The Chem Festival

The Chem communal house, 12 km from Ha Noi, is located in Thuy Phuong commune, near the southern end of Thang Long Bridge. The village is part of Tu Liem district, a suburban area of Ha Noi. The temple turns its back on one of the dykes, and overlooks the Red River.
The Chem communal house is dedicated to Ly Than, alis Ly Ong Trong, a legendary figure during the reign of the Hung Kings. A native of Chem area, he was a tall man with unequalled physical strength. He used to stand up for the poor and, for that reason, was guilty of murdering a cruel local notable. In deference to Ly Than’s integrity, the Hung King commuted his death sentence into exile to China as a tribute to China’s Emperor Tan Thuy Hoang. The Chinese Emperor entrusted Ly Than with the task of safeguarding the northern frontiers against the Mongolian invaders, a task which he fulfilled most successfully.
His feat of arms was duly rewarded by the Emperor who gave him the hand of one of his princesses. As he grew old, Ly Than requested home leave; he no longer returned to China. Vietnamese authorities told China that Ly Than had died. But the Chinese Emperor demanded that Ly Than’s corpse be sent to him. To avoid complications for his own King, Ly Than committed suicide. The King had the body embalmed and sent to China. As the corpse remained intact, the Chinese Emperor could identify it as truly Ly Than, and thereupon had a big statue of Ly Than made. The statue, with movable arms and legs, was put at the entrance of the Shen-Yang fortress as a deterrent to Mongolian invaders.
In admiration for Ly Than, the local villagers built a temple in his honour. The temple was reportedly built during the third period of Chinese rule over Viet Nam (603-939 AD), but its present features date from a major renovation at the beginning of the 20th century. The temple is not large but it is an old piece of architecture, with many sculpted figures. It contains, among other things, two gilded wooden statues of Ly Than and his wife, made in 1888.
In remembrance of the hero, Thuy Phuong village and two others, Lien Mac and Hoang Mac, jointly organize an annual festival from the 14th to 16th days of the 5th lunar month. The 14th is the pre-festival day, and the 15th the main day.
To this end, a careful division of labour is worked out concerning such roles as escorts, bodyguard, flags carriers, master of ceremony, and so on.
The festival comprises a number of rituals such as general ceremony (te), water procession, procession of the funeral oration, procession of the cult implements, ceremony of bathing the statues, and a ceremony in honour of Buddha.
The water procession takes place early in the morning of the 15th day of the 5th lunar month. This is a major ceremony designed to obtain water for bathing of the statues. The participants, in colourful clothing, carry offerings and assemble at a place, 3 km from the communal house, where they embark on 3 big boats decorated with dragon sculptures. The boats go downstream until they reach the entrance of the Chem communal house. Then, they start the rituals on obtaining water. The boats must uniformly turn round 3 times, and as they do so, three people standing on their respective boats must timely use dippers to takes water from the river, pour it into the jar and purify it with alum. The whole operation must be completed by the end of the third “turn-around” of the boats. The operation is marked by drum and gong beats and, in particular, by shouts “U oe, u oe” which reverberate on both banks of the river. According to the village elders, the shouts “U oe” are associated with a legend about Ly Than: The statue of Ly Than, as made on the orders of the Chinese Emperor and put at the entrance of Shen-Yang fortress, was so big that 10 persons could be sheltered in it. When the Mongolian invaders came, these men hidden inside the statue would shout “U oe” and this struck fear into the invaders and would make them withdraw.
After taking water, the 3 boats sail downstream to Ngu port where the participants disembark and enter the Ma House, the house containing cult objects made of wood, bamboo and leaves. Then begins the procession of cult objects comprising, among other things, men-drawn carts and chariots, elephants, horses, to be followed by palanquins carrying dresses, hats and ceremonial palanquins. A bowl of water, is put on a palanquin decorated in various colours and carried by 4 people. The procession, which proceeds at a pace regulated by the master of ceremony by means of drums and gongs beats, set for the communal house where is subsequently held a ceremony of bathing the statues is performed.
The procession of the funeral oration takes place in the evening. The oration is carried on a royal palanquin from the house of the chief preserver to the communal house, with rituals similar to the procession of cult implements.
The road through which the procession passes is lined with neatly arranges small incense burners that add to the solemnity of the occasion.
The procession is followed by a grand ceremony at the communal house, performed by 12 people clad in long blue dresses, wearing hats and belts of Court Officials. After duly washing their hands, two of them carry food, drinks and lighted candles into the back chamber, while the whole group comes in, marching through two lines of old villagers who hold and turn blue and rose pennons.
At last, the leader of the ceremony reads the funeral oration amidst a deep silence and the flagrance of burning incense sticks and sandal wood. Among other things, the oration says:
“Your fame as a hero resounds
throughout North and South
“Your talent is all-sided,
political and military, and your posture most dignified
“Your ethical behaviour toward
our nation is above blame”.
Thereafter, the festival goes on with such game as duck catching, releasing of doves, and kite flying.

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