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    Southeast Asia
     Apr 26, 2007
Page 1 of 2
Why Vietnam loves and hates China
By Andrew Forbes

For more than 2,000 years, Vietnam's development as a nation has been marked by one fixed and immutable factor - the proximity of China. The relationship between the two countries is in many ways a family affair, with all the closeness of shared values and bitterness of close rivalries.

No country in Southeast Asia is culturally closer to China than Vietnam, and no other country in the region has spent so long

fending off Chinese domination, often at a terrible cost in lives, economic development and political compromise.

China has been Vietnam's blessing and Vietnam's curse. It remains an intrusive cultural godfather, the giant to the north that is "always there". Almost a thousand years of Chinese occupation, between the Han conquest of Nam Viet in the 2nd century BC and the reassertion of Vietnamese independence as Dai Viet in AD 967, marked the Vietnamese so deeply that they became, in effect, an outpost of Chinese civilization in Southeast Asia.

While the other countries of Indochina are Theravada Buddhist, sharing cultural links with South Asia, Vietnam derived its predominant religion - a mix of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism popularly known as tam giao or "Three Religions"- from China. Until the introduction of romanized quoc ngu script in the 17th century, Vietnamese scholars wrote in Chinese characters or in chu nho, a Vietnamese derivative of Chinese characters.

Over the centuries, Vietnam developed as a smaller version of the Middle Kingdom, a centralized, hierarchical state ruled by an all-powerful emperor living in a Forbidden City based on its namesake in Beijing and administered by a highly educated Confucian bureaucracy.

Both countries are deeply conscious of the cultural ties that bind them together, and each is still deeply suspicious of the other. During the long centuries of Chinese occupation, the Vietnamese enthusiastically embraced many aspects of Chinese civilization, while at the same time fighting with an extraordinary vigor to maintain their cultural identity and regain their national independence.

During the Tang Dynasty (6th-9th centuries AD), Vietnamese guerrillas fighting the Chinese sang a martial song that emphasized their separate identity in the clearest of terms:

Fight to keep our hair long,
Fight to keep our teeth black,
Fight to show that the heroic southern country can never be defeated.

For their part, the Chinese recognized the Vietnamese as a kindred people, to be offered the benefits of higher Chinese civilization and, ultimately, the rare privilege of being absorbed into the Chinese polity.

On the other hand, as near family, they were to be punished especially severely if they rejected Chinese standards or rebelled against Chinese control. This was made very clear in a remarkable message sent by the Song Emperor Taizong to King Le Hoan in AD 979, just over a decade after Vietnam first reasserted its independence.

Like a stern headmaster, Taizong appealed to Le Hoan to see reason and return to the Chinese fold: "Although your seas have pearls, we will throw them into the rivers, and though your mountains produce gold, we will throw it into the dust. We do not covet your valuables. You fly and leap like savages, we have horse-drawn carriages. You drink through your noses, we have rice and wine. Let us change your customs. You cut your hair, we wear hats; when you talk, you sound like birds. We have examinations and books. Let us teach you the knowledge of the proper laws ... Do you not want to escape from the savagery of the outer islands and gaze upon the house of civilization? Do you want to discard your garments of leaves and grass and wear flowered robes embroidered with mountains and dragons? Have you understood?"

In fact Le Hoan understood Taizong very well and, like his modern successors, knew exactly what he wanted from China - access to its culture and civilization without coming under its political control or jeopardizing Vietnamese freedom in any way. This attitude infuriated Taizong, as it would generations of Chinese to come.

In 1407, the Ming Empire managed to reassert Chinese control over its stubbornly independent southern neighbor, and Emperor Yongle - no doubt, to his mind, in the best interests of the Vietnamese - imposed a policy of enforced Sinicization. Predictably enough, Vietnam rejected this "kindness" and fought back, expelling the Chinese yet again in 1428.

Yongle was apoplectic when he learned of their rebellion. Vietnam was not just another tributary state, he insisted, but a former province that had once enjoyed the benefits of Chinese civilization 

Continued 1 2 

China and Vietnam put business first (Oct 25, '06)

China, Vietnam find love (Jul 21, '05)

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