The duality in a traditional Vietnam revisited

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In doing research on the traditional culture and society of Vietnam, scholarship notes the perceptible characteristics of heterogeneity, the existence of contrasting elements which seem to be inflexible, often sclerosis in the Vietnamese social and cultural complex, even religious life and political dialogue? With such rich and dimensional manifestations, on the basis of criticism and debates with Vietnamese and international scholars, the purpose of the article is to emphasize the fact that in Vietnam the contrast and the combination of the above-mentioned duality, dichotomy and counterbalance do not occur between two clear-cut systems considering as two people, two classes, or two civilizations. The existent base had originally from a wide range of elements of natural, residential and cultural conditions.

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Introduction As a peninsula and in the Southeast corner of Asia, toward the East Sea of the Pacific Ocean, Vietnam includes all regions: forest, plain, coastal, sea regions. This has created the duality for the peninsula linking the sea and the continent, which corresponds to the duality of open-close behavior. With such natural conditions, Vietnamese history, society and culture have integrated and mixed of many different elements, gathered in a mode of duality and counterbalance. Many economic, political, social, cultural phenomena have dualities or two sides which opposite each other, but at the same time complementing each other, intertwining with one another like the philosophy concept of yin (陰) and yang (陽) and being flexible and smooth like water (渃) [Nguyễn Văn Kim and Nguyễn Mạnh Dũng 2015] "There is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water, and yet for attacking things that are firm and strong there is nothing that can take precedence of it; for there is nothing (so effectual) for which it can be changed" [Lukyanov 2000: 205]. Additionally, Vietnam is located in the monsoon tropics, hot and humid, rainy, which once exist a large vegetation of the prehistoric Sundaland (Sundaic region) (as Atlantis of Southeast Asia) [Oppenheimer 1998]. The natural condition facilitates an early agriculture that leads to wet rice agriculture. It can be said that Vietnam is the convergence of two civilizations considering as cultural constants "Civilisation du végétal" (Vegetation civilisation) [Gourou 2003] and "Water civilization". The imprints of these two civilizations have deeply reflected on the aspects of social, cultural and spiritual life of the Vietnamese people. Such natural conditions and habitats have created a general psychological characteristic that is flexible and soft in behavior but also as powerful as water. And water become a core value, a "cultural constancy", creating the behavior and the philosophy "Live in a gourd, you grow round. Live in a tube, you grow long" (proverb) in the mind and the behavior of the Vietnamese. Over the centuries, "Vietnamese identified their social space, territorial community and homeland with water. And their social spectrum gradually expanded, starting from house - House, relatives, communal village neighbors to the country - Country" [Trần Quốc Vượng 2000: 42]. During the monarchy, the emperors (such as Trần Nghệ Tông) and Vietnamese Confucian intellectuals (Nguyễn Trãi typically) paid attention to those opposites, but regarded it as differences between two ethnicities and cultures of Vietnam and China, and said that "every country of the North and the South has an emperor, there is no need to imitate each other" [Sử quán triều Hậu Lê 1985: 151] or "The mountains and the rivers were divided, the tradition of the South and the North were also different" (Bình Ngô Đại Cáo - 平吳大誥 Great proclamation upon the pacification of the Wu [Sử quán triều Hậu Lê 1985: 282]. To explain the duality and the counterbalance, Vietnamese and international scholars think that there have been differences between Vietnamese and Chinese cultural community when Vietnamese perceived "南國山河南帝居" (the Southern emperor rules the Southern land), an emphasis of the class nature of the ruling and ruled culture, or an origin of the agriculture and nomadic civilizations, "great tradition" and "little tradition", "Chinese model", Mandala model and social stratification . Later, Vietnamese scholars have many interpretations derived from different perspectives, and emphasize the social class of the two dominant cultures (which was popular in the 1960s and 1970s with Vietnamese histories) [Lịch sử Việt Nam 1971], or explain them by the phenomenon of difference, "refraction" in the process of cultural acculturation between China and Vietnam [Phan Ngọc 1994]... The following authors who emphasize the differences between the South and the North by a negative and positive philosophical thinking [Kim Định 1973], or by two civilizations of agricultural societies and nomadic societies [Trần Ngọc Thêm 1996]; dual characters of Vietnamese people [Đào Duy Anh 1938]. Some authors seek to interpret the whole, or re-describe [Nguyễn Thừa Hỷ 2011]; based on the language expression (in addition to Sino-Vietnamese words which are "thân" and "thể" (body), or "thân thể" [身體], Vietnamese has two words: "mình” [body] and "xác" [corpse] ("thân thể" and "thân xác" [身殼]), L.Cadière argued that people’s body is structured two distinct components, which are "corpse" and "soul" [魂], "soul" can exist alone, isolated from a certain body, and can enter to many different bodies in turn [Cadière 1997]. During the time of nation building, there are many myths and legends associated with the communities’ consciousness of the sea and islands; for instance, the legends of the descendants of Lạc Long Quân - Âu Cơ, with the story of the pouch filled with one hundred of eggs hatching to hundreds of children, or taking the indigo plant to tattoo on the body. The story of Sơn Tinh (mountain deity) - Thuỷ Tinh (water deity) legend related to the flood myth [Hồng Thủy, Deluge], in which Trần Quốc Vượng believed that it contains the concept of duality and dualism between the mountain - water, Mountain God - Water God etc. In another research, he further explained: "The element connecting mountain and water is the river - giang (江) or hà (河). This element goes to the sea if it is viewed from the side of Southeast Asia. In the opposite side, the sea goes back up to the river and so on. As for Vietnam, river is not a factor of division but the one connects the West and the East, the mountains and the sea, between Âu and Lạc, Dragons and Fairies [Trần Quốc Vượng 2006: 14; Trần Quốc Vượng 2005: 78-79]. Based on Robert Redfield’s argument [Redfield 1956] about "Great Tradition” and "Little Tradition" in the Northeast Asian sphere, a number of researchers on Vietnamese studies have explained the cultural contrasts through social stratification [Woodside 1971; Yu 1990]. In the Southeast Asian space, Tadao Umesao supposed that Southeast Asia was a region of civilisation [Umesao 2007]; Charles Higham stressed the Vietnamese culture and civilization in the Chinese orbit [Higham 1989], or it was ranked in satellites civilizations [Toynbee 2002] . Neil L.Jamieson (Jamieson 1993) has combined Eastern philosophy with cybernetics when he thinks that the tradition of Vietnamese society was a system consisting of elements of yin (entropy), which contrasts to the elements of yang (redundancy). The aesthetic taste of Vietnamese people also expresses the duality between the fame (appearance) and the realness (character) (giving much importance to the fame rather than the essence), between reality and the future (paying more attention to things at the present and missing the prospect, focusing on fixing rather than taking precautions ...) [Tsuboi 1992; Văn Tạo 1993; Cadière 1997; Nguyễn Văn Huyên 1993; Lương Đức Thiệp 1944]. Seeking practical arguments In this study, Vietnamese culture is defined as all of the values created by Vietnamese people during the process of national building. "Tradition" concept is to refer to a long historical period (1,000 years under the Chinese domination and the period of time, 11th-19th centuries). In fact, "tradition" is a vague concept and has a wider connotation, "tradition has both stableness and historicity. Ancient tradition has both community and class" [Trần Quốc Vượng 2000: 20]. For Vietnamese researchers, tradition is understood as the past, carries more positive values in it (toward positive dimensions), is coherent, a lesson to learn, heritage to promote . A cross-sectional view Historically, when Vietnamese ethnic groups in the North were growing, they were mixed with other ethnic groups, indigenous people originated from the South, for example, Chăm people, Thượng and Khmer people during the time living together and exchanging the lifestyle, behavior, psychological and personality traits. Thus, Vietnamese indigenous elements continue to be supplemented by the factors exchanged between the South and the North. The duality of race has been the basis for the duality of Southeast Asian and Northeast Asian cultures. The worship of Mother Goddess in the South, for example, a part of Vietnamese culture in general and Southern culture in particular also expresses the duality. The element of history is an important reason for forming this characteristic of the Mother Goddess worship while the community of many ethnic groups such as Chăm, Hoa, Khmer people in the area makes this characteristic become remarkable. The worship of the Mother Goddesses of the Three and Four Realms in the North is quite consistent in every aspect, especially in the system of temples and palaces while there is no such situation in the South. The mixture of ethnic groups’ cultures has been very strong, which is reflected in many aspects. The obvious ones are the origin of the statue of the Goddess and the system of temples and palaces. When migrating the South, "they [the Goddess and the Mother Goddess] have brought their old belief while being exposed to the influences from cultural exchange with the inhabitants of the land, which created the diversity in the cultures and beliefs." [Ngô Đức Thịnh 2009: 38, 39]. In terms of culture, the first natives of the ancient Vietnamese were created during the time creating Văn Lang-Âu Lạc state, which is the South Asian foundation and is known as a large cultural area comprising Jiangnan China, continents and islands of Southeast Asian countries. This cultural region owns common characteristics of the wet rice agriculture, village structure, matrilineality, animist beliefs and divine belief, fertility rites and cults, seasonal agricultural festivals. From the time under the China's domination, Vietnamese culture has been complemented by the (North) East Asian culture which was originated from Northern China . Its basic qualities belong to the Classic Confucianism and the dominance of patriarchy, bureaucratic and Chinese script. The introduction and integration of the East Asian cultural elements into the indigenous South Asian culture in Vietnam were carried out through a process of culture acculturation both forcibly and voluntarily. The duality was shown in the coexistence and mix of the relatively flexible South Asian religions (such as folk religions, Buddhism and Taoism) with Confucianism which is dogmatic in East Asia. In general principle, in Vietnam, Confucianism has always been considered an orthodox ideology of the state (ruled by upper classes/clans) . However, it has to coexist with and yield place to other unorthodoxy like a counterbalance in ideology (shown through the phenomenon of “three religions of the same root” [三敎同原 - Tam giáo đồng nguyên] . The diversity of the traditional Vietnamese spiritual consciousness environment has spread out in a wide range and gradually condensing into the mode of dualism. As a result, Confucianism in Vietnam has been changed quite a lot and been more flexible and bland compared to the original one. The Confucian culture and literature appeared and coexisted with the folklore (in the 17th and 18th centuries). The statute laws of the state coexisted with the customary law, the custom of the village, the result of treaties and covenants. In Vietnam, the religious fanaticism or the monopolistic culture and ideology have never existed. It can be seen that the doctrines of Confucian, Zen masters and Taoists together give prominence to nature, and find the transcendence in there for human beings to transcend the ordinary realms (Trần Đình Sử 2005: 103). Literary compositions become richer in genre with variety of content and ideas. This created diversity in the literature during Lê-Trịnh period (from late 18th to early 19th centuries). Both state literature (orthodox) and common literary genres were developed. In this period, there was no longer the proud of “the Glorious Spirit of Trần dynasty” [Hào khí Đông A], the spirit of patriotism when fighting against foreign invaders. People thought less about their big love but returning to the most ordinary things. People, individuals, became the central characters in literary works for the first time. With the function of reflecting the reality, the literature in this period provided a true reflection on the degeneration of dominant classes in the society in a realistic and satirical way. Regarding the economy activities and relations, there were two coexisting elements which were public and private ownerships, the state and the communal village. While trying to managing villagers, the bureaucratic state thought highly of the state economy, strengthened the element of state ownership. The entire land officially belonged to king and under the form of a state land allocated to citizens. The state division directly managed the farms, fields and plantations. The state also established and operated workshops/basements with the central industrial concentration system and the regime of monopoly of foreign trade. However, the private economy in the country still existed and played an important part. This included fields in villages, home-based craft workshops, shops in urban areas, trading activities done by individuals and within the markets, forms of long-distance trade along the rivers and coastal areas. In general, the state admitted, and accepted this private economic sector to some extent for many times. Nevertheless, the state still controlled and prevented it from growing bigger and going beyond the control of the state. Politically, the counterbalance is made between the court and the villages’ decentralized autonomous public system, which partly contained democratic factors. With the self-governing village community system where farmers had a status, in terms of freedom, they have possibly more freedom than those in Western Europe at the beginning of the middle age. Hà Văn Tấn has stressed that in the history of traditional village of Vietnam, for a long time, super-village community existed in parallel with village community, without that village community expanded into a super village community, or village became country[Hà Văn Tấn 2007]. King had the absolute authority, but at the same time, he always cared about people's lives with the “patriarchal spirit". It can be said that it is a "flexible tyranny" (Nguyễn Thừa Hỷ 2011). That explains why some Western writers in the past centuries, when exposed to traditional Vietnamese society, had different and conflicting assessments. While some of them reviewed that it was the "harsh dictatorship" (Finlayson 1826: 382), others praised it as "the marvelous stereotype" but in the "extreme democracy" [Boissière 1890: 64-65]. Bouillevaux said: "In the society of Annam, there was a mix of power and precious freedoms" [Bouillevaux 1874: 479]. Attentively, Hà Văn Tấn has suggested the relationship between autonomy and democracy. In the early stages, village community also carried more and less democratic elements which were a heritage of a clan community. Nevertheless, along with the strong process of stratification in the countryside, the class and hierarchy division and the struggle among those social groups, village lost all democracy. Upper classes in village often came to cut off the village community with the country community in order to escape its rule and control. Autonomy which opposed democracy, killed democracy. And patriarchy was also an eternal enemy of democracy. Trần dynasty's Diên Hồng Meeting was an expression of traditional democratic element of the communal village. The meeting was just happened at the time when the consciousness of the community surpassed the one of the village community [Hà Văn Tấn 2007]. As for society, the duality shows in the way that a hierarchical regime coexists with a cohesive community, "a society that is both hierarchical and equal" (Germain 1994: 61). Basically, the traditional Vietnamese society was more socially and politically hierarchical than a stratified society in terms of production and economy. Each individual landed a certain position in the hierarchy ladder, which is meticulously regulated by law and traditional customs, which is a "Homo Hierarchies" [Dumont 1967]. On the other hand, the community equality of a flexible society with a lot of social mobility can find somewhere. The regime of public land distribution to each village member partly facilitated social justice in term of economy. The method of selecting bureaucracies through examination ensures equality at a certain level and advancement between social strata [Nguyễn Thừa Hỷ 2011]. A historical approach In the 11th to 14th centuries, the Great Viet [Đại Việt, 大越]'s social-cultural structure was based on the mixture of South Asia - East Asia, favoring the South Asian characteristics. Its manifestation is the citizen-centric policy of the monarchy, the autonomy - self-governing of the villages, the policy of tolerance towards “Tam giáo đồng nguyên" (although it was still leaned toward Buddhism), a mixture of folklore and state culture. As a messenger/witness commented the people of Đại Việt during this period "still maintained traditional customs, do not know about Chinese music and rites" [Trần Nghĩa 1972: 112-113]. Under the Later Lý dynasty [李朝], especially during the Trần dynasty, after the harsh time was over, "nationalism was grown in the thirteenth century and gave a new spirit to Buddhism” [Hà Văn Tấn 2005: 290]. Under the Lê Sơ dynasty (初黎朝), the following dynasty of the Ming China dynasty, in the 15th century, Đại Việt's culture and cultural structure were transformed and immersed into East Asian culture (Chinese culture was the one to follow), especially under the reign of Lê Thánh Tông. The Lord-praising policy is highly promoted, the bureaucratic state tended to specialize in monopoly, deeply intervened in village life. Confucianism nominally was the only ideology and broke the cultural balance. The 16th to 18th centuries filled with contradictions and fluctuations, which marked the decline of monarchy and cultural monopoly, brought back the duality to the culture. The social-cultural elements of South Asia which had been underground and unorthodox recovered, developed and hold a balance with the elements of East Asian culture (which still retained the dominant position, but had fallen degradation and metamorphosis in many ways). The state also had more flexible policies and accepted to make concessions to the village community. A phenomenon of "Tam giáo đồng nguyên" re-appeared. The folk culture rose up and intertwined into the Confucian culture. At that time, if the compositions in Chinese characters were the voice of the dominant classes and were used in the court and for examinations, the writings in Nom script [字喃] mainly used for the common need of the village community system. Therefore, the appearance of writings in Nom script marked the development of national consciousness. These two types of literature would complement each other to create a complete medieval Vietnamese literature system [Trần Đình Sử 2005: 103]. In 1663, Lord Trịnh Tạc issued A Recommendation which consists of 47 articles of moral education. Its 35th article indicates that it was only allowed to print Confucian books while all kinds of Buddhism Books, Dao De Jing and books in Nom script [Hoàng Xuân Việt 2006: 80] were forbidden. Later, Lord Trịnh Cương let many books in Nom script to be removed [Đinh Gia Khánh 2006: 162]. Thus, it also means that the prohibition law to protect the Confucianism clearly shows that many books of village community were popular during that period. The period between 17th and 18th centuries is the peak period of Nom script with such typical works as "The poetry in a beautiful scenery" [Giai cảnh hứng tình phú] by Nguyễn Bá Lân, "Lament of the soldier's wife" [Chinh phụ ngâm] translated by Đoàn Thị Điểm, "Complaint of a Palace Maid" [Cung oan ngâm khúc] by Nguyễn Gia Thiều and so on [Trần Đình Sử 2005: 103]. In comparison with the social structure, if the Confucian bureaucracies were the main one nurturing East Asian Confucian culture as the "great tradition", South Asia's "little tradition" was the true culture of village community. A.B.Woodside had perspective when saying that in the old days in Vietnam, the mandarins had used to be the same as Chinese mandarins while the peasants had been like the Southeast Asian one" [Tsuboi 1987: 182]. In the first half of the 19th century, Nguyễn emperors attempted to re-establish the dominance of the East Asian Confucian culture to make a basis of thought for a tyranny (Quốc sử quán triều Nguyễn 2002); however, it was relatively ineffective [Phan Huy Lê 2012]. Prior to 19th century, Nguyễn emperors, especially Minh Mệnh, in fact attempted to restore Song Confucianism in the way of "Belief in orthodox learning" [崇政學]. With the Confucian examination facilitation, the dynasty disseminated the instructions (十條, ten admonitions) in the mass. Nevertheless, this doctrine no longer had the strength and the prestige in comparison with the one in the 15th century. It was a post-crisis Confucianism, revealed lacunas, exhausted creativity, dogma, backward and conservativeness. The Confucian ideology was at the time transformed into a drag on social development. In the multi-cultural life, the duality and counterbalance continued to exist, but society became stagnant in the crisis, facilitating the French’s invasion [Nguyễn Mạnh Dũng 2016]. In general, the duality reflects the difference as well as the fusion between the model and the entity in the traditional Vietnamese social-cultural life. The Vietnamese bureaucracy which was based on the theoretical model of East Asian culture consisting of stiff ideology and political system intertwined with the entity-life, economy, culture which were flexible and belonged to South Asian culture. Conclusion remarks Regardless of extreme ideas, it seems to conclude that the Vietnamese traditional culture is a bipolar culture with a dual ability, a multi-line behavior, located in the contiguous face (interface) of two intersecting cultural circles. In that sense, the culture is not exactly at the marginal and tangent lines between those two cultures yet, but in the area those are two overlapped and interlocked cultures. The traditional Vietnamese culture gives birth growing from the foundation of indigenous (endogenous) elements and tolerated external (exogenous) factors in all three regions Asian civilization. In the North-South Asian relationship, Vietnam is also one of the terminus of Southeast Asia in contact with Northeast Asian countries whose most frequent, early and long-term communication is with South China. This feature creates Vietnam a dual capacity on culture and society (most imprinted in the sea or continent oriented country). The duality of the traditional Vietnam's structure has been given the counterbalance of two factors: the factor of South Asian unorthodox folklore and the factor of Northeast Asian culture of the state. These factors coexisted in every social community levels including the nation, the village, the family, as well as the individual from the king and the mandarins to the village people. The overall mixture of the duality in the structure between the two aforementioned factors certainly was not always fixed, but there was a certain range of adjustment and different shades through each historical period. In reality, the dualistic contrast and combination did not occur between two separate systems such as two nations, two classes or civilizations, but mixing with each other in a system and it is difficult to separate them. The structures of dualism penetrated into each other, harmonizes with each other, "unity in diversity" but not developing to extreme point to keep special stable relationships. Therefore, it cannot create a cultural leap to fundamentally change the whole institutions like the "Renaissance" period in Europe or the Meiji period of Japan (Meiji Restoration). In the process of building a prosperous and happy country, promoting cultural values and Vietnamese people's strength (Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam 2021), the dualistic cultural characteristics play a very favorable role in the global integration. The maximum exploitation of traditional values together with a political determination, whatever difficult situations in which the people's share contributes to the ultimate end.

About the authors

Manh Dung Nguyen

Vietnam National University

Ph.D. (History), Assistant Professor, Vice Director of the Institute for Policy and Management, VNU University of Social Sciences and Humanities Hanoi


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