BOOK REVIEW Hue-Tam Ho Tai’s Millenarianism and Peasant Politics in Vietnam (1983)

 

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Hue-Tam Ho Tai. Millenarianism and Peasant Politics in Vietnam. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Hue-Tam Ho Tai examines the history of the millenarian tradition Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương (Strange Fragrance from the Precious Mountain)—a collection of Sino-Vietnamese folk religion (mystical currents of Zen, White Lotus, popular Taoism) in the spiritually and ethnically diverse Western Nam Bo Khmer-Viet frontier in 1849 (appearance of Buddha Master) to 1975 (Communist takeover of the South).  Ho Tai makes two primary arguments: 1) The foundation of the Hoa Hao sect by Huynh Phu So in 1939 was the modern embodiment and adaptation of the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương to profound change in the colonial period. 2) The Hoa Hao was a competing ideology of change to Communist revolution and traces its progression and limitations as a movement. (In the 1940s, the Hoa Hao united the sects of the western Delta into a theocratic state, and offered itself as an institutional, military, alternative society to Vietminh communist power.)

In her evaluation of the Hoa Hao movement she compares the Hoa Hao and the Communist movement as ideals of violent, total, and lasting change and shows how peasants moved between clandestine revolutionary movements and religious sects. Furthermore, she details the following limitations of the Hoa Hao movement that contributed to its demise: the public exercise of magic and prophecy (and thus secrecy against enemy attack was impossible), an overreliance on a charismatic leader, the lack of clear alternative worldview, the open and unfiltered membership into the sect, and the antiforeign, antiurban, antirational bias of the sect.

Hue Tam Ho Tai is a professor of Sino-Vietnamese history at Harvard and this work was originated from her doctoral dissertation at Harvard in 1977 . With the limited sectarian sources of hagiogaraphies and poems, Hue-Tam draws from her personal family history of her father Ho Huu Tuong—a radical intellectual who moved between the Buu Son Ky huong religion and Communism throughout his life. Furthermore, she reads against the grain of French colonial and Communists sources which tended to cast millenarian movements as amorphous superstitious unrest.

Ho-Tai’s work contributes to the historiography of Nam Bo and studies of peasant society and spirituality. Yet rather than a moral economist or political economist argument of agrarian structures, Ho Tai focuses on cultural continuities, adaptations to change, and particularities (popular Buddhism, prophetism, social integration, communitarian) of this frontier region. Ho Tai challenges the instrumental understanding of ‘ideology’ as an end-product an focuses on the social and historical process such that the “Buu son Ky Huong millenarianism was a total, holistic solution to cosmic problems, in which devotional piety and collective violence were seen as two ends of the same salvationalist spectrum of responses.” (viii)

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