Vietnamese Perspectives on the War in Vietnam

XI. Do^`i Mo(+i or Renovation Literature

After the Sixth Party Congress in 1986, Vietnam launched its version of glasnost, a movement that led to an easing of restrictions on writers. Important works were published, works which, unlike the socialist realism produced earlier dared to criticize the communist leadership and remind readers that the "great victory" was won at a cost of tremendous human suffering. This section lists these works and also some other contemporary literature. The introduction describes the political situation that led to the government's experiment with literary renovation.

Dicusssion: Political Background of a Literary Movement

Renovation movement was an attempt by the Party leadership to breathe new life into Vietnamese socialism and also manage a population growing increasingly frustrated by a stagnated economy and a variety of other problems--the corruption of officials, bureaucratic immobility, the declining morale of young people, and the lack of educational and training opportunities, to name a few. Though it developed in response to local conditions, it can be compared to "glasnost," the movement for openness in the former Soviet Union. Though Vietnamese reformers were not imitating developments in the USSR, they apparently did track events there closely. "[T]he real breakthrough," Phu+o+ng Kie^n Khanh writes, "occurred with the political mutation in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev's crackdown on bureaucratic immobilism had a tremendous impact on Vietnamese internal affairs and helped reduce the resistance of conservative officialdom" (13).

The Renovation movement began in 1986 when Nguye^~n Va(n Linh, sometimes referred to as "Vietnam's Gorbachev," took over as General Secretary of the Party following the death of Le^ Dua^?n, an arch-conservative. Secretary Linh and his reform-minded allies began a process of quite radical change, the most fundamental being the move away from centralized control and toward a market economy.

Cultural Background

Before the movement for renewal became official and was given a name, significant developments were already taking place in literature and the arts. When the war ended, writers and critics in Hanoi hoped that masterpieces depicting their victory would be written. When no great works were forthcoming, these writers and critics felt compelled to explain why. In an influential article entitled "Writing about War" that appeared in 1978 in Literature and Arts in the Army [Va(n Nghe^. Qua^n Ddo^.i],1 Nguye^~n Minh Cha^u, a well-known army journalist and writer, suggested that the works produced about the war had failed to satisfy readers because they did not pose psychological or social problems or express the attitude of the author. Perhaps avoiding these topics was appropriate during the war, he suggested, when everyone involved in the struggle was afraid that admitting individual fears would have weakened courage, but now that the struggle was over it was time for writers to reassess their strategies. We have fallen into the habit of writing a "wishful realism" (hie^.n thu+'c u+o(+c mo+), Nguye^~n Minh Cha^u said. Perhaps it is time to return to "actual realism" (hie^.n thu+'c DDang to^'n ta.i).

Hoa`ng Ngo.c Hie^n, a literary critic and trainer of literary cadres, enlarged upon Nguye^~n Minh Cha^u's views in a article that appeared seven months later in Literature and the Arts [Va(n Nghe^.]. In this Soviet-trained critic's view, writers have become too concerned with writing "what should be" (pha?i to^'n ta.i) instead of "what is" (DDang to^'n ta.i). They have adopted "doctrinaire realism" (chu? nghi~a hie^.n thu+'c pha?i DDa.o), a kind of writing that follows preconceived rules and discourages the telling of truths.2 At this time critics, even those officially sanctioned like Nguye^~n Minh Cha^u and Hoa`ng Ngo.c Hie^n, had to speak cautiously and a little obscurely: since the term "socialist realism" (chu? nghi~a hie^.n thu+'c xa~ ho^.i chu? nghi~a) had acquired an almost sacred quality, it was better to avoid it and to attack "doctrinaire-ism" and a literature of "what should be." But clearly what both men were pointing out is that pressure from the Party to write socialist realism was stifling creativity.

Writers as well as critics began to chafe at the bit of socialist realism several years before Renovation policy was officially inaugurated. Nguye^~n Ma.nh Tua^'n, Nguye^~n Thi. Ngo.c Tu', and Nguye^~n Kha?i, for example, all published novels before 1986 that exposed the incompetence and greed of Party members and talked of losses as well as victories, of cowardice as well as heroism. Although an article in which the exile critic Nguye^~n Hu+ng Quo^'c surveys works by these authors has been translated ("Vietnamese Communist Literature"), I know of no translations of the works themselves.

Renovation Literature

Increased momentum for change occurred after the Sixth Party Congress in 1986. At this congress, Party leaders emphasized the responsibility of the media and the press to boost the spirit of the masses and suggested they could do this by ensuring truthfulness and avoiding simplistic, cliche-ridden accounts. In October, 1987, Nguye^~n Va(n Linh, the new Party Secretary, personally attended a memorable meeting of writers and artists and participated with them in a frank dialogue about the state of creative activity. The Party Secretary suggested that the creative elite could play an important role by investigating problems facing the country and enlisted their help in the battle against bureaucratism and corruption. In remarks he made at the end of this two- day exchange, the Party Secretary stated that "one must hold fast to socialist realism," but he suggested that writers who properly adopt this approach are not afraid to attack evils, even evils in people holding important posts in the Party, if these evils prevent the new socialist man from emerging (Nguye^~n Va(n Linh 123). This invitation from the most powerful person in government signaled a major change in policy and had an immediate liberating effect on literary production in Vietnam. Most works from the North listed in this section were produced or published during this period of openness that lasted from roughly 1986-87 until 1988-89. Contacts with the West were easier during this period and they facilitated the translation and publication abroad (not always with government approval) of works by Ba?o Ninh, Du+o+ng Thu Hu+o+ng, Nguye^~n Huy Thie^.p, and Pha.m Thi. Hoa`i.

As is clear from the annotations of their works, these writers depart from the strictures of socialist realism. According the Nguye^~n Hu+ng Quo^'c, they depart in four ways. First, these writers "recognize an internal conflict between the proletariat and the nature of socialism" (344). The Party line has always been that the socialist regime and the people share the same ideals and goals. All negative phenomena can be traced to the enemy. This view led to a division of characters into two factions, one progressive and one reactionary. Renovation writers, however, reveal situations in which the Party leadership is the problem and they produce characters who are complex mixtures of good and bad traits.

This first "renovation" shades over into the second: a willingness to recognize evil or badness ("ca'i xa^'u"). Previously in communist literature badness could be ascribed to rich land owners and members of the bourgeoisie but not to the "new socialist man," certainly not to Party officials who were supposed to be wise and capable of solving all problems. According to Nguye^~n Hu+ng Quo^'c, this willingness to see badness in a wider range of people has reintroduced a tragic element in Vietnamese literature. Writers could again dampen their pages with tears, something that was difficult before Renovation.

In the late 70's the critic Hoa`ng Ngo.c Hie^n had already recognized a problem with typical characters. An individual, he said, is attached to certain groups based on social class, ethnicity, religion, vocation, etc. and certain characteristics have been associated with each group. "But we know," he continued, "that the adding together of those characteristics will not produce an individual person, will not clarify the individual aspect, the unique capacity and particular appearance of the person." Nguye^~n Hu+ng Quo^'c identifies a reaction to the typical and a return to individual expression as his third renovation. Renovation writers, he says, "recognize that in literature there is reserved a fairly extensive territory for the 'I,' for the personal aspect of people, ordinary common people" (345). Nguye^~n Minh Cha^u suggests that during the war writers voluntarily avoided personal expression for fear of releasing floodgates of emotion that would weaken the will to resist. Clearly, however, socialist realism, from Engel's famous definition (See Section VII) to more recent formulations, has encouraged the depiction of "typical characters under typical circumstances." Personal cries of anguish such as Ba?o Ninh's the Sadness of War and individual portraits of corrupt officials such as Uncle Chi'nh in Du+o+ng Thu Hu+o+ng's Paradise of the Blind did not fit the formula.

Nguye^~n Hu+ng Quo^'c's fourth departure from socialist realism is not a feature of renovation writing but rather a changed definition of the acceptable canon. Previously, he argues, only "useful" literature (va(n ho.c co' i'ch), literature supporting the revolution and socialism, was accepted. After Renovation, the leadership allowed a category of works that in its view might not be "useful" but were judged "harmless" (vo^ ha.i ). Many pre-war stories and poems that had been labeled bourgeois and reactionary, including those by Nha^'t Linh and other members of the Self- Strength Literary Group (See Section II), could be reprinted and sold in bookstores. New works, including many listed in this section, could be published.

The Movement Was a Moment

The window of opportunity that allowed works with the features enumerated above was not open for long. In December, 1988, Nguye^n Ngo.c, author and editor of Va(n Nghe^. [Literature and the Arts] was sacked, presumably for publishing stories by Nguye^~n Huy Thie^.p. Most observers believe it was Nguye^~n Huy Thie^.p's historical stories--"A Sharp Sword," "Fired Gold," and "Chastity"--that angered some Party leaders. In these stories traditional heroes such as Quang Trung, who drove out the Chinese in 1789, are treated irreverently; and traditional villains such as Emperor Gia Long, accused by patriots of making deals with the French, are treated sympathetically. The reformist faction began to lose power, no doubt in part because conservatives were alarmed by the collapse of communist governments in Eastern Europe and events at Tian An Men Square. Even General Secretary Nguye^~n Va(n Linh lost his zeal for openness and began to speak of the dangers of irresponsible dissent. In January, 1990, new press regulations were passed which tightened censorship and warned of incorrect interpretations of Renovation freedoms. In 1991 DDo^~ Mu+o+`i, a conservative, replaced Nguye^~n Va(n Linh as Party Secretary.
Recent developments indicate that pro-reform elements, at least those in favor of artistic freedoms, are still in retreat. In the economic sphere, however, freedoms have not been curtailed and the move toward a market economy has become a race (if not a stampede). It appears that Vietnam is following the Chinese model of granting freedoms to business people but not to writers and journalists. Whether this policy will be successful remains to be seen. In one sense, literary and economic freedoms are intertwined. One impetus for relaxing central control of literature and journalism was economic: lacking funds to support many publications, the government told agencies that their journals would have to become self-supporting. To attract readers and make a profit these journals began to include sensational stories and pictures, often culled from foreign publications. In addition, the influx of modern communication technology--photocopiers, fax machines, video cameras and recorders--makes strict control of the dissemination of printed information and images extremely difficult. As Western-style consumerism spreads, it will no doubt create its own momentum for freedom.

Despite the current retreat from openness, the Vietnam literary scene has been profoundly affected by the Renovation movement. The debates surrounding socialist realism, Nguye^~n Huy Thie^.p's iconoclastic short stories, and the firing of Nguye^n Ngo.c have energized writers and critics alike and may be the prelude to increased literary achievement.



1. This article, the Vietnamese title of which is "Vie^'t ve^ Chie^'n Tranh," has not been translated. It appeared in the November, 1978, issue of the journal mentioned.

2. "Some Characteristics of Our Literature and Art in the Period Just Passed" [Ve^ Mo^.t DDoc DDie^?m cu?a Va(n Ho.c Nghe^. Thua^.t O+' Ta trong Giai DDoa.n Vu+`a Qua], Va(n Nghe^. [Literature and Art] 23 (9 June 1979).

3. Ibid.

4. For a discussion of how Renovation has affected the circulation of information in Vietnam, see David Marr, "Education, Research, and Information Circulation in Contemporary Vietnam," Reinventing Vietnamese Socialism: Doi Moi in Comparative Perspective, ed. William and Mark Selden (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993) 337-358.

Yale University Council on Southeast Asia Studies
Dan Duffy, Editor Viet Nam Publications
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