Vietnam Table of Contents


Using the patriarchal family as the basic social institution, the Confucianists framed their societal norm in terms of the duties and obligations of a family to a father, a child to a parent, a wife to a husband, and a younger brother to an older brother; they held that the welfare and continuity of the family group were more important than the interests of any individual member. Indeed, the individual was less an independent being than a member of a family group that included not only living members but also a long line of ancestors and of those yet to be born. A family member's life was caught up in the activities of a multitude of relatives. Members of the same household lived together, worked together, and gathered together for marriages, funerals, Tet (lunar New Year) celebrations, and rituals marking the anniversary of an ancestor's death. Family members looked first to other family members for help and counsel in times of personal crisis and guarded the interests of the family in making personal or household decisions.

Special reverence was accorded a family's ancestors. This practice, known as the family cult or cult of the ancestors, derived from the belief that after death the spirits of the departed continued to influence the world of the living. The soul was believed to become restless and likely to exert an unfavorable influence on the living, unless it was venerated in the expected manner.

Veneration of ancestors was also regarded as a means through which an individual could assure his or her own immortality. Children were valued because they could provide for the spirits of their parents after death. Family members who remained together and venerated their forebears with strict adherence to prescribed ritual found comfort in the belief that the souls of their ancestors were receiving proper spiritual nourishment and that they were insuring their own soul's nourishment after death.

The cult required an ancestral home or patrimony, a piece of land legally designated as a place devoted to the support of venerated ancestors. Ownership of land that could be dedicated to the support of the cult was, however, only a dream for most landless farmers. The cult also required a senior male of direct descent to oversee preparations for obligatory celebrations and offerings.

On the anniversary of an ancestor's death, rites were performed before the family altar to the god of the house, and sacrificial offerings were made to both the god and the ancestor. The lavishness of the offering depended on the income of the family and on the rank of the deceased within the family. A representative of each family in the lineage was expected to be present, even if this meant traveling great distances. Whenever there was an occasion of family joy or sorrow, such as a wedding, an anniversary, success in an examination, a promotion, or a funeral, the ancestors were informed through sacrificial offerings.

In the traditional kinship system, the paternal line of descent was emphasized. Individuals were identified primarily by their connections through the father's male bloodline, and kin groups larger than the family--clans and lineages--were formed by kinspeople who traced their relationship to each other in this manner. It was through these patrilineal descent groups that both men and women inherited property and that men assumed their primary obligation for maintaining the ancestor observances.

The patrilineal group maintained an extremely strong kin relationship. Members' ties to one another were reinforced by their shared heritage, derived from residence in the same village over many generations. Family land and tombs, located in or near the village, acted as a focus for feelings of kin loyalty, solidarity, and continuity.

The extended family rather than the nuclear one was the dominant family structure, often including three or even four generations, and typically consisting of grandparents, father and mother, children, and grandchildren, all living under the same roof. Sometimes parents had more than one married son living with them, but this often led to such tension that it was generally held preferable for a second son to live separately. All members of the household lived under the authority of the oldest male, and all contributed to the income of the family.

Despite the cultural emphasis on obedience in women, women were not regarded as the weaker sex but as resilient and strongwilled . In the village, women assumed a great deal of responsibility for cultivation of paddy fields, often working harder than men, and sometimes engaged in retail trade of all kinds. A few women owned agricultural estates, factories, and other businesses, and both urban and rural women typically managed the family income. A woman's influence in family affairs could be increased by giving birth to a first male child. In general, though, a woman was expected to be dutiful and respectful toward her husband and his parents, to care for him and his children, and to perform household duties. There were no women in public life.

Besides the so-called wife of the first rank, a household sometimes included a second and third wife and their children. The consent of the first wife was required before this arrangement could be made, but, more often than not, additional wives either were established by the husband in separate households or were permitted to continue living as they had before marriage, in their own homes or with parents. Polygyny was widespread in both northern and central Vietnam, as was the taking of concubines.

Marriage was regarded primarily as a social contract and was arranged by the parents through intermediaries. The parents' choice was influenced more by considerations affecting the welfare of the lineage than by the preferences of the participants.

Interest in having children was strongly reinforced by Confucian culture, which made it imperative to produce a male heir to continue the family line. A couple with numerous offspring was envied. If there were sons, it was assured that the lineage would be perpetuated and the cult of the ancestors maintained; if there was no male heir, a couple was regarded as unfortunate, and a barren wife could be divorced or supplanted by another wife.

Fostering filial piety was of overriding importance in childrearing . Children were expected to be polite to their parents and older persons, to be solicitous of their welfare, to show them respect through proper manner and forms of address, and to carry out prescribed tradition with respect to funeral practices and the observance of mourning. After the deaths of their parents, it was incumbent upon surviving children (and their children in turn), to honor their parents' memory through maintenance of the ancestors' cult.

All important family occasions such as births, betrothals, marriages, funerals, and anniversaries of the deaths of ancestors were observed by appropriate ceremonies in which members of the kin group participated. The ceremonies had both religious and social meaning, and many were very elaborate, in keeping with the wealth and social status of the family. Whenever such a celebration took place, the family was always careful to make an offering to the god of the hearth. Prayers and sacrifices were also made when misfortune fell upon the household.

The Family since 1954

In the first decade after World War II, the vast majority of North and South Vietnamese clung tenaciously to traditional customs and practices. After the 1950s, however, some traditions were questioned, especially in the North. The timeless notion that the family was the primary focus of individual loyalty was disparaged as feudal by the communists, who also criticized the traditional concept of the family as a self-contained socioeconomic unit. Major family reform was initiated under a new law enacted in 1959 and put into effect in 1960. The law's intent was to protect the rights of women and children by prohibiting polygyny forced marriage, concubinage, and abuse. It was designed to equalize the rights and obligations of women and men within the family and to enable women to enjoy equal status with men in social and work-related activities. Young women were encouraged to join the party as well as the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth League and the Vietnam Women's Union, and they were trained as cadres and assigned as leaders to production teams.

In conjunction with the law, a mass campaign was launched to discourage, as wasteful, the dowries and lavish wedding feasts of an earlier era. Large families were also discouraged. Parents who felt themselves blessed by heaven and secure in their old age because they had many children were labeled bourgeois and reactionary. Young people were advised not to marry before the age of twenty for males and eighteen for females and to have no more than two children per household. Lectures on birth control were commonplace in the public meeting rooms of cooperatives and factories.

According to Ha Thi Que, president of the Vietnam Women's Union in the early 1980s, popularizing family reform was extremely difficult, even in 1980, because women lacked a feminist consciousness and men resisted passively. To promote equality of the sexes, members of the women's union took an active part in a consciousness-raising campaign under the slogan, "As good in running society as running the home, women must be the equals of men." Such campaigns resulted in a fairer division of labor between husbands and wives and in the decline of customs and practices based on belief in women's inferiority.

In 1980 some old habits remained. Change reportedly was slower in the mountain areas and in the countryside than in the towns. According to Ha Thi Que, in areas where state control and supervision were lax, old-fashioned habits reemerged not only among the working people but also among state employees. She also pointed out that many young people misinterpreted the notion of free marriage, or the right of individuals to select their own marriage partners, and were engaging in love affairs without seriously intending to marry. Marriages were also being concluded for money or for status, and in the cities the divorce rate was rising.

In the North, family life was affected by the demands of the war for the liberation of the South, or the Second Indochina War, on the society and by the policies of a regime doctrinally committed to a major overhaul of its socioeconomic organization. Sources of stress on the family in the North in the 1960s and the 1970s included the trend toward nuclear families, rural collectivization, population redistribution from the Red River Delta region to the highlands, prolonged mobilization of a large part of the male work force for the war effort, and the consequent movement of women into the economic sector. By 1975 women accounted for more than 60 percent of the total labor force.

In the South, despite the hardships brought on by the First Indochina War and Second Indochina War, the traditional family system endured. Family lineage remained the source of an individual's identity, and nearly all southerners believed that the family had first claim on their loyalties, before that of extrafamilial individuals or institutions, including the state.

The first attempt to reform the family system in the South occurred in 1959, when the Catholic Diem regime passed a family code to outlaw polygyny and concubinage. The code also made legal separation extremely difficult and divorce almost impossible. Under provisions equalizing the rights and obligations of spouses, a system of community property was established so that all property and incomes of husband and wife would be jointly owned and administered. The code reinforced the role of parents, grandparents, and the head of the lineage as the formal validators of marriage, divorce, or adoption, and supported the tradition of ancestor cults. The consent of parents or grandparents was required in the marriage or the adoption of a minor, and they or the head of the lineage had the right to oppose the marriage of a descendant.

In 1964 after the Diem regime had been toppled in a coup, a revised family law was promulgated. It was similar to the previous one except that separation and divorce were permitted after two years of marriage on grounds of adultery, cruelty, abandonment, or a criminal act on the part of a spouse. Concubinage, which had been expressly forbidden previously, was not mentioned, and adultery was no longer punishable by fines or imprisonment.

During the war years, family life was seriously disrupted as family members were separated and often resettled in different areas. If the distance from one another was too great, they could not assemble for the rites and celebrations that traditionally reinforced kinship solidarity. Family ties were further torn by deaths and separations caused by the war and by political loyalties, which in some instances set one kinsperson against another.

In those areas where hostilities occurred, the war was a family affair, extending to the children. Few Vietnamese children had the opportunity simply to be children. From birth they were participants in the war as well as its victims. They matured in an environment where death and suffering inflicted by war were commomplace and seemingly unavoidable.

The years of military conflicts and refugee movements tended in many parts of the South to break up the extended family units and to reinforce the bonds uniting the nuclear family. The major preoccupation of the ordinary villager and urbanite alike was to earn a livelihood and to protect his immediate family, holding his household together at any cost.

After the mid-1970s, the North and South faced the task of social reconstruction. For the South, the communist conquest and ensuing relocation and collectivization policies created an uncertain social milieu. While the return of peace reunited families, communist policies forced fathers or sons into reeducation camps or entire families into new economic zones for resettlement. For those who saw no future in a socialist Vietnam, the only alternatives were to escape by boat or escape by land.

As the pace of rural collectivization accelerated in 1987, and as the people became more receptive to family planning, it seemed likely that families in the South would gradually take on the characteristics of those in the North. This conjecture was reinforced by Hanoi's decision in 1977 to apply its own 1959 family law to the South.

According to an official 1979 survey of rural families in the Red River Delta commune of An Binh near Hanoi, a typical family was nuclear, averaging four persons (parents and two children). The An Binh study, confirmed by other studies, also showed the family to be heavily dependent on outsiders for the satisfaction of its essential needs and confirmed that the family planning drive had had some success in changing traditional desires for a large family. Seventy-five percent of those interviewed nonetheless continued to believe three or four children per family to be the most desirable number and to prefer a son to a daughter.

The An Binh study revealed in addition that almost all the parents interviewed preferred their children not to be farmers, a preference that reflected the popular conviction that farming was not the promising route to high-status occupations. Such thinking, however, was alarming to officials who nevertheless considered the promotion of agriculture as essential to the regime's scheme for successful transition to a socialist economy.

In December 1986, the government enacted a new family law that incorporated the 1959 law and added some new provisions. The goal of the new legislation was "to develop and consolidate the socialist marriage and family system, shape a new type of man, and promote a new socialist way of life eliminating the vestiges of feudalism, backward customs, and bad or bourgeois thoughts about marriage and family." The law explicitly defined the "socialist family" as one in which "the wife and husband are equals who love each other, who help each other to make progress, who actively participate in building socialism and defending the fatherland and work together to raise their children to be productive citizens for society."

Reflecting the government's sense of urgency about population control, the 1986 law stipulated a new parental "obligation" to practice family planning, a provision that was absent from the 1959 text. The new law was notable also for its stronger wording regarding the recommended marriage age: it specified that "only males twenty years of age or older and females eighteen years of age or older may marry." The 1959 text had stated only that such persons were "eligible for marriage."

Other noteworthy provisions concerned adoption, guardianship, and marriage between Vietnamese and foreigners. Foreigners married to Vietnamese were to comply with the provisions of the 1986 law except in matters relating to separation, divorce, adoption, and guardianship, which were to be regulated separately. The new code also called on various mass organizations to play an active role in "teaching and campaigning among the people for the strict implementation" of the law.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress