Vietnamese Perspectives on the War in Vietnam

VI. Cultural Background: Religion, Language, Myths, Legends

This section lists works by Vietnamese and Western scholars that may not deal with the war directly but will help readers understand the myths and beliefs that motivate Vietnamese. Many works discuss Confucianism, a social philosophy that, the introduction argues, Vietnamese have both accepted and opposed during their history. The introduction suggests a unit of ten readings which either discuss Confucianism directly or reveal its influence.

Discussion: Preparation for Deeper Readings

Included in this section are works which provide information on the cultural context within which Vietnamese writers work. Teachers may wish to read works in this section before they select and teach individual texts. With information and insights gleaned from this reading, teachers will be better able to prepare lectures and lead discussions of assigned texts. This section can also be used as a source for students doing special reports or for anyone who wishes to deepen her understanding of underlying cultural issues.

Because this section contains works on a variety of complex topics--Buddhism, Confucianism, traditional roles for women, etc.--it is not easy to introduce. Instead of trying to summarize the listed works, I would like to suggest a set of readings drawn primarily from this section. Teachers of some courses may wish to assign these readings; other teachers may wish to read them themselves, working in the information they learn from them when they feel it will illuminate a particular text being discussed.

Suggested Readings in Confucianism

My set of readings focuses on Confucianism, a useful topic to know something about as one attempts contextual readings of works on this bibliography. What we call "Confucianism" is a philosophy and a system of ethical precepts that developed in China as scholars reinterpreted and wrote commentaries on the teachings of Confucius, a sage and teacher born in 551 B. C. The key texts are the famous Four Books and Five Classics, works which in Vietnam were approached primarily through the commentaries of Chu Hsi, a Chinese Neo-Confucianist who lived from 1130- 1200. Nguye^~n Kha('c Vie^.n, Ngo^ Vi~nh Long, and other Vietnamese intellectuals resent scholars such as Paul Mus and Francis FitzGerald who, they say, seize on some Confucian concept and claim it is the key that unlocks all Vietnam's mysteries, but they do not deny that Confucianism has profoundly affected Vietnamese life. Writing in 1962, Nguye^~n Kha('c Vie^.n states that for Vietnamese "Confucianism represents much more than a doctrine inscribed in venerable texts; it is a legacy of history, a fundamental legacy to be understood, fought against and overcome in the course of the historical change which the country is now undergoing" ("Confucianism and Marxism," 17). Many of the works by Vietnamese on this bibliography reveal the truth of these words.

Before moving to the following readings, it will be useful to do some general reading about Confucianism. Many encyclopedias provide readable overviews of Confucianism in China. As to how it has been applied in Vietnam, one can consult Nguye^~n Xua^n Thu's "The Vietnamese Family Moral Code" (in Vietnamese Studies in a Multicultural World), Nguye^~n DDi`nh Ho`a's "The Garden of Confucianism" (in Language in Vietnamese Society), chapters two and three of David Marr's Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945, and the first chapter of Neil Jamieson's Understanding Vietnam.1

Because Confucianism is a complex system of social organization, one difficult to grasp in its entirety, I've chosen my readings to highlight two aspects of this system that were emphasized in Vietnam, aspects that are generally referred to as the Three Submissions and the Three Bonds. Listed below is my set of ten readings, a mixture of stories, sociology, history, and criticism. All are annotated as well in the list of cources in this or later sections.

  1. "The Lady of Nam Xu+o+ng." In Du+o+ng Va(n Quye^n and Jewell Reinhart Coburn. Beyond the East Wind: Legends and Folktales of Vietnam. 81-88.

  2. Co^ng Huye^n To^n Nu+~ Nha Trang. "Ideal Role Conformity of the Vietnamese Wife Reflected in Folksongs." 60-69.

  3. FitzGerald, Francis. "The Making of a Revolutionary." Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans. 197-211.

  4. Nguye^~n Kha('c Vie^.n. "Myths and Truths." Rev. Fire in the Lake, by Frances FitzGerald. Nguye^~n Kha('c Vie^.n Miscellany. 73-94.

  5. Nguye^~n Kha('c Vie^.n. "Confucianism and Marxism in Vietnam." Tradition and Revolution in Vietnam. 15-52.

  6. Woodside, Alexander B. "The Ambiguities of Familism as a Source of Organizational Power"; "Conservative Intellectuals and the Prestige of Confucian Methods"; and "Ho^' Chi' Minh and the Vietnamese Political Tradition." Community and Revolution in Modern Vietnam. 95-102; 102-108; and 160-165.

  7. Jamieson, Neil. "The Battle of the Novels." Understanding Vietnam. 117-154. (I suggest concentrating on Jamieson's translations of excerpts from Nha^'t Linh's Breaking the Ties and Nguye^~n Co^ng Hoan's Miss Minh, the Schoolteacher.)

  8. Du+o+ng Thu Hu+o+ng. "Back to His Home Village." In Back to His Home Village. Hisbiscus Series. Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1981. 5-30. See Section VII for annotation.

  9. Ma Va(n Kha'ng. "Mother and Daughter." The Other Side of Heaven: Post-War Fiction by Vietnamese & American Writers. Ed. Wayne Karlin, Le^ Minh Khue^, and Tru+o+`ng Vu~. 340-352. See Section XI for annotation.

  10. Vo~ Phie^'n. "The Key." Landscape and Exile. Ed. by Marguerite Guzman Bouvard. Trans. Phan Phan. Boston: Rowan Tree Press, 1985. 11-19. Rpt. in The Other Side of Heaven: Post-War Fiction by Vietnamese & American Writers. Ed. Wayne Karlin, Le^ Minh Khue^, and Tru+o+`ng Vu~. 252-257.

Folk Tales and Poetry

The "Lady of Nam Xu+o+ng" is an ancient folktale that tells of a young woman named Thie^'t Vu~ who entertained her young son by casting her own shadow on the wall and telling him it was his absent father. When his father, Tru+o+ng, returned from the war, the son refused to believe he was really his father, telling him, "You cannot be my father because my father comes home to me each night." When Tru+o+ng accuses his wife of unfaithfulness, she throws herself into the Red River and drowns. When that night Tru+o+ng lights a lamp and his son points to the shadow and says "There is my father now," Tru+o+ng grieves for his mistake. In the village of Nam Xu+o+ng a temple is established to honor the love and loyalty of the good wife Thie^'t Vu~. This story presents the ideal behavior of a woman who according to traditional morality must remain faithful to her husband until her death (even if her husband dies before her). To be accused of unfaithfulness is too great a shame for Thie^'t Vu~ to endure.

The next reading, an article by Co^ng Huye^n To^n Nu+~ Nha Trang, explains the Confucian precepts that were supposed to govern the behavior of women. According to the Three Submissions (Tam To`ng), an unmarried girl submitted to her father's wishes; a married woman, to her husband's; and a widow to her son's. Fidelity, including sexual faithfulness, was crucial, "an expression of the woman's ultimate value of chastity" (66). Thie^'t Vu~ demonstrates these virtues as do many other heroines of Vietnamese stories. In Lu+?c Va^n Tie^n, for example, a nineteenth century verse narrative, the heroine, Kie^u Nguye^.t Nga, who has already pledged to marry Lu+?c Va^n Tie^n, fights off the advances of another man with these words:

"A woman," she [Kie^u Nguye^.t Nga] said,
"Must engrave in her heart the phrase fidelity-purity;
And devote herself to fulfilling the word submission [to`ng].
In life as in death there must be only one husband."

Both the Three Submissions and the Three Bonds were taught in a very well-known poem called "Song of Family Education" [Gia Hua^'n Ca], a work usually attributed to Nguye^~n Tra~i, a high- ranking mandarin in the fifteenth century court of the Le^ emperors. This poem also mentions the Four Virtues [Tu+' DDu+'c] for women.
Here is an excerpt:

Here is some advice on a woman's role:
Be sure to listen to the old stories.
Observe how the virtuous daughters-in-law of the past behaved.
Follow the four virtues: appearance, work, correct speech, and proper behavior.
Work means cooking rice and cakes--
How neatly the virtuous woman sews and mends!
Appearance means a pretty face and dignified demeanor--
Not careless and sloppy, everything in place.
Correct speech is to know how to use the polite phrases;
Proper behavior means to be loyal, filially pious respectful and trustworthy.
Since olden times daughters-in-law
Proper in appearance, work, speech and behavior rose above their earthly existence.

A woman should be polite and proper,
Be sure to observe the Three Bonds.
Though you share the same mat, the same bed with him,
Treat your husband as you would treat your king or your father.
As a subject be loyal [trung], as a daughter be filially pious [hie^'u],
As a wife strive to build a relationship based on respect.
Do not take pride in money,
Do not become conceited because you are smart or clever.
The way to be a good concubine or wife is to obey
Just as the way to be a man is to worship one's king as one's father.

Co^ng Huye^n asks how these Confucian rules for female conduct imported from China were applied in the actual life not of the elite but of common Vietnamese. Drawing on proverbs and folk poetry, she concludes that among the common people a wife's relationship to her husband was not one of total submission but of "equal and mutual responsibilities," a relationship captured in the proverb: "In harmony, husband and wife can even drain the Pacific Ocean" [Thua^.n vo+., thua^.n cho^'ng / Ta't be^? DDo^ng cu~ng ca.n] (65,-66).


Although Confucianism was applied differently in Vietnam than in China, and affected different classes in different ways, it is nevertheless true that in many Vietnamese stories the heroine struggles to be true to the Three Submissions. We see this struggle in Nha^'t Linh's Breaking the Ties, a novel in which Loan obeys her parents and suffers in a marriage to a man she does not love. We see it in Du+o+ng Thu Hu+o+ng's story "Back to His Home Village" which takes place on a barren part of Qua?ng Tri. Province after the war. Tra^n, a former soldier who has come "back to his home village" to set up a State farm, meets Nguye^~n Thi. Sim, a member of a bomb disposal team who is a widow with a young son. Tra^n knows Sim is virtuous because she has brought her son back to his father's native land. Her loyalty to her dead husband is contrasted with the unfaithfulness of Tra^n's wife who took up with a major in the ARVN while Tra^n was away fighting and followed him to the U.S. after the war, taking Tra^n's son with her.

In this story the conflict between the desire for love and companionship and the pressure to conform to traditional virtues is suggested but not insisted on: when the story ends Tra^n and Sim agree to meet the next morning to talk about "business," the removal of bombs, the State farm, etc. We suspect that they both are so virtuous that they may be content to remain only respected comrades and never become lovers. Though it has a similar theme, Ma Va(n Kha'ng's "Mother and Daughter" presents a more painful conflict between love and duty. Duye^n, a widow and a doctor with two teenage children, likes a major in the army but refuses his advances for fear of upsetting her daughter, who is horrified at the prospect of her mother remarrying.

Along with the Three Submissions there were also the Three Bonds [Tam Cu+o+ng]: father-son, king-subject, husband-wife. In maintaining the first bond, filial piety [hie^'u] was the key virtue; in maintaining the second, loyalty [trung]; in maintaining the third, chastity [tie^'t ha.nh] and fidelity [chi'nh chuye^n]. Vietnamese use the phrase trung hie^'u tie^'t ha.nh (loyalty filial piety chastity) as a shorthand expression to refer to the entire Confucian system.

Confucianism, for ten centuries "the intellectual and ideological backbone of Vietnam" (Nguye^~n Kha('c Vie^.n 17), posed certain problems for revolutionaries: it encouraged a tightly knit family system that made it difficult to organize groups larger than the family; it also was very hierarchical and discouraged initiative, particularly by the young (Woodside 100). Another problem was the second bond which demanded loyalty to the king: Vietnam's emperors cooperated with the French and helped cause Vietnam's loss of independence. Since sons and daughters were supposed to learn how to be loyal to the king by being pious to their parents,3 one could not easily excise the first bond. All the bonds were interrelated in a system. Because it emphasized loyalty and obedience to established authority, Confucianism was more appreciated by French administrators and conservative Vietnamese than it was by revolutionaries. This alliance of Confucianism and colonialism is revealed in Nha^'t Linh's Breaking the Ties. Loan is brought to court for accidently stabbing her abusive husband while he was trying to hit her with a copper vase. The prosecutor, who, of course, was working for the colonial government, argues that by disrupting the hierarchical Confucian family system Loan has threatened the stability of colonial society.

Confucianism and Revolution

Though counter revolutionaries could adopt Confucianism for their purposes, it also offered some advantages to revolutionaries, particularly to Marxists. Like Marxism, Confucianism "concentrated man's thoughts on politics and social problems" and defined "man as the total of his social relationships." Therefore, Nguye^~n Kha('c Vie^.n argues, the traditional Confucian makes a quite easy transition to socialism (47). Ho^' Chi' Minh's success resulted in part from his ability to graft European Marxism on to a special form of semi-indigenized and popularized Vietnamese Confucianism exemplified by nineteenth century revolutionaries like Tru+o+ng DDi.nh, rebels whose loyalty to the king was more conditional, less tied to a particular individual. If the king were not worthy (e.g. ceded land to foreign invaders), then he did not deserve one's loyalty (See Nguye^~n Kha('c Vie^.n, "Confucianism and Marxism," 34-41; Woodside, Community and Revolution, 163).

In the Army Museum in Hanoi there is a banner with this quotation from a speech by Ho^' Chi' Minh to soldiers: "Our army is loyal [trung] to the Party, and pious [hie^'u] to the people."4 Note how Ho^' Chi' Minh has used words that evoke the first and second Confucian bonds--trung and hie^'u--but has shifted the focus from king and father to Party and people. In "The Making of a Revolutionary," Francis FitzGerald reports on research that suggests how hard the NLF worked to "transfer the soldiers' attachments from their real families to the great 'family' of the Liberation" (202). Ho^' Chi' Minh promoted this transfer by projecting a public persona of a kind and gentle uncle and by encouraging people to call him "Ba'c Ho^'" (Uncle Ho^'--literally the older brother of one's father).

Non-communist nationalists were less successful than Marxists in coming up with an ideology that encouraged loyalty to communities larger than the family. When ARVN soldiers abandoned their posts, it was often to evacuate their families; when Saigon civil servants demanded bribes, it was often to feed their children; and today when Vietnamese exiles, like the son in Vo~ Phie^'n's "The Key," suffer terribly, it is often because they have had to abandon family and the graves of their ancestors.


A retelling of some of Vietnam's most famous legends, including the story of a^u Co+ and the Dragon Prince ("A Taste of Earth"), the mythical story of the origins of the Vietnamese. The compiler is a well-known Zen master, poet, and peace activist who now lives in the U. S. Buddhist themes appear in some of these stories, but the tales are not explicitly Buddhist. Several stories reveal the influence of India on early Vietnamese culture.

  • ________. Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967.

    Summarizes the history of Vietnamese Buddhism and argues for the establishment of a government not aligned with either the Americans or the Communists.

  • Tra^`n Va(n Di~nh. "Why Every American Should Read Kim Va^n Kie^u." Washingtonian Magazine. Sept., 1968. Adapted version reprinted in We the Vietnamese, ed. Francois Sully (See above).

    Argues that Vietnam's best-known literary work--Nguye^~n Du's 19th century verse narrative Kim Va^n Kie^u--offers valuable clues to the Vietnamese character, clues that would have helped President Johnson and other American leaders avoid mistakes they made in prosecuting the war.

  • Woodside, Alexander B. Community and Revolution in Modern Vietnam. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.

    An intellectual history of modern Vietnam. This is a scholarly book, perhaps too scholarly for some undergraduates. In one section that I would assign, Woodside explains that the Confucian family posed a dilemma for revolutionaries: it contributed to social cohesion but also blocked the emergence of social organization above the family (pp. 95-108). In another section he explains how Ho^' Chi' Minh and his generation, aware that Vietnamese kings were cooperating with the French, struggled with the Confucian notion of loyalty to the king (pp. 160-165).


    1. Like Mus and FitzGerald, Jamieson has been criticized for offering a single Confucian concept (yin and yang) as the key to Vietnamese history and culture, but his book contains useful information on Confucianism in Vietnam.

    2. The phrase tam to`ng tu+' DDu+'c [three submissions four virtues] was used to refer to the code of behavior expected of women.

    3. "The teaching of filial piety is preparation for serving the ruler of the state." Great Learning (one of the Four Books), Chapter IX.

    4. Ho^' Chi' Minh included this now famous expression in a speech on May 22, 1946, at the inauguration of a military school in So+n Ta^y. See Vo~ Nguye^n Gia'p's Unforgettable Days, pp. 240-41.

    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
    Web Site-->

    Copyright© 1996 Dan Duffy. Non-commercial distribution for educational purposes permitted if document is unaltered. Any commercial use, or storage in any commercial BBS is strictly prohibited without written consent.