Negotiating rituals in contemporary Vietnam

Negotiating rituals in contemporary Vietnam

Paul Sorrentino


This project intends to study the negotiations surrounding ritual practices in contemporary Vietnam, in a context of suspicion towards religions combined with a quick international integration of the country and a tense geopolitical situation. On the theoretical side, this research will have recourse to the conceptual tools proposed by Luc Boltanski's pragmatic sociology and Bruno Latour's anthropology of sciences, providing a useful framework to trace the continuities between ritual action, discourse on ritual, and the effects of ritual on society.

An important body of scholarship as questioned the religious revival observed in Vietnam after the beginning of the Đồi mới policy in 1986. This paradigm of "reenchantment". This paradigm of "reenchantment" describes the resurgence of practices that the war and the revolution had interrupted or made invisible, and the way these practices adapt to new social needs related to the development of market economy. However, many works falling within this approach tend to suggest a simple opposition between society and state, between crowds of enthusiastic practitioners and an almighty Communist Party at war against uncontrolled religion, conveying the idea of a revival mechanically triggered by the political opening of the late 1980s. One can only regret the lack of detailed case studies about the complex adjustments between multiple agendas that allow religious practices to revive and inform their specific transformations. In the context of the failure of what Shaun Malarney has called "state functionalism", namely the attempt, by the authorities, to create a new set of rituals contributing to the socialist reform of popular culture, this project will attempt to take into account the multiplicity of agents involved in the revival of ritual practices in Vietnam.

Among these agents, are of a particular interest those who promote certain forms of rituals without being involved as active specialists, such as the intellectuals and scientists who fostered the development of what is often called "spiritual sciences" (khoa học tâm linh) in Vietnam, providing the background for the development of a whole set of new ritual practices. While they have produced a scientific discourse on forms of communication with the dead in order to make them acceptable by the state, promoters of other ritual practices have chosen the path of heritigisation in order to legitimise them. These strategies are organically connected to ritual forms themselves in mutual feedbacks and influences, mediated by their promoters and their negotiations with various bodies and levels of the administration. Here the question of nation building seems to appear as a hegemonic framework. A strong hypothesis of this project is that contribution to the definition of what it means to be Vietnamese, wether it meets the Party's agenda or subverts it, has become a structuring aspect of any discourse on ritual in Vietnam and, to some extent, of ritual actions themselves.

Besides a study of the strategies of promoters of rituals and their interlocutors, this research will rely on an approach of ritual as an object of knowledge in Vietnamese society. Indeed, one of the central ideas to this project is that the question of the legitimacy of rituals is intimately related to that of their qualification. The emergence of the paradigmatic notion of "spirituality" (tâm linh), which has become widely used in the last few decades, is a sign of the fact that deep changes are at work in the way religious practices are regarded. A study of the bodies of knowledge mobilised seems necessary, and one should ask how, in return, practices themselves are transformed (or created) in relation to these heterogenous bodies of knowledge (modern sciences, Buddhist texts, Vietnamese myths, hagiographies of local saints, Sino-Vietnamese ritual books, spritiualist literature from France, or parasciences from the Soviet Union) and shaped by complex negotiations.  The recurring controversies on rituals in the Vietnamese public sphere will provide a field for the study of these processes.