13: The Birth of Vietnam as a Country

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Vietnam’s Chinese Childhood

Southeast Asia: “In prior chapters, we explored the devastating impact of first the Dutch East India Company upon Java/Indonesia and then the British East India Company upon Myanmar. Unfortunately, Vietnam was not spared from the cultural destruction of European colonialism – this time the French. Let's examine Vietnam's childhood to gain a historical perspective.

For most of first millennium, the Han Chinese ruled the Tonkin and Annam peoples that inhabited the north and middle of Vietnam. They were cousins to the Mon and Khmer, as they all spoke languages in the Austroasiatic family. The Tonkinese and Annamese are the ancestors of the modern Vietnamese and spoke an ancient version of their language. During their occupation, the Chinese attempted to ‘civilize’ the Vietnamese by forcing them to adopt many Chinese customs and traditions.

The Vietnamese became independent when China experienced internal difficulties after the fall of the T’ang dynasty at the end of the first millennium CE. Despite over a millennium of active Sinofication by the Chinese, the Vietnamese reasserted many of their ancient cultural traditions after they reestablished local control of their country. However the close contact with the Chinese left an indelible mark upon their character. The Vietnamese are by far the most Sinocized of any of my Southeast Asian cultures. While Chinese is only a spice in the cultural stew of the rest of my brood, Chinese is a major ingredient in the Vietnamese stew - if not the meat, probably the stock, as it permeates their society and even their language.

The Fall of the Kingdom of Champa

While the Chinese ruled the Vietnamese in the north, the Cham ruled the south. They were the inheritors of the Dong Song culture of Vietnam - who made magnificent bronze drums. Rather than being of Vietnamese ethnicity, the Cham were Austronesian speakers like the islanders. Their king founded a Hindu state, appropriately called Champa, in the 2nd century CE. The Cham created beautiful temples just like their contemporaries, the Mon, Khmer, Javanese and Burmese. In contrast to the Vietnamese who were under Chinese rule, each of these diverse ethnicities belonged to Indianized kingdoms.

With the north of Vietnam under Chinese rule, the 1st millennium was the Golden Age for the Cham. The Annam culture finally broke away from China’s control in 939 CE to form an independent kingdom. Feeling powerful, they immediately attacked Champa. The human species is certainly violent!

This began the inexorable decline of the Cham. The Annamese moved south from the east, while the Khmer moved south from the west. The Cham were squeezed onto the Mekong delta. In 1471 CE, they experienced a decisive defeat by the Khmer, which ended their political existence.

Like the Mon of Myanmar, they are disappearing as a culture. As of 1995, there were 220,000 Cham in Cambodia and 110,000 Cham in Vietnam. However, they are being assimilated into their local communities for practical reasons. Such is the rise and fall of civilizations.

The first millennium and a half were the glory days for my Indianized kingdoms – our time in the sun. We thought they would never end. Art, music, dancing, with a minimum of warfare. But I guess we should have known; everything temporal comes to a close - sooner or later. The good and bad alternate - pain and pleasure in equal measure. Because existence is so transitory, it’s important to enjoy the drama without getting too attached to results.

When the end comes, it seems as if the whole shebang was just a meteor shooting across the evening sky. Did anyone really see you? Is there any evidence of your existence? Or has the continual battling of humans destroyed all remnants of your brief moment of glory. In retrospect, it seemed so brief. But how fine while it lasted.

All my Indianized kingdoms played the warrior game, where nobody wins. But that’s all behind us now. It seemed as if it would never be over and now it is just a tattered memory - the blink of an eye. Thank the Universe that we were inspired to create some architectural pictures to refresh our memories.

While the circumstances that led to the demise of my Indianized kingdoms would be considered misfortunes, these hardships catalyzed an incredible growth experience. This great Ego cleansing pushed my people to the next level. These seemingly negative experiences stripped away our spiritual egos, which are the hardest to relinquish. It’s so difficult to see through their disguise because they masquerade as wisdom and understanding. Knowledge frequently blocks the full experience of oneness with the Moment – the instantaneous mixed with the eternal.”

Vietnam breaks free to become herself

Vietnam: “After the withdrawal of the Chinese in 935 CE, many diverse political entities battled it out for supremacy of my coastal country. These entities included my three resident cultures, China, and a growing people’s movement. For sake of brevity, I shall be referring to the northern culture that spoke Viet-Muong, when speaking of my people, the Vietnamese. The Sinocized Vietnamese culture of the north was in the process of squeezing out the southern Cham culture. Indeed the kingdom of Champa was a permanent casualty less than half way into the 2nd millennium.

From the 11th century onwards, my country was a centralized state ruled by an absolute monarch. He claimed a Mandate from Heaven - Chinese style. Like the Chinese, ours was a typical Confucian culture. The family was first, village second, and government third in the social hierarchy. Just like the Chinese, we had a hierarchy of state officials who got their positions through civil service exams. Although the more prosperous citizens had many educational advantages, just like anywhere in the world, the road to power was through scholarship - not wealth.

Unlike the Chinese, my king continually redistributed land to prevent the accumulation of power by tribal chiefs. In the early 19th century, all huge land holdings were abolished. This land redistribution set the foundation of my later Communist society. In this way, the landed aristocracy was prevented from accumulating power. The king awarded titles, but they were not hereditary. As in the rest of Southeast Asia, then and now, the king was meant to be a religious leader as well as a political ruler. Accordingly, we had no military caste and no religious hierarchy to disturb our social balance with their power grabs.

While there was no division of power in my autocracy, customs were strong. The king, as the head of my human organism, was required to administer justice along traditional lines. Although in charge, his range of movement was limited by social norms. As a whole, I was a land of small farmers with a large measure of local autonomy with an absolute monarch as leader. Trade, national and international, was not promoted. As such, we had no international interests. Our economy, based as it was on the village level, was local and self sufficient for our 900 years of independence. Then came the Western Europeans – speaking French this time.

Arrival of a French Missionary, Alexandre de Rhodes

My Vietnamese people had already met the Portuguese in 1516, but only as traders. Their militarism had already been spent on the Muslims of the Indian Ocean. Then in 1527, the Portuguese Dominican missionaries arrived. As a whole, they had a limited impact and we barely noticed their existence. They were just one of many cultures to visit our land.

Then in 1619, Alexandre de Rhodes arrived on our soil - our first Frenchman. He had been ordained as a Jesuit missionary at the age of 21 just 7 years earlier, but was committed to converting my country to Catholicism. To facilitate communication, the Portuguese had already developed a Romanized alphabet for Vietnamese. De Rhodes improved upon this, introducing special marks to denote tone. He then created a Portuguese/Latin/Vietnamese dictionary. Using this invaluable tool he converted 6,700 of my people to his Western religion in a little over 10 years - at least according to his estimates. Regardless of how many converts de Rhodes actually had, his impact was big enough that my leaders started to pay attention. In 1630, he was expelled from my land for undermining our Confucian state with his foreign religion.

He retreated to Portuguese Macao for 10 years, but then returned in 1640 to continue his missionary work. This time my leaders were not so lenient and condemned him to death. Feeling compassionate, they commuted his sentence to permanent exile - thinking that they were done with his troubling influence at last. Unfortunately, Catholic proselytizing had just temporarily gone into hibernation.

Undaunted, de Rhodes left for Java where he was again imprisoned for his preaching. He eventually reached the Vatican, where he pleaded for support for his missionary work in Vietnam. With the rising Dutch presence, the Portuguese political influence was on the wane. De Rhodes hoped to establish Catholic communities untainted by governmental politics with a direct line to the Vatican. He even proposed ordaining Vietnamese priests to accelerate the conversion process.

De Rhodes’ distortions persuade the French Company

Because of a lukewarm response from Rome, he traveled to France in an attempt to raise funds from the French businessmen and aristocracy for his return journey.

Company: “Ahh. My birth.”

Alexandre de Rhodes: “Mon ami. There is an entire continent of people just waiting to hear the Gospel and be saved. With your generous support this idea can become a reality.”

Company: “Gospel - shmospel. Where’s the money?”

Alexandre: “What about conversion to our true religion? Is this not enough of a reason for an investment?”

Company: “Not really. It will take bundles of money to finance a ship to sail half way around the world. The Vietnamese already threatened you with execution once. What if they kill you immediately upon your return? Then we have lost our entire investment for nothing.”

Discouraged, but ever resourceful, de Rhodes rapidly came up with a little white lie that eventually led to the enslavement of my people, the Vietnamese.

Alexandre: “Actually, my dear friends, this could be a win-win situation for the both of us. In addition to having a population which is eager to hear the Gospel of Christ, Vietnam is also a country rich with resources.”

Company: “What kind of resources?”

Alexandre: “For one, lots of silk.”

Company: “What about spices?”

Alexandre: “More than you can imagine. The Spice Islands actually import some of their spices from Vietnam.”

Company: “Really! Now you’re beginning to speak my language. What about precious metals, such as gold.”

Alexandre: “The streets are almost paved with gold. And there are so many gems stones that commoners adorn themselves with rubies and emeralds.”

Company: “Hmmm? A country with silk, spices, gold and gems. And of course a population eager for conversion. What about their army?”

Alexandre: “They are a militarily backward country. Almost childlike in their naiveté. Just above animals in their martial capabilities.”

Company: “Hmmm? A primitive country filled with wealth for the taking and a population ready for conversion. Perhaps another New World situation like Mexico? Where do we sign up?”

Alexandre: “Right here on the dotted line. I assure you that your investment in this spiritual enterprise will be rewarded beyond your wildest imagining.”

Vietnam: “Although Alexander de Rhodes died in 1660 before he was able to return to my land, his false words infected the next few hundred years of French capitalists with visions of wealth. His persuasion was not wasted on the Vatican either. In 1658, shortly before his death, Rome established a missionary program to save the souls of my people. Missionaries combined with Capitalists - this combination was to be the undoing of my country.

At the time however, my people dismissed these Europeans as a bothersome annoyance. By the end of 17th century shortly after de Rhodes died, my Vietnamese people lost interest in the West. Despite all efforts to exploit or convert us my people remained aloof to the European influence. Little did we know what havoc they were to cause in the centuries to come.

Internal political difficulties

Before we go on, I have a confession to make. Although we have focused on the French influence upon my land, it was actually negligible at the time. I have glossed over the internal difficulties that afflicted my people.

First, I must credit the Chinese, our archenemies, with neutralizing tribalism on my land. After a thousand years of their rule, the divisive tribal politics had been almost entirely eradicated. However from our first dynasty, the Ly, to our last, the Le, our monarchs fought the revival of feudalism by deliberately, forcefully and regularly redistributing land to neutralize tribal and clan power. Simultaneously, our great kings attempted to prevent the exploitation of the farmer by the businessmen. Like the great Emperors of China they realized that the real wealth of the land lay with the people.

I also referred to our 900 years of independence before the French arrived. This too is an exaggeration. The Mongols attempted to invade with 300,000 of their men from China, but were repulsed. Then one of our rulers invited the subsequent Ming Chinese Dynasty in to restore him to the throne. They came and stayed, of course. These were the Chinese who cut down entire teak forests to build their boats and castles. This eco-destruction inspired my people to revolt to protect my land. The gods also helped out by sending a lightening bolt down to kill the Emperor’s favorite concubine and destroy his new castle. With this fateful action, he knew that he had lost the Mandate of Heaven. The founder of our final dynasty, the Le, finally threw out the Chinese for good in 1428.

During his reign, the first Le king introduced land reform, an advanced legal code, and promoted the arts. However because of the vitality of his kingdom, he had to expand to provide land for his people. Curse Malthus and his projections of perpetual shortages of land, food and resources due to population pressures. He was just too accurate.

As mentioned earlier, my Annamese kingdom moved south to drive out the Chams by 1471. The king as the owner of all the land parceled out the fertile delta to his soldiers for cultivation. This helped to ease our land pressures for only a short period. Our population continued to grow, the available land continued to shrink, and we continued our southern migration - for centuries. We eventually conquered Saigon from the Khmer in 1700 and then the entire Mekong delta by 1757. However we only achieved our full extent when we finally captured the southern most province of the delta from the Khmer in 1840. No wonder the Cambodians fear us.

However our spread south turned us into a dumbbell shaped kingdom with a thousand mile coastline. China’s traditional target, the Red River Valley with Hanoi as its capitol city, determined my northern region. The Mekong delta with Saigon as its capitol determined my southern territory. These two deltas are somewhat separated by the rugged mountain range called the Annamese Cordillera, yet another finger of the mighty Himalayas. This geographic split turned into a political split more than once in our history.

A short century after the Annamese under the Le dynasty united the north, south and middle for the first time, the Tonkin culture from Hanoi wrested control from them, conquering the south in 1527. This initiated a period of civil war. The Annamese Le Dynasty regained control of the south in 1545 and then after 50 more years of fighting regained control of the north. To maintain control, they moved their capitol to Hanoi. But then because of my geography, the Nguyen family, ruling from Hue, seized control of the south and rejected Hanoi’s sovereignty. This was in 1620, only several decades after political unification had been achieved. In the meantime, the Trinh family became the rulers of Hanoi in my north. This was around the time that the French Jesuit, Alexandre de Rhodes, visited my land for the first time.

After 50 more years of civil war between north and south, a truce was finally reached which lasted for 100 years - from 1673 to 1772. Ah what a blessed time that was. Although both north and south gave lip service to their obeisance to the Le Emperor in Hanoi, both sections of my country were independent of each other and more importantly at peace.

The Tay Son peasant rebellion 1772

Then in 1772 three brothers led a peasant rebellion from the village of Tay Son. The Tay Son rebellion caught the aristocracy off guard. By 1777 they had seized control of the south and executed the entire royal family with the exception of one. Less than a decade later in 1786, the brothers had also seized the north. Evidently my people weren’t really that happy under their supposedly benevolent autocracy.

The French had just gone through their own people’s revolution in 1789. You would have thought that they would have been sympathetic to my peasants. Instead, they supported the remaining member of the Annamese royal family in the south. They helped him launch a counter-revolution. By 1802 he had successfully suppressed the rebellion and reunited my country as one again.

A few items of note. This peasant rebellion foreshadowed the Communist rebellion led by Ho Chi Minh nearly 200 years later. The French who assisted the royalist family in their battle to reclaim control of their kingdom were part of the Company. They were not part of the revolutionary government back in Europe, which was attempting to fight off the royalty themselves. Like the Dutch Company, the French Company always sided with the monarchs to exploit the peasantry. The royal family always gave them a better deal. The peasant groups always had too many demands - like job safety, better pay, and higher prices for their products. This inevitably cut into the profits of the Company, whichever nationality.”

France has a conversation with the Company

In the meantime, back in Europe, France and her Company were feeling sorry for themselves. As they woke up, they began screaming for their rights.

France, stretching: “Yawn. It seems like we’ve been asleep with our internal problems forever. French Revolution - Napoleonic Wars - Aristocratic backlash. It’s nice that we’ve finally achieved social stability after so much turmoil.”

The French branch of the Company: “But we must wake up to the external realities. Our Western European neighbors - Spain, Portugal, Holland, and England, have all been carving up the rest of the world into colonial possessions. And they’ve been getting rich doing so. We’re falling behind.”

France: “We’re falling behind? ”

Company: “Exactly. We have been left out of this land grab. Our neighbors are getting rich and we’re not. This is not right. After all, we are the superior culture.”

France: “Waaah! It’s not fair that everyone else is getting rich on their colonies, but us.”

Southeast Asia: “But they’re getting rich exploiting innocent local people.”

Company: “Don’t listen to her. We are bringing the highly evolved Western European culture to the savages of the world. They are so primitive they’ve never even heard of the Bible.”

Southeast Asia: ““But my people have their own traditions with their own literature and art.”

Company: “But we need to bring them our superior culture - and in the process we make scads of money. It’s a win-win situation.”

Southeast Asia: ““For you and a lose - lose for my humans.”

Company: “Ignore her. We are doing this for their good. Besides the other Europeans nations are getting rich and we aren’t.”

France: “But all of Southeast Asia has been colonized.”

Company: “No it’s not. Vietnam is left.”

France: “Vietnam? Never heard of it.”

Company: “It’s a primitive country on the eastern coast of Southeast Asia. Nobody has conquered, er I mean civilized, them yet. We need to get in the colonial race, if we are to regain our rightful position as ruler of the world. After all we are French. We deserve the best.”

Southeast Asia: “But these are only rationalizations for a morally reprehensible act.”

Company: “So what? We’ll get rich doing it. And everyone else is already doing it.”

Southeast Asia: “Does that make it right?”

France: “But we French don’t want to be left behind.”

Company: “I say we invade as soon as possible before the others do.”

France: “If we don’t they will. And we are much more humane than they are. We’ll bring those savages art and culture.”

Southeast Asia: “But the Vietnamese aren’t savages. They’ve had a high level of culture for thousands of years.”

Company: “Could someone please shut her up.”

Army: “You called boss?”

Southeast Asia: “But … mmmph.”

Company: “Thanks.”

Army: “At your service.”

Company: “Finally a little peace and quiet now that the static has been eliminated.”

France: “Yes we can think so much more clearly now without so much negativity around.”

Company: “So it’s decided then. We invade with a preemptive strike before the British and Dutch arrive. That way we’ll be able to start civilizing those savages immediately.”

France: “Besides better us than those barbaric Germanic cultures.”

Company: “Let’s get started immediately. We need to establish our civilizing presence in Vietnam - for their own good, of course.”

France: “To protect them from the others, who are much more cruel than we are.”

Company: “You’re learning your lessons well.”

 

Southeast Asia: “My poor baby. Little did Vietnam know what she was going to be subjected to in the next hundred plus years. She had always considered the Chinese to be her worst nightmare. Ironically they were to be her unlikely ally in her fight for freedom from the violent Americans. This was totally unexpected because the giant of China had been her traditional enemy."

 

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