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Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N4 (January 1992)

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Nguyen Huy Thiep's "Vang Lua" and the Nature of Intellectual Dissent in Contemporary Vietnam

Peter Zinoman, Cornell University

There is something unusual about the depth of emotion vented in debates over the work of Nguyen Huy Thiep. In a disapproving assessment of Thiep's quasi-historical fable "Vang Lua," the historian Ta Ngoc Lien remarks, "While I would not go so far as to consider this writer sick, his are not the ideas of a healthy and wholesome mind." [Ta Ngoc Lien, "Ve Truyen Ngan Vang cua Nguyen Huy Thiep," Bao Van Nghe, 26 June 1988: 3.] Summing up an equally unflattering analysis, the critic Do Van Khang concludes, "To consider the mind of Nguyen Huy Thiep is truly creepy." [Do Van Khang, "Co mot chac doc "Vang Lua," Bao Van Nghe, 3 September 1989: 10-11.] Hostility to Thiep's work even infects such typically uncritical assessments as the customarily sycophantic preface to his first published collection of short stories. Instead of polite homage, the editors of Nhung Ngon Gio Huatat offer their readers a cautionary reminder: "There are people who heatedly denounce Nguyen Huy Thiep, even condemning his literature as base." [Nguyen Huy Thiep, Nhung Ngon Gio Huatat (Nha xuat ban van hoa, Ha Noi, 1989); 214.] The ability to provoke such reactions has contributed to Thiep's emergence, since economic and political reforms launched by the communist party in 1987, as one of contemporary Vietnam's most influential writers and social critics.

Compounding the controversy shrouding Thiep's work has been the sacking of Nguyen Ngoc, the editor-in-chief of Bao Van Nghe, the weekly organ of the Vietnamese Writers Association. It was the outspoken reformist Ngoc who, by publishing Thiep's short stories in rapid succession beginning in 1987, gave the author a prestigious and high profile forum in which to present his work. In Hanoi, it is strongly rumored that Thiep's writing contributed decisively to Ngoc's deposition in 1988. [For more on the dismissal of Nguyen Ngoc see K.C. Nguyen, "Left to Write," Far Eastern Economic Review, 17 August 1989: 38; Murray Hiebert, "One Step Backward," Far Eastern Economic Review, 4 May 1989: 15; Barry Wain, "Pitiful Writer Jolts Vietnamese Minds," The Asian Wall Street Journal, August 13, 1990.] While Thiep's previously published stories and plays have yet to be officially banned, journals have declined to print his new work since the summer of 1990. [However, one of the more independent-minded Hue-based literary journals did print a short theoretical essay by Thiep in April 1991. See "Nha Van Va Bon Trum Mafia," Song Huong, 19 April 1991: 41-45.]

What accounts for the notoriety of Thiep and his work? An examination of "Vang Lua," one of Thiep's most controversial short stories, will suggest some answers. Published during 1987 in Bao Van Nghe, "Vang Lua" is the second tale in a trilogy covering well-known Vietnamese characters and events from the late eighteenth century. [The two other stories are: "Kiem Sac," (Sharp Sword) and "Pham Tiet" (Chastity). See Nhung Ngon Gio Huatat, op cited.] "Vang Lua"'s unorthodox reworking of Vietnamese history and implicit indictment of contemporary political culture represent the most subversive aspects of Thiep's work. After illuminating the dimensions of "Vang Lua"'s assault on the intellectual and political establishment, this essay will consider how Thiep has employed certain literary techniques to escape censorship and to get such unusually confrontational works into print.

Why have Thiep's version of history generated so much controversy? One reason is that the party has always found a tradition of "national heroism" instrumental in rallying patriotic support for its policies. Since 1954, historical accounts produced under Hanoi's auspices have concentrated on pigeon-holing the great men and women of Vietnamese history, classifying them according to the predominance of their alleged "revolutionary" of "reactionary" tendencies. Popular representations of "heroes" and "villains" in films, plays, novels, museums, monuments, and school textbooks have familiarized the public with the official standing of historical figures. Reinterpretations of historical figures usually follow loosely related shifts in contemporary politics. For example, historians followed the reformist policies (doi moi) initiated in 1986, with renewed research on famous pre-colonial "reformers" such as Ho Quy Ly and Nguyen Truong To. History, in other words, is an intensely politicized discourse.

A trademark of Thiep's historical fiction is the way his depictions of well-known figures violate official assessments. In the story "Chastity," Thiep takes aim at the pristine reputation of the 18th century peasant rebel leader and insurgent King Quang Trung, depicting this most sacred of party heroes as a brutal, sexually depraved despot. In the play Love Remains, Thiep dresses the non-communist nationalist patriot Nguyen Thai Hoc of the 1920s in the heroic rhetoric of a revolutionary martyr, a role usually reserved for deceased founding members of the communist party. [Nguyen Huy Thiep, "Con Lai Tinh Yeu," Song Huong, 28 April 1990: 30-56.] In "Nguyen Thi Lo," Thiep humanizes the 15th century strategist and super-patriot Nguyen Trai. [Nguyen Huy Thiep, "Nguyen Thi Lo," Bao Van Nghe, June 1990: 12-13.]

Likewise, much of "Vang Lua"'s notoriety stems from the contentious portraits it paints of the "villainous" founder of the "feudal" Nguyen dynasty, King Gia Long. In conventional accounts, Gia Long is vilified for allying with the Siamese and Chinese and relying too heavily on European troops and advisors. As the architect of the dynasty which suppressed hundreds of peasant rebellions [According to sources cited by A.B. Woodside, over 105 uprisings occurred during the Gia Long period alone and Minh Mang saw almost 200 peasant revolts during his twenty-year reign. A.B. Woodsie, Vietnam and the Chinese Model: A Comparative Study of Vietnamese and Chinese Government in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 1971: 135.] and presided over the loss of the country to the French, Gia Long has always been implicated in Vietnam's failed response to the 19th century colonial threat. According to a standardized eighth grade history textbook:

Gia Long brought Siamese troops to invade Gia Dinh (southern Vietnam). He set up a powerful military affairs office, opened wide the territory to occupying troops, provided assistance to French capitalists, and waited for an opportunity to recover the dominant position of his family. [Dinh Xuan Lam, Phan Dai Doan, Truong Huu Quynh, Lich Su 8, Tap Hai Phan Su Viet Nam (Nha xuat Ban Giao Duc, 1990): 48.]

While "Vang Lua" reserves its most scathing invective for the much maligned King, its overall picture of Gia Long is complex and nuanced. While scheming and self-interested, Thiep's Gia Long is keenly self-aware, attuned to the hypocrisy and immoral implications of political life. This awareness gives him a status more tragic than evil. Moreover, Thiep's wry aside that Gia Long "certainly makes history more exciting" and his allusion to the King as "a national treasure" suggests a degree of admiration for his admittedly roguish accomplishments.

Despite the fact that Thiep's portrait of Gia Long highlights numerous blemishes, critics nevertheless object to his characterization of the King as a charismatic and influential figure on the Vietnamese historical landscape. Reviewing the story in Bao Van Nghe, one historian writes:

Our conception up to now has been that Gia Long is a historical villain because he relied on the French to defeat the Tay Son Dynasty. He "invited the snake to guard his own hen house." It may be true that Gia Long needs to be more objectively and scientifically evaluated. However regardless of the reevaluation it is certain that no one could ever consider Gia Long as a "priceless entity" or "national treasure." [Ta Ngoc Lien, op. cited.]

Thiep's depiction of Nguyen Du, Vietnam's most acclaimed cultural "hero," as a pathetically underemployed, mournful, and impoverished petty bureaucrat who is neglected and scorned by the state has proved equally controversial. More unpopular still, is the story's metaphorical explanation of Nguyen Du's ancestry.

[Viet Nam] is like a virgin girl raped by Chinese civilization. The girl concurrently enjoys, despises and is humiliated by the rape...Nguyen Du is the child of this same virgin girl and the blood which flows through his veins contains allusions to the brutal man who raped his mother..."

Since at least the beginning of the twentieth century, intellectuals concerned with asserting and defining a unique Vietnamese identity have grappled with the meaning of their country's long and complicated relationship with China. For example, many Vietnamese scholars have felt compelled to defensively explain why Nguyen Du's greatest work and the generally recognized masterwork of Vietnamese literature, The Tale of Kieu, is based on a seventeenth century Chinese prose novel. After the outbreak of Sino-Vietnamese hostilities in 1979, the degree of Chinese influence in Vietnamese culture became even more politically sensitive. Scholars were encouraged to downplay the significance of Chinese factors and in cases where Chinese influence could not be ignored or denied, it was important to depict the process of cultural transmission as one in which the Vietnamese, rather than appearing as passive recipients, were actively and independently initiating the exchange. [For a striking example of scholarship along these lines see Vien Triet Hoc, Lich Su Phat Giao Vietnam (History of Vietnamese Buddhism), (Nha Xuat Ban Khoa Hoc Xa Hoi, Ha Noi, 1988). The book argues that the Chinese contribution to Vietnamese Buddhism was not nearly as significant as has been generally accepted and makes a case instead for the centrality of Indian influence. [13] Ta Ngoc Lien, op. cited.]

Just as "Vang Lua" undermines the conventional understanding of Vietnam's relationship with China, it also offers what many consider a heretical perspective on the nature of Vietnamese national identity. Through decades of war against larger, richer, and more technologically advanced adversaries, the communist party has fostered a national identity which highlights qualities such as cunning, resourcefulness and spiritual strength. Consequently, critics have objected to "Vang Lua"'s emphasis on national poverty, misery and shame. Lines such as, "The Vietnamese community suffers from an inferiority complex. How small it is next to Chinese civilization..." have provoked knee-jerk reassertions of official definitions of what it means to be a Vietnamese.

We cannot agree with Nguyen Huy Thiep that the most prominent characteristics of Vietnam are its smallness and weakness and that Vietnamese suffer from an inferiority complex because of their proximity to the great Chinese civilization. Compared with China, our country is small. But it must be understood, that although small we are not weak. Are not our defeats of the Tang, Mongols, Ming, and Ch'ing in the 11th, 13th, 15th, and 18th centuries proof enough of our strength. That we escaped the dangers of assimilation during one thousand years of Chinese domination, is evidence of our fierce resolve, of the resilience of the Vietnamese national community, and of our proud and self-assertive civilization. [Ta Ngoc Lien, op. cited.]

But "Vang Lua"'s heresies concerning history and cultural identity seems mild compared to the story's thinly veiled attack on contemporary political culture. Observant critics have speculated that Thiep's "decision to write about Gia Long, Nguyen Du and the Nguyen does not necessarily reflect an intention to reevaluate that particular historical period." [Thuy Suong, "Ve Mot Cach Hieu Truyen Ngan Vang Lua," Bao Van Nghe, 30 July 1988: 6.] If this is true, why does Thiep choose this era? It is instructive that the two eras treated in Thiep's historical fiction, the mid 15th ("Nguyen Thi Lo") and late 18th ("Kiem Sac," "Vang Lua," "Pham Tiet") centuries, are both periods, like the contemporary one, which witnessed the erection and consolidation of new political regimes. Such a connection encourages readers to see Thiep's characters and their predicaments as metaphors for their contemporary equivalents. According to such a reading, Thiep's impoverished and ineffectual Nguyen Du suggests the general marginalization of artists and intellectuals by the modern political process. Based on the depiction of Gia Long, politicians come off as cruel, duplicitous, anti- intellectual, hypocritical, self-absorbed, and ego-maniacal. And their pathological fear of social change prevents them from undertaking the reforms necessary to improve society.

Thiep draws further connections between his creations and the contemporary political scene by using double-edged and anachronistic language. A single sentence from Conclusion 2 is exemplary: "It [Europe] begins to understand that the beauty and glory of a people are based neither on war or revolution nor on ideologists or emperors." Vietnamese who have lived under the Hanoi regime will immediately recognize that the phrase "beauty and glory of a people" (ve dep va vinh quang mot dan toc) comes directly from a familiar style of official rhetoric typically found in communist party speeches, campaigns or slogans. The insertion of the stylized language of the modern state into this early 19th century scene will have an effect on the reader analogous to that produced if a temperance advocate in a film on American prohibition, earnestly urged a bootlegger to "just say no." The focus, in other words, will be immediately reoriented to the present day. After redirecting our attention to the modern state, the sentence rejects revolution, war ideology and leadership as valid criteria for assessing "glory." Lacking real economic accomplishment, the party traditionally points to successes in these four areas to justify its exclusive monopoly over power. Thus while the form of the sentence openly mocks the state's sloganeering rhetoric, the content bluntly assails its grounds for political legitimacy.

The story's concluding passage uses the two meanings encoded in a single word to expand a critique of the 19th century Vietnamese political regime into an indictment of the present one. In its original Vietnamese, the passage reads:

Trieu Nguyen cua Vua Gia Long lap ra la mot trieu dai te hai. Chi xin luu y ban doc day la trieu dai de lai nhieu lang. (The Nguyen Dynasty set up by King Gia Long was a great depraved dynasty. Please pay attention dear readers, for this was the dynasty that left many mausoleums/ royal tombs...)

In Vietnamese, the word lang has two distinct meanings. It can denote a royal tomb such as the dozen odd royal tombs built by Nguyen monarchs which today dot the landscape surrounding Hue, the old royal capital. Or lang can mean mausoleum, in the specific sense of the somber architectural monuments which house the corpses of Lenin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh. While the preceding sentence signifies that the lang being referred to is of the nineteenth century variety, the words' modern connotation, and thus the sentence's implicit attack on modern "depraved" lang builders cannot be avoided.

How has Thiep gotten away with such direct criticism? Although the level of intellectual freedom in Vietnam has improved since 1986, artistic works are still banned for political content, outspoken independent-minded newspapers are periodically closed and writers are frequently harassed and occasionally jailed for what they publish. What then accounts for the uncensored publication of a work as explicitly subversive as "Vang Lua"?

Part of the reason stems from the way Thiep uses shifting narrative voices to blur the origins of some of the story's more controversial themes. "Vang Lua" contains three distinct first person narrators, the French adventurer Phang, an anonymous Portuguese, and a writer. Many of the story's most contentious passages, including the descriptions of Gia Long and Nguyen Du, the rape metaphor of Sino-Vietnamese relations, and the discussion of Vietnam's inferiority complex are presented as quotes culled directly from Phang's diary. Critics attacking the objectionable content of some of these isolated passages have themselves been scolded for carelessly attributing ideas to Thiep which in his story are clearly presented as the opinions of a nineteenth century Frenchman. The writer's supporters contend that these critics must quarrel with Phang, not Thiep.

How seriously, on the other hand, should the reader take Phang and his observations? Part of the impact of the Portuguese account, in which Phang is depicted as a cruel and obsessive madman, is to actually subvert the authority of Phang's preceding narrative. What once appeared as a radical critique of Vietnamese history and politics can now be dismissed as the ravings of an unreliable lunatic. The opening passage, in which the putative author receives but then "amends" and "reorganizes" a Muong villager's "ancient documents" on which this story is eventually based, further compounds the confusion about who bears responsibility for ideas found in the text. Such confusion naturally makes it easier for the writer to deflect politically inspired criticism.

"Vang Lua"'s use of multiple endings, like its use of multiple narrative voices can also be considered a technique of authorial self-defense. The endings contain potentially objectionable critiques of Vietnamese xenophobia (Conclusion 1), some dubiously accurate musing on the significance of the 19th century in the development of the modern Vietnamese nation (Conclusion 2), and a quasi-existentialist assertioassertion of the misery and emptiness of life (Conclusion 3). According to the story, the writer provides three endings “so that each reader can select the one which he or she feels is most suitable.” Naturally one effect of this technique is to subtly implicate the reader with the content of the ending that they choose. Critics of one ending can be casually invited to select a different one.

On another level, “Vang Lua”’s multiple endings, shifting points of view and persistent attempts to ground its narrative in enigmatic diaries, memoirs and ancient documents suggests more than simply a shrewd manouver to elude the censors. It’s signifcant that just as the Portuguese account discredits the validity of Phang’s preceding observations, the opening of Conclusion 3 does like damage to the reliability of the Portuguese account. Does this attack on Phang’s attacker restore Phang’s credibility? The reader is left to ponder. Such calculated uncertainty, however, seems to reflect an almost postmodern attempt to subvert a mode of “truth” production in which a single source of authority determines both the terms and acceptable outcomes of public discourse.

“Vang Lua”’s form self-consciously questions the authority of its own content, and it is perhaps such irreverent questioning of authority which has made contemporary Viet Nam’s “truth” producers pay serious attention to the story and its author.

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