The Vietnamese "Nation" in History
The Emperor of the South rules over the rivers and the mountains of the
southern country. This destiny has been indelibly registered in the celestial
book. How dare you, rebellious slaves, come violate it? You shall undoubtedly
witness your own and complete defeat.
scholarship, in invoking the existence of a “great Vietnamese nation” has
often looked to the past to document its arguments, alluding to such
nationalistic poems by great Vietnamese heroes, and asserting that the
Vietnamese people possessed a “separate identity” from their Northern
neighbours. History texts published in
the war years of the Vietnamese Communist Party similarly evoked such a memory
of a “nation” whose people had the “sacred right” to “live, to be
happy and to be free”.
In examining the Communist interpretation of the Vietnamese “nation”, this
paper argues that while it might make sense for modern Vietnamese scholarship to
focus on the country’s extended past as a nation, this might not be entirely
accurate from a historical perspective.
Vietnamese “nation”, according to popular Communist interpretation, conveyed
the idea of an “independent” and “sovereign” people, who had a distinct
character and identity, and consequently created a “relatively advanced
Accordingly, such a people were believed to be “industrious,
intelligent and flexible, yet strong and determined not to be overcome by
This allowed them to be united towards the national cause of protecting the
sovereignty and integrity of Vietnam by “[linking] the interests of their
country… with the interests of each family and individual”.
In portraying the early Vietnamese as “heroic” people who underwent
“sacrifice and hardship”, the Communist wartime leadership hoped to instil
in its people a strong sense of identity, which it hoped would translate into
support against the invading American forces in Saigon. Consequently, historical
events were perceived through the eyes of a determined people, who overcame
natural obstacles and resisted foreign aggression continually throughout the
span of history.
construction of such a history, modern Vietnamese scholars portrayed the idea of
the Vietnamese people as possessing a “definite territory”, speaking “one
language”, sharing “common traditions” and being “born of a single
historical experience”. They defined nationalism
as “a sense of ultimate loyalty to, or inclusion in, a community of people”.
For instance, scholar Truong Buu Lam attributed the formation of Vietnamese
nationalism to the past Chinese invasions of the country, saying that the people
had to rise up and “defend their nation’s right to survival as an
He wrote about a similar nationalistic fervour in resistance leader Phan Dinh
Phung, who led the Vietnamese struggle against the French. Phung had reportedly
said that he "[had] only one brother for whom to care: he [was] the
Vietnamese people” and “only one tomb to protect: it [was] the land of
Vietnam”. Concurrently, Communist
writers argued that their leader Ho Chi Minh and his efforts were linked to
those of the legendary Hung Kings, and to historical heroic figures such as the
Trung Sisters and Tran Hung Dao.
In connecting the Communist leadership to legendary heroes, these writers hoped
to legitimise the governing regime through its assumed association with the
scholars, by evoking such a strong sense of the past and linking contemporary
events to past occurrences, hoped to instil a sense of unity into their
countrymen, so as to enable them to tide over the difficulties facing the
country at that current moment. Indeed, the contemporary Vietnamese people would
be able to develop a strong sense of patriotism and national belonging if they
could connect current events to experiences in the past, identifying personally
to the “heroic spirit” of their ancient compatriots. Consequently, by
linking the rise of the Vietnamese nation to the territory’s extended past,
Vietnamese scholars expressed hopes that because their country’s roots lie
entrenched in the distant past, it would therefore survive through the difficult
However, if one
were to examine the historical rise of the Vietnamese “nation”, the
inconsistencies between modern perceptions of nationhood and historical
realities would become apparent. Consider the idea of the Vietnamese
“nation” as people possessing a “definite territory”, speaking “one
language”, sharing “common traditions” and being “born of a single
historical experience”. This assertion, although convincing, is not
historically accurate. For instance, the Vietnamese people did not possess a
“definite territory” until recent times, with the Red River Delta, Mekong
Delta and Coastal areas not completely fused together as one distinctly
“Vietnamese” territory. This raises the question of whether local loyalties
outweigh national allegiance. In addition, Vietnamese territory was also
administered loosely subject to the governing requirements of the ruling bodies.
There is also the idea of continuity, or lack thereof, as can be seen in the
periods of Chinese conquests, indicating that the Vietnamese people were not
able to possess a “definite territory” since the founding of their country.
Consequently, it is difficult to contend that the Vietnamese people had a
definite territory that was independent and sovereign since ancient times.
idea that all Vietnamese people speak “one language”, this might be true on
the surface, especially since the language was widely spoken throughout
nineteenth century Vietnam and differed in regional nuances only because of
local dialects. However, the Vietnamese language yielded to the ancient Chinese
script in the essential fields of social life and in intellectual activity.
Moreover, the linguistic system of chu-nom implied that Chinese
characters had to be learnt before spoken Vietnamese could be used.
In this sense, there was no clear significance of Vietnamese as a “national”
language and it would be presumptuous to imply that the Vietnam was a nation
because its people spoke “one language”.
towards the idea that the Vietnamese people shared “common traditions”,
Vietnamese writers maintained that early Vietnam possessed a “relatively
advanced culture [that was] the pride of [their] nation”.
This “common tradition”, believed to be part of the ancient Dong Son way of
life, and symbolised by the development of the bronze drum, implied that the
early Vietnamese shared a unique culture and were considerably civilised.
However, as argued by revisionist historians, most of these “common
traditions” were not completely “national” and were instead
“crossbred” with Chinese influences and culture. Examples of this hybrid
culture extend to the popular amusements of chess and cricket-fighting, the
dietary and cooking styles, as well as the dress fashions, which were mainly
imported from China.
In order to
justify the need for a strong nation undivided in its aspirations and desires,
modern Vietnamese writers have argued that the Vietnamese people were “born of
a single historical experience”. Accordingly, because of this singular past,
the Vietnamese people would then be expected to work congruently with their
leaders so as to embark on a common destiny as a nation. However, if one were to
examine the issue carefully, the historical experience of Vietnam would probably
not be so clearly defined. This can be explained through the numerous ethnic
groups present in the territory, whose very presence denies the existence of a
single “Vietnamese historical experience”. Indeed the ethnic groups of the
northern uplands and the central highlands were only added to the Vietnamese
state under French rule, and many of these groups possess experiences different
from the dominant Kinh people.
In conclusion, the idea of an extended Vietnamese “nation” that is rooted in the annals of ancient history and deeply entrenched in culture and civilisation might be closer to myth than reality. This can be ascertained through closely examining the Vietnamese record of its “nationhood”, which is shrouded largely in myths and heroic tales. However, when viewing history from the perspective of a modern Vietnamese scholar, it might not be all that insensible to portray a romantic picture of Vietnam as a heroic nation that wrestled against numerous aggressors and yet survived to present an account of its struggles. This is especially because of the critical importance of such a picture towards shaping the memories and thought processes of the Vietnamese people. Consequently, the extent to which an extended Vietnamese “nation” makes sense should not be determined solely by its historical accuracy, but also according to how important such a concept is to the Vietnamese people.
above essay was written by Mark Lim Shan-Loong on 14th
Joseph, A Dragon Defiant: A
Short History of Vietnam, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972.
Jean, The Vietnamese Nation: Contribution
to a History, Trans. Malcolm Salmon, 2nd ed., Sydney: Current
Book Distributors, 1966.
D.R., Vietnam: The Struggle for
National Identity, 2nd ed., Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press,
Buu Lam, Patterns of Vietnamese Response to Foreign Intervention:
1858-1900, USA: Yale University Southeast Asian Studies, 1967.
 Ly Thuong Kiet, quoted in Truong Buu Lam, Patterns of Vietnamese Response to Foreign Intervention: 1858-1900, USA: Yale University Southeast Asian Studies, 1967, pp.47-8. Ly Thuong Kiet, who commanded the Vietnamese Army against the Song Dynasty’s invasion from 1075 -1077, was alleged to have read this poem assuming the identity of a temple deity in order to raise the morale of the army.
 See Annex A below. Vietnamese history textbook published in Hanoi in 1971, translated by Bruce Lockhart and reproduced in a tutorial handout.
 Ibid., p. 2.
 Ibid., p. 1.
 Ibid., p. 2.
 Truong Buu Lam, Patterns of Vietnamese Response to Foreign Intervention, p. 31. Lam’s perceptions typify the experiences of overseas Vietnamese who had trained overseas and were living outside of their country, but who nonetheless possessed a strong sense of national affinity towards their homeland.
 Ibid., p. 29.
 Ibid., p. 27.
 Annex A.
 Jean Chesneaux, The Vietnamese Nation: Contribution to a History, Trans. Malcolm Salmon, 2nd ed., Sydney: Current Book Distributors, 1966, p. 67. Chesneaux’s opinions are crucial towards understanding the contemporary views of Vietnamese nationhood, especially when considered from the perspective of a non-Vietnamese.
 Ibid., pp. 67-8.
 The chu-nom system referred to the use of a popular tongue adapted to Vietnamese sounds but derived directly from Chinese characters.
 Annex A.
 Jean Chesneaux, The Vietnamese Nation, pp. 70-2.
The Writing Page
“All the peoples of the world were born equal; every one of them has the right to live, to be happy, and to be free.” That is the first sentence of the introduction to Chairman Ho Chi Minh’s Proclamation of Independence, read in Ba Dinh Square [in Hanoi] on 2 September 1945, the day when the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was born.
The Vietnamese nation rose up
to fulfill their sacred right, which they reclaimed after nearly a century
of determined struggle for Independence and Freedom.
This was also a warm fraternal greeting to the peoples of the whole
world, for their effort and their victory were part of the historic victory
of the Vietnamese people. Vietnam
is happy and proud to have been the first colony to carry out a great
revolution: The August
Revolution. Vietnam liberated
itself from the shackles of imperialism:
the country was independent, and the people were free.
Although this was only a first step, this victory was very
fundamental in the long and difficult struggle to obtain the right for the
nation to take its destiny into its own hands.
On the ridge of Mt. Nghia, at the temple
dedicated to the Hung rulers, Chairman Ho [Chi Minh] met with fighters from
the People’s Army preparing to liberate the Capital [Hanoi] after the
renowned victory at Dien Bien Phu [in 1954]. He said:
“The Hung Kings had the merit of building the country, now you
and I must protect the country together.”
[He also wrote that] “We have the right to be proud of the glorious
pages of history from the period of the Trung Sisters, Lady Trieu, Tran Hung
Dao [who defeated the Mongols in the 13th Century], Le Loi [who drove out
the Ming in the 15th Century], Quang Trung [who defeated the Qing in the
18th Century], etc. We must remember the meritorious efforts of our national
heroes because they represent a heroic people.”
Particularly since 1930 [the founding of the Indochinese Communist Party], under the leadership of our Party, headed by the great Chairman Ho, the people of our whole country have written the most glorious pages of our Fatherland’s history. Under the glorious banner of the Party, “all that is greatest and most worthy of pride in our people has been brought together over the last forty years. This is the time when our people, within the greater movement of progressive people [everywhere], have leapt ahead with the bold strength of a new era, with all the glorious traditions of our nation, and with a full consciousness of their destiny and their future” [quote by former Party Secretary Le Duan, writing in 1971].
From the period of the Hung Kings to the
time of Ho Chi Minh, through 4000 years of history, the life of our nation
has been full of sacrifice and hardship, but it has also been full of a
heroic spirit; at times there has been mourning and shame, but there have
also been many glorious, shining moments as well.
The most recent scientific findings have shown that Vietnam is in one of the earliest areas to have had human life, one of the cradles of humankind. Vietnam is very rich in natural resources, but it is also a place where nature has placed many obstacles which are difficult to overcome: rain, floods, storms, humidity, drought. Having been born in such an environment, people have the necessary conditions to live and for their family lines to prosper, but they must go through a period of long and lasting, bitter, complicated struggle before they can gradually conquer nature. Our ancestors’ spirit of patient struggle against nature has been popularized through the myth of the Mountain Spirit and the Water Spirit, one of the oldest stories [in Vietnamese culture], which may have appeared as early as the time of the Hung Kings, the beginning of Vietnamese history. Every time that the Water Spirit raised the level of the water, the Mountain Spirit would build mountains even higher, determined to defeat the Water Spirit [in their competition to win the hand of a princess] and
to protect the people from
being flooded. Once the Viet
people no longer lived only by slash-and-burn and by hunting and gathering
in the hills and mountains and had come down to the delta or else moved
inland from the coast, they gathered together and settled over a wide area
near big rivers—digging channels [for irrigation], building dams, planting
mulberries, raising silkworms, farming, and raising animals on a large
scale. Among the fraternal
tribes in these two regions—the mountains and the lowlands—mountain
and river had been harmonized in the context of unifying the country,
and the first nation of the Viet people took shape in embryonic form:
the country of Van Lang.
Our country occupies a strategic
position relative to the rest of Southeast Asia, and it is rich, so it has
often been threatened with invasion. During
the period of the Hung Kings our people began to build the country, so they
also had to begin protecting it, resisting the plots of foreign feudal
powers to invade and occupy it, along with other fierce tribes.
Our ancestors also had to band together in solidarity to protect
their native land. One myth
which is strange but also very much in the style of the people—the story
of Thanh Giong—demonstrates the people’s powerful spirit of resisting
foreign aggression; it is the manifestation of the tremendously rapid growth
of our nation. Giong was three
years old but did not yet know how to talk; he would just lie around in a
hammock. Suddenly he heard that
there were foreign invaders; he jumped up and grew immediately.
With the sacred call of the nation, he was fed by the people—only
with rice, brinjal, and unboiled water—until he became a giant, and he
received the mandate to defeat the invaders.
His weapons—an iron whip and iron horse—were forged for him by
the people. When he went
into battle, the iron whip broke, so Giong used bamboo shavings to make a
weapon to use against the enemy. When
Giong went into battle, he was followed by all the working people of
all ages and occupations, including even the young buffalo boys.
When the enemy had been defeated, and the nation and people were once
more at peace, Giong disappeared.
These two legends emphasize the fighting spirit of solidarity of our people in their struggle against natural disasters and human enemies for the national cause of protecting their lives and the survival of the Fatherland as well as to utilize the legacy bequeathed by their ancestors. Very early on, the Vietnamese people were able to link the interests of their country, their Fatherland with the interests of each family and individual, binding the country to the home and the village to the country in a very close relationship. It was this environment that forged a national character which was industrious, intelligent, and flexible yet strong and determined not to be overcome by adverse circumstances. The character of the
Vietnamese is founded upon two
precious ideas: loyalty (trung,
Chinese zhong) toward the country and filial piety (hieu, Ch. xiao)
toward the people. For the
Vietnamese, the country is the mother, and the people are the father.
When they have been born and nurtured, the highest principles in the
hearts of the Vietnamese are to repay their debt to the people and to the
country and to achieve independence for the nation; these are their duties.
because of this that four thousand years ago, on the land where we are now
living, building, and fighting, a relatively advanced culture appeared which
is the pride of our nation and which was a contribution to the ancient
civilization of humanity. This
represented a great victory by the ancient Viet against the forces of nature
and aggression to stabilize their lives and to live according to established
rules and customs. That was the
result of the creative labor of an entire large community, within which
there were elements whose lifestyles and levels of development were quite
different from each other. However,
during the long process of struggling shoulder-to-shoulder and sharing good
and bad times, they drew closer and integrated with each other like branches
on the same tree, living and dying in the same place [literally, sharing one
place to be buried and to cut the umbilical cord]; all of them were people
of the land of Viet.
Ho Chi Minh upheld the solidarity among
different parts of the Vietnamese nation:
“Whether Kinh [ethnic Vietnamese] or Tay, Muong or Dao, Jarai or
Rhade, Sedang or Bahnar or members of other ethnic groups, everyone is a
child of Vietnam, all are blood brothers and sisters.
We live and die together, we share joy and misery, and we help each
other in times of plenty and in times of want.” That
is the voice of the Fatherland echoing from the distant past.
Very early on our ancestors were able to
join together in solidarity to preserve the country and victoriously oppose
outside aggression. When this
principle was violated, the country was lost.
[When someone] turned the country into the private property of a
clan, a lineage, or a family and failed to rely on the people to resist
invasion, the consequences were even more tragic and disastrous:
families and lineages were wiped out.
This is the first major history lesson to be learned from the myth of
My Chau and Trong Thuy. King
Thuc An Duong was the ruler of Au Lac, which had succeeded the country Van
Lang of the Hung Kings; he built the strong citadel at Co Loa and knew how
to use dangerous weapon technology: the
crossbow and bronze arrows (the sacred crossbow).
The Qin Dynasty was defeated when it sent troops, and the Qin general
Zhao Tuo (Trieu Da) used the stratagem of “asking for peace”, asking for
his son Trong Thuy to be able to marry Princess My Chau, the daughter of
King An Duong, who fell for the trick.
King An Duong failed to rely on the people; he only depended on high
walls, the precious crossbow, and a regular army. He treated the kingdom as
his private property and thought that by marrying his daughter to the enemy,
he would be able to hold on to his throne—he placed family sentiments
and the interests of his lineage above his duty to the nation and above the
interests of the people. Unexpectedly
defeated by the enemy, he fled and was forced to kill his unfortunate
daughter—the victim of his selfish miscalculations, and he himself
committed suicide by jumping into the sea.
addition to the strong national spirit of the Viet people during An
Duong’s time, the story of My Chau and Trong Thuy also shows us something
else: within Vietnamese society
at the time there was a clear class distinction.
When King An Duong took the throne and replaced the Hung Kings, he
transformed the patriarchal country of Van Lang—basically [governed] by
chiefs—into a relatively structured nation—the country of Au Lac.
The capital was moved down to the lowland area.
The large-scale construction of dikes and walls and the development
of artisanry, especially the production of weapons, required a centralized
state apparatus in order to mobilize and control a growing labor force.
Under such conditions the ruling class could only be an aristocracy tied to
the power of a monarchy with an absolutist orientation; this was the first
stage of the relatively early emergence of feudal relations with an Asian
character. Naturally, this ruling class was increasingly removed from the
community of the people and came to the point of being cut off from
them, in terms of its style of governing as well as its lifestyle. The boundary [between ruler and ruled] is shown fairly
clearly in the architecture of the citadel at Co Loa.
Military matters were the main priority, and the design of Co Loa
shows a change in defense strategy. It
was no longer leaders from the people like Giong who led troops into battle,
but rather professional officers commanding a standing army. Such changes
did not take place overnight; they were the result of a long process within
Van Lang society, linked to the gradual break-up of the patriarchal
relations of the original communal society and the development of tools used
for production, especially the knowledge of bronze technology. Each threat of foreign invasion—beginning in the 3rd Century
BCE, after a fierce feudal clique in the North [meaning the Qin Dynasty] had
achieved hegemony in the plains [of China]—exerted pressure to accelerate
this process of transformation in Vietnamese society. Objectively speaking, this was inevitable; it represented a
step forward for ancient Vietnamese society and [caused it] to gradually
make the transition to a feudal system.
However, if [rulers] only depended on
developments in technology and did not rely on the people, if they were not
able to mobilize the entire people to stand up and defend the nation as
happened in Giong’s time, and if a ruling minority actually heightened its
oppression of the people, then it became difficult to effectively resist the
growing pressure of Northern feudalism [i.e., China]. Thus, from an
independent country, Vietnam was turned into provinces and districts of
foreign feudalism. This did not mean that the Vietnamese people were wiped
out, however; this was only the first act of a huge challenge to the vital
force of our nation. History would show just how heroically our people were able
to overcome this challenge.
The policy of assimilation which was pursued after the Han Dynasty
replaced the Qin, along with countless incidences of shame and suffering
under the cruel and corrupt yoke of [local and Chinese] governors, served to
strengthen the national spirit and the will of the Viet people to regain
independence and freedom. The
uprising of the Trung girls was the first manifestation, extremely
courageous and unique, of this spirit; it demonstrated a powerful force of
great historical significance. It
showed the miraculous force of a people who for thousands of years had been
the master of an area of land and who were proud of the advanced culture
which they had created.
This culture was built through the hard work, industriousness, and
creativity of the Vietnamese people before they lost their independence.
That civilization had unique forms and very distinctive features,
most notably the bronze drum. The emergence of this civilization was a major
step forward in the progress of the Vietnamese nation from its primordial
stage to the time of civilization. The
powerful vitality of the nation began at this point.
It is rare, particularly in ancient
times, to see a small people—the nation of Vietnam numbered only around a
million people in the early Common Era when it was absorbed by feudal
invaders from the North—able to preserve and develop their own character
and identity even when under harsh foreign rule for thousands of years.
Even more special is the fact that that nation never gave up the
will to regain its independence and sovereignty.
The close sense of solidarity in shared suffering of the nation and
race, with the idea that “[We] live and die together, we share joy and
misery, and we help each other in times of plenty and in times of want”;
the deep sense of patriotism and an unbreakable will, nurtured by the
essence of an ancient and unique culture; the determination to achieve
independence combined with an unusual degree of flexibility in adopting good
elements from outsiders in order to strengthen their own ability to liberate
themselves—these were the fundamental elements which forged our nation’s
Without such conditions it would be hard
to explain the nation’s incredible strength and ability to leap forward
after escaping from the yoke of northern feudal rule.
That liberation was also a shining page in history, one verse in the
4000-year heroic epic of the nation. The
glorious victory of Ngo Quyen [in the 10th Century] opened a period of
flourishing development for the national culture which lasted nearly five
centuries—from the 10th through the 15th Centuries, under the
Dinh, Early Le, Ly, Tran, and Later Le Dynasties.
Of course, having just cast off the yoke of foreign rule in the 10th
Century, Vietnam could take no other path than that of development according
to the laws of the feudal mode of production.
For most East Asian countries at the time, Chinese-style feudalism
was the model. It is also
natural that the organizational structure of the feudal Vietnamese nation in
many ways absorbed the experiences and influences of the North in terms of form.
In terms of the nature [of these structures], however, we
demonstrated our sense of independence, sovereignty, and equality vis-à-vis
foreign countries. With this
idea in mind, the country was now known as Dai Viet (Ch. Dayue,
After winning back independence, the national sentiment and national pride, along with strong determination, developed tremendously. Even though Vietnam had regained its independence, the plots of conquest and the pressure from Northern feudal forces remained a long-term threat. In order to preserve that independence, it would be necessary to build the country, to make it strong, rich, and solid in every way.
“Like our country Dai Viet in the past,
Which has long been known as civilized
It has its own borders, rivers, and
Northern and Southern customs are
The Dinh, Ly, and Tran [Dynasties]
succeeded each other in building the country
They and the Han, Tang, Song, and Yuan
Dynasties were each masters of their own area
Although there were periods of strength
and periods of weakness
[Vietnam] has never lacked heroes”
It is difficult to imagine the grief and suffering piled upon this
small country by three horrible invasions by the Mongol-Yuan troops over a
thirty-year period in the second half of the 13th Century, as well as the
brutal invasion and occupation by Ming forces for two decades in the early
15th Century. Determined not to
be defeated and holding high the banner of the righteous cause of
independence and freedom, our people produced, built, and struggled at
the same time. Mainly because of this intelligent and heroic integration
of the two tasks of building the country and preserving the country, the
heroic spirit and creative strength of our people grew and were toughened,
demonstrating the nation’s unusual vitality, pride, and ability to keep
moving forward. It was this
that pushed our nation a great distance forward in protecting their right to
live and to determine their own [fate]; all three Mongol invasions were
crushed, and the evil rule of the Ming forces was broken and swept away.