Sunday, April 24, 2005

Ba Dinh Square, August 2nd, 1945 (Part II): The socio-economic landscape

(... Continue from the Ba Dinh Square Series Part I: Who is Ho Chi Minh )
From 20's to the 40's emerged a genre of Vietanamese literature known as Tu-Luc-Van-Doan (The Self-Reliance Literaracy Group). It was a break from previous Vietnamese literary tradition by using different medium, such as prose instead of the usual poetry. Another thing that distinguished this genre is its outspoken view against the traditional society. It exposed the inequality among the genders, class and other social ailments. The genre was essentially a social critic literature. Among the things that were criticized was the relationship between the land owning class and the landless peasants. There were numerous pieces of work depicting the lives of landless peasants, painfully showing the misery and destitution of Vietnamese peasants.
And the peasants were truely miserable. Vietnamese society at the time was still mostly agricultural base, particularly rice farming. Yet most of the land belonged to a very small percentage of land owners and the rest were share croppers. The land owners had monopoly of lands and often imposed unjust condition for share croppers. Share croppers often only received a very small part of the harvest, usually not enough to feed their family. Semi-starvation and food shortage was common. The condition of poor children becoming indenture servants for wealthy households was also very common. "Chi Dau" (loosely translated Miss Dau) is one of the famous novella by Nam Cao which illustrated the oppression endured by peasant at the hand of the Vietnamese wealthy land owning aristocracy. The story is heart wrenching, a clear denunciation of the feudal system. Its popularity was due mostly to its realistic depiction. To escape the poverty, many oppressed peasants came to work for rubber plantations owned by French colonists. And the condition of those rubber plantations were miserable too. Readers who are familiar with colonialism no doubt abhor the exploitative condition at those plantations. But if rubber plantations, deplorable and exploitative as they were, offered better alternative to the condition of the villages, the misery in the villages must had been horrific and inhumane. And it was. In addition, despite popular image of French Indo-China rubber plantations, they were not everywhere, not numerous; and they employed very small percentage of Vietnamese labor. Most Vietnamese were still landless share croppers.
French rule in the rural area was remote and inperceivable to the life of average Vietnamese. The French, after the conquest of Vietnam, kept the rural social structure intact, and rarely interfered with village life. Therefore one can conclude that the miserable condition of Vietnamese peasants pre-existed French colonial rule stretching back to Vietnamese Imperial rule. This system was a product of Vietnamese feudal society not French imposition. In fact, this condition faciliated French entry into Vietnam. During the French conquest of Vietnam, The Nguyen Dynasty were concurrently fighting numerous peasants insurrections and resisting French invasion. Because of the numerous and frequent peasants rebellions, the Nguyen Dynasty could not fully use their numberical superiority on a much smaller French expedition force. And Vietnam was easily conquered. After conquest, the French did not dismantle this hideous social order. But instead, they maintained and strengthen it.
Vietnamese peasants therefore blamed their Vietnamese overlords first for their miserable lives. French colonial rule received a distant second blame. An average peasant, unless working in a plantation, would never know what a Frenchman look like, therefore he would not directly attribute his condition to French rule. All of the interaction that directly result in his suffering were caused by Vietnamese. He was oppressed by Vietnamese, exploited by Vietnamese. All the agents for his suffering are Vietnamese. This is not to say that French colonial administration played no part in the suffering of Vietnamese peasants. French rule played a significant part, but its role is indirect therefore a peasant did not immediately associate his suffering with French colonialism eventhough it contribute greatly to his suffering.
This is the very socio-economic environment that Ho Chi Minh rose to stardom.
(Part III is coming)


Blogger VietPundit said...


Good insights. BTW, if you're into Vietnamese literature, a couple of good sites I frequent are and (just in case you haven't heard of them).

10:30 PM  

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