Music and Media in Modern Viet-Nam, 0-2






Encountering mediumship



Mediumship, modernity, and identity



Experiencing spirit-possession



Songs for the spirits



Musical construction of the spirits



Musical creativity



Engendering mediumship






Thanking the spirits











communal house













p. xi scripts

c^u nho (Chinese characters)

c^u nom (Vietnamese characters)

quoc nu (Latin characters)

p. xi tones in quoc nu




high rising


Ď (acute accent)

mid level

khon dau

(no diacritic)

high broken


~ circumflex accent)

low rising



low broken


. (subscript dot)

low falling


` (grave accent)

pp. 3-4 religious activities

p. 3

"The climax was a huge procession, or ruoc, between two of the main festival sites, and other activities were organized in temple yards; these activities included

"human chess" (co nhan),

"dragon dancing" (mua rong), and

"forming words" (keo chu). In this last activity, hundreds of people arranged themselves to form the shapes of Sino-Vietnamese characters."

p. 4

"len dong is a popular and long-established way of "serving the spirits" (hau thanh), of enacting devotion through the embodied presence of spirits. Spirit possession relies on the miraculous response of the spirits and is ... described by devotees as "mysterious" or "mystical" (huyen bi)".

pp. 24-25, 52 former practices; reviewing history

p. 24

"Accounts of mediumship in the first half of the twentieth century make a distinction between


male mediums (ong dong, thanh dong, or thay phap),

who belonged to the "cult" of General Tran Hung Dao, and


female mediums (ba dong, ba cot, or dong cot),

who worshipped the spirits of the Three Palaces (Tam Phu), with each "palace" headed by a mother spirit".


"The group of male mediums was known for its healing rituals involving expelling evil spirits and acts of self-immolation, such as cheek and tongue piercing and fire walking."

p. 25

"However, in contemporary Vietnam ... the exorcism rites associated with the incarnation of the general are no longer practiced."

p. 52

"Today we review history to make people aware of :

how the spirits fought ... with swords and spears;

how the Ninth Lady Spirit danced with a fan as if cooling humanity;

how the Third Holy Lady rowed in a boat for Le Loi in order for him to cross the river". [p. 231, n. 1:7 : "Le Loi expelled the Ming dynasty Chinese administrators ..., and he established the Le dynasty in 1428."]

p. 58 ranking (in descending order) of groups of spirits in c^u vi (spiritsí assemblage, pantheon)


c^u ("spirits")


mau (mother)


quan (mandarin)


c^au (ladies)


on hoan (princes)


co (princesses)


cau (young princes)

"Some classifications include ... animal spirits Ė five tigers and a snake Ė at the bottom, after the rank of young princes."

pp. 58-59 categories of spirits descending into spirit-medium




"mother spirits ... only "descend" (giang) for a few seconds while the scarf is placed over the mediumís head before "returning" (ve) to the other world.


... mandarins are the most prestigious male spirits and are the first to be fully incarnated during len dong. ...


... of the ladies ... many are thought also to belong to different "ethnic minority" groups, such as the"



__ Lady

















"When possessed by ethnic spirits, mediums wear colorful clothes ... from the traditional costumes of minority groups, who live mainly in the highland regions ... .


... the princes ... are younger, more irreverent, and less reserved ... .


The princesses are graceful unmarried maidens ... . ...


... the young princes, are playful and naughty children who tease and joke." {Likewise among the Manobo, a possessing-spirit "jokes", "laughs", "teases" (S&GF, p. 227 etc.).}

S&GF = Jose` S. Buenconsejo : Songs and Gifts at the Frontier. Routledge, NY & London, 2002.

pp. 60-61, 63-65 palaces & geographic assignments of deities




"The term Four Palace Religion refers to the four "palaces" (phu) or domains ... in the "yin spirit world" (coi am). ... The palaces relate to the place of spirits in the "yang human world" (duong tran) as well as the celestial domain."


"Ho Chi Minh is already a figure of worship in village communal houses as a tutelary spirit, a "living god" (than song)".


"the Fifth Mandarin is renowned ... on the Do Tranh river in Hai Hung province ... . ...


The Third Mandarin is reputed to have been ... "the son of the water king at Dong Dinh lake" ... .


Tales about the Fifth Mandarin recount that he is the son of the legendary dragon king, Long Vuong. He is reputed to have seduced a mandarinís daughter in Ninh Giang province and to have become


manifest as a snake. As a snake spirit he created a storm on the Do Tranh river".


as for the 3rd Mother, Lieu Hanh : "the Jade Emperor permitted her to return to earth two years after her death. On her return, she made her immortal identity known and traveled widely performing miraculous deeds to help the people."


"In balance with the "mother" Lieu Hanh, the highest-ranking male spirit, General Tran Hung Dao, is popularly referred to as the "father." ...

"August is the fatherís death anniversary,

March is the motherís death anniversary"".

pp. 66-69 "Coming out as a medium" (ra don / trinh don)




" "Coming out as a medium" ... is usually prompted by a crisis or affliction. ... and initiation is prescribed as a resolution or cure. Becoming a medium is understood as being part of a personís fate, as an inevitable occurrence. ... Initiates are said to have the "destined aptitude"


or "spirit root" (... can so) for mediumship. Those who possess a "heavy destiny and a high aptitude" (can cao so nang) cannot deny the will of the spirits and are compelled to become mediums. ... Mediums are servants or "soldiers" (linh) who obey the spiritsí "orders" (truyen lenh); they are "chosen" (cham dong), "seized" / "forced" (bat), "tormented" (hanh), and "punished" (phat) by spirits; they are "children" (con) who "serve" (hau) the spirits; they are "chairs" (ghe) mounted by the spirits. ... An initiate who is "chosen" for mediumship by a particular spirit is said to have a "destined aptitude" for that spirit. ... Unexplained misfortune or bad luck ... may also be diagnosed as having a divine cause. The proof of the diagnoses of ritual specialists ... is a successful resolution of difficulties after initiation. ...

The afflictions suffered by ... mediums [before each became a spirit-medium] were diverse. They ranged from ... "madness" (dien) ... to ... debilitating states including lethargy to long periods of severe immobility. [One such female spirit-medium] was tormented by the spirits to such an extent that she said she "died for three and a half hours"; [another such female spirit-medium] suffered tiredness, headaches, and illness of the "heart and mind" (tam


tinh), which could not be cured by medicine; [one male spirit-medium] was tired and weak and was then involuntarily possessed by evil spirits, which made him lose control of his body and thrash around ... . Dreams figured in ... descriptions of being "seized" by spirits. In one [female spirit-medium]ís dream she was bitten by mandarins, who appeared as snakes, and she found that she could not walk the next day. In [another female spirit-medium]ís dream she was visited by the spirits, who taught her how to perform ritual dances. [The female spirit-medium who was bitten by the snakes in her dream] also mentioned that "knotted hair" is another common manifestation of punishment by the spirits. {cf. the snakey hair of Medousa the Gorgon (bad-hair day)} [p. 231, n. 2:5 : "The problem of "knotted hair" can lead to a rite of "combing out the hair" (chai toc), which takes place prior to initiation."] All ... mediums said their afflictions were alleviated through initiation. ...


Madness is conceptualized in the discourse of mediums as an abnormal bodily state ..., and its cause is related to spirits ... . Madness is usually associated with crises that lead to initiation. ... "If you avoid [coming out as a medium], then you will suffer Ďmadnessí and be punished by the spirits." Unusually, [one female spirit-medium] suffered a bout of "madness" for several months ... a few years after she was initiated. According to [her] she was involuntarily possessed by the Ninth Princess, and the princess made her go far from her family to visit the famous Bac Le temple in northeast Vietnam. Her ... neglect of her children subsided only when she established her own private temple next to her home and began to tell fortunes. [She] said she had a "destined aptitude for the Ninth Princess" (can co Chin) and that the princess had bestowed upon her fortune-telling powers."

pp. 69-70 "Opening the Palaces"




"The initiation ritual is known as "opening the palaces" (mo phu), because it gives initiates access to the spirits of the Four Palaces. ... At the start of the ritual, the master {mistress, if female} is several spirits in succession while the initiate watches. She then invites the initiate to kneel in front of the altar to carry out an "asking rite" (le khat), which is also known as "placing bowls of incense on the head" (doi bat huong). ... A red cloth is draped over the initiateís head, and a large tray, containing incense sticks and other votive objects and "spirit petitions" (so) written in Chinese or Sino-Vietnamese characters, is balanced on top of the red cloth. The experienced medium consults the spirits by throwing two old coins ... . If both coins land on heads or tails, then the spiritsí response is favorable and unfavorable, respectively. ... If both coins do not land on heads after three throws, the initiate is not accepted by the spirits and the coins have to


[be] thrown again on another occasion. ... On successful completion of the "asking yin and yang" procedure, the initiate comes before the altar to be possessed. ... The initiation process is concluded with a "thanking ritual" (le ta / ta phu), which is usually held one hundred days after "opening the palaces." The thanking ritual is held by the newly initiated medium, without the assistance of a master medium".

separating votive objects at altar; healing at altar


rite at altar


Two "ritual acts associated with ... prophecy take place during len dong" : "the giving of "incense water" (nuoc thai) and a rite known as cat tien duyen (lit. "cutting of the love fate of a previous life"). Mediums give out incense water consisting of a little incense ash mixed with water, usually when possessed by the Third Princess.

The cat tien dyen ritual involves separating "yin" and "yang" offerings. The disciple kneels in front of the altar with a scarf draped over her head ... .


Votive offerings typically include spirit petitions, paper shoes, fans, rice, and salt. ... The yin offerings are burned for the spirit world, and the yang are retained in the human world. This separation makes a break with the difficulties in love in a previous life. ... The separation of votive objects enables the "yin people" (nguoi am) [i.e., the deceased] and people in this world to [associate with their own kind]. The yin with return to the yin and the yang will return to the yang; then the living will be able to love whom they wish and get married. After the cat tien duyen rite, the yin no longer haunts the living."


"if the illness is due to evil spirits, then it can be cured by an "invocation" (khan) to the spirits ... . ... Invocations muttered in front of the spirit altar ... to the healing sessions ... include the name and address of the client, the name of the temple, the date, the clientís complaint, and the names of the spirits who are implored for assistance. Petitions written to the spirits in Chinese or old Sino-Vietnamese characters seal the invocations as text. After the invocation, petitions are burned and the ashes are mixed with water".


"Mediums become the vehicle of spirits when possessed and "the words of the spirits" (loi thanh) are "transmitted" (truyen) through them. ... Disciples are encouraged to worship deities with statements like

"worship the four palaces" (tho bon phu), ... and

"organize the work of the spirits above, endure the earthly work below" (tren thi lo viec thanh, duoi thi ganh viec tran). ...

When disciples approach the medium with offerings, it is conventional to

"plead for blessed gifts" (xin cho loc),

to implore the spirits to "protect" (phu ho) their "family lineage" (ho).

Hearing the disciplesí pleas, the spirits "praise" (ban khen) and "pity" (thuong) their devotees and their lineages, they "witness the hearts" (chung tam) of mortals."

pp. 73-74 embodied language; aware possession

p. 73

"During len dong, possessees were adamant they were aware of everything going on around them : they were "alert" or "aware" (... tinh tao). This form of controlled "aware possession" contrasts with ... possession state characterized by loss of awareness and bodily control, which was described as being "me." This state is associated with involuntary possession prior to initiation".

p. 74

"Me possession involves being ... infatuated by spirits." [p. 232, n. 2:8 : "me refers to "infatuation"]

pp. 76-77 experiencing possession bodily




"In aware possession, spirits "enter" (nhap) the body (... xac than). ... When the spirits enter, the possessee experiences feeling like

"heavy shoulders and head" [for those whom "the spirits entered their head"],

"lightness" [for one whose "spirits entered her heart"], and

"hotness and dreaminess" ... .

When possessed, [one female spirit-medium] had two "roles" (vai) in her head, her brain felt "limitless" (menh mang) and her mind "flew away" (phieu dieu). [Another female spirit-medium] said her mind was "elated" (sang khoai), as if her spirit was "flying and gliding" (bay bay luon luon)."


[The female spirit-medium who felt lightness] said that when the spirits entered her heart, she had "premonitions" (linh cam).

... a "true heart" (thuc tam) is necessary in order for premonitions to occur ...;

... the "miraculous response" (linh ung) of the spirits is felt in the heart, ...

... the spirits "inscribe the heart" (de tam), and

... the utterances of the spirits are transmitted through the heart."

Barley Norton : Songs for the Spirits : Music and Media of Modern Viet-Nam. U of IL Pr, Urbana & Chicago, 2009.