LÊ Ylinh, Chime, September 2001, Venice, Italy

First evaluation of studies concerning the “Chầu văn”, the music surrounding the rite of possession in Vietnam (Hầu bóng).

The cult of the four worlds and its rite of possession “Hầu bóng” is mainly practised by the community of Viêts in North Vietnam, on a parallel with Buddhism of Mahayana tendency. The heart of the cult is based on a fairly complex Pantheon of spirits, the Hầu bóng figurehead must therefore organise ceremonies that summon the apparition of Spirits and Deities from the Pantheon who then become personified in their flesh; the figurehead is possessed with the spirit he evokes.

Chầu văn is the name given to the music played to the glory of the spirits in this rite.

During the ceremony (which lasts 4-6 hours), the master (cung  văn) sings praises to the Deities, the Văn hầu, invites them to appear with descriptions of the lives of the spirits including their powers and gifts. He also sings of the obedience of the followers or the sincerity of “đồng”, the figurehead, who organised the ceremony to show the glory of the spirits. Each deity has its own individual music and wording.

A true master should also be eloquent in the Văn thờ, hymns chanted before the altar of the four worlds during the annual celebration of one or other of the deities.

Between 1986 and 1989, we made acquaintances in the field. Thanks to the already seventy year old master Pham Văn Kiêm, at the time considered by the whole community of followers as the last great master since the final period of glory of the Hầu bóng rite, during this time we were able to record a hundred or so audio cassettes of the various sessions of Hầu bóng.

We would like to add a quick comment on the terms used. “Chầu văn” is the term used to describe this music. The “Văn”, “Literary Composition” (to the glory of Spirits), to quote Pierre Jean Simon and Ida Simon Barouh (1), are sagas recounting the legends dedicated to the Spirits. The masters sing “Văn hầu” or “Văn chầu” when the chant occurs during the ceremony. However, in the studies published at the present time, no researcher has yet concentrated on “Văn thờ” which are the “Văn” sung outside of the ceremony. No one has pointed out the difference. The existence of the word “Văn thờ” has virtually never even been mentioned, and yet this difference is of vital importance to a master musician. However, it would seem that this is normal in that none of these researchers have worked on the rite from a musical angle. Indeed, the ability to present the two types is ingrained in a mastery and specialisation more musical than ritual.


Contents of the exposé

In the context of this symposium, we would like to portray an outline of the organisation and development of the music used within and outside of the rite. In order to do so, we shall proceed with a complete analysis of a text used for both styles of application by a master: the Văn chầu, chant during the rite, and the Văn thờ, hymn chanted before the altar outside of the rite. This analysis serves to distinguish the differences and coherences of the two styles. We shall also try to evaluate the collection in our possession, which will serve as a basis for our work in the future.

Having already consulted with certain researchers on the rites of the same character in Burma and in Korea (Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière and Alexandre Guillemoz to mention the more outstanding), we would like to reap the opinions of ethno-musicologists specialising in this form of music and rite in China. Our research would be considerably enriched by the opportunity to discuss similarities and possible influences, on account of the closeness of the two countries, both from historical and geographical viewpoints.






Why is it that one particular spirit descends and not another (a fairly naïve question as the answer lies quite simply in the assembly’s strength of belief and in the fine art of “make believe” practiced by the figurehead!)? How can one “anticipate” the progression of a rite both in the preparation of offertories and that of the musicians (in the knowledge that each spirit requires a specific form of offering, distinctive texts and appropriate strains)? Theoretically, is should be ruled the spiritual inspiration of the figurehead at the time of the ceremony, but from the conclusions we have drawn from our observations we can note that:

There are essential spirits in the hierarchical order of the Pantheon who descend on every figurehead at every ceremony.

There is the protective spirit “căn” of the figurehead.

There are the “usual” spirits of each figurehead, known only to the temple guardian.

With this knowledge, the temple guardian tries to prepare the necessary offertories for the ceremony without fault. For the musicians, there is no preparation, the master will improvise their participation and this improvisation will meticulously follow the progression of the rite. Let us examine the following musical arrangement, which is an extract of a ceremony.


  1. A.    The descent of a spirit: analysis of the Co-Chin sequence, the ninth princess or ninth maiden:

Extract from the Sai Rhythm, Còn strain, dance of the fans

A description of a sequence of possession / musical progression (the length of each stage varies enormously depending on the figurehead):


Stage 1. The   invocation of the descent (30 seconds to 1 minute)

The figurehead covers himself with a red veil   and prepares himself for the descent of one of the spirits of the Pantheon.   The assistants invoke the descent, with the help of specific incantations.


(We rejoice in the miracle of the descent to   our altar today) The master (cung  văn) sings the   phrase characterised by:

1. The wording specific to whichever spirit

2. The rhythm, called « of   possession » (nhip sai, literally « rhythm to order »).

There is no lute shaped as a moon, there is   only the chant and percussion using the (a split wooden drum)

Stage 2. Dressing (2 to 4 minutes

The figurehead lifts the   veil as a sign that the spirit has been incarnated.

The dressing (the figurehead is dressed by   the assistants with the clothes, costume, headdress, jewellery etc. according   to the characteristics of the spirit

(…near to a fig tree, you have decided to   make your home, we are building this altar to your honour…) The master takes the lute shaped as a full moon and sings the words (văn)   specific to the spirit. These “văn” are sung to the music of one of   the four principal tunes: Phú (masculine spirits), Dọc   (masculine and feminine), còn (feminine spirits), (feminine   spirits from the mountains and forests). For the Ninth princess, it is the Còn   strain that is used.
Stage 3. Prostration   in front of the altar (30 seconds to 1 minute)

The spirit rises having been dressed and   crowned. He lies in front of the altar

  Lưu thủy” (“running water”, an   extract from the royal court music. No chants.
Stage 4. Dance (of   the fans) (4-5   minutes)

The length of this stage varies according to   the spirit and the figurehead. It is fairly long for the feminine spirits   including the Ninth princess

The wind from our fans blows us happiness.   The flowers open. The storm calms, the moon brightens, the clouds disappear… Lưu thủy” for the masculine spirits.

Specific songs according to the instrument   used during the dance, for feminine genies (Dance of the torch, of fans, of   flowers, of branches, etc.) For the ninth princess it is the dance of the   fans sung to the strain.


Stage 5. The spirit   “works” (3-10   minutes or longer depending on the figurehead)

The spirit sits down, gives advice, listens   to the “văn” that are offered to him sung by the master, nods his head   in appreciation and taps the armrest at the end of each eloquent phrase. He   (or She) offers gifts, money and charms. Some members of the audience offer   money in exchange for a wish or as thanks… others ask for a divination or a   healing…

A pink shadow roams in the mountains. The   silver shadow of the moon is reflected with gold sparkles in the stream. The master sings the words again to the specific strains of the spirit. Còn for   the ninth princess.


Stage 6. The   ascension of the spirit (10 seconds)

The figurehead lifts the red veil and covers   his head.

Everything starts up immediately for the next   sequence (giá-đồng), (solicitations, expression without descent (trắng-bóng)   and finally the descent of the spirit.

  The final phrase of a “Thánh gia hồi cung”   sequence (the spirit returns to his world).

The master sings the rhythm “sai” with the words of the spirit requested..


B.     The hierarchic Pantheon of spirits and the use of strains during the ceremony


Having studied the sequence concerning the spirit’s descent, you will find on the chart below a synopsis of a ceremony in which several sequences of importance occur. The chart aims to give a rough plan so that we can get a general view of a ceremony. The cycles observed are: a musical sequence equivalent to that of a spirit’s descent.



EXámple for a ceremony “cycle”.

(Tam toà thánh   mẫu), invoked, but never descend.    
Sai – Dọc – Prayer – Ascension
1st Heaven  
Sai – Dọc – Prayer – Ascension 2nd Forest  
Sai – Dọc – Prayer – Ascension 3rd Water  
(Ngũ vị tôn quan),   five in total.      
  1st Heaven  
Sai – Dọc – Lưu thủy – Phú – Ascension 2nd Forest  
  3rd Water  
Sai – Phú – Lưu thủy – Phú – Ascension 4th Divine Heroes  
Sai – Dọc – Lưu   thủy – Phú – Alcohol offering – Ascension    
(Các Châu),   twelve in total, from three to five are incarnable. 1st Heaven  
Sai   – Xá nhịp một – Dances of rags –   Xá – Ascension 12th Water  
    Local characters  
Sai   – Xá – Dances of fans –   (hoac Còn) – Ascension    
Sai   – Dọc – Dances of arms – Xá –   Sai – Ascension    
(Ong Hoàng),   ten in toal, from three to five are incarnable. 1st Heaven  
Sai – Dọc – Lưu thủy – Phú –   Ascension Forest  
  10th Water  
Sai – Phú – Lưu thủy – Phú   Ascension   Divine Heroes  
Sai   – Dọc – Lưu thủy – Phú – Alcohol   offering – Sai – Ascension  
(Các cô),   twelve in total, from four to six are incarnable. 1st Heaven  
  …. Forest  
Sai   – Xá nhip môt – Dances of rags –   Xá – Ascension 12th Water  
    Divine Heroes  
Sai   – Xá – Dance of branches – (hoac   Còn) – Ascension   Regional or local   characters  
Sai   – Dọc – Dances of fans – –   Ascension      
Sai   – Xá (ou Còn) – Dances of flowers   – (ou Còn) – Ascension  
(Các cậu),   ten in total, one or two are incarnable. 1st Children of the   King Father of the Dongdinh    Lake  
  Children of the   Holy Mothers  
Sai – Phú – Lưu thủy – Phú –   Ascension 10th Symbols of   children  
Scenes of play or   of the dance of the unicorn. Very colourful.  


The order of descent by feminine/masculine series, by numerical series and by the world represented (Mother of the Heavens, the Forests, the Waters then Mandarin of the Heavens, the Forests, the Waters, deified characters)…

If we look at the first column where the strains are set out (schematically here), a musical sequence has an opening “Sai” and a closure (ascension phase). When both are played within a very short lapse of time it is enough to open and close the apparition of a spirit.

All the followers know this conventional frame in its ritual context and it is completed by offertories, spiritual legends, the emotion of the figurehead and the audience, the anticipation of a positive reaction generated by the organization of the ceremony, the masters’ musical improvisation expected and appreciated by the whole assembly…



When the master sings in front of the altar, alone, during the annual feast of one or other of the spirits, the frame we have studied is no longer the same. There is always a chant about the legend of the spirit, but there is no longer a figurehead nor a “descent”. The “literary composition – văn” is sung in full, but with other melodies and other musical rules.

Now let’s study the hymn dedicated to the 5th Great Mandarin.

Text in Vietnamese to be put on a foil for illustration.

The writing is only the texts of the chants with no annotations nor musical partitions. Only the name of the strain to be used to sing whatever passage will be indicated by the masters in the margin, or known by heart by the master. Through the intonations of the Vietnamese language, these melodies, whilst respecting some basic rules of ornament, accompanying music and rhythm, will be changed as wished according to their contents, style of prose and accent of text.



A description of a Văn thờ (outside of a ceremony) text / musical progression:


Bỉ (strain of incantation)

There is no rhythm “Sai”, the rhythm   of possession

Four phrases with 7 words in each, in the form   of a “parallel sentence”, similar to a statement, a synopsis of the legend or   the moral taken from the legend.
Mưỡu (Dọc) Beginning of the legend (the time, the place   etc…)
Thổng Interlude
Phú (Bình, Chênh, Dàn) Praised for his gifts, then the incident   occurs, he was condemned unjustly by the community and exiled.
Nói (recitative) Lamentation, meditation, decision to commit   suicide
Dọc (the base strain of Chầu văn) Miracle: the sons become two serpents /   dragons. Adopted by an old couple that consider them their own children.
Còn (strain specific to the 3rd and 9th   princess) also used in this context The king condemns the parents and forbids   them to raise snakes in their home.
Kiều   dương They have to release them into the sea. The   snakes become Kings of the oceans. Glory to their powers.
Hãm The Kings of the oceans helped one of the   kings to defeat his enemies at the Tranh river.
Dồn In homage to his powers, the people construct   a temple in this place.
Ngâm (recitation) 4 phrases of 7 words to draw the saga to an   end.
Kiều Continuation with a 6/8 verse to reinforce the end   of the saga.
No chants for the dances

No final phrase for the ascension



Ex. A copy of a text from Văn thờ. The 5th great mandarin Tuân Tranh (Quan lon Tuân Tranh). (Important spirit in the Pantheon, the text is present in all sources of written Dọcuments)

We haven’t yet made a comparison between the sources.

Show which passages are used during the ceremony. The same for the way it is sung during the ceremony compared to the Văn thờ frame.

Extract of music, an extract for Văn thờ, and the same for Văn hầu, sequence from the 5th great mandarin.


Unfortunately we cannot speak, within the outline of this dissertation, either of the relations between the musical arrangements of the two styles, nor the difference in the techniques used, nor even the improvisational techniques of the masters in both styles.








You will find a list of documents in the summary of this dissertation. We can divide them into two main categories:

  1. 1.                  Sound tracks

We have been able to record 15 ceremonies more or less in their entirety (the Văn hầu). For the Văn thờ, there are also 15, in two parts. You can see this in the following list:

  1. The part of the Pantheon that “descends”. The masters use these texts, words and strains during the ceremony (by hierarchical order of the Pantheon):
  • 5th great mandarin (Quan tuân)
  • 10th prince, 5th great mandarin (Ong 10, Quan tuân)
  • Hymn to the queens (Châu-bà)
  • Queens (châu), 5 versions
  • Masculine spirits (Van Nam than) – 2 versions
  • Princesses and young princes
  • Princess Camduong
  • 9th Princess
  • Queens and Princes (Châu and quan hoàng)
  • Hymn to the young princes (Thanh-câu), – 2 versions


  1. These texts, pure “văn thờ” are only ever sung in front of the altar, these spirits are never incarnated.
  • Four worlds (cộng đồng)
  • Hymn to the mother of waters (Thủy tinh long nũ (Mâu thoai))
  • 3 palaces (Tam toà) – 4 versions
  • Beginning of summer (nhâp hạ)
  • Spirits of the home
  • Văn presented to Uncle Hô (Hô-chi-minh, important person in the contemporary history of Vietnam)
  • The fairy descending from heaven (Giáng tiên Kỳ lục), 2 versions, new and old, sung by the same master.
  • Four great spirits Dai-Can (Tu vi dai còn).


We were able to obtain these documents from various followers. A fairly large amount of recordings of these Văn exists and are in the possession of followers or are kept in the temples, be they public or private. These are recordings from different periods of time and sung by different masters. The figureheads use them when a master is unavailable for both occasions as “Văn thờ” and “Văn hầu”. Such was the case in the temple of Sainte Livrade (Lot-et-Garonne, France), studied by Martine Wadbled, Pierre-Jean Simon and Ida Simon-Barouh, or at the temple of Gentilly, (Val-de-Marne, France) during our last studies.


  1. 2.                  Written documents

Like the most part of Vietnamese musical treasures, Chầu văn survives through oral transmission. Only the Văn thờ leave a written trace on the different sources that we have researched. The Văn hầu, although extracted from Văn thờ according to the spirit incarnated for use during the ceremony, never leave a written trace.

Foil of table “Văn thờ text inventory”

– In the book, “Hát văn”, Hanoi, 1992, the authors Pham Văn Ty and Ngô Duc Thinh published 35 texts.

– Two sources were identified by Pierre-Jean Simon and Ida Simon-Barouh and are conserved in the temple of Sainte Livrade (Lot-et-Garonne, France in 1967), the two notebooks contain 32 texts with the title “Văn chầu Thanh” (Hymn of invocation of the Saint).

– 24 other texts (Bản-văn, which they call Văn chầu) are published by Maurice Durand.

– And the collection of master Pham Văn Kiêm, who donated 81 texts to me.

(The underlined titles show the presence of these texts in all the collections).

Each text corresponds to a spirit, the comparative analysis of these sources gives us several elements concerning the Pantheon of spirits. We have noted that several spirits are present at the same hierarchical level. The abundance of texts left by the master Pham Văn Kiêm is very surprising. Unfortunately we were unable to record all of the texts sung by the master during his lifetime. However, an extensive study of the texts he has left will permit us to explore several paths relative to the legends of spirits, their history, the evolution of the Pantheon, the “creation” of a new spirit, etc…



Văn hầu is a ceremonial music that must follow the rite and it is the coordination of the ritual rhythm with that of the music that creates the soul of this music. Văn thờ are more saga orientated, the masters sing the legend of each spirit and the improvisations used in their performances bring about a completely different character. They are mainly used to offer their respect to the Pantheon, but are also used to express their talent and mastery when they no longer have to follow the rhythm of a ceremony. These văn thờ are a part of the repertory used for contests between masters and organized by the temples of a region, unfortunately these contests have disappeared over the last fifty years. Only the ceremonies and accompanying music have survived.

In this case we have taken a Viêt rite performed with its original music. In order to analyse this rite, we believe that it is imperative to consider both styles of music and to compare them. In overlooking this point, there is a very great possibility that we would miss out on some essential elements necessary for a better comprehension of the rite. If we only research the hierarchic Pantheon as it is found in ceremonies, then it is obvious that we can only refer to regional or local spirits to retrace the authenticity of the Viêt rite, we won’t find any traces of history or legends of the spirits, both being essential to the understanding of the rite. A ceremony of possession never contains all of the elements nor its variations.

My wish, in participating at this symposium, is to bring your attention to the subject I am researching and in so doing so, to open discussion with you in order to further my knowledge in this domain.

I am setting up a website on which I plan to publish my work as it progresses. The website is only in French for the moment and you can access it at I would be happy to receive your comments on the subject and if you so wish, I can add articles sent to me by e-mail to my website or create hyperlinks with other websites.

Thank you for your attention.


Bibliographie  (main).

Ngô Duc Thinh and team, « Hat văn », Edition de cultures des peuples, 1991, Hànôi, Viêtnam

Simon Pierre J. etSimon-Barouh Ida, «Hầu bóng, un culte vietnamien de possession transplanté en France »,  Mouton & Co et Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris, 1973

Durand Maurice, « Technique et panthéon des médiums vietnamiens » (Đồng). EFEO (Publication de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient), XLV, Paris

Rouget Gilbert, « La musique et la transe », Gallimard, Paris, 493 pages. 1980

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