Vietnamese Perspectives on the War in Vietnam

Works from the Colonial Period

This section gives works about the period of French domination (1867-1945). Most translations listed were originally written in the 1930's when literature in the new national script (quoc ngu) reached a high level of development. The introduction describes two literary treatments of life during the colonial period: a realistic treatment by writer sympathetic to the emerging communist movement and a more romantic treatment by non-communist nationalists.

Discussion: Realism, Reportage, Romantic Fiction, and the Question of the Individual

I have begun a course I teach on Vietnam War literature with Graham Greene's The Quiet American. The trouble with doing so is that it encourages students to look out on Vietnam and the Vietnamese from the weary eyes of the main character, an aging Englishman who when confronted with the new American imperialism becomes nostalgic for the older forms. This perspective, the imperial gaze, is thus set at the start and becomes difficult to adjust for later. By beginning instead with Vietnamese accounts of the colonial period, with accounts that feature Vietnamese as main characters, we convey the idea that Vietnamese will be major actors in the story that the course will tell. Because many of these narratives expose the evils of colonial society, they help our students understand why there was a revolution, why people rallied to leaders like Ho^' Chi' Minh.

Realism and Reportage

Oversimplifying somewhat, we can say there are two different literary treatments of life under French rule: a realistic treatment of social conditions by writers most of whom later joined the communist-led anti-colonialist movement and a more individualized and romantic vision presented by others who later joined non- communist nationalist parties. Writers in the first group are well-represented in Ngo^ Vi~nh Long's two collections, Before the Revolution and Vietnamese Women in Society and Revolution. These collections contain samples of what Ngo^ Vi~nh Long calls "documentary fictions" (pho'ng su+' tie^?u thuye^'t) and essays in "realist literature" (va(n chu+o+ng ta? cha^n) that expose the evils of colonial society--cruel mandarins, excessive taxation, monopolies on alcohol and other products, and prostitution, for example. By "documentary fictions" Ngo^ Vi~nh Long means works that document social ills but feature characters who, though they may be typical, are not real people. By essays in "realist literature" he means non-fiction essays, first-person accounts by writers who are reporting on events (usually the suffering of poor people) they have heard about or witnessed. Some Vietnamese critics use the general word "pho'ng su+'," usually translated as "reportage," for both these genres. "Pho'ng" means to blow up or magnify and "su+'" means event. Vietnamese readers of both types of "pho'ng su+'" mentioned above, both the "documentary fiction" variety and the essay variety, understand that the writer may have "blown up" the truth to achieve aesthetic effects, but they expect more "blowing up" in works presented as novels than in works presented as essays. In colonial times, first-person narration was extremely rare in works of fiction, so its presence signalled an eye-witness account to most readers.

Ngo^ Vi~nh Long's collections contain mostly documentary fictions and only a few essays in realist literature, a ratio that reflects the publishing situation in colonial times. Few essays were allowed to circulate Ngo^ Vi~nh Long suggests, perhaps because in Europe the essay was the preferred vehicle for political commentary. Hoa`ng Dda.o 's long essay Mud and Stagnant Water [Bu`n La^`y Nu+o(+c DDo^.ng], a fairly moderate report of the suffering of peasants (excerpted in Before the Revolution), was immediately banned when it appeared in 1938. Ngo^ Ta^'t To^' 's fictional treatment of the same topic, When the Light's Put Out [Ta('t DDe`n], however, a more radical attack on the colonial system, was allowed to circulate after it was published in 1939 (Ngo^ Vi~nh Long, Revolution, pp. xxvi-xxvii). In this latter work, Ngo^ Ta^'t To^' describes a peasant family so poor that it must sell a daughter and a dog and her four puppies to a high official to pay a head tax. When the mother brings her daughter and the dogs to the official, he treats the dogs better than the daughter.

When in the early 1930's leftist critics in the Soviet Union struggled to define a new "socialist realism," they contrasted this new brand of realism with what they called "critical" or "bourgeois" realism, the realism of Balzac, or of Russia's great nineteenth century novelists Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Both Gleb Struve (See Section VII, note 19) and Hue^.-Ta^m Ho^' Ta`i (Section XI) discuss these terms. Critical realism, although considered useful in exposing the evils of pre-socialist society, was judged to be too morbid and negative, too loaded with victims and too bereft of heroes, to be useful in building a socialist mentality. Vietnamese Marxists, who have been influenced by these debates in the Soviet Union, consider works like When the Light's Put Out and Nguye^~n Co^ng Hoan's Impasse to be works of critical realism.

Most of the stories collected by Ngo^ Vi~nh Long reveal Vietnamese mandarin officials oppressing their own people. Writers made Vietnamese officials the villains in part because stories with French villains would probably be censored but also because, as Christine White points out in her article "French Colonialism and the Peasant Question," the French system of exploitation involved the use of Vietnamese as intermediaries. For an account of unmediated French cruelty and exploitation, see Tra^`n Tu+? Bi`nh's memoir of life on a rubber plantation.

The Light of the Capital, Greg and Monique Lockhart's translation of two works of reportage (pho'ng su+') and one autobiography (tu+' truye^.n) from the 1930's, nicely complements the collections by Ngo^ Vi~nh Long. Most of the selections in Ngo^ Vi~nh Long's two collections are examples of fictional reportage. The Lockharts, however, have selected two intriguing examples of the rarer first- person type of reportage (Tam Lang's I Pulled a Rickshaw and Vu~ Phu+?ng's Household Servants) and an even more unusual autobiography (Nguye^n Ho^'ng's Days of Childhood). While most of the stories collected by Ngo^ Vi~nh Long describe suffering in the countryside, the works in the Lockhart collection take place in urban areas (two in Hanoi, one in Nam DDi.nh). All three selections reveal how the lower classes--rickshaw pullers, servants, orphans-- suffered during the late colonial period when modern urbanization began. G. Lockhart's very useful scholarly introduction explains why first-person narration using "to^i" (I) was a new development in the 1930's, one that is related to larger political and social changes. Teachers who wish to emphasize the Society vs. the Individual theme can read this essay which chronicles the arrival of the "I" in prose with Neil Jamieson's account of its arrival in poetry. See his "Shattered Identities and Contested Images: Reflections of Poetry and History in 20th Century Vietnam."

Romantic Fiction

The other literary treatment of life under the French rule, the one I have labeled romantic (because it encouraged a less realistic, more condescending attitude toward peasant life), is represented by Nha^'t Linh and other writers of the Self-Strength Literary Society. Writers from this group are represented in James Banerian's collection Vietnamese Short Stories. Nha^'t Linh's "Two Beauties," for example, describes a French-educated painter, an adopted son of a rich woman, who tries to bring into harmony his love of art and his compassion for the poor people he paints. This semi-autobiographical story will help readers understand how Nha^'t Linh and his circle worried about social injustice in colonial society but found it difficult to escape their upper class perspective. This story was part of an international debate occurring in the 1930's over the social responsibility of writers. Maxim Gorky in the Soviet Union and Andre Gide in France were key participants and their pronouncements were avidly read in Vietnam (Nha^'t Linh begins "Two Beauties" with a quotation from Gide's Les Nourritures terrestres). Hue^. Ta^m Ho^' Tai's "Literature for the People: From Soviet Policies to Vietnamese Polemics," which summarizes this "art for art's sake" vs. "art for life's sake" debate, will help readers understand the literary-political context of Nha^'t Linh's story.

The Question of the Individual

In Understanding Vietnam Neil Jamieson describes a battle of the novels that was carried on by these two groups, the nascent communists and bourgeois nationalists. In their novels, writers belonging to the second group attacked Confucianism and the traditional family and championed a Western-style individualism. Nguye^~n Co^ng Hoan, a representative of the first group, admitted in his novel Miss Minh, the Schoolteacher [Co^ Gia'o Minh] that there were problems with traditional society but warned that an uninhibited individualism would lead to selfishness. Jamieson carefully summarizes these novels and translates long excerpts.

This Society vs. the Individual theme is played out even more dramatically in the lives and works of poets like Lu+u Lu+, Xua^n Die^.u, Che^' Lan Vie^n, and Huy Ca^.n, poets who in the 1930's led self-absorbed lives and wrote romantic poems glorifying individual love and then later became communists and began writing poems glorifying the revolution. Hoa`i Thanh, a critic who described and experienced himself this transformation, talks of a "miraculous resurrection" that led his group to "realize how little our individual life means in the immense life of the community" (quoted in Nguye^~n Kha('c Vie^.n and Hu+u Ngo.c, p. 145). Jamieson discusses these poets in the essay mentioned above ("Shattered Identities") and also in Understanding Vietnam. In both his essay and book Jamieson translates some pre-war romantic poems by these writers and also their revolutionary poetry, examples of which can also be found in the anthology Vietnamese Literature edited by Nguye^~n Kha('c Vie^.n and Hu+u Ngo.c.

Modern Western culture glorifies individualism; in traditional Vietnamese culture, however, the individual is enmeshed tightly in a web of social obligation. Though embraced by revolutionaries, Marxist-Leninism with its stress on political and social issues may have been accepted in Vietnam because it was, in certain respects, less revolutionary than other political philosophies. Reading this pre-war fiction and poetry will make students aware of the variety of viewpoints that existed as Vietnam struggled to become a modern society. It will help them understand that in the wars that followed Vietnamese were fighting for ideas as well as power.


Yale University Council on Southeast Asia Studies
Dan Duffy, Editor Viet Nam Publications
P.O. Box 208206, New Haven CT 06520-8206
Web Author: Andrew Kuklewicz
Revised: June 18, 1996
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