Gods, Heroes, and Ancestors

An Interreligious Encounter in Eighteenth Century Vietnam

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Anh Q. Tran
AAR Religion in Translation
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Studies on the encounter between Christianity and Asian traditions from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century has been a well-trodden path for scholars of religion. Nevertheless, scant attention has been paid to the Vietnamese context compared with that of China, Japan, and India. Anh Tran’s Gods, Heroes, and Ancestors: An Interreligious Encounter in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam, tries to fill the vacuum by interpreting and translating a newly-discovered eighteenth century manuscript entitled Tam Giao Chu Vong (Errors of the Three Religions; hereafter referred to as Errors).

Tran’s book consists of two distinctive yet interrelated parts. The first section, composed of five chapters with a long introduction and succinct conclusion, sketches the Vietnamese religious and historical context. The second section is comprised of an annotated translation of Errors.  

The introduction offers a general description of the indigenous religious tradition of Vietnam, and the origin, development, and interaction of the three dominant religions of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. Implanted into the indigenous soil, these religions were primarily shaped by the Chinese cultural heritage for two millennia.

Chapter 1 examines the historical context during the seventeenth and the eighteenth century when Catholicism was introduced to Vietnam. Tran argues that unlike the scenario in China, where Catholicism was embraced by scholar officials because of the appeal of its science, in Vietnam Catholicism was tolerated for its trading connections with the Portuguese. But Vietnamese Christians also suffered the consequences of the Chinese Rites Controversy, since the new religion has equally posed a threat to established Confucian norms.

Chapter 2 discusses the context of Errors, focusing on its genre, content, and authorship. Tran offers a brief overview of Christian apologetic writings and deems Errors as a “catechimus” for new converts, native clergy, and catechists. Tran holds that a comparison between Errors and the earlier catechisms of Matteo Ricci in China and Alexander de Rhodes in Vietnam suggests obvious stylistic connections as well as minor differences between them.

In chapters 3 and 4, Tran introduces traditional Vietnamese cults in general and ancestral worship. Tran describes the “cult of spirits” among the Viet people, in which a diverse array of deities, heroes, and ancestor rites thrived. Whether kings or commoners, indoor or outdoor, court or village, military or civil, living or dead, Vietnamese religious life seems to have been active and syncretistic, combining Buddhist worldviews, Confucian ethics, and Daoist cosmology seamlessly without maintaining any distinction between them (13).

In Chapter 5, Tran evaluates Errors with regard to its contribution and limitations in contemporary religious vocabulary. Sketching refutations of the “errors” of three religions, in particular the concept of God and “pagan superstitions,” Tran considers the frustrating aspects of Errors as a proof of Christian exclusivism. On the other hand, he regards the extensive use of Confucian and Buddhist literature in Errors as the author’s openness to engage with the religious others in their own terms. Approaching the text from an interreligious perspective, Tran describes Errors as a partial attempt at early Christian inculturation in Vietnam. For Tran, another contribution of Errors lies in its detailed narrative of the indigenous religious tradition and culture.

Errors consists of three “books” covering the “errors” of three religions. Each book was written in the form of dialogues between a “Western scholar” and an “Eastern scholar.” In each section, the “Eastern scholar” was invited to introduce the origin, development, doctrines, gods, and ritual practice of a particular religion, and then the “Western scholar” would refute them. Among the three religions, Confucianism and Buddhism receive the most attention. Furthermore, the “Western scholar” focuses more on religious practices than on the cosmology of Confucianism and Buddhism.

Much as Errors follows the apologetic writing of Matteo Ricci (The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven) in its structure and source material, it distinguishes itself by its content—religious practice. Tran rightly maintains that the Vietnam catechism targeted the masses, rather than the elites. Perhaps the time of composition, after the Chinese Rites Controversy, also accounts for Error’s shift of emphasis from philosophical debates to the refutation of “superstitions.”

For scholars today, the translation of Errors presents not so much the tension between Christianity and the three religions as the reality of a Vietnamese past. Given the lasting Chinese impact on Vietnamese tradition, the book provides access to Chinese rites as well, especially the elaborate discussion of funeral rites. Removing a few local heroes and generals, Errors reads as a primer for eighteenth-century Chinese rites.

Thanks to the Sino-Vietnamese terms in the footnotes and appendix, most of the gods, heroes, myths, and ritual practices could be traced to their Chinese origins. Take, for example, the worship of Spirit of Heaven, Earth, Gate Spirit, Kitchen God, Jade Emperor, Hearth Spirit, Guardian Deity, Household Guardian, and so on, all of which share the same lineage with Chinese texts. Even the goblin story, about which Tran is uncertain, is clearly of Chinese origin (157).

In this way, the translation of Errors provides a unique lens to see both the Vietnamese and Chinese religious landscapes of the eighteenth century. Cross-referencing to existing studies on ancestral and funeral rites, such as Nicholas Standaert’s The Interweaving of Rituals: Funerals in the Cultural Exchange between China and Europe (University of Washington Press, 2008), might clarify and enhance previous studies of the Rites Controversy. In so doing, students of religion will gain better insight into the interaction/tension between Christianity and Asian traditions derived from Confucianism in the early modern period.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amy Yu Fu is Assistant Professor of English at Zhejiang University City College, China.

Date of Review: 
January 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anh Q. Tran is assistant professor of historical and systematic theology at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. He is a co-editor and contributor of World Christianity: Perspectives and Insights.



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