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In February 2020, Vietnam closed its borders to prevent the emergence of COVID-19 in the country. Nevertheless, after the appearance of the first large infected cluster in March 2020, the situation gradually deteriorated since July 2020. The Vietnamese government decided to ban gatherings, and therefore certain religious practices. The religions in the country had to adapt their practices to this new situation. In this article, I will explore the situation of the Four Palaces (Tứ Phủ) and its possession ritual (lên đồng). After recalling the chronology of the outbreak of COVID-19 in Vietnam, I will highlight how this worship adapted its practices in the north of the country at the beginning of the pandemic and during the Vietnamese lockdowns. Moreover, I will draw a parallel to discuss the ban of the ritual practice during the COVID-19 pandemic and the prohibition of “superstitious practices” that occurred in Vietnam between the late 1950s and the 1990s. The article will stress the importance of social media, in particular Facebook, and their uses by the mediums and followers of the Four Palaces while exploring the discourses that can be seen within the social networks. Keywords: Vietnam, religion, COVID-19, spirit-mediumship, social networks Senepin, Camille. 2022. “The Four Palaces in Time of COVID-19 Pandemic: The Adaptation of a Vietnamese Worship between Prohibition, Safety, and Social Networks.” Vienna Journal of East Asian Studies, 14, pp. 49–74. https://doi.org/10.2478/vjeas-2022-0003 Submitted: 11.04.2022, accepted: 04.09.2022 This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ Vienna Journal of East Asian Studies Introduction The streets of Hà Nội, usually so dense, were quite empty. Masks were covering the face of all the inhabitants that I met. Even if this was a common practice in the capital city because of the pollution, it became systematic a few weeks after the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020. Despite the worrisome atmosphere in Hà Nội, I managed to make an appointment with Cậu Minh, a medium of the Four Palaces (Tứ Phủ) worship, in his private temple in the north of Hà Nội. He agreed to meet me, even if my presence as a European woman could be alarming as the infections got more and more threatening in Europe in February 2020. Although I never faced trouble while conducting fieldwork in Vietnam, it became complicated to arrange interviews in early 2020. Cậu Minh’s temple is located in a non-touristic area, at the end of cramped alleys. The first thing I noticed at the entrance of the building was a large number of masks available for visitors and many hydroalcoholic gels next to the votive objects. If there was any doubt, it was now disappeared: the epidemic of COVID-19 had also touched the daily life of the followers of the Four Palaces worship. I did not know it yet, but the interview I conducted in Cậu Minh’s temple would be the last one I was allowed to physically do for many weeks. Since December 2019 and the official emergence of the first cases of COVID-19 in China, a general fear had seized the world. In Vietnam, the appearance of the new virus immediately worried the government, unlike the European states which were rather remiss in controlling and tracking potential cases. The appearance of the virus in 2020 disrupted many sectors, whether social, economic, or political. These disruptions greatly affected religious practices around the world, including those related to the Four Palaces worship in Vietnam and practiced by the demographically largest ethnic group of the country, the Kinh. The worship of the Four Palaces is mainly present in northern Vietnam, where several researchers, both Vietnamese and Westerners, have worked with the followers of the worship (in particular, see Chauvet 2012; Durand 1959; Endres 2011; Norton 2009; Ngô 1996; Nguyễn 2015; Simon and Simon-Barouh 1973). If the Four Palaces practices are mostly established in the north of the country, it is possible to be observed in the centre of Vietnam, notably in the Hué area, displaying different rituals. The appeal of the Four Palaces lies mainly in the organisation of possession One of the terms used for male mediums. All names in the article have been anonymised. Also known as Việt. In his work, Trần Văn Toàn (1966; 1967) showed that the order of incarnation varies between the north and the centre of the country. He provided a fine ethnography of the practices encountered in the center of the country, while analysing the potential Cham’s influence on the worship. I am currently working on contemporary ritual practices in Hué as part of my Ph.D. The worship is also found in the south of the country, in Ho Chi Minh City, after its importation by migrants from northern Vietnam. Senepin, Camille (2022) The Four Palaces in Time of COVID-19 Pandemic: The Adaptation of a Vietnamese Worship 4 5 rituals, named lên đồng. Spirit-mediums are the ones organising these ceremonies in public or private temples. These rituals are held three to four times a year on average, in addition to the regular offerings made by devotees at the spirits’ altars. For four to eight hours, these religious specialists will incarnate about fifteen spirits. Each incarnation can be summarily divided into three parts: a time of dressing, followed by a moment of dancing specific to each spirit incarnated, and concluded by a calmer time when the spirit in presence listens to the requests of the adepts while enjoying its earthly stay by drinking alcohol or tea, smoking cigarettes, or eating betel nuts. Followers associated with the medium attend the ceremony and receive many lộc, that is, offerings consecrated by the spirits and then given back to the adepts. It can be money, fruits, cigarettes, or consumables that pass from hand to hand. These offerings can be distributed during the dances of some spirits or gifted at the end of the ceremony. These ceremonies are entertaining and attract many curious people, not necessarily merely devotees of the worship. The ritual is performed with music throughout. The musicians invite the spirits and tell their earthly exploits in chầu văn songs. It is these many songs, the aesthetics of the ceremonial dresses, votive objects, and dances specific to each spirit that contributed to the inscription of the Four Palaces worship in the UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in December 2016 (Jammes and Sorrentino 2015). The inscription of the Four Palaces as Intangible Cultural Heritage can be quite surprising when knowing that for almost forty years, between the end of the 1950s and the 1990s, the worship was prohibited during the Marxist-Leninist repression against superstitions (mê tín dị đoan). The rituals were performed in secret, mostly during the night (Endres 2011). According to authorities, practitioners of the worship were considered backward and not enough involved in the national solidarity It literally means “riding the medium.” The term hầu bόng (“serving the shadow”) can also be found. Bà đồng for women, ông đồng for men, or thanh đồng more generally without distinction of gender. As already mentioned, we can also find the term Cậu and plenty other words to designate the mediums. It depends on the age, the gender, or the religious experience of the medium. Many informants told me that the use of these names has changed in the last few years, as thanh đồng is increasingly used. The official number of spirits linked to this worship is thirty-six, but in practice this number varies depending on each medium. The control of the distribution of these offerings is significant to the relationship of the devotees with the medium. Indeed, it is very quickly detectable that the closer a follower is to the medium, the more important will be their reception of lộc. Followers unknown to the religious specialist will only receive small amounts of money, whereas close followers will receive large sums. Similarly, only those followers who are close to the medium will leave with a bag of lộc at the end of the ceremony. Vienna Journal of East Asian Studies policy. Thanks to the involvement of Ngô Đức Thịnh, a renowned Vietnamese folklorist, the worship was allowed to resume in the 1990s, notably with the official return of the Phủ Dầy festival (Lễ hội Phủ Dầy) in 1995 after a two-year trial period (Dror 2007). This festival is located in Kim Thái commune, Vụ Bản district of Nam Định province, and gathers thousands of pilgrims from the first day of the third lunar month in honour of the goddess Liễu Hạnh, the Mother of Heaven, one of the most important spirits of the worship in its northern form. Ngô Đức Thịnh (1996) work is also interesting as he introduced and popularised the designation of Đạo Mẫu, which he translated as “Mother Goddess Religion.” His work focused on both establishing Đạo Mẫu as an ancient and truly Vietnamese (Kinh) religion and safeguarding the lên đồng rituals, notably with the inscription of the worship within UNESCO in 2016 as “the practices related to the Viet beliefs in the mother goddesses of three realms.” As Paul Sorrentino (2018) underlines, the work of this researcher is central to the depiction of the Four Palaces worship from the 1990s. Nevertheless, if initially the term Đạo Mẫu designated various religious practices linked to the Mother worships in general in Vietnam, an ontological shift seems to have taken place in recent years, particularly since the heritagisation of the Four Palaces. Đạo Mẫu is currently used by many northern Vietnamese to exclusively describe the practices of the Four Palaces. This semantic shift has led to a change in the representation of the worship. As Đạo (“path” or “spiritual way”) can be also translated as “religion,” this new designation legitimates these practices as religious and not only cultural ones, as the UNESCO inscription may suggest. Nevertheless, still the Four Palaces does not have any official organisation, as it is not recognised as one of the official religions of Vietnam in The question of the definition of “religion” in Vietnam is quite interesting, especially with the Four Palaces worship. Some mediums try to highlight the religiosity of the Four Palaces, while it is considered and describe by most as a belief (Tín Ngưỡng). The line between belief and superstition is still blurry in Vietnam, and some laws still sanction superstitious religious practices, like decree No. 158/2013/ND-CP, published on November 12, 2013, which punish with a fine of three To understand the involvement of this researcher, see Endres 2011; Jammes and Sorrentino 2015; Sorrentino 2018: 190–197. It is possible to find the spelling Phủ Giầy, as in the book of Ngô Đức Thịnh (1996). I choose to use the spelling Phủ Dầy as it is the one used by my interlocutors. Phủ Dầy itself refers to a complex of temples dedicated to Liễu Hạnh and the Four Palaces deities. The name Liễu Hạnh is not used aloud by all Four Palaces followers, as some of them consider that doing so is disrespectful. They use instead the term Lão Hiệng. Tín ngưỡng thờ mẫu tam phủ của người việt. The situation in Hué is quite interesting regarding the organisation of the worship, as an official association is present in the city under the governance of the local police. This kind of organisation does not exist in northern Vietnam. Senepin, Camille (2022) The Four Palaces in Time of COVID-19 Pandemic: The Adaptation of a Vietnamese Worship to five million VND those who take advantage of superstitious activities such as séances or fortune telling to earn illegal profits (article number 15). The choice of these mediums to talk about Đạo (religion) underline the appropriation of this term in Vietnam, and in southeast Asia in general, as demonstrated by Michel Picard (2017). Đạo becomes a tool for the Four Palaces’ devotees: it shows that their practices have a religious dimension, that they are not just cultural ones as the state discourse may imply. In the official Vietnamese press, the artistic aspects of the worship are highlighted, while stressing the pride that the Vietnamese people can feel in the recognition of the Four Palaces by UNESCO (see Nhân Dân journal 2022; Trần Mỹ Hiền 2021). These articles underline the official discourse about the worship that has taken hold in Vietnam in recent years, and we can easily see how it may differ from the ones regarding the mediums. Figure 1: Lên đồng ritual, May 2020; photograph by the author. Even if the Four Palaces practices are mostly accepted in Vietnam nowadays, the worship is eminently collective and has suffered from various restrictions linked to the COVID-19 epidemic. Confronted with these restrictions, one may ask how the followers of the Four Palaces could continue to have a link with the spirits. How did the devotees adapt their practices without being able to go to the temple and organise rituals? How did the followers manage to accept the governmental restrictions while continuing their religious practice? What part did the internet and social networks played during this difficult period? Have did they bring a new ritual form? These are the questions that I will seek to answer in this article. Vienna Journal of East Asian Studies Several authors have examined the consequences of the appearance of COVID-19 throughout the world since the beginning of the pandemic (Berche and Perez 2021; Cabasset et al. 2021; Guillemot and Peyvel 2021). In this article, my purpose is not to determine the consequences of the global pandemic, given that it is still ongoing although now better contained. Neither will I attempt to focus on the difficulties that researchers have faced during the pandemic, as it has already been done several times (Hermesse et al. 2020; Selim 2020). Nevertheless, several ethnographic data deserve to be highlighted and allow to grasp the transformations and adaptations of religious practices, here in the context of the Four Palaces worship. First, I will describe the emergence of the virus in Vietnam and its impact on the lives of individuals for contextualisation. Second, I will mention how spirit- mediums and the followers of the Four Palaces had to give up mediumship to comply with government directives, and what were the consequences of that development. Third, I will try to draw a parallel between the health prohibition of collective worship in 2020 and 2021 and the repression against superstitions between the 1950s and the 1990s imposed by the Vietnamese government. It will be possible to see through the analysis of articles and comments on the internet that the bans on gatherings were not always followed, as well as how those gatherings were strongly criticised. Fourth, I will discuss the active presence of the Four Palaces worship through social networks—Facebook in particular—and how it allowed several followers of the Four Palaces to communicate about their fight against the virus while demonstrating their compliance with the official governmental guidelines. All the data presented in this article will be drawn from the northern practice of the Four Palace worship, which remains dominant in Vietnam. Vietnam and COVID-19 At the beginning of the pandemic, Vietnam was considered a successful example of controlling and fighting against COVID-19 (Guillemot and Peyvel 2021). The situation was under control until June 2021, when the situation became worrisome due to the multiplication of cases in the country, reaching its peak with the lockdown of Ho Chi Minh City between August and September 2021. This was after the country was spared from the disease for almost a year. In order to understand the religious responses within the Four Palaces worship at the time of the pandemic, it is necessary to detail the chronology of the emergence of the virus in Vietnam and the state responses to control it. This article mostly focuses on the period between February and June 2020, while I was in Vietnam. I will discuss some of the points that took place after I left the country, and I will briefly mention the evolution of the pandemic in Vietnam to provide a global context until the end of 2021. The data in this chronology are based on the information I was able to collect while I was in Vietnam Senepin, Camille (2022) The Four Palaces in Time of COVID-19 Pandemic: The Adaptation of a Vietnamese Worship and in the interviews I conducted with my friends and informants still present in the country. The first cases of COVID-19 appeared in Ho Chi Minh City on January 22, 2020, when two patients of Chinese origin were detected. A week after these first cases, several Vietnamese returning from Wuhan reported symptoms, bringing the number of patients to six. The Vietnamese government’s response was immediate: the closure of land borders with and the suspension of flights to and from China was decided on February 1. My entry to Vietnam on February 18, 2020, was still possible, although the local police asked me to fill in a form declaring my health condition a few days after my arrival. The situation seemed to be settled down following the closure of the border with China, even if some few cases were detected in Vietnam but to a lesser extent compared to the worrying situation in Europe. The first event leading to a real change in the lives of the Vietnamese occurred on March 6, 2020. The few patients in the country were monitored and controlled, and there were no more external contaminations at the beginning of March. People coming to the country had to fill in a health form, notifying if they have or had any symptoms of the coronavirus in the days preceding their arrival in Vietnam. While the situation seemed to be under control, a twenty-six-year-old Vietnamese woman from a wealthy Hà Nộian family arrived in the capital city on March 6 and did not report that she had travelled to Italy, nor did she describe the fever and headaches she had been experiencing since leaving London for Vietnam. Unfortunately, this young woman was a carrier of the virus, and she transmitted it to her aunt and her driver upon arrival. She stayed at home for four days before going to the hospital and reporting her symptoms. The neighbourhood where she lived, Ba Đình, was then placed under strict lockdown, its inhabitants were not allowed to leave the monitored perimeter. These contaminations caused great controversy in Vietnam. The woman mentioned above stayed in Milan and Paris for the fashion week while the situation in Italy and France was already critical. Her lies scandalised a large part of the Vietnamese public who expressed it on social networks. The private life of the young woman was dissected, her photos were shared, analysed, and criticised. One of her Instagram pictures was particularly controversial, in which the caption “Not Sick Yet” appeared below her portrait. The veracity of this caption cannot be verified following the deletion of the account, but it does not matter because the rumour had already done its work. For many Vietnamese people, this young woman is guilty for having brought back the disease to the country. During the weekend after this event, the streets of Hà Nội were deserted, the residents were worried and stayed at home as much as possible. In the following days, the situation had eased to some extent, even She was also accused of participating to the opening of a new Uniqlo store in Hà Nội while already being ill. Vienna Journal of East Asian Studies if a great part of the Vietnamese people remained worried, especially after new cases were detected. This example highlights the gloomy atmosphere in Vietnam in March 2020, oscillating between suspicion, anxiety, and protection. This first big cluster in Hà Nội concerned the authorities, especially given that several other people on the plane with the young Vietnamese woman were carriers of the virus since March 6. Each case was traced, and each potential patient was placed in quarantine. Patients were detected after arriving through the airports in Hà Nội, Ho Chi Minh City, or Đà Nẵng. New measures were taken upon entry into the country: on March 10, the government implemented the application “NCOVI” to follow contact case, with forms to be filled in for each travel and, on March 17, Vietnam stopped issuing visas to foreigners. Eventually, on March 18, incoming people were asked to self-confine for fourteen days whether they travelled to or transited through the USA, ASEAN, or European countries (Guillemot and Peyvel 2021: 442). In case of suspected contamination, potential patients were placed in quarantine. The requirement to wear masks was mandatory in the streets since March, and bars and restaurants had been closed. Maximum social distancing was also required. Several other clusters were detected, including the one in Bạch Mai hospital in Hà Nội, one of the country’s largest hospitals, which was placed under quarantine on March 28, and the one from the “Buddha Bar” in Ho Chi Minh City. Eventually, a fifteen-day of “social distancing” (cách ly xã hội) was applied on April 1, 2020, when the country counted less than 250 listed cases. This social distancing was more like a lockdown, with outings reduced to the bare minimum. This lockdown lasted three weeks. This firm response from the Vietnamese government partially explains the country’s success in the fight against the coronavirus, at least until the end of July Vietnam experienced its first deaths at the end of July 2020 (see Cổng Thông Tin Của Bộ Y Tế Về Đại Dịch COVID-19 2020a; 2020b), after the emergence of a new wave of contamination with Đà Nẵng city as its epicentre. Illegal entries of workers from Cambodia and China were pointed out as the main vector of contamination, as the borders were still closed and quarantine at arrival remained mandatory. In September, the government stated that the outbreak was under control, and the situation was stabilised until January 2021, when new contaminations appeared because of the emergence of new variants of the virus. Several clusters were This cluster was particularly interesting because it was the consequence of the presence of a Vietnam Airlines British pilot, who became one of the symbols of the fight against COVID-19 in Vietnam. The pilot was seriously ill and spent more than two months in a coma. Since Vietnam had no deaths yet, letting a foreign patient die was not an option. Every day during the cách ly xã hội, the official television news provided information about the pilot’s condition. Eventually, he recovered and returned to the UK in July 2020. A whole discourse around the fight against COVID- 19 was built up thanks to this patient, emphasising Vietnam’s ability to avoid deaths from COVID- 19, unlike the West. See Barnes and Thư 2020. Senepin, Camille (2022) The Four Palaces in Time of COVID-19 Pandemic: The Adaptation of a Vietnamese Worship detected, reaching their peak at the end of May 2021 with the outbreak of a cluster in Ho Chi Minh City resulting from the meeting of a Christian mission that did not comply with the COVID-19 preventive measures in Vietnam. At that time, the vaccination campaign remained limited in Vietnam, and new clusters were still emerging, mainly in the south of the country. Eventually, on August 23, 2021, Ho Chi Minh City was put under strict lockdown, with the people’s committees and the army managing the supply of food to the inhabitants. This containment ended on the evening of September 30, 2021. In the north of the country, Hà Nội had also implemented a social distancing starting at midnight of July 24 (Bộ Công Thương Việt Nam 2021). Residents could still go out to do their grocery shopping by filling in documents that justified their outings. Nevertheless, the residents had to stay in their neighbourhood. This confinement, less strict than the one in Ho Chi Minh City, was initially planned for fifteen days. It was eventually reduced at the end of September, with the reopening of restaurants and the offering of take-away meals in particular. The vaccination campaign accelerated at the end of 2021, and the country reopened its borders to foreign tourists in March 2022 for the first time in two years. The followers of the Four Palaces had to face these constraints and adapt their ritual practices according to the several gathering prohibitions and social distancing rules. How were they to comply with government directives while continuing to worship the spirits? Fight Against COVID-19: Give up on Spirits The Four Palaces spirit-mediums hold an average of four ceremonies a year, potentially more depending on their income. Lên đồng rituals are a moment of great gathering, where the spirit-medium’s followers are invited. In addition to these guests, when the ceremony is held in a public temple, any adept may join the ritual for a time. The managers of the temple in Phủ Dầy may also be present—and so can the anthropologist. For approximately six hours, devotees of all ages attend the ceremony and share money, fruits, and other foodstuff. All the spirit-mediums I met described the holding of the ritual as a moment of joy and liberation, where they could finally serve the spirits. It is understandable that in times of health crisis, such gatherings in closed places for more than six hours are not recommended or are prohibited by the government. Initially, when the ceremonies were still organised in February and March 2020, several protection measures were taken by the medium and the followers of the worship. Some mediums decided to cancel the rituals altogether. For those who did For more information concerning this meeting, see Quoc 2021. Vienna Journal of East Asian Studies not do so, wearing masks became mandatory during ceremonies and hydroalcoholic gels could be easily found in many temples. However, I observed that those measures were not always respected and that the official discourse of the medium differed from reality. During my meeting with Cậu Minh, he assured me that he was very careful and aware of the risks of contamination. He highlighted the fact that he offered new masks in his temple as well as hydroalcoholic gel. He also mentioned that since his temple was a private one, it was easier for him to keep it open, as it gathered fewer followers. However, two days after this interview, he broadcasted live on Facebook a possession ritual that took place in his temple. One could clearly discern both the medium and the followers without wearing masks standing next to each other. Money was passed from hand to hand and fruits were distributed without the preliminary use of hydroalcoholic gel. It is possible to note here a difference between the official discourse of the medium and the real ritual practice. Several points can explain this divergence between speech and actions. The first one is practical. It is impossible to make the medium wear a mask during the ceremony, as that would mean to impose the mask on the spirit in presence, something unimaginable. Aesthetically, it is not acceptable for the spirit to be covered by a mask, as this would alter its representation and personification on earth. Moreover, it is hardly conceivable that the medium should take off the mask when drinking, smoking, or eating, and then put it back on during the possession’s dances. What is more, it was the first time I met Cậu Minh due to the intervention of a Vietnamese friend. He did not know me or my intentions. It was then imperative for him to be cautious when talking to me, not contradicting the governmental measures in a troubled time—especially for a recently accepted worship. The relationship of trust that can be built between an anthropologist and an interlocutor was not yet present. COVID-19 brought great changes in social relations, especially discernible in the Four Palace worship. Since my first fieldwork in Vietnam in 2017, I never had a problem to be involved with the mediumistic network even if most of the devotees did not previously know me. Rather, my presence oscillated between attraction and curiosity. However, after the appearance of COVID-19, mediumistic networks became restricted. The easy access that characterised them so well was questioned, with the outsider becoming potentially a threat, a carrier of virus and death. It was thus very The dressing of the medium may seem long to the uninitiated eye. For some ladies (cô), it can take up to thirty minutes in the north of Vietnam. This preparation is important because it allows the personification of the spirit, giving to it a place after the descent of the previous spirit. With aesthetics being an integral part of the ritual, the dressing time allows the assistants to complete the costume of the spirit in presence, who can comment on and modify certain accessories if they are not to its taste. On the position of the ethnographer in spirit-mediumship fieldwork, see Brac de la Perrière 2014; Jammes 2021; Sorrentino 2018. Senepin, Camille (2022) The Four Palaces in Time of COVID-19 Pandemic: The Adaptation of a Vietnamese Worship difficult to do fieldwork: when I arrived in mid-February, I was invited to many meals and to participate in lên đồng ceremonies, but it became extremely difficult to meet my interlocutors. Being a European woman did not make it any easier, as the number of patients had exploded in Europe. The fear of COVID-19 had gradually transferred from Chinese people, or people returning from China to Europeans who lived in the new contamination hotspot. Thus, my presence in the temples to attend ceremonies was difficult to justify, especially since the worship of the Four Palaces still suffered from stigmatisation, although it is better accepted nowadays. The places of worship did not avoid the imposed restrictions, with the pagodas and temples being progressively closed. Lên đồng ceremonies were forbidden because of the prohibition of gatherings. On March 5, 2020, a circular (see Ủy Ban Nhân Dân Tỉnh Nam Định 2020) from the People’s Committee (Ủy Ban Nhân Dân; UBND) of Nam Định announced the cancellation of the Phủ Dầy festival, one of the most important festivals of the Four Palaces worship, attracting thousands of pilgrims. This announcement was relayed on the festival’s Facebook page, not without reminding to its members the importance of the fight against COVID-19. I will return later to the issue of the staging of the COVID-19 struggle on social networks linked to the worship of the Four Palaces. I was only able to return to fieldwork in May 2020, after several weeks of waiting to be accepted on site. Several ceremonies were held every day in the temple where I was staying, and one of the main questions I was asked was “Cô/ chị đến Việt Nam khi nào?” (“When did you arrive in Vietnam?”). This question, which may seem insignificant in normal times, allowed the mediums and their devotees to be sure that my arrival took place long enough before the health crisis outburst in Europe. As COVID-19 had turned into a Western disease, my arrival in Vietnam before the beginning of the crisis ensured a form of security as there were no more cases in the country. The epidemic imagination concerning the other consequently changed according to the person’s geographical origin. Another important point is worthy to note in the context of the health crisis and the organisation of ceremonies. Mediums describe the possession ritual as a need, not a whim. Religious specialists must respond to the call of the spirits, to honour them, or they can face illness and misfortune (Chauvet 2012: 75; Endres 2011: 23, 38; Nguyễn 2008). Entering mediumship is not a choice but an obligation, and not responding to the call of the spirits is potentially dangerous for people who shared a root with the spirits (căn đồng). To understand the situation the mediums have faced, The mediums provide different explanations concerning the nature of căn đồng. Those close to Buddhism tend to give an explanation related to karma: some of them emphasise their bad behaviour in a past life and their duty to serve the spirits in this one to redeem themselves. However, this explanation is not the one given by all the Four Palaces’ practitioners. The căn can also be defined as a “ritual connection” with the spirits, that is, being a mediumistic potential. Some mediums Vienna Journal of East Asian Studies it is necessary to recall the world context. At the beginning of the health crisis, a fear concerning the virus was present in Vietnam and the world over. Where did it come from and who was carrying it? What symptoms were caused by COVID-19? What consequences would this disease have on the future health of the patients? All these questions were not yet answered in the first half of 2020. Although Vietnam had experienced the torments of SARS in 2003, this epidemic was not as severe and alarming as the global crisis of COVID-19. Most of the Vietnamese people had greatly limited their encounters, even the essential ones, as witnessed by the story of one of my friends, Ngọc. On February 26, 2020, with Vietnam having very few cases of COVID-19, Ngọc was reluctant to go to the funeral of the mother of one of her childhood friends, as it was discouraged by the government to go to crowded public places. Social relations were seen negatively, and a kind of psychosis had overtaken the country. Thus, holding lên đồng ceremonies was unthinkable for many mediums, even more so during the period of social distancing. This period of prohibition would have a limited duration, offering the possibility of living “normally” afterwards if it was properly followed. For many mediums, not holding ceremonies for a few weeks while continuing to honour the spirits with offerings, was then possible. During the COVID-19 outbreak, that is, since March 27, the religious gatherings were officially limited to a maximum participation of twenty people. They were banned altogether with the implementation of enhanced “social distancing” (cách ly xã hội; literally, “to isolate [oneself from the] society”). At first, and despite the cancellation of events such as the Phủ Dầy festival, the cancellation of ceremonies was mostly accepted by the devotees. Nevertheless, the ban was becoming increasingly difficult for mediums to comply with. Agreeing with the government’s directives meant to give up on spirits for a time, something that difficult to envisage as the cessation of worship could lead to misfortune. If the health risk was important, so was (if not even more so) the “divine” one. Once the lockdown ended on April 23, 2020, life in Vietnam gradually returned to normal. Mediums began to hold possession ceremonies again, the health preventive measures disappeared, and the masks were no longer worn. Still, some informative panels could be found in front of temples and in the street of Vietnam, reminding everyone of the virus’ existence. In May 2020, a feeling of triumph overcame Vietnam, resulting from the pride of being one of the few countries that had managed to eradicate the virus in a short time, without any official deaths. As an example, when I arrived on May 21 to do fieldwork in a temple belonging to the Phủ Dầy, a meal was being held to celebrate the end of COVID-19 in Vietnam, underscoring the mindset in which the devotees, and more generally the Vietnamese, were at that time. Thanks to the strict control of explain that all individuals, at least the Vietnamese people, have a căn. It can be light (căn nhẹ) or heavy (căn nặng). The latter requires entry into mediumship and to serve the spirits. Senepin, Camille (2022) The Four Palaces in Time of COVID-19 Pandemic: The Adaptation of a Vietnamese Worship both the patients and the movement of the population, Vietnam had triumphed over COVID-19. Ceremonies could then resume without difficulty, and up to three could be held per day in the temple I stayed in Phủ Dầy. Figure 2: Informative panels of the symptoms of COVID-19 from the Ministry of Health in front of a temple in Phủ Dầy; photograph by the author. Nevertheless, as we now know, this “golden” period did not last, and new outbreaks spread in the country from July 2020 onwards. Religious ceremonies and gatherings were once again prohibited without a potential date for resuming. How the mediums and the devotees could then manage between the necessity to perform, the divine injunction to organise a ritual, and the ban on gatherings decreed by the Vietnamese government? This will be discussed in the following section. When the Prohibition Returned Since the beginning of the 1990s, the worship of the Four Palaces has been re- authorised in Vietnam, after almost forty years of being outlawed in the northern part of the country. The return of this ban as a consequence of the new wave of the COVID- 19 pandemic allows us to see an analogy between these two periods, which are certainly different, but express the adaptability and sustainability of this worship. It Vienna Journal of East Asian Studies also allows to highlight the contemporary adaptation of the Four Palaces when facing a major crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic, and the capacity of the devotees’ resilience. It is important to distinguish ontologically the obligations to which the mediums of the Four Palaces must respond in this period of a health crisis. The first one is linked to the ban on gatherings decreed by the Vietnamese government. This proscription was decided to fight a virus that is considered as belonging to the category of dương (yáng 陽 in Chinese) diseases. In Vietnam, a large part of the population, and in particular the followers of the Four Palaces, consider that two categories of diseases exist: the supernatural ones “âm” (or yīn 陰) that are the consequence of the action of the dead or the mistreatment of the ancestors, and the dương ones that are related to viruses or physical disorders and that can be cured by allopathic medicine (Nguyễn 2008: 306). In the discourses of mediums, the classic path of entry into mediumship is linked to illnesses that seemed incurable by traditional or allopathic medicine. After a diagnosis is made by a religious specialist, the latter states that the patient’s symptoms are emanating from bệnh âm (yīn illness). It is important to note that not all diagnostic patients will become mediums; it depends on their fate (Endres 2011). As Thị Hiền Nguyễn (2008: 319) has demonstrated, the identification of yīn illness is highly symbolic: “Yin illness can be caused by a variety of culturally understood phenomena such as sacrilege, ghost possession, or mediumship. The healing may not necessarily require an exorcism and an initiation ritual by a medium.” Unlike the Chinese notion of yīn and yáng, which are only creative when they unite although they oppose each other in the natural world (Granet 1994: 139), the notion of âm is quite ambivalent in Vietnamese and can refer to several significations. As Eugène Gouin showed in his celebrated dictionary, depending on the context, âm can stand for “hidden, obscure, deaf” but can also be the “female principle. By extension, female; inferiority; darkness; hidden; obscure; lunar; deaf; dark; hollow; negative; less; dead; night; earth (as opposed to the sky); northern slope of a hill” (Gouin 1957: 20). It can also refer to the sound and the voice. Gouin notes that when âm is associated with the word binh, it refers to evil spirits, and when with thần to a female deity (ibid.). The plurality of these terms underlines the relationship that âm has with the spirit world and how it can affect the future spirit-mediums. Entering mediumship, accepting the spirits, and organising ceremonies allow individuals to heal themselves as Nguyễn (2015) has demonstrated in her research. If the patient’s fate is not to become a medium, they can be cured by soothing the spirits, with holy water, or even exorcism (Phạm 2009: 72). As Marcel Granet (1994: 148) also shows, the Chinese considered the yáng as a male principle, which is imprisoned by the yīn. These two forces organise the world and the human being’s life. “caché, obscur, sourd.” “Par extension, femelle; infériorité; obscurité; caché; obscur; lunaire; sourd; sombre; creux; négatif; moins; mort; nuit; terre (par opposition à ciel); versant septentrional d’une colline.” Senepin, Camille (2022) The Four Palaces in Time of COVID-19 Pandemic: The Adaptation of a Vietnamese Worship Consequently, the second obligation to which mediums must respond is the participation in the Four Palaces worship and the organisation of lên đồng rituals. In the time of pandemic, therefore, these two duties are in total opposition. Ontologically, the COVID-19 virus is an antagonist to the symptoms that can appear after cancelling a lên đồng ritual, although both can lead to a form of illness. Mediums have thus found themselves in a delicate, binary position. Not following government guidelines exposes them to severe penalties, but not responding to the call of the spirits could compromise the medium’s physical and mental health. In many cases, the risks associated with the obligation to worship the spirits have proven to be greater than the those associated with the gathering prohibitions decided by the Vietnamese state. Thus, many mediums continued to organise rituals secretly, and it is important to note that the ritual practices that were held in this manner during the pandemic were not deployed for subversive purposes—clandestine practices are not always synonymous with subversiveness. In the context of the Four Palaces, it is indeed the necessary appeal of possession and the potential wrath of the deities that pushes the mediums to organise rituals despite state prohibitions. This troubled period of prohibition that has been traversing Vietnam since March 2020 is not unlike the period of the fight against superstition (chính sách chống mê tín dị đoan) carried out throughout the country from late 1954. From then until the mid-1990s, practices considered “superstitious” (mê tín dị đoan) were banned if they did not correspond to the revolutionary discourse led by the Communist Party. As Shaun Kingsley Malarney (2002: 63) shows that the Vietnamese Ministry of culture requested in 1975 that “all-new rites […] respond to the worthy psychological and sentimental demands of the mass.” During this time, the religious specialists did not disappear but continued to worship secretly as shown by Kirsten Endres (2011) and Barley Norton (2002; 2009) in the case of the Four Palaces. Like many other religious groups in Vietnam, the worship of the Four Palaces managed to survive. The lên đồng ceremonies took place at night and without music, so as to not attract the attention of the local authorities. Even at that time, the injunction to worship the spirits was stronger than the state prohibitions. Mediums and musicians could face the confiscation of their ceremonial material, or even detention (Norton 2002: 76). Nowadays the world is more connected than ever, and social networks are integrated into the worship of the Four Palaces. The decision to ban religious gatherings has forced the worship’s adherents to adapt their practices. As mentioned earlier, although this ban was rather well respected at the beginning of the crisis, it was much less so during the other periods of prohibition. Trần Thị Thúy Bình (2021) notes two types of behaviour: mediums that continued to accept these prohibitions and emphasised their social responsibility, which is more important to them than the On the question of the secrecy and its place during doing fieldwork, see Jammes 2021. Vienna Journal of East Asian Studies religious obligation, and others who carried on organising possession ceremonies, more or less discreetly, with a small audience. In the context of this analysis, it should also be noted that the ban on rituals took place at a crucial time of the year for the Four Palaces worship. The third day of the third lunar month is considered as Liễu Hạnh’s death anniversary. This is a significant moment in Northern Vietnam for the Four Palaces followers as emphasised by the phrase “Tháng tám giỗ cha, tháng ba giỗ mẹ” (literally, “The eighth month is the death anniversary of the Father, the third month is the death anniversary of the Mother”). In this context, the “Father” refers to Trần Hưng Đạo, with his death celebration taking place in the eighth lunar month. The “Mother” is related to Mother Goddess (Thánh Mẫu) Liễu Hạnh, with her death anniversary in the third month of the lunar calendar—indicating, thus, the importance of these deities. It is in honour of Liễu Hạnh that the Phủ Dầy festival is held bringing together thousands of pilgrims. However, in 2020, the Phủ Dầy festival was cancelled on March 5 by the People’s Committee of Nam Định, leaving thousands of devotees helpless. Although the health situation was deteriorating in March 2020 in Vietnam, about one hundred followers still gathered in front of the (Phủ) Tây Hồ temple in Hà Nội on the first day of the lunar month. This temple is dedicated to Liễu Hạnh, and the devotees brought various offerings and incense. Many of them did not wear masks, and health preventive measures were not respected. Even if the temple was then officially closed, this did not prevent the crowd from coming. However, all the people were quickly dispersed by the police. This crowd highlights the complexity of the situation. Religious obligations motivated these followers to defy government guidelines as the health risk seemed less important than the need to worship. This gathering has been the subject of several press articles, illustrated with pictures, in which it is noticeable that people did not wear masks. The proximity of the crowd is denounced and highlighted, as underlined by the photographs in one of the articles of the Dân Trí journal, where it is possible to see many devotees praying without a mask, with the following caption under one of the pictures: “many among them [followers] ignore the recommendation of the Executive Committee for COVID-19 March 24, 2020, coinciding with the first day of the third lunar month. Since March 20, 2020, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs has ordered that places of worship should not hold any festivals or activities that may bring together large numbers of people. This picture is from the article “Phủ Tây Hồ đóng cửa, hàng trăm người dân vẫn chen nhau đi lễ” (Tây Hồ temple closes its doors, hundreds of people rush to make devotions). The translation of “đi lễ” into English is not easy to make: this expression can be used on the first and fifteenth day of the lunar month when most Vietnamese people go to temples to bring offerings. This term is also used during festival occasions. It involves a more or less formal movement of individuals, bringing offerings to the deities for various occasions. This term is sometimes translated as “praying,” but this translation does not imply the offerings. Therefore, I chose to translate it as “making devotions” as it is usually used in Buddhism to describe this kind of practice. See Toàn and Trọng 2020. Senepin, Camille (2022) The Four Palaces in Time of COVID-19 Pandemic: The Adaptation of a Vietnamese Worship prevention to use masks” (rầt nhiều người trong số đó bỏ ngoài tai khuyến cáo sử dụng khẩu trang cửa Ban Chỉ đạo phòng chống dịch Covid-19). A comment present in the video of a VNexpress article notes that “many people do not wear a mask, or do not wear it properly” (nhiều ngừơi không đeo hoặc đeo khẩu trang sai quy cách). Besides the fact that this proximity is disapproved by the authorities, several comments present in the newspaper also criticise the behaviour of the followers. It is interesting to analyse these comments without, however, ignoring their nature. It is not possible to know the personal stories of the Internet users and their relationship to the Four Palaces worship. Nevertheless, a typology of these comments can be observed. The first ones concern a judgment on the behaviour of individuals who gathered in times of pandemic, such as: “I respect everyone’s beliefs but at this moment, it is reasonless” (Tôi tôn trọng tín ngưỡng của mỗi người nhưng thật sự trong thời điểm này thì rất vô ý thức). “[I’m] very disappointed with this group of people. Up to this moment I do not understand what is in their heads” (Quá thất vọng cho nhóm người này. Đến giờ phút này không hiểu trong đầu họ chứa những gì). As described in the press articles, many other comments denounce the fact that these people do not wear masks, in addition to not respecting the gathering ban. The Internet users remind the health risk that these individuals take, while also putting others in jeopardy, in times of a global pandemic in a country where a certain idea of collective health is present. In addition to these health-related comments, another category of comments is particularly interesting. These emphasise the young age of the participants and their superstitious behaviour, as in the following examples: “Poor awareness and no sense of protecting themselves and the community. There are many apparently young, beautiful people, but really disappointing” (Nhận thức kém và không có ý thức bảo vệ bản thân cũng như cộng đồng. Nhìn cũng nhiều người trẻ, xinh đẹp mà thất vọng quá). “Aren’t they all young? Old people are not too superstitious” (Toàn trẻ trẻ không ấy chứ. Có phải người già mê tín quá đâu). “Many young people are yet superstitious and really unaware” (Nhiều người trẻ mà mê tín và vô ý thức thật). “There are so many young people. I bet these young people are lazy to work. They only think about asking deities to grant [them] divine blessing in the hope of happy and contended living” (Có rất nhiều bạn trẻ. Tôi cá là những người trẻ này lười lao động. Họ chỉ nghĩ là cầu xin thánh thần ban phép phù hộ để mong sống an nhàn thôi). See Viết and Thanh 2020. As of September 29, 2021, there were 599 comments made. Vienna Journal of East Asian Studies These remarks remind us of the previous period of the fight against the superstitious practices. Here, it is indeed the youth that is accused. In the pictures illustrating the articles (see Viết and Thanh 2020; Toàn and Trọng 2020), the Internet users notice the young age of the individuals present and suppose that they did not know the period of the fight against superstitions. During that time, when the North Vietnamese government sought—via a “State-functionalism” (Malarney 2002)—to establish orthodox ritual forms for ideological purposes, the Vietnamese, and more particularly the North Vietnamese, overwhelmingly integrated the positivist discourse of the state. Here, it is clearly visible that the Internet users denounce the poor integration of this revolutionary anti-superstition discourse among young devotees, as it reflects the separation that different generations may experience in Vietnam. Although possession rituals are nowadays allowed and have even become Intangible Cultural Heritage as in the case of the Four Palaces, it is now necessary to adhere to a certain form of discourse while respecting governmental directives, particularly in the context of the fight against COVID-19. As several mediums and devotees told me, the Four Palace mediumship is still considered suspicious and has to prove its commitment to the current government. The analysis of these online comments reveals the importance that digital space has within the Four Palaces worship, even more so during the COVID-19 outbreak. During the health crisis and the lockdown, Facebook was a platform that was used extensively by the Four Palaces’ followers, either to continue sharing possession ceremonies or to show the importance of the fight against the virus. It is this facet that I will explore in the following section to capture the adaptability of the Four Palaces worship. Facebook: Between Religion and Display of the Fight Against COVID-19 While David Miller (2011: 174) notes that “Facebook never exists in isolation; it is never the totality of the lives of the people we meet,” the opposite seems also true. In many anthropological analyses, social networks and more generally data from the Internet are put aside under the pretext of not corresponding to the “classical” configurations of research, or not being “traditional” enough. Forgetting and not analysing what happens on the Internet is to neglect an important part of the social life of individuals who are today hyperconnected, especially in Vietnam where Facebook is ubiquitous. If the “traditional” conceptions of fieldwork and ethnographic research do not include research on social networks, it seems important to me that more researchers in the social sciences and humanities should address this issue. Nevertheless, I do not argue that the use of social networks should be essentialised, but it must be considered in the same way as other practices of social life. Senepin, Camille (2022) The Four Palaces in Time of COVID-19 Pandemic: The Adaptation of a Vietnamese Worship Several important theoretical points must be clarified. I will use the term “digital” and not “virtual” because everything that happens online seems to me to be very real—and the term “virtual” somewhat essentialises the actions taking place on the Internet. It is evident that carrying out online fieldwork requires a different methodology, whether it concerns the analysis, the access, or the longevity of the data. This last point may seem paradoxical, as the data found online can be both permanent if downloaded or disappear overnight if no recording has been made. At the risk of getting lost in an abyss of data, the infinity of resources available on the Internet also requires a rigorous theoretical framework. Finally, an ethical question emerges: when everything is accessible anonymously on the Internet, how, as researchers, can we use the digital interlocutors and the data from their publications? In this article, I have chosen to limit myself to several specific Facebook pages and data, stemming from the accounts with the most followers of the Four Palaces. I will only use data that is publicly accessible, even without an account on this social network. The COVID-19 pandemic did not create a rush to Facebook and other social networks in the case of the Four Palaces worship. For several years, the worship’s followers have been participating in spirit-possession through social networks. This can be noticed in different platforms. It is easy to find videos of possession ceremonies filmed and staged on YouTube. Mediums stream live on Facebook live, and several groups on this platform have been bringing together followers of the worship. More recently, Instagram posts and TikTok videos have appeared. These practices are particularly interesting as they give access to information and perceptions that are sometimes otherwise inaccessible. I propose to separate these digital practices into three categories: the first is linked to the videos produced on YouTube and on TikTok that allow to “sell” the mediums and their ritual performances. The second category includes internet pages such as wikis or blogs, Facebook groups such as “đạo mẫu Việt Nam” (Religion of the Holy Mothers Vietnam) or “ĐẠO MẪU - TÂM LINH – VIỆT NAM” (Religion of the Holy Mothers – Spirituality – Vietnam), and Facebook pages similar to “Four Palaces – Tứ Phủ” and “Phủ Dầy-Vụ Bản-Nam Định” where it is possible to get information and start discussions, share information about the worship, but also sell services as a maker of votive papers or ritual costumes. The third category of practices On the methodological issues regarding the Internet, see Hine 2015. This is particularly true with the Facebook live. The mediums film themselves from the front during the whole time of preparation of the costumes, discussions, and relaxation. However, in classic circumstances, the public can not have a front vision of these moments. The public can only see the back of the mediums; it is impossible to see their faces. Analysing these videos allows researchers to have access to a whole new aspect of the ritual. Actually, there are two groups with the same name, the difference being the capitalisation of the letter Đ and M with the word Đạo Mẫu. As of June 2022, “đạo mẫu Việt Nam” had 35,100 members and it is a private group, whereas “Đạo Mẫu Việt Nam” is a public group with 10,000 members. Vienna Journal of East Asian Studies concerns the live streaming of lên đồng rituals through the personal pages of mediums or followers of the Four Palaces. In this article, it is mainly the last two categories that I will address in relation to Facebook. I make this choice to limit the analysis, which could otherwise be as vast as the Internet itself, and because it seems to me that it is on this network that the consequences and adaptation of the worship during the pandemic crisis has been most visible. The COVID-19 pandemic did not initiate the use of Facebook for the Four Palaces followers. Nevertheless, during the lockdown and ban on gathering, the platform has been used in a different way, providing a means of adapting to restrictive measures. As I pointed out above, Facebook made it possible to share live ceremonies when physical presence in the temples was forbidden, thus allowing continuity in worship. Several mediums continued to hold ceremonies while broadcasting them live on Facebook even in times of prohibition, because of the heavy spirits’ call. Some mediums criticised this practice, which put too much emphasis on the worship gatherings organised amidst the pandemic crisis (Trần Thị Thúy Bình 2021). I noticed that these comments were also related to the mediums’ place of residence: urban mediums denounced the staging of rural followers on Facebook, considering this behaviour inappropriate during a pandemic. Beyond the health risks that these gatherings could entail, it was the bad representation of the worship that could emerge from these Facebook live streams that was criticised. Like the critics of the Internet users concerning the young age of the followers who went to Tây Hồ temple, the comments related to the alleged “bad” practice of the rural mediums referred to the imagination of the Four Palaces worship. In a country where freedom of belief is officially accepted but unofficially rigorously controlled (Malarney 2002), the Four Palaces cannot afford any deviation, even more in times of a global pandemic. The Four Palaces worship is currently in a quite ambivalent position for not being recognised as an official religion by the Vietnamese government. As shown at the beginning of this article, the question of being a “religion” is still a thorny issue for the Four Palaces’ devotees. For those who want the worship to be recognised as an official religion and not just a cultural practice, finding their own place within the generic discourses around the Four Palaces can be difficult. There is another important aspect that I have not mentioned yet which is related to the fact that Facebook was used to highlight the involvement of followers in the fight against COVID-19. During this crisis, it was possible to notice that several Rural mediums are sometimes criticised by their urban counterparts who reject their practices as outdated and too superstitious. Although they can be the guarantors of a certain form of “tradition,” rural mediums and their adepts are often viewed negatively by urban mediums who are more affluent and hold luxurious spirit-possession rituals. These practices can be qualified as heterodox ones. Senepin, Camille (2022) The Four Palaces in Time of COVID-19 Pandemic: The Adaptation of a Vietnamese Worship Facebook pages, private or public, commented on the epidemic and its management. A hygienic staging is also noteworthy: let us take the example of the temple cleaning in Phủ Dầy. On March 10, four days after the official return of COVID-19 in Vietnam, the Facebook page “Phủ Dầy-Vụ Bản-Nam Định” shared three pictures of one of the main temples of Phủ Dầy (Phủ Dầy-Vụ Bản-Nam Định 2020). In each of those photographs, we can see a man who is wearing white protective clothing with a mask. He has a sprayer and sprays disinfectant all around the temple, including the ground outside the premises. The following text accompanies the pictures: “In order to actively prevent the spread of the epidemic, the historical Phủ Dầy reliquary complex is being sprayed with disinfectant to protect the health of pilgrims [coming] from many places to worship the Mother Goddess” (Chủ động phun thuốc khứ trùng tại quần thể di tích lịch sừ Phủ Dầy để phòng tránh dịch bệnh bảo vệ sức khòe cho du khách thập phương về lễ Mẫu). The post received 531 likes, it was shared twenty-five times, and thirty-two comments were made. This post highlights the importance of protecting the temple’s visitors, but also the image that the temple’s managers in Phủ Dầy wished to portray. Adhering to the government’s instructions emphasised the respect towards the law by the managers of this site which is recognised by the state as one of “cultural value” (Dror 2007: 188). The staging on Facebook of the cleaning of the temple aimed at demonstrating the orthodoxy of the place. In this context, I use the notion of orthodoxy to describe practices that follow government guidelines in respect to health regulations in times of pandemic, as well as in the organisation of ceremonies and the representation of worship in normal times. It is then easy to draw a parallel here with what is described by Barley Norton (2009) about the chầu văn songs being aligned with the Communist Party’s discourse, which he calls “revolutionary chầu văn,” with the development of lên đồng that can follow the rules of the Vietnamese government. It is notable that the practice of worship has tended to be standardised since the 1990s, participating in a certain nationalist vision of worship. Let us recall once again that the religious dimension of the Four Palaces is often erased in favour of a cultural one, participating in the construction of a united and uniform Vietnam, linked to the Party’s discourse on “good cultural practices.” In times of pandemic, the devotees whose practices have been analysed in this article have not deviated from this path. As David Miller points out, “Facebook […] transmits, sometimes several times a day, the current state of many people. We no longer depend on the mediation of others to obtain such information. Previously, we would never have gained this kind of everyday trivial knowledge of people we didn’t meet on a daily basis. Facebook makes the present richer and more attuned to the cooccurrence of other people’s lives” (Miller 2011: 192). In the context of the above-mentioned publication, anyone can have access to the temple page and see that many followers of the Four Palaces worship respect and take the fight against COVID-19 to heart. This way Facebook becomes a tool for prevention as well as a means for sharing a specific Vienna Journal of East Asian Studies image of the worship, which can be used by the followers of the Four Palaces to underline their respect for governmental measures. Digital identity is important, although it may differ from reality. Facebook thus becomes a “propaganda” tool, affixing a positive image and showing how important the fight against COVID-19 is for the key actors of the worship despite the loss of a direct relationship with the spirits. Miller (2011: 192) also notes that it is possible to identify “Facebook time as narrative time.” During the global pandemic, the narrative time of the COVID-19 as seen by the followers of the Four Palaces can be accessed through this social network, despite the various restrictions and prohibitions on gatherings. The followers of the Four Palaces could develop a particular form of discourse through the social network, narrating their visions of the pandemic and its effects on the worship of and relationship to the spirits. I was able to see several publications and commentaries where it was stated that the “Holy Mothers” (Thánh Mẫu) would help in the healing from and disappearance of COVID-19, showing the implication of the Holy Divinities even without organising ceremonies. In regular times, Facebook is used to broadcast live ceremonies, post photos of rituals, or communicate general information about the worship. During the pandemic crisis, it allowed people to affirm their commitment to the fight against the virus as well as share “memories” from previous years. The worship continues to live on through images of past ceremonies, reminding us that it will quickly return once the pandemic is over. Images of empty temples are also shared, putting an emphasis on the emptiness that the cessation of ceremonies leaves in the hearts of the followers. Facebook was one of the ways for maintaining a link and solidarity between the followers of the worship, especially for those who were geographically distant. All these online relationships and transmissions do not replace the face-to- face religious practices, nor the organisation of lên đồng rituals that allows direct communication with the spirits as testified by the mediums who could no longer restrict their need to perform these rituals. Nevertheless, it is important to note that social networks played a valve role during this health crisis, allowing followers of the Four Palace to continue being in contact with the temples, mediums, and other religious specialists. Conclusion The emergence of COVID-19 has greatly disrupted the world in different ways. It is still too early to know and understand the full consequences of the outbreak of this virus, but everyone can empathise with the fact that something is definitely not like it was before. The appearance of COVID-19 was immediately taken seriously in Vietnam, certainly because of the country’s previous experience with SARS in 2003 Senepin, Camille (2022) The Four Palaces in Time of COVID-19 Pandemic: The Adaptation of a Vietnamese Worship (Cabasset et al. 2021). On account of a certain antagonism with China, either due to historical or current geopolitical issues, the geographical origin of the health crisis played a role in the defiance by the Vietnamese authorities of the official news coming from China. Furthermore, the condition of the Vietnamese medical infrastructure played a role as well, as they could not bear a massive pandemic with many potential victims of an unknown virus. Controlling the spreading of the virus in the country has been achieved through various methods but has been very strict. For those who did not respect the quarantine, the penalty could lead up to a period of imprisonment (Viet 2021). The media narrative about COVID-19 has presented the virus as an outsider from a geographical point of view, but also a political one, by blaming other countries for spreading it and by rejecting the fault on people who did not comply with the communist doctrine of collective health. Adapting to situations of prohibition is not something new for the followers of the Four Palaces. The new generation of mediums and their devotees, more connected than ever, have used the online tools at their disposal to continue sharing and participating to the worship daily. Accepting the government’s restrictions was not easy, and it was possible to notice the emergence of different behaviours, more or less orthodox. The use of Facebook has been very useful for the Four Palaces’ followers, whether it was to highlight their participation in the fight against COVID- 19 or to denounce several behaviours that are regarded as disrespectful or that could endanger the stability of the worship. The main hazard of the studies concerning the emergence of COVID-19 is to essentialise the behaviour of individuals and not grasp it in its entirety. Therefore, it seems necessary to me to carry out a meticulous ethnography of and on social networks, especially in times of the pandemic when the internet was one of the only ways to meet and see other people. While I do not believe that digital ethnography should be limited to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to remember that it was a useful tool for many social sciences researchers. Digital practices are fully integrated into the daily lives of individuals and are an essential channel of communication, whether through Facebook, WhatsApp, or Zalo, developing therefore new forms of social practices and usages. It would be interesting to know how other religious communities reacted to the restrictions linked to the pandemic in Vietnam, particularly in the Four Palaces circles present in the centre of the country. Comparing it with the reactions of north Vietnamese followers, who are closer to the government and often represent the orthodox practice, would help to highlight the internal dynamics of the worship. It would also be interesting to see what the religious response from other religions was, such as Caodaism or Hòa Hảo Buddhism, which were also ostracised for a long time in Vietnam but are now recognised as official religions by the state. Comparing the Zalo is a Vietnamese communication social network. It allows people to share images, web links, or to express their mood through posts. It is used by most Vietnamese. Vienna Journal of East Asian Studies compliance with the prohibition on gathering in these groups with the worship of the Four Palaces would certainly be a matter of interest, as religious gatherings are still under surveillance and control in Vietnam today. The sanitary negligence that results from some religious gatherings has been strongly criticised in Vietnam, whether it was with the one that took place in front of the Tây Hồ temple, or the one at the Christian congregation in Ho Chi Minh City, which was accused of having relaunched the contaminations in the south of the country (Phan 2021). The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the lives of millions of people around the world, and it is quite sure that life will not return to its precedent state in the next few years. Nevertheless, if one thing is certain is that the followers of the Four Palaces worship will always find a way to continue practicing their religion, whether officially or unofficially, more or less discreetly, in large numbers or small groups, in interstices or in broad daylight. 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Vienna Journal of East Asian Studies – de Gruyter
Published: Jan 1, 2022
Keywords: Vietnam; religion; COVID-19; spirit-mediumship; social networks
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