The French cultural center (L'espace) was packed that night. Old and young, local and expats, frantic believers and purely curious outstander alike filled the hall to its fullest capacity. Some contemporary artists would be jealous with the flow of audiences. Even after the show had begun, more people continued to rush in past the door and ended up standing in a cluster by one end of the room or spreading themselves along the wall. Yet it was not a pop, rock, jazz, or electronic music show. It was not even pure music to begin with. On stage there was a meticulous reproduction of a temple. Candle light flickered as if the wind blew through, incense's fragrance lingered about all corners. One session of medium worship was about to begin, but this time it was on stage, and everything was prepared for the gaze of an audience from all different background, but mostly educated middle class. The medium, a short hair woman in her late 40s, has probably never before in her life performed in front of hundreds of people. She started swaying as the music began, shaking her body vigorously to signify that the spirit of a deity she summoned was entering her. But this time, I wonder how much of that was real manifestation of communicative channel between the two worlds, and how much is a recited move of the same performance she has given many times in her profession as an agent of the religious realm.
"Chầu văn" is a style of singing and dancing accompanying mediumship, in which a medium would dance along the music according to whichever deity s/he is possessed with at that moment. She or he imitates behaviours of heros, state officials, young girls or a benevolent Mother Goddess. This is a highly staged form of worshiping, in which both the medium (i.e. main actor/actress) and the believers (i.e. audience) know their roles and act accordingly. For example, when the deity is a young girl who loves teasing people and being praised for her beauty, the medium walks joyful steps, fixs hair in the mirro, and believers sitting around must chirp up compliments on her beauty sincerely, for when she is flattered and pleased, she will reward people with lots of blessings, or even wealth. The medium holds in her/his hands few bunches of small changes, and throw that out for everyone to catch.
In the old days, this indigenous form of religion with many beliefs and little doctrine occupied a great proportion of the Vietnamese spiritual life. Men and especially women found comfort in the fact that they could communicate with powerful spirits and could ask for their blessings. These Gods and Goddesses are responsive, and as long as one complies to some general rules for good behaviours and frequently participates in worshiping (which can be costly for comprehensive and extravagant offerings), one and one's family should be blessed with good health and good fortune. In fact, even though Confucianism and Buddhism are believed to exercise heavy influence on the Vietnamese culture, they are both sophisticated sets of ideas and philosophy, which require certain level of education and mediation to fully comprehend and practice. On the contrary, mediumship places more emphasis on faith than rationality, so it is not surprising that this form of religious practice was embraced more enthusiastically by a population overwhelmed with farmers who possessed little formal education yet engaged in a colourful and enriched system of folk beliefs.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the government fiercely controlled mediumship, labeling it "superstitious remnants of feudalism" along with some other age-old customs. Many home-based temples were eradicated and the practice was officially and actively banned all over the country. However, the cult lives on, and by the beginning of the 21st century, actually thrives with assistance and funding from some foreign cultural centers such as L'espace. Researchers begin to focus on this practice not only with a more positive tone but actually associate it with "the soul of the nation" "the most original form of religious beliefs". Moreover, "chầu văn" the singing itself, rather than practice of mediumship, is being proposed to be recognized by UNESCO as cultural heritage.
Facts aside, as I stood against the wall during the performance that night (because I didn't come early enough to reserve a seat), I couldn't help but wondering how many people considered themselves attending a sacred ritual and how many attending a colourful performance. The younger audience like myself, who didn't grow up immersed in stories of local heroes and princesses, were more likely to view the woman in splendid outfit dancing on stage as a performer, while the older ones seemed to be more engaged with the religious side of it. Nevertheless, I couldn't remove myself from the position of an indifferent watcher, yet at the same time, I know I should also be, if not a believer, at least a participant in the ritual. My mind told me so, but my heart didn't stir with any emotion I knew a true believer might be feeling. When the religious goes popular, when a scared ritual is performed on stage, when believers pay to participate, then who I am to know what is being created?