Chinese Rule

Châu chấu đá xe.- “David fights Goliath.”—Proverb
In the summer of 1945, as Chinese soldiers streamed into Hanoi, ostensibly to wrest power away from the remaining Japanese according to the terms of the Potsdam Agreement, Ho Chi Minh chastised his critics at a meeting: You fools! Don’t you realize what it means if the Chinese remain? Don’t you remember your history? The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years. The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished  in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go.As for me,I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for  the rest of my life (Karnow 1983, 153).Both colorful and prophetic,Ho’s remark is indicative of a love/hate relationship with China that spans centuries. In fact, the very name of the country refers to the majority of people, who are of “Viet” (Kinh) ethnic origin, and to the location of the country in relation to present-day China—“Nam” (south). Vietnamese culture bears the imprint of many centuries of Chinese influence, especially in the North—at times willingly accepted and emulated, at other times forcibly and cruelly imposed.The Chinese occupied the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam for nearly a millennium, from 179 b.c. until national independence was restored in a.d. 938. The occupation was marked by economic exploitation and the transformation of Au Lac—“country of the Viets,” in reference to the dominant ethnic group—from a matriarchy into a patriarchal,feudalistic society. It is said that the Vietnamese had to make payments to the occupying power in the form of ivory, sandalwood,handcrafts, and work inlaid with gold, silver, and mother-of-pearl. The Chinese also introduced Confucianism, which the Vietnamese embraced as the guiding philosophy of personal and social life.Resistance to Chinese rule is best symbolized by the rebellion, in a.d. 40, of the Trung Sisters, a story that is etched on the mind of every Vietnamese. Two sisters, one whose husband had been murdered by the Chinese, led a revolt that forced the Chinese out of Vietnam for several years.When the Chinese returned, the sisters, choosing suicide over surrender, drowned themselves in a river.

Hai Ba Trung
Above: Revolt of Trung Sisters

Another Vietnamese Joan of Arc, Dame Trieu, instigated a rebellion in the third century a.d.; in the sixth century, Ly Bi led a major insurrection. Vietnamese celebrate many of these uprisings in festivals to this day. In the tenth century, as a result of internal problems and distractions, Tang China was forced to recognize a local Viet as governor. After his death, power shifted to Ngo Quyen, who defeated the southern Chinese navy on the Bach Dang River, thereby ending more than a thousand years of Chinese domination.
The next four hundred years saw several more Chinese attempts to regain power. After an eleventh-century Chinese offensive, the Vietnamese general Ly Thuong Kiet wrote a poem that is considered to be the first declaration of independence ever written in Vietnam: 30 Vietnam Today: A Guide to a Nation at a Crossroads Over the mountains and rivers of the South reigns the Emperor of the South This has been decided forever by the Book of Heaven
How dare you, barbarians, invade our soil? Your hordes, without pity, will be annihilated! —Huu Ngoc 1996, 366–67 In the thirteenth century, the Mongols of Kublai Khan invaded Vietnam three times and met with defeat each time. The only other Chinese occupation was for a brief period in the fifteenth century. From 1407 to 1427, the Ming Empire pursued a policy of assimilation, forcing the people to wear Chinese clothes and adopt Chinese customs.Variousartifacts of national culture, such as literary works,were destroyed, and craftsmen and intellectuals were sent to China. In the Hoan Kiem district of Hanoi lies the Lake of the Restored Sword. As legend has it,when the fifteenth-century hero Le Loi went for a boat ride, a golden turtle emerged from the water to take back the sacred sword that Heaven had given the hero to expel the Chinese Ming invaders. Many temples are dedicated to Vietnamese heroes who resisted the Chinese throughout the ages. Ho Chi Minh, whose name means “Bringer of Light” and whose picture adorns the walls of many homes throughout Vietnam, embodies this spirit of resistanceand independence. Ho was named by Time magazine as one of “20 people (leaders and revolutionaries) who helped define the political and social fabric of our times” in the twentieth century. In the description he wrote for Time, Stanley Karnow describes Ho as “an emaciated,goateed figure in a threadbare bush jacket and frayed rubber sandals.”Karnow writes: Ho Chi Minh cultivated the image of a humble, benign “Uncle Ho.” But he was a seasoned revolutionary and passionate nationalist obsessed by a single goal: independence for his country.
Sharing his fervor, his tattered guerrillas vaulted daunting obstacles to crush France’s desperate attempt to retrieve its empire in Indochina; later, built into a largely conventional army, they frustrated the massive U.S. effort to prevent Ho’s communist followers from controlling Viet Nam.( Like others of his generation who had lived in France or attended French schools in Vietnam, Nguyen Ai Quoc (“Nguyen the Patriot”), as Ho called himself at the time, learned from the West but rejected its domination. (He left Vietnam in 1911 and traveled to France, Great Britain, the U.S., China, and other countries before returning home in 1941 to lead the revolution against the French.)

Above: Ho Chi Minh-beloved leader of the people of Vietnam

Vietnam has long had an ambivalent relationship with China. Long before the French conquest, the Vietnamese had borrowed Chinese culture, institutions, ethics, and even calligraphy while resisting China’s efforts to control their country. Even the language was influenced by Chinese: it is estimated that 60 to 70 percent of all words are Sino-Viet. In a graphic illustration of Vietnam’s ambivalent relationship with its “big brother” to the North (and of the expression that politics makes for strange bedfellows), China supported Vietnam in its war against the U.S., only to instigate a brief but costly border war in early 1979 to punish Hanoi for its crushing defeat of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia a month earlier. A park in the Dong Da district of Hanoi, where children play and adults relax, doubles as a cemetery with unmarked graves.Under the grass, flowers, and laughter are buried the bodies of thousands of Chinese soldiers from a late-eighteenth-century battle,a bittersweet reminder of how China ultimately fared in its thousandyear reign over Vietnam—and also a warning for the future. Among individual Vietnamese, feelings about the Chinese are mixed.Some Vietnamese resist “buying Chinese” but admit that this is easier said than done. Coupled with concerns about the flood of cheap Chinese imports undermining domestic industries, there is also a recognition that some Chinese products are of higher quality. By the same token, there are those who admire China for its glorious achievements in literature and in the creative and performing arts. The Vietnamese intellectual Huu Ngoc observed that the psychological disposition of the Vietnamese people toward China “is ambiguous and even contradictory, marked by repulsion and attraction. In the interests of self-preservation, the Vietnamese had to pay tribute to the occupiers; at the same time, they had to thwart the Chinese goal of maintaining “‘a weakened or divided Viet Nam’” (Ngoc 1996, 33). Ultimately, they did not allow the Chinese to change or destroy their cultural values. China continues to be both a positive and a negative role model for Vietnam. On one side of the coin, its ability to create a flourishing market economy with the world’s highest growth rate while maintaining the primacy of the Communist Party is applauded. On the other side, China remains a force to be reckoned with, both economically and militarily.One bone of contention is the claim by both China and Vietnam to the Spratly Islands in the potentially oil-rich area of the South China Sea (known as the “East Sea” in Vietnam). There have been occasional military confrontations, some resulting in loss of life. The strategic partnership agreed on by Vietnam and Russia in 2001 is yet another attempt to maintain a balance of power in Southeast Asia. As it has so far done with great skill and finesse, Vietnam will have to continue to walk a fine line, balancing cooperation, competition, and protection of its national interest. China will continue to loom large on Vietnam’s political, economic, social, and cultural horizon.

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