Vietnam and China: Acculturation's Apparitions And Certain Realities Behind Them"
The Vietnamese people have a lengthy history that dates back at least two millennia. The ancestors of modern Vietnamese people lived in the Red River delta of northern Vietnam and were subsequently conquered by the Chinese, becoming part of the early Chinese empire. By the first century CE, Vietnam succeeded in becoming a suzerainty of the Chinese empire and it remained in this capacity for the next 900 years. During these ten centuries, the Vietnamese people were heavily influenced by several aspects of Chinese culture and society, including its political theories, academic standards, administrative practices for government operation and religious orientations. As a result, Vietnam became sinicized long before other regions in Southeast Asia that are now a part of China.
It is important to note, though, that this dependency on China also served to create a sense of national identity in the Vietnamese people. For instance, the author notes that, "Chinese rule gave the Vietnamese people -- through the imposition of Chinese social, bureaucratic, and familial forms -- a cohesion that guaranteed their permanence, on the eastern edge of a subcontinent where impermanent states were the rule rather than the exception" (p. 7). Moreover, this cohesion also served the Vietnamese people well by helping them resist future Chinese invasions and to become a regional hegemon in their own right.
Nevertheless, many Vietnamese historians maintain that China's broad-based influence on Vietnam for a millennia shaped its culture and society in ways that made the two countries virtually indistinguishable from each other across a wide spectrum of features. Indeed, one Vietnamese historian argues that, "When Vietnamese independence from China was indisputably established after centuries of Chinese rule, it was merely an instance of a fruit ripening and dropping from its mother tree in order to begin a related but geographically separate life" (p. 8). The author makes the point that the degree to which Vietnam was acculturated to China during any given period in its history remains a timely and relevant issue today: "The question is important to Vietnamese history because Vietnamese emperors and bureaucrats privately hardly ever ceased asking it" (p. 8).
The point is also made that despite the uniqueness of the Vietnamese experience vis a vis China, it shared a common feature with other Southeastern Asian countries in being the importer of foreign influences rather than an exporter to China. In addition, Chinese influence throughout Southeast Asia was a powerful force on all of these countries due in large part to expansionist goals of sea-going communities in southern China. The Chinese influence on Vietnam even extended to include their belief in meritocracy and the importance of education. While Vietnamese leaders during the 19th century enjoyed a near god-like status, they were also regarded as more accessible to the common people than their Chinese counterparts. Notwithstanding this difference, though, Vietnam's leadership remained heavily influenced by Chinese culture even while they were developing their own uniqueness as a people. In this regard, the author points out that during the 18th and 19th centuries, "The Vietnamese elite's sense of Chinese history was strong. Its faith in Chinese allusions, classical and historical, momentous and trivial, was romantic and unlimited" (p. 13).
Beginning in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, though, Vietnam also experienced significant influence from Western nations such as Portugal and France as a result of their efforts to forge relations with other Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, but the Vietnamese leadership carefully balanced the need for Western technologies and political philosophies with Vietnam's own history and traditions. By the 19th century, the Vietnamese language began to reflect the growing disillusionment with Chinese culture and influence to the point where Vietnam's leaders could not be compared in a wholesale fashion to the Chinese leaders. The Vietnamese language also began to reflect these fundamental differences in their society from China's: "Then as now the Vietnamese language responded to China's proximity and importance in Vietnamese life by developing a variety of terms for different areas of contact with China" (p. 19).
Likewise, Vietnamese historians helped to forge a sense of nationalism separate and distinct from China based on isolated military victories. In this regard, the author reports that, "Nationalism or proto-nationalism...
21). Other cultural divergences also contributed to this sense of distinction from the Chinese, but these were met with some degree of concern by Vietnamese authorities who feared that the utility of the Chinese influence would be lost as these distinctions grew more pronounced. According to the author, "Some of these cultural divergences were deeply cherished, but others were feared as fatal blemishes which could distort the performance of Sino-Vietnamese institutions and cast a 'barbarian' pall over Vietnamese society" (p. 22).
Despite the enormity of the Chinese influence on Vietnam's culture and society, though, it is also important to note that there were other influences on Vietnam. Indeed, by the 19th century, Vietnam's southerly expansion meant the country absorbed so-called "Indianized" Southeast Asian peoples (e.g., Cambodians and the Malayo-Polynesian Chams) and intermarriages between these peoples and the Vietnamese had an inevitable impact that would have lasting influences unto the present day. Nowhere was this influence more profoundly experienced that in Vietnam's military strategies. For example, the author emphasizes that, "In warfare, Vietnamese rulers borrowed culturally from other Southeast Asian societies as much as from China. This was deliberate" (p. 24).
The point is also made that the familial patterns used in China that were adopted by Vietnamese peasantry were a dual-edged sword for Vietnam's leadership. On the one hand, these familial patterns provided a sense of cohesiveness to the country as a whole while on the other hand they also empowered the peasantry with a sense of entitlement that resulted in several rebellions over land. Despite the wholehearted acceptance of these aspects of Chinese culture among Vietnamese peasantry, China's influence in the courts of Vietnam's leaders remained far more pronounced. This dichotomy led one Vietnam leader, Gia-long, to issue a set of regulations in 1803-1804 to control life in Vietnamese villages. These regulations included new laws about taxation, marriage practices, the administration of village councils and even the types of religious and entertainment practices that were allowed. According to the author, the promulgation of these laws was due to the fear that "if Vietnamese village communities embraced a host of Southeast Asian folk customs which, if allowed to flourish, would undermine the village pedagogue's attempts to uphold sinicization and the behavior recommended in Chinese books" (p. 28).
While 19th century Europeans the main difference between Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries such as Siam as being related to Vietnam's propensity for bureaucratic practices, they also viewed these practices as being inferior to those in place in China. Other rifts began to occur in the Vietnamese-Chinese model, including the rise of a middle-class comprised of merchants that defied the traditional breakdown of social classes. As the author points out, "A more realistic profile of occupational classes in nineteenth-century Vietnam would have emphasized the existence of a landed, literate, leisured elite, a mass of peasants, a Buddhist clergy, and a powerful, alien Chinese merchant class" (pp. 30-31).
The practical experiences of the Vietnamese leadership throughout the 18th and 19th centuries with Chinese religious, political, economic and social institutions resulted in further adaptations that made them uniquely Vietnamese in character. For instance, the author notes that, "On the whole, in nineteenth-century Vietnam there were fewer specific local institutions, fewer examples of apparatus that might ensure a life cycle for everyone that would be managed on Confucian terms, than there were in China" (p. 42). Indeed, from the perspective of Vietnam's leaders as well as other Southeast Asian nations, China was the superpower of the era that clearly had the most influence on their countries. This perception meant that some institutions adapted from China became overly exaggerated in Vietnam while others became diminished in their importance. There were even differences between China and Vietnam concerning the rights and powers of women in society, with the latter favoring more respect than the former, something that was also uniquely Vietnamese: "This Vietnamese toleration, even support of female property rights and rights of inheritance, was unique in the history of East Asian classical civilization" (p. 45). Changes introduced into the Vietnamese language also contributed to a sense of uniqueness among Vietnam's leaders who borrowed what they deemed most useful and adapted them to their own purposes. Not surprisingly, the cumulative impact of these growing differences between Vietnam and China resulted in "political difficulties" and "cultural tensions" (p. 59).
"The Borrowing Ideals of Court Bureaucrats and the Practical Problems of Provincial Administrators," in Alexander Woodside,…
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