Literature of Dissent in Viet Nam Today
Anne O'Leary of Northwestern Connecticut Community College organized a Fall '93 lecture course on Southeast Asia and invited Alan Farrell, Nicole Vecchi, Lucy Nguyen and I to talk about Viet Nam. Ben Kiernan and Chanthou Boua did Cambodia. The students were mostly retired people from Litchfield County. O'Leary asked me to speak about the "Literature of Dissent in Viet Nam Today." First I told the class the things I think that everyone should know about Viet Nam and Vietnamese people. Then I settled down to explaining to a representative group of the Cold War generation what dissent in Viet Nam might be about. Here is that part of my talk.
Let's review, then move on to literature. Viet Nam is the place south of China where Vietnamese people live, singing their language, and celebrating the days their relatives died. The word for food is rice, the word for land is water, and the word for you is brother. If you remember those things one year from now, you will have got your money's worth from me.
But you are here to hear about the literature of dissent in Viet Nam today. There are three writers you can read in English: Pham Thi Hoai, Nguyen Huy Thiep, and Duong Thu Huong. They are different kinds of writers. Hoai is a modernist innovator, a literary stylist. Nguyen Huy Thiep is an innovator, but is more distinctively Vietnamese than Hoai. Duong Thu Huong is a popular novelist. They are all authors of dissent. They use fiction to criticize the quality of life in Viet Nam today.
I meet every day with an official of the Ha Noi government. He has been Vice Director of the Department of International Law at the Ministry of Finance. He is studying Law at Yale for one year. He says he is not a very literary person. However, he read an article I wrote on this topic for The Nation last year, when Duong Thu Huong's Paradise of the Blind came out. He studied my article closely, and went to lengths to explain to me what I got right and what I got wrong. He knows the books of all the authors I discussed.
Now, if an American government official were studying in Ha Noi for a year, and he met a Vietnamese expert on U.S. literature, would the U.S. government official be able and eager to help the Vietnamese expert on American literature with his work? Probably not. In the U.S., literary authors and government officials come from different worlds. Actually, my friend Toan's closest U.S. counterpart is not a government expert but a business consultant. In the U.S., literary authors and commercial experts don't pay attention to each other.
In Viet Nam, things are different. The difference has to do with the Vietnamese past and with the role of the literary author under Vietnamese Communism.
In the past in Viet Nam, the literary authors were the government. In imitation of China, there was a mandarin system. The state bureaucracy was composed entirely of men who had passed a grueling written examination of their knowledge of the Confucian literary classics of Classical China. For this exam, they not only had to write about Classical Chinese Poetry, they had to write poems about it. To prepare to sit successfully for this exam took ten or more years of full-time study. This is not ridiculous. To study literature teaches you to read, and write and think. I had about ten years of intensive literary training, what we call a liberal arts education. Most of my classmates are now high officials in finance, law, business, and government, doing just fine.
Some of those Vietnamese who passed the Confucian exam entered into the high imperial administration, working in the court or traveling as Inspectors General. Others who passed served as local officials. The ideal was for every village to have one mandarin, someone who had passed the Imperial examinations. It was the Mandarin who passed on imperial laws to the villagers, and who reported back to the Emperor on how the villagers were doing. He was the only person who could do this. He was usually the only person in the village who could read and write.
The reason for that is the same reason that it took so long to study for those exams. All government business was conducted in Classical Chinese, called in Vietnamese chu han. You can compare this to the use of Latin in the Christian world until 1700 or so. Classical Chinese is not only completely different from modern Chinese, which in turn has nothing to do with Vietnamese language except in loan words, but it is written in ideograms. Every different word has a different character. We use an alphabetic script, which allows us always to spell words phonetically and at least make ourselves understood. With ideograms, you either know the correct symbol to use to express yourself, or you don't. Teachers say you have to learn 2,000 of them for the most basic communication.
Since most people had to grow rice all day to stay alive, only a few could spend several thousand hours learning chu han. So there is a tradition in Viet Nam of literary training going in hand in hand with political power.
The mandarin system changed with modern times. The French invaded Viet Nam, and the old ways disappeared forever. What's more, the French introduced quoc nu, the modern method of writing Vietnamese phonetically in Roman characters. Learning to read and write Vietnamese is now very easy, a matter of a few dozen hours for a native speaker. The introduction of this alphabet facilitated the anticolonialist struggle, the series of wars against the French, because it enabled the nationalist leaders to communicate with a wide net of people in the countryside. This brings us to the second reason why my friend Toan the government official on commerce knows all about the avant-garde authors of Viet Nam.
The struggle of the Vietnamese nationalists against the French, and then against the Americans, was a most remarkable social movement. The mostly rural people of Viet Nam were able to organize and fight from 1945 to 1975 against well-equipped expeditionary forces from modern nations, with limited material assistance from outside. Their success relied upon a total mobilization of the society, something like what Britain experienced during the war against Hitler. Absolutely everybody, down to the dogcatchers and schoolchildren, had a role to play in the struggle. Literary authors were a big part of the war effort. The Communist Party organized a Writer's Union, and debated the best ways for authors to serve the revolution. They debated and rejected Stalinist and Maoist ideas, and were coming up with some of their own in the late 1950s, when the Ha Noi government put the brakes on what was called the Nhan Van Giai Pham affair, something like what we call Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. Many of the best authors didn't want to lead the masses in revolution, so they fled to the South or stayed put and stopped writing. But, in general, literary men and women put their best efforts into entertaining the troops, and cheering up the workers, and explaining the common goals to the common people. They wrote plays and songs and novels. Some of them are good, some of them are awful. It was an exciting thirty years.
To review: there are two reason my friend the bureaucrat knows the latest literature. One is that, for a very long time, authors and bureaucrats in Viet Nam were the same people. Reason number two is that Vietnamese authors played a substantial role in the thirty-year struggle against foreign invaders. They earned respect.
If authors enjoy such status and attention in Vietnamese society, what are they dissenting from? This is not a bad question. It is the same question that Americans asked about the academics and students who played such a visible role in the Civil Rights Movement and in the popular movement against the American war in Viet Nam. What motivates people of prominence and privilege to criticize their society?
To make this more familiar, let me point you to a novel that I think many of have read. It is 1984, by George Orwell. Orwell was a committed writer in the war against Hitler and the Fascists. In fact, he started fighting before England did, by going to Spain to fight for the Republic against Franco. Orwell was a socialist and an anarchist, what our newspapers would call a radical leftist. During England's war against Hitler, Orwell lent his efforts to the national cause, as the Vietnamese writers were later to do. He wrote daily for the BBC, preparing a lively digest of world events. As you know, the struggle against Hitler was a rousing success. But after it was over, George Orwell wrote this depressing book, 1984. It is about a man who lives in shabby world where the government watches him all the time. Many of you have read it because, in the U.S., the title was taken to mean that the book was a work of prophecy, a warning of the awful totalitarian world to come if we lost the struggle against communism.
In fact, 1984 was not written about the future. It was about the present. It was published in 1948, and the title was merely a clever reversal to provide the author with plausible deniability about some of his more exaggerated claims. 1984 was a picture of Britain in wartime. It is a picture of what it is like to live in a country mobilized for war, where there are shortages of clothes, of food, of places to live, where no one has time to wash and the small extravagances that make life pleasant do not exist. War is also a place where civil liberties do not exist. Newspapers get shut down, and people get sent to internment camps.
In America we tend to remember the good bits about war, except in the South, where they actually had a war on home territory. To go by American books, the war against Hitler and Japan was a great lark, with everybody pulling together for a common goal. People sang songs and had a good time. That's very nice, but I am an historian. We read contemporary documents, things written at the same time as the event under study. We distrust memory. In one famous experiment, historians asked people living under Hitler's bombing of London to keep a diary. Then the historians took the diaries away from the people who had kept them. Thirty years later, the historians asked the people to write a recollection of their experiences. The diaries, of course, reveal a life of hell under the high explosive and incendiary bombs. The memoirs recall a pleasant adventure, a time of national unity. Memory is like that.
Why did George Orwell, just at the end of the successful struggle against Hitler, write such a depressing book about life in Britain? I suppose it was because he could. In a way, he had to. To be in a position to observe life but not to be able to speak about it is very painful.
Now let me tell you what the Vietnamese authors are doing. They are doing what George Orwell did at the end of World War II. They have been in harness for a long time, and they are kicking up the traces. They have kicked the foreign invaders out of their country, and now they want to speak their minds. They and all their friends have sacrificed their lives for a present that is not as good as it should be. They are making noise.