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Department of History, National University of Singapore

Vietnam: In China's Shadow

Author(s): M. Coughlin
Source: Journal of Southeast Asian History, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Sep., 1967), pp. 240-249
Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of Department of History, National University
of Singapore
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much has been written on China's relations with her

neighbours to the north, west and east, relatively little has been
done on those to the south. Such studies could many
valuable contrasts and comparisons and should be of considerable
assistance in assessing China's historic role as well as her present
intentions in Southeast Asia.

China's traditional policy toward her northern neighbours

beyond the Great Wall was generally one of containment, her policy
toward those to the south was one of conquest and absorption.
Vietnam an interesting case.
provides especially Geographically
and culturally Vietnam offered a avenue for the continuance
of China's march to the and her conquest of the entire eastern
Indochinese For a time it looked as this would
peninsula. though
happen. But it did not, and China's southern boundary was even

tually fixed north of the Red River Valley. How and why was
China checked in her southward move?

Then again, was

Vietnam for long periods to Hindu
influences. Although the rest of Southeast Asia succumbed to this
influence, Vietnam did not; it even served to extend East Asian
culture to the
tip of the peninsula,
absorbing the Hinduized
Kingdom of Champa in the process. Why did Vietnam remain
within the Chinese sphere when the rest of Southeast Asia was

And finally, what does the course of China's relations with Vietnam
in the past suggest for the future of these two countries?

China's relations with Vietnam can be divided

three periods: the
first, before century the third
BC, when
contacts were random and without government sanction; the second,
from the third century BC to the tenth century AD when the area
was into and as a of southern
gradually incorporated regarded part
China; and the third, from the tenth to the nineteenth century, the
period of Vietnam's cut short in the 1880's the
independence, by
French annexation of the area, when the period covered by this study

Before the third century BC China's chief contact with the area


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was through traders and artisans who made available China's more
advanced products and techniques to the local Evidence
of such contact is inferred from recent finds in the Dong-son area of
Tonkin. How far back such contact goes is not yet certain.
After 200 BC the Ch'in and early Han conquests of southern
China including northern Vietnam led to military colonization,
encouragement of intermarriage between Chinese soldiers and
native women, and a loosely held control over the area through the
t'u ssu system of ruling through native chiefs. Chinese
culture began to filter in at many levels.
In the first century AD with the overthrow of the Chinese general
Chao T'o's kingdom of Nam-viet, this area was incor
into China and a more administration instituted with
porated rigid
direct rule by Chinese governors, similar to that prevailing through
out South China. It was at this time that the process of sinicization
was first Later the T'ang re
consciously pursued. dynasty
established the system of military farm colonies, a form of coloniza
tion which contributed greatly to the acculturation of the local
peoples. Throughout this period large numbers of scholars sought
refuge here from political disturbances during the Han and T'ang.
After 180 AD the local of whom had passed the civil
people, many
service examinations were to serve in the administration
and a corps of native mandarin administrators soon who
served not only in the south but throughout China.
Under direct Chinese rule, then, the process of sinicization was
strongest on the administrative level and took root first in the uppei
classes. However, several factors contributed to its
throughout the peasantry as well:

1) the conscious imposition by Chinese administrators of

Chinese standards of dress, hair style, religious observances,

2) the prevalence of intermarriage with, and colonization by,

the Chinese in the early
3) the fact that the ruling classes in Vietnam had always been
close to the people since there were no towns of consequence
outside the and as the
imperial capital they thus served
guides and mentors in life.

4) the basic similarities in cultural base of the Chinese and

Vietnamese which tended to make this peasantry
to Chinese cultural Both were
patterns. rice-producing
river-valley cultures with early evidences of ancestor wor
ship and animistic beliefs.

5) the fact that the Chinese system of government, as Con


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rad Bekker1 has suggested, could not be introduced piece

meal but, to be effective, the adoption of the
whole Confucian cultural complex: civil service bureau
cracy, educational system, social hierarchy, Chinese written

this period there had been attempts to overthrow

Chinese rule. were
these revolts, led by
Significantly, upper-class
or members of the ruling hierarchy ? that from the
landowners is,
most sinicized group. But these were successful only for brief
as in 939 AD, when the patriot Ngo Quyen succeeded in
ousting the Chinese and establishing the Ngo dynasty.

Thus, the time the Vietnamese were strong enough to over

throw China had become thoroughly sinicized; and it is the
of the French scholar, Henri that, ironically, the
opinion Maspero,2
Vietnamese learned what needed to know to preserve
thereby they
their freedom from northern
theirneighbour and cultural mentor.
China's was to incorporate
intention into her framework
another province similar to those of South China, she had unwittingly
a new nation which had successfully adopted the Chinese
to establish its own independence.
This loss was not as great as it however, since China
a and culturally
continued to exercise good deal of control politically
over the area. In 972 the founder of the Dinh found it
to send his son on a goodwill mission to China with gifts,
in return for which China Dinh as the King of Chiao-chi
Chinese for Nam Viet) and his son as Generalissimo
(the designation
of the Annam Protectorate. From that date on, the custom of
tribute to China at intervals was firmly established
paying regular
and China was in a position to make or break a dynasty or emperor
or withdrawing official recognition. As Wiens3 points
by conferring
the political device of title and rank bestowal on a vassal in
for recognition of nominal was a valuable
exchange sovereignty
device for the extension of without force of arms, utilized
and its success was due more to the
by all China's dynasties, power
of Han-Chinese culture and civilization than to any military might.
The desire to be included in the "civilized realm" as contrasted

with the "barbarian realm" was a potent factor in Han-Chinese

empire politics.
of Chinese culture continued to be re
The obvious advantages
"Historical of culture contact in Southern Asia", Far
1. Conrad Bekker, patterns
Eastern Quarterly,
XI (November 1951), p. 9.
China's relations with Burma and Vietnam, a brief survey,
2. Harold C. Hinton,
New York 1958, p. 2.
Harold China's march into the tropics, Washington, D.C. 1952, pp.
3. J. Wiens,


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cognized and even If the period prior to independence

was one of acculturation and evolution toward the Chinese model,
that from the tenth century on was one of reinforcement and care
ful imitation of that model. In this the later Vietnamese dynasties
were not unlike those of the Ming and Ch'ing whose efforts were
concentrated on imitating and perpetuating China's past traditions
with little or innovation.
It could well be said that Vietnam became more Chinese after
the departure of the Chinese administration than before. It was

during this period that Taoism and Buddhism as well as Con

fucianism were officially promoted, each emphasized at different
and began to filter down to the
periods by different emperors,
level. L. Cadiere4 states that it was not until after the
seventeenth century that special care was taken to imitate exactly
Chinese rites and ceremonies at court. Education was
and encouraged and the examination system elaborated. Emperor
Le Thanh in the fifteenth century the famous
Tong promulgated
Code, on that of China, which
Hong-Due Legal closely patterned
the of Confucian morality and discouraged
emphasized precepts
the animistic of the peasantry. He extolled the examina
tion system and instituted the custom of celebrating the "glorious
return" of successful candidates to their village.

a French scholar, the following description of

J. Przyluski,5 gives
Vietnam in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries:
Traditional Annamite society is characterized by the
existence of Chinese and Annamite institutions. Annam has
borrowed from China her form of government, her adminis
trative bureaucracy, the laws of her mandarins, and the names
of her administrative districts. It is only in the commune
that an indigenous organization has developed and been main
tained. Chinese influence, moreover, has not stopped at the
commune, it has penetrated everywhere; it is one of the
factors which determine the organization of the
and the career of the individual.
He then proceeds to describe the government as a monarchy on the
Chinese with the emperor as the and ceremonial
pattern political
who rules a council of ministers and a bureau
sovereign, through
cratic hierachy chosen examinations as in China and
by literary
even a censorate. Particular was attached
including importance
to the educational process and the examination system which

4. L. Cadiere, annamite et non annamites" in Georges Maspero (Ed.),

Un colonial fran?ais, l'Indochine, Paris 1929, p.279.
from the French).
5. Ibid., p.205 (my translation


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a ladder for the ambitious and able from the school in

the village to the college at the capital.
The Vietnamese commune is considered by the French scholars
to be unique. However, it seems apparent that it differs in detail,
but not greatly in spirit, from its Chinese counterpart. It has
a great deal of autonomy, was self-administered
always enjoyed
according to traditions over the centuries and might
differ in these from even its near neighbours. It was
united not only in territory but in its membership which included
both ancestors of past generations and other spirits that watched
over the van Thai6 states that when a person
village. Nguyen
referred to his place of origin in Vietnam, he did not necessarily
mean his birthplace, but the birthplace of his paternal great grand

The Vietnamese family appears in most respects identical to the

Chinese. is patriarchal
It and patrilocal with the eldest male at
the head of the hierarchy. Age is of great as is filial
ancestor worship, which is believed to have the
piety and pre-dated
Chinese. Marriage is arranged, concubinage permitted and pro
distributed among sons. The Confucian
perty equally principle
of filial piety was so strong even in the nineteenth century that the
Tu-Duc obeyed his mother in all details and never dared
to tell her of the loss of Cochin-China.

Traditional Vietnamese art is Chinese in origin, inspiration, and

frequently in execution.Emperors often brought artisans from

China to
produce works for the court if local artisans were consi
dered versed in Chinese Others were
insufficiently techniques.
brought in to teach such techniques to the Vietnamese. So faithful
were these artisans to their Chinese models that one sees the

vegetation of China, unknown in Vietnam,

carefully depicted in
Vietnamese paintings. The de Hue
famous Bleu
porcelain of the

imperial court came not from Hue but from China ? the type often
referred to as Ming Blue. Maspero7 writes, "Unlike the Khmer
we find in Vietnam no monument worthy of the name which
is genuinely ancient, and borrowing from China has been so strong
that it is almost to identify that which is of original
This sinicized art reached its height in the tombs of
at Hue ? beauti
the eighteenth and nineteenth century emperors
fully executed of Chinese models. However, Vietnamese
originality, claims, shows itself in the setting and arrange
6. van Thai, A Short history of Vietnam, 1958, p.213.
7. Georges (Ed.), Un empire colonial fran?ais, l'Indochine, Paris 1929,


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ment of these tombs, which lend them an indefinable aura of my

stery, beauty and tranquillity.

The popular theatre too is closely patterned on the Chinese with

traditional Chinese subjects and operatic treatment. As in China
the profession of acting is held in disrepute and it is hard to recruit
players from good families.

In the realm
of religion Vietnam has emulated China's religious
eclecticism, with
Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and spirit cults
sharing the honours in varying degrees. No comprehensive study
has been made of religious and most modern accounts are
based on those of the early French scholars who tend to stress the
animistic aspects of the folk religion and play down Chinese
influence. But the
indigenous cults which
share do exist
many features
in common with those throughout South China.
Confucianism, as in China, all social relationships and
provided the framework for the ancestor cult. Its philosophical
content and deeper were well understood
meaning by Vietnam's
literati, many of whom were Chinese of consequence.
As in China, Buddhism and Taoism which flourished and were
officially encouraged at different have
periods, largely degenerated
into magic and sorcery whose priests have little standing in the
In medicine
Vietnam has also been strongly influenced by China.
Today indigenous and Chinese are so intermixed that it
is impossible to distinguish between them, and the term Sino
Vietnamese medicine is applied to all pre-western medical practices.
A leading Vietnamese doctor in Hanoi recently described his medical
training as follows: "Like most of my I come from a
family of scholars of classical culture. Our family has exercised
Eastern medicine for eight
generations. That is one of the
of our Eastern consists ofmedicine
peculiarities profession.
formulas handed down . .for 12
from father to son. years I studied
Chinese characters, then for eight years my father taught me tradi
tional medicine.... We added to empirical left our
knowledge by
forebearers by the study of old medical treatises written in Chinese

Only in language has the Vietnamese asserted

indigenous genius
itself. The Chinese influence dominated in writing and speaking
the official
(on level) until when Vietnamese
independence, began
gradually to take over. Paul Benedict9 has aptly termed Chinese the
8. Quoted in: Mai Hoa, "Meet a practitioner of eastern medicine" in Vietnam
advances, 8 August 1963, p.25.
9. Paul K. Benedict. and literatures of Indochina" Far E astern
{?uarterly, VI, p.383.


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Latin and Greek of the Far East

where Japanese, Korean, and An
namese have become sinicized just as the European languages were
latinized. Thus, although believed to be an Austro-asiatic tongue and
not of the Sino-Tibetan family, the Vietnamese language contains
many loan words from the Chinese. Until the thirteenth century
all writing was in Chinese but at this time a new kind of
chu nom, appeared which ingeniously combined Chinese characters,
one element representing meaning and the other pronunciation in
the manner in which most Chinese characters are formed, to write
Vietnamese words. A native literature in this medium gradually
the most famous the Kim-Van Kieu, a
developed, example being
poem based on a Chinese
story which its author, Nguyen Du, brought
back from China in 1812 when as a high mandarin he was sent by
the emperor to pay the traditional tribute to the court of China.

In the seventeenth century missionaries a

European developed
romanized script called quoc-ngu which rapidly gained favour and
is used almost exclusively today, although members of the older

generation can still write in characters.

However, Chinese continued as the written language of the court

right up to the French

conquest, and writings in both chu nom
and quoc ngu were so
completely ignored that the official biography
of Nguyen Du makes reference to his writing of the
only passing
Kim-Van Kieu.

Although Vietnam is in many ways a small replica of China and

was more influenced China than either or
continuously by Japan
Korea, she is by no means an exact copy of the Middle Kingdom.
Each item of culture or complex of items has been adapted, altered
or in the light of Vietnam's past and current
reinterpreted unique
needs. Thus, Vietnam appears to have borrowed in toto
the Chinese Confucianist system, observing strictly its hierar
the position of the Vietnamese woman
chical system of allegiances,
is distinctly above that of her traditional Chinese counterpart. In
matters of dress the Vietnamese have made certain adaptations. The
turbanlike cap of the Tonkinese harks back perhaps to the turban
which Maspero states was worn by the earliest inhabitants in this
area at the time of the first Chinese contact. The "mandarin" coat
or jacket is much like the Chinese but the long flowing split skirt of
the women with trousers underneath indicates some Hindu
or Muslim influence.

Vietnamese medical are largely Chinese

remedies m
the Vietnamese have tended to specialize in herbs whereas
the Chinese have used more animal and mineral concoctions. Again
in the culinary field, even though Vietnamese eat with chopsticks


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and their food is indistinguishable from Chinese to the average

westerner, there are numerous differences and local variations. The
basic sauce?nuoc mam?which accompanies every repast is distinctly
Vietnamese and quite unlike soy sauce, the standard Chinese accom

no organized of the nature

Unfortunately, study has been made
and advent of the various Chinese elements in Vietnamese culture
and so it is almost impossible to trace the history of these develop
ments as scholars have done for Japan and Korea. However, it is
clear from the evidence available that Vietnam's history in this res
pect is quite different from Japan's where T'ang culture was adopted

virtually in toto, and which was moulded by its feudal experience

and evolved thereafter into something uniquely and distinctly
China's influence on
Japanese. subsequent Japan was but sporadic
and Japan's adoption of Chinese culture elements after the T'ang
was selective and in no way changed the culture that had

Vietnam's contact with China, however, was continuous. Thus

her cultural evolution
paralleled closely that of China itself with

changes in bureaucratic details, religious interpretation, methods

of taxation, and with a trend toward conservatism and
traditionalism as strong as, if not stronger than, that of China's. This
was dramatically illustrated in the reaction of the Emperor Minh

Mang to the West in the late nineteenth century. A strict Con

fucianist and admirer of Chinese culture, he persecuted western
missionaries and Christians and refused to conclude a
commercial treaty with France. In many respects he 'out-Manchu
ed' the Manchus and certainly the response of these two empires to
Western contact was strikingly similar.

Professor Mus10 has summed up the role of the Vietnamese state

in the following description:
The state was a coordinator. It's object was to prevent the
smaller communities from going astray, and its chief
"ministers" (the word does not have its European meaning)
were a kind of high tribunal sitting in judgment upon lapses
from the Confucian model. Therefore the state recruited
its personnel for all but the humblest positions from the
literati, whose learning consisted entirely of Confucius, the
classics, and their commentators.

China provided a of this sort of system in a rich

collection of writings and exegeses. Society was the content
of its own literature, and that was what it expected of itself.

10. Paul Mus, "Vietnam: a nation off balance". Yale Review, XLI, 1952, pp. 526-527.


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To say that the education of the officials was literary is also to

say that it was in some sense social, but it was not oriented
towards the future, asWestern social studies are. There was
interest in ameliorating the present, to be sure, but the ideal
.to be achieved lay in the past. Since present evils resulted
from neglect of the Confucian model, their cure lay not in
innovation but in return. Knowledge as social was
pure conformism.
Korea's situation and offer greater similarities to that of
Vietnam than Japan. Both were border areas which during con
siderable periods had come under China's
political and domination
which until the nineteenth century accepted the nominal suzerainty
of China. Both were influenced from pre
strongly culturally
historic times to the present by Chinese culture and institutions and
their governments operated within the Confucian bureaucratic
framework. However, there were distinct differences in the course
of this evolution; Korea does not seem to have approached as closely
to the Chinese pattern owing to several factors: greater decentraliza
tion for long periods, certain feudal tendencies in landownership,
a class structure, a different conception of the peasant
and his relation to the soil, as well as differences.
Fairbank and Reischauer11 state that although Korea adhered
strictly to Confucian ritual forms she at the same time maintained
strict social cleavages that were
the antithesis of Confucian egalita
rian doctrines. They the
add that emphasis on tradition which was
associated with political strength in China was not found in Korea
where economic stagnation, political corruption and cultural
sterility resulted. This weakness was the result of an
incomplete integration of the Confucian ethos with the Korean
culture. The explanation of Vietnam's continuing vigour was the
thorough integration of Confucianism with the cultural complex
where, as Paul Mus12 puts it, the Confucian balance between the
ritualistic state and the autarchic village was maintained
until the advent of the French.

How is it then, that this should have occurred in Vietnam when it

did not in Korea whose of contact may be considered to be
similarly continuous? Part of the explanation probably lies in
China's historical intentions in these two areas. With the constant
harassment of the
intervening tribes and the physical and psycholo
gical barrier of the Great Wall to its north, it is unlikely that China
ever for very long considered Korea as a part of China and was con
tent to accept her as a vassal and cultural But Vietnam
11. John K. Fairbank and Edwin O. Reischauer, East Asia: the great tradition,
Boston 1958, p.449.
12. Mus, op. cit., p.531.


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until the tenth century at least, was an integral part of China whose
to this area was similar to her to Kwang-tung,
approach approach
Yunnan or Fukien. Here were alien tribes which had to be enticed,
encouraged or forced to accept and the most impor
tant method to achieve this, as China saw it, was to make them
Chinese. This she did with immense success in South China; why
was she not successful in Vietnam?
The answer should be
sought in the origins of the Vietnamese
The Vietnamese came from an river
people. extremely vigorous
valley stock whose geographical environment closely approximated
the conditions of the Yellow River Valley. They had a language
of their own, unrelated to the Sinic languages. They identi
fied with an area ? Nam Viet or Nam Yueh ? developing a strongly
autonomous communal village pattern and a vigorous civilization.
Archaeological finds show evidence of ancestor
worship, implying
strong and even clan and a social hierarchy,
family relationships
which were similarto those of China and which fertile
ground for the growth of the Chinese Confucian system. Vietnam's
cultural base was suited for a civilizing framework of just the type
that China had to offer. China's administrative system and Con
fucian served to legitimize and elaborate Vietnamese
patterns and institutions. This would explain why Chinese culture
was in its rather than as in Korea
adopted entirety incompletely
and Japan, where it conflicted with elements in the
existing cultural base.

Although the Vietnamese became sinicized, successful

ly integrating the Confucian complex and identifying with China's
superior culture, they nevertheless retained their sense of uniqueness
which developed into a strong urge for and a
independence political
identity of their own.
This sense of nationalism has continued to exert a profound in
fluence right down to the present. Vietnam had in the past sought
the assistance of China in her pursuit of national objectives as in the
war with but she had resisted all of China's to
Champa attempts
take advantage of such positions and there is nothing to lead us to
believe she would not resist such attempts Vietnam's
again. history
of resistance to the French is well-known and it would seem that the
recent evidences of local resentment of American control are part of
a similar
If any theme has predominated in this small nation at the
tip of
the subcontinent of Asia, it has been its attempts to maintain its
national integrity in the face of almost odds. The
resulting history makes exciting reading and scholars to date have

only scratched the surface.


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