Monday, May 14, 2012

Understanding Vietnam

Understanding VietnamUnderstanding Vietnam by Neil L. Jamieson

Essential reading for anyone attempting to disassemble the myriad cultural idiosyncrasies of the Vietnamese populace, especially anthropology/history buffs and foreigners currently residing here. Also, a superb primer on Vietnamese lit, poetry, and folk music thanks to the countless primary sources Jamieson has included.

These meticulously collected and translated primary sources set this work apart from any other contemporary read on Vietnam as they shine a genuine light on the prevailing mood of the times.  By examining disparate works from the ever-popular epic national poem "Truyen Kieu" written in the 18th century by Nguyen Du, to the drive for modernization in the 1930's represented by Nguyen Tuong Tam's Self-Strength Literary Movement (Tu Luc Van Doan), to the individualist, metaphysical poets that emerged in the late 1930's, to the anti-conflict folk song movement during the American War,  Jamieson makes a strong case that there is no better cultural barometer than the works of literary art published and disseminated during a specific era.

---------- Selected Works-----------

Nhat Linh's (Nguyen Tuong Tam's nom de plume) Breaking the Mores (Đoạn Tuyệt) deconstructed a number of traditional elements of Vietnamese culture, including Confucian role-based social hierarchy and hieu (filial piety).  First published in 1935, it became instantly popular with the rising urban middle-classes.  Although it fell out of favor as Marxist collectivism took off, there have been attempts from the Vietnamese diaspora to reinvigorate it as a sociocultural touchstone.  

Pre-August Revolution modernist poets like Xuan Dieu, Che Lan Vien, and The Lu ("Remembering the Jungle - The Words of the Tiger in the Zoo") adopted a somber, inward-looking style full of "romantic exuberance" that reflected the difficulties of coming of age in in the midst of societal flux and crumbling French Colonialism.  Vien, a schoolboy poet at the time, drew comparisons to modern Vietnam and the ancient civilization of Champa.  An excerpt from his miserablist tableau "The Graves" deftly exhibits the pervasive pessimism of the times:

"All the Past is but an endless string of days, 
all the Future is but a series of graves not yet fulfilled,
And the Present - do you know, my friend -
Is also the silent burial of the green days of youth."

Another prominent member of the movement, Huy Can, later the Deputy Minister of Culture for the fledgling DRV (Democratic Republic of Vietnam), delved deep into the existentialist realm in his early poetry, expressing full-fledged disillusionment with the status quo.  Here is an excerpt from "The Human Body":
"You gave us a pair of hands, like blooming flowers.
Sturdy legs, tapering like bamboo sprouts.
Our necks are upright, like firm tree trunks.
Our shoulders are broad like the surface of a brook.
O Lord! You have labored so mightily!
But termites have burrowed into the castle...
That even You, O Lord, might blush with regret,
That You had brought human life into existence."

During the 1960's, with a country and national identity fractured by decades of war, foreign occupation, and conflicting ideologies, a new artistic medium entered the fray in South Vietnam - the pensive, thoughtful folk song. Pham Duy and Trinh Cong Son (and his "voice" Khanh Ly) remain the most notable of the folk heroes that emerged during the American War era, creating an immense body of work that spoke for the troubled soul of Vietnam, both above and below the 17th parallel.


Understanding Vietnam is highly recommended.  There are copies available in Saigon, but most of them have been edited and censored. is your best bet for an unexpurgated copy.

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