It was a gorgeous sparkling weekend, early in the summer of 1995. I was in my first year at California State University Long Beach and life was great! The weather was always a balmy 85 degrees, the sun was always shining, the sky always blue. The weekend was just starting and I didn’t have anything planned but I knew I wanted to do something fun.
My day was just starting when I got a call from a group of casual friends who were also heading out. “Hey! We’re going to go see a Lễ Lên Đồng. Wanna come along? There’s gonna be food afterwards”. Poor student that I was, my first thought was, “Oh hey, free food!”, so I readily agreed. I had no clue what a Lễ Lên Đồng was, but I was game, so when they came to pick me up, I jumped into their car and off we went.
The house was an unassuming ranch, deep in the heart of Little Saigon. There were cars parked everywhere on the sides of the road leading up to and away from the house. It was clear that there was some kind of party going on. I smiled in anticipation. My girlfriends chattered like magpies and dragged me in through the door.
As soon as I entered, I knew there was a ceremony going on. The air was thick with incense smoke. There were people seated on the floor everywhere, but as crowded as it was, the atmosphere was more that of a temple, as opposed to a market stall. There was not much chatter, just a relaxed atmosphere. We quickly found a place to sit, behind a few older women wearing colorful garments.
Suddenly, from behind a bamboo and silk partition, a woman came out dressed in brightly colored brocade and embroidered silk clothing. On her head was a silk coverlet so I could not see her face.
All of a sudden, music started up. The women dressed in bright clothing in front of us started singing. I was so disappointed because although I was right next to them, I could not see their faces since we were directly behind them. I could, however, hear them quite well.
Then the woman whose head was covered began dancing. As she danced, she took off her head covering. It was an older woman.
“That’s my mom,” one of my friends whispered excitedly.
Considering this was the girl who took me to night clubs and danced all night to hip hop and rap music, I was blown away by her complete enjoyment in this type of ancient music. It seemed as if there was more to her than just the usual bubble gum smacking, lip gloss smelling young college student that I hung out with.
As it turns out, there was much more.
The woman started by bowing several times to various deities on an altar piled high with fruits, flowers, and incense, and then she was given some liquid that looked like fortified wine, smoked something that looked suspiciously like weed, and inhaled some sort of smoke directly from a pipe. Then she went into a kind of drugged trance.
The dancer moved through various dance steps, all in perfect rhythm with the drums and tea cups (the musicians clack tea cups together to create the high clacking sound that would normally be created by ceramic percussion instruments). There were other musicians with various other traditional instruments. It was quite a production.
I was thinking to myself, wow…this was something else entirely outside of my scope and range of experience. I took it all in, not understanding at the time that I was actually watching what would be considered a living museum of cultural heritage unique to the Việt community, both within and without the motherland.
After that day, I had the opportunity to observe several other Lên Đồng ceremonial possessions, held by various other members of the Việt community in southern California and was able to learn more about the practice.
A Lễ Lên Đồng is not a dance for entertainment purposes. It is an ancient spirit invocation ritual which lasts anywhere between two to six hours and involves the use of a medium who goes into a trance and then allows his or her body to be inhabited by the gods’ and goddesses’ spirits so that they will grant boons and goodwill to all those who are in attendance.
In a Lễ Lên Đồng (Ceremonial Trance), the music used to invoke the spirits is called hát văn. The dancer is the medium whose body is to be used by the spirits. He or she changes clothing to match that of the deity that will be inhabiting his body. The spirits inhabiting the body will grant favors and luck in the form of incense sticks. Those who are lucky enough to get a gift from one of the spirits will have received the good fortune granted by a deity.
A possessed medium in the midst of a Trance Invocation.
It may seem as if the medium is simply going through the motions—and sometimes, that’s what I saw. This may be the case for many mediums, but there are cases where the invocations may actually cause what seems to be a possession. In those cases, the mediums do horrific things like stick sharp steel prongs through their faces or slash their bodies with swords and show no signs of blood, swallow things like fire or glass or other such horrific objects and sustain no apparent injuries, or hang themselves by the neck without killing themselves.
Interestingly enough, after the medium has completely come out of his or her trance, wounds heal immediately without showing any signs of ever having been inflicted. There is probably a scientific explanation behind all this, of which I haven’t the faintest clue. All I know is that this stuff has been going on for thousands of years.
It has its roots in early I Ching religious ceremonies, with its subsequent spawns of various religious aspects of Taoism, some of which I will detail in upcoming postings.