Vietnam Table of Contents

Traditional Patterns

For centuries Vietnamese society was knit together by Confucian norms based on five relationships: the subordination of subject to ruler, son to father, wife to husband, and younger brother to elder brother, and the mutual respect between friends. These norms influenced the evolution of Vietnam as a hierarchic, authoritarian society in which Confucian scholarship, monarchical absolutism, filial piety, the subordinate role of women, and the family system were regarded as integral to the natural order of the universe.

The traditional society was stratified on the basis of education and occupation into four groups: scholar-officials or mandarins, farmers, artisans, and merchants. At the pinnacle was the emperor, who ruled with the "mandate of heaven." Next were the scholar-officials, recruited through rigorous civil service examinations in Chinese classical literature and philosophy. Once a person passed the triennial examinations he became an accredited scholar or degree holder and was eligible for appointment to the imperial civil service, the most prestigious route to power, status, and wealth. Together, the emperor, his family, and the scholar-officials constituted the ruling class.

In theory, the mandarinate was not a closed social group. Commoners were permitted to apply for the examinations, and the status of scholar-official could not be inherited. In practice, however, these officials became a self-perpetuating class of generalist-administrators, partly because their sons could afford years of academic preparation for the examinations whereas most commoners could not. Education, the key to upward mobility, was neither free nor compulsory and tended to be the preserve of the mandarins.

Although social eminence and political power were thus concentrated in the hands of the mandarins, economic power was based on landholdings and was more widely diffused as a result of progressive dismantling of the hereditary feudal nobility after the fifteenth century. This process was accomplished by breaking up the nobility's vast holdings and redistributing smaller parcels to others, such as families of royal blood, prominent scholar-officials, and influential local notables. The wealthier of these notables formed a kind of landed gentry that wielded influence in the rural towns and villages.

The society was further transformed in the nineteenth century by the imposition of French rule, the introduction of Western education, the beginnings of industrialization and urbanization, and the growth of commercial agriculture. The establishment of a new, French-dominated governing class led to a rapid decline in the power and prestige of the emperor and the mandarins, whose functions were substantially reduced. When the triennial examinations were held in 1876 and 1879, an average of 6,000 candidates took them; in 1913, only 1,330 did.

In place of the old imperial bureaucracy, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a new intellectual elite emerged that emphasized achievement in science, geography, and other modern subjects instead of the Confucian classics. The new Vietnamese intelligentsia was impressed by the power of the French and by the 1905 naval victory at Tsushima of a modernized Japan over tsarist Russia. Having viewed some of the achievements of Western culture in Europe during World War I, when nearly 150,000 Vietnamese were recruited for work in French factories, the new elite proclaimed their country's need for a modern, Western educational focus. By 1920, even in the conservative city of Hue, the last Confucian outpost, wealthy families refused to marry their daughters to the sons of distinguished scholarofficial families unless the young men had acquired a modern, Western-style education. The traditional civil service examinations were held for the last time in 1919.

Traditional Confucian village schools, accustomed to teaching in Chinese, introduced instruction in Vietnamese and French into the existing curriculum. Vietnamese who had successfully acquired a higher education at home or abroad entered government service as administrators or were absorbed as doctors, engineers, and teachers as the government expanded its role in the fields of health, public works, and education. Others took up professions outside government, such as law, medicine, chemistry, and journalism. The new elite was composed mainly of Vietnamese from Tonkin and Annam rather than from Cochinchina, a regional bias perhaps attributable to the location in Hanoi of the country's only institution of Western higher education.

The French period also produced a new group of Vietnamese absentee landowners who possessed riches far in excess of the wealth anyone in the older society had enjoyed. This new group came into existence as a result of the French development of vast new tracts of land in Cochinchina. A few of these large holdings were retained by French companies or citizens, but most were held by enterprising, Western-oriented, urban Vietnamese from Annam and Tonkin who lived mainly in Hanoi and Hue. By investing in light industry and medium-sized trading concerns, they became Vietnam's first modern industrialists and entrepreneurs.

In urban centers the demand of both the expanding French government bureaucracy and the private sector for secretaries, clerks, cashiers, interpreters, minor officials, and labor foremen created a new Vietnamese white-collar group. The development of mining and industry between 1890 and 1919 also introduced a new class of workers. Because most of the natural resources as well as a large labor pool were located in the North, industrial development was concentrated there, and Hanoi and Haiphong became the country's leading industrial centers. At the same time, conditions of overcrowding and intensive farming in the North provided little room for agriculture on a commercial scale. In order to expand agriculture, the French turned their attention to the underdeveloped, warmer South, where French cultivation of such crops as rubber, coffee, tea, and, in Cochinchina, rice gave rise to a group of agricultural and plantation wage earners.

The colonial period also led to a substantial increase in the Hoa population. The country's limited foreign and domestic trade were already in the hands of Chinese when the French arrived. The French chose to promote the Chinese role in commerce and to import Chinese labor to develop road and railroad systems, mining, and industry. French colonial policy that lifted the traditional ban on rice exports at the end of the nineteenth century also attracted new waves of Chinese merchants and shopkeepers seeking to take advantage of the new export market. Vietnam's growing economy attracted even more Chinese thereafter, especially to the South. Already deeply involved in the rice trade, the Chinese expanded their interests to include ricemilling and established a virtual monopoly.

They also were a significant presence in sugar refining, coconut and peanut oil production, lumber, and shipbuilding. Many who began their careers as laborers on the French rubber plantations of Cochinchina eventually started their own tea, pepper, or rice plantations to supply local market needs. Chinese gardeners in the suburbs of Saigon monopolized the supply of fresh vegetables consumed in that city, and Chinese restaurants and hotels proliferated in virtually every urban center.

Society in the 1954-75 Period
Vietnam after 1975

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress