Influences that have shaped the way we think and behave
The Chinese legacy
The roots of Vietnam’s culture are firmly bedded in a thousand years of Chinese domination, but other influences have helped to shape Vietnam’s intellectual achievements and way of life. The early Dong Son people, the original Vietnamese, brought sophisticated mining, smelting and casting skill from their Mongolian origins and left a legacy of magnificent bronze statues and drums. The Champa Kingdom also left its mark in the form of ornately carved sculptures decorating their mysterious brick towers.
However, the impact of other races and nations is dwarfed by that of China. The Confucian code and Buddhism introduced during their occupation of the country have dominated Vietnamese life for two millennia, and will doubtless continue to do so for centuries to come.
Putting aside the differing cultures of Vietnam’s many smaller ethnic groups, most of which have migrated into Vietnam comparatively recently, the post-Chinese development of the culture of the majority ‘Kinh’ people that constitute 85% of the population can be divided into four phases. They are a long period of dynastic rule, the French occupation, the years between 1945 and 1986, and the post ‘doi moi’ period.
The years of the Imperial Dynasties that ruled Vietnam from the 10th to the 19th century were marked by wars and feuds with neighbouring countries as the country expanded to the south and consolidated its territory. Culturally, there was little change under the Confucian administrative structures inherited from the Chinese. The conservative nature of Confucianism limited technological and cultural progress, making the country highly vulnerable to the advanced military power of the French.
The French brought European-style administration, Christianity in the form of Catholicism, and implemented the written version of Vietnamese that had been ignored by the Vietnamese since its creation by a Jesuit monk in the 17th century. They introduced new forms of cultural expression, such as painting and prose, established a European-style theatrical tradition, brought in a different style of architecture and European cuisine, and created the social conditions that led to the rise of communism in Vietnam during the twentieth century.
The USSR model
Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of independence in 1945 ushered in a new era of social realism in which the purpose of culture and all forms of artistic expression was to further the county’s revolutionary aspirations. Many traditional and French-influenced artistic genres were suppressed. The influence of the USSR was considerable during this period. Russian became the second language, large numbers of Vietnamese people went to the Soviet countries to study, and new administrative systems, economic structures, planning models and mass movements based on examples in the Soviet Union were introduced.
The advent of ‘doi moi’ (new thinking) following the failure of centralisation and collectivisation paved the way for opening up the country to the outside world and re-entering the international community after a long period of isolation. Since then, the reins have been loosened, and several traditional and new forms of cultural expression are beginning to flourish. Tourism, television and the Internet have hastened the rate of change, but the brake of Confucianism has meant that cultural development has been slower than might have been expected. However, it has also helped to insulate Vietnam from some of the more pernicious features of globalisation
Nevertheless, change is moving ahead relentlessly, and the culture of Vietnam is being reborn in a different guise. Vietnam’s large proportion of young people will mature into a social and cultural milieu that will be completely unrecognisable to their elders.