Khmers or Cambodians who reside in the southern part of South Vietnam – Page 3

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Khmers or Cambodians who reside in the southern part of South Vietnam inhabit
a land, which was theirs not so long ago. So do the Cham who dwell in the
coastal plains of central Viet nam. Champa, the name of their vanished kingdom,
controlled that part of Vietnam for more than ten centuries, from the second to
the 15th century. However, from the tenth century on, an independent and
expanding Vietnam started to encroach upon its territory through wars and
marriage alliances until the 15th century when an emperor established Vietnam’s
total con trol over the remainder of the realm. What now testifies to the existence
of a disappeared kingdom are a few thousand people who speak a Ma layo-
Polynesian language and some of them, mostly women dress up in their
traditional garbs.
What is left now of their rich culture are a small number of dilapi dated
temples in the form of brick towers profusely decorated with stone sta tues of
Hindu gods, that are scattered along the coastal plains of central Vietnam,
dramatic reminders of the glorious past of a people who played a crucial role in
extending the main tenets of Indian civilization onto the Indochinese peninsula.
A small number of the Cham people converted to Islam, moved away from
the majority to relocate themselves in the province of Chau Doc, at the frontier
between Vietnam and Cambodia. Another group emi grated even further into
Cambodia, gathering on the banks of the Great Lake.
A few Cham words are preserved in the Vietnamese vocabulary and Viet
namese music owes a great deal to Cham music. Dances in Vietnam today bear
the weighty influence of the Cham people. A museum in Da Nang exhibits
exclusively Cham artifacts belonging to all the periods of Champa’s history.
04. Cham Temples-Towers. Courtesy of Luong Quang Tuan, <terragalleria.com>
The bulk of the Chinese community in Vietnam grows out of recent waves of
immigration that took place in the second half of the 19th and the beginning of
the 20th century. During the French colonial period, those Chinese were
considered “Asian foreigners” and, therefore, enjoyed a higher legal status than
the indigenous people. They played an impor tant role in the colony’s economy
by devoting their efforts to establishing small transformative industries as well as
an extremely tight network of retail trade. Discounting the many migrations
taking place during the pe riod of Chinese domination (3rd century BCE to 10th
century CE), the subsequent waves dated mainly from the demise of the Chinese
Ming dynas ty in 1644. At that time, those who arrived in Vietnam were sent by
the local authorities to settle in tracts of Cambo dian unoccupied land in the
region of present day Bien Hoa, My Tho and Ha Tien. Those settle ments were
called Minh Huong, villages of the Ming (Chinese) people. Their inhabitants
have almost fully integrated into the plain people.
Some ten thousands of Indians immigrated into Vietnam during the French
colonial period. As the Chinese, they enjoyed a higher legal sta tus than the
Vietnamese. A few of them who came from the French establish ments in India,
especially from Pondicherry, were French citizens and because they were
generally well educated, they took part in the French administration of the
colony. The rest divided themselves almost in two equal parts according to their
occupation: the chettyars specialized in money lending and the rest in retail
trade, mainly of fabrics, and in domes tic jobs for the French colons.
The Vietnamese kinh people speak from north to south the same lan guage,
which is said to belong to the group of Mon-Khmer languages. Some people
entertain the notion that different dialects are spoken in the north, the center and
the south of Vietnam; that is because they do not know well enough the language
in order to fully understand the nuances in the use of the tones or in the
pronunciation of certain words. It would be more appropriate to mention the
word accent rather than dialect.
The existence in the Vietnamese language of a very large number of loan
words from Chinese is explained by the long cohabitation with the Chinese
people, which also accounts for the six tones present in the Vietnamese
language, albeit a member of the atonal Mon-Khmer lan guages. Even though
the French ruled Vietnam only for eighty years (fif teen times shorter than the
Chinese did), they have nevertheless left a deep influence on the vocabulary of
the Vietnamese language. A list of loan words from French would run a few
pages long and contain mostly words designating things that the Vietnamese of
about two centuries ago did not know. Such as bo (butter), pho mach (cheese), oto
(automobile), ca nong (cannon), tang (tank), dang xinh (dancing), ap phe
(business). For the Americans who dwelled in Vietnam for a mere decade, the
linguistic legacy was restricted to the ever predictable Hai (Hi), O Ke (OK), and
a highly appreciative Num bo oan (Number one) or a no less pejorative Num bo
ten (Number ten), which yields in invectiveness only to the verb can-xo (cancel.)
The ethnic origins of the Vietnamese have not yet been fully deter mined.
Several hypotheses exist; two of them deserve more attention. Some
anthropologists think that the Vietnamese are nothing but one of those numerous
Chinese tribes who originally resided in central China, south of the river
Yangtze, and who eventually migrated to the southern region. Together, these
tribes are identified as the “Hundred Yue” (The Chinese ideograph for Yue is
pronounced Viet in Sino-Vietnamese.) Viet Nam then means the South of the
Viet. But some other scholars find that the Vietnamese share certain of their
basic religious beliefs and some of their social institutions with the Malayo-
Polynesian speak ing peoples. They would then be related to other Malayo-
Polyne sian peoples such as the Cham, the Malays and the Indonesians.
According to this theory, the Vietnamese are but a Malayo-Polynesian tribe that
has been heavily influenced by the Chinese culture during thousands of years of
Chinese domination and cohabitation.
At this juncture, it is customary to say something about some spe cial
characteristics of the behavior of the Vietnamese individuals in a so cial context.
They are, indeed before all else, “family” persons. They trust no one but close
relatives. Never mind countless cases of siblings swindling siblings, parents
betraying their progeny, relatives cheating relatives, the Vietnamese still placed
full confidence in their kin. In the past, it was common practice to bestow the
ruling family names to people the kings wanted to cultivate their loyalty and
thereby make them members of the royal family. However, if there were capable
people within the family, they were to be preferred to all others. The founder of
the short-lived Dinh dynasty (968-980) was accompanied on every military drive
by his son Dinh Lien. According to the Annals, the King never took any
important decision without consulting him. The first ruler of the Le (981-1009)
placed several of his sons at the most important strategic points in the kingdom.
The famous general Ly Thuong Kiet and the able administrator Ly Dao Thanh
played crucial roles respectively in the de fense and the government of the
country during the Ly dynasty (1010-1225). The many invasions launched by
the Mongols against the Tran (1225-1400) brought about as many opportunities
for family members such as Tran Hung Dao, Tran Nhat Duat, Tran Quang Khai,
Tran Binh Trong, Tran Quoc Toan –all of the Tran royal family– and Pham
Ngu Lao, the son-in-law of the first named, to flaunt their military prowess or
their deep-rooted loyalty and dedication to the dynasty.
In fact, in the past, there were, of course, cases of royal family mem bers
who challenged violently the power or the legitimacy of the one sitting on the
throne. But in most cases, the rebels did not succeed and punishments were then
meted out to specific individuals –whether royals or not — who had committed
the crime of lese majesty. There were no cases, at least to my knowledge, of
automatic massacre of potential and eventual royal challengers, as had happened
in many monarchies in other countries. The case of emperor Tu Duc (1848-
1883) is revealing. In an epitaph he composed himself, Tu Duc lamented bitterly
over the execu tion he had to order of his brother, Hong Bao, who had instigated
an extremely vicious rebellion against the royal court. We still can read these
words on the stele standing in the middle of the king’s mausoleum.
Attachment to their village constitutes the second characteristic of the
Vietnamese as social beings. This is the second cocoon in which they feel fully
comfortable and to which they give their total loyalty, their bound less devotion.
The village as a legal entity gives them their iden tity, protects them and
represents them in affairs of state. Without exagge rating the total independence
of the villages from the central govern ment as does the adage “the law of the
king yields to the customs of the village –phep vua thua le lang– it is
nevertheless correct to say that the villages did choose their own leaders without
interference from the central authority. These leaders who were known as the
village notables did regulate life in their bailiwick and they received quotas from
the na tional authorities in only two instances: taxes and conscription. These quo
tas were based on information provided by these leaders themselves which the
government consigned in registers of land, diền ba, or registers of population–ho
tich. All this explains why the dinh or communal house is the most important
building in the village. It was there that the no tables held their meetings to
conduct their administrative businesses or to greet visitors. It also was in the
communal house that were preserved all matters pertaining to the cult of the
protecting spirit or tutelary deity–than or thanh hoang.
Indeed each Vietnamese village honors a personality of its own who has
distinguished him/herself with some extraordinary exploits in defense of the
country or in some cultural areas, such as science, literature, music, theater. In
South Vietnam, the village of Khanh Hau in the province of Long An for
example worships its own son, General Nguyen Huynh Duc, who served
efficiently the Nguyen dynasty. The notables in Triều Khuc, a village located
near Hanoi, are very proud of the fact that its com munal house is dedicated to
Phung Hung, an anti-Chinese patriot who ruled over Vietnam toward the end of
the 8th century. Several other village communal houses in the vicinity of Hanoi
honor different personalities: the dinh of Vinh Ninh honors a female commander
in the service of the Trung Sisters; Thanh Liet’s dinh honors the villager-writer
Chu Van An. Because each dinh worships a different personality, each dinh will
have a different date for its festival.
And so each year at the birth or death date of the protecting deity, the whole
village engages in at least three days of festivities: three nights of hat cheo or hat
boi, theatrical performances which inevitably open with a few scenes in the life
of the honored genie and ends with a full show of a historical drama; sports or
talents tournaments; literary contest; poetry challenges; boat races; gambling;
chest meets and, of late, maybe even a beauty pageant.
The final function of the dinh is to preserve the archives of the village, the
most important among them are the certificates recognizing the tutelary deities.
Only the ruler of the land or the chief executive officer of the state is entitled to
grant such certificates. This introduces us to the third cocoon of the Vietnamese

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