The thesis is a study of the importance of the dead in the making of kinship and the
state in contemporary Vietnam. It focuses on the ritual practices surrounding death
and the commemoration of the dead as enacted in Hue, the capital of imperial and
colonial Viet Nam. The practices in question are undertaken by a multiplicity of
actors, including families, lineages, descendants of the royal family and postsocialist state officials. The thesis aims at highlighting the centrality of the process
of becoming an ancestor in the creation of kinship, and the problematisation of the
often rigidly drawn distinction between kinship and state practices.
In post-socialist Viet Nam, the landscape of the dead is an overgrown one
marked by a plethora of departed whose posthumous fate preoccupies the everyday
lives of villagers, royals, and state agents. This plethora includes celebrated war
heroes, benevolent dead kin, malevolent ghosts, and glorious kings of the past. The
study aims to show how different categories of the dead are made and remade by
ritual actions and/or neglect of the living. It highlights the instability, uncertainty,
and ambiguity that characterize posthumous existence as much as the conditions of
the living. The changing historical trajectories of the city of Hue and its inhabitants
from imperial capital to post-socialist tourist market place via the horrors of the
battlefield are underscored by the fact that categories of the dead exhibit fluid
boundaries and transformable attributes in equal measure.
On a theoretical level, the study proposes a view of death as central to the
formation of kinship. While descent theories emphasized birth, procreation and
associated rights to inheritance, and alliance approaches placed due importance on
marriage and exchange, the present study looks at kinship from the perspective of
the relations between the living and the dead. Such multivalent, complex, and
historically changing relations are essential in the articulation of a shared sense of
intimacy punctuated as much by duties of commemoration as by exchanges of
valuables and blessings that intertwine the everyday with the cosmological.
The study charts the creation of intimacy between the living and the dead on
an increasing scale that expands outwards from family rituals centered on domestic
altars to state mausoleums dedicated to national 'uncle' (Ho Chi Minh) via lineage
and village temples, local and provincial museums, and royal citadels and tombs.
By drawing together all these different sites, the thesis departs in significant
measure from recent studies of Vietnamese society and culture in which the
distinction between kinship and the state have been overly stretched to make space
for the concepts of hegemony and resistance. While noting tensions and
disarticulations between kinship and state practices, the study highlights the
historical and cultural embeddedness of state commemoration projects as well as
the significant shifts in emphasis in family rituals that socialist and post-socialist
modernity have brought about.