CULTURE AND ARTS IN VIETNAM

CULTURE AND ARTS IN VIETNAM

The culture of Vietnam has been influenced mainly by China but also by other Southeast Asia cultures and Indonesia. Vietnam is the only Southeast-Asian country where the Chinese influence has predominated in theater and dance, and culture in general, for centuries. This is the result of various historical and geographical factors. Geographically, Vietnam belongs to both East and South-East Asia. The Indo-Chinese Peninsula, of which Vietnam occupies a narrow stretch in its eastern half, is essentially a southern extension of the Chinese land mass. It is thus only natural that the political power and cultural influence of China have been present throughout Vietnam’s history.

The Kinh (the Vietnamese) have a rich collection of literature which includes old tales, folk ballads, and proverbs. The written literature takes many forms such as poems, writings, books, and edicts. Song, music, sculpture, painting, dance and performance are also well developed and popular. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com,Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

During the Vietnam War there was little time for culture .After the war—a time when when people were suffering from food shortages and economic hardships— the traditional arts were viewed as backward, bourgeois and frivolous, and were discouraged by the government. With the economic reforms in the 1980s, traditional arts were seen in a different light and viewed as something that should be encouraged and preserved.

Even though the arts are now viewed in a positive light, they suffer from lack of money. The government doesn’t support them much. Performers try to make money by selling their art or hawking tickets to their performances. Many do it for free out of love for their art. And then there are the censors. Artist seem to know how far they can go with the censors and don’t force the issue too much and as a result are not persecuted like some artists in, say, China are. Some are watched by secret police.

While there is no official state censor in Vietnam, private media ownership is barred and editors are personally responsible for the contents of their publications. With the end of state subsidies, advertising has become crucial to the survival of most of Vietnam's publications. In the mid 2000s there were many copyright lawsuits, such as Trong Bang’s symphony "Celebration", the two plays "Country Spirit" and "Secret Dreams of Teu and Kangaroo", as well as the legal struggle between two scholars, Dao Thai Ton and Nguyen Quang Tuan, about "the Boundless Field," "Disabled Stream" and "Chat to Mozart".

Vietnamese art forms that are on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding are (with the year the were recognized): 1) Xoan singing of Phú Tho Province (2011); 2) Ca trù singing (2009). Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (with the year the were recognized): 1) Worship of Hùng kings in Phú Tho (2012); 2) Gióng festival of Phù Ðông and Sóc temples (2010); 3) Quan Ho. Ba'c Ninh folk songs (2009); 4) Nha Nhac, Vietnamese court music (2008); 5) Space of gong culture (2005).

Vietnam Has More Cultural Depth Than Many People Give Credit For

Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times: "For many Americans who came of age before or during the 1960's, Vietnam was the name of a place you didn't want to go to. Its identity began and ended as a war zone. Even today the prevailing impression of the Southeast Asian country seems to be a composite of remembered news clips and scenes from "Apocalypse Now." The West had a comparably one-dimensional view of Japan after World War II. And as time passed, the view changed. It grew broader, friendlier and complicated, closer to reality. More than a quarter-century after the Tet offensive and My Lai, the image of Vietnam is due for similar revision. [Source: Holland Cotter New York Times, March 14, 2003 //\\]

"Indeed, the past is apparent everywhere, but indirectly, embodied in old but dynamic popular traditions and in the ephemeral artifacts they continue to generate. A blend of fact, myth, need and collective will, these traditions address fundamental human experiences — birth, marriage, death — and together add up to what is sometimes called national culture.National culture is an amorphous, porous, not to say chimerical concept; Vietnam's no more or less than any other's. The country, a long rope of land about the size of New Mexico, is made up of 54 ethnic groups, most quite small, speaking almost as many languages. Over the centuries, foreign powers — China, Cambodia, France, England, Japan, the United States — have come and gone, leaving their cultural mark. Various immigrant groups have been absorbed, mixing with an indigenous population. //\\

"One way to get a sense of the resulting complexity is to look at Vietnamese religion, a synchretic, multifaceted phenomenon that includes elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, with late-arriving Christianity and Islam folded in. The proportion of ingredients varies from group to group, but spiritual events of some kind, whether religious or social, public or private, are a fact of daily life." //\\

Hanoi as a Cultural Center:

Hanoi is regarded as the cultural as well a political capital of Vietnam and a bastion of Confucius values and Communist doctrines. It moves at a much slower pace than Saigon. Nguyen Du Mau, one of Vietnam’s most beloved poets, told National Geographic, "This is a city that nurture’s the soul of a poet. It’s not something easily explained, but is something you feel. In the touch of the mist. In the sight f the Red River. In the traditions, the lives of struggle. A sense of romance hovers over Hanoi like no other city I know. You walk the streets, and you’re passing through a thousand years of history." [Source: David Lamb, National Geographic, May 2004 *-*]

"A city of poets? Yes, people have called us that, because Hanoi has always been the home of Vietnam’s artists and the home of Vietnam’s artists and intelligentsia. Part of the reason is historical: This was the seat of Vietnam’s old dynasties. They provided the intellectual foundation for the north. The emperors surround themselves with scholars and poets, and as far back as the Ly dynasty, in the 11th century, poetry was part of our cultural identity. In the south there is no such history and tradition. Saigon didn’t even exist as a city until the 18th century." *-*

North Vietnam Versus South Vietnam

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 ^+^]

Ben Stocking of Associated Press wrote: "Northerners are rude, they talk funny, they are lousy drivers and have bad taste. When a Vietnamese blogger unleashed this tirade from down south recently, people 700 miles away in Hanoi responded with a flood of angry postings online and a few death threats text-messaged to the blogger's cellphone. The episode underscored a delicate truth about Vietnam: Hard feelings die hard. The United States has had 142 years to recover from the civil war. The Vietnam War's north-south division ended just 32 years ago.Vast cultural differences divide the former republics of North and South Vietnam. Hanoi is as far from Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, as New York City is from Atlanta . The two cities have different cuisines, different dialects, and different styles of doing business. [Source: Ben Stocking, Associated Press, February 22, 2007 ^+^]

"Relations are generally civil, even friendly. But occasionally, something stirs up old animosities. And nothing has stirred them like Nhu Hoa's shot in the country's thriving blogosphere, which she wrote after a weekend visit to Hanoi. "I came to realize that Hanoi was not a place for Saigonese, who are food connoisseurs," wrote Hoa, a university student who complained about everything from the condensed milk northerners use in their coffee [sticky and sweet] to the speed of their Internet connections [very slow]. "I don't like anyone who isn't from Saigon," Hoa declared. "I pity the parents who gave birth to this devil baby," Hanoi resident Bui Dung shot back in a typical online riposte. ^+^

Dong Son Gongs: Earliest Visual Sources

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: "Before the period of direct Chinese influence, North Vietnam was the home of a Bronze Age culture called Dong Son. The best-known artefacts created in this culture are large bronze "kettle drums" or gongs, in which dancers and processional performances are also depicted. Together with some cave paintings they give the earliest existing information about the theatrical arts in Southeast Asia. The Dong Son culture derives its name from the village Dong Son in northern Vietnam, which was first excavated in the 1920s. It is now generally thought that it was not the actual political center of the culture, but merely one of the Dong Son principalities loosely linked to each other. The center of the Dong Son culture was the central region of the Red River basin.[Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

Working with bronze was practiced in Vietnam probably from the second millennium B.C. onward and it reached its technical and artistic peak around 500 BC–100 AD. Among the Dong Son bronze objects, such as tools, vessels, ornaments, weapons, arrowheads etc. the most impressive group is that of the large, decorated gongs, or "drums" or "kettle drums" as they are often called. The earliest examples were cast in one piece. Later, when gong manufacturing spread to other parts of Southeast Asia, as far as Bali, the gongs were also cast in two pieces, utilising the so-called lost wax method. The basic design of Dong Son gongs consists of a flat tympanum and sides that narrow in the middle.|~|

There has been much speculation about the function of these gongs. It is now thought that they were connected with both ritual and rank, with many found buried in the graves of high-ranking individuals. The materials with which they were made and the skills needed to manufacture them were such that only the wealthy would have been able to own them. The tympana of the gongs are decorated with a rich variety of motifs, some impressed into the wax through the use of moulds before the bronze was cast and some carved on the wax by hand. The motifs include the central star or sun, which has been identified by Vietnamese scholars as the Solar Star, the central axis of Dong Son cosmology. Comb-teeth motifs, concentric circles and birds surround it. Human figures are also depicted, as well as extremely informative portrayals of everyday life, agricultural scenes, rituals and handsome warships with feathered warriors. |~|

Dancers are often portrayed within the middle section of the tympanum decorations. They are shown in line formations in identical, energetic poses. In their hands they hold different kinds of weapons such as spears, sticks and axes. The dancers wear extremely large feathered headdresses and their lower bodies are covered with long, skirt-like costumes. Similar kinds of dances are still performed in some remote areas in Southeast Asia.

Describing a Bronze Drum from the 5th–3rd century B.C., Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "Bronze drums are the characteristic artifact of the Dong Son culture. Hundreds of drums, some weighing up to 440 pounds (two hundred kilograms), have been found in Viet Nam, southern China, and throughout Southeast Asia. This drum has the rounded shoulders and large size that typify the earliest Dong Son drums. The drums served as regalia, ritual instruments, and burial objects. When played, they were suspended from a crossbar, supported by sticks, over a hole in the ground, which served to enhance their resonance. Craftsmen cast the drums in one piece using the lost-wax technique. [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society; the piece is from Hoang (Mieu Mon) Village, My Duc District, Ha Tay Province; now in the National Museum of Vietnamese History, Hanoi, LSb 5724]

Bronze Drums —an Ancient Animist Art Form

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The use and manufacture of bronze drums is the oldest continuous art tradition in Southeast Asia. It began some time before the 6th century B.C. in northern Vietnam and later spread to other areas such as Burma, Thailand, Indonesia and China. The Karen adopted the use of bronze drums at some time prior to their 8th century migration from Yunnan into Burma where they settled and continue to live in the low mountains along the Burma - Thailand border. During a long period of adoption and transfer, the drum type was progressively altered from that found in northern Vietnam (Dong Son or Heger Type I) to produce a separate Karen type (Heger Type III). In 1904, Franz Heger developed a categorization for the four types of bronze drums found in Southeast Asia that is still in use today. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“The vibrating tympanum is made of bronze and is cast as a continuous piece with the cylinder. Distinguishing features of the Karen type include a less bulbous cylinder so that the cylinder profile is continuous rather than being divided into three distinct parts. Type III has a markedly protruding lip, unlike the earlier Dong Son drums. The decoration of the tympanum continues the tradition of the Dong Son drums in having a star shaped motif at its center with concentric circles of small, two-dimensional motifs extending to the outer perimeter. =

“Bronze drums were used among the Karen as a device to assure prosperity by inducing the spirits to bring rain, by taking the spirit of the dead into the after-fife and by assembling groups including the ancestor spirits for funerals, marriages and house-entering ceremonies. The drums were used to entice the spirits of the ancestors to attend important occasions and during some rituals the drums were the loci or seat of the spirit. =

“It appears that the oldest use of the drums by the Karen was to accompany the protracted funeral rituals performed for important individuals. The drums were played during the various funeral events and then, among some groups, small bits of the drum were cut away and placed in the hand of the deceased to accompany the spirit into the afterlife. It appears that the drums were never used as containers for secondary burial because there is no instance where Type III drums have been unearthed or found with human remains inside. The drums are considered so potent and powerful that they would disrupt the daily activities of a household so when not in use, they were placed in the forest or in caves, away from human habitation. They were also kept in rice barns where when turned upside down they became containers for seed rice; a practice that was thought to improve the fertility of the rice. Also, since the drums are made of bronze, they helped to deter predations by scavengers such as rats or mice. =

“The drums were a form of currency that could be traded for slaves, goods or services and were often used in marriage exchanges. They were also a symbol of status, and no Karen could be considered wealthy without one. By the late nineteenth century, some important families owned as many as thirty. The failure to return a borrowed drum often led to internecine disputes among the Karen. =

“Although the drums were cast primarily for use by groups of non-Buddhist hill people, they were used by the Buddhist kings of Burma and Thailand as musical instruments to be played at court and as appropriate gifts to Buddhist temples and monasteries. The first known record of the Karen drum in Burma is found in an inscription of the Mon king Manuha at Thaton, dated A.D. 1056.. The word for drum in this inscription occurs in a list of musical instruments played at court and is the compound pham klo: pham is Mon while klo is Karen. The ritual use of Karen drums in lowland royal courts and monasteries continued during the centuries that followed and is an important instance of inversion of the direction in which cultural influences usually flow from the lowlands to the hills. =

Playing and Making Bronze Drums

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “When played, the drums were strung up by a cord to a tree limb or a house beam so that the tympanum hung at approximately a forty-five degree angle. The musician placed his big toe in the lower set of lugs to stabilize the drum while striking the tympanum with a padded mallet. Three different tones may be produced if the tympanum is struck at the center, edge, and midpoint. The cylinder was also struck but with long strips of stiff bamboo that produces a sound like a snare drum. The drums were not tuned to a single scale but had individualized sounds, hence they could be used effectively as a signal to summon a specific group to assemble. It is said that a good drum when struck could be heard for up to ten miles in the mountains. The drums were played continuously for long periods of time since the Karen believe that the tonal quality of a drum cannot be properly judged until it is played for several hours. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

For the Karen, the bronze drums perform a vital service in inducing the spirits to bring the rains. When there is a drought, the Karens take the drums into the fields where they are played to make the frogs croak because the Karens believe that if the frogs croak, it is sign that rain will surely fall. Therefore, the drums are also known as "Karen Rain Drums" =

“The town of Nwe Daung, 15 kilometers south of Loikaw, capital of Kayah (formerly Karenni) State, is the only recorded casting site in Burma. Shan craftsmen made drums there for the Karens from approximately 1820 until the town burned in 1889. Karen drums were cast by the lost wax technique; a characteritic that sets them apart from the other bronze drum types that were made with moulds. A five metal formula was used to create the alloy consisting of copper, tin, zinc, silver and gold. Most of the material in the drums is tin and copper with only traces of silver and gold. The Karen made several attempts in the first quarter of the twentieth century to revive the casting of drums but none were successful. During the late 19th century, non-Karen hill people, attracted to the area by the prospect of work with British teak loggers, bought large numbers of Karen drums and transported them to Thailand and Laos. Consequently, their owners frequently incorrectly identify their drums as being indigenous to these countries. =

Early Influences of China and India on Vietnam

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: "Even early archaeological finds show Chinese influence, which spread to the original territory of the Vietnamese in Tonkin and northern Annam at least two centuries before the present era. By 40 B.C., these regions were incorporated into the Chinese Empire, to which they belonged for the following nine centuries. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

In other parts of Southeast Asia, religions, the language of the court, mythology, law, and art were all adopted from India. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, received the cornerstones of their culture from China, viz. Confucianism, Taoism, Chinese Buddhism, the language of the ruling class, the Chinese classics, the civil service examination system, and their whole model of administration. |~|

Indian influences, prominent elsewhere in Southeast Asia, were adopted via the Indianised kingdom of Champa, which was conquered by the Vietnamese around the fifteenth century. With increasing Chinese domination, however, Indianised elements were to remain marginal in later Vietnamese culture. |~|

Champa Culture

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: "The kingdom of Champa, or as was most often the case, rather a network of Cham principalities, flourished in the coastal regions of present-day Vietnam from the early centuries AD to the second half of the 15th century, after which, much reduced in size, it survived until the middle of the 19th century. The region of Champa with its river valleys served as an important stop for the maritime trade route system of the "Southern Silk Road" connecting China to Southeast Asia, India and further to the Mediterranean world. The principal Cham sites, with traces of brick-built temple towers, are scattered around the coastal regions and partly on the plateaus of the interior. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

Champa’s history was overshadowed by wars, victorious as well as disastrous, especially with the Khmer. It was finally swept from the political scene by the Sinocised Vietnamese in the 15th century. The legacy of Champa’s arts includes brick temples, fully round sculptures both in stone and bronze, high reliefs, bas-reliefs, ceramics and embossed metal works. The predominant religion of Champa was Hinduism in its Shivaistic form, which developed in Champa in its own way. Vishnuism played a minor role, whereas Buddhism in its Tantric Mahayana form was popular for a period from the 9th to the 11th century, during which time Chinese influence can be recognized in some of the religious sculptures. |~|

The collection of some 300 sculptures and reliefs in the Museum of Cham Sculpture in Danang, in Central Vietnam, and the much smaller collection at the Musée Guimet in Paris together with those reliefs and sculptures which are still in situ or in minor site museums, form the rather limited core of all Cham sculpture. The motifs of the dancing Shiva, found in the tympana reliefs, show a remarkable iconographical variety. These reliefs served as anthropomorphic representations of the main deity of the temple, which was represented on the main altar as the non-anthropomorphic linga standing on its yoni base. The earliest surviving example of the Shiva tympana reliefs is from the 8th century. Their iconography seems to derive from 6th–8th century West India. |~|

Probably the most widely illustrated of all the Cham sculptures is the 10th century "Tra Kieu dancer". It is a rather well preserved portrayal of a dancer sculptured on a large pedestal. It has been pointed out that this image clearly reflects Indian and Javanese influences. The pose and the gestures of the Tra Kieu dancer reflect Indian influence. In the dancer’s pose one can, however, recognise one particular element, which is seldom present in Indian or even Javanese dance images. It is the over-bent elbow joint of the left arm, which could easily be seen as the artist’s inability to portray human anatomy. However, it can also be interpreted as the earliest so far known surviving portrayal of the technical and aesthetical characteristic, which was and still is a distinctive feature in classical Javanese and, especially, Thai-Khmer dance techniques. |~|

If the above interpretation is correct, the Tra Kieu dancer reflects, to a certain degree, the localisation process of the Indian-influenced dance tradition in Champa culture. This also applies to another famous pedestal dated to an even earlier period, the 7th century. This pedestal, which once supported a large Shiva linga, shows groups of dancers on the risers of its stairway. The pedestal is otherwise decorated with musicians as well as ascetics in various activities. |~|

The central figure in the upper panel has turned his muscular back to the viewer while waving a long scarf in his hands as if offering it to the deity. The side figures are in frozen poses and hold offerings in their hands. The poses and gestures of the dancers in the lower panel are clearly Indian-influenced, but what is striking is the dominant role the dance scarves have in these panels. The use of dance scarves is rare in the Indian Natyashastra-related traditions, whereas scarves are depicted in Central Javanese reliefs and they have become an integral element of Javanese dances of later times. |~|

The Cham dance reliefs reflect the localisation process of Indian dance in Southeast Asia. The over-bent elbow of the Tra Kieu dancer and the dominant role of the scarf in some of the Cham dance images are clearly indigenous or are at least Southeast Asian features. However, the Indian influence continued to thrive during the whole of Champa’s golden period as can be seen, for example, in a lintel relief from the 11th century showing female dancers and musicians. The dancers hold their hands above their heads in a salutation mudra while their open legs are in a typical Indian-influenced position. The asymmetry of their pose may be explained by the fact that the reliefs show not the first movement of the salutation, but one of the following movements when the dancers bend their bodies from side to side. These kinds of invocation dances or sequences of dance are still part of the repertory of Indian dances as well as of some Thai ritual dances. One could conclude that the Indian, especially Southwest Indian, influence is prominent in the Cham dance images, although they are only seldom based on direct Indian models, maybe because the Indian influence could have been, at least partly, received via Indonesian islands. |~|

Vietnamese Culture

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: "The kingdom of Champa, or as was most often the case, rather a network of Cham principalities, flourished in the coastal regions of present-day Vietnam from the early centuries AD to the second half of the 15th century, after which, much reduced in size, it survived until the middle of the 19th century. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

The Vietnamese have often fought for their independence. The first, short-lived, Vietnamese dynasty was established around the middle of the tenth century, and over the centuries, the Vietnamese gained control of areas in Annam and further south in Cochin-China, the traditional territory of the Khmers. The division between North and South Vietnam is geographical: the coastal stretch is long and narrow, and civilization concentrated around two river valleys, the Red River in the north and the Mekong in the south. Central Vietnam, however, has a distinct identity as a mountainous region. |~|

Cochin-China was for a long time the European name for the whole of Vietnam, but from the end of the eighteenth century the French used it only in referring to the south. They called the northern parts Tonkin and the center Annam, although the latter term was sometimes used for the country as a whole. The Vietnamese never used these terms; for them, the south was Nam Bo, the center Trung Bo, and the north Bac Bo. In rough outline the history of Vietnam can be broadly divided into three cultural periods: 1) tenth to fourteenth century: joint influence of Chinese and Indian culture; 2) fifteenth to eighteenth century: predominantly Chinese influence; and 3) eighteenth to twentieth centuries: a period of Western influence. |~|

Tran Dynasty Music, Art, Architecture and Science

According to the An Nam Chi Luoc, in Tran times "people played small cylindrical drum, introduced from Champa, which had a clear, pure sound. This drum was used in the great music play only for the king; even princes and dignitaries were not allowed to play great music, except at ceremonies. Guitars - cam, tranh, ti ba with seven or two strings, and flutes of various kinds could be used by all nobles or commoners, Countless pieces were played". [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

The art of the Tran period continued that of the Ly Palaces and royal mausoleums continued to be built. Pho Minh Tower, built in 1305, is 14 stories high with the lowest two levels made of stone and the rest of brick. The base was shaped like a gigantic lotus flower emerging from the water. The Binh Son tower still stands to this day, leaning slightly with its remaining 12 storeys totalling 15 meters in height. The whole construction is of terra-cotta and the surfaces arc richly decorated with lotus and other flowers, dragons, lions, and leaves of the bo tree. The dragons have lost their "natural" look and the S-shaped decoration on their heads. Remarkable wood carvings have survived from the Tran period. This art form appeared during a much earlier period, but the works have suffered badly from the ravages of climate and insects. Wood carving also used all the above-mentioned motifs and themes. ~

Among the great monuments from the Tran period are the Tay Do citadel, built by Ho Quy Ly in Thanh Hoa Province in 1397, and which served as a capital for a short time. Rectangular in shape, 900 meters long and 700 meters wide, with 6 metre-high ramparts, it was built of large stone blocks, some of them 6 meters long, 1.7 meters wide and 1.2 meters high and weighing 16 tons. Of the ancient palaces, only a few traces have survived,such as stone dragons decorating flights of steps. The arched porticoes were built from huge stone blocks. Architecture had thus reached a high level. ~

Among other forms of technology was the casting of cannon. Ho Nguyen Trung, taken prisoner by the Ming, was entrusted by the Chinese emperor to make cannons for the Chinese army. Astronomy also developed to some extent. It is recorded in the annals that the mandarin Dang Lo, in charge of astrology under the Tran, invented an instrument used to observe celestial phenomena. During the reign of Tran Due Tong (1341-1369), lived the famous physician Tue Tinh who made a special study of the healing properties of local plants and herbs. In 1352, he was invited to China to attend the Chinese empress. He left several medical treatises, the most famous of which is the Nam Duoc Than Hieu (About the Marvelous Effects of National Medicines). ~

Hué, Chinese-influenced Court Culture

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: "In the historical context outlined above, it is only natural that Chinese influence has been prominent in Vietnamese theatrical traditions since the times of the Indian-influenced Champa kingdoms. According to oral tradition, a Vietnamese ruler of the early eleventh century employed a Chinese actor to teach his court actors the art of "Chinese satirical theater". It is not known, however, what was exactly meant by this term.[Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

Vietnamese history is marked by a continuous struggle against Chinese hegemony and conflicts with other conquering powers, such as the Khmer Empire and the Thais. In 1802 a new state of Vietnam was formed with its capital in Hué, where the court maintained its own Chinese-influenced traditions of art and culture. The court and its customs lived on even after 1857, when French military rule was established. In 1887 the territory of Vietnam that became part of the new French Indo-Chinese Union, which after 1893 included Cambodia and Laos, was ruled by a French governor-general residing in Hanoi.|~|

Not later than the time of the Mongol invasion in the late thirteenth century, the Vietnamese adopted Chinese opera. It is known that Vietnamese soldiers captured a Chinese opera troupe, and some of the imprisoned actors were employed to teach their art to the local actors. This tradition was continued at the court of Hué. The originally Chinese forms of court dance and temple rituals were also transplanted to Hué. The court in Hué relinquished the remnants of its former political power after World War II, shortly before Ho Chi Minh declared the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Vietnam in September 1945. The tragic war in Vietnam, which began in the 1960s, and its various consequences have left their mark on the country, but much of its traditional, and particularly popular, culture has been preserved to the present day. |~|

Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times: "For many Americans who came of age before or during the 1960's, Vietnam was the name of a place you didn't want to go to. Its identity began and ended as a war zone. Even today the prevailing impression of the Southeast Asian country seems to be a composite of remembered news clips and scenes from "Apocalypse Now." The West had a comparably one-dimensional view of Japan after World War II. And as time passed, the view changed. It grew broader, friendlier and complicated, closer to reality. More than a quarter-century after the Tet offensive and My Lai, the image of Vietnam is due for similar revision. [Source: Holland Cotter New York Times, March 14, 2003 //\\]

"Indeed, the past is apparent everywhere, but indirectly, embodied in old but dynamic popular traditions and in the ephemeral artifacts they continue to generate. A blend of fact, myth, need and collective will, these traditions address fundamental human experiences — birth, marriage, death — and together add up to what is sometimes called national culture.National culture is an amorphous, porous, not to say chimerical concept; Vietnam's no more or less than any other's. The country, a long rope of land about the size of New Mexico, is made up of 54 ethnic groups, most quite small, speaking almost as many languages. Over the centuries, foreign powers — China, Cambodia, France, England, Japan, the United States — have come and gone, leaving their cultural mark. Various immigrant groups have been absorbed, mixing with an indigenous population. //\\

"One way to get a sense of the resulting complexity is to look at Vietnamese religion, a synchretic, multifaceted phenomenon that includes elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, with late-arriving Christianity and Islam folded in. The proportion of ingredients varies from group to group, but spiritual events of some kind, whether religious or social, public or private, are a fact of daily life." //\\

Ritual and Culture in Vietnam

Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times: "In the homes of the Kinh or Viet people, the country's ethnic majority, ancestral altars, like the formidable example in the show, are piled high with sweets, fruits, incense and ceramic jars, locally made in antique styles, to coax familial spirits back for a holiday meal.Just as New Year festivities mark a passage in civic time, other practices begin and end phases of an individual's life. The exhibition devotes a section to a teenage boy's initiation into adulthood in the northern Yao minority; the rite culminates in the boy's climbing a ladder and, in a classic test of psychological trust, falling backward into a net held by ritual masters. [Source: Holland Cotter New York Times, March 14, 2003 //\\]

Like many ceremonies, this one is accompanied by custom-made objects: vividly colored and annotated narrative scrolls and deity portraits. Once painted by the ritual masters themselves, such images are now produced in commercial workshops. And even with the current Vietnamese government's support of ethnic traditions, in the interests of nationalist solidarity and tourism, the exact meanings of their inscriptions are being forgotten. Another, more common rite of passage, marriage, is fraught with protocols of status and etiquette, which differ in details from one ethnic group to another, as do rituals surrounding death. In Kinh funerals mourners wear outfits that signify their precise familial relationship to the deceased, and burn paper objects — ingeniously made versions of everyday things like dress suits, motorbikes and houses — as offerings. //\\

"People of the Thai minority erect funerary "trees" to launch the dead toward heaven. Hindu Cham people conduct elaborate cremation ceremonies. The Giarai people of the central highlands set up mortuary houses surrounded by carved wooden figures, including those of monkeys, an animal believed to rule in the ancestral realm that is the afterlife. //\\

"Certain ancestors are public celebrities and treated as such. An image of the deified military hero Ly Phuc Man is carried out of his temple in procession each year on a lacquer and gilt palanquin. The life and valiant times of other mythical and historical personalities are recounted in the water puppet plays performed at the annual Chua Thay festival in northern Vietnam. A religion of mother goddesses is populated by a United Nations of divine beings, including Buddhas, Chinese-style mandarins and the goddesses themselves, who seem to be native to Vietnam. //\\

"A ritual called Len Dong, associated with the mother goddess cult, is thought to bring material prosperity and has proved particularly popular in the entrepreneurial atmosphere of the market economy, introduced to the country in the 1980's. The performers are female shamans or mediums who invoke entire heavenly armies on behalf of the petitioners, embodying an array of male and female spirits, while their celestial steeds, made of paper, are burned as votive offerings. //\\

American and Western Culture in Vietnam

The invasion of American culture in the 1990s included vendors selling Good Morning Vietnam T-Shirts and Snoopy tote bags and young Vietnamese wearing American flag patches on Levi jackets and consuming Coke and nachos. Ho Chi Minh City featured a bar called Apocalypse Now and concerts by Elvis Phuong. At Ma nhat tan burger and pizza parlor in one can get a burger and dries for 90 cents and nachos with jalapeño peppers for 60 cents.

That period also saw the launching of the Miss Vietnam beauty contest. In the bathing suit part of the competition contestants wear belly button hugging soviet made bikinis. Old television Vietnamese watched Hong Kong movies, old Tracy-Hepburn films and CNN. American country music was popular. You could often hear Willie Nelson sing "Always on My Mind" and heavy metal was catching on with young people.The first fast food outlet to open in Vietnam was a Baskin Robbins in Ho Chi Minh City. Early Vietnamese takes on American fast food included a restaurant called HAM-BUT-GO CA-LI-PHO-NIA.

The expression song voi ("fast living") was used to describe the new Vietnam. At night boys on motorscooters and motorcycles took to the streets to celebrate what young people call song tu do ("living freely"). They broke taboos by hug and hold hands with their girlfriends and sometimes kissing in public. Tim Larimer wrote in the New York Times that Hanoi is filled "20-something men who dash around the city racing their motorcycles, drinking whiskey, showing off to girlfriends, and acting like James Dean."

Problems with Influence of American and Western Culture in Vietnam

According to the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: "Vietnam won the war against the United States, ago, but now it seems the U.S.A. will win the cultural war. At least, such is the perception of many people in Vietnam and the United States. This is only partly true, and then mainly for the young people. As for effective countermeasures against the rising tide of AIDS and other STDs, and more so for a healthy and even joyful sexuality, neither traditional Vietnamese values nor American pop culture offers any solutions for these challenges. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology \*/ ]

"As in other Southeast Asian countries, Vietnamese society is in rapid transformation because of the enormous influx of "modern" thinking as presented by commercials, international women’s and men’s magazines, and the introduction of Western economic system rules. The Vietnamese people are trying to find, at least in privacy, some stability and security, especially for the traditional values of the national ethic system of Confucianism. From a sexological viewpoint, this is, literally, a deadly mixture. It involves a tension between sexual hedonism and the perception of sex as something to buy or sell on one side, and the customs and traditions demanding a strict separation between sexual pleasures and ordinary life on the other side. Talking about sexuality, be it in public or in intimate partnership, is a Vietnamese taboo. This makes for an ideal breeding ground for AIDS and other STDs. But it also means that a neutral and unprejudiced approach to sexual habits is hardly possible, not just for the people but also for the state representatives and researchers. Foreign researchers, in particular, are not seen as neutral and nonjudgmental, but as outsiders. The perceived threat of the etic (outside) researcher calls into play the most important rule of Confucianism, "save face." \*/

"The young people are less moral, and society only thinks about money," Nguyen Thanh Minh, a former South Vietnamese soldier told the Los Angeles Times. He spent seven years in a jungle reeducation camp after the war ended in 1975. "It's worse than the old Saigon." They're following the same pattern as the U.S., despite being aware of the misgivings," Searcy said. "I used to admire their family values and real strength. Now there's so much that's superficial, so much greed." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, June 05, 2010]

In his paper “Moral education or political education in the Vietnamese educational system,” Dung Hue Doan of Nong Lam University wrote: “Vietnamese educators are also concerned that key social values are gradually deteriorating among the young generation (Vo, 2005). As Vietnamese society has begun to modernise, young Vietnamese also start searching for their own image and identity. Unfortunately, in order to present a particular image of themselves they have tended to imitate the image of models found in commercial photos and fashionable movies, which in fact only promote a luxurious, material life and earthly values. People also claim that the poor quality and inappropriate methods of moral education in the educational system have resulted in the increase of social problems, as well as the decrease of morality among young people (Nguyen, 2005). It is obvious that moral education in the formal curriculum has been mistakenly replaced by political and legal teaching, and therefore has very little impact on the development of personality, character and the morality of students (Duong, 2000). In other words, the objectives of education are not easily achieved, as expected in the Education Law (SRV MOET, 2004b, p. 23). [Source: “Moral education or political education in the Vietnamese educational system” by Dung Hue Doan, Nong Lam University, Linh Trung, Thu Duc, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Email: doanhuedung@hcm.vnn.vn, Journal of Moral Education |^|]

Vietnam Party Chief Warns of Cultural Decline

In 1998, Reuters reported: "The head of the Vietnam Communist Party, Le Kha Phieu, has warned that commercialisation of the media and arts was threatening to undermine revolutionary cultural traditions, local media reported on Friday. In a speech in Hanoi on Thursday to top publishers and other media representatives, Phieu, who is the country's top leader, said the profit motive was causing books, newspapers and magazines to veer away from political issues. "We need to strictly look into the weakness of the press which is the commercialisation which has not been stopped and is actually an increasing trend,'' said Phieu, whose speech was printed in the daily party mouthpiece Nhan Dan (People). "There are signs of moving away from the lines and goals, and of avoiding political issues...or avoidance of fighting on the cultural ideological front,'' he added. [Source: Reuters, October 9, 1998 <<<<]

"Phieu said that publications looking to boost circulation and profit through catering to "a minority of the public'' had caused harm to the nation's cultural traditions. While there is no official state censor in Vietnam, private media ownership is barred and all editors are personally responsible for the contents of their publications. With the end of state subsidies, advertising has become crucial to the survival of most of Vietnam's publications. Even Nhan Dan has bowed to the inevitable, and advertisements run recently included a full page for the "Amazing Thailand'' tourist campaign. <<<<

"Efforts to boost circulation have led to a large growth in tabloid-style reporting in newspapers once seen as traditionally conservative. Cong An Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh (Ho Chi Minh City Police) newspaper now peppers its pages with lurid reports of violence and crime, while maintaining dry political stories and party propoganda. An Ninh The Gioi (World Security) -- published by the Police Ministry (the renamed Interior Ministry) -- followed the Clinton sex scandal in graphic detail. <<<<

"Phieu stressed the role of the media was to support the Communist Party. "Nowadays to maintain the national identity is to reflect the cause of the party and the entire people to build and defend the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,'' he said. The domestic publishing industry has florished in the 10 years since Hanoi began to free itself of the shackles of its bankrupt old Soviet-style command economy. <<<<

"Some newspapers, while tightly controlled, have tested the bounds of political leeway and been instrumental in rooting out corruption, albeit generally at lower levels, and social vice. "The press played a role in fighting corruption, bureaucracy, violations of democratic freedoms and the degeneration of some cadres and party members,'' said Phieu. <<<<

"But some journalists have gone too far and unwittingly stepped across the invisible line. Nguyen Hoang Linh, former editor of Doanh Nghiep (Enterprise) newspaper has been in detention for around a year after he wrote a series of articles alleging serious fraud in the customs department over two deals to purchase patrol boats. He was expected to stand trial on charges of "abusing democracy'' on September 10, although the hearing has been delayed a second time. <<<<

Vietnam Destroys 'Poisonous' Books After Warning About "Hostile Forces"

In 2000, Owen Bennett-Jones of the BBC: "The Vietnamese authorities in Ho Chi Minh City have destroyed six tonnes of books and other materials, describing them as "poisonous" cultural items. The communist authorities in Vietnam maintain tight control on the import or circulation of books, video tapes and compact discs. The offending books, newspapers and magazines had been seized over the course of the year 2000 by police, customs officials and cultural inspectors. Many of the items had been imported from China. In addition to the printed materials, the officials in Ho Chi Minh City destroyed thousands of video tapes, cassettes and compact discs. Officials say much of the offending material was pornographic, although some items were described as superstitious. [Source: Owen Bennett-Jones, BBC News, December 28, 2000 >><<]

"Officials deny that is a reference to religious text - it apparently refers to books about fortune-telling and horoscopes. Many Vietnamese people like to buy books which make predictions about their future. But if they are not published by Vietnam's totally controlled publishing houses, then the books are illegal and subject to seizure. Vietnam's communist authorities try to maintain a tight grip on any cultural activity in Vietnam. Any songs or books must be approved by the state before they can be published. Even music bands playing in hotels and bars must first be auditioned by a committee to ensure that their material is suitable for public consumption. >><<

Associated Press reported: "The items were seized during raids this year by customs agents, police and cultural inspectors. All contained violent, sexual or superstitious contents, said Nguyen Thanh Tan, chief inspector of Ho Chi Minh City's Culture and Information Department. They were ground up to make pulp, he said. In addition, city authorities burned 6,000 videotapes, 5,000 cassettes, 51,000 CDs and CD-ROMs and several gambling machines. [Source: Associated Press - December 28, 2000]

Before the seizure Vietnam’s president warns against "sabotage" from hostile forces. Associated Press reported: "Exposing sensitivity over political stability, Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong has warned against the increasing threat of "sabotage" from hostile forces hoping to undermine the Communist government."The hostile forces have not abandoned their attempt to sabotage our revolution," he said. Luong said that even as Vietnam continues its policy of expanding economic and political ties with the rest of the world, new challenges emerge in the form of "hostile forces." The government often uses the term "hostile forces" to refer to anyone or anything that threatens the Communist leadership, including overseas Vietnamese, many of them exiles who remain stridently opposed to the Hanoi government. [Source: Associated Press, December 22, 2000]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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