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North Vietnam and China: Reflections on a Visit

Early this year I went to Hanoi by way of China. After spending a week in Peking I went to North Vietnam for just over a month and then returned to China, where I stayed in Changsha and Canton for two weeks. Later I spent three and a half weeks in South Vietnam. Thus during my visits to Vietnam and the second half of my journey in China, I was kept constantly aware of the similarities and contrasts between the two countries.

That there should be resemblances is hardly surprising. In prehistoric times there appear to have been no sharp cultural or physical divisions between the rice growing peoples of the valleys and deltas in what are now south China and North Vietnam. For the thousand years between 111 B.C. and A.D. 940 Vietnam was a Chinese province. Even after Vietnam achieved political independence, China retained a dominance over its higher culture. Its central administration was closely modeled on that of China. Indeed, Chinese was the major written language, and Vietnamese literature and even folklore were deeply influenced by China.

In addition to these ancient connections, the histories of both countries show strikingly close parallels during the twentieth century. In both, peasant revolutionary movements led by Marxist-Leninist parties have gained power after long battles in the countryside in which patriotism as well as social revolution has been a major issue. Moreover, in both countries the protracted nature of the struggle has made active mass participation in the movement necessary to an extent that has never even been approached in other revolutions.

Never having been to Vietnam before and not speaking Vietnamese, I expected that a strong Chinese influence would be evident. I even hoped that it would be, so that I could use my limited experience of China to help me to understand Vietnam. I was quickly disabused. Some of the distinctions I made on my first trip to Vietnam were the result of differences I saw between it and north and central China, with which I was familiar. Later, after spending some time in the southern province of Kwangtung, I had to modify some of these distinctions. But the essential differences between the two nations remained in my mind, and continue to amaze me.

To a traveler coming from Peking, the first impression of Hanoi was of a Mediterranean city. This view was partly superficial: the French colonial architecture, the typically Latin peeling walls and gentle decay. There was also the openness of life on the streets and the general air of relaxation. But, as in so many other quick social and political assessments, the weather played an important part in forming this impression. The Red River Delta in February is overcast, damp, and cool; there is nothing like the totally constricting dry, bright, and bitterly cold winter of north and central China.

This impression of softness or even hedonism derives in large part from the appearance of Vietnamese women. In China with its unisex clothing, sexual passions run hidden and deep. Vietnamese women in both North and South are beautiful, and they know it. Unlike Chinese women, they wear bras even in the countryside. They seem self-conscious and aware of their sexual attractiveness. There are few traditional dresses or Ao Dais in Hanoi but the women walk with superb grace and, as in the South, they look sensational sitting sidesaddle on the backs of bicycles. Men too are acutely aware of their personal appearance. They wear their clothes with a sense of individual style and are even dandyish.1 Educated Vietnamese are conscious and proud of this difference. In the National Museum a senior archaeologist pointed out that the handles of a Bronze Age urn were in the form of copulating figures and said: “You can see how different we are from the Chinese.”

In the towns of the South the pervading interest in sex in the midst of the greed, violence, and selfishness there creates an atmosphere of nihilism. In the North this interest serves as a counterpoint to the seriousness and dedication of the society. Brave women who have endured the terrible bombing to shoot down airplanes or who have worked for days without stopping to complete essential tasks are naturally far more moving for being attractive. The converse is also true. For instance, in a workshop in Thanh Hoa which had been evacuated to a cave to avoid US bombing, I saw girls standing behind lathes, covered in oil, whose beauty so moved me that at one point in an argument with one of my hosts I was surprised to find myself taking the Stalinist line that feminine beauty was linked to production, while my host argued that it was much more complicated than that.

The openness of sex eases the relationships between foreign and Vietnamese men. It allows for the wide range of interests and humor which are denied in China. From the point of view of Women’s Liberation much of this humor is at the expense of women, and it was certainly true that many of our jokes—though none of them was blue—depended on the view of women as objects.

There are, however, deeper reasons why foreign visitors have tended to find the Vietnamese elite so much more approachable and sympathetic than its Chinese counterpart, even before the Cultural Revolution, when the Chinese elite was in its heyday. Although a number of Chinese leaders have studied at Western or Soviet universities, their fundamental education was Chinese. In Vietnam on the other hand the secondary or even primary school education of almost all of the older generation of leaders was French. They have been profoundly Europeanized or, more specifically, Gallicized. Listening to Vietnamese scholars and politicians, I constantly had the impression of being with French Marxists.

These Vietnamese retain their faith in reason and science, which is profoundly moving in view of the monstrous assaults they are suffering from the most developed technology in the world. Linked to this is their belief and trust in formal and technical education. They are convinced that all people in responsible positions must be properly and thoroughly trained. Ta Quang Buu, the brilliant Minister of Higher Education who served as technical interpreter to Noam Chomsky when he was in Hanoi, gave a concrete reason for this need for concentrated academic studies.

We are now able to produce graduates capable of neutralizing and disarming the most advanced and ingenious American devices and for this a thorough scientific training is absolutely necessary.

The belief in professionalism goes far back in Vietnamese revolutionary history. In a small hamlet in the mountains at the extreme north of the country, I met a veteran of the Tai minority who had been sent to China by Ho Chi Minh for military training by Kuomintang and American officers. Expecting that his experience would be similar to the three or four month courses usually given to Chinese revolutionary fighters, I asked him how long he had stayed there. “Four years” was the reply.

In China there are frequent attempts to abbreviate and simplify education to make it cheaper and more accessible, and closer to the experience of the people. The Vietnamese will have none of this. When schools and colleges were evacuated from Hanoi and teachers and students had to move from place to place in the most primitive conditions, formal education was continued with the least possible interruption. History classes even took with them copies of Neolithic axes so that they could go on with their archaeology courses.

The Chinese put great emphasis on practical work in industry and agriculture as an essential part of education. The secondary schools I visited in Chinese cities all had “branch schools” in barren parts of the countryside. The buildings were usually built by the children themselves, who also cultivate the land around them. Local peasants arrived to give lessons on agriculture and to lecture on the hardships of life before 1949. With the “branch schools” in mind, I asked a group of Vietnamese students who had been evacuated from Hanoi whether there had been any advantages to living and studying in the countryside. Their immediate reply was:

No. In Hanoi we can go to libraries, read newspapers, see plays and films, and go around with our friends.”

But surely,” I persisted, “weren’t there any advantages to living close to the peasants?”

No,” they repeated, “we were too busy with our classes to do much practical work, and besides we all come from peasant families, so we know very well what peasant life is like.”

This answer would not have been acceptable in China. At a school in Changsha someone quoted the widely known rhyme on the effects of education:

First year native
Second year other
Third year don’t know father and mother

Peasant origins are not enough, one has to maintain contact with the rural masses. Chinese often repeat Mao’s story that when he was a young man he thought the peasants were dirty, and that as a student he should keep away from them. Later he came to see that in a real sense they were clean and that it was he who was dirty. Cadres and officials appear to accept that in many respects they are inferior to the peasants and that they should try to integrate themselves with them as far as possible. The desire is not to resemble completely the peasants as they are today, but to reach their unselfish, better, and “true” nature. This is an important qualification. Still, the idea is very different from wanting to use outside agencies to transform the peasants. The aim of going down to the village people fits in well with a major Chinese tradition that the most decent man in society is the one who produces rice.

The Vietnamese share this tradition and for most Party veterans it was reinforced by their experience in the resistance, when they were surprised and moved by the patriotism, generosity, heroism, and intelligence of the rural population. But their respect and love for the peasants do not blind them to what they see as the peasants’ limitations, and in particular their superstition and attachment to private property. These are seen as the inevitable results of the poverty, insecurity, and ignorance brought about by seventy years of colonial rule and millennia of feudal exploitation. The Party’s aim is to raise the people economically and culturally by bringing education to them. This education is designed to transform the peasants while trying to retain their original good qualities.

In this the Vietnamese are more like the Soviets than like the Chinese. Russian Marxism grew up in reaction to the populist idealization of the peasants and their Russian “essence.” The Marxists saw themselves as bearers of world culture, science, and progress. Lenin borrowed greatly from populism, and his alliance of the urban Bolsheviks with the peasant Social Revolutionaries was crucial to the success of the Revolution. Nevertheless, the first large-scale direct contact of the Bolsheviks—intellectuals and workers—with the peasants came only after the Party had seized the apparatus of state. Thus it was inevitable that they should see their task as one of raising the peasants up rather than of going down to their level.

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    This deep awareness of physical beauty makes it peculiarly agonizing for Vietnamese disfigured by napalm, phosphorous, or torture. This is clear to anyone who talks to the beggars on the streets of Saigon, whom most Americans prefer to think of as victims of leprosy.

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