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Love And Hate
An Intimate Affair: Vietnam’s Love-Hate Relationship With China
For over two thousand 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 which is ‘always there'. Almost a thousand years of Chinese occupation, between the Han conquest of Nam Viet in the second century BC and the reassertion of Vietnamese independence as Dai Viet in 967, marked the Vietnamese so deeply that they became, in effect, an outpost of Chinese civilisation in Southeast Asia. While the other countries of Indochina are Theravada Buddhist, sharing cultural links with Southern 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 Romanised 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 centralised, 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 deeply suspicious of the other. During the long centuries of Chinese occupation the Vietnamese enthusiastically embraced many aspects of Chinese civilisation, while at the same time fighting with an extraordinary vigour 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 which emphasised 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 recognised the Vietnamese as a kindred people, to be offered the benefits of higher Chinese civilisation 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 979, just over a decade after Vietnam first reasserted its independence. Like a stern headmaster he 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 civilisation? 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 civilisation without coming under its political control or jeopardising 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 neighbour, and Emperor Yongle – no doubt, to his mind, in the best interests of the Vietnamese – imposed a policy of enforced Sinicisation. 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 civilisation and yet had wantonly rejected this privilege. In view of this close association – Yongle used the term mi mi or “intimately related” – Vietnam's rebellion was particularly heinous and deserved the fiercest of punishments.
Sometimes a strongly sexual imagery creeps into this “intimate relationship”, with Vietnam, the weaker partner, a victim of Chinese violation. In 248AD the Vietnamese heroine Lady Triu, who led a popular uprising against the Chinese occupation, proclaimed: “I want to ride the great winds, strike the sharks on the high seas, drive out the invaders, re-conquer the nation, burst the bonds of slavery and never bow to become anyone's concubine.” Her defiant choice of words was more than just symbolic. Vietnam has long been a source of women for the Chinese sex trade. In Tang times the Chinese poet Yuan Chen wrote appreciatively of “slave girls of Viet, sleek, of buttery flesh”, while today the booming market for Vietnamese women in Taiwan infuriates and humiliates many Vietnamese men. It's instructive, then, that in his 1987 novel Fired Gold the writer Nguyen Huy Thiep writes ”the most significant characteristics of this country are its smallness and weakness. She is like a virgin girl raped by Chinese civilisation. The girl concurrently enjoys, despises and is humiliated by the rape.”
This Chinese belief that Vietnam is not just another nation, but rather a member of the family – almost Chinese, aware of the blessings of Chinese civilisation, but somehow stubbornly refusing, century after century, to become Chinese – has persisted down to the present day. During the Second Indochina War Chinese propaganda stressed that Vietnam and China were “as close as the lips and the teeth.” After the American defeat, however, Vietnam once again showed its independence, allying itself with the Soviet Union and joining COMECON before, in 1978-79, invading neighbouring Cambodia and overthrowing China's main ally in Southeast Asia, the Khmer Rouge.
Once again Chinese fury knew no bounds, and Beijing determined to teach the “ungrateful” Vietnamese a lesson. Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader, openly denounced the Vietnamese as ‘the hooligans of the east'. According to one Thai diplomat: “the moment the topic of Vietnam came up, you could see something change in Deng Xiaoping. His hatred was just visceral. He spat forcefully into his spittoon and called the Vietnamese ‘dogs'.” Acting on Deng's orders, the Chinese PLA invaded Vietnam in 1979, capturing five northern provincial capitals before systematically demolishing them and withdrawing to China in a symbolic “lesson”. But who taught a lesson to whom? Beijing sought to force Hanoi to withdraw its frontline forces from Cambodia, but the Vietnamese didn't engage these forces in the struggle, choosing instead to confront the PLA with irregulars and provincial militia. Casualties were about equal, and China lost considerable face, as well as international respect, as a result of its invasion.
Over the millennia actions like this have taught the Vietnamese a recurring lesson about China. It's there, it's big, and it won't go away, so appease it without yielding whenever possible, and fight it with every resource available whenever necessary. Just as Chinese rulers have seen the Vietnamese as ingrates and hooligans, so the Vietnamese have seen the Chinese as arrogant and aggressive, a power to be emulated at all times, mollified in times of peace, and fiercely resisted in times of war.
In 1946, Seventeen hundred years after Lady Triu's declaration, another great Vietnamese patriot, Ho Chi Minh, warned his Viet Minh colleagues in forceful terms against using Chinese Nationalist troops in the north as a buffer against the return of the French: “You fools! Don't you realise what it means if the Chinese remain? Don't you remember your history? The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years. The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. As for me, I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than to eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.”
Yet Ho was an ardent admirer of Chinese civilisation, fluent in Mandarin, a skilled calligrapher who wrote Chinese poetry, a close friend and colleague of Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Ho wasn't as much anti-Chinese as he was pro-Vietnamese. It was his deep understanding of and respect for China that enabled him to recognise, clearly and definitively, the menace that “a close family relationship” with the giant to the north posed, and continues to pose, for Vietnam's independence and freedom.
It's ironic, then, that as the current Vietnamese leadership strive to develop their economy along increasingly capitalist lines while at the same time retaining their monopoly on state power, that the country they most admire and seek to emulate is, as always, the one they most fear.