Culture and Mythology/ Vietnamese Culture term paper 19611

Culture and Mythology term papers
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Vietnamese Culture

Thesis Statement: The Vietnamese culture, a rich heritage on many different levels. Through exploring its religion, population, language, education, government, art and economics, an appreciation can be developed for the important contributions Vietnamese people make in American society.

The early inhabitants of the area were Negritos. Some 4,000 years ago Austronesian (Indonesian) migrants from the north were moving into the area that is now North Vietnam. Later, Austro-Asiatic (Mon-Klimer and Maylayo-Polynesian) peoples arrived. Then, about 2500 years ago Viet (Yueh) and Tai peoples moved down from southern China. Out of this mixture of genes, languages, and cultures arose Van Lang, considered to have been the first Vietnamese Kingdom. In mid-third century B.C Van Lang was over run by and incorporated into another state to the north, forming the kingdom of Au Lac. Then Au Lac was incorporated into an even larger and more powerful state: Nam Viet. (Levison 284)

Historically speaking, Vietnam (officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam as of 1992) has struggled for independence for at least two thousand years, primarily from China. There have been brief periods when the country has itself played the role of conqueror, but for the most part Vietnam has been a subject of conquest by French and Japanese Imperialists during the 1800s and 1900s and most recently by the United State during the Vietnam War (1959-75).

But it has been communist China who shares its northern border with Vietnam that has had the greatest impact on Vietnam, an influence that is more than obvious in terms of philosophy, art, dress, politics, and most of all religion. As in China, the most widely practiced religion is Buddhism of the Mahyana (Mahyana means greater vehicle ). Although its popularity is not as great as the form of Buddhism that is practiced in those parts of Burma, about two thirds of all Vietnamese are practicing Buddhists.

The impact China has had on Vietnam is not to be wondered at, for the Vietnamese suffered through one thousand years of Chinese Colonial Rule (Castagno 293) and the country has often been referred to as Little China (301). In spite of its long relationship and physical closeness to China, Vietnam has for most of historical time defined itself as China s enemy, a fact memorialized in folk song and legend (301).

The customs and belief systems prevalent in Vietnam reflect its people s reverence for the spiritual world. Sometime women feel called to worship a particular spirit or deity and illness is the penalty for failure to make offerings (Levison 287). Talismans, amulets and ritual support for protector spirit along with specialists in the supernatural, most of which rely on herbal treatments, all reflect not just a belief in the supernatural world but as well as determination to ward off illness.

Ritual support for the deceased is most crucial (287), for it is believed that a spirit not honored by a cult becomes and remains unhappy and harmful to others. There is actually a long series of rituals for the deceased, who must be followed, all designed to elevate the dead one to the rank of his/her ancestors. It is believed that the spirits of these ancestors are always present and that they visit the family on death-anniversary celebrations as well as special family occasions. All major life events are reported verbally to these ancestors (287). Most households have altars for their ancestors and small shrines built in honor of various spirits (the earth god, Shakyamuni, the goddess of mercy, the god of wealth, etc.) (287). Offerings are made to these spirits at least once a month. The most widely observed festival is the Midyear (otherwise known as wandering souls). Christians, of whom there are very few in Vietnam, celebrate Christmas and Easter. Roman Catholicism was widespread in South Vietnam before the communists 1975 victory (Castagno 295); it was at this time that many Christians fled to other lands. Religion is tolerated but not encouraged by the country s Socialist, Communist government.

In 1994 the population of Vietnam was roughly 69 millions. Ethnic Vietnamese constitute 85-90 percent of this population (295); even though the Chinese account for less than two percent of the country s people, they are still Vietnam s most influential minority group. When in the early 1990 s Vietnam proved itself to be growing at an alarming rate (2.5), the government set a limit of two children per family, the result being that in only a few years the rate of population had decreased to 1.9 percent. The regulation had the greatest effect in the cities, where a slash of rice rations. The punishment for exceeding the two child limit was most easily enforced (295). About 20 percent of all Vietnamese people live in cities, the majority of these in two or three room apartments.

The bulk of the populations of Vietnam, however, live in small, rural villages. The village has always been the traditional focus of Vietnamese Society (296). Most homes are made of wood or bamboo with roofs of palm leaves or straw. Rural dress is the ao dai (a full length tunic slit to the waist worn over loose fitting trousers). Both men and women wear conical hats for protection (296).

In terms of language, this is Vietnam s alone, meaning it is basically quite unlike Chinese although due to the long-term extent of Chinese influence it is true that the Vietnamese language has appropriated a great number of Chinese words. But basically, the Vietnamese language is composed of single-syllable words that do not change, (296). Its uniqueness vies in the fact that one word can have several meanings depending on what pitch is used. In writing, these tones are marked diametrically, giving the language a great musicality. But it has only been since 1648 that written Vietnamese has not been overwhelmed by that which marks the Chinese language, which is its character.

The manner in which Vietnamese children are taught in school is altogether unique; what we would term educational philosophy is for Vietnamese children inextricably connected to one of the country s main cultural events called water puppetry. Water puppetry is a remarkable performing art that dates back to 1121 under the Ly Dynasty (Contreas 25). Water puppet shows are deeply rooted in Vietnamese tradition, rooted in the belief that the earth s physical and human systems are interconnected and constantly interacting, and that the consequences of this interaction reflect the importance of natural resources. This belief system is the framework for how Vietnamese children are taught geography, the focus being on examining the relationship between environment and society. Teachers use the history and culture of Vietnam as a vehicle for teaching students the concepts of human-environmental interaction, adaptation, and modification (25). This is achieved through encouraging creativity but more specifically, dramatic play performed as group projects. The large part at water puppetry plays in public schools is related to the belief that it (water puppetry) is the very soul of Vietnamese rice fields.

The teacher s first task is to introduce water puppetry as developed by the Vietnamese peasant (26); historically speaking it was the peasants living in hamlets and working in the rice paddies who performed these puppet shows there in the fields after a day of work or to celebrate a festival and the arrival of spring. Water puppetry is combined with folk tale. In this way, meaning through the use of puppetry, drama, legend, and illustrated folk tales, the children can better appreciate how closely Vietnamese identify with their land, rivers, and mountains (26). The children are taught that water from Vietnam s many rivers and from the annual monsoons is basic to the rice agriculture (26), which is so vital to the country s existence in terms of both substance and economy. For children from earlier generations, especially, students need to negotiate to determine the form of dramatic play they will perform to express their own understanding of Vietnamese culture through water puppetry (26). Vietnam s soul is in its rice paddies.

Probably due to its extensive with Communist China, the social philosophies prevalent in Vietnam are a complex combination of contradictions. Speaking from the aspect of tradition, family always came first, for it was tied up in both lineage and the village. Within the family the male played a dominant hierarchal role and these biases still exist. Relative age, rank, titles, degrees, and other status markers remain significant determinants of attitudes and behaviors in social interaction (Levison 286). Levison goes on to add: Yet at each level a distinct set of more open and egalitarian institutions have always been present: bilateral family ties, mutual aids groups, Shamanistic cults and Buddhist practices (286). Arranged marriages and the use of matchmakers persist (285). This shifting back and forth in terms of values and priorities both remain at the core of Vietnamese social organization, an organization, which does, of course reflect its political views and policies, meaning these are contradictory as well. The Communist party of Vietnam plays a major role in all spheres at all levels, however imposing parameters of discourse and action and setting social and economical goals (296).

This party is of course the sole force leading the state and society at all levels, these levels being thirty-nine provinces and three autonomous municipalities. The provinces are then divided into districts, districts into villages and townships-a governmental format not too unlike our own. The difference exists in the manner in which a Communist government chooses to enforce its power. In Vietnam, gossip and ridicule have been important weapons for social control because of a concern for face (296). The Communist party enlists neighborhood committees and uses these along with its own organizations to monitor behavior and punish what it perceives to be deviance from the norm. Seft-criticism and public-criticism sessions are used to check antisocial tendencies (286). In other words, the Communist party that calls itself a socialist party uses intimidation and psychological tactics in order to control its people from rebelling in any way.

Respecting its economy, Vietnam is and always has been a very poor country, with an annual per capita income of less than U.S $200 (285). Agriculture is the country s chief means of support with rice being the main crop; secondary crops include yams, maize, rubber, tea, coffee, sugar, tobacco, citrus fruits and jute. The importance of these last mentions has increased in recent decades. Despite efforts to mechanize agriculture, water buffalo and human beings still do most of the farm work (286). On these farms one will see mainly chickens, pigs, cattle, and ducks, although fishponds are somewhat common. The home garden is indispensable to the family s own personal economy. The villages as a whole participate in fishing, at least those along the coast.

Literary arts, especially poetry are highly prized (287). The important role of water puppetry has already been mentioned; this art form does, of course, reflect Vietnam s love for drama as a whole. Many Southerners enjoy reformed opera, musical dramas with a humorous element (287). The music one would hear in Vietnam reflects Western influence everything from Western to rock and roll. Music plays a central role in daily life just as it does in America; its fine arts and architecture, however, reflect Chinese as well as Western influence. In terms of art, nudes and abstracts are in and so is the artist Truong Tan. Once a tattoo artist, Tan experiments with subjects such as men masturbating and variations on the phallic symbol. Tan is actually a highly respected artist employed at Hanoi s school of fine arts ( Vietnam s ). Respecting art in general, it appears Communist. Vietnam has placed no restrictions on content; Artists who five years ago would not have received permission to exhibit abstract art, now say they can paint as they like ( Vietnam s ).

The conclusion of this paper will cover the few things left to say about modern Vietnam; however, it must be stressed that this is one country that has held dearly to its customs and tradition, many of which are quite ancient.

The Vietnam War left Vietnam in Shambles and the Communists but added to this devastation following their victory (Karnow 33). Although the party has eased up on the economy a bit regarding control, it still wields absolute political power. The prognosis is not good for Vietnam from an economic standpoint, which implies that instead of simply easing up on its control in this area, the government should take an active role in terms of improving the conditions its people are forced to live in and under. In Vietnam, just as everywhere, the demise of the Soviet Union, cast a pall over Communism as viable (35), which is sad because the actual theories that compose Marxism are benign in nature. Was Communism to be practiced, as it should be in Vietnam? There would be a middle and upper class which there are not except at the level of government, meaning it s the same old story of corruption, hunger for power and the odd need to keep the people as submissive and as under-privileged as possible. Vietnam is a proud country just as its neighbor, China, is too proud. This is reflected in the educational system mentioned in this paper. The one and only emphasis in Vietnam s schools is Vietnam itself. It is true that the Western world has influenced Vietnam in terms of how to make money and how to spend it (35), just as it has influenced all third world countries with its greed. But number one, there is very little money to be made in Vietnam, so there are few places to spend it. Number two, any affection for the West, meaning America, begins and ends with money. Because of what this country did to Vietnam during the war, no American subject is taught in Vietnamese History schools; relations between the two countries are strained and probably will remain so for years to come.

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