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Heaven and Earth in Viet Nam
         Possibly the oldest religion in Viet Nam, and much of the Sino-influenced Far East, so old in fact that its origin is shrouded in mystery, is the worship of Heaven. Numerous scholars have tried to explain the idea of Heaven or Thu'o'ng De, the Emperor of Heaven and Earth. The Jesuit Father Matthew Ricci in China compared the idea of Heaven to the Christian God. Heaven was the ancient name given to the supreme, creative force in the universe. Confucius regarded Heaven as the one and only God which ruled over all of the lesser patron spirits in which the people believed. Heaven was worshipped in a very simple but solemn form of religion, some today would recognize in part.
         In Viet Nam, when the Nguyen dynasty moved the capital to Hue, they constructed the Dan Nam Giao, or Altar of Heaven about four kilometers outside of the city. This may well be the most beautiful and spiritual religious structure in all of Viet Nam. It consists basically of a three-tiered platform, open to the sky, where the Emperor, the Son of Heaven, would go to make offerings once a year on behalf of the nation and announce important events. It was as much a civic as a religious land-mark, though in old Vietnam, the two were seen as partners without any idea of conflict between them.
Dan Nam Giao, Hue City
         Standing on the Altar of Heaven, it is impossible not to be moved. Surrounded by the breath-taking landscape and enveloping historical ambience of Eternal Asia, with the wind blowing around you and the infinite blue sky above you, there are few places on earth where Heaven could possibly feel closer to you than at that place. For the Vietnamese, however, the annual procession to the esplenade was seen as being as much a family affair as a government ritual. The Confucian ideal of filial piety penetrated every aspect of life in those days. Family came before everything, and the nation itself was a family. The people were all brothers and sisters and the Emperor acted as father and mother, leader and protector.
          The Emperor (Hoang De) was also, by virtue of his wise and benevolent rule, which conferred the thien menh or Heavenly Mandate, was thus also the thien tu or "Son of Heaven" and so had the duty of performing the rites associated with the worship of Heaven. Just as every Vietnamese venerated and made offerings at the shrines of their own ancestors, so to did the Emperor, the Son of Heaven, venerate and make offerings on behalf of his national family to Heaven, the only thing regarded as greater than the Emperor himself. This sort of national, paternal ideal is a facet of the imperial system which many have copied, but which none have ever really attained. Even the most idealistic Communists of the repubilcan era could see this and tried to imitate it. This was the sort of idea behind the national effort to portray the President, not as a political strongman but as the nation's wise and beloved "Uncle Ho". Later, however, with the republican victory, the entire idea of Heaven and the noble virtues associated with it were dismissed as "feudal superstitions".
         The last time an official, legitimate ceremony was held at the Altar of Heaven was in the era of Bao Dai, the last Emperor of Vietnam. However, the traditions and culture of a people cannot be easily suppressed, no matter how hard the Communist authorities may have tried. People, even some Communists, continued to venerate their ancestors and national heroes in the old way, even honoring those village spirits granted holy status by the old Nguyen emperors.
          Eventually, even the Communists tried to endorse and take advantage of this, encouraging for example the veneration of party leaders such as the Viet Cong general Nguyen Thi Dinh, even as the party remained officially opposed to religion in the standard Marxist way. Yet, more and more people missed the grandeur of the Nguyen dynasty and recently, much the same as in Communist China, the Nam Giao ceremony was restored in style if not in substance. The ceremony was the same, but actors were paid to stand in for the Emperor and high officials. Yet, in spite of this, perhaps even sacriligious, show with an actor in imperial robes carried in a palanquin to the altar, people still lined the roads to kotow in the old way.
          It seems that even today, Vietnam, in her heart, wishes to remain that idyllic kingdom mid-way between Heaven and Earth.
The Esplanade of Heaven, 1903 photograph
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