HISTORY OF VIETNAM: NAMES, THEMES AND A BRIEF SUMMARY

HISTORY OF VIETNAM

Vietnam is a country with a long and complex history and cultural traditions that vary a good deal in the different regions. Culturally, in many ways, the Vietnamese have more in common with Confucian China than Buddhist Southeast Asia. Many Southeast Asians regard the Vietnamese as fighters and are not particularly fond of them.

According to Lonely Planet: "Vietnam has a history as rich and evocative as anywhere on the planet. Sure, the American War in Vietnam captured the attention of the West, but centuries before that Vietnam was scrapping with the Chinese, the Khmers, the Chams and the Mongols. Vietnamese civilisation is as sophisticated as that of its mighty northern neighbour China, from where it drew many of its influences under a thousand-year occupation. Later came the French and the humbling period of colonialism from which Vietnam was not to emerge until the second half of the 20th century. The Americans were simply the last in a long line of invaders who had come and gone through the centuries and, no matter what was required or how long it took, they too would be vanquished. If only the planners back in Washington had paid just a little more attention to the history of this very proud nation, then Vietnam might have avoided the trauma and tragedy of a horribly brutal war. Visitors to Vietnam can’t help but notice that the same names pop up again and again on the streets of every city and town. These are Vietnam’s national heroes who, over the last 2000 years, have led the country in its repeated expulsions of foreign invaders and whose exploits have inspired subsequent generations of patriots." [Source: Lonely Planet]

One dominant theme that characterized the first three quarters Vietnam’s history was "the grim resistance by the population against Chinese imperialist domination, which persisted century after century, time and again, broke out in the form of armed insurrection.

Names for Vietnam

Formal Name for the country: Socialist Republic of Vietnam (Cong Hoa Xa Hoi Chu Nghia Viet Nam). Short Form: Vietnam. Term for Citizen(s): Vietnamese. Viet is the name of the people. "Viet" was a pronunciation of a Chinese word for "far", which described a nomadic (wandering hunter) people in that region of Asia. These wanderers migrated southward into current-day Vietnam. "Nam" means South. Therefore, Vietnam means "Viet (ethnic) people of the South." The name Viet Nam is composed from the two words viet and nam. In the second half of the twentieth century, the country came to be frequently referred to as Vietnam in the West. In recent years the original Vietnamese spelling has been used by the United Nations and increasingly in scholarship.

According to the Vietnam Travel and Living Guide: "Vietnam should be correctly written as Viet Nam. Viet is the name of the people, which covers the 54 different ethnic groups in the country. Nam means South. Viet Nam means the Viet people living in the South. The name Vietnam came about when Emperor Gia Long desired to rename the country Nam Viet which was the combination of names of regions in Vietnam, including An Nam and Viet Thuong, and later change to Vietnam as seen today. There are many other assumptions about the meaning of the name and the most rational explanation is that the name is the fine combination of both geographical and ethnical factors. In brief, Vietnam means the Viets of the South according to the second explanation or is synonymous with the reunification of different regions in Vietnam in accordance with the first explanation." [Source: Vietnam Travel and Living Guide]

According to Wikipedia: The name Viet Nam is a variation of "Nam Viet" (literally "Southern Viet"), a name that can be traced back to the Trieu dynasty of the 2nd century B.C. The word Viet originated as a shortened form of Bách Viet, a word applied to a group of peoples then living in southern China and Vietnam. The form "Vietnam" is first recorded in the 16th-century oracular poem "Sam Trang Trình" by Nguyen Binh Khiem. The name has also been found on 12 steles carved in the 16th and 17th centuries, including one at Bao Lam Pagoda in Haiphong that dates to 1558. Between 1804 and 1813, the name was used officially by Emperor Gia Long. It was revived in the early 20th century by Phan Boi Chau's History of the Loss of Vietnam, and later by the Vietnamese Nationalist Party. The country was usually called Annam until 1945, when both the imperial government in Hue and the Viet Minh government in Hanoi adopted Viet Nam. Since the use of Chinese characters was discontinued in 1918, the alphabetic spelling of Vietnam is official. [Source: Wikipedia +]

"Annam", which originated as a Chinese name in the seventh century, was the common name of the country during the colonial period. Nationalist writer Phan Boi Chau revived the name "Vietnam" in the early 20th century. When rival communist and anti-communist governments were set up in 1945, both immediately adopted this as the country's official name. In English, the two syllables are usually combined into one word, "Vietnam." However, "Viet Nam" was once common usage and is still used by the United Nations and by the Vietnamese government. +

Throughout history, there were many names used to refer to Vietnam. Besides official names, there are names that are used unofficially to refer to territory of Vietnam. Vietnam was called Van Lang during the Hùng Vuong Dynasty, Âu Lac when An Duong was king, Nam Viet during the Trieu Dynasty, Van Xuan during the Anterior Lý Dynasty, Dai Co Viet during the Dinh Dynasty and Early Lê Dynasty. Starting in 1054, Vietnam was called Dai Viet (Great Viet). During the Ho Dynasty, Vietnam was called Dai Ngu. +

Official names of Vietnam since the foundation of Vietnam. These names are recorded in history books and/or officially used in international diplomacy. 1)Van Lang is considered the first official title of Vietnam. This state was located in Phong Chau (present-day Phú Tho. province). The territory consisted of the Red River Delta and Thanh Hóa, Nghe An and Hà Tinh provinces. This state existed until 258 B.C. Names that followed: 2) Âu Lac; 3) Nam Viet; 4) Van Xuân; 5) Dã Nang; 6) Dai Co Viet; 7) Dai Viet; 8) Dai Ngu; 9) Viet Nam; 10) Dai Nam; 11) Empire of Vietnam; 12) Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North); 13) Republic of Cochinchina (South); 14) State of Vietnam (South); 15) Republic of Vietnam (South); 17) Republic of South Vietnam (South); 18) Socialist Republic of Vietnam. +

Themes in Vietnamese History

Ancient Vietnamese civilization has traditionally been centered in the north not in the south. The traditional Vietnamese homeland is the Red River Delta near present day Hanoi. Saigon remained part of the Kingdom of Champa until 1698.

The Vietnamese trace the origins of their culture and nation to the fertile plains of the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam. After centuries of developing a civilization and economy based on the cultivation of irrigated rice, in the tenth century the Vietnamese began expanding southward in search of new rice lands. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the Vietnamese gradually moved down the narrow coastal plain of the Indochina Peninsula, ultimately extending their reach into the broad Mekong River Delta. Vietnamese history is the story of the struggle to develop a sense of nationhood throughout this narrow, 1,500-kilometer stretch of land and to maintain it against internal and external pressures. [Source: Library of Congress ]

Vietnam has traditionally been more closely linked with China than the other countries of Southeast Asia. The Vietnamese were profoundly influenced by Confucianism and modeled their imperial system after the Chinese imperial court. Theravada Buddhism hasn’t played a big part in the history and development of Vietnam as it has in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. The mountains that divide Laos and Vietnam are also a dividing line between Confucianism and Buddhism.

The two most characteristic features of Vietnam’s history are the country’s struggle against foreign occupation and intervention, which has been going on for a good part of the last two thousand years, and the ability of the Vietnamese people to learn from their occupants and finally overcome the foreign rule. The invaders were mostly, but not exclusively the Han Chinese, who ruled Vietnam for over one thousand years from 111 B.C. to the fifteenth century. Vietnam’s own history of dynasties is a characterized by a new dynasty destroying all traces of the one the one that existed before it.

Vietnam and China

Robert D. Kaplan wrote in The Atlantic, “Vietnam itself began as a southern outpost of Sinic culture. It was forcibly incorporated into China’s Han Empire in 111 B.C. From that time forward, it was occupied by China or under its yoke in tributary status for nearly a millennium. Thereafter, Vietnamese dynasties like the Ly, Tran, and Le were great because they resisted Chinese control from the north, repelling waves of numerically superior armies. “Chinese contributions to Vietnam cover all aspects of culture, society, and government, from chopsticks wielded by peasants to writing brushes wielded by scholars and officials,” Keith Weller Taylor, of Cornell University, writes in The Birth of Vietnam (1983). Indeed, Vietnamese literature was “impregnated” with the classical heritage of China: Chinese used to be the language of scholarship in Vietnam, just as Latin used to be in Europe. Through it all, Vietnamese peasant culture retained its uniqueness to a greater extent than did the culture of the Vietnamese elite. [Source: Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic, May 21 2012 <*>]

“Among the elite, as the University of Michigan Southeast Asia expert Victor Lieberman explains, Chinese administrative norms were “internalized to the point that their alien origins became irrelevant.” The fierce desire of all Vietnamese to be separate from China was reinforced by their contact with the Chams and Khmers to the south, who were influenced by non-Chinese civilizations, particularly India’s. Given their intense similarity with the Chinese, the Vietnamese are burdened by the narcissism of small differences, and this makes events from the past more vivid to them. <*>

Vietnamese Fighting Spirit

The Vietnamese are a fierce and independent people. They have a long history of warfare. According to Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Stanley Karnow, the "Vietnamese stubbornly clung to their ethnic identity" and were able to overcome attempts by foreigners to conquer or subjugate them.

The Vietnam War (the American War to the Vietnamese) was just a blip in a history marked by hundreds of years of warfare. Explaining why he harbored relatively little will against the American after the Vietnam War, a Vietnamese man told an American journalist, "You’re Americans and we fought you for 10 years, and before you there were the French and we fought them for 100 years and before them, the Chinese, and we fought them for 1,000 years. We’re a very proud people, and you’re just a small part of our past."

The Vietnamese have traditionally been forgiving and generous to their enemies. This one reason why there seems to be no hard feeling towards American now. In 1426, the Vietnamese provided a defeated Chinese army with boats and soldiers to help them return home. The great North Vietnamese general Vi Nguyen Giap told the Los Angeles Times, the Vietnamese are "The most peace-loving people in the world...The paradox is that we had to fight for our freedom, our independence."

Robert D. Kaplan wrote in The Atlantic, ““Vietnam’s victories over China and over the Chams and Khmers in the south helped to forge a distinct national identity—a process spurred by China’s inability, up through modern times, to let Vietnam alone. In 1946, China colluded with France to have the Chinese occupation forces in northern Vietnam succeeded by French forces. The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping “never lost his visceral hatred of the Vietnamese,” Templer writes. In addition to deciding in 1979 to send 100,000 Chinese into Vietnam, Deng devised a policy of “bleeding Hanoi white,” by entangling Vietnam in a guerrilla war in Cambodia. [Source: Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic, May 21 2012 ]

Trung Sisters and Vietnamese Heros

Among the famous historical figures in Vietnamese history are the Trung Sisters. They lead a peasant army against the Chinese in A.D. 39 after one of the sister's husband, a high-ranking Vietnamese lord, was executed by the Chinese. The sisters initially prevailed: the Chinese governor was forced to flee and the three sisters proclaimed themselves queens. In A.D. 43, the Chinese returned and defeated the Vietnamese. Rather than surrender the sisters committed suicide together by leaping into the Hat Giang River. Almost every town has a street named after the Trung sisters.

Hero's are important to the Vietnamese. The 18th century Vietnamese poet Dang Ding wrote: "With luck even a fools win glory. Without it a hero is helpless." Modern heros like Ho Chi Minh City and Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap were inspired by the great heros that fought against the Chinese and other outsiders.

Streets in most towns and cities are named after the same two dozen or so Vietnamese heros. Many of them are Vietnamese heros who fought against the Chinese. Among them are Tran Hung Fao, the man responsible for the Mongol defeat; a legendary child hero who fought off a battalion of Chinese warriors in a famous battle at the age of three; Ly Ong Trong, famous for fighting the Chinese; Lady Au Co, the Vietnamese Joan of Arc of Vietnam, She is commonly featured on village woodcuts riding a war elephant into battle.

Le Loi presided over a Vietnamese golden age in 15th century. Only Ho Chi Minh is more honored. After the Chinese were gone, Le Loi declared himself emperor and his has aide Nguyen Trai issued the famous Great Proclamation, which read: "Our people long ago established Vietnam as an independent nation with it sown civilization. We have our own civilization. We have our own mountains and our own rivers, our own customs and traditions, and those are different from those of the foreign country to the north...We have sometimes been weakened sometimes powerful, but at no time have we suffered from lack of heros."

Mandate of Heaven Versus Vietnamese Village Rule

In the Confucian world view, which the Vietnamese have traditionally prescribed to, emperors were said to have the "mandate of heaven" to rule their people, who, in turn, owed the emperor total allegiance. Although his power was absolute, an emperor was responsible for the prosperity of his people and the maintenance of justice and order. An emperor who did not fulfill his Confucian responsibilities could, in theory, lose his mandate. In practice, the Vietnamese people endured many poor emperors, weak and strong. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Counterbalancing the power of the emperor was the power of the village, illustrated by the Vietnamese proverb, "The laws of the emperor yield to the customs of the village." Village institutions served both to restrain the power of the emperor and to provide a buffer between central authority and the individual villager. Each village had its council of nobles, which was responsible for the obligations of the village to the state. When the central government imposed levies for taxes, for corvee labor for public projects, or for soldiers for defense, these levies were based on the council of nobles' report of the resources of the villages, which was often underestimated to protect the village. Moreover, there was a division between state and local responsibilities. The central government assumed responsibility for military, judicial, and religious functions, while village authorities oversaw the construction of public works projects such as roads, dikes, and bridges, which were centrally planned. *

The autonomy of the villages, however, contributed to the weakness of the Vietnamese political system. If the ruling dynasty could no longer protect a village, the village would often opt for the protection of political movements in opposition to the dynasty. These movements, in turn, would have difficulty maintaining the allegiance of the villages unless they were able both to provide security and to institutionalize their political power. Although it insured the preservation of a sense of national and cultural identity, the strength of the villages was a factor contributing to the political instability of the society as it expanded southward. *

Northern Vietnam Versus Southern Vietnam

Much of the Vietnamese culture and development was largely in what is now North Vietnam. Only within the last century or two has the area known as South Vietnam become settled and developed to any substantial degree by the Vietnamese themselves. Perhaps this is one reason the southern Vietnamese seem to resent the northern Vietnamese; the cultural history and influence of the north is apparently not appreciated nor accepted. This is comparable to attitudes occasionally found in the United States between the East and West Coasts, or parts of the North and South as a result of economic, geographic, and cultural differences.

Individual Vietnamese have a strong sense of regional cultural identity. The region in which a person lives or comes from has a strong impact on the person’s preferences relating to such things as festivals, food, drink, clothing, cultural personality, music and language dialect. Some Vietnamese refer to themselves as kinh, meaning lowlander, to distinguish themselves from the highland "tribespeople." They often also identify themselves as "northern," "southern" or "central" Vietnamese.

The north has the most Chinese and Confucian influence while the south is influenced more by Khmer and Cham culture and Theravada Buddhism. Central and northern Vietnamese are regarded as more hardworking, patient and prudent than people in the south. They tend to plan more carefully for the future, are more tactful and polite, and less revealing in their feelings. People from central Vietnam are often teased for their low moral standards.

According to the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: " Diverse cultural traditions, geographic variations, and historical events have created distinct traditional regions within the country. The general topographic dichotomy of highland and lowland regions also has ethnolinguistic significance: The lowlands generally have been occupied by ethnic Vietnamese, while the highlands have been home to numerous smaller ethnic groups that differ culturally and linguistically from the Vietnamese. The highland peoples can be divided into the northern ethnic groups, with affinities to peoples in southern China, and the southern highland populations, with ties to the Mon-Khmer and Austronesian peoples of Cambodia, Indonesia, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology |+|]

"A north-south variation also evolved among the ethnic Vietnamese as they expanded southward from the Red River Delta along the coastal plain and into the Mekong River Delta. The Vietnamese themselves have long made a distinction between the northern region, with Hanoi as its cultural center, the central region, with the traditional royal capital of Hue, and the southern region, with Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) as its urban center. The French also divided Vietnam into three parts: the northern Tonkin, the central Annam, and Cochinchina in the south. Official efforts to move families from the densely populated areas to the "new economic zones" in the Central Highlands have tended to marginalize the minority groups living there, in addition to causing ecological stress. |+|

Differences Between Northern and Southern Vietnamese

Vietnam was not truly unified until the 18th century. Before then southern Vietnam was mostly part of the Khmer and Cham kingdoms. The north has traditionally been poorer, more traditional, and more conservative than the south while the southerners have traditionally been richer, freer and more hedonist, spontaneous, capitalistic, Christian and direct than northerners.

Southerners are much more materialist and entrpreneurial than northerners. They have a reputation for being more willing to splurge and spend money than the northerners. After the Vietnam War the South got richer quicker and more investment went south. At first foreign investors were more comfortable dealing with southerners, plus many overseas Vietnamese investors had ties to the south.

Ben Stocking of Associated Press wrote: "Northerners tend to think of themselves as more cultured, and view Hanoi as Vietnam's capital of art, literature, and scholarship. Some see Ho Chi Minh City as a place of glitz and fun, but a bit shallow. Southerners consider themselves more dynamic and tend to see Hanoi as a quaint, sleepy town. They have been more exposed to Western ways, while the north is more influenced by neighboring China and by communist central planning. [Source: Ben Stocking, Associated Press, February 22, 2007 ^+^]

"Southerners with money take their friends out to dinner; northerners tend to be thrifty and prefer to visit friends at home, said Kim Dung, a journalist who moved to Ho Chi Minh City from Hanoi 12 years ago. But northerners generally are more concerned about status and will buy one expensive motorbike while the southerner is more likely to buy two cheap ones, she said. Dung says she misses the village feel of Hanoi's winding streets and street vendors balancing baskets of fruit on their shoulders. ^+^

People from the north have a reputation for being indecisive. This is thought to be both a product of a traditionally cultural emphasis on collective decision-making and the modern red tape of the communist government. The is strong sense of working together for a common goal in the north. Southerners are regarded as lazy by many northerners. This perception some say is partly related to the abundance of food in the south— and less of a need to work to eat. Southerners still have a hard time getting into positions of influence in the government. They are often cynical about the government and ignore it propaganda.

Summary of Vietnamese History

The Vietnamese trace the origins of their culture and nation to the fertile plains of the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam. Han Chinese ruled Vietnam for over one thousand years from 111 B.C. to the fifteenth century. The Chinese were also in power during the wars between the Monguls and the Cham state, from 1428 to 1672, when Le Loi expelled the Chinese and was crowned emperor. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the French began intervening in the country’s affairs on a large scale. Within ten years of seizing Saigon, they had taken control of the whole country, which they governed as a colony and incorporated into French Indochina in spite of resistance from the Vietnamese. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology ^ ]

After 1940, when France surrendered to Germany in World War II, the Vichy government had to accept the presence of Japanese troops in Vietnam, although the Vichy government continued to govern the colony. During this period, Ho Chi Minh founded the Viet Minh, a nationalist liberation movement inspired by communist ideals, whose aim was to free Vietnam from foreign rule. A few months before the Japanese were defeated and finally surrendered to the Allied forces in September 1945, the Viet Minh took direct control from the French, and Ho Chi Minh declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam independent on 2 September 1945. ^

After the end of World War II, the French deployed a substantial number of troops and fought the Viet Minh, led again by Ho Chi Minh, in order to regain control over Vietnam. The French were defeated decisively in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu and were forced to withdraw after they had dominated Vietnam for almost one hundred years. However, the Viet Minh controlled only the northern part of Vietnam. The establishment of a second government, led by Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon, led to the separation of the country into North and South Vietnam along the seventeenth parallel, the latter backed by the United States. Under the influence of the Korean War and the so-called Domino theory, the United States gave South Vietnam political and military support against North Vietnamese attempts to take over the south. The United States’ involvement gradually grew from a few advisers to hundreds of thousands of ground troops to fight the National Liberation Front, otherwise known as Viet Cong. Nevertheless, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese prevailed. In 1973, the United States signed a treaty with North Vietnam that provided for withdrawal of all American ground troops and aimed at restoring peace. After the American withdrawal, the government of South Vietnam crumbled rapidly and the North took control in 1975, ending a war that had lasted nearly thirty years. In July 1976, the nation was reunited, and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was established. ^

China and Its Influence on Vietnam

China was the chief source of Vietnam's foreign ideas and the earliest threat to its national sovereignty. As a result of a millennium of Chinese control beginning in about 111 B.C., the Vietnamese assimilated Chinese influence in the areas of administration, law, education, literature, language, and culture. Even during the following nine centuries of Vietnamese independence, lasting from the late tenth century until the second half of the nineteenth century, the Chinese exerted considerable cultural, if not political, influence, particularly on the elite. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The first major threat to Vietnam's existence as a separate people and nation was the conquest of the Red River Delta by the Chinese, under the mighty Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), in the first century B.C. At that time, and in later centuries, the expanding Chinese empire assimilated a number of small bordering nations politically and culturally. Although Vietnam spent 1,000 years under Chinese rule, it succeeded in throwing off the yoke of its powerful neighbor in the tenth century. *

The Vietnamese did not, however, emerge unchanged by their millennium under Chinese rule. Although they were unsuccessful in assimilating the Vietnamese totally, the Chinese did exert a permanent influence on Vietnamese administration, law, education, literature, language, and culture. Their greatest impact was on the Vietnamese elite, with whom the Chinese administrators had the most contact. The effects of this Sinicization (Hanhwa ) were much less intensive among the common people, who retained a large part of their pre-Han culture and language. *

China's cultural influence increased in the centuries following the expulsion of its officials, as Vietnamese monarchs and aristocrats strove to emulate the cultural ideal established by the Middle Kingdom. Even for the Vietnamese elite, however, admiration for Chinese culture did not include any desire for Chinese political control. In the almost uninterrupted 900 years of independence that followed China's domination, the Vietnamese thwarted a number of Chinese attempts at military reconquest, accepting a tributary relationship instead. During this period, learning and literature flourished as the Vietnamese expressed themselves both in classical Chinese written in Chinese characters and in Vietnamese written in chu nom, a script derived from Chinese ideographs. *

During the Chinese millennium, other cultural influences also reached the shores of the Red River Delta. A thriving maritime trade among China, India, and Indonesia used the delta as a convenient stopover. Among the array of goods and ideas thus brought to Vietnam was Buddhism from India. While the Vietnamese aristocracy clung to Chinese Confucianism, during most periods the common people embraced Buddhism, adapting it to fit their own indigenous religions and world view. *

Andrew Forbes of the Asia Times wrote: “Just as Chinese rulers have seen the Vietnamese as ingrates and hooligans, so the Vietnamese have seen the Chinese as arrogant and aggressive, a power to be emulated at all times, mollified in times of peace, and fiercely resisted in times of war... Sometimes a strongly sexual imagery creeps into this "intimate relationship", with Vietnam, the weaker partner, a victim of Chinese violation. In AD 248, the Vietnamese heroine Lady Triu, who led a popular uprising against the Chinese occupation, proclaimed: "I want to ride the great winds, strike the sharks on the high seas, drive out the invaders, reconquer the nation, burst the bonds of slavery and never bow to become anyone's concubine." Her defiant choice of words was more than just symbolic. Vietnam has long been a source of women for the Chinese sex trade. In Tang times, the Chinese poet Yuan Chen wrote appreciatively of "slave girls of Viet, sleek, of buttery flesh", while today the booming market for Vietnamese women in Taiwan infuriates and humiliates many Vietnamese men.” [Source: Andrew Forbes, Asia Times, April 26, 2007 ><]

History of Vietnam’s Love-Hate Relations with China

Andrew Forbes of the Asia Times wrote: “For more than 2,000 years, Vietnam's development as a nation has been marked by one fixed and immutable factor - the proximity of China. The relationship between the two countries is in many ways a family affair, with all the closeness of shared values and bitterness of close rivalries. No country in Southeast Asia is culturally closer to China than Vietnam, and no other country in the region has spent so long fending off Chinese domination, often at a terrible cost in lives, economic development and political compromise. [Source: Andrew Forbes, Asia Times, April 26, 2007 ><]

“China has been Vietnam's blessing and Vietnam's curse. It remains an intrusive cultural godfather, the giant to the north that is "always there". Almost a thousand years of Chinese occupation, between the Han conquest of Nam Viet in the 2nd century B.C. and the reassertion of Vietnamese independence as Dai Viet in AD 967, marked the Vietnamese so deeply that they became, in effect, an outpost of Chinese civilization in Southeast Asia. ><

“While the other countries of Indochina are Theravada Buddhist, sharing cultural links with South Asia, Vietnam derived its predominant religion - a mix of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism popularly known as tam giao or "Three Religions"- from China. Until the introduction of romanized quoc ngu script in the 17th century, Vietnamese scholars wrote in Chinese characters or in chu nho, a Vietnamese derivative of Chinese characters. Over the centuries, Vietnam developed as a smaller version of the Middle Kingdom, a centralized, hierarchical state ruled by an all-powerful emperor living in a Forbidden City based on its namesake in Beijing and administered by a highly educated Confucian bureaucracy. ><

“Both countries are deeply conscious of the cultural ties that bind them together, and each is still deeply suspicious of the other. During the long centuries of Chinese occupation, the Vietnamese enthusiastically embraced many aspects of Chinese civilization, while at the same time fighting with an extraordinary vigor to maintain their cultural identity and regain their national independence. For their part, the Chinese recognized the Vietnamese as a kindred people, to be offered the benefits of higher Chinese civilization and, ultimately, the rare privilege of being absorbed into the Chinese polity. On the other hand, as near family, they were to be punished especially severely if they rejected Chinese standards or rebelled against Chinese control. ><

“It's instructive, then, that in his 1987 novel Fired Gold Vietnamese author Nguyen Huy Thiep writes, "The most significant characteristics of this country are its smallness and weakness. She is like a virgin girl raped by Chinese civilization. The girl concurrently enjoys, despises and is humiliated by the rape." This Chinese belief that Vietnam is not just another nation, but rather a member of the family - almost Chinese, aware of the blessings of Chinese civilization, but somehow stubbornly refusing, century after century, to become Chinese - has persisted down to the present day. ><

In 1946, Ho Chi Minh, said warned the Vietnamese against using Chinese Nationalist troops in the north as a buffer against the return of the French: "You fools! Don't you realize what it means if the Chinese remain? Don't you remember your history? The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years. The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. As for me, I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than to eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life." Yet Ho was an ardent admirer of Chinese civilization, fluent in Mandarin, a skilled calligrapher who wrote Chinese poetry, a close friend and colleague of Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Ho wasn't as much anti-Chinese as he was pro-Vietnamese. It was his deep understanding of and respect for China that enabled him to recognize, clearly and definitively, the menace that "a close family relationship" with the giant to the north posed, and continues to pose, for Vietnam's independence and freedom.

Post-China Vietnam

As the Red River Delta prospered, its population began expanding southward along the narrow coastal plains. The period from the twelfth century to the eighteenth century was marked by warfare with both the Cham and Khmer, the peoples of the Indianized kingdoms of Champa and Cambodia, who controlled lands in the Vietnamese line of march to the south. The Cham were finally defeated in 1471, and the Khmer were forced out of the Mekong Delta by 1749. Vietnamese settlers flooded into the largely untilled lands, turning them to rice cultivation. The southward expansion severely taxed the ability of the Vietnamese monarchy, ruling from the Red River Delta, to maintain control over a people spread over such a distance. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The inability of the ruling Le dynasty to deal with this and other problems led to the partition of the country by the nobility in the sixteenth century. After two hundred years of warfare between competing noble families, a peasant rebellion reunified the country in the late eighteenth century. The rebels, however, were unable to solve the problems of a country ravaged by war, famine, and natural disasters and lost control to a surviving member of the Nguyen noble family. Nguyen Anh took the reign name Gia Long (a composite derived from the Vietnamese names for the northern and southern capitals of the country during partition) and established a new centrally located capital at Hue in 1802. *

Gia Long and his successors also were unable or unwilling to solve the persisting problems of the country, particularly the age-old dilemma of land alienation, the concentration of large tracts of land in the hands of a few and the resulting creation of vast numbers of landless peasants. The monarchy and aristocracy grew more and more removed from the people by the mid-nineteenth century. This period also climaxed the growth of European expansionism, as Western nations sought to carve out colonies in Asia and other parts of the non-Western world. *

Colonial Period in Vietnam

The conquest of Vietnam by France began in 1858 and was completed by 1884. Vietnam became part of French Indochina in 1887. During the period of European expansionism, Western nations sought to carve out colonies in Asia and other parts of the non-Western world. Between 1858 and 1873, the French conquered Vietnam, dividing it into three parts--Cochinchina, Annam, and Tonkin--roughly corresponding to the areas referred to bt the Vietnamese as Nam Bo (southern Vietnam), Trung Bo (central Vietnam), and Bac Bo (northern Vietnam). To the Vietnamese, however, these were geographical terms, and the use of them to imply a political division of their homeland was as odious as the loss of their independence. [Source: Library of Congress *]

French colonial rule was, for the most part, politically repressive and economically exploitative. Vietnamese resistance in the early years was led by members of the scholar-official class, many of whom refused to cooperate with the French and left their positions in the bureaucracy. The early nationalists involved themselves in study groups, demonstrations, production and dissemination of anticolonialist literature, and acts of terrorism. Differences in approach among the groups were exemplified by Phan Boi Chau, who favored using the Vietnamese monarchy as a rallying point for driving out the French, and Phan Chu Trinh, who favored abolishing the monarchy and using Western democratic ideas as a force for gradual reform and independence. The success of these early nationalists was limited both by their inability to agree on a strategy and their failure to involve the Vietnamese peasantry, who made up the vast majority of the population. After World War I, another Vietnamese independence leader arose who understood the need to involve the masses in order to stage a successful anticolonial revolt. Ho Chi Minh, schooled in Confucianism, Vietnamese nationalism, and MarxismLeninism , patiently set about organizing the Vietnamese peasantry according to Communist theories, particularly those of Chinese leader Mao Zedong. *

Vietnam’s Struggle After World War II

Vietnam declared independence from Japan and France on September 2, 1945. However, Vietnam remained under French control until the communist Viet Minh defeated French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

The defeat of the Japanese, who had occupied Vietnam during World War II, left a power vacuum, which the Communists rushed to fill. Their initial success in staging uprisings and in seizing control of most of the country by September 1945 was partially undone, however, by the return of the French a few months later. Only after nine years of armed struggle was France finally persuaded to relinquish its colonies in Indochina. The 1954 Geneva Conference left Vietnam a divided nation, however, with Ho Chi Minh's communist government ruling the northern half from Hanoi and Ngo Dinh Diem's regime, supported by the United States, ruling the south from Saigon (later Ho Chi Minh City). Another two decades of bitter conflict ensued before Vietnam was again reunified as one independent nation. *

Recent History of Vietnam

Despite the return of peace, for over a decade the country experienced little economic growth because of conservative leadership policies, the persecution and mass exodus of individuals - many of them successful South Vietnamese merchants - and growing international isolation. However, since the enactment of Vietnam's "doi moi" (renovation) policy in 1986, Vietnamese authorities have committed to increased economic liberalization and enacted structural reforms needed to modernize the economy and to produce more competitive, export-driven industries. The communist leaders, however, maintain control on political expression and have resisted outside calls to improve human rights. The country continues to experience small-scale protests from various groups - the vast majority connected to land-use issues, calls for increased political space, and the lack of equitable mechanisms for resolving disputes. Various ethnic minorities, such as the Montagnards of the Central Highlands and the Khmer Krom in the southern delta region, have also held protests. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Important events since the reunification of the country include a border war with China in 1979 and Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia the year before. Vietnam finally withdrew its troops from Cambodia in 1989. Perhaps the key feature, though, was the country’s economic deterioration and its dire position by the mid 1980s. The breakthrough came at the end of 1986 with the introduction of the doi moi, or renovation policy. The aim was to move from a centrally planned to a market economy while still retaining the socialist political structure. The introduction of the new foreign investment law in December 1987, allowing and encouraging foreign investment, was a major step from which all the current excitement in the international business community has stemmed. Parallels have been drawn to China’s experience. Such has been the rapidity and the strength of the process, that the near-total withdrawal of Soviet aid 1991 and the collapse of the COMECON trading bloc, which should in theory have cut away the great majority of Vietnam’s trade, had little effect.[Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology ^]

There is now far greater openness towards foreign countries in general, and improved relations with other Southeast Asian and Western nations in particular. Vietnam became a full member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the meeting in Brunei in July 1995. Full diplomatic relations with the United States were reestablished in July 1995, some 20 years after the fall of Saigon. ^

Library of Congress Bibliography

Bowman, John S. (ed.). The Vietnam War: An Almanac. New York: WorldAlmanac Publications, 1985; Burchett, Wilfred. Catapult to Freedom. London: Quartet Books, 1978; Buttinger, Joseph. Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled. 2 vols. New York:Praeger, 1967; Vietnam: A Political History. New York: Praeger, 1968; Vietnam: The Unforgettable Tragedy. New York: Horizon Press,1977; Cady, John Frank. The Roots of French Imperialism in Eastern Asia.Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1954; Duiker, William J. The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam. Boulder,Colorado: Westview Press, 1981; The Rise of Nationalism in Vietnam, 1900-1941. Ithaca, NewYork: Cornell University Press, 1976; Fall, Bernard B. The Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military Analysis.New York: Praeger, 1967; Fall, Bernard B. (ed.). Ho Chi Minh on Revolution: Selected Writings, 1920-66. New York: Praeger, 1967; Gruening, Ernest, and Herbert Wilton Beaser. Vietnam Folly.Washington: National Press, 1968; Gurtov, Melvin. The First Vietnam Crisis. New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press, 1967; Halberstam, David. The Making of a Quagmire. New York: RandomHouse, 1964;

Hall, David George Edward. A History of South-East Asia. New York:St. Martin's Press, 1968; Hammer, Ellen J. The Struggle for Indochina, 1940-1955. Stanford,California: Stanford University Press, 1965; Hejzlar, J. The Art of Vietnam. London: Hamlyn Publishing, 1973; Hickey, Gerald Cannon. Free in the Forest: Ethnohistory of the VietnameseCentral Highlands, 1954-1976. New Haven: Yale University Press,1982; Hodgkin, Thomas Lionel. Vietnam: The Revolutionary Path. New York:St. Martin's Press, 1981; Huynh Kim Khanh. Vietnamese Communism, 1925-1945. Ithaca, NewYork: Cornell University Press, 1982; Kahin, George McTurnan. Intervention. New York: Knopf, 1986; Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking Press, 1983; Knoebl, Kuno. Victor Charlie: The Face of War in Viet-Nam. New York:Praeger, 1967; Komer, Robert W. Bureaucracy at War. Boulder, Colorado: WestviewPress, 1986; Lacouture, Jean. Ho Chi Minh: A Political Biography. New York: RandomHouse, 1968 Lawson, Eugene K. The Sino-Vietnamese Conflict. New York: Praeger,1984; McAleavy, Henry. Black Flags in Vietnam. London: George Allen andUnwin, 1956; McAlister, John T. Viet-Nam: The Origins of Revolution. New York:Alfred A. Knopf, 1969; Marr, David G. Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885-1925. Berkeley:University of California Press, 1971; Neher, Clark D. "The Bronze Drum Tradition," Asian Studies ProfessionalReview, 14, Nos. 1 and 2, 1974-75, 186;

Pike, Douglas. A History of Vietnamese Communism, 1925-1976.Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, 1978; Viet Cong: The Organization and Techniques of the NationalLiberation Front of South Vietnam. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1966; War, Peace, and the Viet Cong. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1969; Porter, Gareth (ed.). Vietnam. A History in Documents. New York: NewAmerican Library, 1981; Shaplen, Robert. The Lost Revolution. New York: Harper and Row, 1955; Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie. New York: Random House, 1988; Smith, Ralph B. An International History of the Vietnam War. 2 vols.New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985; Viet-Nam and the West. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UniversityPress, 1968; Spector, Ronald H. Advice and Support: The Early Years, 1941-1960.Washington: United States Army Center of Military History, 1983; Taylor, Keith Weller. The Birth of Vietnam. Berkeley: University ofCalifornia Press, 1983; Thayer, Thomas C. War Without Fronts: The American Experience inVietnam. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1985; Turley, William S. The Second Indochina War: A Short Political and MilitaryHistory, 1954-75. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1986; United States. Congress. 98th, 2d Session. Senate. Committee on ForeignRelations. The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive andLegislative Roles and Relationships. Washington: GPO, 1984; Van Dyke, Jon M. North Vietnam's Strategy for Survival. Palo Alto,California: Pacific Books, 1972; Whitfield, Danny J. Historical and Cultural Dictionary of Vietnam.Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1976; Woodside, Alexander Barton. Community and Revolution in ModernVietnam. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976; Vietnam and the Chinese Model. Cambridge: HarvardUniversity Press, 1971;

Experts: Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnam at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii and the Australian Defence Force Academy; Professor Frank Proschan, an expert on Vietnamese culture at the Folklore Institute at Indiana University (Bloomington); Vietnam expert Edmund Malesky, Associate Professor at the University of California, San Diego; Dao Dang Phong, a US-based expert on Vietnamese culture.

Good Book: Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow. It won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1990. National Geographic articles: "Hanoi:The Capital Today" by Peter White, "Hue: My City, Myself" by Tran Van Dinh, and "Saigon: 14 years After" by Peter White, November 1989; "The Troubled Odyssey of Vietnamese Fishermen" by Harvey Arden, September 1981; "Behind the Headlines in Vietnam" by Peter White, February 1967; "Saigon: Eye of the Storm" by Peter White, June 1965.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2014



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