An old oration used in requiems for soldiers in Hoang Sa archipelago has recently been found in the central province of Quang Ngai. Researchers said in the past, there were a large number of young men from inland areas who were recruited by the royal court and sent to Hoang Sa.
Oration for Hoang Sa soldiers - A tragic and majestic song
Tinh Long commune in Son Tinh district of Quang Ngai province is a small village located near a river. Villagers can sail 7-8km down to Sa Ky estuary. Hundreds of years ago, people here used to have a large fleet of rowing boards to travel and trade with other areas.
Behind the thick hedge of bamboo around Tinh Long village, there has been handed down a story of the mysterious Diep family. Diep Cong Thang, 90, one of the elders in the family, has kept the oration of requiems for Hoang Sa soldiers as his ancestors used to do more than 200 years ago.
“Alas! Viet Nam’s land and sky has witnessed countless miserable periods, thinking about the ill-fated then. Hoang Sa waters - the sea is endless, time is infinite…” Every year, on the 16th day of the 3rd month of the lunar calendar, 13 families in Ly Son Island hold a requiem for the souls of Hoang Sa soldiers. In the requiem, an oration is read to call the souls of fighters floating in the afterworld to come back. This is Ly Son’s oration.
The article’s author and Diep Cong Thang holding the oration. Photo: LVC
“With the respect to the sea gods of Truong Sa, Hoang Sa, East Sea god, please open the sea door” - this is part of the oration that Thang is keeping. The tone of the oration is like surging waves, sometimes strong and moving, sometimes sad. Mixing with rustling sounds from the river and the bamboo, the spirit of the oration is full of mystery. Its echo feels like a magical power that can change heaven and earth.
Is there any relationship between orations dedicated to Hoang Sa soldiers in inland areas and offshore? Thang just knows that people in his family traditionally change their family name to be Le when going to Ly Son island and only use their original family name of Diep when they die. Many years have passed by and Thang still cannot find the answer to the question why they would do that.
According to Dr. Nguyen Dang Vu, Director of the Quang Ngai Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, there are four orations for soldiers in Hoang Sa archipelago that were handed down among generations in Ly Son island. It was surprising for researchers that Thang’s oration is found in an inland village. This proves that in the past, many young men in riverside villages were recruited by the royal court’s army and sent to Hoang Sa.
Hoang Sa soldiers from inland
Sailing down from Tinh Long village, we will reach Ben Don (Don Port) on the southern bank of Sa Ky estuary. Hundreds of years ago, Hoang Sa soldiers often gathered here before leaving for Ly Son island and then for Hoang Sa. The story of these Hoang Sa soldiers from inland almost fell into obscurity. Nowadays, the soldiers are only remembered in Ly Son island.
While the setting sun melted into the slowly flowing river, Thang recalled the stories from years ago. “When I was 14, my father always took me with him anytime he attended ceremonies to pray for peace, high-yielding crops, or requiems for people who died at sea and for Hoang Sa soldiers”. Thang said, whenever his father, Diep Cong Xung, left for fishing villages down the river with his son, he brought with him an oration. The oration was carefully written on “Do” paper and was handed over by Thang’s grandfather.
According to Thang, while the requiem for Hoang Sa soldiers takes place on the 16th day of the 3rd month every lunar year in Ly Son island, the ceremony was held in early spring annually in inland areas. Coastal areas in Quang Ngai province, including Duc Loi commune in Mo Duc district, Nghia An commune in Tu Nghia district and Tinh Ky commune in Son Tinh district, invited Thang’s father to be master of the requiems, to remember their ancestors who joined the army in Hoang Sa and never came back.
At the ceremony, all people in the village gathered at the beach, planting flags, sounded the drums and drifted boards carrying dummies toward Hoang Sa. Then the voice of Thang’s farther echoed: “With respect to the sea gods of Truong Sa, Hoang Sa… East Sea god…”
During several decades of wartime, the ceremony became less frequent. However, the story of families sacrificing their members for Hoang Sa has stayed, becoming a silent flow, printed in hundred-year-old records of families in many fishing villages in Quang Ngai.
With his eyes looking deeply into the past, Thang remembered days travelling with his father to join requiems for Hoang Sa soldiers 70 years ago. Every detail of his story has become precious documentation on Hoang Sa troops. Many of Hoang Sa soldiers from inland areas never had the chance to return to their home towns again.
Leaving for Hoang Sa - an endless mission
Thang said there are several differences between requiem ceremonies for Hoang Sa soldiers in inland areas and in offshore islands. Days before the ceremony, Thang and his father were absorbed in making bamboo boats. The size of the boats depended on the organisers. If the organiser was a village, the boats would be 1.5m long and they would be smaller if a family organised the ceremony. Each boat had a flag, rice, salt and a substitute dummy, an identification badge and a rattan rope. The boats also had sails to float on sea. Thang and his farther earned some money for each board.
Thang’s father passed away at the age of 82. During the last years of his life, he often told Thang: “You should keep the book of ancestors carefully. They include a book recording orations using in requiems for soldiers in Hoang Sa and Truong Sa, remembering our ancestors who laid down their lives to protect and plant markers in Cat Vang (Hoang Sa or Cat Vang means golden sand)”.
“Praying for people and things, for the sake of entire human being, may the judicious and noble gods listen to and answer our prays”. Putting his ancestor’s tablets in the yard, Thang was reading a piece of the oration. His eyes sank into a far and indefinite space off the boundless sea. Out there, delicate boards and a lot of soldiers once struggled with the sea to protect the stele of sovereignty which bore the words “17th Minh Mang Year, Binh Than (1836)…”
History records that a Hoang Sa troop was formed before or at the latest during the time of Lord Nguyen Phuc Tan (1648-1687). The troops disappeared once the French colonialists invaded Viet Nam. The image of Hoang Sa’s troops straining to row their boats to Hoang Sa also disappeared accordingly. However, the oration was still read by Thang and his father along the coastal areas of Quang Ngai, inspiring fishermen to sail to Hoang Sa waters.
Nearly 90 years old already, Thang still has a sound mind while remembering stories from more than half of a century ago. After taking out the oration, Thang continue to look through a pile of old books for the “Paper appointing Hoang Sa soldiers”. Thang said in the requiem for Hoang Sa soldiers, the master wrote a fake decree in a given form, the same as a command of the royal court which defined tasks as well as supplies for Hoang Sa soldiers. Then the master burned the paper and pushed the boats off to sea.
The old man said that the paper is very important, since the tasks of Hoang Sa soldiers have not yet been completed./.