Written by Claire Sutherland.

China looms large in Vietnamese nationalism to this day, most obviously in ongoing disputes over control of the South China Sea (known as the East Sea in Vietnamese). I was acutely aware of this whilst preparing a recently opened museum exhibition on Vietnamese nation-building entitled ‘Vietnam: A Nation not a War.’ Vietnamese students we consulted at Durham University were at pains to distinguish their culture and identity from that of China, whilst frequently referring to their huge neighbour. Accordingly, colleagues at Durham’s Oriental Museum have rebranded any references to Chinese New Year as Lunar New Year. Other Vietnamese contacts also diplomatically alerted me to possible ‘awkwardness’ surrounding my collaboration with a British artist of Chines heritage, Anthony Key, throughout the exhibition. I also worried that the exhibition panel on Chinese cultural heritage was too big and prominent, and might ruffle Vietnamese visitors’ sensibilities. Clearly, the ‘Politics of Asymmetry’ between China and Vietnam, as Brantly Womack put it, has been a long-standing, defining feature of Vietnamese nation-building.

Impressive archaeological finds, including burial goods, pediform axe heads and large, richly decorated drums offer ample evidence of a sophisticated Bronze Age culture known as Dong Son, based in the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam from around 1000-700 BCE. Dong Son drums are often used to represent the origins of Vietnamese culture and the starting point of Vietnam’s national history, even though such drums have been found all over Southeast Asia. For example, one forms the centrepiece of the Museum of Vietnamese History in Hanoi.

The Vietnamese Institute of History first made the link between the Dong Son civilisation and modern-day Vietnam after the country became independent from France in the 1950s. Vietnamese historians wanted to show that its culture was not simply derived from nearby China, as some French colonial scholars had suggested. Today, this narrative of 3000 years of history is followed in Vietnamese history books and school textbooks, so is widely accepted.

Historians continue to debate the extent to which Chinese culture was imposed or adopted in Vietnam. For example, the influence of Confucianism was pervasive, but it was strongest among the educated scholars who could read classical Chinese and aspired to become court mandarins. It was weakest among peasants in Vietnam’s south, which combined Sino-Vietnamese culture with other local and Southeast Asian influences. For example, The Tale of Kieu, a literary classic written by Nguyen Du in 1813 and widely regarded as Vietnam’s ‘national epic’, illustrates the contrasting influences of Confucianism and Buddhism on one woman’s tumultuous life.

China colonised the Red River basin of northern Vietnam for much of the first millennium CE, and again in the early fifteenth century, after which Vietnamese emperors still paid tribute to their Chinese counterparts. As a result, many Vietnamese words have their roots in Chinese. Vietnamese was written using a form of Chinese ideograms called nôm until the Latin alphabet was introduced in the early twentieth century. Known as quoc ngu, or national language, this made Vietnamese much easier to read, and was promoted to encourage literacy among Vietnamese speakers and a sense of shared identity. The French had originally thought that their own support for quoc ngu would undermine the status of the traditional elite and bind the population to their colonial regime. On the contrary, literature and newspapers in quoc ngu not only helped spread nationalist ideas, but also encouraged Vietnamese intellectuals to express themselves in their own language instead of French or Chinese. They found they could speak the language of the masses both literally and figuratively through nationalist ideology, which portrayed traditional values and customs as the wellspring of the Vietnamese nation. The Vietnamese Communist Party, chief among them Ho Chi Minh, was no exception.

‘Uncle Ho’, as he is widely referred to in Vietnam, is often portrayed smiling and relaxed, surrounded by children or young people. The Vietnamese Communist Party takes care to emphasise his nationalism as much as his Communist credentials. The two come together in his mausoleum in Hanoi – modelled on those of Mao and Lenin – where scores of schoolchildren and tourists file past his embalmed body every day. Above the entrance stands one of his most quoted phrases: ‘There is nothing more precious than independence and freedom.’

Hostile invasion is a strong theme in official Vietnamese history. For example, the Vietnamese still remember and celebrate the Trung sisters who, mounted on elephants, pushed back Chinese invaders in 40 C.E. These women are represented as among the first in a long line of national heroes and heroines who repelled the enemy, even though in feudal times they would not have been fighting for a nation or even a people as we think of them today. Others include Ngo Quyen, who in 938 ended a thousand years of Chinese rule in a naval battle by impaling the Chinese ships on stakes as the tide receded, and Tran Hung Dao, who saw off Mongol invaders in the thirteenth century.

Thirty years of war against French and US armies are also included in this national narrative of heroic resistance, culminating in Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, the general who defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. Similarly, state-sponsored commemoration of various ‘fathers of the nation’ ranges from an annual national holiday to honour the ancient, semi-mythical Hung kings to Ho Chi Minh’s carefully constructed cult of personality.

Today, Vietnam and China are two of only five remaining Communist states in the world, but there have been some violent protests in recent years over the nature and scale of China’s direct investment in Vietnam and its attitude towards disputed waters in the South China Sea. Vietnam is heavily dependent on China for trade, so whilst the government has allowed demonstrations to an unprecedented extent, it has also sought to maintain good diplomatic relations with its powerful neighbour. Nevertheless, a war of words is underway as both countries seek to establish competing historic and patriotic claims to their shared seas.

Claire Sutherland is a senior lecturer in the School of Government and International affairs at Durham University. The exhibition ‘Vietnam A nation not a War’ runs at the Palace Green Library in Durham until the end of April. TThe exhibition website is www.vietnamnation.uk. Image credit: Claire Sutherland.