The Heritage of Vietnamese Nationalism

But for his Asian features, he might have been an impov¬erished young French intellectual, a familiar sight in the Paris of the early 1920s. Small and frail, with a shock of black hair and piercing black eyes, he occupied a shabby room in a hotel on a dead-end street behind Montmartre, eking out a livelihood by enlarging and retouching photographs—“a souvenir of your relatives and friends,” his visiting card advertised. He was never without a book, either Shakespeare or Hugo or Zola, and he rarely missed a weekly meeting of the Club du Faubourg, a genteel group that discussed drama, literature and sometimes even spiritual¬ism, but generally avoided political issues. Earnest yet gentle, reserved yet not timid, he would speak up in fluent French at those sessions, his intensity tempered by wit. Or, as a contemporary French ac¬quaintance recalled later: “He seemed to be mocking the world, and also mocking himself.”
But even during those balmy days in Paris, he was a determined revolutionary, devoted to the Vietnamese struggle against French co¬lonialism. He had earlier borne several different names, and he would use many aliases as an underground Communist agent in the years to come. He then called himself Nguyen Ai Quoc, Nguyen the Patriot. Two decades later, during a more tumultuous period, he would as¬sume a more appropriate nom de guerre, Ho Chi Minh—the “en¬lightened” leader of the Vietminh.
Like other nationalists of his generation who had lived in France or attended French schools in Vietnam, Nguyen Ai Quoc absorbed the influence of the West but rejected its domination. His experience con¬formed to Vietnam’s past. For long before the French conquest, the Vietnamese had borrowed Chinese culture, institutions, ethics and even calligraphy while resisting China’s efforts to control their coun¬try. But French imperialists, in their campaigns to subjugate Vietnam, committed the mistake of believing, as Prime Minister Jules Ferry had put it, that their Vietnamese foes were merely “bandits” without “any sentiment of patriotism.” Similarly, American strategists would later misperceive Ho Chi Minh, though an avowed Communist, as simply a Soviet instrument. These errors stemmed largely from an ignorance of Vietnam’s history, a long and tortuous series of conflicts and ac¬commodations that gave the Vietnamese a profound sense of their own identity.
The Indochinese peninsula, which rounds the southeastern corner of continental Asia, is a jumbled terrain of towering peaks and deep valleys reaching down through thick forests to coastal plains. Its ear¬liest inhabitants, Austronesian tribes that had migrated north from the islands of the Pacific, were later displaced by other peoples. The Khmer, as the Cambodians refer to themselves, may have come from western India. The Lao, ethnically related to the Thai, streamed in from the highlands of China’s Yunnan province, and the Vietnamese flowed south as well from the lower Yangtze valley. The later arrivals occupied the rich river deltas and fertile shores, forcing the aborigines into the mountains, where their descendants still survive uneasily in a mosaic of diverse clans.
Indochina, as its name implies, became the locus for competition between Asia’s two great civilizations, India and China. Merchants and missionaries from both countries converged on the peninsula, promoting commerce, religion, language, art and customs. India left its mark on Laos, Cambodia, and even as far east as Champa, a king¬dom that flourished in central Vietnam until its destruction by the Vietnamese; China imposed its imprint on Vietnam, which was in¬sulated from India’s sway by topography.
Chronic turmoil plagued the area. The Cambodian empire, which at its height stretched from the South China Sea into Burma, began to crumble during the thirteenth century, partly before the onslaught of the Vietnamese, who wiped out Champa and advanced to the Gulf of Siam by the middle of the eighteenth century. The Vietnamese also faced recurrent pressures from China.
Though national personality is difficult to define, two important elements formed Vietnam’s character during those centuries. The orig¬inal Vietnamese brought with them from China their basic economy, built around wet rice farming. Rice cultivation, which is dependent on the vagaries of weather and on complex systems of irrigation, requires cooperative labor. Vietnamese communities thus developed a strong collective spirit and, though autonomous, villages could be mobilized as a unified chain of separate links to fight against foreign intruders. Their country’s frequent wars also infused in the Vietnamese a readiness to defend themselves, so that they evolved into a breed of warriors. Centuries later, during France’s war to preserve its hold on Indochina in the 1950s, the French sociologist Paul Mus warned against the “convenient notion” that Vietnamese peasants were a “passive mass, only interested in their daily bowl of rice, and terrorized into subversion by agents.” Their commitment to nationhood had been forged long before.
Like most nations, Vietnam traces its genesis to legendary kingdoms ruled by mythical monarchs. The Vietnamese perpetuate this folklore, hoping to demonstrate that their national roots run as deep as those of China, their traditional rival. But their recorded history, as regis¬tered in Chinese annals, begins only in 208 B.c., when Trieu Da, a turncoat Chinese general, conquered Au Lac, a domain in the northern mountains of Vietnam populated by Viets, a people of Mongolian origin who had migrated south. Trieu Da, defying the decadent Ch’in dynasty, constructed his capital near the present city of Canton and proclaimed himself emperor of Nam Viet, land of the Southern Viet, which reached as far south as the present city of Danang. The dynamic Han dynasty, which expanded the Chinese empire across Asia from Turkestan to Korea, annexed Nam Viet a century later as the Chinese province of Giao Chi.
The Chinese integrated the territory in ways that resembled Rome’s contemporaneous approach to its dominions—and which the French would emulate millennia later. They created administrative districts under military governors whose civilian Chinese advisers imported Confucian bureaucratic concepts that underlined respect for authority. They established schools to spread the Chinese language, which be¬came the idiom of learned Vietnamese, who even during the days of French supremacy could qualify as officials only by passing the ar¬duous “eight-legged” examination prescribed under Confucian tenets. They also introduced the plow and draft animals and, to exploit Viet¬nam for themselves, they built roads, ports, canals, dikes and dams. At first they ruled Vietnam lightly, co-opting its feudal chiefs rather than subduing them.
But China failed to assimilate the Vietnamese, who retained their ethnic singularity despite their receptivity to Chinese innovations. Indeed, China’s superior institutions may have indirectly contributed to Vietnam’s cohesion. The Vietnamese, however, soon rebelled against Chinese troop and labor levies, high taxes and interference in their local affairs. Over the centuries, they would repeatedly challenge Chinese domination. And that hostility entered their historic con¬sciousness. Ho Chi Minh would evoke that memory in 1946 to justify to his own followers a controversial deal with France designed to evict Nationalist China’s occupation army from northern Vietnam: “Better to sniff a bit of French shit briefly than eat Chinese shit for the rest of our lives.”

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