The Journey of the Deceased: Vietnamese Religion and Mortuary Robe Talismans in Contemporary Vietnam – A Workshop Report

By ZHANG Jie, University of Virginia


The workshop, “The Journey of the Deceased: Mortuary Robe Talismans in Contemporary Vietnam” was conducted on July 27, 2021, as part of eight-part FROGBEAR Summer 2021 Training Sessions. The workshop was conducted by Professor Cynthea J. Bogel (Japanese Art History and Buddhist Visual Culture in Asia, Kyushu University), Professor Nguyen Thi Hien (School of Interdisciplinary Studies, Vietnam National University) and Dr. Vu Hong Thuat (Curator, Vietnam Museum of Ethnology).

This workshop guided participants to study woodblock-stamped talismans on mortuary robes made at the Tram Gian Temple in Hai Duong Province, east of Hanoi, in Vietnam. The instructors discussed the various types of Vietnamese temple talismans, the rituals involved in making them, and the words, morphemes, symbols, and meanings they carry.

Pre-Workshop Film Viewing and Readings

Before the workshop on July 27, a documentary titled, Dressing the Deceased: Mortuary Rites and Talisman Robes in Northern Vietnam,was circulated among the participants for preview. The film records vivid details of making talisman-stamped mortuary robes from woodblocks at a temple in northern Vietnam (Figure 1). It allowed exclusive insight into a Vietnamese funeral through photos and film footage on site, from the preparation of the corpse (showing how the talisman robes were used) to the handling of the remains of a deceased male following traditional ritual. This exceptional film allowed workshop participants to have a rare sensory and intellectual experience with powerful symbolic and numinous ritual practices.
Figure 1. Monks and lay workmen in the temple making talisman from woodblock prints. Film still from Dressing the Deceased: Mortuary Rites and Talisman Robes in Northern Vietnam. Courtesy of Cynthea Bogel and Nguyen Thi Hien. Republished with permission.

Participants were given three readings before the workshop. In particular, Professor Nguyen Thi Hien’s article, “A Proper Funeral as the Moral Act of the Living to the Deceased: The Traditional Funeral of the Viet People in Vietnam,” examines how proper traditional funerals of the Viet people contribute to social morality, and how this value has changed in modern Vietnam. Dr. Vu Hong Thuat’s fascinating article published in Asian Ethnology and titled, “Amulets and the Marketplace,” gave a detailed account about the esoteric knowledge of amulet production and empowerment. Drawn from his own relationships with ritual masters in Vietnam, Dr. Vu described the magical production of amulets, desacralization of empowered objects, and the changing attitudes among amulet makers in contemporary time.

Workshop Presentation and Q&A

The workshop began with Professor Cynthea J. Bogel presenting a powerpoint of images and textual explanations prepared by Dr. Vu Hong Thuat. The instructors discussed the production of mortuary robes, their use, and their meanings. The stamped mortuary robes were produced by local labor, using local or imported materials such as iron-rich stone, fuchsia dye, and carefully preserved woodblocks. Dr. Vu presented a close examination of the printed talismans’ Sino-Vietnamese (Hán Nôm) and Indic scripts, and picto-symbol-systems. For example, the word “nĩ,” combining the character “rain” (yu 雨) and “death” (jian/tiệm 聻), is frequently used in spells and rituals to repel evil spirits (Figure 2). The instructors also shared the recitations and rites that accompany the journey of the deceased. In reading the symbols on the talismans, we could see the influence of Buddhism, Taoism, and folk beliefs on Vietnamese culture.
Figure 2. The word “nĩ” on the upper right and left of this talisman is used to repel harmful spirits and demons. Image courtesy of Dr. Vu Hong Thuat. Republished with permission.

The presentation was followed by a Q&A session, with most questions directed to Dr. Vu Hong Thuat due to his rich experience of collecting talismans. Professor Nguyen served as the translator between participants and Dr. Vu, who spoke Chinese and Vietnamese. One of the participants presented a picture of a robe from Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, Paris and inquired about its meanings and function (Figure 3), asking if it was a mortuary robe for dead children. Dr. Vu replied that it was not. In Vietnam, according to folk belief, parents usually send children to temples in order to have protection from spirits. However, he explained that the tigers on the robe would provide some form of protection. It was great to see participants bringing examples from museums around the world to this workshop to be examined by a subject expert from their original cultural context.
Figure 3. Child’s talismanic shirt. Early 20th century. 71.1944.8.33. Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, Paris. Photo courtesy of Nicolas Henni-Trinh Duc. Republished with permission.


Film Discussion

Following the Q&A, the group had a 45-minute-long discussion about the film. One participant asked, “Does the thousand-armed Avalokitesvara have a particular role in helping the deceased that is distinct from other forms of Avalokitesvara? And is that form of Avalokitesvara, in particular, associated with the Great Compassion Dharani? Do they have special protection against hungry ghosts in the underworld (specific to Tendai practice in Japan)?” Dr. Vu replied that the Avolokitesvara mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” is used very often on talisman for peace and good life. This mantra is believed to protect the deceased against hungry ghosts and devils. For the deceased, the Bodhisattva guided them to the land of the Buddha. The use of mantra in Vietnam is different from that in China. In China, using “Om Mani Padme Hum” is exclusively a Buddhist practice. In Vietnam, this mantra is used in many other rituals in daily life, such as a ritual for good business.

Another participant asked about the intergenerational transmission of ritual practices: “How did they get young people to be interested in the process? How did the elderly women get the younger generation to be interested in this practice?” Dr. Vu replied that in Buddhist temples today, there are associations of lay Buddhist people. Buddhist temples attract more and more young people to work at the temples.

Talisman Discussion and Questions

The workshop concluded with detailed discussion on the talisman. During this section, Dr. Joanna Wasilewska, an art historian from the Asia and Pacific Museum in Warsaw, Poland, showed images of a mortuary cloth and robe set which were acquired from Vietnam by a Polish ambassador (Figure 4). Since the Polish museum only had limited information from the son of the ambassador, Dr. Wasilewska wanted to find out more about the meanings behind these mortuary textiles. Dr. Vu examined the robe and shared that it is similar to the mortuary robe used by the ethnic people in Guiyang 貴陽 province of China and in Nam Dinh province of North Vietnam. The images and talisman would have been written directly onto the mortuary robe by temple priests or ritual masters. The mortuary cloth, on the other hand, has woodblock-printed talismans. The talisman on the left side of the second row was to be put on the face of the deceased, just as how it was shown in the film. Given that the cloth and robe were bought together as a set, Dr. Wasilewska asked whether they were from the same area for the same person even though the cloth and robe have different appearances. Dr. Vu confirmed that the talismans were all from North Vietnam but likely not of the same region. The FROGBEAR workshop has provided a platform for museum practitioners from around the world to meet and better understand the cultural and religious meanings of artefacts that have been removed from their original context.

Figure 4. Mortuary printed cloth and robe set acquired from North Vietnam by Polish ambassador Tadeusz Findziński, 1962-65. Donated by Krzysztof Findziński, 2018, to the Andrzej Wawrzyniak Asia and Pacific Museum, Warsaw. Photo courtesy of the Museum. Republished with permission.


Through participating in this workshop, students learned the basic types of Vietnamese temple talismans, and the words, morphemes, symbols, and imageries they carry. For a detailed case study, the group examined the talisman robes at the Tram Gian Temple, including a comparative study of talismans in East Asia and within Vietnam. By viewing the documentary and then learning about when, how, and why it was filmed, students became acquainted with important field practices such as filming, ethnology research, and data recording.

I am grateful to Professor Cynthea J. Bogel, Ms. Vicky Baker, Ms. Carol Lee, Ms. Sarah Fink, and other anonymous reviewers for their valuable suggestions and edits.


ZHANG Jie is a Master of Arts candidate at the University of Virginia. She specializes in Buddhist Art History and Digital Humanities. With her training in art history, she aspires to contribute to heritage conservation and museum curation, making arts and heritage more relevant to their audience from around the world.


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