REVIVAL OF RITUAL CEREMONY IN HUE ROYAL TEMPLES AFTER RENOVATION
(DOI MOI): THE RECONSTITUTION OF IDENTITY
Anh Van Huynh
Center of Hue Monument Conservation
Since 1986, the Vietnamese government has undergone the doi moi policy (renovation) geared
towards a market-oriented economy. Transformation from economic reform resulted in significant
changes in cultural practice and ideology. In this process, the development of the economy was linked to
the reinvention of public religious life that was encouraged through official permission. In 1989, the
Ministry of Culture (presently the Ministry of Culture and Information) promulgated the Regulations for
Opening the Traditional Festivals – Quy che mo Hoi truyen thong (Ministry of Culture and Information
1993: 11). Continuously, the production of votive money and paper items for offerings in ritual activities
that had been once forbidden was restored nation-wide in 1990 (Republic Socialist of Vietnam 1990: 7).
Since then, many forms of festivals, wedding ceremonies, mourning, death day anniversary, communal
rites, and festivities of a clan or a village that were once considered as “unsound custom” and abolished
(Tran van Phac 1985: 5) have been flourished in many regions. This phenomenon was considered as a
significant topic of focus in the research of many authors, such as Luong Van Hy (1994), Tran Dai Vinh
(1995), Ton That Binh (1997), Kleinnen (1999), Hue-Tam Ho Tai (2001), S.K. Malarney (2002). Among
these works, the resurgence of ancestral worship rituals was seen as the expression of "family solidarity
and the obligations, and inter-dependence of generations" (Kleinnen 1999: 161), or as the promotion of
local ceremonies was explained as "the ideological change" (Luong Van Hy 1994: 480).
Changes resulted from renovation policy in 1986 unintentionally provided space for a revival of
ancestral worship ceremony in royal temple conducted by Nguyen Phuc clan who were once the royalty
in Vietnamese monarchical society from 1802-1945. After the renovation, especially after the UNESCO's
proclamation of Hue as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1993, many local cultural forms have been
revived and portrayed as a representation of Hue identity by state agencies for tourism. From this strategy,
many forms of royal culture such as architecture, art, costumes and cuisine, royal ceremony were renewed
and highlighted as representative of Hue culture to attract tourists. Similar forms of “symbolic production
of identity” also occurred in Lao when court dance and New Year Celebration in Louang Prabang were
reintroduced as “expressions of national identity” (Trankell 1999: 199). However, as this paper will
illustrate, from the perspective of clan members themselves, ritual of Nguyen Phuc clan in royal temples
is the only type of royal culture practiced by the royal clan that seems not to be staged for tourists on the
one hand. On the other hand, tourists remain a significant group of actors in the process of negotiation of
Nguyen Phuc clan and the revival of ritual ceremony and expression of their identity.
Concerning dynamic of cultural practices, Wright (1995: 243) suggested that anthropologist
should look into the “symbolic production generated by public culture and its concomitant expression of
identity and peoplehood”1. This argument promoted the central framework for this research to explore the
effect of renovation policy on local culture through the revival of ritual ceremony in Hue royal temples
since 1989. This also helps to understand how local culture is practiced in the space of present royal
temples, World Cultural Heritage, and as the identity of Nguyen Phuc2 clan after renovation.
Vietnamese society is witnessing various modifications in ritual life, accompanied by different
meanings of change, a study of this kind is the first to illustrate and analyze the ritual revival conducted
As cited by Trankell (1999: 193).
The main surname of this clan is Nguyen, however since the reign of the second Nguyen Lord (Nguyen Phuc
Nguyen, 1563-1635), the word “Phuc” or “Phuoc” that refers to “the happiness” was added into their surname
(Nguyen Phuc clan’s Royal Annals 1995: 417).
by Nguyen Phuc clan. This study further argues that the re-emergent localism expressed by a clan’s
attempt to regain their identity in society is facilitated from socio-political reform, however excluded
from the official strategy of presenting cultural identity of the state.
This study was conducted based on some following methods. Archival documents including
records of the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945), books, official documents, tourist brochures and newspapers
were used in contextualization and comparative analysis to understand the Vietnamese tradition of
ancestral worship, the specificity of ritual under the Nguyen before 1945 and changes of official ideology
after renovation (doi moi) in 1986. Survey with case-study analysis and interviews, both formal and
informal with Nguyen Phuc clan members, local authorities, tourist guides, Vietnamese and foreign
tourists and Hue lay people were applied to clarify the significance of royal culture in current
development of the local community and the meaning of ritual revival in royal temples after renovation.
The ideas of Nguyen Phuc clan members in this study may not represent all thousands of clan’s members
at present; however, they were expressed by people who practice the ritual in royal temples on behalf of
The research was conducted at royal temples in Hue Imperial City from December 2003 to March
2004, from December 2004 to February 2005, June 2005, and from December 2005 to February 2006.
2. The Tradition of Ancestral Worship and Specificity of the Ancestral Worship System
under the Nguyen (1802-1945)
2.1. Tradition of Ancestral Worship in Vietnam:
Ancestor worshipping is one of main features of Vietnamese culture. For the Vietnamese, the
Death Day anniversary is considered as an important day of the family members, especially the
anniversary conducted during the first three years after family member’s death.
In the past and at present, the ceremony of ancestor worshipping is held at each family house or at
clan or branch ancestor house. It is important to define the terminology of clan and branch. In Vietnamese
patrilineal family cycle, clan (ho) refers to all members bearing the same surname in a patrilineal kinship.
There is a house called clan ancestral house (nha tho ho) where they worship the ancestor of the whole
clan. In the clan ancestral house, only one ancestral tablet of the clan ancestor is normally set and
worshipped forever. Based on the main family of the clan ancestor, there are many stem families as
nuclear families originating from the main family. In the perpetuation of following generations, these
stem families create their own branches. At the level of branch (nhanh/chi), which comprises many
families stemmed from a branch founder, one can find branch ancestor altars. In most Vietnamese
families (households), those who are worshipped in the family are often of the fourth generation founders
downward. Ancestors of the fifth generation upward are worshipped together with the branch’s ancestors
in the branch ancestral house (nha tho nhanh/chi). However, some differences can be found in some clans
when they worship the branches’ ancestors together with the clan’s ancestor. In the process of the
generation expansion, the ancestral tablets (bai vi) of the distant generation ancestors on which they write
or carve the deceased’s name are often burned together with votive money in the ancestor worshipping
day of the clan (ngay chap ho).
On the altar, apart from the ritual items such as incense, candles, stem tray for fruit, set of tea
cups, the ancestral tablet/tablets are set in the middle of the altar. Some families worship their ancestors’
photos or incense burners instead of tablets. People offer the dead food, fruit, flowers, incense and votive
items such as money, clothes, or daily accessories made of paper. The main officiant of ancestral worship
ritual is often the patriarchal leader of a family (gia truong) or the head of a clan (toc truong/truong ho).
They practice this ritual on every death day anniversaries, New Year ceremony and other ritual occasions.
According to ancestral worship belief, people believe that one’s soul will exist forever. The
ancestor’s soul always supports their descendants. The rite of worshipping expresses the filial virtue of
living people to the deceased (Tran Dai Vinh 1995: 64-68; Thich Thanh Due, Quang Tue, Tue Nha 1995:
71-72; Cadière 1997: 44) and symbolically connects them. Therefore, people often pray to the soul of the
deceased for protection and support.
Every year, the most significant ceremony of a clan is the ancestral worshipping day that is
selected and organized on the Death Day anniversary of the clan’s ancestor or a certain day of the year to
commemorate the clan’s ancestor together with ancestors of branches. In this ritual, the clan’s patriarch
and representatives of branches gather to clean all graves of their ancestors and dedicate offerings. At the
end of the ritual, a feast was held for the clan’s members and representatives of other clans if they are
invited for the feast. Compared to the traditional rituals of ancestral worship, the rituals under the Nguyen
were more complicated to mark their specificity in the community.
2.2. The System of Ancestral Worship of the Nguyen Clan: Historical Context,
Characteristics of Ritual System and Meaning of Space.
Hue was once chosen as the metropolis of the Nguyen Lords (r. 1558-1775) in Southern Vietnam
(Dang Trong) which was separate from the Northern Vietnam (Dang Ngoai) under the control of Trinh
Lords and the Le dynasty (1533-1788). Following this, it was the capital of Tay Son regime (r. 1788-
1801). In 1802, when the Nguyen sovereign, posterity of Nguyen Lords, set up their power over a united
Vietnam, Hue became the capital of the country over the following century (1802-1945) (Figure 1).
During the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945) (Appendix I), the ritual life of the royalty was complex
and dynamic with many ritual regulations. It formed the specificity of the royal ritual and pervaded in
ritual life of Hue region that is still maintained at present day rituals (Ton That Binh 1993: 65). Since “the
ancestral worship practiced in level of royal ceremony brought the supremacy to the monarch’s lineage
and strengthened the royal power” (Luong Kim Thoa 2002: 116), the traditional ritual of ancestral
worship was given significant attention by the Nguyen Emperors and codified as the national law.
Under Minh Mang’s reign, the second Emperor (1820-1840), ritual regulations were completely
codified. Together with the codification of economic and socio-political policies of the new successor, the
power of royalty was reinforced through intervention in ritual life and customs with concrete regulations
of funeral, marriage, family relationship and so on. The social rites and codified regulations compiled a
remarkable portion of 68 out of 263 volumes in the Repertory of the Administrative Regulations in the
Kingdom of Dai Nam (Kham dinh Dai Nam hoi dien su le). Compared to the traditional system of
ancestral worship and ritual, the system of the Nguyen ancestral worship differed from that of other clans
in Vietnamese society in terms of classification of rites, system of the clan ancestral houses, naming rule,
symbolic meaning of location and ritual process.
Since Minh Mang’s reign (1820-1840), the codification of rituals was established and
promulgated in public, in which the state-run rites were classified into three levels. The ancestral
worshipping ceremonies in Nguyen royal temples were in the first level of Great Rites, preceding only the
sacrifice ceremony at Nam Giao Esplanade where the Emperor practiced the ceremony as the son of the
Heaven and the Earth on behalf of his subjects. The ceremony in royal temples was more important than
the sacrifice ceremony at Xa Tac Esplanade (where the Spirit of Land and Cereal were worshipped), more
important than other sacrifice ceremonies of natural spirits and former dynasties' Emperors.
The main ancestral temple of the Nguyen clan (Nguyen mieu) was built in their homeland, Thanh
Hoa province in the northern Central of Vietnam. However, during the Nguyen sovereign rule, they also
built ancestral temples within Hue Imperial City and established the system of ritual regulations (Figure
2). These temples, as L. Cadière (Do Trinh Hue 2000: 220-21) observed, “were not considered as family
temples, but national temples since the deceased were former head of nation, and the incumbent Emperor,
the contemporary head of nation, must practice the ritual as the successor on behalf of the country.”
Women in the Harem of Nguyen Emperors were only able to enter Phung Tien temple where was
privately dedicated to Nguyen Emperors in scope of the family, then ladies had the right to practice the
ritual in this temple as the family members. Due to the historical and chronological features of the
Nguyen, the above system of ancestral temples was more complex than that of the public. The rules of
ritual ceremony have created a sacred space in the royal temples. The ceremonial space within these
temples were restricted for the royal family members and separated from the public by contemporary
regulations (Nguyen dynasty's Cabinet 1993 Vol. 10: 89-91; Vol. 14: 156-59, National Historiographer’s
Office of the Nguyen dynasty 1963 Vol.3: 305, 358). According to the Nguyen's law, whoever commits a
sin of stealing ritual items in royal temples must be executed, and no pardon could be granted (Nguyen
dynasty's Cabinet 1993, Vol. 11: 20, 36; Vol. 12: 26).
According to the Nguyen clan’s Royal Annals that were published in 1993, beginning from
Nguyen Kim (or Cam) (1468-1545) to the last Nguyen Emperor (r.1926-1945), there are seventeen
generations of the Nguyen clan. Each generation was called “he”, therefore seventeen generations
correspond to seventeen he. Differing from annals of normal Vietnamese clans, compilers of the Nguyen
clan only took Nguyen Lords (r. 1558-1775) and Nguyen Emperors (r.1802-1945) generations into
account of these annals. In this annals, the classification stops at the last Nguyen Emperor who abdicated
in 1945 and died in 1997 in Paris, but not following descents.
Since royal temples in Hue Imperial City were considered as national temples and rituals
practiced in these temples were “the national rites” (Nguyen dynasty's Cabinet 1993, Vol. 6: 383, Do
Trinh Hue 2000: 220-21), each generation (he) of Nguyen Phuc clan has their own ancestral house called
ancestral house of generation (nha tho he) outside of Hue Imperial City. For instance, the ancestral house
of the 8th generation dedicating to the 8th Nguyen Lord (Nguyen Phuc Thu) was located at Nguyen Khoa
Chiem street. Corresponding to their classification, Nguyen Phuc clan also has ancestral house at level of
branch (phong) and sub-branch (chi).
The organization of Nguyen clan, as mentioned above, is more complex than that of other
Vietnamese clans. However, it is also more systematized due to the naming rule established since the
Minh Mang’s reign (1820-1840). Based on this rule, descendants of Nguyen Lords have to use the
surname “Ton That” 3 to distinguish them in their kinship, that differ from descendants of Nguyen
Emperors whose surname is Nguyen Phuc and a specific word to denote their generation. (Nguyen Phuc
Clan Management Council 1995: 422). However, largely, both surnames refer to members of Nguyen
Phuc clan that people of Hue recognize.
Located inside the Imperial City, royal temples played an important role spiritually for the
dynasty and the royal clan. Together with natural features, royal temples built inside the Imperial City
symbolized spiritual protection of the royal clan and the dynasty. The position and direction of all
constructions built in Hue Imperial City, the administrative center of Hue Citadel, shared common
geographical features with the Citadel. According to the Chinese-originated principles of Feng-Sui, those
features embedded symbolic meaning that the Nguyen considered them as the appropriate principles for
their stable and powerful dynasty. The topographical features of Hue gave symbolic meaning of
geomantic principles pointed out by the official history of the Nguyen dynasty: "the great river flows in
front and the high mountain is behind as the coiling dragon and the sitting tiger, the topography is stable
that all thanks to the Nature's arrangement" (National Historiographer’s Office of the Nguyen dynasty
1969 Vol. 1: 11).
For its conformity to the art of "geomancy", Hue political importance and its natural features
were appropriately embedded in building and planning the capital. The Huong River (Perfume River) as it
flows passing the Citadel was considered as the water factor in geomantric principles. In the river to the
left and the right are two small islets, named as Con Hen and Da Vien. They fulfill the role of the left-
hand "blue dragon" and the right-hand "white tiger" protecting the capital. The Ngu Binh mount provided
According to Vinh Cao, a Nguyen Phuc clan member, a scholar and a Sinologist, this rule originated from Chinese
Qing dynasty. As the rule, “Ton That’ should have been refered to the royal clan members in general.
a fixed direction as a screen for the Emperor and royal palaces in the Imperial City within the Citadel. All
these natural factors served the most important place in the Citadel, the Emperor's position. (Figure 3).
They were given a soul, made into spirits and took on a mystical character to preserve the success and
happiness of the monarch. For the meaning of the Nguyen dynasty's selection in setting up the Hue capital,
a Vietnamese scholar comments, "the new sovereign set about building an imposing capital to
demonstrate magnificence and power" (Phan Thuan An 2002: 355).
For the above characteristics, the system of ancestral worship of the Nguyen clan with historical
context, characteristics of ritual system, specific naming rule and meaning of space acts the significant
role in forming their identity in community to “distinct from all others” (Barnard and Spencer 1996: 292).
2.3. Ritual Ceremony in Hue Royal Temples under the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945)
Several scholars observe that ancestral worship serves to reinforce solidarity within the royal
family as well as enhancing power of the dynasty in terms of spiritual life (Nguyen dynasty's Cabinet
1993, Vol. 14: 258, SarDesai 1997: 42). Additions to the Vietnamese traditional ancestral worship, the
Nguyen Emperors were strongly influenced by Confucianism. Only men took active roles in this ritual
practice and they were deeply influenced by the Confucian values on filialness and the belief in the
"eternal life" after death. An Emperor was considered as "Heaven's son" (God's son) who ruled the
country on behalf of Heaven/God, even the spirits and the devils from all over the country were also
under the control of Emperor. He had the highest position in society and everyone had to respect him. A
successor had to sacrifice his ancestor at the ancestor house, and then an Emperor also had to sacrifice his
ancestors at the royal ancestor temples and the highest ancestor that was the Heaven (Dao Duy Anh 1992:
154-155). An illustration of this reality could be seen in the ceremony of Sacrifice to Heaven and Earth
that took place under the Nguyen dynasty. In this ceremony, the Emperor played the role of Heaven/God's
son who worshipped his parents (Heaven and Earth) together with different Spirits of Nature including
River, Forest, and Universe.
On the one hand, Nguyen Emperors defined an appropriate treatment by combining the
Confucianism appreciated as the orthodox ideology of the monarchy and the practice of ancestral worship.
On the other hand, this tradition was formalized in the more complicated process and strict regulations to
distinguish royalty among the common tradition of Vietnamese. After codified regulations, the ritual
ceremonies in royal temples were also put in strict order, prepared carefully and practiced complicatedly.
Rituals in royal temples were held not only by the royal Nguyen Phuc clan, but also by mandarins
of the court. The Nguyen’s records showed that there were around 30 annual rituals in each royal temple
under the Nguyen dynasty. Among them were seasonal rituals (spring, summer, autumn, winter and the
ending year ritual), birthday and Death Day anniversaries, rituals on the first and the fifteenth day of lunar
month, and occasional ceremonies corresponding to the dynasty's events, for example the coronation
ceremony of the Emperor. Royal temples and ritual life were linked closely to all happenings of the
dynasty attracting the attention of not only the royal family members but also other officials to their duty
of practicing the royal ancestral worship and royal legitimation (Appendix II).
As a rule, every ceremony in the royal temples must be started in the early morning, the time of
“respect showing” as defined by Emperor Minh Mang (Nguyen dynasty's Cabinet 1993, Vol. 6: 375).
However, the preparation must be done several days before. Among numerous ritual regulations, the
distinct performance involving the participants and position, ritual costumes, offerings and offerings
containers, ritual text, dance and music were recorded as follow:
2.3.1 Participants and Costumes
Participants of ceremonies (not including women and children) in the royal temple were selected by
the Royal Family Bureau or the Ministry of Rites, and the participant list must be submitted to the
Emperor for approval. Those who were selected must be acquainted with ceremonial procedures. The
Emperor himself together with royal family's members and mandarins (fifth-grade civil mandarins
upwards, fourth-grade military mandarins upwards) had to wear the Great Audience outfit in order to
express their respect (Pictures 1&2). Materials and decoration of the Great Audience outfit were
distinguishable depending on the title of the owner and included the pattern of five-claw dragons on the
monarch’s tunic, or snake, unicorn, and crane on the outfit of civil mandarins and military mandarins. The
color was also distinguished ranging from yellow for the Emperor’s clothes to dark blue, dark green or
dark gray for his courtiers (Figure 4).
2.3.2 Position of Participants in the Ceremony
Apart from the temple’s interior, minor constructions were also taken into account when the ritual
was organized. They acted as a medium in connecting officiates to the dead. In front of Thai To Mieu was
Truy Thanh pavilion4 (this pavilion was destroyed in the war during 1945-1975). In front of The To Mieu
was Hien Lam pavilion. People believed that the spirit of the dead would be in those pavilions to witness
the ritual, enjoined the offerings and listened to their invocation. “Hien” in the name ‘Hien Lam” derives
from the meaning of “being obvious” or “brightening” (the place) and “Lam” means “appear”. The great
courtyard was the space for princes and high-ranking mandarins standing in rows during the ritual
The left and right sides of the staircases of Hien Lam pavilion were covered with mats for the
monarch on his way to the officiating position in the temple. Princes and the royal title-inherited
successors, civil and military mandarins stood inside, outside or on the left and right side of the temple
waiting for their turn to practice the ritual and perform their duty as the royal escort. Every participant had
to practice the ritual steps as the rule, even in case of rain.
The seasonal ceremonies were more important than the others in which the Emperor himself took
part in. During Spring and Autumn ceremonies, the Emperor attended rituals at Thai To Mieu temple
(where the Nguyen Lords were worshipped). Every Summer, Winter and the general ceremonies5, the
Emperor participated in ritual at The To Mieu temple (where the Nguyen Emperors were worshipped).
Two days before the ceremony, the "purification” tablet and "Bronze man" statue6 were presented at the
Emperor's palace mentioning him to self-purify.
One day before the ceremony, members of Ministries7 checked the preparation of offerings. Some
of them came to the temple to prepare the position of ritual items. The musical instruments were arranged
on the left and right sides in front of the temple. If the Emperor took part in the ceremony, a third ranking
mandarin or higher of the royal office would read the ritual text. If an appointed participant took part in
the ceremony as the main officiant, a commissioner of Thai Thuong Tu (who took charge of checking the
ritual containers' arrangement and offerings) would read the ritual text of invocation. At the end of the
ceremony, the ritual text would be burned together with votive silk in the large rectangular-shaped bronze
incense burner in front of the temple.
In some writen records, this name was written as “Tuy Thanh”, however, according to Vinh Cao, it must be “Truy
Thanh” with the meaning of the word “Truy” is “commemorate”, “Thanh” refers the “loyal” or “faithful”. I found
that this meaning fits for the symbolic meaning of ritual context.
This ceremony was held every two or three years in which all royal relatives were worshipped.
Bronze man statute was a man-shaped figurine holding a small tablet on which characters of "purification tablet"
were carved. According to a Chinese legend, in the ancient time, a brightly greenish bronze figurine appeared on the
ocean waves. A kind of pure water ejected from the figurine's mouth and nose. Therefore, the inner part of this
figurine was believed very clean. For this reason, it symbolized for the purification and abstinence that made people
nobler. People often put this kind of figurine in front of the Emperor during three days to mention him the required
purification before the ceremony.
There were six Ministries of the court that took charge issues of Rites, Construction, Defence, Legislation,
Administration, and Economy.
On the main day of the ceremony, offerings and imperial equipment8 were arranged in the early
morning (around 03:00). Musicians and dancers were ready at the left and right sides of the temple.
Mandarins and royal members who were appointed to co-officiate in the ceremony kneeled down at the
left and right sides of the road. Royal Guards stood in row from the Palace of Grand Audience (Thai Hoa
Palace) to the royal temple. The royal palanquin was ready at the Can Chanh palace for the Emperor.
Parasols and royal musical instruments were set at the left and right sides of the palace. When the
Emperor got on the palanquin, a bell and drum on Ngo Mon Gate sounded. When the Emperor went out
of the Forbidden Purple City's gate, signal cannons were shot seven times. Members of the Ministry of
Rites went ahead of the royal procession. When the procession got to the back of the Supreme Harmony
Palace and turned to the path of royal temple, the drum and bell paused. The Emperor took a purifying
rite by cleaning his hands before stepping up to the stairs of the temple. Each step of the ritual process
was accompanied with kow-towing and music. Announcers, who were the appointed officials of the Rites
Ministry, kept every step in line of the ritual process that the Emperor and mandarins must follow from
the beginning to the end (Appendix IV).
Each set of musical instruments consisted of one large drum, one large gong, twelve small bells,
and twelve small gongs. In addition, there were also a set of musical instruments that were suspended on
a wooden frame, wind and string instruments. Music and dance were accompanied with each step of the
ritual process as the sign for every action of the monarch who was the main officiant in the ceremony. It
was believed that “music played the spiritual role of communication with the world of deities” and
“symbolized the political power for the dynasty."9 Therefore, the musical texts were systematized with
nine musical pieces containing character “Hoa” (tranquility) in content representing the wish for
tranquility in the world of the dead. However, music would not be played in certain cases, such as the
informing ceremony when the new Emperor came to the throne. If a high-ranking mandarin was
appointed as the main officiant in the ceremony instead of the monarch, he also had to follow the above
steps, without music on the return.
In addition to music, dance was also performed during rituals as expression of respect toward the
spirits. It was structured in eight-row form (Bat dat dance) including two groups: civil dancers and
military dancers, with distinguished performance and accessories. Two dancing leaders and 64 dancers in
each group who were in corresponding uniforms and dancing accessories, were selected from Thanh Binh
Thu (the Royal Troupe of Dancers). The military dancers performed with the shield and hammer. The
civil dancers performed with the bamboo flute and feather fan. Dancers stood in eight rows face to face
on the left and right areas of musical instruments.
In the primary ritual of wine offering, when the large drum was sounded and music started, the
military dance leader holding co tinh (his insigne flag) lead military dancers to the front area of the
temple, faced to the temple, stood in eight rows, danced with shield and hammer. When the music
stopped, the large gong was sounded three times; military dancers came back to their former position. In
the second ritual of wine offering, the civil dancing leader holding co tiet (his insigne flag) leaded civil
dancers came to their rows as above, danced with bamboo flute and feather fan.
In the last ritual of wine offering, dance of the previous ritual wine offering was repeated. These
are the written regulations in historical documents of the Nguyen dynasty. In reality, some of them
changed under different reigns illustrating adaptation to the different contexts. Lu Huu Thi who formerly
worked in Hoa Thanh Thu (the Royal Troupe of Musicians) since 1932 told that the ceremony in The To
Mieu was the greatest ritual he had joined, but he did not see the Emperor. An appointed mandarin took
See Noi cac trieu Nguyen 1993 Vol. 6: 226-28; Vol. 10: 93.
National Candidature file for the UNESCO's proclamation of the court music-Nha nhac (Nguyen dynasty) as the
Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, 2002, pp. 27-36
part in this ceremony as the main officiant on behalf of the Emperor. The royal parasols were much
simpler than they were inscribed in documents. However, the ritual was still performed with specifics of
the royalty that lay people could not access (Pictures 3&4).
2.3.5 Ritual Text of Invocation
Members of Royal Office prepared the content of ritual text in the regularized form on unicorn-
decorated paper. The Emperor himself wrote his name on that ritual text and read it in the ceremony. In
most ceremonies in royal temples, the ritual text was often a pray for "great happiness, prolonged dynasty,
peace for the country and intelligence for Emperor making decisions" (Nguyen dynasty's Cabinet 1993,
Vol. 14: 259). The Emperor had to look at the ritual text when it was burning to show his respect toward
2.3.6 Offerings and Containers
Main offerings would include three kinds of animals including buffalo, pig and goat. There was a
regulation for checking animals one day before the start of ceremony conducted by the Ministry of Rites
and members of related offices. Around 161 kinds of food listed in historical documents of the Nguyen
were offered in a ceremony at royal temples, not including other kinds such as fruit, candle, paper-made
items for burning after finishing (Appendix V). There were also regulations related to the preparation,
cooking and arrangement at the ceremony. The offerings after the ceremony were considered "holy
offerings". Therefore, receiving these offerings meant receiving the favor from the ancestors. Wine was
called "wine of favor" (ruou phuc) and meat was called "meat of favor" (thit phuc). As a result, at the end
of the ceremony, offerings were distributed as a ritual step in which the monarch was received first, and
other participants later.
There were many types of containers used in the ritual. They were made of various materials
(brass, gold, silver, wood, bamboo, porcelain) in diversified shapes (round, rectangular, square) with
different decorative patterns (Pictures 5, 6,7, 8). The container's shape and color or the food kept inside
(vegetable and cereal, animal meat, cakes or soup) embodied the cosmological concept with
representatives of various natural beings. For example, the round shape symbolized the Heaven,
meanwhile the square shape stood for the Earth. The differentiation was done corresponding to the ritual
level and the hierarchical status of the dead (Figure 6). This also reflects the way that the Nguyen
Emperors tried to express themselves differently from the former dynasties in Vietnam history (Appendix
Box 1: Steps in ritual process in royal temple under the Nguyen (1802-1945)
The historical document did not record a list of ritual steps; however among around 73
ordinal steps, they were mainly as follows:
- Offering incense
- Offering silk
- Offering wine at the main altar, first time (dancers performed with shield and hammer)
- Reading the ritual invocation
- Offering wine at other altars
- Offering wine at the main altar, second time (dancers performed with bamboo flute and
- Offering wine at other altars
- Offering wine at the main altar, last time (dancers performed with bamboo flute and
- Offering wine at other altars.
- Offering tea
- Emperor drank "wine of favor" (ruou phuoc)
- Collecting the offerings.
- Burning the ritual invocation and silk (the emperor looked at the incense burner)
- Proclaiming the end of ritual.
(Source: Nguyen dynasty’s Cabinet, 1993, Vol. VI) 8
3. Impact of Discontinuity: Reconstituting Identity
The collapse of the Nguyen dynasty in August 1945 brought about the disintegration of the
monarchical system of regulations, legislation and rites including ancestral worship rituals. The
ceremonies in royal temples transformed from the great ceremonies of the dynasty to small ritual
activities of a clan that were seldomly conducted by the former Queen Mother of the Nguyen who
remained in Hue after several political upheavals. She managed to maintain the yearly Death Day
anniversaries of the Emperors, replaced the damaged ritual items or restored some royal temples as the
Nguyen Phuc clan’s daughter-in-law. Several witnesses of these rituals remembered that the rituals in
royal temples at the time were very simple due to economic deficiency and the continuous war after 1945
until 1975. During 1945-1975, Nguyen historic sites were registered in the "site list"10 under the control
of the Monument Conservation Branch (belonging to the Department of Cultural-in-charge National
Affairs). They were given little attention or priority to facilitate tourism. Some of royal temples were left
in ruin11. According to Nguyen Van Diep, the former Director of the Central Tourism Bureau during
1962-1975, there were not many tourists visiting Hue at the time. Most visitors were diplomatic
delegations or the missions of military and organizations. Local people and students were also able to
enter these sites unrestricted. Royal temples were not an exclusive place for lay people any longer, even
vandals were able to break in and take away some precious ritual items12 (Personal interview, April 20th,
2003). Some official documents of the Southern Vietnam government showed that the government only
took charge over the construction, but not the ceremony organization or the temple’s interior decoration13.
The ritual items and worshipping activities were in the hands of the Nguyen Phuc Clan Council.
After the unification of Vietnam in 1975, Vietnamese government conducted a socialist
revolution throughout the country. This strategy was formally outlined in the fourth Party’s Congress in
1976, supplemented and developed in the fifth Party’s Congress in 1982 as follows, “...continue the
construction of socialism and socialist transformation, enhance the political and spiritual consensus of
people, forbid and reject the negative manifestation, achieve important success in all fields, create
economic balance and prepare for the next period” (Vietnamese Communist Party 1986: 51). The
Vietnamese government also conducted a cultural revolution, including the ritual activities reform 14
aimed at building the new way of life (nep song moi) in order to established the so-called “tradition of
revolutionist culture” (truyen thong van hoa cach mang) (Do Huy 1984: 4). Since 1975, the Party Central
Committee published Instruction # 214, entitled “On the Realization of the New Ways in Weddings,
Funerals, Death Anniversaries, and Festivals”, which included a prominent section on the elimination of
superstitions. This was followed by the Instruction # 51 of the Secretariat of the Party Central Committee
in 1984, in which the reform of wedding, mourning, Death Day anniversary and commemorating day that
need to be converted into a “proper model” were pointed out as urgent targets for the short term (Institute
of Ho Chi Minh National Politics 2002: 269-270).
Document 692/VKC/BTCT of Archeology Institute to the Secretary of Cultural-in-charge National Affairs on the
issue of "Nguyen Phuc Family Committee order fund for restoration of Hung Mieu (temple of Gia Long Emperor's
father) and buying new ritual items", signed by Director of Archeology Institute on December 12, 1972.
In the French war 1947, three of five temples in the Hue Imperial City were mostly damaged (Nguyen Ba Chi
Report of Nguyen Ba Chi who was sent by the Archeology Institute's Director to the Central in September 1947
(two years after the abdication of the Emperor Bao Dai) for doing survey of Hue palaces situation noted: "precious
items in royal palaces lost" in this period. Papers of the Royal Family Council on May 17, 1964 also showed that
many precious ritual items in their Ancestor Temples at the Nguyen mausoleums and Hue Imperial City were
robbed and then found at the Ngo Dinh Can's house later.
Document 692/VKC/BTCT of Archeology Institute, ibid.
This had been carried out in the North of Vietnam since the land reform in the mid-1950. The lineage halls were
closed down and the conduct of large-scale rituals on their premises was forbid, several lineage halls were converted
into living space for lineage members (Malarney 2002: 47).
Based on the Party’s point-of-view in the campaign of building the new way of life, there was a
“selective preservation” (Salemink 1997:517) resulting in the transformation of many cultural practices.
According to this discourse, some certain forms of ceremony (le) or festival (hoi) were labelled as “old
form”, “backward custom”, the appearance of parasols, ancient-styled boots, votive ingots, ritual fans and
flags were considered the expression of “feudal rites’, natural spirits worshipped in temples or communal
houses were seen as “monstrous” and “superstitious.” Meanwhile, other types of ceremony and festival
that were seen as “effective in the socialist revolution”, such as festivals of Hung King temple15, Huong
pagoda, Kiep Bac relic and Dong Da monument16, etc. were selected as “national festivals”. Following
this process, traditional festivals were reformed and introduced with new elements, such as the steps of
presenting the result of collective workers, commending and rewarding the eminent individuals, followed
by public activities of amusement and match (Thu Linh 1984: 13-15)
The ambiguity may be in the way Vietnamese government classified which form of cultural
practices was “backward” and “superstitious”, and how the ancestral worship was treated in the campaign
of building the new way of life. As mentioned in a government document, “backward practices and
superstitions are the children of feudalism, capitalism and the inadequate understanding of science”
(Ministry of Culture 1975: 1, as cited in Malarney 2002: 80). Since “superstitions included any ideas or
practices that asserted supernatural”, the Party vigorous banned several ritual practices in which people
attempted to contact the spirits, use protective magical amulets or burn votive items for the dead
(Malarney 2002: 81).
A study in a Northern village of Vietnam showed that the party wanted the rites in the death
anniversary to be “strictly commemorative” to “eliminating feasting” in order to “preclude the
involvement of superstitious practices, notably the burning of votive paper offerings.” As a result, all rites
were to be simple, economical, and avoid “wasteful eating and drinking” (Malarney 2002: 141-142). In
Hue, ritual life also suffered from the cultural revolution. In 1985, many temples and shrines were
dismantled and the ritual activities within a family or clan were reduced to the “minimum scope of ritual
process” (Tran Dai Vinh 1995: 236).
The collapse of Soviet Union and Eastern Europe countries in the second half of the 1980s
brought about changes in socialist systems all over the world and the need for renovation (doi moi) in
Vietnam. Since 1986, Vietnamese government has conducted a renovation policy transformed from the
collective economy into the subsidized and market economy. This was followed by changes in socio-
cultural policies. In November 1987, the Politburo of the Party Central Committee issued the Resolution
on cultural renovation, in which one of the renovation’s targets was to stop the intervention of the party
executive committees and authorities in the cultural and art issues (Institute of Ho Chi Minh National
Politics 2002: 354). However, the resurgence of ritual life did not begin in earnest until 1989 when the
Ministry of Culture (presently Ministry of Culture and Information) promulgated the Regulations
No.54/VHQC on October 4th for Opening the Traditional Festivals (Quy che mo Hoi truyen thong) to set
up a legal procedure for reopening the festival in public (Ministry of Culture and Information 1993: 11).
In 1990, the production of votive money and paper items for offering in ritual activities that had been
once forbidden was restored nation-wide (Republic Socialist of Vietnam 1990: 7). In 1992, Vietnam
joined the program of the World Decade for Developing Culture (1988-1997) that had been officially
ratified by the General Assembly of the United Nations since 1986. This adapted to the cultural
developing strategy of Vietnam in the process of renovation, followed by dignifying of the traditional
culture and reviving the traditional customs and rituals throughout the country (National Committee of
the World Decade for Developing Culture 1994: 72-76). Various forms of village festivities, entertaining,
marriage feasts and death day anniversaries of ancestors were gradually resurrected. In the larger extent,
the renovation (doi moi) marked a critical change in Vietnamese cultural development strategy under the
Where the mythical Hung King was worshipped as the so-called common ancestor of all Vietnamese.
These two monuments related to the anti-Mongolian (13th century) and anti-Qing (18th century) wars in Vietnam.
impact of globalization and resulted in ritual life of many regions of Vietnam. In his study of ritual life
after renovation in a Northern village of Vietnam, Kleinen comments;
For several years now, a reappearance of ceremonial life in the wake of the policy of renovation
(doi moi) has been a phenomenon worth studying in Vietnam…Ancestor worship in which family
solidarity and the obligations, and inter-dependence of generations are expressed seems to be
practiced in a more intensive way compared to the recent past (Kleinen 1999: 161).
He also found that, “nowadays, many people again give the altars a more prominent place in their
house, particularly the descendants of former landlord families who try to restore their ancient altars.
Heads of the ho are urged to do so with the support of the branches…” (Kleinen 1999: 168). In Hue after
renovation (doi moi) in 1986, many local rites were resurgent and publicized in the media. The rituals in
Hue royal temples were also revived, however in the more complex context.
3.1 Context of the Revival
The term “revival” indicates the reconstruction of royalness as Nguyen Phuc clan’s identity by
means of ancestral worship rituals in royal temples. It is not used in terms of a resurgence of pre-1945
forms and practices per se, nor seen as a revival movement taken up by the state. Due to the states’
restriction before renovation (doi moi), no ritual ceremonies were performed in royal temples since 1975
until 1989 when the renovation in culture took a crucial step to set up a legal procedure for reopening the
festival in public. However, the revival of ritual ceremony in royal temples began four months before the
promulgation of that procedure, due to the advantageous situation that will be clarified in the following
One more aspect affected the abrogation of ritual ceremony in royal temples before renovation
was the way the socialist regime viewed the Nguyen dynasty. In school textbooks and academic
documents of universities published at this time, stigmatization toward the Nguyen dynasty can be seen
with words as “reactionary” and “corruption” (Nguyen Phan Quang 1986: 31, 308, 311). These factors
halted the Nguyen Phuc clan’s worshipping in royal temples. All ritual activities were held in their
ancestral houses of generation, branch, sub-branch or in private house. The clan’s Council also stopped
running during this period.
Ton That Thuc, a member of Nguyen Phuc clan told me that during this time, one of royal
temples in Hue Imperial City, Trieu To Mieu, was used as a granary of the local Food Company (Personal
interview in February 16th, 2006). Many witnesses also confirmed that when they came to this temple in
June 1989 for the ritual (after renovation), they had to spend time cleaning the temple. They saw many
wooden boards and carved hangings were pulled down to hold up the paddy sacks. Most of temples were
in decay and left unattended. They had not practiced ritual in these temples since 1975 until 1989 when
they were allowed to come and organize a ceremony to remove their ancestral tablets (bai vi) from Long
Duc pavilion 17 , a deteriorated construction, to a nearby newly restored Trieu To Mieu temple (Hue
Imperial City) to keep the tablets from further deterioration (Picture 9). Trieu To Mieu temple is the
temple of Nguyen Kim, ancestor of Nguyen Phuc Clan. During the war in 1970s, this temple was
seriously damaged. During period 1983-1985, Hue Historic and Cultural Site Company (presently Hue
Monuments Conservation Center) co-operated with Center of Preservation and Restoration In National
Historic Sites (belonged to the presently Ministry of Culture and Information) to restore this temple. After
restoration, this temple was used as the granary until 1989, when Nguyen Phuc clan was allowed to
remove their ancestral tablets from Long Duc pavilion to this temple for protection.
Originally, tablets (bai vi) of nine Nguyen Lords were set in Thai To Mieu temple. This temple was damaged in
the French war, therefore tablets were stored in this pavilion, an adjacent building, to be protected. However, since
this building was also decayed, Nguyen ancestral tablets need to be moved to another building.
Ton That Hanh, who was the Chairman of Nguyen Phuc clan’s Council, remembered that in early
1989, he was invited to the manager’s office of the Hue Historic and Cultural Site Company to discuss
about the Nguyen ancestral tablets (bai vi) in the deteriorated Long Duc pavilion. The manager suggested
that these ancestral tablets should be moved to the nearby temple (Trieu To Mieu temple) to prevent them
from decaying, and this should be in hands of Nguyen Phuc clan (Personal interview in December 30th,
2003). By raising this issue, the manager unintentionally gave Nguyen Phuc clan’s ritual the opportunity
The ceremony took place on June 23rd, 1989 with the attendance of about 2,000 Nguyen Phuc
clan members gathering in an enormous procession. Some archival video tapes showed a group of people
who held ancestral tablets was followed by thousands of Nguyen Phuc clan members of different ages
and gender. Most of them were in traditional attires and looked joyful. The procession marched out of
Long Duc pavilion’s area, passed by the main gate of Hue Imperial City (Ngo Mon Gate) and main palace
of the Audience (Thai Hoa Palace) before coming back to Trieu To Mieu temple. Authorities of People's
Committee, different cultural and tourist organizations, representatives of Buddhism Association in Thua
Thien-Hue province and some officials of universities were also invited to witness the ceremony18. This
was the remarkable phenomenon in aspect of both traditional and modern ancestral worship ritual of
Vietnam. Normally, before moving the holy tablets for restoration, Vietnamese people offer fruit, flowers
and incense to ask their ancestors for permission, but they do not organize such an elaborated procession.
For Nguyen Phuc clan, the organization of procession seemed go beyond the traditional practice. It
marked the initial step of their re-appearance in royal temples after a long time of discontinuity.
The appearance of local authorities in this event was evidence of the open perception towards the
ritual reappearance after renovation (doi moi), especially the ideological change of current revolutionists
toward the Nguyen dynasty. This was clearly confirmed in the following event, the Conference on "Some
matters of the Nguyen dynasty" held in Ho Chi Minh city in the same year (October, 1989). The
Conference concentrated socialist historians who once "denied all social progress that were made by the
Nguyen monarchy" and marked a meaningful turning point in evaluation toward the Nguyen as the
The conference had made a useful change for re-evaluation of a historical period that was very
complicated and controversial in terms of merit and guilt...in order to re-evaluate the role of the
Nguyen dynasty in modern history of Vietnam...reflects the first manifestation in renovation of
historical concept (Tran Bach Dang 1992: 23-24).
This change of official discourse played a key role in the following change in social recognition
of the Nguyen dynasty's role in Vietnamese history and its heritage in current society and culture. It also
promoted a critical step to legitimate the symbolic royalness that some people once hid or denied. Many
communist party members regained their royal name instead of alias they used before renovation. This
change occurred mostly during the first half of 1990s19. The latest unofficial information revealed by
Nguyen Phuc clan was that authorities of their homeland Gia Mieu district (Thanh Hoa province, north of
the Central Vietnam) had approved the building plan of a stele house. This will be conducted in 2006 by
this clan for commemorating their ancestors due to the collapse of the clan’s ancestral house, Nguyen
I would like to express my deep gratitude to researcher Phan Thuan An, who showed me his own hand-writing
record on this event.
For instance, a Nguyen Phuc clan member renamed Buu Duc instead of Nguyen Van Duc which was used when
he was part of the anti-American resistance. His son was called Vinh Khanh instead of the previous name Nguyen
Quoc Khanh. His daughter was Ton Nu Thuy Hanh instead of Nguyen Thi Thuy Hanh.
The family of Vinh Man (former Nguyen Van Thang) and his children, Bao Long (former Nguyen Viet Long), Ton
Nu Thu Huong (former Nguyen Thi Thu Huong) is also among numerous examples of the phenomenon. (See
Nguyen Phuc Clan’s Annal 1993 for further information of naming in Nguyen Phuc clan)
Mieu temple, during the French war. The local government even proposed the rebuilding of this temple
but the issue is still on the table20.
The other event that was no less important related to rapid changes in evaluation of the Nguyen
dynasty and the continued revival of ritual ceremony in royal temples, was the recognition of Hue historic
sites as World Cultural Heritage in 1993. In this context, cultural values of the Nguyen heritage emerged
and attracted the attention of international tourists, related closely to tourism agencies, local authorities
and the community. Royal features of Hue culture were proclaimed that they should be selected as the
key point in presenting Hue culture to mark itself on the tourist map. The present Director of Thua Thien-
Hue Department of Culture and Information suggested, “Royal culture will highlight Hue cultural identity
among many regional cultures of Vietnam” (Personal interview on November 26th, 2005). This was also
officially expressed as the follow;
The preservation and enhancement of spiritual heritage are components of Hue cultural heritage.
In the first stage, the Duyet Thi royal theatre (Hue Imperial City) and Minh Khiem royal theatre
(Tu Duc Mausoleum) should be revived together with some types of traditional art including
royal tuong, royal music, royal ceremonies…in order to serve tourists and local people better”
(the Planning on “Preservation and enhancement of Hue historic sites’ values during 1996-2010)
In these policies and strategies royal culture of various forms have been exploited as a "product"
in the commercialization of Hue culture. Royal architecture, music and dance, and ceremonies of the
court, etc. are considered not only the tradition of a certain clan or class, but also the local tradition in
broader extent. Royal ceremonies are involved in the state planning of preservation and revival. In Hue
Festival 2004, a part of Nam Giao ceremony, which was once the most important ceremony of the
monarchy dedicated to Heaven and Earth, was reorganized as a procession for tourists program. In the
elaboration for tourism, the procession was conducted by the State instead of the Emperor in the past and
introduced in new meaning:
With the consent of leaders and the support of the people, Thua Thien Hue will restore the
traditional ceremony and the environment, express aspirations for a peaceful and prosperous life,
revitalize the beauty of a Hue royal procession, and introduce performances of royal music and
dance to the public. (Vietnam Business Forum 2004: 20)
The performance of this ceremony and new meaning attached to it will be discussed later,
however, that royal ceremony was reintroduced in the modern world as the newly established so-called
tradition. From this, the question of how ritual ceremony in royal temples is recognized in the same
context of tourism and cultural renovation will be answer in the following section of paper.
3.2. The Present Ritual Ceremony in Royal Temples:
Before 1945, ritual ceremony in royal temples was the “great national ceremony” (Nguyen
dynasty's Cabinet 1993, Vol. 6: 383) and held with numerous strict regulations, not everyone knew how
the ceremony was performed nor were many people allowed to participate these important ceremonies
except high-ranking mandarins. During period 1945-1975, few rituals were conducted in royal temples
due to the fierce condition of the war. After 1975 until after renovation in 1989, all ritual activities in
these areas eliminated because of the governmental restriction in the campaign of building the “new way
of life” and the official stigmatization toward the Nguyen dynasty’s role in the Vietnamese history
(Picture 10,11). Since the procession in 1989, followed by the establishment of Nguyen Phuc clan
Council and the following ritual ceremonies gradually revived in royal temples, this Council encouraged
I have learnt from Nguyen Phuc clan Council in the ritual held in February 18th, 2006 that they refused this
proposal due to the enormous expense that may cost VND 183 billion (at the time of the research, 1 USD is
approximately VND 16,000. Source:Vietcombank, 2006).
the participation of the clan’s members. Ritual ceremonies that were once practiced by the Emperor on
behalf of the country (Do Trinh Hue 2000: 220-21) now have been reinvented as the clan’s ritual.
However, among numerous rituals held under the Nguyen, Nguyen Phuc clan selected few of them to
revive. These are rituals of Death Day anniversary. By reviving rituals in royal temples, Nguyen Phuc
clan used the “selective preservation” to present the continuity of their cultural tradition in the space of
Box 2: Number of Present ritual Ceremonies in Royal temples
Among dozens of rituals held in royal temples in the past before 1945, only four of them
are still regularly practiced at present (Hue Imperial City) as follows:
1. The Death Day anniversary of the ancestor Nguyen Kim, on May 20 (lunar year) at Trieu
To Mieu temple;
2. The Death Day anniversary of Lord Nguyen Hoang, combined with death day
anniversaries of other Nguyen Lords on June 3 (lunar year) at Thai To Mieu temple. However,
since Thai To Mieu was decayed, the rituals are held in Trieu To Mieu;
3. The Death Day anniversary of Nguyen Phuc Con (father of Emperor Gia Long) on
September 10 (lunar year), at Hung To Mieu temple;
4. The Death Day anniversary of Emperor Gia Long, combined with death day anniversaries
of other Nguyen Emperors, on December 19, at The To Mieu temple.
Resulting from UNESCO’s recognition of Hue historic site complex as a World Cultural Heritage
in 1993, royal temples are no longer “closed space” for ritual, but “open space” where everyone such as
Vietnamese and foreign tourists, students and lay people, foreign diplomatic missions and heads of states
come to visit (Picture 12). On the one hand, these temples are seen as the representation of Hue identity
through royal architecture that also embedded the royal ideology by means of colors, nine dynastic urns,
and other meaningful decoration in the temples. The government pays attention to the restoration projects
of some selected temples and takes the “authenticity” as the most important criteria of restoration. On the
other hand, visitors have little available information about ritual activity that is significant for the spiritual
meaning of these building. There is a contrast between the attempt to invent the authentic heritage
conducted by the government and the modified ritual practiced by the Nguyen. Instead of perceiving the
ritual as static and unchangeable, the Nguyen renews the clan-run ritual, accepts modification in all
aspects of ritual as the unavoidable effect of the modern world. New elements, such as the re-appearance
of women and children, casual attires, biography of the dead have been introduced in the ritual. In the
revival, the ritual ceremonies create opportunities for clan’s members gathering in yearly anniversaries
and somehow consolidate their kinship.
The motivation for this revival can be found from two main sources. Firstly, the favourable
conditions resulted from socio-cultural policies after renovation facilitated the ritual life in general as in
other cases of Vietnamese ritual, “powerful lineages and groups whose members benefited from the
recent revival of religious activities as a result of the renovation policy. Ritual and religious life give
ideological legitimization to various social groups” (Kleinen 1999: vi), thus it gave the legitimization to
the Nguyen in reviving their ritual of ancestral worship.
Secondly, since Hue was recognized as the World Cultural Heritage, tourist agencies, both
governmental and non-governmental, highlighted many forms of royal culture as the Hue identity such as
royal boats, costumes, cuisine, music and dance. In this current, these forms were commercialized for
tourist. Dragon boats were once only for the Emperor and now have been rebuilt for tourists. The court
music, Nha nhac, was once performed in great ceremonies of the dynasty, now is performed or assumed
the name to attract tourist in hotel’s banquets or on tourist boats every evening. Royal costumes that were
once worn in certain Great Audience of the court now are artificially reproduced and displayed in glass
wardrobe so that tourists can wear and sit on a fake throne for taking picture. The Great ceremony
sacrificing to the Heaven and the Earth that was once practiced by the Emperor, now is partly reinvented
by the State in Hue festivals for tourists, introduced as the continuity of the past. The expression of Hue
identity through royal cultural forms is at the same time, being staged. The ritual ceremony practiced by
the Nguyen in royal temples, places for tourists, can be understood as their response to reconstitute their
identity in the same space.
Box 3: Steps in ritual process of present ritual ceremony in Hue royal temples
Steps in ritual process are based on the historical records before 1945, however they
are practiced in simpler formation and changed in the following order of steps that was often
accompanied with music:
- Verify offerings
- Drum is beaten, followed by the other instruments of the musical group.
- The main officiant comes to his position in front of main altar, takes the rite of
cleaning his hands.
- The assistant officiants come to their positions in front of other altars
- Offer incense on the main altar
- Read the dead ’s biography
- Offer incense on the other altars.
- Offer wine, first time
- Read the ritual invocation
- Offer wine, second time
- Offer wine, last time
- Offer tea
- The others start officiating in group of two or three people, men are followed by
- Burn the ritual invocation
- Proclaim the end of ritual.
In July 6th, 2004, the day before the main ritual of Death Day anniversary of Nguyen Kim who
was the father of the first Nguyen Lord and the ancestor of Nguyen Phuc clan, around fourteen people of
Nguyen Phuc branches came to clean Trieu To Mieu temple. They were in casual dress, arranging the
altar and placing flowers into vases. Offerings included cakes and fruit were carried on a cyclo to the
temple, placed on the platform and Nguyen Phuc clan members put them on small trays of the altar
(Picture 13). A small bell and a drum were brought to the temple and set on the two sides of the main
stairs. Around twenty small triangle flags that were very popular in Vietnamese rituals were set from the
temple’s gate to the courtyard. Two yellow parasols were arranged on the right and left of the main altar.
Those ritual items were prepared by the Nguyen several years ago, late after the renovation.
At 14:30 of the same day, they organized the Announcement ceremony (le Tien thuong) to inform
the deceased about his Death Day anniversary and invite him to join the tomorrow ceremony. All of the
thirteen attendants were men who wore traditional long tunics in dark blue and black headband. It lasted
for a short time and was very simple and solemn. They left the temple when everything was prepared
carefully. All altars in the temple were cleaned; offerings and votive money were set on the altars together
with flowers, candles and tea sets. Although the temple is now managed by the State, the original ritual
items left after war were insufficient for the ritual. Therefore, Nguyen Phuc clan must purchase for new
ritual items from donation of the clan’s members.
In July 7th 2004 (20th of the 5th lunar month), the main ritual of Death Day anniversary was held
(Picture 14). Preparations for the ceremony began one day before. However permission for ritual must be
completed at least three days before the ceremony. Royal temples are included within the Hue Imperial
City and are under the control of Hue Monuments Conservation Centre. The Chairman of Nguyen Phuc
clan’s Council took charge of asking this Centre for their permission if they want to practice the ritual
The main ceremony began in the morning. Before eight o‘clock, around a hundred and twenty
people of Nguyen Phuc clan gathered in the temple with the noticeable predominance of men over
women. Among them were around fifteen elder women and several children under ten years. In the side
room next to the entrance sat a man who collected money and recorded each donor’s name. Such
donations would help maintain the following rituals. The majority of donation amount ranged from
20,000 to 100,000 dong. Some overseas people donated much more, sometimes they donated one or two
million dong21. At eight o’clock, an old man in the Section of Rites beat the bell before the entrance and
announced the ceremony’s commencement. The musical band consisting six men played the music that is
also played in other present rituals for public with a small drum, two oboes (ken bop), a moon-shaped lute
(dan nguyet), two-stringed violin (nhi) and a flute (sao). All them worn red silk tunic decorated with the
longevity characters (ao chu Tho) (Picture 15).
The interior atmosphere of temple was very quiet. Women and children stood on the side,
observed the ritual respectfully and waited for their turn to kowtow in front of altars. Not all women wore
traditional long tunic (ao dai). Many of them wore casual dress. Some curious visitors visiting the
Imperial City passed by the royal temple and wanted to enter to the interior to observe the ritual; however,
they were refused. The attendants of the ritual want to keep visitors outside the temple in order to prevent
from disturbances. Nguyen Phuc clan has never invited tourist agencies or representatives of other clans
to attend their ritual, except the representative of Hue Monuments Conservation Center, however this
official never come. Authorities only appear in state-run inaugurating or closing ceremony of restoration
Five men of the Rites Section took charge of the assistant officiants. One of them stood near the
door and announced the ritual steps so that the main officiant could follow. Four others wore the square-
shaped hat and red tunic had to bring wine and tea to the outer altar and inner altar following the ritual
steps. The main officiant was Ton That Hanh, 84-year-old Chairman of the Nguyen Phuc clan’s Council.
He stood in front of the altar of Nguyen Kim and his wife to officiate, kneeled down and stood up five
times in succession. Normally, in every Vietnamese clan, they often do it in three times; however, the five
times of kneeling down in Nguyen Phuc clan was explained that it was regulated from their ancestor’s
generation very long time ago to show the respect to the Emperors. This again distinguishes royalty from
the normal ritual of Vietnamese tradition (Picture 16).
Steps in ritual process are based on the historical records before 1945, however they practiced in a
simpler form with changes in the order of steps that are often accompanied with music. Compared to the
ritual ceremony in royal temples before 1945, the ritual of Nguyen Phuc clan now has no meat, no silk, no
dancing, no drinking “wine of favor” (ruou phuoc) and little music, but they have time for all members
attending the ritual. Women kowtow at the late ceremony, after all men finished their practice (Picture
17). Children follow their parents by imitating gestures that their parents perform. All perform elaborate
kowtows in which they repeatedly kneel down and stand up in front of the altars five times. In normal
ceremony of other clan, people may simply bend slightly over, quickly raise, and lower incense sticks
clasped between their palms three times.
A 96-year-old woman who often attend the ritual ceremony in the temple every year since the
revival, sit on the mat before altar for long period, engross in prayers. She is not the only person praying
at the ritual. Many people moved their lips and mumbled for a while before standing up. Having asked
about their prayers, they revealed that they wished to good health, happiness and support from their
ancestors for all members of their family.
In every ritual at royal temples, Nguyen Phuc clan’s daughters-in-laws often accompany their
husbands and children. They do not know much about the ritual but they come, witness and follow the
ritual procedures. Some people told me that they just came to know how the ritual in royal temple was.
In July 2004, 1 USD was approximately VND 15,800 (Source: Vietcombank, 2004)
Some children who were from 5-10 years old did not know anything about the temple they are in or about
the dead they come to worship but only the purpose "to remember the ancestors" as their parents said.
Once, a 10-year-old girl was asked that if she knew her ancestors in the temple, she could not recite the
name of the deceased. She just followed her grandmother (Pictures 18,19).
At the end of the ritual, votive money that had been put on the altar since the previous morning
was brought in a small procession (dam ruoc) to the large bronze incense burner on the courtyard to be
burned. The musical band led the procession and played the music from the beginning until after they
reached the burner. In the death day anniversary of Minh Mang Emperor on January 26th, 2006, it rained
all day. This was the reason why the procession had no musical accompaniment, and many passing by
visitors could come into the temple and watched the ritual.
A man carrying the invocation text with both hands was the main character of the procession,
accompanied by other two men carrying yellow parasols to shield the invocation text symbolically. The
other men followed behind carrying votive money (Picture 20). At the end of the procession were several
people carrying a small tray of betel nuts and areca leaves, banana and candles. The procession stopped at
the courtyard, by the incense burner, lighted joss sticks and burned invocation text together with votive
money. They waited until the votive items were burned and returned to the temple without music. The
master of ritual ceremony announced the end of the ritual. The Rites Section collected cakes and fruit
from altars to display on mats, then participants sat down on the platform, enjoyed the offerings and
talked for a while before leaving. The two hour ceremony came to the end (Picture 21).
By reintroducing their ritual, Nguyen Phuc clan members re-signify the space of temple, however
it has been modified in terms of time, ritual steps, costumes, offerings and music to adapt to the new
circumstance. In some cases, the ritual steps is not always followed in a fixed progression. Officiants may
cut out many steps to shorten the process due to the inconvenient weather or the restoration of building
conducted by the management organization.
The dress of Nguyen Phuc's members in their present ritual at royal temples is very flexible. They
pay little attention to traditional dress in the ritual that used to be designed specifically under the Nguyen
dynasty. There are no compulsory rules about how they must dress, except the Rites Section who are
responsible for the major officiating steps have to perform the ritual with traditional ao dai and turban.
Other people can come with casual costumes, or traditional ao dai, which is very common for women, or
Western-styled clothes. According to Ton That Chi, since they re-organized the ceremony in royal
temples, Nguyen Phuc clan Council has purchased five sets of traditional ao dai to the Rites Section's
members (Picture 22). They do not have enough money to purchase ao dai for every participant.
Expenses for furnishing the ritual items such as costumes for the Rites Section, flags, drum, mats, wine
and tea set, are donated by participants and by oversea family's members.
The appearance of women in ritual presently is not only accepted but also encouraged. Women
now are appreciated for attending the ritual ceremony, preparing the offerings and performing the ritual in
Changes can also be seen in the reduction of ritual offerings. They do not take time for cooking
traditional dishes, instead all of the offerings are bought from the market. Ritual attendants’ duty is only
to prepare and arrange offerings on every altar. Regularly, expenses for holding a ritual ceremony may
exceed 1 million dong depending on the donation of attendants. Each person can donate from 20,000 to
200,000 dong. Sometimes, the amount of donation may reach to millions of dong22.
The Chairman of Nguyen Phuc clan Ton That Hanh, told me that they could not purchase animal
for sacrifices and had insufficient labor for all works of ritual preparation. Therefore, they offered ready-
During the period of this research, the rate of VND and USD varied between VND 15,700-16,000 per 1 USD.
made food bought from the market instead of the traditional sacrificial animal. Most traditional ritual
utensils such as dishes, cups or trays are also new brands. In the death day anniversary in The To Mieu
temple (January 10, 2004), they offered meat rolls, pork pies, square glutinous rice cakes, and rice powder
cakes, which were very popular in the market, together with some fruit such as mangos, apples and
tangerines. In addition, there were some indispensable offerings such as flowers (lily, chrysanthemum or
gladiolus), sandalwood, incense, candle or light, votive money. These offerings seem simpler than that of
the ancestral worship ceremony in public. For other Vietnamese clans, they often offer many cooked
dishes and meats, fruit and cakes in the ritual and join in a family feast when the ritual ends, as an
occasion to consolidate the kinship.
Music in the revived ritual is not accompanied with dance any longer, nor performed in the same
way as in the past. Nobody remembers the dance and the songtexts performed in royal temple under the
Nguyen. The musical band in a small number (including six musicians) is in Nguyen Phuc clan’s effort to
reconstitute the tradition in the past as far as they can. In order to rent this band, they had to purchase
around VND 300,000 for a ritual (Picture 23).
Apart from the demand of moral traditional continuity which has been preserved for generations
of every Nguyen Phuoc families at their own houses, the revival of ceremony in royal temples where now
are the public places for every people and tourists come to visit goes beyond the actual demand of
morality. In the context of cultural renovation and World Heritage, the revival of Nguyen Phuc clan’s
ritual in royal temples is the re-constitution of clan’s identity by their re-appearance in the public space.
4. Space of Revival, Space of Negotiation
Reform in cultural policy and changes in the official discourse regarding the Nguyen Dynasty’s
role in Vietnamese history created opportunities for the revival of the Nguyen’s ancestral worship in royal
temples. However, the space of ritual is also public space where the Nguyen negotiates between their clan
and others, such as the management organization and tourists, and negotiates among their clan between
young and old generations This is an unavoidable struggle in the world of modernization in which not
only the Nguyen but also every clan has to confront.
Although there are not any official documents on the appropriate length of time for the rituals,
implicit negotiation is accepted for all details of the ritual between the Nguyen Phuc clan’s representative
and the present state organization Hue Monuments Conservation Center controlling royal temples. For
instance, Nguyen Phuc clan understood from what the officials said that the timing of rituals in the royal
temple should not be prolonged to prevent interrupting the visiting tours in the area. However, during the
ritual ceremony, Nguyen Phuc clan seizes their temporary power in royal temple derived from their ritual
status, at least during the ritual. Following the ceremony strictly, other people cannot enter the interior of
the temple during the ritual, even if they are allowed to do that, they must stand on the side in silence to
observe instead of going forth and back to take photos. In some special cases, researchers who have a
reason to attend can observe; however, lay people such as the cyclo driver who is paid to carry offerings
to the temples often stands outside.
This confusion may have been partly due to the fact that both management organization and
Nguyen Phuc clan share the same space of royal temples and also included in the complex of the World
Cultural Heritage. According to the Nguyen’s record, ritual ceremony in royal temples were considered
the “national great rite”, and only the Emperor performed the ritual in the role of main officiant on behalf
of the country (Nguyen dynasty's Cabinet 1993: 383; Do Trinh Hue 2000: 220-21), or only the Emperor
who could appoint other high-ranking mandarin to perform it. The record also pointed out that the
mandarins, as well as other attendants, may not be the members of Nguyen Phuc clan. However, the
present ritual ceremony is revived and performed in royal temples by Nguyen Phuc clan as the
legitimization of their ritual status in this space, and excluded from the public. In the extent of the so-
called “national great rite” before 1945, local people have no experience of ritual in royal temples. In the
extent of Vietnamese ancestral worship belief, they only perform ritual dedicating to their ancestors, thus
they do not want to be involved in the ritual of other clans, except when they are invited to joint the feast
after the ritual.
In Hue Imperial sight-seeing tour, visitors, especially students are often guided to The To Mieu
temple, the nicest temple selected to be restored, and introduced to the Nguyen Emperors’ biography, but
they have to keep outside not disturbing the ritual when Nguyen Phuc clan practices the ritual in the
temple (Picture 24). However, in recent ritual on January 26th, 2006, this clan illustrated the complex and
dynamic nature of power and ceremonial process of the Death Day anniversary ritual. It was the time
when Vietnamese New Year Festival was approaching; the attendants of Minh Mang Emperor’s Death
Day anniversary were not more than 30 people. It rained all day and everyone hurried to finish the ritual
soon in order to go home to prepare for New Year celebrations. Many steps of the ritual process were
skipped. Several groups of foreign tourists entered the temple during the ritual and they even talked to
Nguyen Phuc clan members after the ritual, took photos and observed the ritual from the beginning to the
end with no protest from Nguyen Phuc clan (Picture 25). It can be seen from this change that Nguyen
Phuc clan did not established the fixed rule for all aspects of their ritual, they were even very proud to
answer any question of visitors and introduce about their ritual. Many foreign visitors who passed the
royal temples by chance were very interested in the ritual of Nguyen Phuc clan (Picture 26). They found
the ritual in space of royal temple was very impressive that they have never seen before (Picture 25). For
Vietnamese tourists, especially women, they often burn joss sticks and pray in front of altars. They saw
the temple as the sacred space where they can pray for the Emperors’ support.
The architectural revival of the state and the ritual revival of Nguyen Phuc clan meet the demand
of visitors in exploring Vietnamese culture. However, both sides have no meeting point in expressing
their goals. The way the government invested in restoring temple’s architecture aims at attracting visitors
and expressing “authentic” image of Hue royal architecture. It is can be seen as the “symbolic production
identity” in the term used by Ing-britt Trankell (1999: 199). Meanwhile, the ritual revived by Nguyen
Phuc clan with all changes is also their own way of expressing their identity. They do not want to involve
visitors in their ritual and do not consider their ritual as the reproduction of the authenticity. Through the
occupancy of the royal temple's space in certain time for ritual, Nguyen Phuc clan raises their voice for
self-introducing by means of ritual.
Modernity is a phenomenon that has resulted in the fact that very few young people attending
these rituals in royal temples. Among some rituals in the royal temples held recently, such as the Death
Day anniversary of the Emperor Thieu Tri in temple The To Mieu (in June 2005), there were around 20
people at age of 15-30 among over 100 people. The majority was at age of 50-80. (Picture 27) Asking for
more information from the old witnesses who often join in yearly ceremonies at royal temples, they
complained that the modern youth were not interested in this kind of rituals. Sometimes, it is considered
the duty creating many annoyances, taking much time for preparation and practice the worshipping.
However, old people of Nguyen Phuc clan still try to call upon the participation of their descendants in
order to strengthen the clan's relationship.
Explaining this phenomenon, a retired teacher Ton That Chi expressed that;
Most of people are busy with their business or office. Young generation is always rushed in
modern times to earn their living. They have little time to worry about worshipping ceremony. If
they drop a working day, they will lose a day of benefit. Moreover, they cannot ignore the
contribution to the ceremony if they were there. Therefore, the common trend at present is that
each branch organizes ceremony at each branch's ancestor house. In reality, only old men manage
to organize the ritual ceremony in royal temples. Their children are not interested in and do not
see it as their duty (Personal conversation on January 2nd, 2004).
This comment was also similar to what other old men in Nguyen Phuoc family mentioned. They
also felt themselves to be under a severe threat from extrinsic influences of modernization and
globalization with trends of living far from home in nuclear families or forgetting the family's source.
Having asked about the inheritance of the family’s tradition, the Chairman of Nguyen Phuc clan’s
Council Ton That Hanh said,
We worry about the inheritance of the youth. Most of people who attend the ceremony at temples
are old men. The youth, especially people living abroad, do not pay attention to this tradition. For
instance, a family made a film of grandfather's funeral and sent it to their descendants living in
foreign country. However, nobody saw it. Their grandchildren preferred to see the entertainment
films and they were not familiar to the practicing of ancestor worshipping (Personal interview,
December 30, 2003).
In the new context of renovation and commercialization of royal culture, the revival of Nguyen
Phuc clan’s ritual had marked changes, reflecting both altered circumstances and influence of the state
policy. However, there remained a manifest consciousness that the form being reconstructed and observed
is the real ritual conducted by the public, not the commercialized type created by tourism agencies. It
therefore provided a powerful means of reiterating the local and clan identity. Having done so, they
expressed and reconstituted their identity through the ritual in royal temples. Since the space of royal
temples are considered public domain, Nguyen Phuc clan found their memory and reconstructed it
through their occupancy in that space, and created their own sense of their presence in society as a
response to the present commercialization of royal culture.
Constant changes appear in society at every times that create opportunities for the formation and
confirmation of identity through the renewal of many forms of cultural practices. However, there are also
some differences of revival motivation and circumstances, mainly in the ideological change and
commercial purpose. The revival of ritual practice in Vietnam, sometimes, is not only a way to control
chaos, fix the problems of the present, and ensure a positive future (Malarney 2002: 223) or family
solidarity (Kleinen 1999: 161), but also the remaking claim of the clan's identity to prevent from being
Resulting from the renovation policy, the revival of Hue royal culture and the ritual ceremony of
the Nguyen in royal temples reveal two distinct presentations of the officials and the local people. While
the latter expresses the purpose of renovation policy in self-identifying locality within the globalization
trend, embedded with economic target; the former is the voice of a family to re-define themselves as their
own identity in smaller extent of the region.
Through the space of ritual ceremonies in royal temples, two performers of identity, including
Nguyen Phuc clan and the state reshape the space as in their own way. In the monarchical period, this
space was a united and closed space consisting of the domain of architecture and the one of ceremony that
together served as the ancestral worship belief of the Nguyen dynasty and through which the ritual
regulations embodied the power and identity of the royalty. The loss of monarchical context did not result
in losing the practice of ancestral worship in royal temples, but it was rebuilt in new context.
In the modernization and globalization with the development of tourism, royal temple becomes an
open space or the space of public through which the management organization, tourists, Hue people and
Nguyen Phuc clan share the royal features of architecture and culture. By re-inventing the tradition of
ancestral worship in space of royal temples, Nguyen Phuc clan reminds themselves and their descendants
about their past in the nostalgia and the tradition continuity in their own way of performance as the
expression of localism.
In short, the revival of ritual in royal temples is not only family consolidation and the obligation,
the inter-dependence of generation or reflects the ideological change; it is not only the spiritual demand
but also the legitimatized demand of a clan in the context after renovation 1986. Through this ritual, the
localism is asserted under the threat of globalization and modernization in Vietnam.