Thien Hau, Vietnam

Thien Hau & the History of Vietnamese Whale Worship

Kim Jane Saunders|June 24, 2016|Blog Post

A teacher and writer, Kim Jane Saunders is a graduate of international politics and history, and holds a master's degree in education. She has lived in Hong Kong and Indonesia, and has traveled extensively throughout East and Southeast Asia. Currently living in Singapore, Kim acts as lecturer and consultant on issues relating to contemporary Asian culture. 

Traveling north to south in Vietnam is 1,025 miles; geographically, it is a long ‘S’ shape with 2,025 miles of coastline, including islands in the South China Sea. These facts indicate just how fundamentally important the sea is to the Vietnamese economy and culture.

Historically, one of the most important trading ports in Vietnam was Hoi An, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (The Japanese Bridge built in 1593 is testament to the importance of the port to those who traveled on the ancient India-China trade route, specifically Japanese and Chinese traders.) Between 1990 and 2002, seafood exports quadrupled, driven partly by shrimp and fish farms in the south; in 2015, the fishing industry accounted for nearly 10% of the economy.

Vietnam’s long history has been dominated by land and sea migrations, especially from Southern China. The peopling of Vietnam began in the Late Pleistocene era; the Cham kingdom was established in the 2nd century, and Vietnam was under Chinese rule for over 1,000 years. A major Chinese diaspora in the 19th century saw the rise of the Southern Ocean Chinese, leaving the major Chinese trading ports—such as Amoy and Fuchou Hokkien speakers, Cantonese speakers, and Swatow Teochew speakers—in search of work. Overseas, the Chinese established communities throughout Southeast Asia reaching as far as the USA, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. The sea journeys were long, arduous, and dangerous and many did not survive. Upon reaching dry land alive, their first response was to establish a joss house, or Chinese temple, to give thanks to the Goddess of the Sea, Mazu, for safe passage and arrival. In many cases, these early joss houses became permanent temples dedicated to Mazu.

In Vietnam, Mazu is known by her Cantonese name, Thien Hau. She is widely worshipped by the seafaring Chinese, though not specifically a Taoist or a Buddhist deity, and is believed to keep those at sea safe. The legend surrounding Thien Hau says that she was born during the Song Dynasty in 960 in southern China’s Fujian province. When her father and brothers were in peril at sea during a terrible storm, Thien Hau went into a trance praying for their safe return.

Upon entering a temple dedicated to her, she is recognizable by her flat-beaded fringe headdress and is usually dressed in red. Her two guardian generals flank her on the left and right—Thousand Mile Eye, or Qianli Yan, has a red face and looks for storms at sea; With the Wind Ear, or Shunfeng Er, has a green face and listens for high winds. As the patron saint of seafarers, temples dedicated to Mazu are found as far afield as the USA and Australia. (One of the most famous temples in Vietnam dedicated to her is the Thien Hau Temple in Ho Chi Minh City!)

The Vietnamese fishing industry is steeped in tradition. Small and large fishing fleets are found throughout the country; many of which are still handmade, using traditional methods, and painted bright blue, sporting watchful eyes on either side of the bow to repel sea monsters and guide the boat to successful fishing grounds and safe homes. Nha Trang, in central Vietnam, is a popular beach resort area with a vibrant and active fishing fleet. In some of the small, off-shore villages, handmade bamboo coracle boats are used to make short journeys from ship to shore.

It will come as no surprise that Vietnam’s fishermen look to sources of protection while at sea. One such source is the whale, believed to be a God Fish and therefore respected, revered, and worshipped. The worship of whales and other big fish is believed to date back to the time of the 4th century Cham and 10th century Khmer kingdoms in southern Vietnam. The Vietnamese do not hunt whales, and there are numerous legends of the great mammal protecting boats during storms and guiding them to shore. There are numerous temples dedicated to whales in Vietnam and the practice of giving a dead whale an elaborate funeral is still very important. The deceased whale has a Fish Prayer funeral festival and is buried; after three to five years it is exhumed, the bones cleaned and placed in the temple. One of the most famous temples is Van Thuy Thu in Phan Viet, built in 1762. It contains the bones of over 100 whale skeletons dating between 100- and 150-years-old. In 1996 it was designated a national relic site. Believed to this day to protect those at sea, whales are as worshipped and revered in Vietnam as Thien Hau. 

For more information on our upcoming expedition, visit Vietnam: Culture & Cuisine

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