the region. For the Ê Đê, water is a special symbol; it is not only the source of life, but also a supernatural power, as is reflected in their literature and rituals. This paper examines water as an important symbol in the 19th century Ê Đê epic and worship rituals in order to better understand Ê Đê culture.

 

Paper 4: Nature, deities and environment of South Vietnam in Luc Vân Tiên poem (mid-19th century)

Pascal Bourdeaux
École Pratique des Hautes Études
pascalbourdeaux@yahoo.fr

Luc Vân Tiên is a famous versed novel created by Nguyên Dinh Chiêu in the middle of the 19th century in southern Vietnam. Although written in sino-vietnamese scripture to praise Confucian values and behaviors, the epic story spread from this time orally and deep in the peasant society of the southern Vietnam, where the writer was born and lived his whole life. This paper intends to analyse the presence and the significance of water in this poem as an environmental element and at the same time as medium for popular belief. The aim is to draw a parallel between the transformation or moralization of spiritual life by Confucianism and the social and cultural development of the Mekong delta, in other words to illustrate some aspects of the emergence, during the first half of the 19th century, of an original riverine civilization of South Vietnam under the Nguyên dynasty.