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North Vietnam and China: Reflections on a Visit

The Vietnamese revolutionary experience has been completely different. The early members of the Party tended to be the sons of landlords, rich peasants, and small officials—though all spent years in factories or jails proletarianizing themselves. It is true that, as in China, workers in the mines of remote regions played a key role in the very early stages of the Revolution. Nevertheless, because of its concentration in the cities where the power of the foreign occupier has been overwhelming, the Vietnamese working class was forced to remain relatively inactive later during the armed struggle. Instead, the Vietnamese Revolution has been the most effective mobilization of peasants and tribal peoples in world history. To withstand protracted and savage repression, the movement has had to depend on the active participation of almost the entire rural population. There is now no doubt about the patriotism and revolutionary capacity of the population in the countryside. Even so, the elite are still confident that they have something to teach them.

Chinese and Vietnamese share the mandarin tradition and the modern concept of a vanguard party. Some of the differences between the two countries can be explained simply by the fact that their revolutions are at different stages and that the mobilized masses in Vietnam accept the need for leaders in a way that the Chinese under less direct pressure were unable to do. Even so it can still be maintained that the Vietnamese cadres have more confidence in themselves than their Chinese counterparts, and that much of this confidence comes from their foreign or foreign-style training.

Vietnamese always make or imply a distinction between cultured and uncultured invaders. Parallels are constantly drawn between the Mongols and the Americans. Both have been masters of world empires but the essential similarity is that both are seen as barbarians whose power has been merely destructive. The Vietnamese attitude toward the Chinese and French is much more ambivalent. In many ways they are considered more dangerous because they are much more intelligent and seductive. They are seen as possessing sophisticated civilizations many elements of which can be made to apply to Vietnam. The fulfillment of Vietnamese culture requires that large parts of these civilizations be absorbed. However Vietnamese also argue that the process of absorption always transforms and Vietnamizes the cultural importation. In this respect as in many others Vietnam resembles Japan, another nation whose identity was formed by its relationship to the almost overwhelming civilization of China.

Today in order to create a new Vietnamese socialist civilization a great effort is being made to introduce socialist and even humanist culture. Concerts of Bach and Beethoven are given. In modern theatrical circles in Hanoi there are arguments between Brechtian and more orthodox directors. Soviet, Czech, East German, and sometimes even French films are shown. Many translations from Chinese, Russian, and Western European classics are published. Only in translation does the South offer any serious competition to the North, though in Saigon the tendency has been to translate more modern and romantic works.

Thus the Vietnamese continue the tradition of introduction, adoption, and absorption of foreign cultures. The older privileged generation was given a thorough French education and many younger men and women have been trained abroad in Moscow, Warsaw, Berlin, and Havana. In Vietnam itself advanced education appears to be on a remarkably high level. With this equipment educated Vietnamese Marxists feel able to carry out their tasks in the same way as the Russian Bolsheviks intended to do, that is, to bring science and world culture to all the people.

China has always considered itself self-sufficient: like Western Europe it has seldom admitted that it has borrowed a great deal from other cultures. This belief persists in China today where people are usually interested either in technical matters or in the problems of China. Vietnamese officials and intellectuals are curious about everything in the outside world. I felt inadequate trying to answer their detailed questions on the Common Market, Brecht, Lévi-Strauss, and the academic structure of Cambridge University. While they are intensely patriotic, Vietnamese intellectuals usually judge themselves in relation to intellectuals from other countries. On the other hand Chinese intellectuals, or at least those who have survived the Cultural Revolution, tend to see themselves as part of China and to measure themselves against the Chinese peasants.

This view of Chinese parochialism and Vietnamese innovation would seem to be contradicted by what is happening in both countries. China presents a scene of cultural austerity while North Vietnam is going through what can only be described as a cultural renaissance. Here again in cultural matters an obvious and major reason for the differences between revolutionary China and Vietnam is simply that the two revolutions are at very different stages. The Vietnamese are still in the midst of a struggle for national independence. In this period they find it important to use the national culture to create a sense of national identity and to rally all classes of the population. In China this stage is over and the leaders see their task as one of making a class revolution and transforming human nature, and for this they believe the stranglehold of the old culture must be destroyed.

This advocacy of a new revolutionary culture for a new revolutionary people would seem to contradict the picture of Chinese self-absorption and faith in the peasants. The short story writer and radical critic Lu Hsün died in 1936, but thirty years later he was proclaimed as a pioneer of the Cultural Revolution. Throughout his life he proposed the introduction of new foreign artistic modes to replace what he saw as the hopelessly decadent tradition. He and his followers base themselves in the intellectual world of Shanghai, the economic and cultural center most open to the West, which, it is interesting to note, became the center of the Cultural Revolution in the Sixties.

Lu Hsün advocated the use of Soviet models for the new culture. Presentday Cultural Revolutionaries have no such clear-cut examples to follow. The reason for the cultural sterility in China today is that while it appears to be impossible to create a new culture out of abstract revolutionary spirit or thin air, there are powerful inhibitions against using any other source even in modified form. Cultural Revolutionaries desperately try to avoid traditional culture while they are unwilling to import new forms from the capitalist or “revisionist” West. Thus they are effectively restricted to the works of Mao, which are incidentally a brilliant and fruitful combination of both suspect elements.

Nevertheless there are strong populist tendencies in the Cultural Revolution. A major aim of the attack on tradition was to “weed out the old and let the new spring forth.” Whatever the practice, the theory was to rely on the creativity of the masses. They were to be released from what the Cultural Revolutionaries saw as the stifling of artistic spontaneity by the Party’s previous encouragement of traditional forms. Students and some urban workers may well have felt this. For instance, they were often bored and irritated by traditional operas even though their overt feudal content had been modified. But this does not seem to have been true for the peasants who were still steeped in traditional culture. In 1958 and 1959 during the Great Leap Forward rural counties and communes were encouraged to paint “mega pictures”—thousand pictures—and to write mega poems. The peasants sang praises of Mao, the Communist Party, and the new society in traditional meter with traditional images.

Why was the past bitter?
Why is today sweet?
It is because the Agricultural Com- munes
Have been dragon kings
Golden Water, Silver Water is led up the mountains.

The Great Leap Forward was consistent in promoting the “earthy” or native—as opposed to the foreign and technical—forms in culture as well as in agriculture and industry. During the Cultural Revolution there was a broad discrepancy between the treatment of politics and economics on the one hand and culture on the other. Politically and economically the masses have been taught to rely on themselves and to stand up to “authorities,” both political or technical. Above all, peasants are encouraged to be self-sufficient and independent of the towns.

In spite of or perhaps because of this diversity, culture has been kept tightly centralized. It all has to come from Peking or Shanghai. In Chinese bookshops today there is only one author, Mao; the only theatrical pieces played are five revolutionary operas and two revolutionary ballets. Some of these combinations of traditional and Western forms are moving and amusing. But because of the great reluctance to build anything from tainted elements there are desperately few pieces, and people would clearly like to see something else. They look forward impatiently to the new operas upon which amateur dramatic groups in factories have been working for the past five years; but these are still not considered fit for general release.

The Cultural Revolutionaries have reached this deadlock because of the apparent incompatibility of two of their beliefs, the limitless strength and creativity of the masses and the power and persistence of Chinese traditional culture. If the people are to be the cultural inspiration, how can they transform themselves or transcend their cultural limitations? Even by posing the problem the Revolutionaries are showing great confidence in Chinese culture. In their present search for a new culture, the Chinese are essentially looking for the answers in themselves. It is likely that only men who are confident of their country and their own cultural identity and survival can attack their own culture with such ferocity.

For the Vietnamese, unlike the Chinese, their culture and even their language have always been in danger. This sense of cultural precariousness was particularly intense during the last century. The ruthlessness of French attacks on Vietnamese culture and the thoroughness of French education very nearly succeeded in divorcing the Vietnamese elite from their culture. Some became completely deracinated, and even for the majority, who remained Vietnamese, the possibility of deracination existed. A well-known poet seemed to indicate this when he compared the Vietnamese situation with that of the Algerians. He told me: “We were not like them. We always spoke our own language among ourselves.”

Language has been a crucial issue. The Chinese have made great efforts to unify their language and to create a written style that really corresponds to speech. Even so the existence of the Chinese language is taken for granted. Vietnamese intellectuals on the other hand are acutely self-conscious about their language. They constantly tell you how rich and beautiful it is. They are extremely proud that they have been able to create technical vocabularies that allow study and research to be carried on in Vietnamese. This achievement should not be underrated. In spite of the devastation and almost continuous fighting since 1945, Vietnam is, so far as I know, the only ex-colonial country that has been able to do without the language of the colonial country in higher education. As in other cultural matters, the South has lagged behind in this.

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