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The Equilibrium Of Vietnamese Culture

By dang Thuc Nguyen

I .Some people think that culture is the level of education, others think it is literature itself or the arts, others a doctrine, a system of thin-king. Also, there are people who take culture for civilization. Then they want to advance the idea of giving it a scientific, national and universal character. None of these conceptions are appropriate to the subject: "The Equilibrium of Vietnamese Culture". We propose our own definition of culture, based on the teaching of the Dịch Kinh or Book of Change in traditional Oriental philosophy. "Observe the phenomena of Nature to study the change of weather. Observe the phenomena of human society to change the people and the world".

The Vietnamese word for culture is Văn-Hóa. The proper meaning of Văn is all that we can see and hear in relation to other things. And Hóa means to change with the determined aim. The meaning of Văn is static and that of Hóa is dynamic. Culture cannot be defined separately from which it has been created.In reality, culture is an aspect of mankind's social activity. According to Greek philosophers man is a social animal. But animals also live in groups and in order -- the instinct to live in groups is not inborn in man only, but man is different from animals in the way he adjusts himself to nature in order to live and to progress. To exist animals must adjust themselves to nature and geographical factors. However, the animal's capacity for adaptation is passive, and only man is able to use his intelligence and his will in adaptation in order to change obstacles into advantages, marshy land into fertile field.

Four hundred years ago when the Vietnamese moved to Hoán-Châu, the present day Huế, it was uninhabited. It has become today a beautiful city with picturesque landscapes: it attracts tourists to see its River of Parfum and the Mountain of Ngự "The Royal Screen". That is culture, and only men can do these things even though they also live in groups like animals.If the social instinct does not belong to mankind alone, it is nevertheless true that the technique which man has used to change unfavourable conditions into good ones is peculiarly his. In saying so, we must not forget that bees are more ingenious than architects, and when men were still living in caves, bees and ants already knew how to build their dwellings. Ages have passed and men have come to build beautiful palaces, but beehives and ant hills remain the same. The progress of mankind is due to the fact that man thinks before he acts. Therefore, he can accumulate the experiences of his fathers to develop his knowledge and intelligence. Thus we can say that culture exists because of the capacity of observation and the spirit of creation in mankind. That is the difference between men's society and the society of animals.The anthropologist Herskovits has written:"All human groups search for a way to exist. They succeed by technical means in facing their natural conditions. In these conditions they collect different means of action to satisfy their needs. One way or the other, they distribute the fruit of their production. They have an economic system to obtain greater results from their limited capacity. All the human groups give particular form to the family organization or large groups based on kinship or other relations. No society lives in anarchy without a philosophy of life and an idea about the origin and movement of the universe; theories about the way to dominate supernatural power in order to arrive at desired results. To sum up the different aspects of culture we must add dancing, songs, stories, art for art's sake, language, expression of ideas, a system of forbidden things, and ideals, thus bringing to life its charm and meaning. All aspects of culture and culture itself are the products of all human groups without exception".

Culture is all that mankind has invented in order to live harmoniously within his milieu, that is, natural, historical and geographical. This is a general definition of culture, the closest to traditional Oriental thinking, seen from a dynamic point of view to observe things in general without paying too much attention on to details. This conception of culture is true because it does not contradict reality, the social milieu; and it is not abstract. Scholars can discern the perpetual change in the world and observe the general aspect of things in their static and dynamic states. However, we cannot conceive of this culture of ours without taking into consideration the fact that we belong to a civilized country which has thousands of years of history. Culture is the whole aspect of society. On the one hand, culture has a changing character (exception is made for dead cultures of Egypt and Chaldee); on the other hand, it has a stable character. It is like a tree whose roots are deep in the ground of the past and whose branches are still spreading toward an infinite future. Stability and change are two complementary aspects of culture. Therefore, at a specific epoch of history, a nation or a group of men always represents a cultural equilibrium which is ( 1 ) the image of a society in which the individual finds equilibrium within himself, ( 2 ) the image of equilibrium between the individual and the group within the society, and ( 3 ) the equilibrium between society and its cultural milieu. This is a prosperous period of the history of a nation. In a decadent epoch of history society loses its internal equilibrium, and the individual loses his, because there is an important and complementary relation between man and society. Present day social psychologists state that:

1. It is hard to achieve an internal equilibrium when there is no adjustment between the individual and society.

2. However, the equilibrium of the individual is not entirely due to the adjustment of that individual to the groups to which he belongs; a moral crisis could possibly be the result of strict obedience to tradition and prejudice.3. The stability of internal equilibrium is strengthened by the spirit of mutual solidarity. On the contrary, the disintegration of society, the disorder of culture and the individual's disequilibrium usually happen at the same time.

II . Crisis in Vietnamese SocietyDue to Cultural Disequilibrium.In Việt-Nam today we are witnessing the disorder of culture and of society, and individual moral depression. All of us feel as though we were lost, and from the North to the South, those who are conscious of the situation are trying to find a new cultural equilibrium which fits our new social situation.Since the meeting of East and West on the soil of the country, Vietnamese society has known a crisis; the culture has lost its equilibrium, and the individual has lost his peace of mind, as a boat loses its direction in a vast sea. The cause of this disequilibrium arises from the fact that Việt-Nam has been for thousands of years an agricultural country whose way of life has been close to nature. The traditional culture is essentially a rural culture characterized more by emotion than by reason. It has identified itself with the environment, finding in the element and the physical necessities of life the meaning of existence. The people believed that rivers and mountains have a soul and that rice plants and trees are inhabited by spirits. The poet Nguyễn-Du has described this animism in these four lines:

"When you look at the trees
Seeing their branches shaking before the wind,
Know that my soul comes back.
I still remember what I have promised,
But I sacrifice myself to show my filial piety".

In our industrialized society, only reason is important, but in the old Vietnamese society sentiments were always taken into consideration. This equilibrium of rural culture is illustrated by these two lines by Nguyễn-Du:

"You have brought yourself before justice,
But besides reason, there is also sentiment".

The organization of this rural society in which there is the equilibrium of reason and sentiment, individual and society had the family as its unifying factor. Thus, it balanced the doctrine of decentralization of villages and that of the centralization of monarchy. Because the basis of the economy was an agrarian one, the distribution of production was done on a half private and half public basis; the peasant had not yet achieved the right of ownership. This was illustrated by the popular proverb:

"Wealth belong to all men
What makes you rise above common people is your virtue!"

The two main social classes, the class of literates and the class of peasants, believed in cooperation and the division of labour. This has kept them away from the class struggle. It is shown by the following sentence of our poet Nguyễn-Công-Trứ:"Intellectuals or manual workers belong to the same social group of mankind".In the feudal Western society there was a complete separation by birth between rulers and subjects, scholars and labourers. In Vietnamese agricultural society, there was no division between these two classes, due to this principle: "From the Emperor down to a single citizen the only important difference lies in the degree of self-betterment". That society was proud of its cultural equilibrium, the philosophical basis of which was the harmony of reason and sentiment. In contact with Western civilization, this culture was shaken to its roots.In fact, during the century that Vietnamese society has been in contact with Western science, it has experienced cultural dislocation. The Vietnamese rural culture lost its equilibrium:

"God has taken away our Eastern civilization
This is the time when moral principles are broken".

This is quoted from Tản-Đà, a poet who was very much concerned with the social situation of the country. He has clearly shown the dissatisfaction of the Vietnamese literates during the period of transition, when individuals as well society could not achieve an adjustment to the new influence of the West. During that century, the literate class became conscious of the weakness of the country and look for a way to revolution.

"Some went east to Hong-Kong and Oklahoma, searching a new way; others went west to study Montesquieu and Jean Jacques Rousseau". _ ( Phan-Bội-Châu ).

But after the First World War the disappointed leader of the "Go-East Movement" came back with this advice: "If you seriously want to accomplish something, it is better to know what you want in full detail". The leader's mission was not totally unsuccessful, however, because he began to encourage his countrymen to study Western and Eastern philosophy and morality. This lesson is left to us by our fathers who gave their lives for it, an indication of the critical nature of the situation and of how deep lay the causes of this sickness. No temporary remedy can be used. We think we can become powerful by adopting Western industrialization techniques, but in doing so, we only give the appearance of strength. In reality, the rottenness of our society lies deeper. We should keep in mind the example of China under the Manchu dynasty and Việt-Nam during the last century, when dismemberment of these nations occurred because no attempt was made to cure their social problems at the roots.

III . The Cultural Equilibrium of the Old Vietnamese Agricultural Society.

In reality, the social problem consists in searching for an adjustment between the old Oriental and agricultural culture and the new urban and industrial Western civilization. This task is extremely difficult. For almost a century our fathers tried their utmost and did not succeed. The Japanese people have been successful in assimilating Western culture and, as the result; have made their country a more powerful one. They are not necessarily more gifted than we Vietnamese (or God's favourites). That the Vietnamese people, intelligent, active, laborious, and studious, are able to harmonize contradictory currents of culture has been proven by our history. Living on the land called Indo-China by geographers, the Vietnamese people have fulfilled the historical mission confided to them by their geographical situation. This land with the shape of an " S " has not only a geographical significance, but also a social and human one. The history of thousands of years of our people is the history of the harmonization of the two ancient Oriental cultures, Confucianism ad Buddhism. Buddhist culture teaches the internal peace of soul, and while Confucianism teaches the value of external activities to attain charity in real-life situations. Buddhist culture comes from India and Confucian culture from China, and the two are extremely contradictory. One is static, the other pragmatic; one is religious and the other atheistic. Exposed to these divergent currents of thought, the Vietnamese people had to choose between loss of their equilibrium by failure to achieve a resolution of the contradictions of Buddhism and Confucianism, thus becoming identified partly with India and partly with China; and the other alternative of survival as an independent nation through a synthesis of these thought systems; in other words, a unification of reason and sentiment.

During the dynasties of Đinh, Lê, Lý, Trần, Lê, and Nguyễn, we have shown that we are able to write a glorious page of history in this part of Southeast Asia. This has been due to the realization of social and cultural equilibrium founded on the principle of the harmony of sentiment and reason. This is also the point of view of the poet Nguyễn-Công-Trứ, who realized the Unity of thinking beyond different theories. Indeed the Universal is above different points of view. The Vietnamese people until the present time have preserved personality because of their ability to achieve unity and equilibrium through a conception harmonizing reason and sentiment.

King Trần-Thái-Tôn once left his palace in the night to go to Yên-Tử mountain to ask a priest about Buddhist Enlightenment. This priest, name Phù-Vân, answered the King: "Buddha is not in the mountain but in your heart. When your consciousness is clear and you know it, then you are Buddha. If Your Majesty comes to know that consciousness in yourself, you will become Buddha; it is not necessary to look for it outside of yourself". Afterward the King returned to his throne because of his people's summons during the time of the Mongolian aggression. From that day, however, the King, while ruling over the country, never neglected to better himself. One day, when he read these lines, "It is fitting to have a non-changing consciousness", the King suddenly understood the traditional philosophy of the Vietnamese people, a philosophy which teaches the man to serve his country wholeheartedly. This is the very basis of the equilibrium of rural culture. Concerning the spirit of Vietnamese Buddhism the King concluded in these words: "I think we can find Buddha everywhere. We don't need to search for him in the North or in the South. One may born clever or dull, but thanks to Buddha's grace he can understand. One may be born stupid; with his capacity for thought, he can understand. Thus, the doctrine of Buddha uses different means to convert those who are lost and to show them the meaning of life and death. The principle responsibility of Confucius and Mencius is to teach justice, and to give good examples to future generations. Therefore, there is no difference between those wise in action and those wise in meditation. This shows that the doctrine of Buddha, in order to be propagated, needs the help of Confucianists".

Trần-Thái-Tôn, the first King of Trần dynasty (1225-1400) has thus traced the model personality for Việt-Nam by a philosophy of spirituality, showing by his own life the equilibrium of the old Vietnamese culture which tends to harmonize reason which is the spirit of Northern social culture and sentiment which is the spirit of Southern spiritual culture. That equilibrium is founded on love and positive action. He is not only the guiding light of Vietnamese Buddhism, but for scholars as well. The idea of the accord of religion and morality had great influence on the personality of Princess Huyền-Trân who sacrificed herself for the cause of the country, the union of the North and the South, and of assimilation of the two old cultures of Indo-china. This reflected in the following touching songs:

"She is going far away
Not because of love
She only uses her beauty
To bring back the two provinces Ô, Lý (now Huế)
How painful it is . . .
As she is in full youth,
Is it because of her unhappy predestination?
Snow white skin and rose cheeks
Are now just like dying flower and fading moon
Gold is mixed with lead.
What a sad farewell song
When the bird fly away
What a talented lady.
But now that she is married
Like a sun flower
She has to follow King Mân
(Her husband, the Chàm King)
They keep telling her
What she should do
For the good of the people
Balance her sentiment and reason
Even if it aches her heart".

The sacrifice of Huyền-Trân was painful to her, but it marked the assimilation of Việt-Nam and Chàm culture, a wonderful harmonization from which the culture of Hoán-châu was born. Two hundred years later, after the unification achieved by Emperor Gia-Long, this land became the capital of the whole country.

The leadership ideology of Trần dynasty (1225- 1400), adapted itself to the infra-structure of traditional society. In fact the economico-political organisation of this society before French intervention consisted of two opposing and superimposed systems. At the background was a popular autonomous and representative democracy, based on the families relationship considered as social cells. An old proverb said "familial inside, communal outside".

At the top and above autonomous villages was the absolute monarchy which was highly centralised. The two institutions fundamentally different in tendencies, the former was an open society, the later a closed, both coexisted through the up and down of our national history. That could be so thank to the third mandarin system which was consisted of well educated in the right way of national ideology. They had to keep the balance between the two others opposing powers so that the Nation could be safe. In the case of conflict, "the Kings laws had submit to the commune customs", as prescribed an old proverb.

It was due to that system of village self democracy which maintained the stability of Vietnamese agricultural society. Recently a French governor had stated:

"The commune shows an particular interesting mechanism, and one know easily that such an organisation so complex, so democratic, where never notable can behave by himself, which exists traditionally since earliest times. That mechanism has not to be touched without making the country in disorder. The instrument is old, it is good, and it suits the people".

(La commune présente un mécanisme particulièrement intéressant, et on comprend sans peine qu'une organisation si complexe, si démocratique, où jamais un notable ne peut agir seul, qui existe traditionnellement depuis la plus haute antiquité, ne doit pas être touchée sous peine de dé organiser le pays. "L'instrument est vieux, il est bon, il convient au people"). _( Pierre Pasquier " L'Annam d'Autrefois " Essai sur la constitution de l'Annam avant l'intervention française -- Paris, Société d'Editions, 1939 )

That commune system in every village was represented by the Đình or Temple where all members of the village meeting in festival days, where the notables holding meeting to discuss on the commune affairs, and also there the tutelary god of the village was worshipped. This cult constituted the official religion of the villages, beside the Buddhism, the Confucianism and Taoism. Thus the Shintoism in each village plays the role of conciliating different religions.

Thank to the efficiency of that organisation where the material and spiritual life was actually and practically unified, the Vietnamese people in a relatively short time successes to assimilate the people Chàm and Khmer in the present South Việt-Nam.

 monarchic system

democratic system


IV. New Cultural Equilibrium Harmonizing Different Cultures Based On Spirituality. _

So we can say Vietnamese are not inferior to Japanese in achieving harmony of contradictory cultures while maintaining their existence as a nation. However, during the century of our contact with the West, compared to the Japanese people, we have been left behind because we have not yet found cultural equilibrium in the harmonization of East and West. This is the reason for the present disequilibrium of Vietnamese culture. As in China, the leaders in Vietnamese society, recognizing the strength of Western industrial culture and at the same time the weakness of the Vietnamese, thought that this strength derived from machine and the scientific mind. So, they began to abandon the traditional education, thinking that therein lay the cause of our failure. They were wrong. They thought that the spirit of traditional morality had declined in both Vietnam and China during the last few centuries. The true education is now gone. We have neglected the basic human spirituality for the appearance, as noted by Phan-Tây-Hồ, a Vietnamese nationalist leader half a century ago in his advice to the country:

"People prefer to study literature
They honour academic diplomas
Pass their time learning to write different forms of poetry
They study with the sole aim of succeeding in their examinations.

And imitate slavishly the Chinese in their literary works.

Most of them are interested in honour and wealth;

Real scholar is few.

This situation is not peculiar to a minority who strive for honour and wealth for themselves and their families.

But thousands of other wealthy people are engaged in the same disastrous pursuits". _( Lương-Ngọc-Tất _ Danh-San )

We have lost our education base, the education of self betterment, and approved an education that emphasized pure intellectual education. Even if we adopt the technology of science, it might cause us to fight against one another. In abandoning our traditional education, we thought we had adopted a true education, and we believed that true education and science could not go together. So, in order to become civilized as Westerners, we must deny all that is left to us from our old culture. Among all Asian countries, Japan is the only country that has rapidly assimilated Western scientific civilization without damaging its own philosophy of life. It is surprising that Japan was the only country that has responded to the philosophy of self-betterment of Wang-Yang-Ming, while it was rejected in China and in Vietnam. This shows that the less we change our traditional education, the better we can assimilate the new Western 13
scientific civilization to make a rich new culture. The cause of the painful difficulties of assimilation of Western ideas in Vietnam and in China is not the fact that "East is East and West is West", as it has been said, but simply that we have abandoned our own traditional basis of philosophy and education. We have not tried to find a basis for that assimilation, but only to imitate the appearance because the true basis lay in the common essence of human nature, in West and in East.

We did not believe in Lu-Hsiang-Shan:

"In the East when there are wise men, the same sentiment and reason must appear".
"In the West when there are wise men, the same sentiment and reason must appear".
What is the basis for assimilation? It is a real spirituality, the divine principle inborn in man who is identical behind the diversity of appearance. The spirit of science and morality united in a center of super knowledge of the human being, a mankind with sentiment, reason and intelligence, a morally and socially free "Person". In this, we have a basis to balance East and West and so, create a faith for ourselves.

It is because of this education consisting of well-balanced morality and sentiment that in the old Vietnamese agricultural society there was an equilibrium of culture; i.e., equilibrium between nature and society, individual and group, spiritual and material, reason and sentiment; an equilibrium based on a supernatural principle. At that time, the Vietnamese people had returned to their well spring of life from which sprang syncretism in religions. This revolved all the contradictory aspects of foreign cultures then penetrating the country. The secret of the harmonization of these different currents of thought in order to make a source of creative life, without committing the general mistakes of eclecticism and losing their personality and vitality, lies in the search for the basis of morality and the essence of things in the Universe , in oneself and in others. In these things only, is there understanding of the different characteristics of individuality without narrow-mindedness. The more we emphasize the outside diversity, the deeper we have to go, because human life needs Unity, i.e., Equilibrium as Lao-Tszu's remark: "The further we go, the narrower our knowledge becomes". We think it is the only way for us to harmonize the characteristics of Western and Eastern cultures. That is to say, in Việt-Nam today we have to believe in the Absolute, in the Universal Person. The industrial revolution in Western Europe at the beginning of the 19th century changed the world into system of inter-dependent relations between independent and self-sufficient regions in the fields of economies, politics and cultures. The new techniques have admirably solved the problems of transportation in the air, on land and on the sea. The world is thus united as far as communication is concerned. However, these countries are so in equally developed in much aspect of living and culture. Their cooperation, therefore, is not truthful and successful, because they do not have a universal conception of life, a universal ideology, a unity spirit which makes peoples understand one another.

The political revolution, following the industrial one of the 19th century, has drawn the Western societies into an economic system of excessive free competition leading to monopoly and economic crisis.

Now from the cultural equilibrium of the old agricultural society, we ought to find a new equilibrium for Vietnamese culture. It is natural to harmonize rural culture with industrial urban culture in an industrialized Việt-Nam. There is no essential contradiction between the rural agricultural society of Asia and the industrial and urban society of the West. One of these societies is characterized by its mechanist tendency and the other, by it's vitalise tendency. Both are two forms of harmonization and adaptation of human society to the natural environment in order to last; of course, both of them respect man's right to live. If there is a difference, it is because of the basic error of the urban industrial society. This error is the setting up of the individual as a solitary supreme power, thus opposing man to nature, separating reason and sentiment, spirituality and materiality, considering reason and faith as two things that cannot coexist.

Tagore said:

"The urban society had live in a conception of a world divided and ruled".

It was because of these foregoing reasons that Lamartine, the French writer who played an important political role in the revolution of 1830, has written as follows, comparing Rousseau's idea, the theorist of the French revolution of 1789, with Confucius idea, the greatest political philosopher of the East:

"I am against Rousseau and defend Confucius in spite of the conception of everlasting progress, the wrong progress which goes down instead of going up, from the spiritualism of Confucius to the materialism of social contract of Rousseau". _( Lamartine -- Pages Retrouvées, Published by Andrei Delpuech )

Of course, the culture of independent Việt-Nam today must be assimilated with the Western urban culture according to the ideal criteria for today's human culture as stated by R. Tagore:

"The unlimited personality of mankind can only be realized in the great harmony of all the peoples of the world".

Like Gandhi's conception of an ideal education:

"Today, in order to have a perfect education, the study of Eastern cultures is as important as the study of Eastern sciences".

Việt-Nam will be industrialized, but will not authorize irrational free competition, Vietnamese culture will have a scientific character, but it will not separate the scientific mind from the traditional basis of spirituality. Today, Vietnamese culture believes in a perfect man, with reason and sentiment, an individual not isolated from the group, living in a society where there is cooperation among classes, in a country not isolated from the rest of the world, in a society where private ownership is respected; giving to the citizen the possibility of satisfying his vital needs in this "happy medium" harmony. Universe, Nature and Man continue to be harmonized. That is the ideal solution which synthesizes the scientific spirit and the love of mankind.

Dang Thuc NGUYEN 

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