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Crossing boundaries and state-building: Harmonisation and tolerance in Vietnamese religions

ABSTRACT

Vietnam is a multi-ethnic state that has diverse religious traditions as a result of the continuous interaction of both internal and external sources of philosophies. Because of the demands and interests of the state and people, bureaucrats, elites and commoners of traditional Vietnamese kingdoms had to create a dynamic, unified system of notations and rituals in order to produce a shared political and cultural experience. Vietnam’s struggle for independence and development during the last millennium has demonstrated that this system is a unique mechanism used to empower the Vietnamese people and enable the crossing of boundaries. History has shown that Vietnamese people, largely influenced by external philosophies, have learned to absorb and reconstruct a harmonised and localised form of ancestorworship and the Three-Teachings (Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism) to create the cultural nexus for themselves. As a result, the fusion and reconstruction of national identity not only made Vietnamese culture more distinct from Chinese culture (a source of influence) but also created a neutralised social bond among the different classes that strengthened the sense of solidarity. The people’s war against foreign invaders, the people’s diplomacy, and people-oriented policies were thus successful. The Vietnamese approach to state-building has sought to directly cultivate social harmonisation and religious tolerance among its people. This research mainly applies Adam Seligman and Robert Weller’s (2012) concept of mutual interaction between notation, ritual and shared experience, in order to analyse different discourses disclosed by the case studies. The research argues that definite state-centralised agenda had never achieved the ultimate goal of statebuilding in Vietnam even though to some extent it appeared to have been successful during late imperial China. Instead, there always have been needs to find a neutral area somewhere in between both sides such that state interests and the desires of the commoners could meet, mutually make compromise and allow themselves to be fused together.

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