A Triad of Confrontation
such ritual activities as conducting ceremonies, evoking and consulting spirits, and making offerings, but also through more profane technical and social practices such as building, renovating, and maintaining sacred spaces. The ritually transformed environs are purified when the state institutionalizes and nationalizes gods and spirits by selecting spirits, designating sacred spaces, and granting certificates in order to keep them under control and effectively ‘pin’ them down. In this process, villagers carry out their own counter-purification, as they sometimes choose to foreground the aesthetic or ‘national’ value of objects and spaces while temporarily backgrounding their religious value. By moving between opposing ideas of secular and religious rationalities and positioning themselves discursively and ritually against the backdrop of constant change, the villagers create and reinvent their religious practices in rec-ognizable religious forms. In this sense, each of the settings – Sa Huỳnh and Lý Sơn – represents a different dimension in terms of local histories, practices, territory, and relations with the state and the wider world. For that reason, I argue, interactions across and within the triad of contested domains of state–religion–village assume sharper contours, and hence become more visible.
Charting the contours of religion in Vietnam
The opening vignette speaks of contestations between state agents and villagers over what constitutes legitimate religious practice in understud-ied central Vietnam.3 My particular focus in this book is on the proliferat-ing and shiftproliferat-ing encounters between state and religious authorities; be-tween religious authorities and fishers; bebe-tween fishers and farmers; and between men and women. These categories and individuals – divided by age, gender, class, and profession – often adopt conflicting understand-ings and strategies to achieve their goals vis-à-vis the state, represented by central, provincial, and local officials, scholars, and journalists. These dif-ferent confrontations involve relationships experienced and expressed in terms of mutually exclusive binaries, the poles of which are in fact neither mutually exclusive nor stable, as the examples below well illustrate.
While protests in Vietnam’s major cities against China’s installation of an oil rig in what Vietnam considers its territorial waters were seen by the
3. Kwon (2006, 2009) and Avieli (2012) are among the rare studies focusing on central Vietnam.
Fishers, Monks and Cadres Vietnamese authorities as politically harmful for the country’s relations with China (Ciorciari and Weiss 2016), the delegation of Buddhist monks that went to the Spratly archipelago to re-establish abandoned temples was seen as helping to assert Vietnam’s sovereignty over the disputed islands.4 This is because, in contrast to the bold anti-China protests that challenged the Vietnamese state’s authority and legitimacy, the political
‘transcript’ (Scott 1990) of the Buddhist mission to the South China Sea was veiled by a religious agenda that heeds a different source of authority and indexes different moral tensions. Accordingly, the high-profile 2014 celebration for the peace of the Paracel and Spratly sailors (lê câu siêu lính Hoàng Sa và Trương Sa) – held on Lý Sơn Island by a delegation of Buddhist monks from Huế – was considered to be purely religious. The people of Lý Sơn nevertheless added a personal (and political) touch to the celebration by making sure that the Buddhist altar prepared for the ceremony accommodated ancestral tablets (bài vị) with the names of lo-cal fishermen who had gone missing in the vicinity of the disputed archi-pelagos while bravely ‘clinging to the fishing grounds to defend national sovereignty’ (bám ngư trương đê bao vê quyên tố quốc), as well as that of the 67-year-old woman from Ho Chi Minh City who self-immolated to show solidarity with fishermen affected by China’s deployment of the oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam.5 Both the 2014 anti-China protests in the streets of Vietnam’s main cities and the woman’s self-immolation in the same year added fuel to the debate about the disputed areas of the South China Sea and to the allegation that Vietnam’s Party-state is weak in its dealings with China. However, when folded into the context of the celebration of Paracel and Spratly sailors, the potentially sensitive case of the woman’s self-immolation became subsumed under the rubric of religious rather than political expression, demonstrating that the oppos-ing poles of religion and politics are not absolute and can be skilfully navigated by both religious authorities and Lý Sơn people. Yet to treat this ritual performance as apolitical would be to deny ‘the creative agency of its myriad participants’ (Bowie 2017: 268).
4. See ‘Vietnam to send Buddhist monks to Spratly Islands’, available at https://
www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-17343596, accessed 29 April 2020.
5. See ‘Vietnamese woman dies in self-immolation protest against China’, available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/23/vietnamese-woman-dies-self-immolation-protest-china, accessed 29 April 2020.
A Triad of Confrontation
This book approaches binary oppositions such as institutionalized religion versus beliefs, religion versus politics, modern versus tradi-tional, science versus superstition, cultural versus political, mainland versus island, Việt versus Cham, farmers versus fishers, masculine versus feminine, and ancestor versus ghost not as absolute, everlasting, or an-tagonistic, but as constantly changing and shifting in pragmatic tactics employed within and across the triadic relationship between the state, villagers, and more institutionalized versions of religion. Binary ways of thinking about social phenomena have long been present in Western social theory. It comes as no surprise, then, that many of the debates about the state, religion, and society have been structured through the sacred–profane dichotomy posited by French sociologist Emilé Durkheim (1995 ) and through the legacy of Weberian thinking that places traditional/non-Western and modern/Western categories, or politics and religion, or individual beliefs and secularism on opposite ends of a spectrum (Weber 1951, 1966; Day 2002: 6). At the same time, there has been a growing awareness among scholars that binary opposi-tions that separate religion from politics or the sacred from the profane are generally not universally applicable categories, but a product of European thought transmitted to other parts of the world through colo-nialism (Goody 1961; Stanner 1967; Granet 1975; Coleman and White 2006; Turner 2006; Ashiwa and Wank 2009). Scholars have shown that these concepts are virtually irrelevant in practice in Asia, but they often nevertheless inform and transform the relations between state, religion, and society by creating a more universal category of ‘religion’ – one that is either relegated to the private realm or institutionalized and exploited in order to create and uphold a ‘national culture’ (DuBois 2009; Turner and Salemink 2015). As a result, the reductionist binaries of religion and secularism or religion and individual belief in Asia are constantly constructed and reconstructed across all levels of society and state. But to debunk or simply dismiss these binaries as irrelevant would mean to turn a blind eye to people who themselves are making and unmaking these categories on a day-to-day basis in their tactical engagement with authoritative state and religious discourses.
Right after the end of the Second Indochina War (1975) and Vietnam’s formal reunification (1976), the Party-state sought to con-trol all facets of life and relegated everything religious to the suspect
Fishers, Monks and Cadres
category of ‘superstition’. With the Đổi Mới reforms, which began in 1986, Vietnam’s Party-state ceased to play the strong ideological role in people’s lives, as it adopted neoliberal reforms in partnership with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and foreign donors that affected the state and the market more than Marxist–Leninist ideology did (Salemink 2008b: 282; see also Taylor 2001). This led to a situation in which the state to some extent retreated from various domains such as health care, education, and welfare, and people themselves had to pay for the services they needed – a process known as xã hội hóa (socialization) that mostly affected the poorest sector of Vietnamese society (Salemink 2008b: 282). However, the Party-state did not refrain from regulating the place of religion in society; rather, it standardized and instrumental-ized religious practices so as to provide moral and cultural reinforcement for the state’s various policies and projects. As sociologist Bryan Turner (2006: 210) argues, ‘national, secular politics is typically parasitic upon deeper, more embedded, religious traditions’ because political power lacks the persuasive authority of religious rituals. Meanwhile, religion itself is considered a competing source of power and morality that needs to be controlled, purified, and hybridized in order to exercise legitimate power over the population (Turner 2006: 211).
The relationship between state, religion, and society is not a new topic of debate in anthropology, especially in the context of an authori-tarian country like Vietnam. Two distinct anthropological approaches can be identified when we talk about religion in Asia, which is home to all ‘world religions’ ( Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Confucianism) and a breeding ground for less institutionalized religious practices such as ancestor and spirit worship, Mother Goddess wor-ship, and whale worwor-ship, to mention just a few among many (Turner and Salemink 2015). Religion in Asia is either approached through a dichotomous and often antagonistic framework of state–religion inter-actions (Anagnost 1994; Duara 1995; Van der Veer and Lehmann 1999;
DuBois 2009; Salemink 2015) or through the framework of embodied and experienced religious practices that leaves the state out (Tsing 1999; Morris 2000; Keane 2003, 2007, 2008; Pedersen 2011). One of the aims of this book is to refocus those debates by asking how people engage, selectively accept, and eventually subvert state discourses when
A Triad of Confrontation
it comes to religious practices. Whereas Yoshiko Ashiwa and David Wank (2009: 7) define the confrontation between state and religion as
‘the process of institutionalizing the modern concept of religion in the state and in religion’, this book tackles the ways in which state and non-state actors seek to navigate the ideology of the non-state by continuously rupturing and rearranging secular and religious binaries. While the state cannot be ignored in Asia, state–religion binaries that reduce the state to a Foucauldian disciplinary apparatus and people’s actions to resistance or co-optation obscure the full spectrum of interactions between the two realms.