Retrospective

01

Dec
2021

Retrospective

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Considering the events discussed in this book, no conclusion can be drawn in the sense of discovering some deep logic governing a presumed destiny of the Vietnamese people. Knowledge of the Vietnamese past in the English language accumulated in the late twentieth century in the shadow of war; academics,  journalists, and politicians accorded the chief privilege of shaping that accumu- lation to the group of Vietnamese fortunate enough to have allies that remained  relatively steadfast until the last battle. What accumulated came from wartime propaganda based on a stridently nationalistic version of Vietnamese history that featured, first, an affirmation of Vietnamese identity pre-dating contact with the ancient Chinese and, second, dominant themes of rebellion against colonial oppression and resistance to foreign aggression; neither of these ideas can be sustained by a study of existing evidence about the past.

More appropriate than a conclusion is a retrospective in the sense of a reappraisal that keeps close to surviving materials from the past and that aims to see the Vietnamese and their ancestors through their own eyes in various times and places. To some extent, what we see is “just one random thing after another”; but this in itself is important because it alerts us to the fallacy of putting faith in a rigid overarching narrative of “the Vietnamese people” or “the Vietnamese nation.” There is no discernible pattern to explain how times of prosperity and well being alternated with times of misery and violence. As this book demonstrates, the Vietnamese past is, among other things, a great swath of failed experiments in social organization and governance.

It is instructive to realize that an event trumpeted by Vietnamese historians as a great moment of glory – defeat of the Mongol invasions in the thirteenth century – was followed by nearly a decade of famine and starvation leading to the enslavement of a large part of the rural population by the warriors who had fought off the Mongols. Similarly, victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu was followed by a homicidal cauterization of the northern rural population into the discipline of obedience to state authority. On the other hand, the French conquest of northern Vietnam ended decades of lawlessness during which the Vietnamese government was powerless to stop women and children from being routinely kidnapped for sale as slaves in China. A serious consideration of what happened in the past makes it difficult to sustain the visions of heroes and villains favored by those who write about the past in service to state authority.

The retrospective that emerges from the narrative constructed in this book  shows three main reconsiderations. These reconsiderations are about the Viet- namese relationship with China, about the relationship between northern and  southern Vietnamese, and about the relationship of the Vietnamese with the non- Chinese world.

It is clear that who and what we call Vietnamese did not exist prior to the centuries during which Vietnamese ancestors lived as inhabitants of Chinese dynastic empires. Every aspect of Vietnamese culture appeared as a result of  being in that empire and from the existence of a large Chinese-speaking popula- tion that developed over several generations and that eventually melted into the  local population when the imperial connection was severed. Vietnamese lan- guage, literature, education, religion, historiography, philosophy, family system,  social and political organization, cuisine, medicine, music, and art: all are deeply imprinted with the marks of what is commonly called East Asian or Sinitic civilization. This occurred differently from the other peripheral members of this civilization: the Japanese and the Koreans.

Relative isolation on islands off the continent enabled a process of picking and choosing that allowed Japanese rulers to keep China at arm’s-length. On the other hand, Koreans absorbed Sinitic influence in a particularly thorough, albeit idiosyncratic way that achieved a countenance of cultural and political  legitimacy enabling survival on a peninsula of pressure between Chinese, Jap- anese, and various powers inhabiting Manchuria. Vietnamese grew from within  the Sinitic imperial world, as the ancient Koreans also initially did; but while Korean kingdoms began an autonomous existence after the fall of the Han dynasty, a similar Vietnamese event did not occur until after the fall of the Tang dynasty.

The Vietnamese did not live on islands or on a peninsula where the power of Chinese dynasties could be either ignored or balanced with other Sinicizing powers. They came from a place where Chinese speakers, during the course of a millennium, were constantly reinforced by immigration from the northern empire; these people were eventually cut off from the north and gradually faded into the local population through a process of mutual absorption that produced what we call Vietnamese. For centuries, this was a strategically and economically important jurisdiction of successive Chinese empires; for centuries thereafter, local rulers posed as vassals of Chinese dynasties. No powers or civilizations other than China have seriously competed for the attention of people living here with the brief exceptions of France, Japan, the USSR, and the US in modern times.

After the tumults of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a fundamental  long-term pattern in Vietnamese historical experience of being ineluctably con- nected to the Chinese political world has re-emerged. For example, it is difficult  to imagine any significant political change in Vietnam without a prior change in China. For one thing, the Vietnamese cannot avoid living as a neighbor of China, and they understand that they must show to China a visage that does not contradict Chinese interests and that is congruent with Chinese political practice. Any effort to change the Vietnamese political system without Chinese precedent would be likely to create opportunities for Chinese involvement in domestic affairs that could compromise the measure of independence currently exercised.  Vietnamese autonomy with regard to China, now as in the past, remains depend- ent upon a successful practice of mimicry.

At the same time, the temptation to pull away from the Chinese model remains  alive among the Vietnamese, particularly southerners. However, potential balan- cing options involving non-Chinese Asian neighbors and possibly the US are  fraught with uncertainty and doubt. It is easier for most Vietnamese leaders to trust the Chinese than to trust non-Chinese neighbors and allies because they know and understand the Chinese to a much greater degree than they know and understand any other people. Although they have no doubt that a strong China  will never lose a chance to squeeze them, they also know that for many gener- ations with few exceptions Vietnamese leaders have successfully maintained  acceptable relationships with Chinese governments. Vietnamese are culturally familiar, even intimate, with the Chinese. The historic relationship, involving  mixtures of subservience and non-compliance, has existed through the vicissi- tudes of centuries of experience.

The nationalistic conceit of being in a constant state of aggravation with the Chinese has no basis in fact. For centuries, during the first millennium of the Common Era, ancestors of the Vietnamese lived in relative peace and security as residents of the Sinitic empire. Subsequently, Chinese military operations were launched against Vietnamese rulers only five times, and each of these times resulted from unusual circumstances. In the 930s, the Southern Han campaigned in northern Vietnam amidst the post-Tang competition among regional powers. In 980, the rising Northern Song dynasty followed the pattern of previous dynasties in viewing northern Vietnam as an integral part of the empire, albeit after this pattern was no longer feasible; in 1075, border problems became entangled in Song bureaucratic factionalism, emboldening a Vietnamese attack into southern China that provoked a counterattack; in 1407, the ascendant Ming dynasty endeavored to take advantage of dynastic change among the Vietnamese to restore the Han-Tang imperial borders but soon discovered that this was not a realistic policy; in 1979, China attacked Vietnam to prevent Soviet influence from stabilizing in Vietnam and Cambodia after American withdrawal from the region. In each case, Chinese interest in attacking Vietnam arose from specific  and contingent circumstances, and it quickly evaporated once those circum- stances had changed.

On the other hand, refugee Song Chinese armies were allied with the Vietnam- ese during the Mongol Wars of the thirteenth century. In the eighteenth century,  Qing China sent an expedition to support its vassal, the Le dynasty king, against rebels, but had no ambition to take over the country. In the 1880s, China, at great cost and with little prospect of success, honored its obligations to the Vietnamese court by attempting to prevent the French conquest of northern Vietnam. In the early 1950s, China served as the ally of an aspiring Vietnamese protégé. With few and very episodic exceptions, Vietnamese and Chinese have lived in peace and amity.

The controversy over the islands in the South China Sea is more of a regional than a purely Sino-Vietnamese issue. It arises because the future direction of international relations in the region remains in question and the islands have become symbolic of that uncertainty. Should a relatively stable and widely shared understanding of regional security be achieved, there is unlikely to be any insurmountable impediment to working out acceptable accommodations among the disputants and other interested powers. An obstacle to Chinese and Vietnamese governments making such accommodations is the nationalistic enthusiasms with which they have educated their peoples.

The second reconsideration warns against the conceit of a unified Vietnamese people. Any effort to describe the Vietnamese must be alert to the many regional differences among them. For example, even among northerners, people from Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, and Ha Tinh sometimes express disdain toward those who live in the Red River plain, considering them as passive and susceptible to Chinese blandishments. On the other hand, people of the Red River plain resent what they view as the arrogance and pushiness of people from the three coastal provinces immediately to their south, the birthplaces of Le kings, Trinh lords, and of many cadres of the communist party who flooded into Hanoi to occupy positions of authority after 1954. This is a difficult inter-regional relationship that goes back to the wars between the Mac and Le dynasties in the sixteenth century and to the generations of Trinh misgovernment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Elsewhere, one cannot ignore Hue’s proud heritage of presiding over the centuries-long process of Vietnamese becoming southerners as well as bringing into existence the country of Vietnam as it now exists with its modern borders. This pride is susceptible to a desire to speak on behalf of the entire country with an air of moral authority, a tendency that remains strong among Buddhist leaders based in Hue. In contrast, the people of the Da Nang region, with a  mixed Cham–Viet heritage, a milder climate, and a good harbor, are less inter- ested in virtue from the past and more interested in wealth from maritime trade.  Further south, the regions between Da Nang and Saigon where the bitter battles of the 1790s and the early 1800s were fought retain distinctive provincial outlooks that in various ways seek to minimize connections with the larger Vietnamese realm, echoes of Nguyen Nhac’s Tay Son perspective.

Above all these differences is the contrast between north and south epitomized by the cities of Hanoi and Saigon. The large stereotypes of northern and southern  Vietnamese mask many regional differences, but nevertheless reflect a fundamen- tal divergence among Vietnamese. Northerners are more disciplined to accept  and to exercise government authority, they are proud of inhabiting what they view as the center of Vietnamese culture, they tend to be cautious about contact with the overseas world, and they are inclined to view what is happening in  China as a model. Southerners are more individualistic, egalitarian, entrepre- neurial, interested in wealth more than in authority, proud of carrying within  themselves their own sense of culture, open to the outside world, and wary of how things are done in China. Northerners, more than southerners, see virtue in poverty, a legacy from three centuries of misgovernment under Vietnamese regimes from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Southerners, more than northerners, see virtue in having options and possibilities to explore, a legacy  from the frontier experience and the relatively light touch of Nguyen govern- ment. The generally ineffective Nguyen government in the mid nineteenth cen- tury posed few problems for southerners, many of whom by the 1860s were  being governed by the French; but for northerners, after having been inured to the discipline of Confucian administrators and to the authoritarianism of the Trinh regime in Hanoi, the lack of a functioning government produced political, social, and economic chaos that was finally brought to an end by the French. Any discussion of the Vietnamese cannot avoid the ambiguities created by northern and southern viewpoints. These ambiguities can be viewed either as a problem or as an asset, as creating tensions that lead to frustration or to opportunities for mutual benefit.

The emergence of a southern Vietnamese perspective was much more complex than the cliché of “southern advance” (nam tien) implies. There was no single  historical process impelling Vietnamese southward. The movement of Vietnam- ese into the south was fundamentally episodic, reflecting a variety of different  causes and motivations depending upon time and place, over a period of several centuries and from region to region over great distances. Furthermore, this was not a purely Vietnamese phenomenon. Chams, Chinese, Khmers, as well as upland peoples of the Central Highlands all participated significantly in this long historical process, often contributing a willingness to accept the ascendancy of Hue in exchange for peace and security. Many of the actual battles were between Chams serving the Vietnamese and Chams resisting the Vietnamese, or between Chinese and Khmers, or between Khmers allied with the Vietnamese and Khmers  allied with the Siamese. Southerners entered multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi- lingual realms open to the outside world as was not possible in the north. This  was reinforced by two and a half centuries of political separation and military confrontation between two rival versions of being Vietnamese, and the legacy of this is still alive.

Finally, the idea that the Vietnamese have preserved an ancient, or at least a  pre-modern, identity through the vicissitudes of the modern age must be recon- sidered. During the last century and a half, the Vietnamese have experienced an  intense engagement with Europe, not only France, but also, from the 1920s through the 1980s, with the Soviet Union and other Soviet Bloc countries, not to mention the brief American involvement in the south during the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. At the same time, the cultural connection with China based on an educational system in Literary Chinese came to an end. Ideas about society, politics, government, education, scholarship, literature, art, and music have all been transformed by ideologies and practices coming from Europe, whether the capitalist and democratic “west” or the communist and totalitarian “east.” In the  1950s and 1960s, the Maoist version of the East European form of moderniza- tion was added to the mix of revolutionary thought and action. In the 1990s and  2000s, the Deng Xiaoping version of market economics inspired efforts to renovate the relationship between government and the production of wealth. The idea of attributing economic success to a Confucian past gained some attention in the late 1980s and early 1990s but quickly faded away.

The search for the “real” Vietnam or for the “cultural core” of being Viet- namese is bound to fail. There is an accumulation of different religious, ideo- logical, and cultural orientations among people who speak Vietnamese. Any  effort to privilege one over the others simply produces arguments without resolution. Being Vietnamese has many forms. The only unifying characteristic is a use of the Vietnamese language and a connection to a particular place on the  planet. What makes this place distinctive is its location between what we com- monly categorize as East Asia and Southeast Asia: on the one hand, the Sinitic  world of Confucianism, Mahayana Buddhism, popular Daoist spirit cults, and imperial administrative procedures of which Vietnamese are unambiguous members; and, on the other hand, the realms of entourage politics, Cham Hinduism, Indo-Malay Islam, Theravada Buddhism, overseas Chinese and South Asian communities, and Catholic Philippines, with which Vietnamese, especially southerners, have some degree of familiarity and a sense of neighborhood. Christianity, the new religions of Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, Marxism-Leninism, and Maoism must also be included in any effort to describe the Vietnamese. Being Vietnamese offers many options.

An enduring feature of Vietnamese experience is the fundamentally compliant relationship with China enforced by governments modeled on what exists in China. An aspect of this is that government tends to be didactic with weak connections to popular aspirations. Since the fifteenth century, and continuing  to the present time, governments in Hanoi have endeavored to promote particu- lar ideals and practices by enforcing habits of obedience, whether to be good  Confucians, vanguard socialists, or patriotic producers of wealth for the state.  Despite lofty intentions, the undercurrent of corruption, injustice, and oppres- sion remains. Nevertheless, there are countercurrents of thought that flow else- where than to China or to the past and that continue to be refreshed by the  Vietnamese diaspora. Although subordinated and harnessed by an authoritarian regime, and although wounded by a faithless ally in 1975, these countercurrents nevertheless remain alive in dreams of Vietnamese futures.

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