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Performing Arts of Vietnamese Mediumship and Folk Practices Among Vietnamese in the United States, 2003-04

Hien Nguyen's Ford Crossing Border's research project was titled "Performing Arts of Vietnamese Mediumship and Folk Practices among Vietnamese in the United States."

The residency enabled her to expand her previous research on popular religious practices in Vietnam and include similar and related practices among Vietnamese communities in the United States.

During her fellowship, Nguyen made fieldwork trips to San Jose, CA and to Vietnam. Collaborating with Prof. Karen Fjelstad of San Jose State University, together they conducted fieldwork among Vietnamese American spirit mediums on their Len Dong rituals in San Jose, CA. The result of this fieldwork was a paper on the Vietnamese Mother Goddess Religion and Len Dong spirit possession ritual from a transnational perspective.

As part of her preparation for teaching at UCLA, Nguyen conducted further research on "Contemporary Vietnam in Ethnographic Images." From December 8, 2003 to January 26, 2004 she traveled throughout Vietnam and visited a number of places from a village of minority people in Lao Cai province in the north of Vietnam to the sacred Black Lady mountain in Tay Ninh. The aim of this field trip was to record the daily life of Vietnamese people and to prepare multi-media teaching materials.

Nguyen developed and taught a new course at UCLA in Spring 2004 in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, "Society and Culture in Contemporary Vietnam." The aim of the course was to explore Vietnamese society and culture at the beginning of the 21 st century. Rather than focusing only on Vietnam's past, as a country that has experienced centuries of warfare, or looking only at the majority Kinh people, this course introduced contemporary Vietnam as a country, which included urban and rural people who are both ethnically diverse and geographically varied.

Nguyen's principal research effort during her UCLA residency was manifested in the symposium she organized on "Mother Goddesses and Spirit Mediums: Popular Ritual and Spirit Possession in Contemporary Vietnam" on June 2004, at the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies. The theme of the symposium was based on the Mother Goddess Religion (Dao Mau.) One of the oldest religious traditions of Vietnam, temples are dedicated to Mother Goddesses, including temples for her spirit possession rituals (len dong.) These temples are found in every region of Vietnam and in communities of overseas Vietnamese. Although the rituals of mother goddess worship have been a part of Vietnamese culture for 1,000 years or more, they have periodically been illegal in contemporary Vietnam. Still, Vietnamese continue to practice spirit possession and wherever Vietnamese settle outside of Vietnam, they bring spirit possession rituals with them. The symposium gathered together nine international scholars who discussed their research with the intention of compiling their broad findings into one comprehensive book. Co-edited by Nguyen and Fjelstad, the book will exclusively examine the religion and practice of the Vietnamese Mother Goddess and should be published sometime in 2006 by Singapore Press under the title: "Mother Goddesses and Spirit Mediums: Popular Ritual and Spirit Possession in Contemporary Vietnam."

The symposium participants and contributors to this book include:

Panel Participants
From Red River Delta to Silicon Valley: The Past, Present and Future of Len dong Spirit Possession
  • Ngo, Duc Thinh, Institute of Folklore Studies, Vietnam
    "The Mother Goddess Religion: Its History, Pantheon, and Practice"
  • Karen Fjelstad, San Jose State University
    "'We Have Len Dong Too': Transnational Aspects of Spirit Possession"
  • Viveca Larsson, Goteborg University, Sweden
    "Temple Masters and Spirit Mediums in the Post-renovation Vietnam"
Spirit Mediums: Personal Identity and Gender
  • Kirsten W. Endres, Vietnamese-German Center, Hanoi University of Technology
    "Spirit Performance and the Ritual Construction of Personal Identity in Modern Vietnam"
  • Lisa Maiffret and Karen Fjelstad, San Jose State University
    "Gifts from the Spirits: Spirit Possession and Personal Transformation among Silicon Valley Spirit Mediums"
  • Norton Barley, University of Surrey Roehampton, England
    "'Hot-tempered' Women and 'Effeminate' Men: the Performance of Music and Gender in Vietnamese Mediumship"
Legitimacy, Empowerment, and Popular Religion
  • Hien Nguyen, University of California, Los Angeles
    "'A Bit of a Spirit Favor is Equal to a Load of Mundane Gifts': Votive Paper
    Offerings of Len Dong Rituals in Post-renovation Vietnam"

  • Pham, Quynh Phuong, La Trobe University, Australia
    "Lam toi doi nuoc (Servant to Both Sides): the Relationship between Saint Tran Worship and the Mother Goddess Religion"
  • Laurel Kendall, American Museum of Natural History
    "Looking beyond Vietnam: Looking at East Asian Popular Religion through the Lens of Vietnam"

The conference was attended by over 50 people and made a significant contribution to Vietnamese and Vietnamese American Studies nationally and internationally.

While at UCLA, Nguyen gave several lectures, some of them included:

  • "Mother Goddess Religion and Popular Rituals in Contemporary Vietnam" given at the University of California, Berkeley in February 2004.
  • A co-presentation with Laurel Kendall for the presentation "Entertaining Power, Transcending Eliade: Alternative Perspectives from Korea and Vietnam" presented at the International Shamanic Conference, Chanchung, China, in August 2004."
  • A Bit of Spirit Favor is Equal to a Load of Mundane Gifts" given at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Chicago, IL, November 2003.

In addition to the book publication based on her symposium, Nguyen developed two other manuscripts during her residency: "Spiritualism: Spirit Possession Rituals and Mother Goddess Religion in Vietnam" a special publication on Vietnamese Rituals, 2006. And an encyclopedia entry titled "Folklore of the Viet," in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of World Folklore, edited by William M. Clements, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005.

Hien Nguyen completed her Ph.D. in 2002 in Folklore with a Minor in Religious Studies from Indiana University, Bloomington in 2002. Her dissertation was entitled: "The Religion of Four Palaces: Mediumship and Therapy in Viet Culture."

Center for Southeast Asian Studies

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