Tuesday, November 18, 2008

VAN THI SĨ VIỆT NAM

===

Socialist Realism
in Vietnamese Literature:
An Analysis of the Relationship
between Literature and Politics
A thesis submitted to
The School of Communication, Culture and Languages
Faculty of Arts
Victoria University
in fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
by
Tuan Ngoc Nguyen
2004
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Declaration ii
Acknowledgements iii
Abstract iv
Timeline of Key Events vii
Introduction 1
Part 1: The Importation of Socialist Realism into Vietnam
1. Western influence on modern Vietnamese literature 29
2. The pen-war over the matter of art for art’s sake versus art for life’s sake 57
3. The first Marxist theorists and critics:
Nguyễn Bách Khoa and Ðặng Thai Mai 86
Part 2: From Patriotism to Maoism
4. Between nationalism and socialism 119
5. Maoism and the culture of war 173
Part 3: Peace and Free Market: Enemies of Socialist Realism
6. The Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm affair, a “peace crisis” 216
7. Ðổi mới and the end of socialist realism 254
Conclusion 290
Bibliography 296
ii
DECLARATION
I, Tuấn Ngọc Nguyễn, declare that the thesis entitled Socialist Realism in
Vietnamese Literature: an Analysis of the Relationship between Literature and
Politics is no more than 100,000 words in length, exclusive of references. This
thesis contains no material that has been submitted previously, in whole or in part,
for the award of any other academic degree or diploma. Except where otherwise
indicated, this thesis is my own work.
Tuấn Ngọc Nguyễn
2004
iii
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
In the course of writing this thesis I received aid and support from many people. My
greatest debt is to my supervisor, Emeritus Professor John McLaren, who not only
carefully read and commented on my writing but also frequently motivated me to
continue, particularly when I was discouraged. Without his insights and patience, this
thesis could not have been completed. Others to whom I would like to express my
gratitude are: Associate Professor Richard Chauvel, Associate Professor Helen
Borland, Associate Professor Barbara Brooks, Professor Phillip Deery, Associate
Professor Marc Askew, Dr Mark Stevenson, Associate Professor Giưỡng Văn Phan,
and Professor Desmond Cahill, for their support as great friends and colleagues; Mr
Mark Armstrong-Roper and the Victoria University librarians, who helped me to
search for the books, journals and magazines that I needed to use for my study. I am
appreciative of my friends, writers Võ Phiến, Nguyễn Phương Linh and Hoàng Ngọc-
Tuấn for their encouragement, and Dr Bùi Doãn Khanh, who shared numerous
Vietnamese documents with me. I am also grateful for the helpful comments on some
parts of the manuscript given to me by Mr John F. Drennan, Ms Andrea Watson and in
particular, Ms Petre Santry, a wonderful friend whose help in teaching me English
when I first arrived in Australia has been the foundation of my present writing. I am
also indebted to all the writers, critics, historians and others who approached this
subject before I did, and whose research furnished me with information and ideas. Last,
but not least, I am grateful to my wife, Minh Nguyệt, and my children, Natasha Trâm
Nguyễn and Ben Pha Nguyễn, for their love and support.
iv
ABSTRACT
In this thesis, I argue that socialist realism is by nature more political than
literary; in the domain of politics, it is more nationalistic than socialistic; and in the
domain of literature, it is more neo-classical or romantic than realist. Over many
decades, writers were advised to represent reality as it ought to be; and in many cases,
in so doing, they had to sacrifice not only the truth but also their intellectual and artistic
status: their writing did not reflect what they really believed, felt or thought. As a
result, ideologically, socialist realism became doctrinaire-ism, and artistically, it
became an illustration of the Communist Party’s policies.
While other ‘isms’ in Western literature such as realism, romanticism and
symbolism took at least half a century to take hold in Vietnam, socialist realism did so
with record speed - in just one year. Promulgated at the first Congress of the Union of
Soviet Writers in 1934, the doctrine of socialist realism was appearing in Vietnamese
newspapers just one year later. However, it had been imported by revolutionaries
whose interest was mainly political, not literary: in their view, socialist realism was the
best way to transform literature into a political weapon. For writers who had not
divorced themselves from the Confucian aesthetics, which placed its particular
emphasis on the social and educational function of literature, socialist realism became
more acceptable because of the development of nationalism, especially during the
Second World War, when Vietnam was dominated simultaneously by two empires:
France and Japan.
Despite having been imported from France, the socialist realism which was
officially adopted in Vietnam was mainly that interpreted by China’s Maoists. The
profound impact of Mao Zedong’s theory of socialist realism in Vietnamese literary
thought and activity after the August 1945 Revolution can be explained by several
factors, geographical, political and cultural. But it is here argued the most important
factor was probably the war. Over three decades, from 1945 to 1975, Vietnam was
continually at war, first with the French and later with the Americans. It can be argued
v
that it is the very culture of war that helped to create the type of intellectual and
emotional environment necessary for the easy reception of Maoism, an ideology which
was originally born in wartime and aimed to serve the war. It can also be argued that,
together with Maoism, the war culture itself became one of the crucial factors in
shaping socialist realism in the anti-French resistance areas during 1945-54 and in
North Vietnam during 1954-1975.
The dominance of Maoism and the culture of war transformed socialist realism
into something like a para-religion in which the leaders of the Party all became
theorists of literature. These people had neither the time nor the knowledge to discuss
issues of literature in depth; and consequently, the so-called canonical texts of
Vietnamese socialist realism consisted only of several simple pronouncements on
literature by the leaders in various forms, including letters, speeches and resolutions.
As a result, Vietnamese socialist realism became a dogmatism and, in Vietnamese
writers’ words, a "doctrinaire realism".
This “doctrinaire realism”, which was consolidated during the wars against the
French and the Americans, was strongly challenged in peacetime - after the 1954
Geneva Agreements and after the 1975 victory by the two best known dissident
movements: the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm affair and the perestroika-styled đổi mới
campaign. Both were finally suppressed by the government; but while the former
movement was harshly penalized, the latter is still fortunate to be witnessing the death
of socialist realism.
Although Vietnam is still a one-party ruled state, and the Vietnamese
government still holds a monopoly on publishing, forbidding independent presses and
journals, and trying to keep its strict control over literary life, socialist realism, both as
a doctrine and as a movement, has died. This death resulted not from the activities of
the dissidents but from two non-literary elements: globalization and the marketoriented
economy which has been adopted by the Vietnamese Communist Party and
government since the late 1980s. Now that publishers earned money solely from the
number of books sold or in circulation and writers lived solely by their royalties,
vi
literary consumers played a decisive role in literary life, and writers were able to make
easy contact with the world, the partiinost principle became nonsense and as a result
socialist realism became a thing of the past.
In short, socialist realism was born of communism, nurtured by nationalism,
developed at war, challenged in peacetime, and killed by the force of a free economy
and globalization.
vii
A TIMELINE OF KEY EVENTS
(until 1990)
111 B.C. –
A.D. 939
Vietnam ruled by China as the Province of Giao Chỉ.
939 Vietnamese overthrow Chinese rule.
1854 French conquest begins.
1884 Vietnam signs protectorate treaty with France.
1930 Indochina Communist Party (VCP) is formed.
1932 The New Poetry movement begins.
The Tự Lực literary group launches their first newspaper Phong Hoá.
The Soviet Union of Writers is established; the concept of socialist realism is
formulated.
1934 The first Congress of Soviet Writers is held; and socialist realism is officially
adopted.
1936-39 The polemics on art for art's sake or art for human life.
The theory of socialist realism is first introduced to Vietnamese readers.
1939-45 The Second World War.
1940 Japan occupies Indochina but leaves the French officials in charge.
1941 Việt Minh is formed and controlled by the Vietnamese Communist Party.
1942 Mao Zedong delivers two talks to the Yana’n Forum on Literature and Art.
1943 Mao Zedong’s “Yana’n Talks on Literature and Art” is published in Chiehfang
jih-pao.
The Cultural Association for National Salvation is formed and controlled by
Việt Minh.
Việt Minh’s Theses on Culture is launched.
1945 The August 1945 Revolution: Hồ Chí Minh proclaims Vietnam’s
independence from the French.
1946 The anti-French resistance breaks out.
The Hồ Chí Minh government and their supporters move to the countryside
d i i d i h ill
viii
and mountain areas in order to organize the guerrilla war.
1948 Trường Chinh, the Secretary General of VCP gives a speech on “Marxism
and Vietnamese Culture” at the Second National Conference on
Vietnamese Culture.
The Association of Art and Literature is founded, replacing the Cultural
Association for National Salvation.
1949 People’s Republic of China established.
Mao Zedong's “Yana’n Talks on Literature and Art” is translated and
published in Vietnam.
The Conference of Debate in Việt Bắc is held with a slogan “revolutionize
ideology and popularize activities”.
1951 The campaign of political rectification starts.
1953 Stalin dies.
1953 - 56 The land reform campaign.
1954 French defeat at Ðiện Biên Phủ leads to cease-fire.
Geneva Agreements divide Vietnam into two parts: the North controlled by
the Hồ Chí Minh government; the South by American-sponsored Ngô
Ðình Diệm government.
1955 A group of writers and artists in the army demand creative freedom.
Some remarkable books are published:
Việt Bắc by Tố Hữu
Người Người Lớp Lớp by Trần Dần
Vượt Côn Ðảo by Phùng Quán.
The 1954-5 literary prize is announced.
ix
1956 Khrushchev delivers a secret report on Stalin.
The campaign of a Hundred Flowers is launched in China.
Giai Phẩm publishes 5 issues:
Giai Phẩm Mùa Xuân (Fine Works of Spring) (is confiscated)
Giai Phẩm Mùa Thu (Fine Works of Autumn) vols. 1, 2 and 3
Giai Phẩm Mùa Ðông (Fine Work of Winter).
Nhân Văn (Humanism), 5 issues.
Other magazines relate to Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm:
Trăm Hoa (Hundred flowers)
Văn (Literature)
Nói Thật (Speaking openly)
1958 The VCP launches a campaign against “saboteurs on the ideological and
cultural front”.
A re-education course is organized for nearly 500 writers and artists in
Hanoi.
Expelled from Writers' Association: Trương Tửu, Phan Khôi, Thuỵ An.
Dismissed for three years: Trần Dần, Lê Ðạt, Hoàng Cầm, and Phùng Quán.
Writers and artists are sent to factories or to the countryside to reinforce their
ideological platform.
1960 In a trial held in Hanoi, several Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm members are
condemned to 15 years (Nguyễn Hữu Ðang and Thuỵ An), 10 years
(Minh Ðức).
1961 Hanoi openly rejects Khrushchev's policy of “peaceful coexistence” with the
United States.
1962 American advisors begin active role in South Vietnam.
1964 Several high-ranking cadres in Hanoi are arrested for being “revisionists”.
1965 First American combat units land at Danang (South Vietnam).
1966 The Cultural Revolution is launched in China.
1969 Hồ Chí Minh dies.
1973 Paris peace agreement is signed; and American troops withdraw.
1975 North Vietnam conquers Saigon; war ends.
x
A massive exodus from Vietnam began with the change in government.
1976 South Vietnam and North Vietnam are united in the new Socialist Republic
of Viet Nam.
Chinese leader Mao Zedong dies.
1979 Vietnam invades Kampuchea, and instals a pro-Vietnam government.
China launches invasion of Vietnam.
1985 Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika are adopted in the Soviet
Union.
1986 Sixth Congress of the VCP, policy of đổi mới (renovation; literally: change
for the new) adopted.
Dương Thu Hương's Beyond Illusion is published.
1987 Secretary General Nguyễn Văn Linh meets Vietnamese writers, artists and
intellectuals in Hanoi to launch the policy of đổi mới in the field of
literature and art.
Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's short story “The General Retires” is published in Văn
Nghệ magazine.
1988 Nhân Văn- Giai Phẩm group's membership in the Writers' Association is
reinstated.
Phạm Thị Hoài's The Crystal Messenger is published.
Trần Ðộ is forced off the VCP's Central Committee.
Nguyên Ngọc is dismissed from Văn Nghệ magazine and the executive board
of the Writers' Association.
Dương Thu Hương's Paradise of the Blind is published, and then banned.
1989 Communism in Eastern Europe collapses.
Tiananmen massacre occurs in China.
The VCP's Central Committee issues the “three no's” policy:
• no calling into question the leadership of the communist party;
• no calling into question the correctness of the one-party state; and
• no movement towards pluralism or a multi-party democracy.
(Zachary Abuza, 2001: 80)
1990 Dương Thu Hương is expelled from the Vietnam Communist Party.
Bảo Ninh's The Sorrow of War is published.
1
INTRODUCTION
Contemporary Vietnamese literature is notable for its fissure along
ideological fault lines. From 1945 to 1954 this fissure marked the boundary
between the literature of those who participated in the anti-French resistance under
the Communist Party’s banner and those who did not. From 1954 to 1975 it was the
ideological divide between South and Communist North Vietnam; and from 1975
to the present, the divide, both ideological and emotional, between homeland and
exile. In this context of Vietnam's history, the relationship between literature and
politics is unequivocal. Nowhere is this relationship deeper and clearer than in
socialist realist literature, which openly advocates political commitment and has
been regarded as the only official literature in the North before 1975 and
throughout the country since then.
Despite its significance, the relationship between literature and politics in
Vietnam has never been studied in a systematic or comprehensive way. This study
addresses that gap.
Literature Review
In Vietnam, literary study and criticism began comparatively recently. In the
1920s, some brief sketches of Vietnamese literary history were written by Georges
Cordier (“Essai sur littérature Annamite”, 1920), Dương Quảng Hàm (“Hán Việt
Văn Biểu” - A Chart of Sino-Vietnamese Literature, 1925) and Lê Dư (Nữ lưu văn
học sử - History of Women Writers, 1929). All were oversimplified, concentrating
only on the issue of periodization and the listing of major figures in each period.
A monograph on Vietnamese literary history with a critical stance close to
that employed in the West was not published until 1944, when Việt Nam văn học sử
yếu (A Brief History of Vietnamese Literature) by Dương Quảng Hàm first
appeared and was used as a textbook in high schools. It was also in the 1940s that
2
first-hand works on literary criticism were published, including Thi nhân Việt Nam
(Vietnamese Poets, 1942) by Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân, Nhà văn hiện đại
(Modern Writers, 1944-45) by Vũ Ngọc Phan, and Văn chương Truyện Kiều (The
Literature of the Tale of Kieu, 1944) by Nguyễn Bách Khoa. These works, along
with Dương Quảng Hàm’s Việt Nam văn học sử yếu, became the sourcebooks of
literary precedent that served later critics and historians.
Immediately after this brief blossoming period, the anti-French resistance
(1946-54) erupted. In 1954, as a result of the Geneva Agreements, Vietnam was
divided in two, South and North, each having a different political regime. This
division caused a long-lasting war which ended in 1975 when South Vietnam
collapsed.
The Vietnam War created a variety of difficulties for literary activities, the
most difficult being in terms of ideology and psychology. In the circumstances of
war and under the spell of political forces, writers and critics are often inclined to
accept a pragmatic theory of literature which asserts the priority of content over
form, stresses the social effect of writing and sees literature as a necessary means of
meeting political needs.
The study of socialist realism was even more influenced by war. In South
Vietnam during the period of 1954-75, only one anthology written by writers living
in the North was published. Entitled Trăm hoa đua nở trên đất Bắc (A Hundred
Flowers Blossom in the North), it was edited and introduced by Mạc Ðình Hoàng
Văn Chí (1959), the head of the “Front for Protecting Freedom in the Realm of
Culture”.1 All of the authors in this anthology participated in the Nhân Văn - Giai
Phẩm affair, a movement of intellectual dissidence in the North in the mid-1950s.
In the Vietnamese community-in-exile after 1975, the only published anthology of
works by writers living in Vietnam under the communist regime was Trăm hoa vẫn
nở trên quê hương (A Hundred Flowers Are Still Blossoming in Our Country,
1990).2 This anthology comprised works written by those regarded as literary
1 Mạc Ðình Hoàng Văn Chí (1959), Trăm hoa đua nở trên đất Bắc, Saigon; reprinted by Quê Mẹ in
Paris in 1983.
2 Published by Lê Trần in San Jose, California in 1990.
3
dissidents of the đổi mới (renovation) movement in Vietnam, formed in 1987. Both
the emergence and the similarity in the titles of the two anthologies are significant:
in South Vietnam before 1975 and in exile after 1975, Vietnamese literary taste has
been predominantly politics-oriented.
In North Vietnam after 1954, and in Vietnam after 1975, the situation has
been identical. Apart from several textbooks, no systematic and thorough work on
contemporary Vietnamese literature as a whole has been produced. Publications in
this field consist of collections of articles written on politically significant
occasions such as the fiftieth anniversary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, the
fortieth anniversary of the August Revolution, and so forth. This political
orientation saw critics performing literary acrobatics in order to earn the
commendation for merit of the Party in the realm of literature rather than to
interpret or to study literature itself. Professor Trần Văn Giàu, one of the most
highly respected historians and a writer of sharp intelligence and quick wit, argues:
How do we assess forty two years of literature of revolutionary resistance and
building socialism? There has been a lack of criticism and criticism of
criticism... We (and that includes me) assess each other’s work in order to
motivate one another, to please those above us, to further our personal
interests, and often we are dictatorial in our assessment without giving others
the right of reply, that is to say we have not had real literary criticism.3
Professor Nguyễn Huệ Chi, the head of the Department of Ancient and
Middle Ages Literature in the Institute of Literary Studies, and another researcher,
Vũ Tam Giang, had the same opinion as Professor Trần Văn Giàu. Both cited
several examples of “the fact of hiding or distorting the truth” in many works of
historical and literary scholarship in order to prove that the phenomenon of
“haphazardly presenting the history of modern literature” had been popular in
Vietnam over the past decades.4
3 Văn Nghệ (Hanoi), September 19, 1987.
4 Nguyễn Huệ Chi, “Ðổi mới nhận thức lịch sử trong nghiên cứu khoa học xã hội nói chung, nghiên
cứu văn học nói riêng”, Tạp chí Văn Học no 6. (1990), pp. 1-9; and Vũ Tam Giang, “Bàn
thêm về đổi mới nhận thức lịch sử”, Tạp chí Văn Học no. 3 (1991), pp. 1-5.
4
It may be said that the whole output of literary criticism and scholarship in
both South and North Vietnam before and even after 1975 on the topic of socialist
realism was very poor and lacked enduring scholarly value. Most, if not all, were
ideologically conditioned. They appeared as sub-texts of the political narratives.
Of the Western countries, France has the longest relationship with Vietnam.
Much Vietnamese literature, especially classical works, has been translated into
French, with several translated more than once, such as The Tale of Kiều, Lục Vân
Tiên and Chinh Phụ Ngâm. France has also had many prominent Vietnamese
specialists. Henri Maspéro, Leopold Cadière, and André George Haudricourt have
contributed major discoveries on the origins and history of the Vietnamese
language. Early studies of Vietnamese literature began with Georges Cordier and
Maurice Durand. The first is the author of Essai sur la littérature annamite (1920),
La littérature annamite (1931), Etude sur la littérature annamite, two volumes
(1933 and 1934), and Poésie nouvelle (1935). Better-known than Georges Cordier,
Maurice Durand was the author of many translations and monographs on
Vietnamese literature and culture, the most notable being Introduction to
Vietnamese Literature, co-authored by Nguyễn Trần Huân.5
A special place in the research of modern Vietnamese literature in France is
now reserved for Georges Boudarel (1926-2003), the author of several articles,
chapters and monographs on this subject. Central to his research is the Nhân Văn -
Giai Phẩm affair. Boudarel’s works include an article entitled “Intellectual
dissidence in the 1950s: the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm affair”, published in The
Vietnam Forum, no. 13 (1990), a booklet entitled Dissidence intellectuelles au
Vietnam, published by Michel de Maule in Paris in 1989, and Cent fleurs écloses
dans la nuit du Vietnam: communisme et dissidence 1954-1956, published by
Bertoin in 1991. In these, and other writings, Georges Boudarel’s concern has
always been political life as it is reflected in literature, not literature in itself.
In Russia, although the first publication on Vietnam can be traced to the
second half of the nineteenth century, active studies of Vietnam began
5 In the first edition of 1969, the book ended at the year 1945; in the revised edition, published after
Mr Durand’s death, it was expanded to 1975.
5
comparatively recently, in the early 1950s. As Anatoli Sokolov remarks, “[i]t can
be affirmed definitely that history is the strongest part of Soviet research on
Vietnam.”6 In the sphere of literature, in Russia, the leading figures include M.
Tkachev, I. Zimonina, A. Sokolov, S. Toporishchev and N. Nikulin. Apart from
hundreds of essays, articles and translations, Nikulin published two monographs on
Vietnamese literature. Both focus on the history of Vietnamese literature as a
whole: Vietnam Literature, a Brief Sketch (1971), and Vietnamese Literature from
the Middle Ages to the Modern Period (1977). In the modern period, Nikulin has
written many essays on well-known authors, but most are only introductions and
none has theoretical significance.7
In the last few decades, the topic of Vietnam has attracted several scholars
in the English-speaking world. Until the mid-1980s, however, interest in the study
of Vietnam was largely historical and political. Specialists in the field of literature
were rare. Most began to publish after the đổi mới policies were adopted by the
Vietnamese Communist Party. Of these, the following authors must be mentioned:
John K. Whitmore, who has published an essay on the Tao Ðàn group;8 O.W.
Wolters, who mentioned several works of Vietnamese classical literature while
discussing culture and literature in Southeast Asia;9 John C. Schafer, the author and
co-author of several articles on Vietnamese literature at the turn of the century,
particularly the formation and growth of modern fiction;10 J. A. Yeager, who is
6 Anatoli Sokolov, “Vietnamese Studies in the Soviet Union”, Journal of Vietnamese Studies, no. 5
(January 1992), p. 7.
7 Many of Nikulin's works were translated into Vietnamese and published in Vietnamese
magazines. An anthology of his works, Văn học Việt Nam và giao lưu quốc tế, edited by
Nguyễn Hữu Sơn, was published by Nhà xuất bản Giáo Dục in Hanoi in 2000.
8 John K. Whitmore, “The Tao Ðàn group: poetry, cosmology, and the State in the Hồng Ðức
period (1470-1497)”, Crossroads, vol. 7, no. 2 (1992), pp. 55-70.
9 O.W. Wolters (1999), History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives, Ithaca:
Cornell University, pp. 68-87.
10 John C. Schafer, “Phạm Duy Tốn: Journalist, short story writer, collector of humorous stories”, in
The Vietnam Forum no. 14 (1993), pp. 103-124; “The collective and the individual in two
post-war Vietnamese novels”, in Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast
Asian Studies 14.2 (2000), pp. 13-48; “From Verse Narrative to Novel: the Development of
Prose Fiction in Vietnam”, co-authored by Cao Thị Như Quỳnh, Journal of Asian Studies,
no. 47, 1988; “The novel emerges in Cochinchina”, with Thế Uyên, The Journal of Asian
Studies 52, no. 4 (November 1993), pp. 854-884.
6
concerned with the Vietnamese novel in French;11 Neil L. Jamieson on modern
literature;12 Dana Healey on the đổi mới movement;13 and Keith. W. Taylor,14 Peter
Zinoman15 and Greg Lockhart16 on Nguyễn Huy Thiệp.
It is worth noting that, apart from those mentioned above, several
Vietnamese scholars now write in English: Công Huyền Tôn Nữ Nha Trang with
her Ph.D. dissertation, The Traditional Roles of Women as Reflected in Oral and
Written Vietnamese Literature (1973), Hoàng Ngọc Thành with his Ph.D.
dissertation at the University of Hawaii, Vietnam’s Social and Political
Development as Seen through the Modern Novel (1968);17 Trần Mỹ Vân with her
book Scholar in Anguish: Nguyễn Khuyến and the Decline of the Confucian Order,
1884–1909;18 Huệ-Tâm Hồ Tài with the chapter “Literature for the People: From
11 J. A. Yeager (1987), The Vietnamese Novel in French: a Literary Response to Colonialism,
Hanover: University of New England.
12 Neil L. Jamieson (1993), Understanding Vietnam, Berkeley: University of California Press.
13 Dana Healy, “Literature in transition: an overview of Vietnamese writing of the Renovation
Period”, in David Smyth (ed.) (2000), The Canon in Southeast Asian Literatures,
Richmond: Curzon, pp. 41-50.
14 Keith W. Taylor, “Locating and translating boundaries in Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's short stories”,
Vietnam Review 1 (1998), pp. 439-465. Taylor has also published several essays on
classical literature such as “The poems of Ðoàn Văn Khâm”, Crossroads, vol. 7, no. 2
(1992), pp. 39-53.
15 Peter Zinoman, “Declassifying Nguyễn Huy Thiệp”, Positions 2:2 (Fall 1994), pp. 294-317;
“Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's 'Vàng Lửa' and the nature of intellectual dissent in contemporary
Vietnam”, Viet Nam Generation, Inc 4:1-2 (Spring 1992), pp. 61-64.
16 Greg Lockhart, “Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s Writing: Post-Confucian or Post-Modern”, Journal of
Vietnamese Studies, no. 6, 1993; “Introduction: Nguyễn Huy Thiệp and the faces of
Vietnamese literature”, in Nguyễn Huy Thiệp (1992), The General Retires and Other
Stories, translated with an introduction by Greg Lockhart, Singapore: Oxford University
Press, pp. 1-38; “Tại sao tôi dịch truyện ngắn Nguyễn Huy Thiệp ra tiếng Anh” (Why I am
translating Nguyễn Huy Thiệp's short stories into English), Tạp chí Văn Học (Literary
Studies) (Hanoi) no. 4 (1989). Greg Lockhart also translated and wrote introductions to
other authors’ works in “Broken Journey: Nhất Linh’s ‘Going to France’”, East Asian
History, no. 8 (December 1994), pp. 73-134; (with Monique Lockhart), The Light of the
Capital: Three Modern Vietnamese Classics, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.
17 This dissertation was published in 1991 by Peter Llang (New York). A part of it was translated
into Vietnamese by the author and Thân Thị Nhân Ðức, entitled Những phản ảnh xã hội và
chính trị trong tiểu thuyết miền Bắc, 1950-1967, published by Quang Trung (San Jose) in
1991.
18 Published by the National University of Singapore in 1991. Trần Mỹ Vân was also the author of
“Eroticism in the poetry of Hồ Xuân Hương in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, October
2002, pp. 471-494.
7
Soviet Politics to Vietnamese Polemics” in Borrowings and Adaptations in
Vietnamese Culture, edited by Trương Bửu Lâm (1987),19 Huỳnh Sanh Thông with
his article “Main Trends of Vietnamese Literature Between the Two World Wars”
published in The Vietnam Forum no. 3 (1984); and, more recently, Kim N.B. Ninh
with her thorough work A World Transformed, focusing on the politics of culture in
Vietnam between 1945 and 1965.20
Most of the above English works concentrate either on a notable author or
on a particular event, and are written primarily from a historical perspective. None
have covered socialist realism as a literary theory or a literary movement. Thus, it
seems that the only monograph specifically dealing with the topic is my own book,
Văn học Việt Nam dưới chế độ cộng sản, 1945-90 (Vietnamese Literature under
Communism), published in California in 1991, and reprinted in 1996.21 This
publication comprises three parts. Part one examines literary activities under the
communist regime, literary organizations, the system of censorship, the College of
Creative Writing of Nguyễn Du and the “creative camps”, and the remuneration of
Vietnamese writers. Part two examines the history of Vietnamese socialist realism
during its three major periods: 1945-54, 1954-75 and 1975-90. Part three gives an
overview of the achievements of socialist realist literature in some genres and
fields: poetry, fiction, literary criticism and literary scholarship. At a glance, it is
clear that this book is a blend of the sociology of literature with literary history and
literary criticism. It aims to depict literary background rather than to study literature
itself.
In contrast, this thesis examines the relationship between literature and
politics rather than merely seeking a reflection of politics in literature. Furthermore,
it attempts to explore socialist realism in Vietnamese literature from a cross-cultural
perspective, particularly as it relates to Chinese and Soviet Russian literature.
19 Published by the Centre for Southeast Asia Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa (Honolulu) in
1987.
20 Published by The University of Michigan Press (Ann Harbor) in 2002.
21 Pubished by Văn Nghệ, under the pen name Nguyễn Hưng Quốc.
8
Aims
In exploring the nexus between literature and politics in Vietnamese
socialist realism, this study aims to answer the following questions:
1. How did the Vietnamese intellectuals of the 1930s come to accept
socialist realism as well as the Marxist theory of literature?
2. How did the Vietnamese Communist Party introduce Marxist literary
theory into the context of Vietnam?
3. By what means did the Vietnamese Communist Party exercise its
leadership role and its control over writers and literary activities?
4. What impact did this leadership style and control have upon literary
output?
In respect to literary theory, one of the theoretical outcomes of this study is
to determine whether Vietnamese socialist realism has contributed anything to the
enrichment of its original theory. Furthermore, as has been shown in literary history
in other parts of the world, the relationship between literature and politics is a
matter of continuing and constant debate over unresolvable issues. Each author in
each period unveils different answers and passes different messages on to younger
generations. In view of this relationship, the research aims to discover the lessons
that can be learnt from the experience of Vietnam.
In respect to literary history, most historians believe that the modern period
in the history of Vietnamese literature commenced in 1932 with the establishment
of the Tự Lực văn đoàn (Self-Reliant Literary Group) and the birth of the New
Poetry Movement. After fifty years, socialist realism is certainly the most durable
trend of this period. Consequently, one cannot fully understand modern Vietnamese
literature without a careful and thorough study of the socialist realist era.
In relation to the socio-political life of Vietnam, an American belonging to a
generation deeply involved in the Vietnam War, Neil L. Jamieson, the author of
Understanding Vietnam, asserts that “[t]o better understand ourselves, we must
understand the Vietnam War. To understand the war, we must understand the
9
Vietnamese.”22 The study of literature is one of the most effective ways to
understand a national psychology and identity. This study offers (i) an
understanding of literary organizations, particularly as they manifested the mode of
thinking of the communist elite in Vietnam; and (ii) an understanding of the impact
of the communist ideology on writers and their literary activities.
Theoretical Framework
The relationship between literature and politics is an age-old issue in the
history of world literature. It was one of the main concerns of the first theorists in
our civilization, including Confucius (551-479 B.C.) in China and Plato (circa 428
– c.347 B.C.) in Greece; both of whom have had a profound and decisive influence
on Western and Eastern cultures, including literature. Although primarily
philosophers, each was interested in literature, holding a shared view in two areas.
First, both paid particular attention to the relationship between literature and
politics; and second, in this relationship, both placed their main emphasis on the
influence of literature on politics rather than the reverse. Faced with this kind of
influence, Plato and Confucius had different responses. While Plato thought that
poetry was far removed from truth, Confucius saw poetry as a source of knowledge,
advising his son that “[i]f you do not study Poetry, you will not be able to speak
[properly]”.23 Plato believed that literature had a negative impact on politics
because it nourished passions which ought to be controlled and disciplined, while
Confucius believed it to be good and necessary. Plato sought to exclude poets from
his ideal Republic after giving him/her a laurel wreath,24 while Confucius tried to
use literature as an educational tool and also as a political one:
Young men, why do you not study Poetry? It can be used to inspire, to
22 Neil L. Jamieson (1993), op. cit., p. x.
23 Quoted in James J.Y. Liu (1975), Chinese Theories of Literature, Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, p. 109.
24 Plato’s view of literature can be found in his works, Ion, and Republic. About his review, see, for
example, David Daiches (1967), Critical Approaches to Literature, London: Longmans,
pp.1-22; William K. Wimsatt Jr. and Cleanth Brooks (1957), Literary Criticism, a Short
History, volume 1, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, pp. 3-20.
10
observe, to make you fit for company, to express grievances; near at hand [it
will teach you how] to serve your father, and, [looking] further, [how] to serve
your sovereign; it also enables you to learn the names of many birds, beasts,
plants, and trees.25
Later, Plato's view of literature was adjusted and developed by Aristotle
(384-322 B.C.), who regarded literature as representing the universal through the
particular, and, therefore, more philosophical than historical; and as a “catharsis”
which not only provided “an outlet for pity and fear, but [also] to provide for them
a distinctively aesthetic satisfaction, to purify and clarify them by passing them
through the medium of art.”26 The legacies of Confucius' and Aristotle's thoughts
are similar: literature was taken seriously; the educational, and therefore, moral and
political functions of literature were highly regarded; literature was used as a means
of maintaining order in a society in which traditions, canons, norms and the
previous generations were all respected and protected.
Although the relationship between literature and politics can be traced back
to the time of Confucius and Plato, a clear idea of literature as a political force and
the writer as the unacknowledged legislator of their age appeared only toward the
end of the eighteenth century.27 This idea originated in the French Revolution,
when men of letters became the leaders of public opinion, who shaped the national
temperament and outlook on life. According to Walter Laqueur, “1848 was the
revolution of the intellectuals par excellence. This involvement did not proceed
everywhere in equal measure, and it was not to everyone’s liking.”28 However,
since the early nineteenth century, with the rise of the Art for the Art’s Sake
Movement which put forward one of the strongest defenses of literature's autonomy
from politics, the literature - politics pendulum seems to have swung away from the
political. Almost contemporaneous with the deinstrumentalization of literature by
25 Quoted in James J.Y. Liu (1975), op. cit., p. 109.
26 S.H. Butcher (1951), Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art (with a critical text and translation
of The Poetics), fourth edition, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., p. 255.
27 Walter Laqueur, “Literature and the historian”, in Walter Laqueur and George L. Mosse (eds.)
(1967), Literature and Politics in the Twentieth Century, New York: Harper Torchbooks, p.
11.
28 Ibid.
11
art for art’s sake was the Marxist repoliticization of literature.29 Since then,
Marxism has been the most politically engaged school of thought.
As widely acknowledged by Marxist as well as non-Marxist scholars,
neither Karl Marx nor Friedrich Engels produced a complete study of the problems
of literature. Their pronouncements on literature occur in various works but only
sparsely, mainly in the form of letters or “forewords”. However, they put forward
some points of view from which their followers have established a Marxist system
of aesthetics. Of these, the most important contend that a) literature as part of the
superstructure is ultimately determined by economic fundamentals; and b) an
“advanced literature, by a careful selection of truthful representation, has a positive
effect on the development of society.”30 Taking these views as a strategic base, all
Marxist theorists and critics have focused their attention on literature as well as its
relation to politics, and have advocated the thesis that literature is an instrument of
political battle. As a result, in the field of literature, no school of thought can be
compared with Marxism in dealing with the relationship between literature and
politics. Even the existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, who has fervidly
advocated the theory of “engaged literature”, limits his theory to prose, not poetry,
because, as he argues, the prose writer is always looking toward the world beyond
words while the poet considers them primarily as object. According to Sartre, “[f]or
the former, they are useful conventions, tools which gradually wear out and which
one throws away when they are no longer serviceable; for the latter, they are natural
things which sprout naturally upon the earth like grass and trees.”31 Marxism is
different. All Marxist theorists, regardless of their differences, agree that literature,
including prose and poetry, is by nature historical and political.
Of all Marxist movements of literature, socialist realism is certainly a
movement deeply involved in politics. At its core, socialist realism was not born
29 Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell (eds.) (2000), Politics and Aesthetics in the Arts, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, pp. 228-230.
30 Douwe Fokkema, “Strength and weakness of the Marxist theory of literature with reference to
Marxist criticism in the People's Republic of China”, in John J. Deeney (1980), Chinese –
Western Comparative Literature Theory and Strategy, Hong Kong: The Chinese University
Press, p. 119.
31 Jean-Paul Sartre (1988), “What is Literature?” and Other Essays, Cambridge: Harvard
12
from an aesthetic and artistic drive as a reaction to some preceding literary
movements or as a response to some changes in the cultural world such as realism,
romanticism, symbolism, surrealism, dadaism or futurism. The emergence of
socialist realism, on the contrary, coincided with the establishment of the Soviet
Union of Writers 1932-34, a highly bureaucratized, or in Ronald Hingley's words,
“militarized”32 organization, which was formed to control all writers and their
activities, even their non-creative activities. According to Irina Gutkin, “[t]he
purpose of the First Writers' Congress and the socialist realist aesthetic was to
define the artist's relationship to the general project: Writers became engineers of
human souls in the sense that they created models of the new men for imitation by
the masses.”33 With these goals, socialist realism was based on three tenets: partymindedness,
class-mindedness and popular-mindedness, of which partymindedness
is the most important. It is obvious that socialist realism is more
political than literary. As a result, as Abram Tertz points out,
Most subjects of Soviet literature have in common a remarkable
purposefulness. They all develop in one direction, and a direction well known
in advance. This direction may exhibit variations in accordance with time,
place, conditions, etc., but it is invariable in its course and its destiny: to
remind the reader once more of the triumph of Communism.34
From the Soviet Union, socialist realism expanded to other countries, even
some non-communist countries, resulting in phenomena labelled by J.E. Flower as
“socialist realism without socialist realist revolution.”35 However, each country,
which has had a different culture, received and interpreted socialist realism
differently. In several countries such as the former German Democratic Republic,
Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and in all Western countries, which had
University Press, p. 29.
32 Ronald Hingley (1979), Russian Writers and Soviet Society 1917-1978, New York: Random
House, p. 197.
33 Irina Gutkin (1999), The Cultural Origins of the Socialist Realist Aesthetic 1890-1934, Evanston
(Illinois): Northwestern University Press, p. 57.
34 Abram Tertz (1960), On Socialist Realism, New York: Pantheon Books, p. 43.
35 J.E. Flower, “Socialist realism without a socialist revolution: the French experience”, in Michael
Scriven and Dennis Tate (eds.) (1988), European Socialist Realism, Oxford: Berg, pp. 99-
110.
13
“experienced the Renaissance, albeit in various forms and to differing extents, and
had thrown aside medieval dogma in favor of the freedom of the individual
centuries before Russian literature came of age”,36 socialist realism is less doctrinal.
In this regard, China and Vietnam are different. In the 1930s and 1940s, both
countries were still agricultural, semi-feudal, and strongly influenced by
Confucianism, which considers obedience, subordination and loyalty the highest
virtues: socialist realism became something of a para-religion.
Compared to China, Vietnam had several striking differences. First, while
China was partly and temporarily occupied by foreigners, especially the Japanese
during the Second World War, Vietnam was invaded and dominated by the French
for nearly a century (1862-1954) and by the Japanese for a number of years (1940-
45). The Vietnamese experience of colonialism was, therefore, felt more deeply and
bitterly than by its neighbour. Secondly, while the Chinese began their process of
literary modernization in the second half of the nineteenth century and had quite a
long and strong tradition of aestheticism, Vietnam began just a few years before the
importation of socialist realism and was unfamiliar with any literary trend other
than perspectives which regarded literature as a vehicle for the Dao and as a
weapon for fighting enemies. As a result, the para-religiousness seems to have been
more evident in the Vietnamese, rather than in the Chinese, acceptance of socialist
realism.
While socialist realism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern European
countries was mainly associated with socialism, it can be said that in China, and
particularly in Vietnam, it was mainly associated with anti-colonial nationalism,
and after 1975 with postcolonial nationalism. This is one of the primary reasons
why nationalism can be taken as a theoretical framework for this thesis. In other
words, socialist realism can be seen above all as a part of the nationalist project and
as a reflection of both anti-colonial and postcolonial nationalism.
Although the doctrine of nationalism, which was formed in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, did not become a subject of academic investigation until
36 Robert Porter, “Soviet Perspectives on Socialist Realism” in Michael Scriven and Dennis Tate
(eds.) (1988), op. cit., p. 54.
14
the first half of the twentieth century, as Umut Ozkirmli observes;37 and “has never
produced its own grand thinkers”, as Benedict Anderson comments,38 according to
several scholars, it has been more important in shaping the history of Europe and
the world than any other political ideas, including democracy and communism.39
However, even in the twenty-first century, nationalism remains a confusing
historical phenomenon. Like most historians, Charles Taylor agrees that
nationalism is considered modern because it is a response to a modern predicament
and usually arises among “modernizing” elites.40 Robert McKim and Jeff
McMahan, however, still believe that “nationalism is partly the expression of a
tribalism entrenched in our psychology”;41 while primordialist theorists view
nationalism as a “natural” part of human beings.42 If nationalism is a modern
phenomenon as most historians agree, according to John McLaren, there is another
problem: “[M]odernism, a product of the Enlightenment, is oriented to a future
controlled by reason, whereas nationalism appeals to an emotional attachment to
tradition.”43 Edward W. Said insists that “[i]t is historical fact that nationalism –
restoration of community, assertion of identity, emergence of new cultural practices
– as a mobilized political force instigated and then advanced the struggle against
Western domination everywhere in the non-European world.”44 Many others,
however, place their emphasis on the negative aspects of nationalism: Benedict
Anderson points out that national consciousness inevitably produces historical
amnesia, while Eric Hobsbawm remarks that “no serious historian of nations and
37 Umut Ozkirimli (2000), Theories of Nationalism, a Critical Introduction, Hampshire and
London: Macmillan, p. 12.
38 Benedict Anderson (1991), Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origins and Spread of
Nationalism, London: Verso, p. 5.
39 Peter Alter (1994), Nationalism, second edition, London: Edward Arnold, p. 1.
40 Charles Taylor, “Nationalism and Modernity”, in Robert McKim and Jeff McMahan (eds.)
(1997), The Morality of Nationalism, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 45.
41 Robert McKim and Jeff McMahan (1997), op. cit., p. 25.
42 On Primordialism, see Umut Ozkirimli (2000), op. cit., pp. 64-84.; and Anthony D. Smith (2001),
Nationalism, Cambridge: Polity, pp. 51-7.
43 John McLaren (2001), States of Imagination, Nationalism and Multiculturalism in Australian and
Southern Asian Literature, New Delhi: Prestige Books, p.17.
44 Edward W. Said, (1993), Culture and Imperialism, London: Vintage, p. 263.
15
nationalism can be a committed political nationalist”.45 Not surprisingly, Umut
Ozkirimli confesses that his Theories of Nationalism, a Critical Introduction was
written on a basis of several propositions, the first being that “[t]here can be no
'general' theory of nationalism”, followed by the second that “[t]here is no 'one'
nationalism; not only are there different types of nationalism, but different members
of the national or ethnic collectivities promote different constructions of
nationhood.”46
From this plethora of theories, Benedict Anderson's theory of nationalism
and Edward W. Said's theory of postcolonialism will be used as a framework for
this thesis, as they best explain the formation and development of socialist realism
in Vietnam.
The central theme of Anderson's theory of nationalism, which has been
highly influential in the study of nationalism in various disciplines, is the thesis that
nation is primarily a cultural artefact distinguished by the style of its imagining and
mode of representation. Accordingly, he maintains that nation is an “imagined
political community”. It is imagined because “the members of even the smallest
nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of
them, yet in the minds of each lives the images of their communion.”47 Anderson
goes further in exploring the conditions which give rise to such imagined
communities. For him, these communities were formed mainly from the emergence
of linear conceptions of time, and especially of “print-capitalism”. It was the
invention of printing and the arrival of mass-produced vernacular books that made
it possible to imagine the communities we call “nations”. Unquestionably,
Anderson places a particular emphasis on the paramount importance of literature
which is considered one of the major factors in shaping a common imagination on
which the conception of “nation” is created. It is here that Anderson's theory of
nationalism is common to theories of postcolonialism which agree that Western
colonialists not only invaded non-European countries militarily, but they also
45 Quoted in John McLaren (2001), op. cit., p. 82.
46 Umut Ozkirimli (2000), op. cit., p. 10.
47 Benedict Anderson (1991), op. cit., p. 6.
16
practiced cultural and ideological invasions through their colonial modes of
discourse. If nations are narrations, as one critic suggested,48 Western colonists
usually seized the power to narrate and create grand narratives of civilization and
history by, in Abdul R. JanMohamed's view, dehistoricizing and desocializing the
conquered world in order to present it as a metaphysical “fact of life”49 or as an
“Otherness”. According to Edward W. Said, one of the variations of this
“Otherness” is the notion of Orientalism which is defined as “a style of thought
based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the Orient
and (most of the time) the Occident.”50 This dichotomy between the Occident and
the Orient was also the dichotomy between civilization and barbarism, centre and
periphery, strength and weakness, winners and losers. Frantz Fanon argues that, in
response to this cultural and ideological invasion, colonialized people tried to find a
voice, and in finding a voice, they had to claim their own past and, in doing so,
eroded the colonialist ideology by which that past had been devalued.51 Following
this thesis of Frantz Fanon, Edward W. Said, in his essay on the Irish poet William
Butler Yeats, maintains that one of Yeats’ most ardent desires was to regain contact
with an earlier, mythical and nationalistic Ireland. He argues that it is also a
common desire of postcolonial writers.52 In the preface to his book Culture and
Imperialism, Said concludes that
Along with armed resistance in places as diverse as nineteenth-century
Algeria, Ireland, and Indonesia, there also went considerable efforts in cultural
resistance almost everywhere, the assertions of nationalist identities, and, in
the political realm, the creation of associations and parties whose common
goal was self-determination and national independence. Never was it the case
that the imperial encounter pitted an active Western intruder against a supine
48 Homi K. Bhabha (ed.) (1990), Nation and Narration, London: Routledge.
49 Abdul R. JanMohamed, “The Economy of Manichean Allegory”, in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth
Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (eds.) (1997), The Post-colonial Studies Reader, London:
Routledge, p. 22.
50 Edward Said, “Orientalism”, in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (eds.) (1997), op.
cit., p. 88.
51 Frantz Fanon (1968), The Wretched of the Earth, translated by Charles Lam Markmann, New
York: Grove.
52 This essay is reprinted in Edward W. Said (1993), op. cit., pp. 265-288.
17
or inert non-Western native; there was always some form of active resistance
and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the resistance finally won out.53
Such a cultural resistance occurred in Vietnam in the twentieth century.
Since the early 1940s, ten years after its establishment, the Vietnamese Communist
Party confirmed that culture, including literature, was one of the three most
important fronts, other two being the military and the economy. Writers were
labelled as cultural soldiers. On the literary front, as Hồ Chí Minh espoused,
“poems should be tempered steel / And poets too should join the fight”,54 or as
Sóng Hồng urged, poets should “seize the pen to cast down the world's tyrants /
Make rhymes into bombs and from verse make grenades.”55 Writers and poets,
however, went further. They not only used their pen as a weapon to fight against
enemies, they also used literature to construct their own national discourse, which
was separate from that of colonialism. Along with music and traditional theatre,
literature existed as “codes” and “symbols” to support the idea of a uniform
national culture. This is one of the reasons why Xuân Diệu, who graduated from the
French education system and had been deeply influenced by French romanticism,
sternly criticized modern French literature, claiming that it belonged to the petit
bourgeois and the decadent shortly after the August 1945 Revolution.56 This may
be one of the reasons why Tố Hữu, who was regarded as the leading figure in
Vietnamese revolutionary poetry, motioned to the East as a country of revolution:
“Come back to the East; and along with the West, we raise the red flag.”57 This may
also be one of the reasons why Vietnamese communists, on the one hand,
advocated the new – a new regime, new era, new “human being”, and so forth; yet,
on the other, advocated the restoration of most traditional forms of literature and
art.
53 Edward Said (1993), op. cit., p. xii.
54 Nguyễn Khắc Viện and Hữu Ngọc (eds.) (n.d.), Vietnamese Literature, Hanoi: Foreign
Languages Publishing House, p. 506.
55 Ibid., p. 570.
56 See Lại Nguyên Ân, “Về đời sống văn nghệ năm Cộng Hoà thứ nhất”, Văn Nghệ magazine, no. 2
(September 1985), p. 15.
57 “Về phương Ðông, ta về phương Ðông / Cùng phương Tây giương ngọn cờ hồng”, in the poem
“Theo chân Bác” (Following Uncle Ho Chi Minh), in Tố Hữu (1994), Thơ, Hanoi: Nxb
Giáo Duc, p. 454.
18
This demonstrates that, at least during the wars against the French and
Americans, Vietnamese communists functioned as nationalists rather than
communists. Is there any contradiction here? The answer is: “yes”, and “no”.
Yes, because as most historians agree, Marxism, whose roots were in
Enlightenment rationalism, is basically internationalism. For Karl Marx, the
attribute of all social systems from ancient Greece to present times, was “class
struggle” in which socio-economic conditions are crucial and the mode and
relations of production are decisive. Furthermore, both Marx and Engels predicted
that under socialism, national boundaries would be replaced by solidarity across the
nation of working people. In this context, as Guibernau writes, nationalism was a
marginal phenomenon: “Marx’s emphasis upon the political sphere as
‘superstructure’ led him to downplay both the nation-state and nationalism as major
influences upon historical change.”58 In Nations and Nationalism since 1780:
Programme, Myth, Reality, which was first published in 1990, Eric Hobsbawm still
supported the classic Marxist view of nationalism as “false consciousness” and a
“bourgeois” construction which would be extinguished along with that class.59
On the other hand, there was no contradiction, because in practice,
politicians are more realistic than theorists. In the early nineteenth century, when
nationalism appeared to be a stronger political force than socialism in defeating the
Russian Empire, Lenin advocated the doctrine of nationalism. In the early 1920s, in
order to develop Soviet influence on the Third World, he reaffirmed the right of
subject peoples to self-determination and independent statehood.60 Since then, as
Robert J. C. Young points out, “[t]he alliance between Marxism and nationalism in
the anti-colonial struggles has typically been regarded more as a form of
nationalism than of Marxism; Marxism is considered to have deviated into a form
of nationalism.”61 In the case of Vietnam, in Huệ-Tâm Hồ Tài’s observation, “[t]he
58 Quoted in Umut Ozkirimli (2000), op. cit., p. 26.
59 Eric Hobsbawm (1992), Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality,
(second edition), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
60 Ralph Milliban (1977), Marxism and Politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 102-3.
61 Robert J.C. Young (2001), Postcolonialism, An Historical Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell
Publishers, p. 169.
19
spread of Marxist theory among Vietnamese émigrés in France and China
coincided with a shift in Comintern policy toward anticolonial movements in
general and Indochina more specifically.”62 Among these “émigrés” was Hồ Chí
Minh (1890-1969), who, as historians have shown, first came into contact with
communism via Leninism. It is widely reported that it was Lenin’s famous “Theses
on National and Colonial Questions” which was presented to the Second Comintern
Congress in the summer of 1920, that, in William J. Duiker’s words, “set Nguyễn
Ái Quốc63 on the course that transformed him from a single patriot with socialist
leanings into a Marxist revolutionary.”64 As Hồ Chí Minh revealed in an article
published in 1960 by the periodical L’Echo du Vietnam on his seventieth birthday:
A comrade gave me some essays of Lenin to read; they concerned the problem
of nationalities and colonial peoples and were published by L’Humanité.
Some political terms in them puzzled me. But by reading and re-reading the
pamphlets many times, I finally grasped the essential. And I was filled with a
great enthusiasm and a great faith that helped me to see the problems clearly. I
was so happy over this that I sometimes wept. Alone in my room I exclaimed
aloud, as if addressing a mass meeting: “Dear oppressed and unhappy
compatriots!” I cried, “Here is the road to your liberation!”65
Jean Sainteny, a Free French Intelligence officer, who worked in Vietnam
for many years and had a very close relationship with Hồ Chí Minh, writes:
I have been asked countless times, “Was Hồ Chí Minh primarily a Nationalist
or a Communist?” My reply is always the same: Hồ Chí Minh was both. For
him nationalism and communism were, respectively, goal and the means to
attain that goal. The two complemented each other, merged.66
Most of the first generation of Vietnamese communists who became
involved in politics before 1945 were similar to Hồ Chí Minh. They were originally
62 Huệ-Tâm Hồ Tài (1992), Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution, Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, p. 227.
63 One of the names Hồ Chí Minh used in the 1920s and 1930s.
64 William J. Duiker (2000), Ho Chi Minh, New York: Hyperion, p. 64.
65 Quoted in Jean Sainteny (1972), Hồ Chí Minh and his Vietnam, a Personal Memory, Chicago:
Cowles, p. 19.
66 Jean Sainteny (1972), op. cit., p. 20.
20
nationalists, who, in the aftermath of the First World War, were fascinated with the
success of the Russian Revolution, and turned to Marxism as a means of liberating
their homeland from colonial rule. In SarDesai’s view, most of these people, “like
Hồ Chí Minh, remained nationalist first and Communist second.”67 After several
decades of revolution, did these people become communists first and nationalists
second? For Benedict Anderson, the answer seems to be “no”. He points to the
Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia in December 1978 and January
1979, and China's assault on Vietnam in February 1979 as evidence. These wars, he
writes,
serve to underline the fact that since World War 2 every successful revolution
has defined itself in national terms - the People's Republic of China, the
Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and so forth - and, in so doing, has grounded
itself firmly in a territorial and social space inherited from the prerevolutionary
past.68
Studying the communist movements in Asia, two French historians, Jean-
Louis Margolin and Pierre Rigoulout, reach the same conclusion:
Communism in Asia has in general been a national affair, with national
defense always the top priority (except in Laos), even though at times Chinese
or Soviet aid proved essential. Asia after all has seen intense wars between
Communist states, at the end of the 1970s between Vietnam and Cambodia,
and then between Vietnam and China. Where education, propaganda, and
historiography are concerned, it is hard to find more chauvinistic countries
anywhere else, perhaps partly because all these countries came into being as
the result of a struggle against foreign imperialism. That experience at least
gives them something in common. The problem is that the resulting
nationalism has often been turned against their neighbors.69
67 D.R. SarDesai (1992), Vietnam, The Struggle for National Identity, Boulder: Westview Press, p.
50.
68 Benedict Anderson (1991), op. cit., p. 2.
69 Jean-Louis Margolin and Pierre Rigoulot, “Communism in Asia: between re-education and
massacre” in Stéphane Courtois et al. (1991), The Black Book of Communism: Crimes,
Terror, Repression, translated by Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer, Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, p. 637.
21
Focusing mainly on the politics of culture in Vietnam during the period
between 1945 and 1965, in A World Transformed, Kim N.B. Ninh reaches a similar
conclusion:
In comparison with the tremendous upheavals in the Chinese case, the
Vietnamese revolution certainly seemed much more centered in and
comfortably connected to the nation’s history and cultural achievements. In
the works of such communist intellectuals as Nguyễn Khắc Viện, which
became well known in the West, ideology seemed much less of a concern than
the ultimate goal of national independence. The image of the communists as
the rightful inheritors of the nationalist tradition and the most credible
guardians of the country’s history and culture came to coincide with later
communist efforts to ensconce the achievements of the anticolonial struggle
and the revolution within the state’s socialist narrative.70
Thus, in terms of theoretical or historical accounts, there is no contradiction
in declaring that socialist realism in Vietnam was closely associated with
nationalism. It was nationalism which took a crucial part in receiving and shaping
socialist realism as a theory and as a movement.
Argument and Structure of the Thesis
In conclusion, the main contention of this thesis can be summarized as
follows: As a part of the nationalist project during the wars against the French and
Americans, socialist realism was politically constructed and functioned as a tool in
the political struggle against enemies. It not only emerged from a political
imperative to gather forces and place them under communist control but was also
determined by politics during its entire course of development.
The first part of this thesis contends that Marxist literary theory was
introduced to Vietnam relatively early when most intellectuals had not freed
themselves from the traditional literary frameworks of Vietnam. Theoretically,
Vietnamese traditional and Marxist literary perspectives have much in common,
such as the concept of the functions of literature and the writer’s role in society. It
70 Kim N.B. Ninh (2002), op. cit., p. 239.
22
may be said that, for writers of the 1930-45 period, Marxism provided the same
psychological satisfactions as Confucianism did for their ancestors: a love of the
holistic cosmological view, a sense of possessing the truth, and the conception of
literature as a weapon. Politically speaking, with the limited importation of French
books and other cultural materials into Vietnam during the Second World War
(1939-45), the main sources of literary knowledge in Vietnam came from China.
This helped the Chinese to maintain their predominant role in Vietnam. The
Marxist literary theory which was introduced into Vietnam in this period was the
theory that had been interpreted by the Chinese Communist Party.
This part of the thesis will include three chapters: a) Western influences on
modern Vietnamese literature; b) The polemics of “art for art’s sake” or “art for
life’s sake” during the period 1935-39; and c) the two first Marxist theorists in
Vietnam: Nguyễn Bách Khoa, who approaches Marxism from Taine's sociology
and Freud's psychoanalysis; and Ðặng Thai Mai, who was educated in the French
education system but believed that the “light coming from the North” (China), with
his Văn học khái luận (Outline of Literary Theory) (1944), to be the first work of
literary theory in Vietnam.
The second part of the thesis attempts to analyze the process of change by
Vietnamese writers and artists from patriotism to Marxism and then Maoism, using
it as a means of explaining the dominant position of Maoist-style socialist realism
in Vietnam. This part will point out that
(i) in 1945, when the war between France and Vietnam broke out, most
Vietnamese artists and writers participated in the resistance, and accepted
the leadership of the Viet Minh, a communist-led front, because of their
shared patriotism rather than the Marxist “enlightenment”;
(ii) in seeking a new writing method in a war situation, Vietnamese writers
encountered socialist realism which was officially endorsed by the
Communist Party;
(iii) socialist realism came directly from China, as shown by Mao Zedong at
the Yan'n Forum on Literature and Art in 1942; and finally,
23
(iv) it was the very war culture which nurtured the Maoist-style socialist
realism, at least until 1975, when the Vietnamese war ended.
This part will include several chapters, focusing on three periods: the
August 1945 Revolution, the French War and the American War. During these
periods, the most influential factors affecting literary thinking were Maoism and the
culture of war. One of the most striking characteristics of these periods was the lack
of professional theorists. The top leaders of the Vietnamese Communist Party were
the chief proponents of literary discourse, issuing guidelines for discussion of all
literary problems. The canonical texts of literary theory underpinned the leaders'
pronouncements in conferences and meetings along with letters sent to writers and
artists. Of these leaders, there were two authoritative figures: Trường Chinh (1907-
88) and Tố Hữu (1920-2002).
The third part of the thesis examines the crisis and subsequent bankruptcy
of socialist realism in Vietnam. This part includes two chapters: the Nhân Văn -
Giai Phẩm affair in the mid-1950s and the đổi mới movement in the mid-1980s
which have much in common: both emerged during peacetime; both called for
greater intellectual freedom and artistic expression and license; both were
constituted by the most fervent and gifted writers and artists of the age; both
paralleled the democratization movements in the socialist world; and finally, both
were criticized and restricted by the government. However, while the dissidents in
the first affair ended up in court and re-education camps, those in the đổi mới
movement have continued to write and witness the death of socialist realism.
Socialist realism as a theory and as a creative method was at an end not
because of the dissidents' criticism or any more persuasive theory but mainly
because of the market economy which was adopted by the Vietnamese Communist
Party in its đổi mới policies in the mid-1980s. It can be said that the enemy of
socialist realism is peace. The market economy is its real mortal enemy.
Terminology
There are several terms used in this thesis which should be explained.
24
First, the names of the Vietnamese Communist Party. During more than
sixty years, the Vietnamese Communist Party changed its name twice. It was
initially known as the Indochinese Communist Party (1930-51), then as the
Vietnamese Workers' Party (1951-76), and finally as the Vietnamese Communist
Party (from December 1976 to the present). In this thesis, for the sake of brevity
and clarity, the party is referred to as Vietnamese Communist Party.
The term “socialist realism” should be distinguished from critical realism,
social realism, and realism in general. The key concept of each is realism, which
was first used in France in 182671 and in England from the 1850s.72 Although
realism is seen by several theorists as a “notoriously tricky term,”73 and one of
those words “whose range of possible meanings runs from the pedantically exact to
the cosmically vague”, 74 it can be defined in two respects. As a philosophical term,
realism usually means “a belief in the reality of ideas and was contrasted with
nominalism, which considered ideas only names or abstractions”.75 As a literary
term, realism is used in two ways: (i) to identify a literary movement of the
nineteenth century, especially in prose fiction (beginning with Balzac in France,
George Eliot in England, and William Dean Howells in America); and (ii) to
indicate a creative method which, based on the assumption that the novel imitates
reality, and aims at depicting reality as it is.76
71 F. W. J. Hemmings (ed.) (1974), The Age of Realism, Harmondsworth: Penguin, p. 9.
72 René Wellek (1963), Concepts of Criticism, New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 1.
73 Pam Morris (2003), Realism, London: Routledge, p. 9.
74 Quoted in ibid., p. 2.
75 René Wellek (1963), ibid.
76 For further information on realism, see Pam Morris (2003), Realism, London: Routledge; Dario
Villanueva (1997), Theories of Literary Realism, translated by Mihai I. Spariosu and
Santiago Barcia-Castanon, New York: State University of New York Press; J.P. Stern
(1973), On Realism, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Georg Lukacs (1978), Studies in
European Realism, translated by Edith Bone, London: The Merlin Press; Nicholas Boyle
and Martin Swales (eds.) (1986), Realism in European Literature. Essays in Honour of J.P.
Stern, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; and Boris Suchkov (1973), A History of
Realism, Moscow: Progress Publishers; and Chapter “The concept of realism in literary
scholarship”, in René Wellek (1963), Concepts of Criticism, New Haven and London: Yale
University Press, pp. 222-255.
25
Realism includes a variety of modes: psychological realism, magical
realism, critical realism, social realism, socialist realism, etc. In contrast to
psychological realism, which concentrates on the depth and complexity of human
inner life, socialist realism concentrates on the historical development of modern
societies. Magical realism focuses on seizing the paradox of the union of opposites:
the real and the fantastic, the pre-colonial past and the post-industrial present, the
rational view of reality and the acceptance of the supernatural as prosaic reality.
Socialist realism, however, focuses on representing the economic and political
relationships between classes and the necessity of revolution. In contrast to social
realism, which, as C. Vaughan James remarks, “refer[s] to the artist's concern with
social themes”, and is “mainly a nineteenth century phenomenon”, socialist realism
is a twentieth century development, devoting itself primarily to political
dimensions.77
Socialist realism is also different from critical realism. It should, however,
be noted at the outset that the term ‘critical realism’ is used differently in different
disciplines. As a philosophical term, critical realism, which is associated with the
British philosopher Roy Bhaskar, was born of a critique of the positivist approach
which had dominated many of the social sciences since the 1930s.78 It is concerned
with the interplay of mental perception and external reality: in the critical realist
view, “there exists both an external world independently of human consciousness,
and at the same time a dimension which includes our socially determined
knowledge about reality.”79 However, as José López and Garry Potter emphasize,
this philosophical and scientific [critical] realism bears no relation to ‘[critical]
realism’ as the term has sometimes been used with respect to literature.80 As a
literary term, critical realism is often used as a synonym for ‘realism’, the
nineteenth century literary movement, including such great writers as Honoré de
77 C. Vaughan James (1973), Soviet Socialist Realism, Origins and Theory, London: Macmillan, p.
14.
78 Berth Danermark et al. (1997), Explaining Society, Critical Realism in the Social Sciences,
London: Routledge, pp. 4-5.
79 Ibid.
80 José López and Garry Potter (2001), After Postmodernism, an Introduction to Critical Realism,
London: Athlone Press, p. 181.
26
Balzac, Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola in France, George Eliot, Anthony
Trollope, and George Gissing in England, Ivan Tourgenev and Leo Tolstoy in
Russia, and Henry James and Theodore Dreiser in the United States. This critical
realism aims only to reflect and criticize reality whereas socialist realism seeks to
change reality and glorify every achievement in the process of socialist formation.
Georg Lukács recognizes another difference between critical realism and socialist
realism: while critical realists attempt to describe socialism from the outside,
socialist realists, based on a concrete socialist perspective, describe “the forces
working towards socialism from the inside.”81
In other words, socialist realism is a product of communism, formulated in
1932 and officially adopted in the Soviet Union in 1934, on the promise that a
reflection of reality always combines an expression of communist ideals with the
struggle for the victory of communism.
Typography
To avoid confusion and possible misunderstandings, all Vietnamese names
and words used throughout this thesis have been written with their accents and full
typographical marks, as used in Vietnam. For example, without tone-marks,
Trường Chinh (the theorist and Secretary General of the Vietnamese Communist
Party in the 1940s and 1950s) and Trương Chính (a Marxist scholar) would appear
as “Truong Chinh”.
For the sake of consistency, all Chinese names and places are written using
the Pinyin romanization system which was officially adopted by the People’s
Republic of Chinese government in 1979 and has come to be widely used by the
world media and publishers: Dao (instead of Tao), Mao Zedong (instead of Mao
Tse-tung), Du Fu (instead of Tu Fu), Li Bai (instead of Li Po), Song dynasty
(instead of Sung), and Yan’an (instead of Yenan) and so forth.
81 Georg Lukács (1963), The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, translated from the German by
John and Necke Mander, London: Merlin Press, p. 93.
27
Titles of Vietnamese and French books are written according to Vietnamese
and French conventions: with some exceptions (e.g. proper nouns), only the first
letter of the first word is written in capitals. For example, Văn học Việt Nam dưới
chế độ cộng sản whereas its equivalent English will be Vietnamese Literature
under the Communist Regime.
28
PART ONE
The Importation of Socialist Realism into Vietnam
29
CHAPTER ONE
Western Influence on Modern Vietnamese Literature
The history of relations between Vietnam and Western countries may be traced
back to the middle of the sixteenth century, when the first Portuguese merchants
arrived in Faifo, now Hội An, a coastal village about thirty kilometers south of Đà
Nẵng, where they established a station to trade with Macao. During the following
centuries many other Westerners, including Dutch, British, Italian, Spanish and French,
frequently visited Vietnam in order to do business or propagate the Christian faith.1
Most merchants failed to make a profit as they had done in other Asian countries, and
so, by the seventeenth century, they closed their offices and moved elsewhere. Only the
Christian missionaries remained, disregarding the menacing stance and terrorizing
practices of the authorities, who regarded Christianity as paganism and the foreigners'
presence as a threat which might portend Western encroachment. But those very
missionaries left deep imprints on Vietnamese history and culture, especially through
the importation of Christianity and the creation of quốc ngữ, the roman transliteration
of the Vietnamese spoken language.2 However, this contact had no significant impact
in the realm of literature, apart from bringing new inspiration to a few poets who had
embraced the new faith but unfortunately had no first-rate talent.3
Western influence on Vietnamese literature became noticeable only in the final
years of the nineteenth century, when French rule, which had been imposed on the
1 See Ralph B. Smith (1968), Vietnam and the West, London: Heinemann.
2 Phan Phát Huồn (1962 and 1965), Việt Nam giáo sử , two vols., Saigon: Cứu Thế tùng thư; Trương Bá
Cần (1992), Công giáo Đàng Trong thời Giám mục Pigneau, Ho Chi Minh City: Tủ sách Đại
Đoàn kết; Đỗ Quang Chính (1972), Lịch sử chữ quốc ngữ 1620-1659, Saigon: Tủ sách Ra
Khơi.
3 See Võ Long Tê (1965), Lịch sử văn học công giáo Việt Nam, Saigon: Tư Duy; and N.I. Niculin
(2000), Văn học Việt Nam và giao lưu quốc tế, Hanoi: Nxb Giáo Dục, pp. 540-559.
30
country, brought greater changes than any that had taken place during the preceding
two thousand years.4 Under French pressure, the traditional system of education, based
on the old Chinese pattern, was abolished; quốc ngữ gradually became dominant;5
and a new intelligentsia emerged, replacing the old Confucian scholar-gentry class and
assuming the role of intellectual leaders in society. These three factors acted strongly
and effectively upon Vietnamese literature and opened it up to new horizons:
developments in this period are conventionally credited with taking Vietnamese
literature from the Middle Ages to modernity.
Owing to the strong influence of Chinese culture, particularly during the Tang
and Song dynasties, the closed-door policy of most feudal states, and the stability of
the socio-cultural and economic pattern, pre-colonial Vietnamese literature was almost
at a standstill, with no significant development or innovation, so that the problem of
periodization has always been a complex challenge. After some trials and failures,
most literary historians came to the view that nine whole centuries, from the tenth to
the end of the nineteenth, constitute only one period, which they named either
“ancient” (cổ), “classical” (cổ điển), “feudal” (phong kiến), “successive dynasties”
(lịch triều), or more recently, “Middle-Ages” (trung đại).6 According to some scholars,
Vietnamese Middle-Ages literature can be characterized by one distinct feature:
4 Peter A. DeCaro (2003), Rhetoric of Revolt. Ho Chi Minh’s Discourse for Revolution, Westport:
Praeger, p. 1.
5 For a detailed description of this, see Hoàng Ngọc Thành, “Quốc ngữ and the Development of the
Modern Vietnamese Literature”, in W. F. Vella (ed.) (1973), Aspects of Vietnamese History,
Honolulu: Asian Studies at Hawaii 8, pp. 191-236; J. DeFrancis (1977), Colonialism and
Language Policy in Vietnam, The Hague: Mouton Publishers; Nguyễn Văn Trung (1975), Chữ,
văn quốc ngữ thời kỳ đầu Pháp thuộc, Saigon: Nam Sơn; Nguyễn Phú Phong, “L'avènement de
quốc ngữ et l'évolution de la littérature vietnamienne”, Cahiers d'études vietnamiennes, no. 9
(1987), pp. 3-18; reprinted in The Vietnam Forum, no. 13 (1990), pp. 77-90.
6 Several scholars used the term “trung đại” (Middle-Ages) to indicate pre-colonial literature in Vietnam.
These include Lê Trí Viễn, “Một đặc trưng của văn học Trung đại Việt Nam: vô ngã”, Tạp chí
Khoa học Xã hội, no. 9 (1991), pp. 70-76; Đặng Thanh Lê, “Nho giáo và văn học Trung đại
Việt Nam” in Vũ Khiêu (ed.) (1990), Nho giáo xưa và nay, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội, pp.
138-146; Trần Thị Băng Thanh, “Thử phân định hai mạch cảm hứng trong dòng văn học Việt
Nam mang đậm dấu ấn Phật giáo thời Trung đại”, Tạp chí Văn Học (Hanoi), no. 4 (1992), pp.
30-35; and Bùi Duy Tân, “Đặng Thai Mai với nền văn học trung đại Việt Nam”, in Đặng Thanh
Lê et al. (eds.), Đặng Thai Mai và văn học, Nghệ An: Nxb Nghệ An, 1994, pp. 142-155.
31
impersonality.7 It can be argued, however, that together with that feature, two others
must be mentioned: its syncretism and its normativeness.
From the syncretic perspective, literature was not seen as an independent entity,
as something to be considered in its own right - subject to its own laws and its own
reason for being - and differentiated from historical, philosophical or administrative
and regulated examination writings. In this view, aesthetic consciousness was not
divorced from moral consciousness; art was not divorced from erudition; literature was
not recognized as a pure belle-lettristic type.8
Moreover, based on the psychology of the ancestral cult and on the Confucian
assumption that all ideal examples belong to the past, Vietnamese writers in the Middle
Ages regarded all age-old achievements as standards of perfection, according to which
they wrote and as the basis on which they evaluated contemporary talents. These
attitudes resulted in normativeness, which had four main manifestations: in the field of
literary theory, the dominant view of literature was as a vehicle of the Way (Dao), a
product of Song neo-Confucianism; in respect to literary genres, preferential treatment
was given to poetry rather than to prose; in prose, preferential treatment was given to
functional rather than imaginative writings; and in respect to literary conventions, the
traditional, cliché-ridden allusions, motifs, themes, poetic dictions and symmetries of
structure were fashionable.
All those norms contributed to limiting the expression of the poet's self.
However, impersonality was not only a corollary of normativeness but also a
manifestation of traditional oriental ideologies and the product of an enduring feudal
system and a backward agricultural economy. The three major philosophical schools
which profoundly influenced Vietnamese thinking were Confucianism, Daoism and
Buddhism: all of which devalue, if not deny, individuality. Buddhism regards the
7 Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân (1967), Thi nhân Việt Nam, Saigon: Thiều Quang, (originally published in
1942), p. 34; and Lê Trí Viễn, ibid.
8 For more details, see Trần Đình Hượu, “Thực tại, cái thực và vấn đề chủ nghĩa hiện thực trong văn học
Việt Nam” in Phong Lê (ed.) (1990), Văn học và hiện thực, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội, pp.
11-83.
32
individual as ephemeral, being comprised of a transitory aggregate of the five skandhas
(form, sensation, perception, emotional state and consciousness), which are in a
constant state of flux. Daoism sees the individual as “a transient creature whose nature
is to change, to develop from the Ultimate Source and to return thereto at death”.9
Confucianism perceives the individual as part of a social structure: preference is given
to the relationship between the individual and others in the community but not to the
individual himself or herself, hence it highly values ritual behavior (lễ in Vietnamese
and li in Chinese), which regulates the expression of human feelings, integrates the
individual into the social context, and provides a continuous link between the present
and the past. “In each of these functions, ritual serves to make human behavior
predictable and uniform, more expressive of the common social role than of the
temperament and values of any one individual.”10 The foundation of feudalism was the
consciousness of the order of precedence, a morality-centered tendency and a
predominance of the common over the particular. A backward agricultural economy on
the one hand encouraged and nourished the system of the extended family because the
family was the basic economic unit in society, and on the other hand made human
beings totally dependent on nature. People feared and hence revered nature, regarding
it as the symbol of greatness and sublimity. Both Confucianism and Daoism
encouraged people to imitate nature: to Daoists, heroes are those who have become
self-contained in the Dao (Way) of their own minds; to Confucians, human society
should be structured parallel to the hierarchical order of the cosmos and in order to
achieve this goal, everyone must study Nature's virtues. This is why, in respect to
social life, the traditional poets usually secluded themselves in nature, and in respect to
creative activities, they preferred to write about nature. It may be said that both
feudalism and the agricultural economy, in support of the great philosophies, played
their part in preventing the development of individual consciousness. As a result, in
contrast to the romantic notion of the individual self in nineteenth-century Western
literature, which stressed sentimentality and the authenticity of personal feelings,
9 Robert E. Hegel, “An Exploration of the Chinese Literary Self”, in R.E. Hegel and R.C. Hessney (eds.)
(1985), Expressions of Self in Chinese Literature, New York: Columbia University Press, p. 9.
10 Ibid., p. 8.
33
Vietnamese traditional poets were conditioned to think that poetry was a mere chorus
of the cosmos resounding in their souls. Consequently, all poets attempted to
maximally objectivize their feelings: there was no ‘I’, not even an individualized
persona in Vietnamese Middle-Ages literature.11
In the second part of the nineteenth century, the awkward, perplexed and
sometimes pusillanimous reactions of the Court of Huế to the French invasion made
the Confucian literati at first puzzled and later extremely discontented.12 Traditionally,
according to common beliefs, they had considered the nation and the King as identical.
Loyalty to the King (trung quân) was synonymous with patriotism (ái quốc). They then
faced a terrible dilemma: if they executed the King's order and ceased struggling
against French aggression, they would be traitors to their country; if they protested
against the King and sought to defend the country's sovereignty, they would be
convicted of rebellion. Most literati oscillated between these two political poles.
Eventually, many people such as Trương Định (1820-64), Phan Tòng (?-1868),
Nguyễn Đình Chiểu (1822-88), and Phan Văn Trị (1830-1910), just to name a few,
decided to fight the enemy to the bitter end without regard to the King's desires. For
them, it was the first time in Vietnamese history that the concepts of nation and king
were consciously and drastically separated from each other. Consequently, the subject
status of the people became that of a citizen. While subjects (thần dân) were attached to
the King, citizens (công dân) were attached to the nation-state; while subjects were
passive people who merely awaited and obeyed the King's orders, citizens were active
11 Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân (1967), op. cit., pp. 52-54.
12 For historical accounts of the Hue Court's reaction to the French aggression, see Phan Khoang (1971),
Việt Nam Pháp thuộc sử, Saigon: Phủ Quốc Vụ Khanh đặc trách văn hoá,; David G. Marr
(1971), Vietnamese Anticolonialism 1885-1925, Berkeley: University of California, pp. 22-43;
M.W. McLeod (1991), The Vietnamese Response to French Intervention 1862-1874,
particularly Chapter 4, pp. 61-75; Trương Bửu Lâm (1967), Patterns of Vietnamese Response to
Foreign Intervention, 1858-1900, New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asian Studies;
Charles Fourniau (1989), Annam-Tonkin, 1885-1896: Lettrés et paysans vietnamiens face à la
conquête coloniale, Paris: Editions l'Harmattan; and Yoshiharu Tsuboi (1993), Nước Ðại Nam
đối diện với Pháp và Trung Hoa, translated from the French, L’Empire Vietnamien face à la
France et à la Chine 1847-1885, by Nguyễn Ðình Ðầu, Hanoi: Hội Sử Học Việt Nam..
34
people who were involved in finding the best way to save their country.13 As citizens,
people had enough self-confidence to lampoon the mandarins' mistakes and even
criticize those of the King; and thus, satirical writings appeared. In struggling for
independence they had the need to gather force and encourage their comrades and
fellow-countrymen; and thus, political literature came into being.
The development of satirical and political trends in Vietnamese literature at the
turn of the century, represented by such great poets as Nguyễn Khuyến (1835-1909),
Trần Tế Xương (1870-1907), Nguyễn Đình Chiểu, Phan Bội Châu (1867-1940), and
Phan Chu Trinh (1872-1926), was a new and very remarkable phenomenon.14 Both
trends could be seen as indirect impacts of the French invasion.
Satirical and political trends, in their turn, deeply affected the development of
Vietnamese literature. In order to be effective, political poetry had to concern itself
with the issue of persuading the populace, and therefore it adopted vernacular forms of
writing, which led to a campaign for the renovation of the literary language in the first
two decades of the twentieth century.15 So too was the concern of satirical poetry: it
required currency in subject-matter, concreteness in description, and a close
relationship between the author and his/her audience. These led to many important
changes in literature. The first was the change in content: the Dao and the static natural
landscapes were replaced by realistically observed phenomena. The second was the
change in the mode of expression: the classical mode - inclining to generalization,
emphasizing the immutable principles of the universe, and the permanent innermost
13 Trần Văn Giàu (1983), Trong dòng chủ lưu của văn học Việt Nam: Tư tưởng yêu nước, Ho Chi Minh
City: Nxb thành phố HCM, pp. 187-230.
14 Prior to 1862, there were several satirical and political poems but these were too scattered to form a
literary trend. More details about the satirical and political literature of this period can be found
in Trần Ðình Hượu and Lê Chí Dũng (1988), Văn học Việt Nam giai đoạn giao thời 1900-1930,
Hanoi: Nxb Ðại Học và Trung Học Chuyên Nghiệp; and Ðặng Thai Mai (1974), Văn thơ cách
mạng Việt Nam đầu thế kỷ 20, Hanoi: Văn Học.
15 For example, the Đông Kinh Free School movement between 1907 and 1908. Details of this
movement can be found in Nguyễn Hiến Lê (1974), Đông Kinh nghĩa thục, Saigon: Lá Bối; Vũ
Đức Bằng, “The Dong Kinh Free School Movement 1907-1908”, in W. F. Vella (ed.) (1973),
op. cit., pp. 30-45; and Nguyễn Văn Xuân (1970), Phong trào Duy Tân, Saigon: Lá Bối, pp.
273-291.
35
feelings of human beings - was replaced by the new mode, which required the ability
of observation and imagination as well as the creation of comic characters and
situations. The third was the aesthetic criterion: for classical poets, the high artistic
quality had been a polished, stylized and allusive-ridden expression; for satirical and
political poets, it was a simple, rustic and colloquial one, which was able to elicit an
immediate response in the readers' minds. It is not surprising that in Vietnamese
literature, realism appeared in the late nineteenth-century satirical poetry before it
flowered in the works of modern Western-influenced writers following the decade of
the 1930s.16 This also explains the main renovating role of Trần Tế Xương, one of the
last and most unlucky of the Confucian scholars.17
Apart from the above indirect impacts, there were other more direct and
decisive Western influences on Vietnamese literature. First of all, Western thought
shifted the writers' attitude from a China-oriented perspective to a West-oriented one.
In the traditional era, Vietnamese literati knew almost nothing but Chinese culture,
which was regarded as a perfect model. The bitter contact with modern and powerful
France made people question all the old idols. Early in 1905, when attempting to go
abroad in order to seek outside support for his revolutionary activities, Phan Bội Châu,
an outstanding Confucian scholar and one of the most eminent revolutionaries of the
following decades, considered his journey primarily as a search for new idols
following the “death” of Confucian deities. He wrote in “Xuất dương lưu biệt”
(Farewell before Going Overseas): “Hiền thánh lưu nhiên, tụng diệc si” (The sages
died long ago; to read their books would cause us to become more and more
besotted).18 Other men of letters in Phan Bội Châu's generation, because of their
ignorance of French, continued to read Chinese books, being particularly interested in
“New Books” (Tân Thư), a series of works that introduced Western currents of
16 Đỗ Đức Dục (1989), Về chủ nghĩa hiện thực thời đại Nguyễn Du, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 165; and Trần
Đình Hượu in Phong Lê (ed.) (1990), op. cit., pp. 72 and 78.
17 See Thanh Tâm Tuyền, “Xuân nhớ Tú Xương”, Thời Tập, số xuân Giáp Dần (1974); and Nguyễn
Hưng Quốc, “120 năm sinh Tú Xương”, Văn (California), no. 93 (March 1990), pp. 37-42.
18 Quoted in Nguyễn Huệ Chi (1983), Mấy vẻ mặt thi ca Việt Nam, Hanoi: Tác Phẩm Mới, p. 241.
36
thought. They preferred Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and Liang Qichao (1873-1929)
because, apart from their exquisite literary talents, these two writers helped them
understand some of the great Western thinkers such as Charles-Louis de Montesquieu,
Voltaire (pseudonym of Francois-Marie Arouet) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.19 It was
these very Confucian scholars who initiated and led the “European Rain and American
Wind” (Mưa Âu gió Mỹ) movement in the first decades of the twentieth century.20
Huỳnh Thúc Kháng (1876-1947) revealed in his Phan Châu Trinh niên biểu đồ (Phan
Châu Trinh's Chronology) that, owing to the “New Books”, Phan Châu Trinh, who
knew no French, was able to deeply understand Western thought as early as 1903,
when he was serving in the imperial Ministry of Rites in Huế.21 After coming home
from France (1925), Phan Châu Trinh's admiration for French eighteenth-century
philosophers became more profound. In Trần Huy Liệu's reminiscence, when first
meeting someone, Phan Châu Trinh always asked the question: “Have you read
Rousseau's Contrat Social or Montesquieu's Esprit des Lois?”22
Western-educated intellectuals were more enthusiastic about reading and
translating Western and especially French books into Vietnamese. It may be said that,
along with the appearance and development of satirical and political writings,
translation was a striking phenomenon in the period between 1862 and 1932. During
the previous nine centuries, only a few dozen works had been translated and most were
short poems. Translations of works in prose were very rare, and of these, Nguyễn Thế
Nghi's sixteenth-century translation of Nguyễn Dữ's Truyền kỳ mạn lục (Vast Record
of Strange Tales) was the earliest preserved. In both verse and prose, these works were
translations from the original Chinese.23 There were perhaps only two translations from
19 Trương Chính (1997), Tuyển tập, vol. 1, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp. 135-170.
20 Trần Huy Liệu (1991), Hồi ký, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội, p. 29.
21 Quoted in Nguyễn Q. Thắng (1992), Phan Châu Trinh, cuộc đời và tác phẩm, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 41.
22 Trần Huy Liệu (1991), op. cit., p. 453.
23 Viện Nghiên cứu Hán Nôm (1982), Dịch từ Hán sang Việt, một khoa học, một nghệ thuật, Hanoi: Nxb
Khoa Học Xã Hội; particularly the chapter “Mấy vấn đề về lịch sử và lý thuyết dịch của việc
dịch Hán – Việt” by Mai Quốc Liên, pp. 46-55.
37
a Western language: one was Phép giảng tám ngày cho kẻ muốn chịu phép rửa tội mà
beào đạo thánh Đức Chúa Blời (Cathechismus) by Alexandre de Rhodes, published in
Rome in the seventeenth century;24 and the other was a versified translation of an
episode in the Bible by Trịnh Tráng's sister, which, according to historian E. O. Berzin,
though as yet unpublished, was sung by many believers in the streets.25 From the end
of the nineteenth century and particularly from the beginning of the twentieth century,
the number of translations from both Chinese and French increased considerably.
Several people became famous as professional translators.26 The nation's two most
noted scholars were also committed and productive translators: Phạm Quỳnh (1892-
1945) and Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh (1892-1936). While Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh mainly translated
romantic novels such as Alexandre Dumas' Les trois mousquetaires, Abbé Prévost's
Manon Lescaut, J. Swift's Gulliver's Travels (through the French-translation, Les
voyages de Gulliver) or Molière's comedies, Phạm Quỳnh concentrated on translating
and introducing philosophical works such as Descartes' Discours de la méthode, Paul
Gardon's La vie sage, Pascal's Les pensées, etc. In general, while Confucian scholars,
through Chinese translations, devoted themselves to adopting new social and political
theories for their revolutionary activities, Western-educated intellectuals seemed to be
more interested in Western literary and philosophical values. While the former only
sought to understand French eighteenth-century thinkers, the latter, after a short period
of acquaintance with seventeenth and eighteenth-century literature, quickly absorbed
nineteenth-century writers such as François René de Chateaubriand, Alphonse de
Lamartine, Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac. The first translations from French were
literary, and of these, the earliest and perhaps most favorite was La Fontaine's Fables,
which had at least five translations prior to 1928.27
24 Nguyễn Khắc Kham (1966), The Acceptance of Western Cultures in Vietnam, Saigon: Ministry of
Cultural and Social Affairs, p. 32; and Đỗ Quang Chính (1972), op. cit., pp. 87-90.
25 Quoted in Đinh Gia Khánh, Bùi Duy Tân and Mai Cao Chương (1979), Văn học Việt Nam thế kỷ X -
nửa đầu thế kỷ XVIII, vol. 2, Hanoi: Nxb Đại Học và Trung Học Chuyên Nghiệp, p.39.
26 See Bằng Giang (1992), Văn học quốc ngữ ở Nam Kỳ 1865-1930, Ho Chi Minh City: Trẻ, pp. 236-
274.
27 These translations are: (i) Truyện Phan Sa diễn ra quốc ngữ by Trương Minh Ký (Guilland et
38
For Vietnamese writers of the first three decades of the twentieth century,
translation was the best way of developing their writing skill. In ‘La poèsie annamite’
(Vietnamese Poetry) which he wrote in French in 1931, Phạm Quỳnh stated:
At a time when language and human mind keep changing, Vietnamese writers
cannot build a career on originality ... What they can do now to be of use is to
translate Chinese and French masterpieces in order to enrich their own language
and literature.28
The second impact of the West on Vietnamese literature is partly due to the
above mentioned translation practices. Indeed, thanks to translation, Vietnamese “will
transform itself and become more refined. Harmonious, rhythmical and musical by
nature, it will become charming because it will benefit greatly from French prose,
whose features are precision, clarity and logical coherence.”29
Until the French conquest, the Vietnamese had extremely few works of
vernacular literature in prose.30 The Vietnamese language was mainly used in the
writing of poems. Consequently it was soft, subtle and musical, but had many defects.
For example, it lacked abstract words, had few prefixes and suffixes in order to
produce derivatives except for duplicative patterns. Moreover, it had no passive
structure and only occasionally made use of noun and verb phrases because it
contained very few classifiers, articles and prepositions; and as a result, its ability to
expand sentences was limited. In Vietnamese traditional writings, sentences were often
short. The relationship between the main and subordinate clauses was not clear, partly
because there was no copulative and partly because writers were not used to using
punctuation. Contact with Western literature, particularly through translation tasks,
Martinon, Saigon, 1884) (ii); Truyện Tây dịch ra tiếng Nôm by Đỗ Thận (Imprimerie F.H.
Schneider, Hanoi, 1906); (iii) Fables de La Fontaine by G. Cordier (Imprimerie d'Extrême
Orient, Hanoi, 1910); (iv) Truyện Phan Sa diễn ca quôc âm by Đỗ Quang Đẩu (Imprimerie de
l'Union Nguyễn Văn Của, Saigon, 1919); and (v) Thơ ngụ ngôn của La Fontaine by Nguyễn
Văn Vĩnh (Trung Bắc Tân Văn, Hanoi, 1928).
28 Quoted in Thanh Lãng (1967), Bảng lược đồ văn học Việt Nam, vol. 2, Saigon: Trình Bày, p. 202.
29 Ibid., p. 201.
30 Trương Chính (1997), op. cit., pp. 90-112.
39
helped Vietnamese writers discover many serious shortcomings in their language and
hence make an effort to learn from French, not only with respect to vocabulary but also
in the domain of syntax.
The quantity of scientific and technological terms increased rapidly from
almost none at the turn of the century to about 40,000 words in 1945.31 However, the
most crucial change was in syntax. After many trials and experiments, the Vietnamese
gradually differentiated nouns from adjectives and verbs, graded adjectives by using
particles denoting degree (hơi: a little, khá: fairly, rất: very) and words denoting
comparison (bằng: as... as, hơn: more... than, kém: less... than, nhất: the most...), and
built para-predicate structures in order to write complex sentences, sometimes very
long but always coherent.32 If the sentences in Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh's writings had been
quite jerky and clumsy, those in Phạm Quỳnh's became polished and refined, even
though his style was still rather laborious because of a tendency to abuse Sino-
Vietnamese terms. From 1932 onwards, thanks to the intelligent and effective reform
effort of Tự Lực Văn Ðoàn (the Self-Reliant Literary Group), Vietnamese syntax
became not only more coherent but also so soft and clear that it could express subtle
feelings as well as abstract thoughts.33 With respect to syntax, the extent of change
from Đông Dương tạp chí (Indochina Magazine, 1913-19) to Phong Hoá (Mores
Weekly, 1932-36) was greater than that recorded over the next sixty years.
The third Western impact on Vietnamese literature resulted in the formation
and completion of the genre system. Prior to 1862, in Vietnamese literature, poetry was
regarded as superior to all other genres. Writings in prose, both in Sino-Vietnamese
and the demotic script (chữ Nôm), were very few; if Sino-Vietnamese works are
excluded, almost nothing is left. Through translation, writers gradually practiced some
new genres and came up with new styles. Short stories in quốc ngữ made their
31 Nguyễn Khánh Toàn, “The Vietnamese Language”, Vietnam Courrier no. 49 (June 1976), p. 21.
32 For further details, see Phan Ngọc and Phạm Đức Dương (1983), Tiếp xúc ngôn ngữ ở Đông Nam Á,
Hanoi: Viện Đông Nam Á, particularly pp. 201-350.
33 Nguyễn Trác and Ðái Xuân Ninh (1989), Về Tự Lực văn đoàn, Ho Chi Minh City: Nxb thành phố
HCM, pp. 143-193.
40
appearance with Nguyễn Trọng Quản's (1865-1911) Thầy Larazo Phiền (Master
Lazaro Phiền), which was published in 1887,34 and provided an encouraging model to
the brilliant generation of writers that was to follow. In the two hundred and ten issues
of Nam Phong tạp chí (South Wind Magazine) from 1917 to 1934, there were thirty
four short stories by seventeen authors,35 the most prolific and gifted of whom were
Phạm Duy Tốn (1883-1924) and Nguyễn Bá Học (1857-1921). The first two novels,
Hoàng Tố Anh hàm oan (Hoang To Anh Suffers Injustice) by Trần Chánh Chiếu
(1867-1919) and Phan Yên ngoại sử tiết phụ gian truân (The Miserable Life of a
Chaste Widow in Phan Yen) by Trương Duy Toản (1885-1957), were both published
in 1910, although the term roman (novel) first appeared on the cover of Hà Hương
phong nguyệt (The Love Story of Ha Huong) by Lê Hoằng Mưu (? - 1941?) later in
1915, and the term kim thời tiểu thuyết (modern fiction) in Nghĩa hiệp kỳ duyên (A
Tale of Chivalrous Love) by Nguyễn Chánh Sắt (1869-1947) in 1919.36 Chronicles and
essays, nascent in the eighteenth century with Vũ trung tuỳ bút (Notes Written in the
Rain) by Phạm Đình Hổ (1768-1839), Tang thương ngẫu lục (Record of Vicissitudes)
by Phạm Đình Hổ and Nguyễn Án (1770-1815), Công dư tiệp ký (Quick Writings in
Spare Time) by Vũ Phương Đề (1697- ?), Thượng kinh ký sự (Chronicle of a Visit to
the Capital) by Lê Hữu Trác (1720-1792), and Thượng kinh phong vật chí (Description
of the Landscapes and Personalities of the Capital) by an anonymous author at the end
of the eighteenth century, developed and flourished after 1862, pioneered by Trương
Vĩnh Ký (1837-98) in his Chuyến đi Bắc kỳ năm Ất Hợi (Voyage to Tonking in the
34 For critical introductions to this short story, see Thế Uyên, “Truyện ngắn quốc ngữ đầu tiên của Việt
Nam: Thầy Lazaro Phiền của Nguyễn Trọng Quản”, Văn Lang (California) no. 2 (December
1991), pp. 93-119; Bằng Giang (1992), Văn học quốc ngữ ở Nam kỳ 1865-1930, Ho Chi Minh
City: Trẻ, pp. 124-128; Bùi Đức Tịnh (1992), Những bước đầu của báo chí, tiểu thuyết và thơ
mới, Ho Chi Minh City: Nxb thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, pp. 197-207; Nguyễn Văn Trung (1987),
Thầy Phiền, Ho Chi Minh City: Đại học Sư phạm thành phố Hồ Chí Minh; Nguyễn Q. Thắng
(1990), Tiến trình văn nghệ miền Nam, An Giang: Nxb Tổng Hợp, pp. 265-268; and Trần Văn
Giàu et al. (eds.) (1988), Địa lý văn hoá thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, vol. 2, Ho Chi Minh City:
Nxb thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, pp. 233-234.
35 Lại Văn Hùng (ed. with an introduction) (1989), Truyện ngắn Nam Phong, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã
Hội, p. 20.
36 Trần Văn Giàu et al. (eds.) (1988), op. cit., p. 224.
41
Year At Hoi), which was published in 1876.37 Modern drama first appeared in Hanoi in
1920 with Le malade imaginaire by Molière, translated by Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh and then
Chén thuốc độc (The Cup of Poison) by Vũ Đình Long (1901-60), performed and
published in 1921.
Aside from creative writings, writers gradually learned to pay close attention to
literary criticism. In the traditional era, no works of literary criticism, theory or history
were written.38 Writers and poets, in some rare cases, expressed their thoughts about
literature in general, or certain works of art in particular, in the form of a preface, an
epilogue, a poem or a letter sent to a friend: all were brief and oversimplified.39 The
term “literary history” first appeared in Lê Dư's Nữ lưu văn học sử, published in 1929,
but this book was only an anthology of women writers with a brief biography of each
poet. Pioneering in the study of Vietnamese literary history was Dương Quảng Hàm
(1898-1946), who, in the “Chronicle Chart of Sino-Vietnamese Literature” of his Quốc
văn trích diễm (Excerpts from National Literature), published in 1925, attempted to
give an overview of the growth of Vietnamese literature. However, it was only a short
chapter in which Dương Quảng Hàm limited his task to periodization and listing
typical authors for each period. Based on this sketch, Dương Quảng Hàm continued his
research and, sixteen years later, published his major work, Việt Nam văn học sử yếu
(Outline History of Vietnamese Literature), which was used as a textbook in high
schools throughout the forties and fifties and became itself a sourcebook of literary
precedent that served later critics and historians down to the present day. During the
period between 1925 and 1941, apart from Dương Quảng Hàm, other scholars also
concentrated their efforts on studying Vietnamese literary history, mostly focusing on
certain classical authors. Here, mention must be made of Nguyễn Hữu Tiến (1874-
1941) with his Giai nhân dị mặc (An Extraordinary Woman Writer, 1926) and Lê
37 This book was translated into English by P.J. Honey (1982), Voyage to Tonking in the Year At Hoi
(1876), London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
38 Lại Nguyên Ân (1998), Ðọc lại người trước, đọc lại người xưa, Hanoi: Nxb Hội Nhà Văn, pp. 304-6.
39 See Nguyễn Minh Tấn et al. (eds.) (1981), Từ trong di sản, Hanoi: Tác Phẩm Mới; Đỗ Văn Hỷ
(1993), Người xưa bàn về văn chương, vol. 1, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội; and Phương Lựu
(1985), Về một quan niệm văn chương cổ Việt Nam, Hanoi: Giáo Dục.
42
Thước (1890-1975) with his Sự nghiệp và thơ văn của Uy Viễn tướng công Nguyễn
Công Trứ (Nguyễn Công Trứ, his Career and Literary Works, 1928).
In the field of literary criticism, the first work was published in 1933: Phê bình
cảo luận (Criticism and Essays) by Thiếu Sơn (1907-77). However, before that date, in
Đông Dương tạp chí, issues one to fifty, there had been eighteen book reviews by
eleven authors.40 In Nam Phong tạp chí, Phạm Quỳnh wrote critical assessments of
Nguyễn Du's Truyện Kiều,41 Đoàn Như Khuê's Một tấm lòng,42 Nguyễn Khắc Hiếu's
Giấc mộng con,43 Nguyễn Văn Thành's Văn tế trận vong tướng sĩ,44 and Phạm Duy
Tốn's Sống chết mặc bay.45 Besides these, some critical articles on the Tale of Kiều
were also written by Vũ Đình Long,46 Nguyễn Tường Tam,47 Ngô Đức Kế,48 and
Huỳnh Thúc Kháng.49 None of these articles really constitute literary criticism in the
strict sense of the term. All were dogmatic, inclined to criticize the contents of the art
works, particularly their moral and ethical significance, rather than to evaluate their
aesthetic values. Most of these writers were still heavily influenced by neo-
Confucianism.
40 Thanh Lãng (1967), op. cit., p. 299.
41 Phạm Quỳnh, “Truyện Kiều”, Nam Phong 1919; reprinted in Thượng Chi văn tập, vol. 3, Hanoi:
Éditions Alexandre de Rhodes, 1943, pp. 91-149.
42 “Phê bình thơ văn mới: Một tấm lòng của Đoàn Như Khuê”, Nam Phong 1918; reprinted in Thượng
Chi văn tập, vol. 2, Hanoi: Éditions Alexandre de Rhodes, 1943, pp. 65-71.
43 “Phê bình Giấc mộng con của Tản Đà”, Nam Phong no. 7 (1917).
44 “Tựa bài Tế tướng sĩ văn”, Nam Phong 1918, reprinted in Thượng Chi văn tập, vol. 2, pp. 61-63.
45 “Phê bình truyện Sống chết mặc bay”, Nam Phong no. 18 (1918).
46 Vũ Đình Long, “Nhân vật Truyện Kiều”, Nam Phong nos. 68, 69 and 70 (1923); “Triết lý và luân lý
Truyện Kiều”, Nam Phong, no. 71 (1923), and “Văn chương Truyện Kiều”, nos. 81, 83, 85 and
87 (1924).
47 “Mấy lời bình luận về văn chương Truyện Kiều”, Nam Phong, no. 79 (January 1924), pp. 30-37.
48 “Chánh học cùng tà thuyết”, Hữu Thanh, no. 21 (September 1, 1924).
49 “Chánh học cùng tà thuyết có phải là vấn đề quan hệ chung không?”, Tiếng Dân, no. 317 (1930),
reprinted in Nguyễn Văn Trung (n.d.), Vụ án Truyện Kiều, Los Alamitos: Xuân Thu, pp. 57-62;
“Lại vấn đề chính học cùng tà thuyết”, Tiếng Dân, nos. 326, 327 and 328 (1930).
43
The fourth Western factor impacting strongly on Vietnamese literature was the
advent of writing as a profession. Although the Vietnamese have traditionally been
proud of their so-called “land of poesy” (nước thơ), where almost everyone enjoyed
writing and reading poetry, no one was able to live by his/her pen in the pre-colonial
period. Literature was attached to education and regarded as a traditional route into the
bureaucracy. People attended school, practiced their literary skills in order to pass the
civil service examinations, received their bachelor's or doctor's degrees, and then
became imperial officials; and commonly known as mandarins, they would live a
prosperous life thanks to the salary and perquisites (bổng lộc) given them by the Court.
That is why, upon failing his examination, Trần Tế Xương (1870-1907), a great poet at
the turn of the century, moaned in grief:
Một việc văn chương thôi cũng nhảm
Trăm năm thân thế có ra gì.50
(The literary path becomes a cul-de-sac
My life has not been worth much!)
Beyond the triennial examination, literature was merely a kind of gentle
entertainment or, as some believed, a way of “carrying” the Dao in order to educate
people and “leave a good name for thousands of generations” (Lưu danh thiên cổ). It
did not matter whether writers received any recognition from society. If there was any,
it was very rare. In some lucky cases, they would get a reward of a few bars of ten
liang of silver and one or two rolls of silk from the king, as in the cases of Lê Quí Đôn
(1726-84) under King Lê Hiến Tông, Phan Huy Chú (1782-1840) under Emperor Minh
Mạng and Lê Ngô Cát (1827-75) under Emperor Tự Đức.51 But the reward was so
pitiful that Lê Ngô Cát, after receiving it, allegedly felt depressed and wrote:
Vua khen thằng Cát có tài
Ban cho cái khố với hai đồng tiền.52
50 Tú Xương (1987), Tác phẩm và giai thoại, Hà Nam Ninh: Hội văn nghệ Hà Nam Ninh, p. 91.
51 Nguyễn Hiến Lê (986), Mười câu chuyện văn chương, California: Văn Nghệ, p. 115.
52 Hoàng Ngọc Phách and Kiều Thu Hoạch (1988), Giai thoại văn học Việt Nam, Hanoi: Văn Học, p.
215.
44
(In praising Cat as a talented poet
The King bestowed on him a loin-cloth and two piastres.)
After 1862, some printers were brought from France to Vietnam.53 In addition,
quốc ngữ was relatively easy to learn, and a new middle-class emerged in the cities and
townships. These were favorable conditions that pushed forward press and publishing
operations,54 and together with these, writers' professionalism in literary activity. The
number of writers living by their pens gradually increased. Tản Đà (pen name of
Nguyễn Khắc Hiếu, 1889-1939) was a typical case. After failing his examination,
instead of returning to his native place and earning his living by teaching, he went to
Hanoi and Saigon to work as a journalist and writer. In his Đề khối tình con thứ nhất
(Prologue to My Small Love, Volume 1), published in 1919, he wrote:
Chữ nghĩa Tây Tàu trót dở dang
Nôm na phá nghiệp kiếm ăn xoàng
[...]
Còn non còn nước còn trăng gió
Còn có thơ ca bán phố phường.55
(Having a half-baked learning of Chinese and French
I only hope to earn a meagre living by writing in the vernacular .
[...]
As long as the mountain, the river, the moon and the wind still are
I still have poems to sell in the street.)
In his Giấc mộng con (Small Dream, Volume 2), Tản Đà presented himself as a
bread-winner through his writing.56 At that time, of course, this occupation was not
very lucrative. In a colony where writers were hampered by censure and repression,
53 Huỳnh Văn Tòng (2000), Báo chí Việt Nam, từ khởi thuỷ đến 1945, Ho Chi Minh City: Nxb thành phố
HCM, p. 55; and Ðỗ Quang Hưng (2001), Lịch sử báo chí Việt Nam, 1865 - 1945, Hanoi: Nxb
Ðại Học Quốc Gia Hà Nội, pp. 14-16.
54 For further details on Vietnamese journalism and publishing operations, see Huỳnh Văn Tòng (2000),
op. cit.; Bùi Đức Tịnh (1992), op. cit.; Trần Văn Giáp, Nguyễn Tường Phượng, Nguyễn Văn
Phú and Tạ Phong Châu (1972), Lược truyện các tác gia Việt Nam, vol. 2, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa
Học Xã Hội, pp. 21-63.
55 Tản Ðà (1986), Tuyển tập, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 73.
56 Quoted in Văn Tâm (1991), Góp lời thiên cổ sự, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 47.
45
where illiteracy was very high, with only ten percent of school-aged children attending
school,57 and where the circulation figure of books was very low, averaging 1,000 to
3,000 copies per edition,58 writers generally eked out a meagre existence. Nevertheless,
this new occupation was quite attractive because it brought freedom, a good reputation
and respect from the readers. By the beginning of the 1940s the number of writers and
journalists as well living completely by their pens rose to approximately 1,000.59
Literary activities, once they became professional, not only contributed to an
increase in book production but also brought some changes in the artists' viewpoints
and techniques. Writers were now influenced by a new factor: their readers. As a result
of the implicit pressure of readers, writers had, on the one hand, to make their works
attractive by considering their topics, subjects and stories; and on the other hand, they
were forced to find their own style. In the past, the ideal was that they should try to
achieve artistic perfection, but now they also aimed at achieving variety and richness.
Tản Đà mentioned this when he evaluated his own career as follows: “My literary
works are not only many in quantity but also varied in style.”60
All the four factors mentioned above played an important role in pushing
Vietnamese literature away from the orbit of the Middle-Ages culture. However, for
many reasons, the literary period between 1862 and 1932 was only a transitional phase.
Firstly, the time in which the Vietnamese elite had been in contact with the West was
so short that they could hardly be expected to change their old ways of thinking and
feeling. Most of them were undecided: on the one hand, they longed for the new; on
the other hand, they regretted losing the old. Before 1932, most wanted to reconcile the
57 Huệ-Tâm Hồ Tài (1992), Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution, Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, p. 35.
58 For more details, see David G. Marr (1981), Vietnamese on Trial, 1920-1945, Berkeley: University of
California, pp. 46-52.
59 Phan Cự Đệ, Hà Văn Đức and Nguyễn Hoành Khung (1988), Văn học Việt Nam 1930-1945, vol.1,
Hanoi: Nxb Đại Học và Trung Học Chuyên Nghiệp, p. 71.
60 Nguyễn Khắc Xương (ed.) (1986), Tuyển tập Tản Đà, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 153.
46
old with the new, Eastern tradition with Western civilization.61 Accordingly, their
renovation efforts were on a middle path, as expressed in the slogan: “The guideline
for contemporary poets is to use old forms to express new ideas.”62 Secondly, writers
had many things to concern themselves with other than the issue of “pure” literature:
patriotic literati were busy with ideological problems and Western-educated
intellectuals concerned themselves with the matter of how to cope with the huge
amount of knowledge represented by Western culture. Thirdly, Western culture was
spread rather unequally. Writers were divided into two large groups: the scholargentry,
who mostly lived in the countryside, continued to read Chinese books and write
in the Sino-Vietnamese or demotic script; Western-educated intellectuals, who lived in
the cities, read French books and wrote in quốc ngữ. This characteristic was embodied
in Nam Phong Tạp chí: about one hundred pages thick, this magazine consisted of
three parts, each written in a different language: French, Chinese and quốc ngữ.
Because of this transitional character, the majority of literary achievements in
this period seem to have been left unfinished. The novels of Trần Chánh Chiếu,
Nguyễn Chánh Sắt, Hồ Biểu Chánh (1865-1958), and even those of Hoàng Ngọc
Phách (1896-1973), who was praised for being in the avant-garde and pioneering new
genres, while containing some elements borrowed from French literature, retained to a
certain extent such traditional characteristics as verbal parallelism, episodic plot,
conventionality in presentation, and singsong rhythm, or a mixture of some or all of
these four characteristics which hark back to traditional Chinese models. Also, the
framework for literary criticism at this time was not really solid: critics paid more
attention to writers than to their works; in the work of art, the content was given more
attention than the form; in the content, the ethical aspect was given more attention than
reflected reality, and in that realistic aspect, truthfulness was given more attention than
creativeness. No one lifted literary criticism from the level of the particular observation
to the level of general aesthetic consideration. Poetry, because of its burdens of a long
61 See Huệ-Tâm Hồ Tài (1992), op. cit., pp. 46-52.
62 Chất Hằng, “Thơ Mới”, Văn Học tạp chí, no. 22 (August 1, 1933), quoted in Thanh Lãng (1972), Phê
bình văn học thế hệ 1932, vol. 1, Saigon: Phong trào văn hoá, p. 339.
47
tradition, changed very slowly and with great difficulty. Trần Tế Xương's renovative
efforts at the turn of the century were left unfinished. Apart from Tản Đà, most poets
were still immersed in obsolete topics, feelings, forms and language. Since the end of
the 1910s, some scholars, including Phạm Quỳnh, who had discovered the narrowness
and unnaturalness of traditional poetic conventions, advised poets to imitate the French
model. But, like the vast majority of poets and writers of that time, he was unable to
visualize what should be learned from it.63 The prolonged torment experienced with
renovation made some poets, like Phan Khôi (1887-1960), feel an impasse, so that they
could not write anything for a long time.64 Vietnamese poetry did not really reach a
new stage until 1932, when Phan Khôi's “Tình già” (Old Love) was published in Phụ
nữ tân văn (Women News), Number 122 of 10th March.
From the 1930s onwards, barring the four influences mentioned above, there
appeared two new factors influencing Vietnamese writers: individualism and
rationalism. Both of these had long traditions in the West. Being nascent in ancient
Greek philosophy and Christianity, they were resuscitated in the Renaissance,
developed strongly in the eighteenth century, and became popular from the nineteenth
century onwards.65 However, both were quite novel in the eyes of Vietnamese imbued
with traditional culture, which emphasized commonality rather than individuality,
interpersonal relationships rather than the division between the ego and the non-ego,
righteousness (nghĩa) rather than benefits (lợi), and which always encouraged
obedience: within the nation, one had to be loyal to the king; within society, young
people had to respect the authority of their elders; within a family, the children had to
obey their parents, and the wife her husband.66
63 Phạm Quỳnh, “Bàn về thơ Nôm”, Nam Phong, no. 5 (November 1917).
64 Phan Khôi, “Một lối thơ mới trình chánh giữa làng thơ”, Phụ nữ tân văn, no. 122 (March 10, 1932).
65 See Richard Tarnes (1991), The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have
Shaped our World View, New York: Ballantine Books.
66 See, for example, Phan Ngọc (1994), Văn hoá Việt nam và cách tiếp cận mới, Hanoi: Nxb Văn Hoá
Thông Tin; Vũ Khiêu (ed.) (1994), Nho giáo xưa và nay, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội; and
Trần Quốc Vượng (1993), Trong cõi, Garden Grove: Trăm Hoa.
48
Being trained in French schools67 and in direct and regular contact with French
literature, the generation of writers who started their career after 1932 were able to free
themselves from the shackles of their traditional culture. They were no longer content
with the middle-of-the-road attitude of their predecessors and totally embraced the new
approach. “Follow the new means to Westernize.”68 And to Westernize, according to
them, primarily meant “to choose the essentials of Western culture in order to apply
them to our lives.”69 Among what was called these “essentials”, the most important
was rationalism. “In the past, we did not live according to reason but according to
prejudices and the undebatable orders of our ancestors”,70 now, on the way to being
Westernized, “before doing anything, we have to deliberate in order to act as a modern
person. After having acted that way, we must consider whether in that procedure the
dregs of conservative-mindedness still remain so that we can exclude them
immediately.”71
With respect to literature, one of the main principles that the Tự Lực Group,
when first established, put forward was: “Apply Western methods to Vietnamese
literature.”72 In the preface of Hồn bướm mơ tiên (Butterfly Heart Dreaming of a
Fairy), Khái Hưng's first work and also the Tự Lực Group's first publication, Nhất Linh
pointed out two characteristics he regarded as being intelligent applications of Western
methods to fiction writing: firstly, nature was only carefully chosen to be depicted in
accordance with the mood of the characters; secondly, the author described subtle
developments in his characters' psychological lives by using appropriate details instead
of prolix analysis.73
67 The French system of education completely replaced the old Chinese-based system in 1918.
68 Hoàng Đạo (1989), Mười điều tâm niệm, Los Alamitos: Xuân Thu. (Originally published about 1938).
69 Ibid.
70 Hoàng Đạo, “Theo mới”, Ngày Nay, no. 33 (November 8, 1936).
71 Hoàng Đạo (1989), op. cit., p. 22.
72 Quoted in Nhật Thịnh (n.d.), Chân dung Nhất Linh, Glendale: Đại Nam, p. 131.
73 Khái Hưng (1970), Hồn bướm mơ tiên, Saigon: Đời Nay. (Originally published in 1933), pp. 5-6.
49
Rationalism also affected poetry: the cohesion requirement led to the adoption
of enjambment, a great reliance on words rarely used in traditional poetry such as
conjunctions and articles, and the imitation of certain French sentence structures.74
Furthermore, rationalism resulted in a flourish of literary criticism in the period
between 1932 and 1945. All of the first critical works came into being in this period
and among these, Thi nhân Việt Nam (Vietnamese Poets) by Hoài Thanh (real name
Nguyễn Đức Nguyên, 1909-82) and Hoài Chân (real name Nguyễn Đức Phiên, the
younger brother of Hoài Thanh) and Nhà văn hiện đại (Modern Writers) by Vũ Ngọc
Phan (1902-87) have been hailed as the two most significant.
The second requirement of Westernization was “how to reconcile individualism
with socialism, and how to act in order to help the individual develop his/her
knowledge, values, and characteristics in society.”75
Critics are virtually unanimous in acclaiming individualism as the essential
characteristic of Vietnamese literature in the period between 1932 and 1945. According
to Hoài Thanh, “in general, the entire spirit of ancient times - or the old poetry - and
the present time - or the new poetry - may be summed up in two words: ‘I’ and ‘We’.
The past is the time of the ‘We’ and the present is that of the ‘I’.”76 Nguyễn Văn Trung
considers the Tự Lực Group's works as typical of the ‘conscience de soi’ period in the
history of Vietnamese literature. “Self-consciousness is the starting point of
awakening, of becoming aware of oneself as a person.”77 It can be argued that not only
this period, but also Vietnamese modern literature as a whole, is a continuing process
of development of individualism with some variations. In the period between 1932 and
74 See Nam Chi, “Những đóng góp của Thế Lữ vào trong thơ Mới”, Đoàn Kết (Paris), no. 420 (January
1990), pp. 25-29, reprinted in Hoài Việt (ed.) (1991), Thế Lữ, cuộc đời trong nghệ thuật, Hanoi:
Nxb Hội Nhà Văn, pp. 22-40; and also Đặng Anh Đào, “Văn học Pháp và sự gặp gỡ với văn
học Việt Nam, 1930-45”, Tạp chí Văn Học (Hanoi) no. 7 (1994), pp. 1-5.
75 Hoàng Đạo, “Theo mới”, Ngày Nay, no. 33 (November 8, 1936).
76 Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân (1967), Thi nhân Việt Nam, op. cit., p. 52.
77 Nguyễn Văn Trung (n.d.), Xây dựng tác phẩm tiểu thuyết, Los Alamitos: Xuân Thu, pp. 75-76.
(Originally published in 1962).
50
1945, the ‘I’ was exploited essentially in its emotional aspect, in relation to nature and
one’s fellow man. In the period between 1945 and 1954, that is, throughout the anti-
French resistance war, it was essentially exploited in its political aspect, in relation to
the nation and the writers' comrades-in-arms. In the period between 1954 and 1975,
particularly in Southern Vietnam, it was exploited from the epistemological viewpoint,
in its relation to history and human destiny. From 1975 onwards, in overseas
Vietnamese literature, it was exploited as a common destiny associated with drastic
historical changes.78
All major manifestations of individualism in the 1932-45 period reflected
aspirations for sincerity and freedom, and as a result, most Vietnamese writers became
distinctive individuals both in their writings and in their lives. Dropping all reserve,
they began to express deep-felt thoughts and emotions.
Poets not only appeared in their writings as subjects and individuals but also
asserted their ‘ego’ as something quite personal and unique. Thế Lữ (1907-89) was a
passionate lover, Xuân Diệu (1917-85), “the bird from a strange fountain”, Huy Cận
(born 1919) “a tiny soul with immense, age-old sadness”, Vũ Hoàng Chương (1916-
76) an inebriate, Lưu Trọng Lư (1911-91) an adventurer, Trần Huyền Trân (1913-88) a
lonely traveller, and so on.79 Each had his own countenance, his own style. Never
before had Vietnamese poetry flourished as it did.
More positive than poets, prose writers not only expressed their ego in their
writings but they also explicitly called for a struggle for individual liberation. This was
first limited to the domain of culture: it aimed at freeing individuals from the strict ties
of the extended family system and obsolete Confucian ethics; it required that young
people should be free to choose their lovers and marriage partners, that women could
78 For more details, see Nguyễn Hưng Quốc, “15 năm văn học lưu vong, bản chất và đặc điểm”, Văn
Học (California), nos. 47-48 (January 1990), pp. 9-26; translated into English by Hoài An and
published in Journal of Vietnamese Studies, no. 5 (under the title ‘The Vietnamese Literature in
Exile’, pp. 24-34); and also in Nguyễn Xuân Thu (ed.) (1994), Vietnamese Studies in a
Multicultural World, Melbourne: Vietnamese Language and Cultural Publications, pp. 144-157.
79 These poets’ works and the comments on them can be found in Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân (1967), op.
cit.
51
remarry after their husband's death, and that everyone should have the freedom to
pursue their ideals. After a while, owing to the influence of the Popular Front in France
(1936-39), many writers went further by extending the struggle to the social domain:
they advocated liberating individuals from outdated customs, backward organizations
and social injustice, oppression and exploitation by landlords as well as by village
tyrants.
It may be said that Western influence on Vietnamese literature reached its peak
in the period between 1932 and 1945. It was so strong that in Thi nhân Việt Nam, when
writing about the New Poetry movement, Hoài Thanh sometimes felt an unbearable
burden: “It seems that each Vietnamese poet carries five or seven French poets in
his/her head.”80 Thế Lữ was influenced by Alphonse de Lamartine; Huy Thông (1916-
88) by Victor Hugo; Huy Cận by Paul Verlaine; Xuân Diệu by Charles Baudelaire,
Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine and de Noailles; Hàn Mặc Tử (1912-40) and Bích Khê
(1915-46) by Charles Baudelaire and through Baudelaire, by Edgar Poe and later by
Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Valéry. Some poets at times did not hesitate to “borrow”
ideas or images or adopt some poetic expressions from their French idols.81 In the
realm of fiction, the situation was the same. The Tự Lực Group's works were first
influenced by Lamartine, Chateaubriand and later, André Gide, Anatole France and
Marcel Proust. Writers who were later labelled realists, such as Nguyễn Công Hoan
(1903-77) and Vũ Trọng Phụng (1911-39), were influenced by Honoré de Balzac,
Stendhal (pseudonym of Henri Beyle), Emile Zola, and so on.82 Tô Hoài (born 1920)
80 Ibid., p. 34.
81 See Xuân Diệu, “Apport de la poésie francaise dans la poésie vietnamienne moderne”, The Vietnam
Forum, no. 5 (Winter - Spring 1985), pp. 146-163; and Nguyễn Vỹ (1994), Văn thi sĩ tiền
chiến, Hanoi: Nxb Hội Nhà Văn, pp. 115-118.
82 For a brief discussion of French influence on Vietnamese writers of this period, see Phan Ngọc (1993),
“Ảnh hưởng của văn học Pháp tới văn học Việt Nam trong giai đoạn 1932-40”, Tạp chí Văn
Học (Hanoi), no. 4 (1993), pp. 25-27; Công Huyền Tôn Nữ Nha Trang, “The Role of French
Romanticism in the New Poetry Movement in Vietnam”, in Trương Bửu Lâm (ed.) (1987),
Borrowings and Adaptions in Vietnamese Culture, Honolulu: Centre for Southeast Asian
Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa, pp. 52-62; Bùi Xuân Bào (1972), Le roman vietnamien
contemporain, Saigon: Tủ sách Nhân văn Xã hội; and Phan Cự Đệ (ed.) (1970), Tự Lực văn
đoàn, con người và văn chương, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp. 37-43.
52
was influenced by Guy de Maupassant, Alphonse Daudet and Maurice Maeterlinck. As
Tô Hoài himself admitted, his Dế mèn phiêu lưu ký, published in 1941, was influenced
by Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels and Les Adventures de Télemaque, which he had
read in translations in the “Âu Tây tư tưởng” series, edited and published by Nguyễn
Văn Vĩnh.83
Generally speaking, in the literary period between 1932 and 1945, Baudelaire
and Gide were the two most admired French figures. It may be said that most
Vietnamese poets were to some extent, in Hoài Thanh's words, “obsessed by
Baudelaire”,84 whereas most writers were more or less influenced by André Gide,
mainly through his “acte gratuit” (free act) concept, his quest for happiness and for
liberation from the dead weight of his upbringing and heredity, and his taste for
spiritual restlessness for its own sake. Gide's stamp was more or less visible in the
works of Nhất Linh (1905-63), Khái Hưng (1896-47) and Nguyễn Tuân (1910-87).85
The process of Westernization of literature had great significance. Firstly, it
helped Vietnamese literature blossom and led to changes in all aspects, from language
to genre, and from aesthetical thought to artistic style. Secondly, it contributed to
speeding up the process of integration of Vietnamese literature into world literature.
According to a number of critics, in nearly fifteen years - between 1932 and 1945 -
Vietnamese poets and writers reflected most of the literary tendencies which had come
into being and developed in France during the nineteenth century: romanticism,
Parnassianism and symbolism in poetry, and romanticism, realism and naturalism in
prose.86
83 Tô Hoài, “Những quãng đường”, Tác Phẩm Mới, no. 16 (November and December 1971), p. 7.
84 Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân (1967), op. cit., p. 34.
85 See Phan Ngọc (1993), ibid.; and Đặng Tiến, “Hạnh phúc trong tác phẩm Nhất Linh”, Văn (Saigon),
no. 37 (1 July 1965).
86 See, for instance, Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân (1967), op. cit., pp. 33-34; and Phan Cự Đệ, Hà Văn
Đức and Nguyễn Hoành Khung (1988), op. cit., p. 66.
53
However, even in its heyday, Western influence on the literature of Vietnam,
compared with other Asian countries, was very limited. Indeed, while at the turn of the
century, Chinese poets and writers could fully appreciate modern trends in the
literature of France, Germany, England, America, Russia, Poland, Greece and Japan,87
Vietnamese literati, up to the 1930s, apart from the Chinese classics, knew only French
literature. Non-Chinese and non-French authors whose works were translated into
Vietnamese or even read in Vietnam were very few: Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Swift,
Stevenson and Walter Scott. Moreover, the vast majority of Vietnamese poets and
writers only had a limited knowledge of French literature through the educational
system, mainly in high schools, where curricula centered on classical literature. French
books and literary journals were rarely imported and people generally could not afford
them. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that Vietnamese writers' knowledge
about French or world literature in general was limited and not updated. While their
Chinese colleagues understood profoundly American and British imagism, German
impressionism, French dadaism and many other avant-garde movements,88 Phạm
Quỳnh, who was regarded as the most erudite scholar of the 1920s, seems to have been
only well acquainted with French seventeenth-century literature. In his fifty-page
treatise on French literary history, the second half of the nineteenth century was
presented in just one sentence: “Following realism, there were many other schools such
as symbolism, Parnassianism etc. in which flags were many but good generals (tướng
giỏi) were very few.”89
In the following decades, Vietnamese writers' knowledge of French literature
was becoming more up-to-date partly because the number of students being educated
in France increased greatly, and partly because in the Popular Front period, the cultural
87 See B.S. McDougall (1981), The Introduction of Western Literary Theories into Modern China,
Tokyo: The Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies; Marián Gálik (1980), The Genesis of
Modern Chinese Literary Criticism (1917-1930), London: Curzon Press; and Merle Goldman
(ed.) (1974), Modern Chinese Literature in the May Fourth Era, Cambridge: Harvard
University Press.
88 Ibid.
89 Phạm Quỳnh (1943), Thượng Chi văn tập, vol. 5, Hanoi: Edition Alexandre de Rhodes, p. 130.
54
closed-door policy of the colonial authorities was becoming less strict.90 Anyhow,
Đặng Thai Mai (1902-84), who was largely regarded as a highly qualified expert in
modern Chinese literature and who first translated Lu Xun into Vietnamese, only heard
of Lu after Lu's death in 1936 and read his works three years later.91 Nearly a century
after its blossoming in France, realism and romanticism appeared in Vietnam; nearly
half a century after its birth, symbolism was only weakly nascent in the works of a few
Vietnamese poets, including Bích Khê, Xuân Sanh (born 1920), Xuân Diệu, Hàn Mặc
Tử and Chế Lan Viên.
The artists and writers' late and limited exposure to Western literature resulted
in the unsettled nature of Vietnamese literature, even at its acme. Creative writing
developed rapidly, whereas literary thought still marked time. Until the end of the
nineteen-thirties, no work of literary theory had been published. In the first three
decades of the twentieth century, most writers pursued their creative careers while
slighting literature. For Nguyễn Bá Học (1857-1921), “only novels, reports, essays and
public speeches are useful literature, while poetry and folk song are not worth a cent in
spite of their beautiful forms.”92 Echoing him, Phạm Quỳnh considered that apart from
essays and public speeches, all literary genres, from fiction to poetry and drama, were
“recreational literature” (văn chương chơi), useless for disseminating knowledge.93
Such attitudes were indeed understandable, however. Since the beginning of the
twentieth century, along with the discovery that underdevelopment would lead to loss
of national independence, Vietnamese literati understood that the cause of that
underdevelopment lay in the cult of the “empty” belletrism (hư văn) which had
remained in vogue in literary circles for a thousand years: instead of studying the
sciences in order to advance technology, develop the economy and enrich the country,
all of the most intelligent young people were completely wrapped up in the learning of
90 Trương Chính, “Nhìn lại văn học Ngũ tứ của Trung Quốc”, Tạp chí Văn Học (Hanoi), no. 3 (1989), p.
54.
91 Đặng Thai Mai (1969), Trên đường học tập và nghiên cứu, vol. 2, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp. 199-201.
92 Quoted in Thanh Lãng (1973), op. cit., p. 80; and ibid., p. 81.
93 Ibid., p. 81.
55
Chinese classics and then engrossed in writing poems. When the country faced the
threat of foreign aggression, nobody knew what to do and finally everyone resigned
themselves to servitude. This is one reason why the modernization campaign was
carried out simultaneously with the campaign against belletrism. Phan Châu Trinh
began to win nation-wide fame with his poem “Chí thành thông thánh”, in which there
is a doleful couplet: “Vạn dân nô lệ cường quyền hạ / Bát cổ văn chương tuý mộng
trung” (While tens of thousands of our countrymen are exploited by cruel powers,
intellectuals are still dead drunk in the “eight-legged” essay).94 This psychological
profile was visible for decades, making the prevailing literary thought seriously
pragmatic. Among the nine guiding principles of the Tự Lực Literary Group, only two
were about literature: (i) adopting Western creative methods and (ii) using a simple
style with few Sino-Vietnamese words. The rest of these principles aimed at reforming
Vietnamese culture and society.95 In Hoàng Đạo's Mười điều tâm niệm (Ten
Commandments), which is conventionally regarded as the Tự Lực Literary Group's
theoretical platform, none had anything to do with literature. A number of writers and
poets created some manifesto-like writings, such as Thế Lữ in “Cây đàn muôn điệu”
(The Lyre of Myriad Tunes), Xuân Diệu in “Cảm xúc” (Feelings and Emotions) and
“Lời vào tập Gửi hương” (Prologue to Gửi hương cho gió ), Nam Cao (1917-51) in his
short story “Trăng sáng” (Bright Moonlight); but all were mere perceptions through
feelings. Only the Xuân Thu Nhã Tập Group had its own manifesto, but regretfully
none of its members were gifted poets or clear-thinking theorists. It appeared that in
their reading of French literature, Vietnamese writers and poets only concerned
themselves with imaginative writings without delving into the theoretical foundations
of each author and each school. The result of this weakness was instability in their own
creations.
Some time ago, Vietnamese scholars, particularly those in the North, had the
habit of dividing the literature of the 1932-1945 period into three categories: romantic,
realistic and revolutionary. But recently they have come to realize that this division is
94 Huỳnh Lý (ed.) (1983), Thơ văn Phan Châu Trinh, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 58.
95 Phong Hoá, no. 87 (March 2, 1934); reprinted in Nhật Thịnh (n.d.), op. cit., p. 131.
56
quite inappropriate.96 Indeed, theoretically the boundaries between the above trends
were not as clear-cut as they had thought, and practically speaking, no Vietnamese
writer or poet was really unmixed in his/her style. Most had been both romantic and
realistic, or romantic in one work but realistic in another. Members of the Tự Lực
Literary Group are considered to be romantic whilst Thạch Lam's Gió đầu mùa (First
Seasonal Wind) and Khái Hưng's Thoát ly (Escape) and Thừa tự (Inheritance) are
realistic. In contrast, Nguyễn Công Hoan and Vũ Trọng Phụng, who are considered to
be masters of Vietnamese realism, wrote some romantic novels such as Tắt lửa lòng
(End of Passion) and Dứt tình (Divorce).
With such a poor and unstable theoretical heritage, Vietnamese writers and
poets in 1935 started a “pen-war” over the matter of “art for art's sake” or “art for
human life's sake”97 and through this process became familiar with Marxist literary
thinking, which was to become a dominant factor in the shaping of current Vietnamese
literature.
96 See Nguyễn Đăng Mạnh, “Hiện thực và lãng mạn”, Văn Nghệ, no. 31 (August 1, 1992), p. 7; and Phan
Cự Đệ, Hà Văn Đức and Nguyễn Hoành Khung (1988), op. cit., p. 66.
97 See Huệ-Tâm Hồ Tài, “Literature for the People: from Soviet Policies to Vietnamese Polemics”, in
Trương Bửu Lâm (ed.) (1987), op. cit., pp. 63-83.
57
CHAPTER TWO
The Pen-War over the Matter
of Art for Art’s Sake versus Art for Human Life’s Sake
The polemic between proponents of art for art's sake and art for human life's
sake first broke out early in 1935 between Thiếu Sơn (1907-78), and then Hoài Thanh
(1909-82) on the one side, and Hải Triều (1908-54) on the other. From the beginning
of 1936 to the middle of 1939, the defenders of each side became more and more
numerous: on the "pure art" side, Lưu Trọng Lư, Lê Tràng Kiều and Lan Khai replaced
Hoài Thanh, who dropped out early; the art for human life's sake side was more
crowded and noisy: its advocates formed what they called ‘a united front’ consisting
of, apart from Hải Triều, many minor and almost unknown journalists such as Hồ
Xanh, Hải Thanh, Hải Khách (pen name of Trần Huy Liệu), Hải Âu, Sơn Trà, Thạch
Động, Hoa Sơn, Lâm Mộng Quang, Hoàng Tân Dân, Phan Văn Hùm, Bùi Công Trừng,
Cao Văn Chánh and Khương Hữu Tài.
Two points should be mentioned here. First, the polemic in fact did not last
continuously from 1935 to 1939 as Huệ Tâm Hồ Tài asserted: “... begun in 1935, it was
waged fitfully over the next ten years, and might have gone longer had not war
intervened.”1 In 1937 and 1938, surprisingly and almost without reason, the voices on
both sides fell silent. The debate, therefore, actually lasted only two and a half years.
However, it was certainly one of the most protracted and heated polemics in
Vietnamese literary history. Second, it mobilized a large number of participants, most
1 Huệ-Tâm Hồ Tài (1987), “Literature for the People: From Soviet Policies to Vietnamese Polemics”, in
Trương Bửu Lâm (ed.), Borrowings and Adaptions in Vietnamese Culture, Honolulu: Center
for Southeast Asia Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa, pp. 63-82.
58
of whom, especially on the side of art for human life's sake, were not professional
writers and poets but political agitators, either Trotskyists or Vietnamese Communist
Party members, who saw their involvement in the debate as a chance to propagate their
party's policies, and as an exercise in revolutionary activity. Behaving like contenders
in a civil war, their manner of speech was political rather than literary. Aesthetic
culture was either ignored or viewed as a battleground secondary to the class struggle.
This explains some odd, and sometimes paradoxical, phenomena with which, until
now, few historians have concerned themselves. For example, during and after the
polemic, all defenders of art for art's sake always refused the label applied to them.
Hoài Thanh declared several times that he had no theory,2 and that his view as well as
his friends' “are not similar to that of advocates of the pure art view in French literary
history.”3 This was true. As Frances FitzGerald rightly notes, “[a]s Confucians, the
Vietnamese had never been interested in diversity or originality for its own sake. From
their intellectuals they required only what was ‘morally enlightening’, or in Communist
language ‘socially useful’.”4 Under such an influence, which is by nature a practical
and pragmatic philosophy, emphasizing responsibility and sacrifice, asserting the
priority of content over form, the Vietnamese found it hard to accept the purely artistic
view of French nineteenth-century writers.
This “pure art” viewpoint, which first came into being in Kant's and Schiller's
aesthetics, was imported into France in the early nineteenth century through Benjamin
Constant's Diary in 1804 and Mme de Stael's De l'Allemagne in 1813, more
particularly through Victor Cousin' s lectures at the Sorbonne from 1816 to 1818 and
Théodore Jouffroy’s course on aesthetics in 1828. It was finally formalized into a
doctrine by Théophile Gautier (1811-72) in the 1830s.5
2 Hoài Thanh (1999), Toàn tập, vol. 1, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 43.
3 Hoài Thanh (1960), “Nhìn lại cuộc tranh luận về văn nghệ hồi 1935-1936”, Tạp chí Văn Học (Hanoi),
no. 1 (1960), reprinted in Hoài Thanh (1982), Tuyển tập, vol. 2, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp. 257-293.
4 Frances FitzGerald (1972), Fire in the Lake, the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, New York:
Vintage, p. 272.
5 See René Wellek (1965), A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, vol. 3: ‘The Age of Transition’,
59
Identifying the beautiful with the good, placing it on an equal footing with God,
Gautier expressed his cult of beauty sporadically in many different works, particularly
in the prefaces to Poésie (1830), his first collection of poems, and Mademoiselle de
Maupin (1834), a novel of erotic passion and pagan beauty. Differently from the
realists, Gautier claimed that the goal of art was not to mirror some external reality or
truth but to present a microcosm of the artist's soul. He wrote in 1841: “When M.
Delacroix paints a picture, he looks within himself rather than looking out of the
window.”6 Unlike the romantic artists, who emphasized sincerity and spontaneity of
emotion over formal writing technique, Gautier asserted that for poets, “[t]he words
should have, in themselves and beyond the meaning they denote, a proper beauty and
value.”7 And unlike the neo-classical writers, who overemphasized the didactic
function of literature, Gautier insisted that literature was not a means but an end in
itself, and that “any artist who aims to anything other than the beautiful is not an artist
in our view.”8 As a would-be painter, Gautier wanted to transpose beauty into words
or, in another words, to make poetry - and literature in general - a plastic art. As an
extreme aesthete, Gautier thought that literature should not be expected to be useful.
He writes in the preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin:
Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless; everything useful is ugly, for it
expresses a need, and the needs of man are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor
weak nature. The most useful place in a house is the latrine. For myself… I am
among those to whom the superfluous is necessary… I prefer to a certain useful
pot a Chinese pot which is sprinkled with mandarins and dragons.9
Although Théophile Gautier was not recognized as a great theorist or critic, his
doctrine had a paramountly important impact in Western literary thought. It directly
London: Jonathan Cape, pp. 29-33; and W. K. Wimsatt and C. Brooks (1957), Literary
Criticism, a Short History, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, pp. 475-498.
6 Quoted in R. B. Grant (1975), Theophile Gautier, Boston: Twayne Publishers, p. 46.
7 Quoted in P. E. Tennant (1975), Theophile Gautier, London: The Athlone Press, p. 27.
8 Ibid., p. 14.
9 Theophile Gautier (1981), Mademoiselle de Maupin, translated by Joanna Richardson,
Harmondsworth: Penguin, p. 39.
60
encouraged the cult of artistic perfection and the emphasis on plastic beauty in
Parnassianism. Traces of it can be seen in French dadaism in the late 1910s, Russian
formalism in the 1920s, and structuralism in the 1960s. However, in Vietnam, its
influence was very weak. In the polemic of 1935-39, no defenders of the pure art side
were to adapt Gautier's stand completely. In fact, it is not sure that they had the
opportunity of reading and understanding very much of Gautier's aesthetic doctrine.
More than twenty years after the debate, in 1960, in his article “Nhìn lại cuộc tranh
luận về nghệ thuật hồi 1935-1936” (Looking back on the debate about art in 1935 and
1936), Hoài Thanh still asserted that he himself and his friends:
are different from Theophile Gautier, who brought forward the art for art's sake
doctrine in French literary history, and who maintained that poets should be
impassive to nature and look for visual art-like beauty.10
Hoài Thanh was mistaken because the above two characteristics in fact
belonged to the Parnassians. Although the Parnassian poets were quite deeply
influenced by Gautier, their viewpoints showed some differences: According to René
Wellek, Gautier “did not share their [the Parnassians'] objectivity and never felt
impassibilité himself.”11
Both Thiếu Sơn and Hoài Thanh were self-taught intellectuals. In the mid-
1930s, after finishing high school, Hoài Thanh worked in a printing house and taught at
a local school in Huế,12 whereas Thiếu Sơn was a staff member at the Gia Ðịnh Post
Office.13 They were never trained in theory, and in fact they were not interested in
theory. As Hoài Thanh confessed: “I am scared of theory.”14 Owing to their haphazard
contact with different Western movements, and to their weakness in theoretical
10 Hoài Thanh (1982), Tuyển tập, vol. 2, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp. 261-262.
11 René Wellek (1965), op. cit., p. 32. See further P. E. Tennant (1975), op. cit., p. 126.
12 Từ Sơn and Phan Hồng Giang (eds.) (2000), Hoài Thanh với khát vọng Chân - Thiện - Mỹ, Hanoi:
Nxb Hội Nhà Văn, pp.31-2.
13 Thiếu Sơn (1993), Những văn nhân chính khách một thời, Hanoi: Lao Ðộng, p. 287.
14 Hoài Thanh (1999), op. cit., p. 42.
61
knowledge, Thiếu Sơn, Hoài Thanh and other writers on the pure art side developed a
literary standpoint consisting of one common characteristic: eclecticism. In their
thoughts, there was at the same time a little of everything - neo-classicism, realism,
romanticism, aestheticism and a little modernism, mainly under the influence of André
Gide - not to mention that they were also influenced by Chinese and Vietnamese
traditional literary theories, which were not easy for them to ignore.
The polemic came to light when Thiếu Sơn’s articles entitled “Two Views on
Literature” and “Art and Life” were published in Tiểu Thuyết Thứ Bảy (Saturday
Fiction) no. 38, February 1, 1935 and no. 41, March 9, 1935. In his first article, after
criticizing what he claimed to be the narrow and erroneous concepts of Nguyễn Bá Học
(1857-1921) and Phạm Quỳnh (1892-1945) as well as of most Confucian scholars who
regarded literature as a means to achieve educational, ethical or scientific goals, Thiếu
Sơn declared that “literature has to set art or beauty as its main goal”.15 In his second
article, after commending French writers' objective attitudes towards literature and art
evaluation, he wrote:
... literature only needs one ism, which is looking for and describing the beauty of
things... Those who want to live with literature first have to liberate their hearts
from all moral, social, political and religious prejudices, and then concern
themselves with nothing but art.16
Basing their criticism mainly on these two pronouncements, Hải Triều, and
later a large number of Marxist writers, claimed that Thiếu Sơn was an advocate of the
pure art doctrine. In fact, that was not the case. In his two articles, Thiếu Sơn had
aimed at (i) differentiating belles-lettres from academic writings; (ii) praising the
former for its great creative value and (iii) insisting that belles-lettres should be artful
and first evaluated from aesthetic standards rather than from moral principles and party
or class interests.
15 Thiếu Sơn, “Hai cái quan niệm về văn học”, Tiểu thuyết Thứ Bảy, no. 37 (1935), reprinted in Thanh
Lãng (1973), Phê bình văn học thế hệ 1932, Saigon: Phong trào văn hoá, p. 81.
16 Thiếu Sơn, “Nghệ thuật với đời người”, Tiểu thuyết Thứ Bảy, no. 41 (1935), reprinted in Thanh Lãng
(1973), op. cit., p. 86.
62
Thiếu Sơn’s view was fairly novel. At that time, apart from him, Võ Liêm Sơn
(1888-1949), in his article “Văn học với xã hội” (Literature and Society) written in
1927 and published in 1934, expressed the same view, stating that only belles-lettres
were in the realm of art, whereas technical writings belonged to the field of science.17
It may be said that in the domain of creation, syncreticism as one of the characteristics
of Vietnamese classical literature was abolished quite early, at the beginning of the
twentieth century; and in the field of theory, it was completely abandoned in the early
1930s with Thiếu Sơn’s and Võ Liêm Sơn’s articles.
However, it is hard to say that Thiếu Sơn was a theorist, for he merely chose a
quite popular viewpoint in French literature as an assumption from which to draw
some applications to the creation, appreciation and evaluation of literature, but he did
not delve into any specific issue. In his own works, he never expressed his view on
what might constitute Beauty. Certainly, it was not formal beauty. Reading Nguyễn
Công Hoan’s Kép Tư Bền (Actor Tư Bền), he discovered that:
Hoan's outstanding characteristic is that he can purposefully observe everything
around him, find out funny details, depict his characters in his extraordinarily
quaint ways, ask and answer in an interesting tone and structure his stories into
tragi-comedies.18
Finally, he concluded:
All short stories in this book are interesting movies, but each has its own
distinctiveness because their author's art changes and varies according to life.19
It appears that, with respect to aesthetics, Thiếu Sơn was very close to the
realists: for him, an interesting work was a work reflecting life as lively and varied as
life itself; one of the most important writing requisites was the ability to observe and
choose details in order to represent reality through words. From this view, Thiếu Sơn
17 Võ Liêm Sơn, “Văn học với xã hội”, reprinted in Nguyễn Đăng Mạnh (ed.) (1987), Hợp tuyển thơ
văn Việt Nam, tome 5, vol. 1, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 398. Originally published in 1934.
18 Thiếu Sơn, “Phê bình Kép Tư Bền của Nguyễn Công Hoan”, Tiểu thuyết Thứ Bảy, 27 July 1935,
reprinted in Thanh Lãng (1973), op. cit., pp. 115-6.
19 Ibid.
63
once defined novelists as “those who are in life to talk about the life stories to
people”.20 He always paid attention to the topic because he emphasized the role of
‘stories of life’ - or reality. In his opinion, any society was divided into two classes: the
upper class and the lower class. If “writers only mention the first and ignore the
second, literature will have many deficiencies for it cannot picture all forms of human
lives.”21 He then concluded that once “the masses have a place in literature, literature
will become complete and perfect as it will portray all kinds of people and be a mirror
reflecting totally the true nature of society.”22
Hoài Thanh is undoubtedly more talented and clever than Thiếu Sơn. While
Thiếu Sơn was a journalist who engaged at times in general reflection on literature and
commenting in a leisurely way, Hoài Thanh was a professional critic of considerable
reputation and influence, who, about seven years after the polemic, published his major
critical collection, co-authored by Hoài Chân, Thi nhân Việt Nam (Vietnamese Poets)
(1942), which has been widely seen as one of the finest production, or even the finest,
of Vietnamese literary criticism in the twentieth century. However, like Thiếu Sơn,
Hoài Thanh was a self-taught scholar. His view of literature was entangled in
contradictions. Like Thiếu Sơn, he insisted that “One can have any kind of literature
one likes but first it must be literature.”23 ‘It must be literature’ means that it must be
aesthetic. But what needs to be aesthetic? The object depicted or the way of depicting
it? It is not certain whether it was unintentional or deliberate that Hoài Thanh always
stressed the first factor:
The landscape and human heart are similar to a thick forest covered with fragrant
and oddly colored flowers which, when visiting them, people generally fail to
notice, thereby missing a lot of picturesque sights and phenomena because they
20 Thiếu Sơn, “Nhà viết tiểu thuyết”, Tiểu thuyết Thứ Bảy, no. 73 (19 October 1935), reprinted in
Thanh Lãng (1973), ibid., 125.
21 Thiếu Sơn, “Văn học bình dân”, Tiểu thuyết Thứ Bảy, no. 43 (23 March1935), reprinted in Thanh
Lãng (1973), ibid., p. 92.
22 Ibid., p. 92.
23 Hoài Thanh, “Văn chương là văn chương”, Tràng An, 15 August 1935; reprinted in Thanh Lãng
(1974), op. cit., p. 119.
64
are too busy plucking bamboo shoots and digging up tubers. Physical activities are
like a black curtain separating our perception from the profound truth. The
responsibility of art as well as of literature is to draw up that curtain - to find out
what is interesting, beautiful and extraordinary in nature and in the human soul,
and then use words or a stone, or a painting in order to share feelings.24
Thus, according to Hoài Thanh, writers and poets had a simple task: that of
discovering the beauty of life; and in order to achieve this task, the most important
requirement was to be sensitive and know how to throb naturally with emotions.25 That
is why Hoài Thanh required that writers and poets should be sincere and freed not only
from political despotism but also from the restraints of society, public opinion and
narrow and rigid literary conventions, which were regarded as ideals of beauty.26
Unlike Thiếu Sơn, Hoài Thanh usually emphasized the “human heart” factor, or the
emotion factor in literature. He considered “the source of literature as feelings and
philanthropy.”27 And the functions of literature, if there were any, were also limited to
the emotional aspect: "Literature brings us feelings that we have not had and those we
have experienced. Thanks to it, our cramped and superficial lives become much deeper
and broader."28
The special point of Hoài Thanh's view on literature is that he - perhaps the first
in Vietnam - discovered the relative autonomy of literature: the world in a literary work
was independent from the real world. “A thief who is brought into a work of art is no
longer a thief. He is a person, and his miseries as a Person (Person with a capital letter)
have an eternal quality.”29 Taking this standpoint, Hoài Thanh overcame the tendency
of identifying authors and their works, a popular practice often found in Vietnamese
24 Hoài Thanh, “Ý nghĩa và công dụng của văn chương”, Tao Đàn, no. 7 (1 June 1939); quoted in Hoài
Thanh (1982), op. cit., p. 261; excerpted in Thanh Lãng (1974), op. cit., p. 187.
25 Quoted in Thanh Lãng (1973), op. cit., pp. 108-9.
26 Ibid., pp. 182-6.
27 Ibid., p. 188.
28 Ibid., p. 188.
29 Ibid., p. 120.
65
traditional literary views. In this, Hoài Thanh had come round to a position similar to
that of W.K. Wimsatt, the author of “The Intentional Fallacy”,30 who believed that the
writer's intention did not have any effect on his work once it was already
accomplished, and that therefore we should not use it to evaluate any work.
The Italian writer, Dante Alighieri, published his Divine Comedy with the
intention of attacking his enemies. But reading it nowadays, we no longer take any
interest in that attack. A large number of people who do not have a passion for
Christianity like to read Chateaubriand's Atala and René. We do not care about the
theme and are merely interested in literature.31
However, within and forevermore after the debate, Hoài Thanh did not become
a romanticist or a formalist. The sense of responsibility for the community and society
which he had received in the Vietnamese cultural and educational environment held
him back. It was not without reason that he chose the pen name "Hoài Thanh": he
aimed to remember (hoài) the name of his teacher and comrade (Thanh), who had
guided him to an anti-French Revolutionary stand.32 It is understandable why, although
he did not highly value Tam Lang's report Tôi kéo xe (I Drive a Rickshaw), he
introduced it with alacrity and commended it favorably in his newspaper as "a deed of
great moral and social value" with the hope that
... if among people who read that report, there were a person who is concerned
with the gloomy world of a rickshaw driver, is moved to pity by his sufferings and
is lenient when riding on a rickshaw, Tam Lang's task would have become very
useful.33
The altercation between the sense of responsibility and the formalist aesthetic
viewpoint resulted in many contradictions in Hoài Thanh's article. On the one hand, he
30 W.K. Wimsatt (1946), ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, reprinted in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the
Meaning of Poetry, London: Methuen, pp. 3-18.
31 Quoted in Thanh Lãng (1973), op. cit., p. 181.
32 Hoài Chân, “Kỷ niệm về anh Hoài Thanh và Thi nhân Việt Nam” in Từ Sơn (ed.) (1993), Hoài
Thanh, di bút và di cảo, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 179.
33 Quoted in Thanh Lãng (1973), op. cit., p. 126.
66
compared "literary production with a flower";34 on the other, he declared that
"literature - I do not mean writers - has no right to stand in the high clouds, watching
indifferently the violent vicissitudes of life".35 On the one hand, Hoài Thanh now
encouraged writers "to develop their identities";36 on the other, he complained about
Vietnamese writers' nonchalance in describing the miserable life and obsolete customs
of the peasants.37 On the one hand, he praised Gide's view - "an aesthetic work is
useful for readers"38 - and demanded that "art must help people to react against natural
situations and their nature", for only by doing so does art fulfill the requirements of
present-day living;39 on the other, he wrote:
A writer is a person who lives within a society. Of course he should fulfill his
social duty as best as he can. I want to insist that a writer sometimes has to defend
the weak by opposing the rich and powerful, but at that juncture he no longer
creates but merely does his duty as a writer.40
Thus neither Thiếu Sơn nor Hoài Thanh really advocated art for art's sake.
Furthermore, they asserted that “in the final analysis, any art is for human life's sake,
be it in the material or the spiritual realm”.41 It is hard to say that these were just empty
words. It should be mentioned that Văn chương và hành động (Literature and Action),
a collection of Hoài Thanh's articles on literature in the debating period, was
confiscated by the Secret Police Bureau before it was distributed in 1936, and at the
34 Ibid., p. 120.
35 Ibid., p. 110.
36 Ibid., p. 130.
37 Ibid., pp. 132-133.
38 Ibid., p. 121.
39 Ibid., p. 110.
40 Ibid., p. 120.
41 Quoted in Hoài Thanh (1982), op. cit., p. 261.
67
same time Hoài Thanh himself was forbidden to write in the Tràng An newspaper
because of his anti-French writings.42
A question must be asked: Why were Thiếu Sơn and Hoài Thanh labelled
defenders of pure art and attacked by Marxist writers when they did not advocate this
view?
There are probably many reasons. Firstly, Marxist writers at that time perhaps
did not have a clear view of what was art for art's sake and what was art for human
life's sake. According to Hải Triều, all those who did not regard literature as a weapon
for social struggle were supporters of pure art.43 Even Hoài Thanh, twenty years later,
upon becoming a Marxist critic and a high-ranking cadre in the Communist Party's
domain of literature and art, changed his way of thinking and asserted that any writer
who divorced himself/herself from politics and had no consideration for it was for pure
art.44 While their understanding of the ‘pure art’ concept was too broad, their
understanding of art for human life's sake was too limited: in Hải Triều’s vocabulary
throughout the debate, the term ‘art for human life's sake’ is synonymous with ‘art for
the sake of the common people's life’. Although Hải Triều later rectified this mistake
and insisted that it should be ‘art for human life's sake’,45 Hoài Thanh proved that the
term “art for the sake of the common people's life” expressed correctly the ideas of Hải
Triều as well as those of the Marxist writers, because for them “art must help the
common people in their daily life activities”. By the expression "the common people's
life" he probably meant plebeian activity as we usually understand it, whereas "human
42 Ibid., p. 259.
43 Hải Triều, “Sự tiến hoá của văn học và sự tiến hoá của nhân sinh”, Đông Phương, no. 872 (12
August 1933) and no. 873 (19 August 1933); “Nghệ thuật vị nghệ thuật hay nghệ thuật vị nhân
sinh”, Đời Mới, March 1935 and 7 April 1935. Both articles were reprinted in Hải Triều (1969),
Về văn học nghệ thuật, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp. 10-28.
44 Ibid., p. 261.
45 Hải Triều, “Nghệ thuật và sinh hoạt xã hội”, Tin Văn in 1935, reprinted in Trần Thanh Đạm and
Hoàng Nhân (eds.) (1991), Tuyển tập thơ văn Huế Bình Trị Thiên, Ho Chi Minh City: Nxb
Thành phố HCM, pp. 229-240.
68
life" had a broader meaning”.46 Secondly, it seems that the real target of Marxist
writers was the whole romantic literature of that time. In the communists' eyes, this
very soft and poetic literature was a source of great dangers as it lulled the masses into
a dream and hampered their process of growing aware of revolutionary ideals.
However, Marxist writers had more than enough cleverness not to directly face the Tự
Lực Group, which was very famous and influential: indeed this group owned a
publishing company (Đời Nay) and two magazines (Phong Hoá and Ngày Nay) with
the highest circulation of that time.47 Therefore, possibly because of one simple and
tactical reason, Thiếu Sơn was chosen as a target: he was a young writer who as yet did
not have a wide reputation and more particularly did not have any means to defend
himself. As Trần Huy Liệu later wrote in his posthumous Hồi ký (Autobiography),
published in 1991, for Marxist writers in the period of 1930-45, when Vietnam was
under French colonialism, the last factor was extremely important because they
understood the weakness of their position: most newspapers they contributed to were in
a precarious financial situation and could be easily shut down, and their circulation was
usually limited to one region.48
Thus both Hoài Thanh and Thiếu Sơn constituted only a pretext for Marxist
writers to launch a pen-war by which they introduced and propagandized their party's
views on art and literature as well as those on political and social issues. This resulted
in the second characteristic of the debate: it was a series of monologues rather than a
debate. The so-called polemical writings were seldom related to one another. Writers
rarely analyzed and criticized the arguments of their rivals. Their articles generally
concentrated on three issues: (i) to continue to develop the Marxist view of art and
46 Quoted in Nguyễn Phúc, “Nhìn lại cái gọi là thuyết vị nghệ thuật của Hoài Thanh”, Tạp chí Văn Học
(Hanoi), no. 2 (1993), p. 29.
47 For more details on the Tự Lực Literary Group, see Phạm Thế Ngũ (n.d.), Việt Nam văn học sử giản
ước tân biên, vol. 3, Glendale (California): Ðại Nam, pp. 430-500; Tú Mỡ (1996), Toàn tập,
vol. 1, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp. 561-601; Nhật Thịnh (n.d.), Chân dung Nhất Linh, Glendale: Ðại
Nam: Lại Nguyên Ân (1998), Ðọc lại người trước, đọc lại người xưa, Hanoi: Nxb Hội Nhà
Văn, pp. 211-224; Phan Cự Ðệ (ed.) (1990), Tự Lực văn đoàn, con người và văn chương,
Hanoi: Văn Học; and Nguyễn Trác and Ðái Xuân Ninh (1989), Về Tự Lực văn đoàn, Ho Chi
Minh City: Nxb thành phố HCM.
48 See Trần Huy Liệu (1991), Hồi ký, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội, pp. 167-217.
69
literature, which they had just found at random because of their lack of material
sources; (ii) to continue to affirm its pre-eminence, with a tendency to develop the new
literature which they called popular, progressive or proletarian, and in 1936, social
realistic literature; (iii) to continue to condemn, and even smear, not only debaters but
also petty bourgeois writers and contemporary romantic literature in general.
Thiếu Sơn almost refused to participate in the debate, probably because he
understood quite early the Marxist writers' political device. Hoài Thanh also withdrew
rapidly after some altercations. In “Nhà viết tiểu thuyết” (The Novelist) published in
Tiểu thuyết Thứ Bảy (Saturday Fiction), no. 73, October 19, 1935, Thiếu Sơn declared
that he had not read the article entitled “Nghệ thuật vị nghệ thuật hay nghệ thuật vị
nhân sinh” (Art for art's sake or art for human life's sake) in which Hải Triều strongly
criticized him.49 It seems that he did not bother to find that article. Afterwards he wrote
an article entitled “Câu chuyện văn chương tả chân chủ nghĩa” (Stories of realist
literature) as a general introduction to a literary movement in the West.50 Thus it is
hard to accept the claim of some researchers that Thiếu Sơn “struggled heatedly and
persistently against the art for human life's sake side... and was determined to defend
his view in newspapers at that time”, as a critic has remarked.51 Hoài Thanh first
enthusiastically took part in the debate but this did not last long. On 29 October, two
months after writing the article “Văn chương là văn chương” (Literature is Literature) -
which was published in Tràng An on 15 August 1935 - declaring war on Hải Triều and
his vulgar literary viewpoint, Hoài Thanh announced that he had brought the battle to
an end. Nevertheless, because he was labelled and smeared most rudely, he later wrote
another article entitled “Một lời vu cáo đê hèn” (A vicious calumny) in Tràng An on 3
December 1935 and then stopped participating in the debate. He then began writing
49 Thiếu Sơn, “Nhà viết tiểu thuyết”, Tiểu thuyết Thứ Bảy, no. 73 (19 October 1935), p. 417, reprinted in
Nguyễn Ngọc Thiện, Nguyễn Thị Kiều Oanh and Phạm Hồng Toàn (eds.) (1997), Tuyển tập
phê bình, nghiên cứu văn học Việt Nam (1900-1945), vol. 2, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp. 346-9.
50 Thiếu Sơn, “Câu chuyện văn chương tả chân chủ nghĩa”, Tiểu thuyết Thứ Bảy, no. 77 (16 November
1935), reprinted in Nguyễn Ngọc Thiện et al. (eds.) (1997), op. cit., pp. 350-2.
51 Trần Thị Việt Trung, “Thiếu Sơn và công trình phê bình lý luận đầu tiên trong văn học Việt Nam
hiện đại: Phê bình và Cảo luận”, Tạp chí Văn Học (Hanoi), no. 6 (1992), p. 30.
70
books in order to be able to express all his ideas and not to be misunderstood.52 Thus
Hoài Thanh participated in the polemic merely for four months.
Throughout 1936 and the first half of 1939, the debate continued between Lưu
Trọng Lư, Lê Tràng Kiều and Lan Khai, who were considered as representatives of the
pure art side, and Hải Triều together with Marxist and Trotskyist writers. However, the
debate gradually inclined towards politics and its literary merits faded away.
***
There were thus no winners or losers in this monologue of a debate. However,
to the extent of what they sought to achieve, the Marxist writers were more or less
successful. First of all, they succeeded in stirring public opinion to such an extent that
their presence came to be noticed by the general public: many writers made their
names because of the fact that they had participated in the polemic and not because of
their works. Furthermore, because of the debate, they had a great opportunity to
propagate Marxist views on literature as well as Marxism in general.
Of Marxist participants in the debate, Hải Triều, although later seen by his
comrades as “not always a profound thinker”,53 or “with respect to theory, ... a writer
who still had many shortcomings”,54 was anyway one of the most outstanding Marxist
literary theorists and critics of the 1930s. He had two marked characteristics: great
fondness for argument and great interest in literature. In 1933, he himself started the
debate on idealism and materialism in newspapers, mainly with Phan Khôi.55 In his
52 Hoài Thanh (1982), op. cit., p. 259.
53 Hoàng Trung Thông, “Hải Triều, người đấu tranh cho quan điểm văn nghệ mác xít”, Sông Hương,
no. 16 (December 1985), p. 62.
54 Phong Lê (1980), Văn xuôi Việt Nam trên con đuờng hiện thực xã hội chủ nghĩa, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa
Học Xã Hội, pp. 17-18.
55 See Trần Văn Giàu (1988), Triết học và tư tưởng, Ho Chi Minh City: Nxb Thành phố HCM, pp. 431-
8; and Thanh Lãng (1973), op. cit., pp. 10-77.
71
will, written in 1954, he expressed his passion for literature and admitted that all his
life he “fought for revolutionary art and literature”.56
Before that debate broke out, Hải Triều wrote two articles on art and literature:
“Sự tiến hoá của văn học và sự tiến hoá của nhân sinh” (The evolution of literature and
human life)57 and “Cụ Sào Nam giải thích chữ văn học thế là sai lắm” (Mr Sao Nam's
explanation of the word ‘literature’ is very incorrect), which were published in Đông
Phương in August and November 1933.58
In the first article, it was the first time that Hải Triều had used dialectic
materialism to explain the relationship between literature and politics. Starting from the
assumption that literature belonged to the superstructure and was affected by the base,
Hải Triều advocated the view that: (i) literature develops in accordance with the
evolutionary trend of society; (ii) each economic system has its own literature, which
propagates and defends that system in ideological terms; (iii) the relationship between
literature and economics must become the criterion for evaluating literature: literature
must be considered as backward and reactionary if it tries to maintain an old and
outdated economic system, and, correspondingly, it must be regarded as progressive
and revolutionary if it keeps pace with economic changes.
Moreover, Hải Triều believed that romanticism, which came into being as a
weapon of the serf and burgher classes to struggle against the aristocracy and the
clergy, was valued as positive, rational and free at that juncture.59 But in the middle of
the nineteenth century, a new social class had emerged: the proletariat. A proletarian
literature appeared and developed, replacing romanticism, which then became
reactionary because it was determined to defend the decadent existing system.
56 Hải Triều (1969), Về văn học nghệ thuật (second edition), Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 102.
57 Hải Triều (1983), Về văn học nghệ thuật, third edition, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp. 40-8.
58 Ibid., pp. 49-54.
59 Ibid., p. 46.
72
Hải Triều did not say anything more about proletarian literature. He merely
focused on criticizing the current romantic literature and its ‘allies’ such as naturalism,
symbolism and aestheticism, which he lumped together as frivolous. He especially
lashed out at the defenders of pure art, whom he considered to be very popular in
Vietnam with their policy of “putting literature out of Man's evolutionary process”.60
Hải Triều’s second article aimed at discussing the meaning of the word
‘literature’ with Phan Bội Châu. In an article “So sánh văn học Ðông Phương với Tây
phương” (A comparison between Eastern and Western literatures), based on the
traditional Chinese concept of literature (“wen” in Chinese), Phan Bội Châu stated that
“wen”, which in Chinese originally meant “criss-cross lines”, and then, “aesthetic
pattern”, consisted of three categories: “sky patterns” (thiên văn), “earth patterns” (địa
văn) and “human patterns” (nhân văn). Literature (wen) belonged to “human patterns”
(“ren wen” in Chinese), and was therefore a part of the orderly cosmos, a realization
through which the natural order of things becomes visible and known, so that doing
literature meant following the natural cosmos (“sky patterns” and “earth patterns”).
According to Hải Triều, Phan Bội Châu’s viewpoint was not only idealistic and
incorrect but also dangerous. Literature was a reflection of reality, a representation of
human life and not a mere imitation of nature. Stating that literature originates from
nature meant advocating that literature was divorced from life and should not be held
responsible for it. And this was a manifestation of the pure art doctrine.61
The most oft-quoted author in Hải Triều’s two articles was Plekhanov (1857-
1918), the first Russian Marxist of any importance, who introduced the term
‘dialectical materialism’. According to Trần Văn Giàu, Plekhanov's work Art and
Social Activities, in the French translation, was imported and circulated in Vietnam in
the early 1930s, especially in the two large cities of Saigon and Hanoi.62 However,
during that period, Hải Triều’s ability to understand literary theory was probably very
60 Hải Triều (1969), op. cit., p. 14.
61 Ibid., pp. 48-52.
62 Trần Văn Giàu (1988), op. cit., p. 440.
73
limited. For example, he claimed that Romanticism was the literature of the serf and
burgher classes63 and “literature should be deeply and directly affected by social
economy”.64 Hải Triều’s first mistake was corrected a few months later: “Romanticism
is a kind of literature of the capitalist class.”65 His second mistake lasted much longer.
Two years later, in his article “Nghệ thuật vị nghệ thuật hay nghệ thuật vị nhân sinh”
(Art for art's sake or art for human life's sake), Hải Triều became more cautious and
tried to correct himself: “economic activities directly or indirectly affect literature”.66
Nevertheless, since 1933, Hải Triều had learnt from Plekhanov at least two things: the
dialectical materialistic view of literature and resentment towards the pure art doctrine.
Apart from Plekhanov, Hải Triều was later influenced by Guo Moruo (1892-
1978) and Chen Duxiu (1979-1942), two Marxist scholars and outstanding writers of
the 1919 May Fourth movement in China, by Tolstoy through his book What Is Art?
and more especially by Bukharin (1888-1938), Romain Rolland (1866-1944) and
Maxim Gorky (1868-1936). Moreover, like most members of the Vietnamese
intelligentsia at that time, it was hard for Hải Triều not to fall under André Gide's
influence, particularly when Gide had not officially raised his voice to criticize
communism in his Retour de l'URSS (Return from the USSR) (1936). During the first
period of the debate, sometimes Hải Triều or a certain writer on his side would write to
Gide to ask his opinion, but in his reply Gide tended to incline towards the pure art
side.67
From the very beginning of the debate, Hải Triều maintained that he took the
same standpoint as the materialists.
The materialists base their rationale on the physical activities and economic
63 Hải Triều (1969), op. cit., p. 16.
64 Ibid., pp. 13-4.
65 Ibid., p. 50.
66 Ibid., pp. 23-38.
67 Hoài Thanh (1982), op. cit., p. 259.
74
changes within society to explain past and present art trends, from their causes to
their development and destruction. These trends can only be correctly explained
from the materialistic standpoint.68
Combining Bukharin's and Tolstoy's views, Hải Triều stated that “art socializes
human feelings and then transmits those feelings to humanity; therefore its origin is in
society and its end is also in society.”69 Thus literature and art, from their essence, were
the products of society or, in Guo Moruo's words, quoted in Hải Triều, “a mere
expression of human nature”.70 A genuine literature was always for human life's sake.
The writers' task was “systematizing feelings [of society], clearly distinguishing and
expressing them in words”.71 Even when writers only focused on expressing their ego,
they also expressed human life because “their ego is only a product of innumerable
social egos”.72 However, the value of the works which inclined towards the ‘I’ was
often not high. “The more an art or aesthetic achievement expresses clearly social
characters, the more it is of great value.”73
Nevertheless, as human social history always evolves, “the value of art is
relative and limited because a work may be of great value for a certain class, in a
certain age or country, but it can be worthless for another class, in an other age or
country.”74 According to Hải Triều, “the value of an artistic or literary work depends
on the needs and fads of each class at each time and place”.75 Hải Triều did not explain
why he was still very fond of, and sometimes quoted from, Homer's ancient works, and
Rousseau's, Diderot's and Montesquieu's eighteenth-century French works. Probably he
68 Hải Triều (1969), op. cit., p. 39.
69 Ibid., p. 20.
70 Ibid., p. 23.
71 Ibid., p. 33.
72 Ibid., p. 34.
73 Ibid., p. 34.
74 Ibid., p. 34.
75 Ibid., p. 35.
75
had not read Marx's introduction in the Economic Manuscripts of 1857-58 and did not
know that the founder of historical and dialectical materialism had a more flexible and
accurate view: after thousands of years, Greek art and epics still attracted many
admirers as they provided models which were very hard to surpass.
Later, although Hải Triều still used the expression ‘for human life's sake’, his
pro-class stand became clearer. Literature was no more a human life manifestation but
rather a class manifestation. “The literature of an era is only a reflection of class
struggle. Each trend in literature and art is only an interpretation of feelings and
thoughts prevalent in a certain social class.”76
The term ‘socialist realism’ appeared for the first time in a speech of 20 May
1932 by Ivan Gronsky, chairperson of the Organizing Committee of the Union of
Writers, then in process of formation. Gronsky spoke to leading writers in Moscow:
“The basic demand that we make on the writer is: write the truth, portray truthfully our
reality that is in itself dialectic. Therefore the basic method of Soviet literature is the
method of socialist realism.”77 This statement was quoted in the Literary Gazette three
days later and became well known among Moscow’s literary circle. Three months
later, this term was used by Stalin at a meeting with several writers in Maxim Gorky’s
apartment. However, socialist realism as a doctrine was only promulgated at the first
Congress of Soviet Writers by Andrei Zhdanov (1888-1948), a member of the Political
Bureau of the Party’s Central Committee, who was entrusted with leadership of
propaganda and agitational work. Zhdanov declared:
Comrade Stalin has called our writers, “engineers of the human soul”. What does
this mean? What obligations does such an appellation put upon you?
It means, in the first place, that you must know life to be able to depict it truthfully
in artistic creations, to depict it neither “scholastically” nor lifelessly, nor simply
as “objective reality”, but rather as reality in its revolutionary development. The
truthfulness and historical exactitude of the artistic image must be linked with the
76 Ibid., p. 42.
77 Herman Ermolaev (1977), Soviet Literary Theories 1917-1934: The Genesis of Socialist Realism, New
York: Octagon Books, p. 144.
76
task of ideological transformation, of the education of the working people in the
spirit of socialism. This method in fiction and literary criticism is what we call the
method of socialist realism.78
Attending this Congress, there were a number of “international guests”,
including several French communist or leftist writers such as Louis Aragon, Elsa
Triolet, Henri Barbusse, Romain Rolland, and André Gide. While Gide, Rolland,
Barbusse and others voiced objections to the doctrine of socialist realism, Louis
Aragon firmly believed that this doctrine could be imported into France.79 Returning to
France, Aragon became the most frequent commentor on, and practitioner of, socialist
realism. He published accounts of the Moscow Congress and a number of articles on
the subject of socialist realism in Commune and European journals.80 In addition to
these, at the end of 1934, he published a novel, Les Cloches de Bâle, which was
unquestionably inspired by socialist realism. In the following year, he published a
collection of lectures, Pour un réalisme socialiste, in which he outlined the main
principles of socialist realism for a French audience. It can be guessed that some, if not
all, of these works, written in French and published in France, were sent to Vietnam.
This is a reason why, just one year later, the term “socialist realism” appeared in Hải
Triều’s article on Kép Tư Bền.81 In the following year, in his article on Maxim Gorky,
Hải Triều gave a definition of socialist realism which was clearly copied from
Zhdanow’s statement: “Socialist realism essentially aims to depict honestly and clearly
past and present phenomena, so that these descriptions of reality can lead the masses to
enlightenment and to the struggle to build socialism.”82 He also saw the difference
between social realism and nineteenth-century critical realism in Europe: the former
was inclined to assertion and positiveness whereas the latter stopped at the level of
78 A.A. Zhdanov (1950), On Literature, Music and Philosophy, London: Lawrence and Wishart, p. 15.
79 Angela Kimyongur (1995), Socialist Realism in Louis Aragon’s Le Monde Réel, Elloughton: The
University of Hull, p. 5.
80 Ibid.
81 Hải Triều (1969), op. cit., p. 56.
82 Ibid., p. 77.
77
accusation and complaint.83 In the social realistic works, a new character was given
considerable prominence: the workers. “When the heroes and genuine creators of new
life play key roles in literary and artistic works, literature becomes up-to-date.”84
It seems that Hải Triều read Marx and Engels' ideas on art and literature quite
late. It was not until 1939, in his article “Đi tới chủ nghĩa tả thực trong văn chương:
những khuynh huớng trong tiểu thuyết” (To reach realism in literature: trends in
novels) that he mentioned ‘tendentiousness’ in literature for the first time. This was
understandable. Although both Marx and Engels displayed a great love for literature
and made extensive use of the treasures of world literature in their own work, they, in
René Wellek's words, “were not literary critics by profession”.85 They neither devoted
any particular work exclusively to literature and art, nor attempted to build a
comprehensive system of literary theory. Their ideas on those issues were scattered in
their different writings, especially in letters to friends. What we now call the Marxist
literary theory was first formulated by Franz Mehring (1846-1919) and Georgi V.
Plekhanov (1856-1918),86 and the first brief anthology of Marx's and Engels's casual
pronouncements on the subject in German was not published until 1933, edited by M.
Lifshitz and F.P. Schiller,87 and in French in 1936, edited by Jean Fréville.88 According
to Vietnamese historians, the work of Jean Fréville was circulated in Vietnam by the
end of the 1930s.89 Undoubtedly Hải Triều read this book, and as a result of this, his
83 Hải Triều, “Văn học Liên bang Nga Xô Viết”, Hồn Trẻ, no. 8 (25 July 1935), quoted in Hồng
Chương, “Hải Triều, một nhà lý luận phê bình xuất sắc”, Thép Mới, no. 1 (10 October 1949),
reprinted in Văn học Việt Nam sau Cách mạng tháng Tám, Tiểu luận và phê bình, Văn Học,
Hanoi, 1993, p. 64.
84 Ibid., p. 65.
85 René Wellek (1966), A History of Modern Criticism: 1750 - 1950, vol. 3 (The Age of Transition),
London: Jonathan Cape, p. 233.
86 T. Battomre (ed.) (1991), A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Cambridge: Blackwell, pp. 317-318.
87 Ibid.
88 Jean Fréville (ed.) (1936), Les grands texts du marxisme sur la littérature et l'art, Paris: Editions
sociales internationales.
89 See Phan Cự Đệ, “Ảnh hưởng của tư tưởng mác xít và sự phát triển của văn xuôi hiện thực phê phán
Việt Nam 1930-1945”, Tạp chí Văn Học (Hanoi), no. 6 (1982), pp. 61-70; and Hải Triều
78
view became less rigid. He paid attention not only to the content but also to the artistic
aspect of literary works. Echoing Engels, he wrote:
... socialist realism always recognizes that each work has a tendency, but it strives
to avoid subjective, arbitrary, mechanistic tendencies, fixed thoughts and
immutable creeds that writers awkwardly assemble in their stories... A work is
interesting (I use the word ‘interesting’ in its relative sense) not only because it is
to the contemporary taste of readers, but also because the way the author arranges
the landscape and feelings is secretive and attractive. His view is expressed by
main and minor characters' activities as well as the arrangement and the end of the
work and he does not need to declare it.90
Also thanks to Engels, Hải Triều’s attitude towards Balzac was more generous
and reasonable. In 1936, when comparing Balzac and Zola with Gorky, he contended
that Balzac's and Zola's works “aim to patch up the ragged coat of the wealthy and save
the corrupt capitalist regime”.91 In 1939, Hải Triều realized that, even though writing
between the two rays of light of monarchy and religion, in his Human Comedy, Balzac
“described all the vileness and depravity of the society in which he was living”.
Therefore, Balzac was hailed as the greatest realist writer of humanity.92 Hải Triều here
paraphrased what Engels wrote in his famous letter to Miss Harkness in 1888:
Balzac was politically a Legitimist; his great work is a constant elegy on the
irretrievable decay of good society, his sympathies are all with the class doomed
to extinction. But for all that his satire is never keener, his irony never more bitter,
than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathizes
most deeply - the nobles. [...]. That Balzac thus was compelled to go against his
own class sympathies and political prejudices, [...] that I consider the greatest
triumphs of Realism and one of the grandest features in old Balzac.93
(1969), op. cit., p. 65.
90 Hải Triều (1969), op. cit., p. 65.
91 Ibid., p.72
92 Ibid., p. 66.
93 Marx and Engels (1978), On Literature and Art, Moscow: Progress Publishers, pp. 91-92.
79
In paraphrasing Engels, Hải Triều did not know that Engels himself had
reproduced Emile Zola's argument. In his article “Le naturalisme” published in 1882,
Zola (1840-1902) wrote that Balzac “could openly profess Catholic and monarchical
opinions, while his work is nevertheless scientific and democratic, in the broad sense
of the word.”94 René Wellek believes that “Engels must have known these passages (or
some of them) when he wrote his famous letter to Miss Harkness,”95 and he comments:
“It seems a quirk of history that Zola's idea has become a standard doctrine of Marxist
criticism while Zola's naturalism is condemned by authoritative Marxist critics.”96
As a theorist, Hải Triều was handicapped by the lack of a wide knowledge base,
and as a critic, he lacked sensitive perception. This rendered him a polemicist more
than a theorist or a critic. Indeed, during the polemic that raged in Vietnam during the
nineteen-thirties and forties, his writings displayed a sense of uncertainty and a lack of
authority when dealing with any specific literary work. All of what he called
‘masterpieces’ are now completely forgotten. The two novels which he considered as
pioneer works of socialist realist trends in Vietnam, Kép Tư Bền and Lầm than, are
indeed ‘para-realistic’ in the sense that both depicted pauperism in society with a
romantic inspiration. This misconception was generally explained by the fact that Hải
Triều “does not have the opportunity to be based on the reality of revolutionary
literature or use critical realist literature as a basis”.97
As a polemicist and a pioneer in introducing Marxist literary theory to Vietnam,
Hải Triều was a non-Zhdanoized Marxist. Compared with the paucity of the new
Soviet material on matters relating to the art and literature which was translated into
French after the establishment of the Union of Soviet Writers, the amount Hải Triều
94 Quoted in René Wellek (1965), A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, vol. 4 (The Late 19th
Century), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 18.
95 Ibid.
96 Ibid.
97 Phong Lê (1980), op. cit., p. 17. See further Phan Trọng Thưởng, “Sự phát triển của tư tưởng lý luận
văn nghệ mác xít từ thời Mặt trận Dân chủ đến Đề cương văn hoá”, Tạp chí Văn Học (Hanoi),
no. 6 (1993), pp. 3-5.
80
could have read must have been much smaller. He did not know the basic requirements
of socialist realist works such as truthfulness and historical concreteness when
depicting reality in its process of revolutionary development. Moreover, he did not
grasp extremely important concepts in socialist realism as it developed under Stalin
such as party-mindedness (partiinost), mass-mindedness (naródnost), and classmindedness
(klássovost).98 Hải Triều’s knowledge of Marxist literary theory was
mainly gained from certain works by Plekhanov, Bukharin and Engels. These theories
were illustrated by the lives and works of some writers including Maxim Gorky,
Romain Rolland and Henri Barbusse (1873-1935), and even André Gide, over a long
period of time. Perhaps Hải Triều did not read all the works of these authors. However,
the most important thing is that none of these authors, including Engels, was very
dogmatic. All advocated that (i) literature and art should be closely connected with
social, economic and political conditions; and (ii) literature and art should be a weapon
of political struggle; but all agreed that (iii) literature and art had relative
characteristics of autonomy. Furthermore, all of Hải Triều’s material - wherever they
derived from - were French versions. This is very important, because the speeches on
literature, art and music by Zhdanov, the Minister of Culture under Stalin and the
person notorious for his extremism and ruthlessness, were not translated into French
until 1948, when they opened a period of increased dogmatism in the literary thoughts
of French Marxist intellectuals.99 Because of all these factors, Hải Triều, although
mainly a copyist, became much more broad-minded.
***
The debate about art and literature ended suddenly in the middle of 1939, when
the Second World War broke out, and the French colonial authorities tightened up their
censorship policy and conducted a campaign to repress Vietnamese revolutionary
98 See A. Tertz (1960), On Socialist Realism, New York: Pantheon Books; C. V. James (1973), Soviet
Socialist Realism, Origin and Theory, London: Macmillan; Porter, R. (1988), “Soviet
Perspectives on Socialist Realism”, in M. Seriven and D. Tate (eds.) (1988), European Socialist
Realism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 49-59.
99 J. E. Flower, “Socialist Realism without a Socialist Revolution: the French Experience”, in M.
Seriven and D. Tate (eds.) (1988), op. cit., pp. 99-110.
81
parties. As a result, Marxist writers were either arrested or forced to engage in
clandestine activities.
Interestingly, the closing article of the debate was an article on Karl Marx
written by an unacknowledged foreign writer in which Marx was highly commended
for his passion and wide knowledge of literature as well as for his liberal views. He
liked reading writers of different trends: from Aeschylus and Cervantes to
Shakespeare, Balzac and Walter Scott. The translator of this article was Lưu Trọng Lư,
a defender of pure art.100
Certainly, when translating that article, Lưu Trọng Lư, by praising Marx, aimed
to direct numerous reproaches at banal Marxists in Vietnam, who “hold narrow views
on literature.”101
Lưu Trọng Lư pointed out that narrow-mindedness was the basic shortcoming
of the Marxist writers in Vietnam. It may be said that this was also a common
assessment by writers in general at the time: some, implicitly or explicitly, opposed the
view that considered literature to be a weapon of class struggle; others disagreed with
the way the problem was raised, for the controversy itself was considered to be narrowminded,
and the participants’ ensuing choice of either side or the other was deemed to
be even more narrow-minded. The Tự Lực Literary Group's attitude was very typical:
they did not participate in the debate from the beginning to the end, sometimes relating
sneeringly some events of the debate, always accompanying them with cartoons and
captions such as: “We were informed that Hoài Thanh, Hải Triều etc. are falling into a
very dangerous ditch, which is the ditch of ‘art for art's sake’ or ‘art for human’s sake’”
or “The latest news that we have received is that Hoài Thanh, Hải Triều etc... are
bickering in the ditch of ‘art for art's sake’ and cannot climb out.”102
100 Lưu Trọng Lư, “Cái khiếu văn chương của Karl Marx”, Tao Đàn, no. 8 (16 June1939), reprinted in
Thanh Lãng (1973), op. cit., pp. 197-199.
101 Quoted in Thanh Lãng (1973), ibid., p. 197.
102 Ibid., pp. 149-150.
82
The significance of the debate, therefore, was not great. Phan Cự Đệ’s assertion
that the debate “initially rolls back the influences of passive, aimless and romantic
literature, and encourages critical realistic literature” must be regarded as an
exaggeration.103 In fact, the literary situation since 1939, the final year of the debate,
proved the contrary: critical realistic literature was breathing its dying breath, while
romantic literature was not only developing strongly but also tending to choose the
pure art path, because the Xuân Thu Nhã Tập Group had come into being, with its
poetic style more or less consisting of the symbolic characteristics of Hàn Mặc Tử and
Bích Khê or the decadent features of Vũ Hoàng Chương and Đinh Hùng, with a new
source of inspiration inclining towards religion or the metaphysical world in Huy Cận’s
and Chế Lan Viên’s poetry. Along with all this there was the fact that Khái Hưng and
Nhất Linh abandoned the "roman à thèse" and delved into psychological novels, and
the appearance of Nguyễn Tuân, an outstanding but totally self-centered essayist who
only liked ‘to play his own solo instrument’.104
It appears that the debate had two remarkable effects. Firstly, it encouraged and
incited writers to delve into theoretical issues on literature, which was a new and
attractive domain. While in the early 1930s writers and poets merely created
spontaneously, without much theoretical awareness, from 1938 onwards they started
becoming self-conscious of their writing task. Many manifesto-like poems and short
stories in which the authors introduced their aesthetic and social views came into
being. Critics did not base their praise and criticism merely on their own feelings, but
rather they began to base their stand on certain positions or methods they had learnt
from French literature. For example, Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân, in their Thi nhân Việt
Nam (Vietnamese Poets), published in 1942, used the expressionist approach of Jules
Lemaitre (1853-1914), and particularly that of Anatole France (1844-1924), who had
followed Renan's skepticism and dilettantism and expressed complete relativism in
literary appreciation and interpretation by arguing that aesthetics is delusion, that a
103 Phan Cự Đệ, Hà Văn Đức and Nguyễn Hoành Khung (1988), Văn học Việt Nam 1930-45, vol. 1,
Hanoi: Nxb Đại Học và Trung Học Chuyên Nghiệp, p. 53.
104 Nguyễn Tuân (1981), Tuyển tập, vol. 1, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 269.
83
work of art always changes with the eyes that see it, and that “the good critic tells the
adventures of his soul among masterpieces”.105 Dương Quảng Hàm, Trần Thanh Mại,
Nguyễn Đổng Chi and Lê Thanh adopted ‘la critique de l'université’ of Ferdinand
Brunetière (1849-1906) and Gustave Lanson (1857-1934), a method involving a
scrupulous and disciplined study of sources, chronology and bibliography. In 1939,
Thạch Lam started his series of articles on literature which were later assembled in
Theo dòng. Trương Tửu was initially a mediocre novelist and a superficial critic in the
1930s, but he became an outstanding and original critic in the 1940s, using his pen
name Nguyễn Bách Khoa, since he concentrated on researching Western theories and
approaches to criticism.
Marxist writers generally continued to delve into their views, and in 1944 Đặng
Thai Mai completed and published the first Vietnamese literary theoretical book
entitled Văn học khái luận (An Outline of Literature).
The second effect of this debate is that, through it, some basic theoretical points
of socialist realism and particularly of Russian and Soviet literatures, were first
introduced to Vietnamese readers. This was very important because Vietnamese artists,
writers and intellectuals generally knew only Chinese, French and a little of English
literature. In the 1930s, as a result of Gide's warm introduction, they became
acquainted with two colossi of Russian literature: Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.106 Of these
two writers, Dostoevsky had a great impact on Nhất Linh, Nguyên Hồng and other
Vietnamese writers, and was highly valued by Thạch Lam as “the most worthy novelist
of the century”.107 Soviet literature was gradually noticed because of sporadic
quotations from Marxist writings and especially because of Hải Triều’s two articles.108
105 René Wellek (1965), op. cit., p. 24.
106 See André Gide (1967), Dostoevsky (with an introduction by Arnold Bennett), Harmondsworth:
Penguin. (First published in Paris in 1923.)
107 Thạch Lam (1968), Theo dòng, Saigon: Ðời Nay, p. 71.
108 The article “Maxim Gorky, nhà đại văn hào của Liên bang Xô Viết và của thế giới đã qua đời”,
published in Hồn Trẻ magazine, no. 5 (4 July 1936), reprinted in Hải Triều (1969), op. cit., pp.
68-78; and the article “Văn học Liên bang Nga Xô Viết” (co-author by Hải Thanh), in Hồn Trẻ
84
The first Soviet writer whose works were translated into Vietnamese was
Maxim Gorky: in 1936, Vũ Ngọc Phan translated a part of the novel Childhood, which
was published in the French-Vietnamese magazine on the day Gorky passed away. In
1938, Nguyễn Thường Khanh (1917-47) finished his translation of the novel Mother,
which was published in the following year in Dân Mới magazine, continuing until this
magazine was closed down. The impression of those contacts lingered in Vietnamese
hearts. After the 1945 August Revolution, the first books translated into Vietnamese
included some Gorky translations: Cultural Chieftains (Các ông trùm văn hoá) and
Torments (Dằn vặt). After 1954, in North Vietnam, the first translation of the
Vietnamese Writers Association’s Publishing House was also Gorky's work: Selected
Short Stories (Tuyển tập truyện ngắn) (1957). Gorky's Mother (Người mẹ) was
translated into Vietnamese by four translators: Nguyễn Thường Khanh, Thiều Phụng,
Lê Tam and Phan Thao.
However, the effects of these writers should not be exaggerated. Certainly, only
a few people followed the debate. Several years later, in Văn học khái luận (An Outline
of Literary Theory), Đặng Thai Mai reminisced about the debate as follows: “our
people are still very indifferent”.109 The most important reason was that nearly all
newspapers which inserted the polemic articles were minor journals which circulated
only in one region and did not have many readers. Six months after Hải Triều had
criticized Thiếu Sơn bitterly in his article entitled “Art for art sake or art for human
life's sake”, published in Đời Mới in March 1935, Thiếu Sơn did not know anything
about it.110 This shows that the circulation of Đời Mới was very limited and that this
newspaper had no serious repercussions on the inquisitive section of Vietnamese
society at that time. Moreover, it was very hard for people who followed the debate to
sympathize with Marxist writers, especially because they gave the impression of being
too ‘xenophile’ by, on the one hand, extolling foreign writers such as Maxim Gorky,
Romain Rolland and Henry Barbusse, and on the other hand, disparaging and slighting,
magazine, no. 8 (25 July 1936).
109 Đặng Thai Mai (1950), Văn học khái luận, Hanoi: Liên Hiệp, p. 34.
110 Thanh Lãng (1973), op. cit., pp. 124-5.
85
sometimes ruthlessly, Vietnamese writers including Nguyễn Du (1766-1820), the
national icon and pride. This was such a serious shortcoming of the Vietnamese
Communist Party at that time that in 1939, at a conference of the Communist Party's
Central Committee, they realized their mistake and changed their main fighting slogan
from class struggle to national liberation.111
111 See Huỳnh Kim Khánh (1982), Vietnamese Communism 1925-45, Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
pp. 251-2, and Tonnesson, S. (1991), The Vietnamese Revolution of 1945, London: Sage
Publications, p. 115.
86
CHAPTER THREE
The First Marxist Theorists and Critics:
Nguyễn Bách Khoa and Ðặng Thai Mai
While Hải Triều (1908-54) was the first writer to introduce Marxist literary
theory to Vietnam, Nguyễn Bách Khoa (real name Trương Tửu, 1908-2002) was the
first critic to apply this theory to interpret specific works and evaluate specific authors;
and Ðặng Thai Mai (1902-84) was the first scholar to develop it, in a monograph which
was hailed as the first work of literary theory written in Vietnamese.
Nguyễn Bách Khoa, the First Marxist Critic
Surpassing Hải Triều in knowledge, and Ðặng Thai Mai in talent, Nguyễn Bách
Khoa was such an original and professional writer that even his opponents admitted:
“If literature is only an original thing, Trương Tửu is an original writer. He is
distinguishable from other writers.”1 Being the first to free himself from criticism
based on feeling and the first to rely on a relatively systematic literary theory, Nguyễn
Bách Khoa “opened a new era of criticism in Vietnam”.2 Besides, his highly
sophisticated style was extraordinarily attractive. Many of his works, “especially since
1947, have become bed-side books for the younger generation. At schools, teachers as
well as students echoed Nguyễn Bách Khoa when criticizing. This movement spreads
like wildfire”.3 Even now, his works continue to have a strong impact on a wide range
1 Hoài Thanh (1958), “Thực chất của tư tưởng Trương Tửu”, Văn Nghệ (Hanoi), no. 11 (April 1958), p.
15.
2 Thanh Lãng (1973), Phê bình văn học thế hệ 1932, Saigon: Phong trào văn hoá, p. 389.
3 Ibid., p. 395
87
of people, especially among the old. Since 1975, some of his books have been
reprinted many times by Vietnamese refugees living overseas.
However, it should be stressed that Nguyễn Bách Khoa was not recognized as a
Marxist by everybody. All literary researchers in South Vietnam prior to 1975 regarded
him not only as a Marxist critic but also as one of the most eminent representatives of
Marxist trends in Vietnamese literary criticism; in the North, under the communist
regime, especially after the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm affair (1956), he was condemned as
a pseudo-Marxist, a mechanical materialist and a vulgar sociologist. This phenomenon
may be attributed to two main causes: first, some political issues relating to his life,
and second, the complexity of his works.
Prior to the August Revolution of 1945, Nguyễn Bách Khoa had not been
involved in any political activities, but his thoughts were tending towards Trotskyism
rather than Bolshevism. During the period of 1941 to 1945, he founded both the Văn
Mới journal and the Hàn Thuyên group, which consisted of many socialist writers,
most of whom were Trotskyists. Moreover, he often opposed the Vietnamese
Communist Party's cultural policy. While Trường Chinh, the Secretary General of the
Vietnamese Communist Party, put forward three principles for the new culture,
“national, popular and scientific”, Nguyễn Bách Khoa advocated four other factors:
revolution, the masses, socialism and science.4 While the Communist Party strove to
gather writers into the ranks led by the Party, Nguyễn Bách Khoa kept repeating Gide's
statement advising writers to “spread unsubmissive and rebellious enzymes widely into
people's minds”.5 While the Communist Party tried to propagate their first achievement
of revolutionary literature, Nguyễn Bách Khoa assessed straightforwardly: “From the
previous autumn to this autumn, the Revolution has reaped good harvests, whereas
literature has gathered bad crops.”6 His provocative attitude towards the Communist
Party only stopped when the anti-French resistance broke out in December 1946.
4 Quoted in Hoài Thanh (1958), op. cit., p. 19.
5 Ibid., p. 18.
6 Ibid., p. 19.
88
However, after the 1954 Geneva Agreements, in the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm affair he
urged the Communist Party to respect freedom and democracy, to stop regarding arts
as the “bond maiden” of politics. As a result of this, together with many other writers,
Nguyễn Bách Khoa was stripped by the Party of his right to write.7 All his literary
achievements were obliterated as he was considered reactionary and a betrayer of the
Party. No literary document published after 1957 in North Vietnam mentioned him as a
critic or writer.
Moreover, the literary thoughts of Nguyễn Bách Khoa prior to 1945 were quite
complex and unstable. They were like a journey full of experiments and adventures.
Before becoming a Marxist literary critic, Nguyễn Bách Khoa tried to apply different
approaches such as sociology and psychoanalysis to literary study. Focusing merely on
his first works, his opponents could pick up innumerable specific items of evidence
condemning him as an idealist or a mechanical materialist, or even, according to Lê
Đình Kỵ, an orthodox Marxist critic, as a “vulgar and foolish” sociologist.8 However,
in so doing, these critics were unfair, for two reasons. Firstly, they attempted to ignore
the many research achievements in which Nguyễn Bách Khoa had skillfully applied
purely dialectical materialistic viewpoints. Secondly, they denied the fact that even
when Nguyễn Bách Khoa mixed Marxism with psychoanalysis or sociology, the
Marxist view was still the major point.
Nguyễn Bách Khoa had certain characteristics which brought many political
disasters to his life: a fondness for inquiry and a frequently changing mood. Within just
a few months his way of evaluating a specific literary event might completely change.
He liked venturing into new domains. Under his real name, Trương Tửu, he began
participating in literary circles in the 1930s with a series of critical writings published
in the Loa newspaper, whose editor-in-chief was Lan Khai. He was unsuccessful for a
7 The Nhân Văn – Giai Phẩm affair will be discussed in Chapter Six of this thesis. For further details of
this affair, see Georges Boudarel, “Intellectual dissidence in the 1950s: the Nhân Văn - Giai
Phẩm affair”, The Vietnam Forum, no. 13 (1990), pp. 154-174, and Hoàng Giang, “La révolte
des intellectuels au Vietnam en 1956”, The Vietnam Forum, no. 13 (1990), pp. 144-153.
8 Lê Đình Kỵ (1987), Nhìn lại tư tưởng văn nghệ thời Mỹ Nguỵ, Ho Chi Minh City: Nxb thành phố
HCM, p. 87.
89
number of reasons: his literary taste was not refined enough, his critical approach was
almost out of date and his style was overstated. In his Nhà văn hiện đại (Modern
Writers), Vũ Ngọc Phan criticized Trương Tửu without sympathy: “He used big words
to comment on tiny matters in a book. It may be said that he used a knife for killing
buffaloes when killing chickens.”9 Nguyễn Bách Khoa then started writing novels but
was again unsuccessful. None of his eight novels published between 1937 and 1941
was really interesting.10 He was seen as a third- or fourth-class writer. Eventually he
decided to return to his critical career. This time his voice was more confident and his
standpoint more unequivocal: he became a materialist. As a critic, he focused
particularly on the classical authors such as Nguyễn Du (1766-1820) and Nguyễn Công
Trứ (1778-1858), whose literary merits are beyond question.
One of Nguyễn Bách Khoa's works which opened this period was Kinh thi Việt
Nam (Vietnamese Book of Poetry), published in 1940, in which he examined
Vietnamese folk poetry from a sociological point of view. He asserted that Vietnamese
folk poems had two high values: firstly, they reflected people's thoughts and feelings
from previous generations; secondly, they recorded social customs, religious rituals
and the ways of living of the ancients. In this sense, folk poems were precious material
for sociology: “We can use popular poems to find out the common psychology of the
past and activities which may never come back.”11 The Vietnamese Book of Poetry,
therefore, was a mere work on Vietnamese cultural history rather than on literary
criticism: instead of using his sociological knowledge and technique to analyze folk
poetry, on the contrary, Nguyễn Bách Khoa chose some appropriate lines in the folk
poems to illustrate his theoretical points. According to him, the most salient feature of
9 Vũ Ngọc Phan (1960), Nhà văn hiện đại, vol. 4, tome 2, Saigon: Thăng Long, pp. 1125-26. (Originally
published in 1944.)
10 These novels are: Thanh niên S.O.S. (1937), Một chiến sĩ (1939), Khi chiếc yếm rơi xuống (1939), Khi
người ta đói (1940), Một cổ đôi ba tròng (1940), Trái tim nổi loạn (1940), Đục nước béo cò
(1940), and Một kiếp đoạ đày (1941).
11 Trương Tửu (1940), Kinh thi Việt Nam, Hanoi: Hàn Thuyên; Xuân Thu reprinted in Los Alanitos
(U.S.A.) (n.d.).
90
Vietnamese spiritual life in the past was the struggle against the assimilation
conspiracy of the Chinese, at first against Confucianism and later against masculinism:
Vietnamese women do not accept male chauvinism; our hearts do not
accept Confucius’ and Mencius’ rational philosophy; our instincts do not
comply with Confucianist ritual-oriented organization: these are three
distinct social and psychological characteristics of Vietnam. All of these
result from special features of Vietnamese geography and history.12
Let us pay attention to the last sentence of the above quotation, particularly the
term “geography”, which reminds us of Hippolyte Taine’s thoughts. Taine (1828-93)
was mainly a psychologist and historian, but his lasting contribution has been as a
literary theorist and critic He is regarded as the founder of the modern sociology of
literature, who, in his Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1863), advocated a
deterministic theory of literature. According to this theory, all great writers are the
result of a variety of causes: firstly, their race; secondly, their environment; and thirdly,
the circumstances in which they were placed while their talents were developing.
Hence, race, milieu and moment are the most important factors which determine the
character of a writer and his/her work, and are the sources of what Taine calls the
master faculties, the “soul” of a nation. For Taine, race is the hereditary dispositions
that we bring with us into the world; milieu is the physical or social circumstances that
influence the shaping of our character; and moment is the accumulation of all past
experiences.13
Although influenced by Taine, Nguyễn Bách Khoa was not his disciple. Of
Taine’s triad, the race and milieu factors were ignored. Furthermore, “milieu”, in
Taine's view, included not only the physical environment such as soil and climate, but
also political and social conditions.14 In Nguyễn Bách Khoa's view, it was almost
12 Ibid., pp. 170-171.
13 For a brief introduction to Hippolyte Taine (1828-93), see René Wellek (1965), A History of Modern
Criticism 1750-1950, vol. 4, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 27-57.
14 Ibid.
91
identical to history. On the one hand, being close to the great might of China, the
Vietnamese had had to resist violent invasions from the North, and on the other, they
had to find ways to fight against the Champa and others in order to expand their
territory in the South. Thus, war seemed to be interminable. Most men were sent to
war, whereas women assumed the responsibility for agricultural and commercial works
to feed their families. As a result, Vietnamese women at that time gained a high
position in society, and even if they were not equal to men, at least they were not
treated with contempt as were women in China. Nguyễn Bách Khoa's explanation was
clearly influenced by Marx. It is not accidental that his book includes a whole chapter
(Chapter 11), entitled “Social reality termines consciousness”, in which he declares
that “Philosophy or political system are not things that drop from the sky but are
inevitable results of the economic conditions of a given country in a given historical
period.”15 However, when using the concept of “social reality” or “economic
conditions”, Nguyễn Bách Khoa focuses only on the mode of production but does not
mention another important aspect in Marxist thought - the production relationship
whose emphasis is on class struggle.
After 1942, Nguyễn Bách Khoa's thoughts changed once more. This time he
seemed to be very decisive, abandoning his real name (Trương Tửu) and using a new
pen name, Nguyễn Bách Khoa. It may be said that Nguyễn Bách Khoa was a negation
of Trương Tửu: in one note in the references in his Văn chương Truyện Kiều (The
Literature of the Tale of Kieu), when mentioning Trương Tửu, he regarded him as a
friend.16 Of the many differences between Nguyễn Bách Khoa and Trương Tửu, the
most important was: while Trương Tửu was merely a person who was in the process of
finding a way, Nguyễn Bách Khoa was confident of holding the truth in his hands.
Previously, his style had been relatively equitable and modest, showing respect for his
predecessors and contemporaries, but later it became more and more confident and
sharp. He provoked hostility with everybody and even declared war on the whole
tradition of Vietnamese literary criticism. In his The Literature of the Tale of Kieu, he
15 Ibid., 163.
16 Nguyễn Bách Khoa (1953), Văn chương Truyện Kiều, third edition, Hanoi: Thế Giới, p. 151.
92
stated that “all critiques of The Tale of Kieu exposed the critics' subjective mistakes
rather than explained the quintessence of the work-work”.17 He divided these so-called
“subjective mistakes” into two kinds: a frivolous critical approach and an idealistic
view on arts and artists. He claimed that neither approach could explain the good and
the beautiful of literary works because critics were at pains either to analyze every
small and petty detail, such as the way of depicting the landscape, feelings, characters,
the ways of using words and choosing rhymes, or to resign themselves to a purely
agnostic attitude.
His book, The Literature of the Tale of Kieu, aimed to “justify those mistakes”
and his ambition was “to establish a solid system of principles used as a lodestar of
literary criticism rather than to waste time discussing some good details in The Tale of
Kieu. Based on this system, readers can understand the beauty of The Tale of Kieu by
themselves.”18
Nguyễn Bách Khoa was very interested in using the word “system”. According
to Nguyễn Văn Trung, “systematicalness” is one of the most distinctive features of
Nguyễn Bách Khoa.19 The cult of systematization was in fact a manifestation of the
cult of science. This was the second difference between Nguyễn Bách Khoa and
Trương Tửu: while Trương Tửu was a mere materialist, Nguyễn Bách Khoa was
materialist-cum-scientist. It may be said that nobody in Vietnamese literary history has
ever worshipped science as much as Nguyễn Bách Khoa. Affected by late nineteenthcentury
French positivism and scientism, Nguyễn Bách Khoa believed that there was
only one way of knowing, that of science, and there was only one way of living, that of
thinking and acting according to science. Based on Auguste Comte's Law of the Three
Stages, Nguyễn Bách Khoa asserted that those relying on aesthetic intuition were only
17 Ibid., p. 17.
18 Ibid., pp. vii-ix.
19 Nguyễn Văn Trung (1990), Lược khảo văn học, vol. 3, Xuân Thu reprinted in Los Alanitos, pp. 190-2.
(Originally published in Saigon in 1968.)
93
“backward people who could not break completely with remaining perceptions from
ancient times”.20
In his view, science had the “all-purpose” to enlighten and explain everything,
including the most vague and abstract issues, such as the concepts of beauty, poetic
quality, soul and genius. Furthermore, skepticism about science was a reactionary
attitude.21
He especially gave the dialectical materialistic method considerable
prominence, as it was extremely efficient, and with it, he believed “numerous secrets of
the spiritual world” would sooner or later be discovered because the complexity and
the evolution of this world have a materialistic root which can be measured, looked at,
weighed, calculated and controlled by using scientific instruments.22
Although having a passion for dialecticalal materialism, Nguyễn Bách Khoa's
knowledge of philosophy in general, as illustrated in his Nguyễn Du và Truyện Kiều
(Nguyễn Du and the Tale of Kieu) (1942) and Văn chương Truyện Kiều (The
Literature of the Tale of Kieu) (1945), seems to have been very limited. In these books,
he puts forward five basic dialectical principles for the study of humans, as follows:
(i) “In spite of their mysterious nature, all biographical phenomena lie in the
realm of a cause-effect rule” (Claude Bernard).
(ii) “Thinking is an attribute of a human body” (Feuerbach).
(iii) “Spiritual life is rooted in physiological factors but is developed in
society” (T. Ribot).
(iv) “The human spirit is the crystallization of social correlation” (K. Marx).
(v) “The law of all progresses is that qualitative changes are proportionate to
changes in quantity” (Hégel).23
20 Nguyễn Bách Khoa (1953), op. cit., p. 95.
21 Ibid., p. 81.
22 Ibid., p. 81.
23 Ibid., p. 71.
94
Nguyễn Bách Khoa's way of synthesizing was strange: he did not hesitate to put
completely different, or even contradictory, viewpoints side by side. Probably he did
not carefully read the works of the writers mentioned above, with the result that he did
not know that Hegel was an idealist philosopher, that Claude Bernard, in spite of
advocating determinism and experimentalism, was ready to accept the necessity of
metaphysics and opposed the application of the methods of natural science to the social
sciences,24 that Feuerbach was a sensualist rather than a materialist - or if he was a
materialist, his materialism was very different from Marx's. The last point was
indicated by Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach written in 1845 and published in 1888
by Engels.25
In another paragraph in his The Literature of the Tale of Kieu, Nguyễn Bách
Khoa combines genetics with characteriology, psychoanalysis and Marxism into a
general view of studying and criticizing literature:
To understand an artist's character, we should examine the class and the
social, historical, geographical, and hereditary traits which take part in
forming their psychological structure. We should also study the ability of
operation, reaction and suitability of his/her body and nervous system, as
well as the reciprocal effect between the individual artist and his
environment.
If we know the structure of an artist's body, his heredity, his educational
background and his social class in a given historical period, we can predict
his ideological system (thoughts and psychology) and his career in the
arts.26
24 See W. Simon (1963), European Positivism in the 19th Century: An Essay in Intellectual History, Port
Washington: Kennikent Press, pp. 115-6.
25 See Marx and Engels (1973), Feuerbach, Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlooks,
London: Lawrence and Wishart; and Eugen Kameka (1970), The Philosophy of Ludwig
Feuerbach, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
26 Nguyễn Bách Khoa (1953), op. cit., p. 74.
95
In spite of his intention to reconcile discrepant opinions in a unique system,
Nguyễn Bách Khoa never raised the following issues: What was the relationship of
such factors as physiology, psychology and society in the creation of human
personality? Which one was the most important? He attempted to apply Freud's and
Marx's views at his convenience in his works. He was not aware of the fact that in the
Soviet Union, in order to ensure the unity of Marxism, from the late 1920s to the late
1950s, Freud's psychoanalysis was criticized for being biologistic, idealist, pessimistic,
bourgeois, and inherently tied to the capitalist ideology, which could not have a place
in Soviet society. For several decades, it was completely abandoned because one could
not, on the one hand, call for social reform which causes human transformation, and on
the other, believe that human personality is determined by haphazard factors within the
subconscious.27 According to V.N. Volosinov, in his book, Freudianism: a Marxist
Critique, first published in the Soviet Union in 1927, Freud presented humans in “an
inherently false, individualistic, asocial, and ahistorical setting”, and as a result, his
ideas were “totally unacceptable from an objective materialistic point of view.”28 It
would be wrong to state, like Nguyễn Văn Trung, that Nguyễn Bách Khoa knew how
to systematically apply literary theories in criticism and scholarship.29 The reason is
that Nguyễn Bách Khoa's knowledge was quite patchy. He frequently contradicted
himself: only in his The Literature of the Tale of Kieu did he assert that human
personality was constituted by physiological and genetic factors;30 later he considered
that “all an individual's feelings, thoughts and creative abilities are provided by society
and class”,31 and after that maintained that “literature is a class instrument, an indirect
27 Martin A. Miller (1998), Freud and the Bolsheviks: Psychoanalysis in Imperial Russia and the Soviet
Union, New Haven: Yale University Press.
28 V.N. Volosinov (1976), Freudianism: A Marxist Critique, translated by I. R. Titunik, New York:
Academic Press, pp. vii and 1.
29 Nguyễn Văn Trung (1990), Lược khảo văn học, vol. 3, Xuân Thu reprinted in Los Alanitos, pp. 190-
192. (Originally published in 1968.)
30 Nguyễn Bách Khoa (1953), op. cit., p. 72.
31 Ibid., p. 102.
96
political means”,32 and finally he pointed out that “each work is a manifestation of an
artist's personality” or, in psychological terms, “an expression of repressed passion”.33
We know that Trotsky was in sympathy with Freud. Opposing Lenin's
viewpoint, Trotsky believed that Freud's psychoanalytical approach was materialistic
and it was not a mistake when a Marxist acknowledged psychoanalysis as well as
Pavlov's theory.34 However, for several reasons, Nguyễn Bách Khoa was probably not
influenced by Trotsky. Firstly, despite Nguyễn Bách Khoa's tendency to incline
towards a Trotskyist rather than a Bolshevist standpoint, he never mentioned Trotsky
in his critical writings. Two points should be mentioned here. Firstly, on the one hand,
Nguyễn Bách Khoa was very fond of quoting foreign books, and on the other, Trotsky
wrote lots of books and articles on arts and literature issues.35 Secondly, immediately
after his The Literature of the Tale of Kieu (1945), Nguyễn Bách Khoa abandoned
Freud's influence and merely wrote from his Marxist standpoint in Tâm lý và tư tưởng
Nguyễn Công Trứ (Nguyễn Công Trứ's Psychology and Thoughts), which was
published in 1945. This ideological change did not accompany any change in his
political attitude. It is believed that it was purely an intellectual change. Nguyễn Bách
Khoa probably recognized that he had been contradicting himself and that the marriage
he had jokingly forced between Freud and Marx was utopian.
In fact, Nguyễn Bách Khoa first shows himself as a Marxist in his Nguyễn
Công Trứ's Psychology and Thoughts, a systematic critical work which tries to follow
a successfully dialectical materialist approach. In the preface of this book, Nguyễn
Bách Khoa criticizes Lê Thước, the author of the first critical work on Nguyễn Công
32 Ibid., p. 22.
33 Ibid., p. 127.
34 See Leon Trotsky (1973), Problems of Everyday Life and Other Writings on Culture and Science,
New York: Moned, p. 234.
35 See Leon Trotsky (1968), Literature and Revolution, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
The Vietnamese version, Văn học và cách mạng, translated by Hoàng Nguyễn (2000),
published in Paris by Tủ sách nghiên cứu.
97
Trứ in Vietnam,36 for failing to explain the numerous contradictions in Nguyễn Công
Trứ's life and thoughts, for three main reasons: (i) he did not recognize that
contradiction is the nature of things, (ii) he held an abstract view on individuals; and
(iii) he had a “feudal ideology” of talent. Nguyễn Bách Khoa also criticized Taine, who
was his previous idol, for being a vulgar and mechanical materialist. According to
Nguyễn Bách Khoa, Taine explained a literary phenomenon through the psychological
attributes of the writer but forgot that these attributes themselves need to be explained.
Moreover, Taine did not acknowledge any genius, and believed that a genius was a
person who thought and felt according to his/her era's inspirations. Finally, Taine's
understanding of the cause - effect rule was too rigid while all elements had a
dialectical relationship: an element might be at this time and place a cause, but it might
be at another place and in another time an effect, and vice versa.37
Based on Marx's definition of human beings as “an outcome of social
relationship”, Nguyễn Bách Khoa drew up three principles: (i) human spiritual life is a
product of physiological and social life; (ii) human genetic and psychological nature
changes in accordance with social changes; (iii) after being determined by society,
human beings also affect that society, although this re-effect is then, in turn,
determined by social circumstances. From these principles, Nguyễn Bách Khoa
concluded that “although a genius, an individual is also a product of his/her society”.38
Thus, to understand an individual, especially a genius, we should study carefully: (i)
the social circumstances in which he or she was born and shaped; (ii) the ideology, the
psychology and historical role of the class of which he/she is a member; and (iii) the
influences of the class struggle on that individual. To sum up, “one must study the
whole social system in which that individual, from his/her class standpoint, is affected
by and reacts to his/her circumstances.” According to Nguyễn Bách Khoa, this
36 Lê Thước (1928), Sự nghiệp và thi văn của Uy Viễn tướng công Nguyễn Công Trứ, Hanoi: Ấn quán
Lê Văn Tân.
37 Nguyễn Bách Khoa (1951), Tâm lý và tư tưởng Nguyễn Công Trứ, second edition, Hanoi: Thế Giới,
pp. xii-xiii. (First edition was printed in 1945.)
38 Ibid., p. xvi.
98
approach is dialectical materialism, “the highest and the most effective method in
modern thought”.39
Based on the above principles, Nguyễn Bách Khoa examines the age, class and
biography of Nguyễn Công Trứ, one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century. In
his view, Nguyễn Công Trứ was primarily a Confucian scholar. Different from Chinese
Confucian literati who emerged from the struggle between the clergy and the landlords
in the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 B.C.), the Vietnamese literati were merely a
kind of imported product at the time Vietnam was invaded by China. Due to their stock
conditions, Vietnamese literati often lacked theoretical ability. They just borrowed
available Chinese ideologies and often defended the clergy and the landlords' interests.
Nguyễn Công Trứ's era was one of endless wars. This had several consequences: (i) in
terms of politics, the nation was unified and its territory was extended, but the masses
were at a low ebb and exhausted; (ii) in terms of society, trade developed and led to the
creation of wealthy urban merchant classes, whereas the imperial scholars were in
difficulty and sinking into decay; (iii) in terms of psychology, all humans aspired to
peace, worshiped heroes towering above their contemporaries, and believed in their
destiny.
The above characteristics of Nguyễn Công Trứ's class and era had a tremendous
impact on his psychology and thoughts. When he was young, Nguyễn Công Trứ was
very poor, but instead of “peaceful living in the poor conditions” (an bần lạc đạo) like
the scholars of the previous centuries, Nguyễn Công Trứ, on the contrary, was
indignant in a society where trade economy resulted in great importance being attached
to money. On the one hand, he cursed poverty and always dreamt of one day passing
examinations and becoming a rich and powerful mandarin; on the other, he was deeply
resentful of the supercilious wealthy with little schooling who had emerged. Before the
nineteenth century, reacting to their class enemies, Vietnamese literati often haughtily
regarded themselves as the representatives of ethics as well as of benevolence and
righteousness; they were highly placed in society. However, after that, because of their
39 Ibid., p. xix.
99
loss of self-confidence, the literati chose hedonism in order to prove their aristocratic
style of living. The most typical of this style was the image of an “amorous and
talented man” (tài tử), which was clearly depicted in Nguyễn Công Trứ's poetry.
Nguyễn Bách Khoa reached the conclusion that Nguyễn Công Trứ's psychology
and thoughts reflected the nature and situation of the Vietnamese Confucian literati of
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He labelled Nguyễn Công Trứ as “a witness of
his era.”40
The Nguyễn Công Trứ's Psychology and Thoughts is regarded as an excellent
monograph, in which Nguyễn Bách Khoa successfully applied the orthodox Marxist
view on literary criticism which was widely accepted in the socialist countries. In
criticizing Nguyễn Bách Khoa for being a false Marxist, and a vulgar and mechanical
materialist, orthodox Marxist critics intentionally ignored his writing on Nguyễn Công
Trứ. Up till now, there has not been any work in Vietnam on Nguyễn Công Trứ which
surpasses that of Nguyễn Bách Khoa. Moreover, several of the creative discoveries in
Nguyễn Bách Khoa's book on Nguyễn Công Trứ are paraphrased in many later works
written by the orthodox Marxist critics. His influence remains strong, even today. For
example, the image of the “amorous and talented writers” (tài tử), the attitude of
Nguyễn Công Trứ towards poverty, the effects of trade economy and the merchants on
Vietnamese culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the hedonistic trend
in Vietnamese literature of the nineteenth century, which were first revealed by
Nguyễn Bách Khoa, reappear later with more detail and more profound interpretation
in Nguyễn Lộc's and Phan Ngọc's works.41
By 1945, Nguyễn Công Trứ's Psychology and Thoughts was the sole work
which applied Marxist literary criticism in Vietnam. This work also shows Nguyễn
Bách Khoa's strength: his wide knowledge of Vietnamese history and culture, his acute
40 Ibid., pp. 216-217.
41 See Nguyễn Lộc (1977), Văn học Việt Nam nửa cuối thế kỷ XVIII - nửa đầu thế kỷ XIX, vol. 1, Hanoi:
Nxb Đại Học và Trung Học Chuyên Nghiệp; and Phan Ngọc (1985), Tìm hiểu phong cách nghệ
thuật của Nguyễn Du trong Truyện Kiều, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội.
100
arguments, and his attractive style. Thanks to these characteristics, his work was
warmly welcomed by readers, especially the youth, who were in an eager bustle for
something new and who worshipped science because of their inferiority complex based
on living in a poor and backward country. It may be said that while Hải Triều merely
gave a sketchy introduction of a Marxist literary viewpoint to a minority of
intellectuals, Nguyễn Bách Khoa was the first scholar who practiced the Marxist
criticism and won the hearts and minds of dozens of thousands of readers. While Hải
Triều was primarily a polemicist, Nguyễn Bách Khoa rightly held the place of
originator of practical Marxist criticism in Vietnamese literature.
One point needs to be mentioned here: while Hải Triều's thinking itinerary
extended from Plekhanov, Tolstoy and Kuo Mojo to the 1930s socialist realism of the
Soviet Union, then went back to Engels, the thinking of Nguyễn Bách Khoa was more
complex, stemming from Taine, Freud and Durkheim, and extending to Marx, Engels
and Plekhanov. Although they had different itineraries, both were limited to the
Marxist literary viewpoint of the turn of the century. Also, because they derived their
Marxism from various sources, including some non-Marxist ones, their thoughts were
quite eclectic. They were a medley of radical ideology, economic determinism and
literary pragmatism.
Ðặng Thai Mai and his Outline of Literary Theory
While Nguyễn Bách Khoa was attempting to apply Marxist aesthetics to
practical criticism, another man, Đặng Thai Mai (1902-1984), was attempting to solve
several theoretical issues of literature within a Marxist framework. However, the
creative personalities, literary contributions and even destinies of both of them are
completely different. Nguyễn Bách Khoa was changeable, slightly eccentric and a
fearless thinker who was greatly interested in originality, loved to experiment in
theories and words, and with all the idealism of a non-communist left intellectual,
could not accept deposition and pretence. As a result of this, Nguyễn Bách Khoa was
eventually condemned to silence. From 1957 onwards, not a single one of his books
101
was printed in North Vietnam, and only one of his articles made a brief appearance in
an anthology published in 1994, as an outcome of the đổi mới (Renovation)
Movement.42 In contrast, Đặng Thai Mai always remained loyal to Marxism and the
Communist Party. For this reason, he was always well-treated by the Communist
Party: in 1939 he was nominated as a candidate to the Chamber of People’s Deputies
of Central Vietnam; after the August 1945 Revolution, he was appointed as Minister of
Education (1945-46); and in the anti-French resistance, he became the chairperson of
the Resistant Administrative Committee of Thanh Hoá province (1947-48), the
president of the Cultural Association for National Salvation (1948-49), and the director
of the Faculty of Arts in the Fifth Inter-zones (Liên khu 5). His success continued, and
following the 1954 Geneva Agreements, he was appointed rector of the Hanoi School
of Education (1956-59), and later held three important positions almost at the same
time: President of the Vietnamese Union of Writers and Artists (1957-84), Head of the
Institute of Literature (1959-76) and Publisher of the Văn Học journal (1959-76).
Đặng Thai Mai was admired by most Marxist writers for his great talent and
erudite scholarship. Huy Cận, a great poet and successor of Đặng Thai Mai in the
position of president of the Vietnamese Union of Writers and Artists, considered him
as “an encyclopedia of literature, arts, culture, and present and past global
civilizations”.43 According to Lữ Huy Nguyên, a poet and director of the Publishing
House of the Vietnamese Writers’ Association, one might attribute all the honorable
titles of the writing profession to Đặng Thai Mai: scholar, literary researcher, theorist,
critic and writer.44 Nguyễn Huệ Chi, an expert in Vietnamese classical literature,
regarded Đặng Thai Mai as a combination of talents: “He does not limit his writings to
any special domain. He totally controls his subject with all his available strength of
42 The full title of this anthology is Văn học Việt Nam sau Cách mạng Tháng Tám: Tiểu luận Phê bình,
edited by Nguyên Ngọc, Hà Minh Đức, Văn Tâm, Lữ Huy Nguyên, Nguyễn Bao and Thuý
Toàn, published by Văn Học, Hanoi, 1993. Trương Tửu’s article which was chosen for it is
“Truyện Thạch Sanh”, pp. 489-501.
43 Quoted in Nguyễn Thạch Giang (1992), “Đặng Thai Mai, bản nhạc không lời về đạo lý làm người”,
Văn Nghệ, no. 51 (19 December 1992), p. 7.
44 Lữ Huy Nguyên (1982), “Tác phẩm của Đặng Thai Mai”, Nhân Dân, 19 September 1982, p. 2.
102
mind, of feeling, great knowledge, practical experience, and sophisticated as well as
sharp-witted thoughts.”45 However, it seems that Phan Cự Đệ’s appraisal was more
accurate and reasonable: in his opinion, Đặng Thai Mai was a literary researcher rather
than a theorist or a critic.46
Đặng Thai Mai only produced a few critical essays, which, apart from a booklet
entitled Giảng văn Chinh phụ ngâm (Interpreting the Ballad of a Warrior’s Wife),
published in 1950, reprinted in 1992, focused on the two most powerful people within
the communist regime: Hồ Chí Minh, the President of Vietnam and of the Vietnamese
Communist Party, and Tố Hữu, Head of the Department of Propaganda and Ideological
Training of the Party’s Central Committee.47
It is not without reason to think that Đặng Thai Mai wrote these critical essays
with a political rather than a literary motivation. Furthermore, in his writings, Đặng
Thai Mai’s first concern was with historical and biographical details and linguistic
problems rather than with the aesthetical aspects of the text. He was a researcher who
was greatly interested in collecting and explaining material rather than a critic who
loved to appreciate, interpret and evaluate works of art. In respect of criticism, it is
obvious that Đặng Thai Mai was deeply influenced by the famous French critic
Gustave Lanson (1857-1934),48 who believed that a scientific approach to literary
history must be based on a scrupulous study of sources, chronology and bliography.
Echoing Lanson, Đặng Thai Mai asserted that “today, in order to fully appreciate our
predecessors’ works of literature, we must firstly understand their lives and historical
45 Viện Văn Học (ed.) (1986), Tác gia lý luận phê bình nghiên cứu văn học Việt Nam 1945-1975, vol. 1,
Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã hội, pp. 18-9.
46 Phan Cự Đệ and Hà Minh Đức (1979), Nhà văn Việt Nam, vol. 1, Hanoi: Nxb Đại Học và Trung Học
Chuyên Nghiệp, pp. 479-480.
47 Most of Đặng Thai Mai’s critical writings were collected in his Trên đường học tập và nghiên cứu, 3
vols.: volume 1 (292 pages) and volume 2 (356 pages) were published by Văn Học (Hanoi) in
1969, and volume 3 (214 pages) in 1973.
48 Gustave Lanson (1857-1934) was a professor at the Sorbonne, director of the École Normale
Supérieure. He is also the author of several reference works such as Histoire de la littérature
francaise (1894), and Manuel bibliographique de la littérature francaise (1909), among others,
which had a lasting influence on many university scholars.
103
conditions.”49 Therefore, a researcher’s first task is “to collect, arrange and review
documents. It is important to research writers’ lives and works as well as the social,
political and literary activities of their era, and to have a clear viewpoint on the general
development law of world culture and literature. It is also important to have an
accurate knowledge of rhetoric, linguistics and phonetics.”50 Surprisingly, Đặng Thai
Mai rarely provided this kind of stylistic and grammatical analysis and commentary in
his writings.
Văn thơ Phan Bội Châu (Phan Boi Chau’s Literature) (1958) and Văn thơ cách
mạng đầu thế kỷ XX (Revolutionary Literature of the Beginning of the Twentieth
Century) (1961) were Đặng Thai Mai’s two most significant achievements, in which he
used all his intellectual strengths, wide knowledge, abundant resources, and heartfelt
style. He reconstructed the historical and cultural background of the beginning of the
twentieth century, highlighting many colourful and interesting details, most of which
are anecdotes collected from a lifetime of rich experience and wide reading. Thus,
reading his books, we are able to enjoy them as if we were listening to an erudite and
charming storyteller. However, because Đặng Thai Mai had an avid interest in
anecdotes, his books are at times not well-constructed. It may be said that Đặng Thai
Mai wrote his research work as an artist rather than an academic scholar.
This may be a reason why, having been praised and even extolled to the skies,
Đặng Thai Mai did not write much and did not produce any outstanding work. He
failed both as a critic and as a scholar. He conducted literary criticism as a scholar, but
wrote scholarly writing with an artistic inspiration. His personality was greater than his
work. He had a wonderful memory. Allegedly he could quote many French classics by
49 Đặng Thai Mai (1950), Văn học khái luận, Saigon: Liên Hiệp xuất bản cục. (Originally published by
Hàn Thuyên, Hanoi in 1944.)
50 Đặng Thai Mai (1992), Giảng văn Chinh phụ ngâm, Hanoi: Trường Đại học Sư phạm Hà Nội 1,
(originally published in 1950), p. 10.
104
heart.51 This wonderful memory made him famous as a living encyclopedia; however,
it made him merely a gossip in his own writings.
A scholar by education, an artist by instinct, a writer by choice, oddly enough,
Đặng Thai Mai devoted himself to the field of literary theory and finally gained a
reputation mainly through his achievements in that area. Today, even in Vietnam,
when remembering Đặng Thai Mai, people mainly mention his activities of the period
of 1943-48, when he played a role as “one of the typical theorists” of the Communist
Party52 and “one of those who laid the first foundations of Marxist literary theory” in
Vietnam.53
It is worth noting that Đặng Thai Mai played the theorist role unexpectedly.
Although he had sprung from the stock of Confucian scholars and was fond of
literature, he did not think of writing until he was thirty years old. He said that he had
even sworn not to become a writer as long as French censorship remained in
Vietnam.54 However, in the period of the French Popular Front (1936-39), Đặng Thai
Mai broke his promise and often published essays and short stories in the Vietnamese
and French newspapers controlled by the Vietnamese Communist Party such as Tin tức
(News), Le Travail, Rassemblement, Notre Voix and En Avant. At the end of 1943,
thanks to two communist cultural cadres, Học Phi and Trần Quốc Hương, he was
allowed to read the then strictly censored Đề cương văn hoá (Theses on Culture),
which was compiled by Trường Chinh, the prevailing Secretary General of the
Vietnamese Communist Party.55 According to Đặng Thai Mai, this pamphlet made a
tremendous impact on him: “Firstly, there was a great need for a struggle for literary
theory; and secondly, literary theory cannot be separated from history, politics, and
51 See Đặng Thanh Lê et al. (eds.) (1994), Đặng Thai Mai và văn học, Nghệ An: Nhà xuất bản Nghệ An;
and Để nhớ Đặng Thai Mai, edited by Đặng Thai Mai’s children, published by Nhà xuất bản
Hội Nhà Văn, Hanoi, 1992.
52 Phan Cự Đệ and Hà Minh Đức (1979), op. cit., p. 471.
53 Ibid, p. 470.
54 Đặng Thai Mai (1985), Hồi ký, Hanoi: Tác Phẩm Mới, p. 341.
105
society, but needs to be put into the national revolution.”56 It may be said that Đặng
Thai Mai only began his concentration on literary theory after reading this pamphlet.
This explains why he had not become a participant of the polemic on “art for art’s
sake” versus “art for human life’s sake” which lasted from 1935 to 1939, and
furthermore, was indifferent to it. Thus, in his An Outline of Literary Theory (Văn học
khái luận), which was published by Hàn Thuyên in 1944, and reprinted by Ngày Nay
in 1950, he made some surprising mistakes. He maintained that the polemic broke out
“about fifteen years” earlier,57 which meant in the years 1929-30. With such a
misunderstanding, he then tried to explain readers’ indifferent attitudes to the polemic
using two main reasons: firstly, “the economic and political crisis which still haunted
people like a ghost”58 - he probably meant the Great Depression; and secondly, he
asserted that the polemic only lasted a few months,59 whereas in fact it lasted a few
years. Moreover, he mentioned in his notes on page 167 that he did not have Bùi Công
Trừng’s articles, in spite of Bùi Công Trừng being one of his comrades and Trừng’s
articles being one of the most crucial contribution to the polemic of 1935-39.
Đặng Thai Mai’s An Outline of Literary Theory was widely regarded as “the
first work systematically presenting literary theory issues from the Marxist-Leninist
viewpoint”60 as well as the first work of literary theory in general in Vietnam.
Unfortunately, this first theoretical work was written for political motivation, not
literary. Like Hải Triều, Đặng Thai Mai wrote his book as a soldier rather than a
scholar, although at that time he was merely a party sympathizer and not a party
member. However, unlike Hải Triều, Đặng Thai Mai was a highly cultured and widely
read intellectual, and therefore able to avoid childish mistakes in knowledge and
55 Nguyễn Phúc et al. (eds.) (1985), Một chặng đường văn hoá, Hanoi: Tác Phẩm Mới, p. 83.
56 Ibid., pp. 52 and 84.
57 Đặng Thai Mai (1950), op. cit., p. 34.
58 Ibid.
59 Ibid.
60 Phan Cự Đệ and Hà Minh Đức (1979), op. cit., p. 470.
106
argument. Đặng Thai Mai possessed that which Hải Triều lacked, immense erudition;
he also had that which Nguyễn Bách Khoa completely ignored, intellectual caution.
***
For political rather than academic reasons, Đặng Thai Mai aimed to propagate
revolutionary ideals and gather comrades, neglecting the exploration of the nature of
literature itself. Thus he missed many basic and important issues such as that of the
origin, characteristics and functions of literature, the development of literary genres,
literary and trends, relationships between text and author, text and reality, and
differences between literature and non-literature. Nguyễn Huệ Chi tried to explain the
choices of Đặng Thai Mai, saying:
Đặng Thai Mai does not need to cover all his bases, because he knows in
his heart that his first goal is not to explain basic theory but to use that
theory to wage a war of words about the literary path for that period, and to
struggle against outdated art viewpoints. Therefore, he chooses issues
which are of foremost concern to writers, that is, those which need hard
thinking, which should be clearly differentiated in the literary life, or which
suggest a new direction to help writers extricate themselves from a fix.61
If Nguyễn Huệ Chi’s explanation was correct, Đặng Thai Mai’s choice would
be a dangerous adventure, as he accepted the role of “suggesting a new direction”
while he did not know where he was. This shortcoming may be seen clearly in Đặng
Thai Mai’s An Outline of Literary Theory as well as in the Vietnamese Marxist literary
history, which lasted until half a century later.
In his book, Đặng Thai Mai raised some important issues such as the goal of
literary creation, freedom in literature, class consciousness and the inherited-ness (tính
kế thừa) of literature, as well as the relationship between content and form, personality
and typification, and nationality and internationality.
61 Viện Văn Học (ed.) (1986), op. cit., p. 32.
107
First of all, Đặng Thai Mai claims that the term “literature” has two meanings:
(i) it is an area in the cultural domain, containing all of the works written in prose and
verse; and (ii) it is also a science which studies those works.62
In the second meaning, literature (more correctly, literary studies), which is a
science, has two major characteristics: first, it uses objective method and second, it
aims to discover general laws; that is, it “is similar to history, philosophy, mathematics,
and physics, etc”.63 Đặng Thai Mai emphasizes that this view is a very new one in
modern scholarship.64
In the first meaning, (creative) literature is “a form of ideology”, which, like
politics, religion, laws and morals, is established on the ground of the economic base,
directly or indirectly influenced by the economic activities in society.65 Đặng Thai Mai
distinguished literature from the other ideological forms by claiming that only
literature is able to use language as a means of depicting human life, thoughts, feelings
and will. Using language as a criterion to separate literature from other forms of
discourse, Đặng Thai Mai seemed to be perplexed when he differentiated literature
from philosophy, history and other social sciences, as all these disciplines use similar
means. He solved that problem by vaguely stating that “the difference between
literature and philosophy or science is not in their content, but in the forms and the
areas that each subject covers”.66 However, Đặng Thai Mai did not provide any further
analysis. We can ask: How does the area and form of literature differ from other
subjects? How does literary language differ from scientific and everyday language? In
another paragraph, Đặng Thai Mai states that the scope of literature is quite broad, and
includes not only lyric prose or verse, but also epic, comedy, novel, essay and
miscellaneous writings (tạp văn). He reminded us that the authors who were mentioned
62 Đặng Thai Mai (1950), op. cit., p. 13.
63 Ibid., p. 12.
64 Ibid., pp. 14-5.
65 Ibid., p. 25.
66 Ibid., p. 24.
108
and criticized in all of the books on French literary history were not only writers and
poets, like Ronsard, Lamartine and Victor Hugo, but also several philosophers such as
Descartes and Victor Cousin. Similarly, in books on Chinese literary history, along
with Du Fu (712-770) and Li Bai (701-762), there were also a great number of pages
written on historians, philosophers and orators.67 But Đặng Thai Mai never put forward
the questions: Why have many famous philosophers, historians and other social
scientists not had their names mentioned in books of literary history whereas others
have? Why, for example, does nineteenth-century English literature usually include
Lamb but not Bentham, Macaulay but not Marx, and Mill but not Darwin or Herbert
Spencer? Đặng Thai Mai did not go the whole way into theory to discover - as Terry
Eagleton did later in his Literary Theory, An Introduction, which was first published
in 1983 - that the term “literature” is ambiguous: it usually denotes “belles letters”, a
sort of writing which is generally highly regarded, while the so-called “highly
regarded” depends on particular criteria, laid down by certain persons in specific
situations and in the light of given purposes; as a result of which, the term is merely an
empty concept which does not have an “essence” of its own.68
Completely satisfied with his unfinished definition of literature, Đặng Thai Mai
tried to look for literature’s goal, by first rejecting the “art for art’s sake” standpoint of
“capitalist” writers. He stated that “the art for art’s sake view was impossible because
no artist can practice his art just for art’s sake. It is impossible for him not to feel
hungry for more when looking at the half loaf of bread that he has made. Similarly, his
thirst cannot be satisfied by only reading his work”.69 Even when people wrote just for
fun, “having fun is not art; it is an aspect of life”.70 Surprisingly, it seems that Đặng
Thai Mai’s understanding of the concept “art for art’s sake” was quite queer. In spite of
advocating that art must have no end but itself, no one on the art for art’s sake side
67 Ibid., pp. 22-3.
68 Terry Eagleton (1983), Literary Theory: An Introduction, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, p. 9.
69 Đặng Thai Mai (1950), op. cit., p. 38.
70 Ibid., p. 39.
109
would ever want to uproot literature from its essential soil - human life. Aestheticism
was first and foremost a reaction against romanticism in order to pursue an impersonal
and plastic ideal of beauty.
Đặng Thai Mai’s aesthetic view was basically neo-classicist. He conceded that
all masterpieces have two paramount features: usefulness and pleasure.71 This is an
echo of the seventeenth-century neo-classicists who held that “the end of literature is to
teach and delight; pleasure is the immediate, and instruction the ultimate end”,72 as
John Dennis claimed:
Poetry then is an art by which a poet excites passion (and for that very cause
entertains sense) in order to satisfy and improve, to delight and reform the mind,
and so to make mankind happier and better: from which it appears that poetry has
two ends, a subordinate, and a final one; the subordinate one is pleasure, and the
final one is instruction.73
However, Đặng Thai Mai went further into the Marxist vein by stating that
these two features have always born the imprint of class consciousness. In feudal
society, writers and poets were only jesters or singers dancing around the crowned
heads of the aristocracy. In capitalist society, the role of writers was no better: they
were only a gang of pen-prostitutes (lũ đĩ bút mực) serving the rich. In this respect,
Đặng Thai Mai was more extreme than Karl Marx, his ideological ancestor. While
Marx, in his Economic Manuscripts of 1857-1858, believed that art and literature were
relatively independent and might develop without being in accordance with political or
social events,74 Đặng Thai Mai contended that “the periods in which a society
experiences great change are generally those in which literature is developing rapidly
and progressing to a higher level.”75 Applying this principle to Chinese literary history,
71 Ibid., p. 31.
72 Irene Simon (ed.) (1971), Neo-Classical Criticism 1660-1800, London: Edward Arnold, p.40.
73 Ibid., p. 42.
74 See Marx and Engels (1978), On Literature and Art, Moscow: Progress Publishers, p. 82.
75 Đặng Thai Mai (1950), op. cit., p. 58.
110
he asserted that the whole history of Chinese literature contains two glorious periods:
first, that of Zhou (circa 1122-249 B.C.) and Qin (221-207 B.C.), when China adopted
feudalism, and second, that of the period following the end of the nineteenth century,
when China became a capitalist country. Apart from these two golden periods, during
its very long history, Chinese society changed little, and as a result of this, thought and
literature remained stagnant. Surprisingly, Đặng Thai Mai did not highly value the
poetic achievements of the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties.
Furthermore, he states that the poetry of Li Bai (701-762) and Du Fu (712-770) “have
nothing creative in respect of aesthetics, contain no thoughts worth researching, and are
not a valid manifestation of human life and society”.76 These announcements are very
strange. To most literary critics and historians, the Tang and Song dynasties,
especially the first, possess a unique aura of splendor in the history of Chinese
literature. Tang poetry has almost been identified with the two poets, Li Bai and Du Fu.
While the first “would probably be close to the top on almost anyone’s list of the
greatest Chinese poets of premodern times”,77 the latter is generally recognized as “the
greatest Chinese poet”, whose “greatness rests on the consensus of more than a
millennium of readers and on the rare coincidence of Chinese and Western literary
values”.78 Both became the apogee of all Chinese poetry, whom no later poet could
entirely ignore.79
The above incorrect evaluation resulted from Đặng Thai Mai’s slanted
viewpoint on literature in which he identified literature with ideology. Moreover, he
believed that the first goal of literature was to participate in the class struggle.
Therefore, politics would be the most important criterion for evaluating literature.
From this standpoint, Đặng Thai Mai drew a number of corollaries: first, a writer
should improve his outlook on life and the world in order to discover the laws of
76 Ibid., p. 60.
77 Burton Watson (trans. and ed.) (1984), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry, from Early Times to
the Thirteenth Century, New York: Columbia University Press, p. 205.
78 Stephen Owen (1981), The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High T’ang, New Haven: Yale
University Press, p. 183.
111
historical development; second, he must participate actively in the “front line of the
era”, “take the pioneer responsibility” and “realize that his mission is to write for a
specific class”.80
Đặng Thai Mai summed up his views in the following principle:
If a writer’s mind does not have waves of discontent, if his soul does not
feel the miseries and deficiencies of human life as well as the eager
expectation of the era, if he does not understand an ever-changing world
and human life, if he does not have any request or any hope for the present
and the future, his cajolery writing will just be plump like a slab of meat
and slippery like the bald forehead of a bourgeois, merely a kind of
“literature of entertainment” (văn chơi), and not containing any literary
significance.81
The viewpoint that saw literature as a language of human discontent was not
novel. The funny thing is, one year later, Trương Tửu, in his Tương lai văn nghệ Việt
Nam (The Future of Vietnamese Literature and Art), repeated this idea in another form:
“Art is nothing but a constant protest against reality and the present time”.82 This,
however, was strongly criticized by Marxist critics, including Đặng Thai Mai, under
the pen name Thanh Bình.83 The simple reason for this puzzling event was that Trương
Tửu’s book was published after the August Revolution (although it had been finished
long before), when the Communist Party had just seized power. In such a new political
situation, calling upon writers to protest was considered reactionary.
79 See Paulam Varsano (2003), Tracking the Banished Immortal, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
80 Đặng Thai Mai (1950), op. cit. , p. 65.
81 Ibid., p. 62.
82 Trương Tửu (1945), Tương lai văn nghệ Việt Nam, Hanoi: Hàn Thuyên, p. 23.
83 Thanh Bình (the pen name of Đặng Thai Mai) (1945 and 1946), “Phê bình Tương lai văn nghệ Việt
Nam”, Tiên Phong, no. 2 (1 December 1945), no. 3 (16 December 1945) and no. 6 (16
February 1946), reprinted in Nguyễn Phúc et al. (eds.) (1985), op. cit., pp. 197-205.
112
Đặng Thai Mai advised writers to apply the socialist realist method in order to
subvert idealistic, romantic, and mechanical sociological viewpoints in literature.84
However, he never clearly defined what he meant by “socialist realist method”.
Nguyễn Huệ Chi, in his entry in Từ điển văn học (Dictionary of Literature), explained
that the cause of this shortcoming was “the strict censorship of the Japanese-French
ruling system at that time”.85 In fact, this may be far from the truth. In several of Đặng
Thai Mai’s sayings quoted above, we can see that he often urged writers to rise up
against the French colonial government, calling for equity and democracy. It is
unbelievable that while so doing, he was not allowed to analyze such academic
concepts as socialist realism. Besides, Đặng Thai Mai himself once revealed that all the
paragraphs cut out of his book related to politics, and to the relationship between
nationalism and internationalism, but not to academic concepts.86 The main reason for
this is probably that although Đặng Thai Mai had had the opportunity of reading the
Chinese translations of a number of documents of the Russian Communist party after
its 1925 Congress, as well as those of the first congress of the Association of Soviet
Writers in 1934, he had not fully comprehended the issue of socialist realism. In his
chapter on socialist realist literature, he was only able to address the two following
questions: Do social characteristics repress personality? and, do realist characteristics
kill imagination? To both questions, Đặng Thai Mai’s answer was: No. He did not
explain why the social characteristics of socialist realism did not repress personality,
but called upon writers to rely on the masses’ opinions and evaluations: “In a society
where mass education reaches the writers’ level, writers have no reason to be skeptical.
Moreover, this is a necessary social precondition for genius; not to be trampled under
the foot of the cruel by the might of money”.87 Đặng Thai Mai then elaborated the
second question. According to him, there was no contradiction between reality and
imagination, because any imagination is based on a certain reality. Socialist realist
84 Đặng Thai Mai (1950), op. cit., p. 68.
85 Ðỗ Ðức Hiểu et al. (eds.) (1984), Từ điển văn học, vol. 2, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội, p. 518.
86 Nguyễn Phúc et al. (eds.) (1985), op. cit., p. 84.
87 Đặng Thai Mai (1950), op. cit., p. 89.
113
literature only opposed the abuse of imagination , and “flatly rejected the disheartened
and cowardly attitude of weak souls which dared not look at the truth, live with it and
vigorously abolish false images used in romantic styles which embellish in order to
ignore the true nature of social events.”88
It seems that Đặng Thai Mai did not clearly distinguish the difference between
critical realism and socialist realism. Sometimes he named the realism of the
nineteenth-century French writers as the first-period realism, to distinguish it from the
second-period realism, which is officially termed socialist realism. However, in his
expression, both trends had the same features, truthfully reflecting reality, and “for the
present, they would reveal the true nature of a society and the miseries and the
discontent of the era; for the future, they would be a halo projecting the true and subtle
aspects of the past to the following generations”.89 Đặng Thai Mai did not mention any
fundamental characteristic of socialist realism, such as “klassovost” (classmindedness),
“narodnost” (people-mindedness), and more particularly “partiinost”
(party-mindedness), included with requirements of truthful, historically concrete
representations of reality in its revolutionary development, etc. It seems that he vaguely
realized the last point as he wrote: “Society needs writers who depict daily experiences
of different generations. However, what it needs most is that writers, through their
imagination, foresee tendencies of social contradictions and depict their present lack,
which is in fact the truth of the future.”90 This is just his vague recognition, from an
orthodox Marxist viewpoint, of the developmental tendency of history as the task of
consciousness, not of the imagination.
When analyzing the relationship between content and form in a work of art,
Đặng Thai Mai admitted that these two factors were closely connected and sometimes
overlapped, but immediately after this pronouncement he stated that he believed that
content itself would determine form. Therefore “when striving for self-improvement in
88 Ibid., p. 95.
89 Ibid., p. 138.
90 Ibid., pp. 98-9.
114
literature, living and observing are the first steps and the major issues of literature and
art, whereas high techniques are just a minor one.”91 Furthermore, he indicated that in
the history of literature there were some periods in which the content overwhelmed the
form, and vice versa. Therefore, the perfect literature was one in which these two
factors were unified and harmonious.
It is more surprising that Đặng Thai Mai seemed to ignore Engels’ definition of
the concept of realism: “Realism, to my mind, implies, besides truth of detail, the
truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances”.92 On the issue
of typification, Đặng Thai Mai merely gave a general comment: “A typical character is
a character which represents a whole generation, an association or a social class”.93 He
did not mention the concept of “typical circumstances”, which was later emphasized by
Marxist literary theorists.
Obviously, although famous for his erudition, Đặng Thai Mai did not keep
himself well-informed on the debates of socialist realism and on general Marxist theory
as did Hải Triều. He had a wide knowledge of French and Chinese literature, but,
because of his feeble theoretical framework, his citations and examples drawn from
French and Chinese literature became dispersed and did not prove anything. He rarely
scrutinized any issue thoroughly, giving it enough analysis to be convincing. When he
needed to persuade readers, he used the emotional style of a missionary to appeal to
their responsibility and patriotism.
At heart, Đặng Thai Mai was a Marxist. Although not always successful, he
was very conscious of using dialectical and historical materialism as the framework for
his thinking. When dealing with any literary phenomenon, he usually tried to explain
them through the lens of economic, political and social events. He liked to put concepts
into categories in opposition in order to compare, and especially to find out reciprocal
91 Ibid., p. 106.
92 Marx and Engels (1978), op. cit., p. 10.
93 Đặng Thai Mai (1950), op. cit., p. 126.
115
actions and influences. Discussing the relationship between nationality and
internationality, he made a correct but not novel comment: “No work deserves to
represent national traits while at the same time it does not consist of the common and
deep characteristics of humanity”.94 Moreover, he was bold enough to reshape Stalin’s
mechanical view on socialist realism as “socialist in content and national in form”: “In
order to build a socialist realist literature, we should first of all depict our society
through our national language.”95 In other words, the so-called “people-mindedness” of
socialist realism was not only of form, but also of content. Surprisingly, the cadres of
the Vietnamese Communist Party who were specialized in and were responsible for the
“cultural front” discovered Đặng Thai Mai’s subtle efforts to reshape Stalin’s view
very late. The term of “national form” was not changed into “national traits” in official
documents until the third congress of the Central Committee of the Vietnamese
Communist Party in 1960.
This independent attitude of Đặng Thai Mai can be explained by the fact that he
was just a non-communist left intellectual at that time. In his An Outline of Literary
Theory, there was a deep imprint of André Gide’s thoughts. Đặng Thai Mai quoted
Gide frequently and obviously admired him greatly despite the fact that Gide was
being condemned and strongly criticized by communist parties everywhere. Đặng Thai
Mai regarded Gide as a symbol of the freedom and sincerity of a true artist.96 He
particularly sympathized with Gide’s ideas on artistic freedom, and on the relationship
between literature and life, between originality and popularity. It may be said that
Gide’s thoughts on literature inspired Đặng Thai Mai to write Chapter Six on “The
issue of freedom on literature and art” in his book, An Outline of Literary Theory.
Đặng Thai Mai’s independence of the Soviet formula “people-mindedness”
may also be explained by his limited knowledge of the issue. As an immensely erudite
scholar, he had a wide acquaintance not only with literature but also with history and
94 Ibid., pp. 196-197.
95 Ibid., p. 190.
96 Đặng Thai Mai (1950), op. cit., pp. 157 and 162.
116
philosophy. However, in the field of literature, his interests were in classical but not
contemporary, French and Chinese - but not Russian and Vietnamese. Like most
intellectuals of that age, he was well-informed on sixteenth and seventeenth century
French literature. He did not know anything about Chinese modern literature until
1939, when he discovered Lu Xun for the first time by accident. About Vietnamese
literature, he once confessed to Thiếu Mai:
When I was young, I was very busy and did not have much time to read
other writers’ works. Therefore, at present, I am not sure if I have a good
grasp of Vietnamese modern literature or not. I have not even read all the
works of Nguyễn Đình Thi, whom I love very much and have close
contact with. I have read other authors even less, including Nguyên Hồng,
Tô Hoài and the younger generation writers such as Nguyễn Khải, Nguyên
Ngọc and Nguyễn Minh Châu.97
Moreover, at the time of writing his An Outline of Literary Theory, because of a
terrible stomach-ache, Đặng Thai Mai went to Thanh Hoá, a small and isolated
province in Central Vietnam, to convalesce. The Communist Party decided to limit
their contact with him for his own safety.98 Thus, it was not surprising that Đặng Thai
Mai was sometimes off the Party line, particularly when it concerned concrete issues
such as evaluating specific writers and their work.
However, we cannot deny the influence of the Vietnamese Communist Party on
Đặng Thai Mai’s literary thoughts. Nguyễn Huệ Chi commented that Đặng Thai Mai’s
An Outline of Literary Theory was “the result of his effort to ponder on the party’s
Theses on Culture.”99 In fact, in An Outline of Literary Theory, Đặng Thai Mai
discreetly developed and popularized three principles of establishing a new culture in
the Theses on Culture: literature must be national, popular and scientific.
97 Thiếu Mai (1992), “Học giả Đặng Thai Mai, đôi nét đời thường”, Văn Nghệ, no. 51 (19 December
1992), p.7.
98 Nguyễn Phúc et al. (eds.), Một chặng đường văn hoá, Hanoi: Nxb Tác Phẩm Mới, p. 84.
99 Viện Văn Học (ed.) (1986), op. cit., p. 32.
117
Although at that time Đặng Thai Mai was not a member of the Vietnamese
Communist Party, and although his knowledge of socialist realism was not up-to-date
and was poorly informed, his An Outline of Literary Theory rests ultimately upon the
theoretical foundations of Marxism-Leninism, especially of Leninism. He was a
Leninist in his hostile attitude to the so-called “capitalist literary trends” such as
romanticism and surrealism, and in his view regarding the pen as a weapon in the
cultural field, which was termed “the third front line”, along with the political and
economic front lines.
Differently from other Marxist contemporaries such as Hải Triều and Nguyễn
Bách Khoa, who had learnt Marxism through French materials, Đặng Thai Mai studied
Marxism mainly through Chinese materials. This occurred for two reasons: firstly,
Đặng Thai Mai started his study of literary theory quite late, during the Second World
War years when only a very small number of books and newspapers in French,
especially those relating to Marxism and Communism, could be imported to Vietnam.
Secondly, during that time, Đặng Thai Mai was keen to read and translate Lu Xun’s
works into Vietnamese: most of his understanding of socialist realism came from this
Chinese realist writer. In his memoir published in 1967, Đặng Thai Mai wrote:
Many writers of my age learn about Russian literature and art through
roads full of twists and turns: Moscow - Paris - Saigon - Hanoi, or Moscow
- Shanghai - Hanoi - Saigon. For myself, the light has actually come from
the North.100
The “North”, in this context, means China.
100 Đặng Thai Mai (1967), “Ánh sáng là từ phương Bắc dọi tới”, Tạp chí Văn Học (Hanoi), no. 11
(1967), reprinted in Đặng Thai Mai (1985), op. cit., pp. 306-333.
118
PART TWO
From Patriotism to Maoism
119
CHAPTER FOUR
Between Nationalism and Socialism
Of the three writers who introduced Marxist literary thought into Vietnam
between the two world wars, Hải Triều was the only one who created a little furore in
public, especially through the pen-war on the matter of art for art’s sake versus art for
human life’s sake, which lasted from 1935 to 1939, and which received a vast amount
of critical attention. Đặng Thai Mai and Nguyễn Bách Khoa, whose talent and
knowledge were much better than Hải Triều’s, in contrast, did not have any remarkable
impact on their contemporaries. Before the August 1945 Revolution, the first was
widely regarded as a well-known teacher and a serious translator rather than as a
scholar, whereas the latter was primarily regarded as a writer who had a fondness for
neologisms and an overblown style, but lacked a highly skilful literary performance. In
Nhà văn hiện đại (Modern Writers), a much-lauded work of criticism of the period, Vũ
Ngọc Phan ranked Nguyễn Bách Khoa as a social novelist, not a critic.1
This paradoxical phenomenon is not without reason. Hải Triều was a lucky man
who appeared in the mid-1930s, a period which has been widely hailed as a great
efflorescence in the history of Vietnamese literature, when many Vietnamese were
interested in literature and yearned for compositional experimentation and stylistic
inventiveness. This enthusiastic mood faded when the Second World War broke out in
1939, starting a crisis which was characterised by the considerable diminution of
writers’ creative work; the rarity of young and new talent, and more importantly,
indifference in literary circles, so that even the appearance of some rare gifted writers
and poets such as Nam Cao, Tô Hoài and Đinh Hùng did not receive any warm
1 Vũ Ngọc Phan (1942), Nhà văn hiện đại, vol. 5, Hanoi: Tân Dân; reprinted in the United States by Ðại
Nam (n.d.), pp. 1123-1136.
120
attention. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that both Đặng Thai Mai and
Nguyễn Bách Khoa were only cooly welcomed by readers and critics, despite their
novelty and great learning.
This crisis has often been explained by several Hanoi-based literary researchers
as resulting from the strict censorship and political control imposed by the French
colonial authorities immediately after the out-break of the Second World War.2 The
practice of institutional censorship, along with many other measures, aimed to repress
and restrain writers and artists. For example, when Ngô Tất Tố’s Tắt đèn (Out of
Light) was published in 1939, it was confiscated forthwith, and his house was
ransacked by policemen.3 Tô Hoài was detained for several months, being suspected of
participation in the Communist-led Viet Minh Front, and for this reason his works were
refused publication by all the publishing houses in Hanoi.4 It was also due to the same
political suspicion that Nguyễn Công Hoan was banned from writing by the French
Secret Police, and was forced to hide his identity by signing his writing with a new
name: Ngọc Oanh.5
The strong effect of the censorship exercises cannot be denied. One of the most
evident proofs was the case of Nguyễn Công Hoan: the amount of his works decreased
sharply during the war. From the beginning of 1940 to the middle of 1945, he wrote
only three novels and ten short stories, while earlier, as the list of his publications
shows, within only three years - from January 1937 to September 1939 - he finished six
novels and eighty short stories.6
2 See Phong Lê (1972), Mấy vấn đề văn xuôi Việt Nam, 1945-1970, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội,
p.13.
3 Hoài Việt (ed.) (1993), Ngô Tất Tố, nhà văn hoá lớn, Hanoi: Nxb Văn Hoá, p.10; and Mai Hương (ed.)
(1993), Ngô Tất Tố với chúng ta, Hanoi: Nxb Hội Nhà Văn, p. 12.
4 Tô Hoài, “Một quãng đường”, Tác Phẩm Mới, no. 16 (November and December, 1971), pp. 1-49.
5 Tô Hoài (1988), Những gương mặt, Hanoi: Nxb Tác Phẩm Mới, p. 75.
6 Lê Thị Đức Hạnh (1991), Nguyễn Công Hoan, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội, pp. 70-75.
121
However, the practice of colonial censorship is not sufficient to explain why
Vietnamese literature was in crisis during the World War, because at that time not only
social realists but even romanticists, who were only a little affected by the political
control, also decreased their creative output. After 1941, both Nhất Linh and Khái
Hưng almost ceased their writing in order to engage in political activities. From 1942,
Nguyễn Tuân’s number of works decreased rapidly. Earlier, Thế Lữ engaged in
dramatic activities. The inspiration of Xuân Diệu, Huy Cận and especially Lưu Trọng
Lư and Chế Lan Viên almost completely wore out after the first collection of their
poems had been published.
The reason for the above crisis lay in the Vietnamese writers’ psychology. As a
tradition, the Vietnamese writers’ view of literature has always been a pragmatic one,
stressing the social effects of writing, a view in which literature is recognised as a
weapon with which to struggle for a national cause. Being educated in such a literary
ethos, Vietnamese writers are often militant, asserting priorities of content over form,
and at the same time sensible to social rather than aesthetic matters. This results in two
psychological states: firstly, they seldom go the whole way towards any artistic
discovery which flashes through their mind by chance or intuition; secondly, social
changes easily sway them: in their writings, they try either to reflect reality or to
construct society, so that when society vigorously changes, they naturally become
bewildered.
With such a pragmatic mind, after a decade pursuing patiently and passionately
their dream to become Westernised and making a great number of substantial
achievements in all literary genres, most Vietnamese writers at the beginning of the
1940s suddenly feared that there was a danger they may become ‘uprooted’ (mất gốc).
Nearly a decade earlier, many young readers sympathised with the Tự Lực Group’s
slogan, “Follow the novelty, follow the novelty without hesitation”.7 After 1940, there
was a complete shift of interest away from Western-oriented towards nation-centred
attitudes, and from the yearning for freedom in art and life towards moral conservatism
7 Hoàng Đạo (1989), Mười điều tâm niệm, Los Alamitos: Xuân Thu, p. 17, (originally published in
1939.)
122
in the Confucian vein. In the 1930s, Vietnamese literature had chosen innovation as the
highest ideal; in the 1940s, the ideal was convention. A trend of nostalgic literature
came into being and became dominant in the literary scene with the Tri Tân magazine,
which involved hosts of erudite scholars, of whom the most remarkable was Nguyễn
Văn Tố (1889-1947). Along with Tri Tân magazine, there were many works of
literature and history, containing numerous references to the traditional aspects of
Vietnamese culture. All of these attracted huge audiences. In an article published in
Tao Đàn magazine nos. 34 and 35 (February 18, 1842), Lê Thanh designated 1941 as
“the year of history”.8 Historical consciousness was clearly embodied in literature at
that time. All writers and poets who became well-known since 1939, including Nguyễn
Huy Tưởng, Nam Cao, Tô Hoài, Bùi Hiển, Kim Lân, Vũ Hoàng Chương, Trần Huyền
Trân, Thâm Tâm and Hoàng Cầm, were more or less conscious of making good use of
Eastern and Vietnamese characteristics in their themes and styles. When he stopped
writing novels, Ngô Tất Tố started to translate Tang poetry (1941) and other literatures
of the Lý and Trần dynasties. He also translated and annotated the Book of Changes
into Vietnamese. The Xuân Thu Nhã Tập Group, despite being criticised by public
opinion for being strongly Westernised, strived to combine French symbolism with
traditional aesthetical thought. In their language, Western terms like ‘unconscious’,
‘subconscious’, and ‘pure’ were mixed with Eastern terms like ‘Đạo’ (Dao), ‘âm’
(yin), ‘dương’ (yang), ‘lễ’ (rite), ‘nhạc’ (music). However, they never saw themselves
as ‘xenophiles’ but as people who were going back to their origins:
What contemporaries have called imports from the West already existed in Asia
because we have intuited them since the beginning [of history] owing to our
special languages and antique minds. Seeking for the Eternal Poetry, we have
come back to the source: we [ourselves].9
8 Trịnh Bá Dĩnh and Nguyễn Hữu Sơn (eds.) (1999), Tạp chí Tri Tân (1941-1945), Phê bình văn học,
Hanoi: Nxb Hội Nhà Văn, p. 37; see also Lại Nguyên Ân (ed.) (2002), Lê Thanh, nghiên cứu và
phê bình văn học, Hanoi: Nxb Hội Nhà Văn, p. 291.
9 Nguyễn Đỗ Cung, Phạm Văn Hạnh, Nguyễn Xuân Sanh, Đoàn Phú Tứ, Nguyễn Lương Ngọc and
Nguyễn Xuân Khoát (1942), Xuân Thu Nhã Tập, Hanoi: Xuân Thu thư lâu, pp. 16-17. Further
information on Xuân Thu Nhã Tập Group can be found in Nohira Munehiro, “Một số đặc trưng
về tinh thần tiên phong của nhóm Xuân Thu Nhã Tập”, translated from the Japanese by Lê
Tuyết Mai, Tạp chí Văn Học (Hanoi), no. 10 (1997), pp. 70-77.
123
Members of the Xuân Thu Nhã Tập Group exclaimed that they aimed at
preventing the “disaster of losing the root” (hoạ mất gốc), through connecting the past
with the present.
In the above article, Lê Thanh explained why the “going back to the origin”
phenomena appeared:
Changes in the world have resulted in our uncertainty about the future. We do not
know where the world will lead us to. We feel desolate and do not know in which
direction we can find hope. Therefore, we are forced to look back to the past in
order to search and inherit our genuine values, hoping that there we might find
good lessons for ourselves.10
One of the best examples of Lê Thanh’s view may be the case of Lưu Trọng
Lư. At the beginning of the 1930s, Lưu Trọng Lư was one of the first advocates of the
New Poetry movement;11 a few years later, he was one of the most fervent advocates of
the ‘art for art’s sake’ view and a repudiator of the social role of literature. Protesting
against the traditional poetry, he contended that “Our poetry today is dying, does not
have any vitality... and is interminably in the underworld.”12 He believed that poetry
could not continue the way it was because “our grief, sadness, happiness, love and
hatred are not the same as those of our ancestors”.13 Each era needed its own poetry:
“Vietnamese young people are looking for their own poets, like children looking for
their mothers”, said he.14 However, at the turn of the decade of 1940, he surprisingly
became very conservative. He wrote in Tràng An magazine, published on 9 July, 1942
as follows:
We might lose everything, except literature.
10 Quoted in Nguyễn Tấn Long and Phan Canh (1968), Những khuynh hướng thi ca tiền chiến, Saigon:
Sống Mới, pp. 370-371.
11 See Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân (1967), Thi nhân Việt Nam, Saigon: Thiều Quang, pp. 17-18.
12 Quoted in Lê Đình Kỵ (1989), Thơ Mới, những bước thăng trầm, Ho Chi Minh City: Nxb thành phố
Hồ Chí Minh, p. 16.
13 Ibid., p. 19.
14 Ibid., pp. 19-20.
124
And we only lose literature when we want to foreignize it, that means we want to
remove its own traits.
With “Westernisation”, I fear that our Vietnamese literature will lose its own
distinctive characteristics, and be no longer sincere, eventually becoming
uprooted. And uprootedness in the realm of literature is very dangerous.
Literature does not need new adventure to become great. The opposite is much
more correct
[...]
Vietnamese literature is valuable only when it remains Vietnamese.
The Vietnamese writers’ task at the moment is very important and clear: we must
create a country of Vietnam in our literature. A country of Vietnam which will
exist forever in the country girls’ songs. Do not let the mulberry-planting
occupation die by adopting heavy industry.15
Thus, although the Western influence was not yet strong, Vietnamese writers
were panic-stricken and wanted to reject it. This is not difficult to understand. Living in
a small and weakened country which was always threatened by foreign invasion, and
in fact dominated by the Chinese and the French for centuries, it seems that the
Vietnamese people often subconsciously feared being assimilated. As a result of this,
on the one hand their national spirit has been very high, while on the other, they have
been generally conservative.
Because of their high social consciousness and national spirit, the Vietnamese
writers were easily swayed by the political circumstances of every period; and that of
1939-45 saw many great and devastating events. At the middle of 1939, the Second
World War tore their world apart. In 1942, the Japanese forces landed troops in
Vietnam. Thus the Vietnamese people, already dominated by the French, were now
also ruled over by another empire, the Japanese. This resulted in innumerable
calamities, of which the worst was the 1944-45 famine, causing about one million
deaths.16
15 Quoted in Nguyễn Tấn Long and Phan Canh (1968), op. cit., pp. 291-292.
16 The exact number of deaths during this famine is still very uncertain. In all Vietnamese sources, it is
125
The ‘Book-discarding’ Period: 1944-45
Under such circumstances, literature became merely frivolous. Finishing his Vũ
Như Tô, Nguyễn Huy Tưởng was not only unhappy, but also continuously grieved:
“While seeing that prices are rising considerably and everything is becoming
expensive, how can I continue to dream of poetry?”17 Tô Hoài’s saying is clearer:
The year 1943 was not similar to that of 1938 when people paid attention only to
literature and pure ideas in newspapers. Now, everywhere [the political situation]
is hot like fire. And the fire is actually blazing. Every person has only one option
to choose: die or rise up in revolt. One path.18
given as two million; in Tonnesson’s calculation, between half a million and one million (S.
Tonnesson, (1991), The Vietnamese Revolution of 1945, London: Sage Publications, p. 293); in
David G. Marr’s estimation, one million. In Vietnam 1945, the Quest for Power (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1995), Marr gives several useful details: “No one knows how
many people perished in the famine. In late May, the Khâm Sai’s Office in Hanoi requested
mortality statistics from all Tonkin provinces for the year so far. Eventually, twenty replies
came in, reporting 380, 969 deaths from starvation and 20,347 from ‘illness’. However, a
number of the replies emphasized the inability of officials to go into the countryside to make
careful checks. Also, losses in northern Annam were not included in the compilation. In late
1946, a policy paper prepared for internal use by officials of the Democratic Republic of
Vietnam estimated that 1,000,000 people had died in northern Vietnam and 300,000 in central
Vietnam. By that time it had become standard practice in public for DRV spokesmen to assert
that in early 1945 ‘French colonialists and Japanese fascists’ had been responsible for at least
2,000,000 citizens starving to death, a figure subsequently enshrined in government history
books.
One million deaths seems a more credible estimate. The implications are still horrific: about 10
percent of the population of the region affected perished in a five-month period. Certain
provinces were far more heavily hit: Nam Ðịnh, Thái Bình, Ninh Bình, Hải Dương and Kiến
An accounted for 81 percent of deaths reported in the Khâm Sai’s compilation. Nam Ðịnh alone
was 32 percent. Although some of the victims undoubtedly had drifted in from elsewhere,
Khâm Sai’s figures still suggest that these five provinces may have lost between 11 and 20
percent of their populations. Particular districts suffered even worse. Hải Hậu district in Nam
Ðịnh province, for example, reported 26,080 deaths, whereas nearby districts reported from
4,000 to 6,000. Kiến Xương district in Thái Bình reported 14,920, compared to Quỳnh Côi with
1,532. Particular villages lost half their populations.” (pp. 104-105).
17 Phong Lê, Mai Hương and Nguyễn Huy Thắng (eds.) (1992), Nguyễn Huy Tưởng, một sự nghiệp chưa
kết thúc, Hanoi: Viện Văn Học, p. 191.
18 Tô Hoài (1971), op. cit., p. 20.
126
In 1941, being a sympathiser of the Viet Minh but preferring art to politics, Văn
Cao, one of the best-known composers and the author of the Vietnamese national
anthem, did not want to participate fully in that organization, deciding rather to pursue
art ideals persistently. In 1944, witnessing many people dying of hunger on the streets,
he suddenly realised that “art does not have any narrow and out-of-the-way road to
survival”.19 He then decided to join the Viet Minh and actively participated in the
gruesome task of assassinating those who were regarded as traitors to the nation.20
However, at that point, when the Viet Minh asked him to compose a song supporting
their movement, he hesitated: “I am preparing for an adventurous and dangerous task
but I am not ready to compose songs. It is now very hard to think of art.”21
Văn Cao’s above statement may sum up the intellectual and literary atmosphere
of the early 1940s. In 1941, the Tự Lực Group, which was the largest and strongest
literary organization in the 1930s, existed in name only, but did not conduct any
considerable activities in terms of literature. Its leading members started to get
involved in political activities: Nhất Linh, who founded the Hưng Việt party, was
hunted by the French authorities and had to escape to China; and Khái Hưng and
Hoàng Đạo were arrested and confined to the Vụ Bản prison.22 Of the three magazines
winning widespread fame, Thanh Nghị and Văn Mới were clearly inclined toward
politics; only Tri Tân inclined toward historical and literary research as an effort to
preserve Vietnamese cultural traditions, which can be interpreted as political passivity.
“It is now very hard to think of art” was probably a common mood of the
period. This mood may be one of the main reasons explaining why Nguyễn Bách
Khoa’s and Đặng Thai Mai’s efforts at introducing Marxist thought on literature were
19 Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường (1993), “Cảm nhận Văn Cao”, Văn Nghệ, no. 47 (20 November 1993), p. 7.
20 Phương Thảo (1992), “Văn Cao hiệp sĩ”, Văn Hoá, no. 35 (30 August), p. 6.
21 Văn Cao (1985), “Tôi viết Tiến quân ca”, in Nguyễn Phúc et al. (eds.) (1985), Một chặng đường văn
hoá, Hanoi: Tác Phẩm Mới, p. 110.
22 Phan Cự Đệ (ed. with an introduction) (1990), Tự Lực văn đoàn, con người và văn chương, Hanoi:
Văn Học, p. 10.
127
not warmly received. This was also one of the main reasons for the Vietnamese literary
crisis occurring in the first half of the 1940s.
Nevertheless, this very psychology of doubting the value of literature and
aspiring to the doing of something concrete for the nation at that time, was a favourable
condition for the Communist Party to expand its influence, and through which they
propagated Marxist literary thought in Vietnam.
From its establishment in 1930 until the beginning of the 1940s, the
Vietnamese Communist Party had no specific policy on art and literature. It made
every effort to struggle for its survival and development in very difficult
circumstances. The pen-war on the matter of art for art’s sake versus art for human
life’s sake from 1935 to 1939 was launched by a few party members but did not stem
from the Party’s policy.23 Only after1942 did the Vietnamese Communist Party’s
Committee begin to have the intention of expanding its propaganda to artists. The
Secretary General of the Party, Trường Chinh, wrote a letter to selected Vietnamese
artists, suggesting the establishment of a joint organization and asking for advice on
how to name it.24 In March 1943, the first group of the Cultural Association for
National Salvation was founded in Hanoi, consisting of Học Phi, Như Phong, Vũ Quốc
Uy and Lê Ngô Động. Of these, the latter two were merely intellectual cadres of the
party but not writers. Later, more artists were contacted and became members,
including Tô Hoài, Nguyên Hồng, Nguyễn Huy Tưởng, Nam Cao, Thép Mới, Nguyễn
Đình Thi, Trần Huyền Trân and Kim Lân.25
A few months later, after the first small group of the Cultural Association for
National Salvation was established, Trường Chinh compiled the Ðề cương văn hoá
(Theses on Culture) as the platform of the association. In fact, as its name suggests, this
thesis was merely a document on culture in general, in which literature and art were
23 Phan Cự Đệ, Hà Minh Đức and Nguyễn Hoành Khung (1988), Văn học Việt Nam 1930-1945, vol. 1,
Hanoi: Nxb Đại Học và Trung Học Chuyên Nghiệp, p. 40.
24 Minh An (1991), “Nhà văn Học Phi”, Văn Nghệ, no. 40 (14 December), p. 6.
25 Học Phi (1993), “Văn hoá nghệ thuật và sự lãnh đạo của Đảng”, Văn Nghệ, no. 3 (30 January), p. 11.
128
only mentioned in one sentence: “The struggle for schools of literature (against
classicism, romanticism, naturalism, symbolism etc.) will help socialist realism to
win.”26
The meaning of the above sentence was quite vague: it did not define what socalled
classicism, romanticism, etc. meant, nor how socialist realism might defeat other
schools of literature. However, prior to 1945, the Vietnamese writers and poets,
including those who participated in the Cultural Association for National Salvation, did
not pay attention to theoretical issues. Tô Hoài said that in the meetings of the Cultural
Association for National Salvation, he was only dedicated to resistance against the
French and Japanese rulers. The forum on the Theses on Culture, conducted by Lê
Quang Đạo, left no impression on him. He explained that, “probably because I was
boiling with the current situation and atmosphere of the preparation for revolution
rather than with thoughts and creation.”27
For many people, there was no need to examine the Communist Party’s view on
literature before actively participating in a Cultural Association for National Salvation.
The main, and perhaps the unique, reason for this was patriotism. Học Phi reminisced:
“The only thing in the Theses on Culture which struck me strongly was the slogan of
‘to be nationalised’.”28 However, by 1945 only about ten writers actually participated
in the Cultural Association for National Salvation.29 This is understandable.
Participation in this association was perhaps a highly paid action which was not
acceptable to everyone.
The Cultural Association for National Salvation, together with its Marxist view
on literature, in fact did not attract a great number of people until the success of the
August Revolution. Everyone was filled with elation as Vietnam declared its
26 Reprinted in Nguyễn Phúc et al. (eds.) (1985), op. cit., pp. 15-20.
27 Tô Hoài (1971), op. cit., p. 4.
28 Nguyễn Phúc et al. (eds.) (1985), op. cit., p. 149.
29 Ibid.
129
independence after eighty years of suffering under French colonialism. In a short
period, the people’s reserved attitude towards the political outlook seemed to
disappear. Bích Khê, who had translated André Gide’s Return from Russia a few years
earlier, suffered severe illness when the Revolution erupted. He asked his family to
carry him down to the street so that he could witness the boiling scenery of
revolution.30 Vũ Ngọc Phan, who two years earlier refused to join the Cultural
Association for National Salvation led by the Viet Minh,31 suddenly dropped his
prejudice against the Viet Minh and the Communists, and became the chairman of the
Resistance Committee of the Đống Đa zone, while his wife, the poetess Hằng Phương,
joined the first-aid team of their district.32 Also, Chế Lan Viên, a poet who was
engrossed in researching new inspiration in Buddhist philosophy, decided to participate
in the revolution. He and his poet friend, Yến Lan, both armed themselves with sticks,
crossed the river to hunt down reactionaries: “We felt highly enthusiastic because we
were forgetting the poetry.”33
Prior to August 1945, writers could not be prolific because they were tormented
by the dreadful plight of their foreign-dominated nation. After the Revolution, they
also could not write because they were elated by their sudden independence. In both
circumstances, literature was regarded as frivolous and secondary. Xuân Diệu, in the
Cứu Quốc newspaper published in 1945, called the pre- and post-revolution periods
‘the book-discarding period’.34 Reminiscing about it decades later, Tô Hoài
commented that “that statement was not completely appropriate. However, the spirit of
30 Lê Thị Ngọc Sương (1988), “Bích Khê, người em”, in Chế Lan Viên et al. (eds.), Thơ Bích Khê,
Nghĩa Bình: Sở Văn hoá - Thông tin Nghĩa Bình, p. 100.
31 Vũ Quốc Uy (1985), “Hoạt động dưới ánh sáng của Đề cương văn hoá”, in Nguyễn Phúc et al. (eds.)
(1985), op. cit., p. 54.
32 Vũ Ngọc Phan (1987), Những năm tháng ấy, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp. 367-370.
33 Chế Lan Viên (1976), “Mất nỗi đau riêng và được cái vui chung”, Văn Nghệ giải phóng, August 28,
reprinted in Chế Lan Viên (1990), Tuyển tập, vol. 2, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp. 51-66.
34 Tô Hoài (1971), op. cit., p. 21.
130
the ‘book-discarding period’ during the process when the Vietnamese writers together
with the masses excitedly prepared for the nation-wide insurrection, was true.”35
In different forms and at different levels, the vast majority of artists at that time
consented to Chế Lan Viên’s ‘poetry-forgetting’ attitude and Xuân Diệu’s ‘bookdiscarding’
behaviour. Đoàn Phú Tứ advocated: “Now literature and art should be put
aside.”36 Nam Cao’s saying “live first, write later”37 became the catchword of the time.
Everyone hurled themselves into political and social activities. Nam Cao became the
sub-editor of Tiền Phong magazine. Nguyễn Huy Tưởng worked for Cờ Giải Phóng,
which was the mouthpiece of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Tô Hoài, Nguyên
Hồng and Như Phong worked for Cứu Quốc, which was owned by the Central
Executive Committee of the Viet Minh. Trần Huyền Trân was in charge of the Censor
Service in Hanoi. Huy Cận was a member of the Liberation Committee of the
provisional government. Nguyễn Đình Thi was a member of the National Assembly
Standing Committee and participated in constitution-making. Nguyễn Công Hoan was
the director of the Newspaper Censor Service and the North Propaganda Service. Bùi
Hiển was the chairperson of the branch of the Cultural Association for National
Salvation in Nghệ An. Thanh Tịnh was the secretary of the branch of the Cultural
Association for National Salvation in Huế, and later became a member of the editorial
board staff of Công An Mới (New Police) in Hanoi. Chế Lan Viên, Nguyễn Đức Nùng
and Trần Thanh Địch joined ‘Đoàn xây dựng’ (Group of Socialist Buildings) which
was founded by Nguyễn Chí Thanh and Tố Hữu in Huế. Xuân Diệu was a
representative of the National Assembly.38
The Cultural Association for National Salvation, which was very weak before
1945, developed rapidly after the August Revolution because of the active attitudes of
35 Ibid.
36 Quoted in Phong Lê (1972), op.cit., p. 29.
37 Nam Cao (1946), “Đường vào Nam”, Tiên Phong, no. 10, quoted in Phong Lê (1972), ibid., p. 18.
38 See Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995), Cách mạng kháng chiến và đời sống văn học (2nd
edition.), Hanoi: Văn Học.
131
artists towards politics and society. Apart from its central office based in Hanoi, the
Cultural Association for National Salvation had many local branches. In chronological
order, the first was the one in Huế, founded on 19 September 1945, whose chairperson
was Trần Hữu Dực and later Hoài Thanh. Following this were associations in Quảng
Nam (20 September), Quảng Trị (26 September), Hà Tĩnh (7 October), Nghệ An (7
October), Quảng Bình (11 October), Phú Yên (17 October), Bình Định (19 October),
Quảng Ngãi (25 October), and so on. In South Vietnam, there was no branch of this
organization, partly because of internal contradictions in the Vietnamese Communist
Party, and partly because the anti-French resistance broke out quite early, in October
1945.39
In 1945 the Vietnamese writers were so engrossed in their political activities
that they rarely produced works of value. Three favourite genres were: short story,
documentary reportage (ký) and poetry. Not only short stories, but poetry also was
written in report style because writers usually desired timely reflection on quick
changes in life. Neither short stories nor the documentary reports produced any
enduring literary achievement. Certain works have sometimes been mentioned later
because of their documentary rather than their artistic value. In the domain of poetry,
Tố Hữu was the first poet who wrote on the revolution. He joined the Vietnamese
Communist Party in 1938, and when the Revolution broke out he became the
chairperson of the Insurrection Committee in Huế. His first collection of poems,
entitled Thơ (Poetry), was first published in 1946. Its second edition in 1959 in Hanoi,
which contained some revisions and supplements, was renamed Từ ấy (Since Then). In
terms of art and aesthetics, Từ ấy remained immature. Tố Hữu’s talent, merely for
propaganda poetry, developed during the resistance.
Of famous poets before 1945, only one, Xuân Diệu, wrote enthusiastically
under the new regime. From late 1945 to early 1946, he finished two long poems:
“Ngọn quốc kỳ” (The Flag), consisting of 203 lines, and “Hội nghị non sông” (The
Homeland Meeting), consisting of 231 lines. Both were insipid and trite, containing
39 See Lại Nguyên Ân, “Về đời sống văn nghệ năm Cộng Hoà thứ nhất”, Văn Nghệ, September 2, 1985,
p. 15.
132
numerous slogans and pompous exclamations. Later, Ngô Thảo, a young critic living
in Hanoi, regarded both of these works as the way of “speaking maladroitly”, “as if
Xuân Diệu forgot all about the art of poetry”.40
It seems that Trương Tửu was right when he commented in Văn Mới journal in
1946: “In terms of creation, from the last autumn to this one, the revolutionary harvest
has been rich, but the literary harvest has been lost.”41
Nevertheless, although the revolution did not push literature out of its impasse,
it at least helped artists escape from the psychological crisis. They no longer felt
wretched and humiliated as they had when they were forced to become the slaves of
foreign countries. The restless dream of independence which was in every Vietnamese
soul for eighty years had now become true. In 1945 Hoài Thanh described the great
change in his perception as follows:
The collective re-created us, and in the new sphere of our country, we who were
the victims - or, if you like, you can say the criminals - of the age of the ‘I’, found
that the individual’s private life had become meaningless in the collective’s broad
life.42
No work of literature expresses the change in writers’ minds more profoundly
and sophisticatedly than the essay “Vô đề” (Without Title) by Nguyễn Tuân.43 In a
highly polished and talented style, Nguyễn Tuân depicted his process of complete
change, from a conceited and eccentric person, who “only performed a solo” (chỉ chơi
một lối độc tấu),44 or “a vainglorious person, who wandered in life like a traveller
40 Ngô Thảo, “Sự hình thành và phát triển của đội ngũ nhà văn kiểu mới”, in Nguyễn Đăng Mạnh et al
(eds.) (1987), Một thời đại văn học, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 213.
41 Quoted in Hoài Thanh (1958), “Thực chất của tư tưởng Trương Tửu”, Văn Nghệ, no. 11 (April 1958),
p. 19.
42 Hoài Thanh (1945), “Dân khí miền Trung”, Tiên Phong, 16 December, reprinted in Hoài Thanh
(1982), Tuyển tập, vol. 2, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp. 329-335.
43 This essay was first published in Văn Mới journal, 1945, reprinted in Nguyễn Tuân (1981), Tuyển tập,
vol. 1, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp. 261-274, under the new title “Lột xác”.
44 Nguyễn Tuân (1981), ibid., p. 269.
133
without any specific homeland, doubting everything and merely relying on feelings and
impressions”,45 to an optimist who aspired to participation in common activities,
sharing the common sadness or happiness of his society. “Before, he merely read
poetry. Now he is addicted to reading newspapers. He no longer pays attention to his
inner feelings but to what is happening around him.”46 Undoubtedly, this process was
not easy. Old habits, memories and thoughts, which Nguyễn Tuân called “disconcerted
old friends”, sometimes revived, turning writers’ souls into a permanent battlefield.
Determined to self-reeducate in order to become “a new person suitable for a new life”,
Nguyễn Tuân vowed:
Eliminate all old friends in one’s soul!... This is not enough. You must kill them.
Kill, kill all of them. When any old friend appears and demands anything in your
present soul, you must kill him immediately. You must destroy your old soul first.
You must become a fire which burns all landscapes of your soul.47
“Without Title” outlines three important phenomena relating to the Vietnamese
artists’ processes of ideological change: the first is a determination to break completely
with the past; the second is a tendency to “turn toward the outside” (hướng ngoại) and
passionately look for beauty in reality and in life rather than nibble at the complexity
and subtlety in one’s soul; and the third is the giving of prominence to the role of the
community. Thus, in such changes, not only was individualism to be condemned but
also the reticent way of living was to be seen as dangerous: a new person was not the
result of self-improvement but of the common work of the revolutionary community.
Nguyễn Tuân expressed this idea through the use of a naive image: a group of people,
growing alive to the ideals of revolution, wrote a common diary in which everyone
wrote about changes in his or her thoughts so that others could analyse, criticise and
encourage him or her to develop.
45 Ibid., p. 241.
46 Ibid., p. 265.
47 Ibid., p. 268.
134
Nguyễn Tuân’s attitude and perception was probably popular at that time. Most
theoretical writings which were published in Tiền Phong magazine in the second part
of 1945 and in 1946 focused solely on the issue of national identity and popularity in
literature: they expressed the artists’ inner urge to confirm the value of literature as a
weapon of the revolution and as an effective means to serve the nation and its people.
There was a great change in the Vietnamese writers’ views on the issue of
nation at this time. When referring to nation, prior to 1945 the Vietnamese people
merely thought of preserving their tradition, but after the Revolution they thought of
preserving their country’s independence and how to transform their country into a
developed and advanced one. The first way of understanding “nation” was connected
to a conservative or nostalgic attitude. The second was linked to rejection of “the old”,
which might be understood in some ways as “tradition”, in order to do something
completely new. According to Lại Nguyên Ân, the slogan “to be nationalistic” at that
time meant an endeavour to serve the nation’s immediate and political tasks rather than
make full use of the available literary legacy of the nation.48
Another extreme manifestation of the writers’ determination to break with “the
old” was to deny the value of French modern literature. In a short article written after
his trip to France in 1946, Xuân Diệu, who a few years earlier wrote: “I miss Rimbaud
and Verlaine” and who was hailed as the most “Western” in the poetry period from
1932 to 1945,49 commented:
French literature from the twentieth century onwards has been precarious and
seems to lose direction. We did not realise that most fine writers at the top were
merely rotten wood... French poetry no longer has great and genuine poets who
might water humanity’s soul. It has become further and further from its readers,
living in a separate ivory tower. French novels are very rare. While people in
other countries are depicting new, overflowing, weird and energetic lives, French
writers have continued to write short novels... skilfully depicting life in small
48 Lại Nguyên Ân, “Về đời sống văn nghệ năm Cộng Hoà thứ nhất”, op. cit., p. 15.
49 Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân (1967), op. cit., p. 119.
135
provinces, stories about disputes over inheritance, small landscapes and petty
philosophies. These are only rock-work, not the sea or the forest.50
Xuân Diệu’s extreme attitude is understandable for two main reasons. Firstly,
in his psychology, rejecting French literature also meant rejecting the past in which he
had been trained. Secondly, his criterion for assessing literature had changed: a great
literature, according to him, must be a useful literature, closely connected with the
nation and the masses.
Literary thought during this period became degenerate rather than innovative.
Although the Vietnamese writers were never really aesthetical, in the 1930s a large
number of them realised the relatively autonomous character of literature: it had its
own traits, its own laws of development and its own criteria for judgement. And it
could not be confused with philosophy, psychology, ethics or politics. Thus, although
not everyone denied the impact of literature on society, all broke completely with the
dry and heavy didacticism and rationalism which had dominated Vietnamese literature
during all the classical periods. They studied and thoroughly analysed people’s
psychology rather than reflecting on the naked reality in their sight. They attempted to
individualise their language and style rather than copy available clichés. Unfortunately,
after the Revolution, all these first achievements were destroyed. The view of ‘wen yi
zai dao’, which regards literature as a vehicle to convey the Way, was restored. There
was only a small change in the concept of “Dao” (Way): first, it meant the morality of
saints and sages, later it referred to the Vietnamese Communist Party’s policies.
Didactic literature and propaganda literature developed rapidly.
In fact neither the Party nor Marxist literary theory was responsible for this
degeneracy. Firstly, in the years 1945 and 1946, the Party’s propaganda machine was
not strong enough to persuade many writers in such a short period of time. Secondly, at
that time, the Party did not have any cadre specialising in arts and literature. All
activities in the field of arts and culture were generally spontaneous and based on three
50 Quoted in Lại Nguyên Ân, “Về đời sống văn nghệ năm Cộng Hoà thứ nhất”, ibid.
136
general principles that Trường Chinh had put forward in his Theses on Culture in 1943:
to be national, to be popular, and to be scientific.
The reason for the degeneracy may be found in writers themselves rather than
in outside factors. The time during which people had contact with the West was too
short. All they had received from French literature was a mere thin glaze. In the depths
of their heart, there remained a Confucian scholar full of responsibility for the
community. In the period 1932-45, this very Confucian scholar contributed in
preventing the development of individualism and aestheticism in Vietnam: Vietnamese
writers have never been able to break through with individualism or aestheticism. Hoài
Thanh, who was seen as the representative of the “art for art’s sake” side in the years
1935 to 1939, a few years later, when writing his Thi nhân Việt Nam in the early 1940s,
became cautious. Thinking about Xuân Diệu’s poetry, he wrote:
The contact with the West has caused the disintegration of many solid ramparts.
Vietnamese young people have the opportunity to look at the high sky and the
immense earth but at the same time realise the desolation of the universe and the
lamentation of human life. They think they may close their eyes and venture out
by using individuality as their aim and life as life’s goal. However, this was just to
lie to oneself. “Chớ để riêng em phải gặp lòng em” (Don’t let me see my own
heart!), although an entreaty of a courtesan, has also been that of human beings
throughout the ages. Individuals’ lives need to rely on something more sacred than
their individuality and life.51
Then, when critizing the poetic works of the Xuân Thu Nhã Tập group, Hoài
Thanh did not hide his aversion to their inscrutable poems and their attempts to create a
purely formal beauty in the symbolist and surrealist vein. He feared that “all
Vietnamese poets would emulate one another on this dark road. This would cause
poetry to become an entertainment for the leisured people and have nothing to do with
51 Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân (1967), op. cit., p. 119.
137
common life”.52 Taking this opportunity, he advised young poets to go back to folk
songs, to rustic and simple peasantry and to the national spiritual legacy
It may be said that in the seething atmosphere of the first half of the 1940s, the
hidden ‘Confucian scholar’ in the heart of every Vietnamese writer suddenly woke up,
urging them to ‘practice the moral’ (hành đạo) and turned them into soldiers who
employed literature as a weapon and put lyrical sensitivity at the service of a cause.
Looking for a Literary Path 1947- 48
The momentous turning-point in the process of transforming Vietnamese
writers from moral-practitioners in the Confucian vein to politically-committed writers
under the spell of Marxism is the very anti-French resistance which broke out in
December 1946.
The August Revolution, in spite of its great significance in Vietnamese history,
simply shook some writers and artists, whilst the vast majority of them wavered or
remained indifferent to the tremendous changes. Tô Hoài recounted that, on the
Revolution day in Hanoi, Đinh Hùng was actually dead drunk, oversleeping until the
afternoon of the next day. It was only when he saw the revolutionary flags flying
everywhere that he realized that everything had changed.53 At the end of 1946, Lưu
Trọng Lư left Huế for Hanoi to attend the conference of the Cultural Association for
National Salvation where he met a certain scholar who was also a well-known writer.
When this scholar asked him: “Are you also attending this conference?” Lưu Trọng Lư
replied: “Yes, I am”, but in fact said to himself: “I’ll just wait and see!”54 Chế Lan
Viên was in the same situation: he was elated to welcome the Revolution at its very
beginning, but in the bottom of his heart he was worried: “The Revolution makes me
52 Ibid., p. 42-43.
53 Tô Hoài (1993), “Những năm 1944-45”, Tác Phẩm Mới, no. 6 (1993), p. 32.
54 Lưu Trọng Lư, “Những bước đi”, Tác Phẩm Mới no. 22 (1972), pp. 33-49, reprinted in Lưu Trọng Lư
(1978), Mùa thu lớn, Hanoi: Tác Phẩm Mới.
138
happy but it also concerns me: Do I still have freedom? Is literature still literature?”55
Nguyễn Tuân remembered that on the day the Japanese staged a coup d’état against the
French, while everyone was extremely excited and prepared for rebellion, he was not at
all aware of this event. Then, on the day of the outbreak of the August Revolution, he
wore formal clothes in order to “go and see”, as a bystander. Afterwards, he started
abhorring politics because of the dreadful conflicts between the political parties. He
wrote in one of his articles: “Now, wherever I see flags flying, regardless of which
kind of flag, I am scared.”56 Only when the anti-French resistance broke out did he
completely change his attitude: “There was no need to discuss whether or not we
should rise up against the French who wanted to make us slaves. I decided to join the
resistance with an easy and serene mind.”57
Furthermore, in the second part of 1945 and in 1946, Vietnamese literature
disintegrated seriously in terms of attitude to politics and literary trend. While some
writers joined the Cultural Association for National Salvation, supporting the new
regime and advocating realism, others protested against the communist-led government
on behalf of freedom and democracy and continued to extol romanticism, symbolism
and surrealism. Even the Tự Lực Group, a group which was closely organized and had
had a clearly theoretical platform since the 1930s, started to split at the beginning of
the 1940s: Nhất Linh, Khái Hưng and Hoàng Đạo strongly opposed the Viet Minh,
whereas Thế Lữ and Tú Mỡ tended to follow this organization.58 For those who
declared themselves Marxists, the contradictions between the Third and Fourth
International became more and more serious. However, at the outbreak of the anti-
French resistance, all these conflicts disappeared.
The resistance, at least in the first years, from 1946 to 1949, gathered almost all
writers, not only realists but also romanticists, symbolists and surrealists, and not only
55 Chế Lan Viên (1976), ibid.
56 Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995), op.cit., pp. 40-1.
57 Ibid., p. 42.
58 See Tú Mỡ (1996), Toàn tập, vol. 1, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp. 561-601.
139
those who advocated art for human life’s sake, as there were also advocates of art for
art’s sake. The main motivation for their active attitude was nationalism. They acted on
the Vietnamese tradition: “When aggressors arrive at people’s homes, even women
have to fight”59 and all differences in political outlooks were to be put aside. Khái
Hưng, who throughout 1946 kept on criticizing the Viet Minh and the communists, left
Hanoi for his native district, Nam Định, to join the resistance. But a short time later, at
the beginning of 1947, he was killed by the Viet Minh because of their old hatred
towards him.60
Writers and artists spontaneously evacuated Hanoi and other cities, dispersing
in all directions: some returned to their native district, and others joined their friends.
Their main goal was to escape from the French occupied zones. Early in 1947, one of
the Vietnamese Communist Party’s policies was to canvass writers and artists for
participation in the resistance. Nguyễn Huy Tưởng, Nguyễn Đình Thi and Nguyễn Văn
Mãi were responsible for this task. The Ministry of the Interior granted a sum of money
to every writer’s and artist’s family for their living and activities.61 As a result, artists
were gradually concentrating in some specific places, especially in the following five
zones: Việt Bắc, the Third, the Fourth, the Tenth and the Twelfth.
In Việt Bắc, most writers and artists, including Xuân Diệu, Huy Cận, Hoài
Thanh, Nguyễn Huy Tưởng, Nguyễn Đình Thi, among others, worked for the central
organs which were at first based in Đạo Từ and Thái Nguyên and later in Ghềnh Quít
and Tuyên Quang. In the Tenth and Twelfth Zones, writers, artists and their families
lived in two villages, Nguyên Hồng, Kim Lân, Ngô Tất Tố and Trần Văn Cẩn sharing
the Đồi Cháy hamlet in Yên Thế, while Thế Lữ, Phan Khôi, Tô Ngọc Vân, Thanh Tịnh
and Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm lived in the Xuân Áng village at Phú Thọ.
59 A Vietnamese proverb: “Giặc đến nhà, đàn bà cũng đánh”.
60 Details on the death of Khái Hưng can be found in Trần Khánh Triệu, “Papa toà báo” and Huy Quang
Vũ Ðức Vinh, “Nhớ về nhà văn Khái Hưng, chàng lẩn thẩn và người ngọc nói hoa cười”, Thế
Kỷ 21, no. 104 (December 1997), pp.13-21, and 23-31.
61 See Nguyễn Vă__________n Mãi, “Công việc của tôi trong những ngày kháng chiến”, in Phong Lê and Lưu
Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995), op.cit., pp. 229-235.
140
In the Third Zone, writers and artists, including Đoàn Văn Cừ, Huyền Kiêu, Vi
Huyền Đắc, Vũ Hoàng Chương, Đinh Hùng, Hoàng Công Khanh, Trần Lê Văn and
Bùi Huy Phồn, were concentrated in Thái Bình. However, at the end of 1951, when the
French invaded that province, some of them returned to Hanoi, and others moved to
Thanh Hoá. In the middle of 1952, the Fourth Interzone Union of Writers and Artists
disintegrated completely.
In the Fourth Zone, Thanh Hoá was the most crowded and cheerful place, with
no sign of war during the nine years of resistance, and where Đặng Thai Mai, Nguyễn
Đức Quỳnh, Trương Tửu, Nguyễn Xuân Sanh, Nguyễn Tuân, Hải Triều, Bùi Hiển, Sĩ
Ngọc, Chu Ngọc, Mạnh Phú Tư, Vũ Ngọc Phan, Hằng Phương, Bửu Tiến, Nguyễn
Đình Lạp, and a short time later, Lưu Trọng Lư and Chế Lan Viên, lived. Most of them
were concentrated in the Quần Tín village. At first they received Viet Minh
government grants. Then, in 1950, during the recession, they had to support
themselves. The vast majority of them had to move to Cầu Thiều hamlet (Đông Sơn
district) where they founded the Cultivating Art and Letters Group (Nhóm Văn nghệ
Canh tác), and where their families each received at least 2,400 square metres of
ricefield plus some farming equipment to make their living.62
In 1948, aiming to develop the central office of the Union of Writers and
Artists, the Vietnamese Communist Party transferred several talented and trustful
writers and artists such as Nguyễn Tuân, Vũ Ngọc Phan and Nguyễn Xuân Sanh to
Việt Bắc.63
In other areas, from Đà Nẵng to South Vietnam, writers and artists were not
only very few in number but also had to move continuously because of the fighting
situation. In the Fifth Zone, there were Nam Trân, Tế Hanh, Nguyễn Văn Bổng, Phạm
Hổ, Nguyễn Thành Long and Yến Lan. In South Vietnam, there was only one writer
who was well-known nation-wide: Nguyễn Bính. Sơn Nam, whose real name was
62 See Bùi Huy Phồn, “Đường về Liên khu 3”, in Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995), ibid., pp.
360-372.
63 Ibid., pp. 52, 143, 165, 360, 363, and 450.
141
Phạm Anh Tài, started his writing career with short stories. Anh Đức, whose real name
was Bùi Đức Ái, published his first short stories in the Lá Lúa magazine. Apart from
these writers, a few, including Lý Văn Sâm, Đoàn Giỏi, Thẩm Thệ Hà and Hoàng
Xuân Nhị, were sometimes mentioned, but their talent was limited.
Irrespective of where they lived, most writers and artists participated actively in
the resistance activities. Lưu Trọng Lư was the head of the Branch of Art and Letters
of the Fourth Interzone, the editor-in-chief of Thép Mới magazine in Thanh Hoá, the
vice-director of the Art and Propaganda of the Zone and a member of the Art and
Letters Sub-Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Central Committee. Tế
Hanh joined the service responsible for the anti-illiteracy schools in Central Vietnam.
Nguyễn Xuân Sanh published the Sáng Tạo magazine in Thanh Hoá and from 1949
was transferred to Việt Bắc with the position of vice-director of the People’s Art and
Letters Committee. Together with Nguyễn Huy Tưởng, he was in charge of the
People’s Art and Letters School in Thái Nguyên. Chế Lan Viên was the editor of Quyết
Thắng, Cứu Quốc and Kháng Chiến magazines in the Fourth Zone. Anh Thơ worked
for the Phụ Nữ Việt Nam magazine and was the vice-director of a traditional operetta
group which belonged to the People’s Folk-Dance and Song Ensemble Union. Nguyễn
Bính was the vice-director of the provincial Việt Minh organization in Rạch Giá and
worked later for the Art and Letters organ of the Eighth Interzone. Nguyễn Công Hoan
joined the army, was the editor of Vệ Quốc Quân, the director of the People’s Cultural
School of the High Command, and the editor-in-chief of Quân Nhân Học Báo. Others
were either mass cadres or reporters and feature writers, especially of Cứu Quốc,
whose publisher was Xuân Thuỷ, belonging to the Viet Minh Central Executive
Committee, or Vệ Quốc Quân, whose publisher was Trần Độ, a military newspaper.
The above positions and tasks, in principle, seemed to be closely connected
with literature and art, but in reality were merely focused on political and propaganda
aspects. According to Nguyễn Tuân, who was elected General Secretary of the
Association of Literature and Art during the anti-French resistance, the main duty of a
general secretary consists of engaging in military operations from one campaign to
another, joining guerrilla militia to enemy posts and lines, propagandising the
142
agriculture tax collection policy and agitating the masses to participate in the
government’s policy of tax reduction and land reform.64
Thus, writers’ memoirs were usually about their journeys. They travelled
endlessly, and their life was linked with roads. Nguyễn Tuân wrote in “Đường vui”
(Happy Road) as follows:
After the resistance, of the innumerable images around us, that of a road, of many
roads, impressed us the most... More than a home or a warm cooking fire of the
pre-war period, now the road is the crux of our character and our thoughts.65
Nguyễn Đình Thi wrote about Trần Đăng:
Spending autumn and winter 1947 in Yên Thế Thượng (La Hiên), spring 1948
around Hanoi, spring 1949 on Highway no. 13, penetrating into desolate
mountains and hills in the enemy lines, Trần Đăng was so absorbed in travelling
that he did not feel tired and in need of rest.66
Tô Hoài was in the same situation. In the middle of 1945, he was in Hanoi. He
arrived in a flash in Vĩnh Yên, Việt Trì, in South Vietnam, even in Nha Trang; then he
returned to North Vietnam, participated in the Sông Thao and the Border Campaigns,
and in 1952 reached Việt Bắc, staying there for a long period of time, before moving
from one village to another, and living with ethnic groups such as the Thái, Mèo,
Mường and Dao.67 Quang Dũng’s ‘Con đường Tây tiến’ (Road to the West) comprised
endless and tortuous roads through forests, from Châu Mai, Châu Mộc to Sầm Nứa,
Thanh Hoá, Laos, and then back to Thái Bình.68
64 Nguyễn Tuân, “Trò chuyện”, ibid., p. 54.
65 Nguyễn Tuân (1949), Đường vui, Viet Bac: Hội Văn Nghệ Việt Nam, excerpted in Nguyễn Tuân
(1981), Tuyển tập, vol. 1, pp. 305-8.
66 Nguyễn Đình Thi (1994), Tuyển tập văn xuôi, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp.57-63.
67 Tô Hoài, “Thêm một ít tài liệu và kỷ niệm về thời kỳ kháng chiến chống Pháp ở Việt Bắc”, in Phong
Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995), op. cit., pp. 161-8.
68 See Trần Lê Văn, “Nghĩ về thơ bạn”, Quân Đội nhân dân, 2 August 1986.
143
Obviously, Vietnamese artists were launching out into the anti-French
resistance, and in the seething atmosphere of revolution, it seems that they were
prepared to sacrifice themselves for their country’s independence. Differences in
political outlook and literary thoughts which had split Vietnamese writers before 1946
suddenly disappeared. Vietnamese literature had never before been united like this. All
of a sudden, opponents of the pen-war in the matter of art for art’s sake versus art for
human life’s sake became comrades.
Nevertheless, as Chế Lan Viên commented, there was still a differentiation
between a citizen-person and an artist-person: “Their citizen part is very active, serving
their country at all costs, but their artist part stays separate, steps backward, ponders
over, and searches.”69 When making this comment, Chế Lan Viên remembered his own
experiences: despite the Communist Party’s slogan of being ‘nationalized’, and its
appeal for simple writings in order to help even farmers to understand and enjoy them,
Chế Lan Viên continued to use a symbolic and surrealistic style in many poems. His
first revolutionary poem entitled “Chào mừng” (Welcome), came into being only in
1950, four years after the outbreak of the resistance.
Chế Lan Viên’s mood was probably also shared by Hoài Thanh, the author of
Thi nhân Việt Nam (Vietnamese Poets) and the best-known critic of the 1930s and
1940s. After the Revolution, Hoài Thanh wrote in Tiên Phong: “The ‘I’ individual is
meaningless compared with the broad life of the association.”70 However, in spite of
his enthusiasm and in spite of “being ready to do anything to fight the French”, he
merely joined the resistance as a citizen, not as an artist:
In my mind, I still keep an autonomous zone where there are different views... I
think that, apart from political and social aspects which have changed,
everything else remains the same. I happily joined the revolution, and
believe that my whole old world, including the immense moonlight of The
69 Chế Lan Viên (1971), Suy nghĩ và bình luận, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 150.
70 Hoài Thanh, “Dân khí miền Trung”, Tiên Phong, no. 3, 1945, reprinted in Hoài Thanh (1999), Toàn
Tập, volume 3, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 697.
144
Tale of Kiều, the sad yellow sunlight of the New Poetry Movement, and the
different views on human beings and literature etc... throughout the ages
has joined the revolution along with me.
All these things strongly attract me and are valuable as undeniable objective
truths. For me, the world has the same number of mountains and rivers, flowers
and leaves. So do human souls, which still consist of sadness, happiness, love and
hatred. Thus, literature surely remains the same.71
Gradually, living and fighting in harsh conditions in the forest and mangrove
swamp areas, writers’ ways of thinking and feeling changed. This resulted in changes
in their aesthetic viewpoint. Hoài Thanh later wrote:
Once, as I was walking in the forest, skirting a stream, I went over some of Tản
Đà’s poetic lines. Obviously, the stream next to me and the one in Tản Đà’s
poems were very different, so I longed for other poems. It may be said that since
then, in my mind, there have been other views on literature and art.72
But the problem was: if they did not want to write as before, what would they
write? Before 1948, this question was ignored. Nobody attempted to find a solution to
it, apart from Đặng Thai Mai with his article entitled “Kháng chiến và văn hoá” (The
Resistance and Culture), written in 1947. According to him, in respect of culture,
Vietnam continued to pursue the three principles of Theses on Culture, which was
released in 1943: the culture ‘must be national’ (dân tộc hoá), ‘it must be scientific’
(khoa học hoá) and ‘it must be popular’ (đại chúng hoá). However, in his article, it is
hard to understand why Đặng Thai Mai changed the ‘being national’ principle into
“being democratic’ and asserted that in the resistance situation, the way we apply these
three principles should be flexible:
The spirit of democracy does not require the liberation of individuals and a
particular class, but the whole nation. At the present, the main enemies of our
democratic regime are the colonialist reactionaries and the invaders. The spirit of
71 Hoài Thanh, “Nhìn lại cuộc tranh luận về nghệ thuật hồi 1935-1936”, Tập san Nghiên cứu Văn học, 1
January 1960, reprinted in Hoài Thanh (1999), Toàn Tập, volume 2, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 575.
72 Ibid., p. 577.
145
popularity, during the recent fighting process, has a new meaning. It needs to
eliminate all thoughts which disintegrate the social stratum, ideals in order to
implement unity, and the active co-operation of all the Vietnamese people. What
about the scientific mind? The scientific mind is also determined by the nation’s
circumstances. The main goal is to find sensible ways to solve problems and
review one’s work in order to draw experience. We should pay attention to
practical and immediate problems, and pigeon-hole sublime doctrines, marvellous
themes and subtle theories.73
In respect to literature, after maintaining that “literature is the most appropriate
means to propagate thoughts”, Đặng Thai Mai wrote:
In the resistance period, writers must use a confident, bold and firm style to
attract, console and guide able citizens in their struggle. Therefore they should put
aside literary theory issues. Before the outbreak of the war, we found many
questions in newspapers, magazines, cultural conferences and heated discussions
such as: To whom do we write? Why do we write? How do we write? etc. Today,
these questions have almost been solved. Literature has its own function and goal,
which is fighting our foreign invader and preserving the country. Apart from this,
the remaining are merely idle and unnecessary matters.74
With such a pragmatic mind, Đặng Thai Mai believed that literature’s goal was
to explain the situations and provide the basic military, social, economic and cultural
knowledge, and draw experience from the fighting. The first goal of writing was to
form a firm confidence in the nation’s future in people’s minds.
We can write anything as far as people like and understand it [...] To sum up,
writing clearly and easily is the distinguishing feature of the present-day literary
form.75
73 Ðặng Thai Mai, “Kháng chiến và văn hoá”, in Cách mạng và Kháng chiến, published by Hội Văn
Nghệ Việt Nam in 1947, reprinted in Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995), op. cit., p.
33.
74 Ibid., p. 37.
75 Ibid., pp. 37-38.
146
Đặng Thai Mai’s view on literature was relatively extreme and naive. It
confused literature with other types of discourse in general, and hence it was not able
to convince people. As a result, writers continued to turn the question “How to write?”
over and over in their minds. Nguyên Hồng “took down quite a lot of notes but
confessed that he did not know how to write.”76 When Nam Cao finished seven or
eight chapters of his long unfinished novel describing changes in his village before,
during and after the revolution, he read them to his friends and decided to tear them up
because Nguyễn Huy Tưởng, Kim Lân and Tô Hoài had criticized them as cursory.77
Trần Ðăng did the same thing with his reportage because of his friends’ criticism.78
Nguyễn Tuân “sees that my pen, when moving on pages, cannot keep up with my real
characters’ progress, and many times I want to throw away my individual ‘I’.”79
Nguyễn Huy Tưởng’s diary teemed with references to his restlessness about
writing. He wrote on October 24, 1947:
The moon was completely hidden as if it had not been there. The host was out.
People went to bed early. Although I was exhausted, I kept the light on to read
again my old diary which contains ideas, plans and writhing sentiments. No plan
was implemented. Do things continue to remain the same? I am worried. Tô and
Lành have been out since the afternoon and, after a day of discussing the plan for
literary activities, I feel like writing, but I do not know what to write.
On October 28, 1947:
Phạm Duy dropped in and talked about music... about Anatole France and Romain
Rolland. Why are their works so great? I feel extremely hopeless. I should strive
for self-improvement in order to be able to write a lot.
76 Vũ Ðức Phúc, “Hoạt động văn nghệ ở một vùng địch hậu”, in Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.)
(1995), op. cit., p. 219.
77 Tô Hoài, “Thêm một ít tư liệu và kỷ niệm về thời kỳ kháng chiến chống Pháp ở Việt Bắc”, in Phong
Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995), op. cit., p. 167.
78 Từ Bích Hoàng, “Vài kỷ niệm văn nghệ bộ đội”, in Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995), op.
cit., p. 304.
79 Quoted in Phong Lê (1972), Mấy vấn đề văn xuôi Việt Nam, 1945-1970, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã
Hội, p. 41.
147
I decided to spend two hours a day for writing. I must set some specific
time to sit down and write. And concentrate on a specific topic.
On December 4, 1947:
1.00 p.m. It was raining. We pitched the tent, burned some firewood, and dried
some canvass. Talking about literature, reciting Chinh Phụ Ngâm, Tỳ bà etc.,
commenting on Đỗ Phủ. I only had a good nap. Then worrying about my life and
literary achievement, I said to Phi: “If the resistance lasts ten years, we will
become old then. What will we be able to do after that?” He answered: “So we
have to think about writing during the resistance!” I dozed off with my rucksack
and firewood as a pillow. I heard the stream babbling and the wind blowing
impetuously.
On December 6, 1947, he wrote again about the same concern:
I tossed about all night, worrying about my future works, which will be as
monumental and thick as Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But I feel that I am old...80
Nguyễn Huy Tưởng was born in 1912. When he wrote the above lines, he was
only thirty-five years old. When he complained that he was already “old”, he obviously
exaggerated his situation. In fact, he was pessimistic and had reached an impasse. This
was also the popular mood of most writers and artists at that time whose works
declined both in quantity and quality. Until 1949, the vast majority of writers only
wrote some short stories and poems; and of these, refined works were very rare.
Nguyễn Đình Thi, in his article entitled “Nhận đường” (Recognizing the Way), written
in 1947, sharply expressed the writers’ and artists’ pessimistic mood:
Undoubtedly, we are boldly moving forward. However, why are we often
unhappy and hesitant? When reading again our finished work, we realize that our
art is clumsy and weak, which is far from being a hurricane for the struggle. Many
of us just want to throw our pen away in order to do something else more
efficiently.[...] Around us, there is anxiety amongst our friends: Why can we only
provide childish works for the resistance, whereas our soul feels strong anguish?
80 Nguyễn Huy Tưởng, “Nhật ký cuối năm 1947”, in Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995), op.
cit., pp. 73-93.
148
Why?81
As an artist, Nguyễn Đình Thi was deeply conscious of the weakness of the
resistance literature. But as a political activist and as one of the Party’s leaders in the
field of literature and art at that time, he understood that this weakness was not in terms
of art or aesthetics but mainly in social effects. Vietnamese literature was weak
because it could not “make a hurricane for the struggle”, was not “a bullet firing at the
enemy’s head” and “does not make up people’s enthusiasm”. With such an
understanding, he proposed a pure political measure to overcome that problem: writers
should “travel and see a lot”, “live the resistance life of the nation, understand the way
our nation is going, and share new feelings of the resistance.”82 By “living the
resistance life”, he meant: “fighting together with the masses instead of seeing as an
outsider”, and “we must go to the front lines of our nation’s war, the most fierce battle
of the resistance, where a new life rises like a storm, blowing away all obstacles. We
must fight along with soldiers, we must go to wonderful workshops in the deep forest,
and we must rush to the enemy occupied zones.”83
It is hard to say that Nguyễn Đình Thi’s view is precise. Theoretically, the view
which sees political effects as a criterion to assess literature is a quite naive view: it
does not recognize any other literary and artistic function apart from that of reflecting
reality and enticing and stimulating the masses. In reality, a large number of writers
and poets, including Nguyễn Đình Thi, participated actively in the resistance and did
what Nguyễn Đình Thi required. The question to be asked, however, is: why were they
still unable to produce any great works?
Nguyễn Đình Thi’s view of literature is understandable for two reasons. Firstly,
it is very close to the traditional Vietnamese view which regards literature as a kind of
weapon or means. In the thirteenth century, Trần Thái Tông believed that “the pen can
81 Nguyễn Ðình Thi, “Nhận đường”, in Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995), op. cit., pp. 65 and
71.
82 Ibid., pp. 71-72.
83 Ibid.
149
destroy thousands of enemies” (văn bút tảo thiên quân chi trận); in the nineteenth
century, Nguyễn Đình Chiểu also saw literature as a ship carrying “Dao” (Way) and as
a sword to kill the evil; at the beginning of the twentieth century, both Phan Bội Châu
and Phan Châu Trinh held that in the struggle for national independence the pen is
stronger than the sword (“sức vãn hồi bút mạnh hơn gươm’ or ‘bút lưỡi muốn xoay
dòng nước lũ”).84 Secondly, this attitude was compatible with the Vietnamese writers’
mood at a time when foreign invasion, aspiration for independence and the Viet Minh’s
tactful propaganda were causing the hidden Confucian scholar in every writer’s mind
to wake up. The traditional view of “wen yi zai dao”, which regarded literature as a
vehicle to convey the Way, revived. The impact of the art for art’s sake view, which
sprang up in Vietnam in the mid-1930s, faded rapidly. In literary thought, the priority
of content over form, purpose over means, and lyrical sensitivity was put at the service
of a political cause. This was manifested in the indifference of the general public
towards literature: “Books on politics and philosophy are sold like hot cakes, whereas
literary works, especially those which are long, do not meet with a generous
response.”85 This also had another manifestation in the writer’s cult of the role of
political standpoint in the process of creating.
The significance of the issue of political standpoint in writing may be found in
Nam Cao’s short story entitled “Đôi mắt” (The Eyes), which was widely regarded as
one of the most sophisticated works in the resistance literature and, according to Tô
Hoài, a kind of writers’ art declaration.86
Written in 1948, “The Eyes” was about two writers, Hoàng and Độ. Both were
writers before 1945. However, whilst Độ was a young and poor writer, Hoàng was an
experienced hack writer who also worked as a well-off black-market trader. A few
84 Quoted in Lê Trí Viễn (1984), Ðặc điểm có tính quy luật của lịch sử văn học Việt Nam, Ho Chi Minh
City: Ðại Học Sư Phạm, pp. 167, 170 and 171
85 Vũ Ðức Phúc, “Hoạt động văn nghệ ở một vùng địch hậu”, in Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.)
(1995), op. cit., p. 220.
86 Tô Hoài, “Người và tác phẩm Nam Cao”, in Viện Văn Học (1992), Nghĩ tiếp về Nam Cao, Hanoi:
Nxb Hội Nhà Văn, p. 231.
150
years after the outbreak of the resistance, they met again in a resistance zone about one
hundred kilometres from Hanoi. Độ went to Hoàng’s place with the intention to invite
Hoàng to join the resistance, but Hoàng immediately disappointed him. At this time,
their thinking differed completely, even in the most basic matters. Hoàng did not want
to live in a French occupied zone, but at the same time did not trust the masses who
were carrying out the anti-French resistance. He regarded them as “dim-headed, blunt,
selfish, greedy and stingy”, or “dull-headed but fussy” persons who “spent at least
fifteen minutes to read an identity card, but were interested in asking trespassers to
show their papers”, who “wrote Vietnamese national script (chữ quốc ngữ) incorrectly
(sai vần) but often talked about politics”. In contrast, Độ, who experienced hardships in
the resistance and performed his propaganda task actively, saw country people as
“weird”, and “still a mystery” for an intellectual like himself. Also most of them had
“black teeth, rheumy eyes, pronounced ‘nựu đạn’ instead of ‘lựu đạn’, and sang Tiến
quân ca like sleepy prayers, but were very brave in the battlefields.”87
Độ judged Hoàng as follows:
I knew he would never agree to being a simple propagandist like me. Moreover, I
could not convince him to do what I was doing, to carry a sack on his shoulder
and go from one village to another to gain an insight into the countryside and
understand it better. It would be of no interest to him. He had a one-sided outlook
on the people’s life. He saw the young peasant saying by heart his lesson of ‘three
stages’ but he failed to see the bundle of bamboo he carried on his shoulder to
stop the enemy. And even in the fact that the young peasant said by heart like a
parrot the article which he had read in a newspaper, he only saw the apparent
stupidity of the thing and did not see the very lofty motive inside. If he still went
on looking at things the same way as he was doing, the more he looked into
things, the more he would become bitter and discouraged.88
87 Nam Cao (1983), Chi Pheo and Other Stories, Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, pp. 181-
202.
88 Ibid., p. 193.
151
The “The Eyes” problem, in fact, was the standpoint problem. According to
Nguyễn Đăng Mạnh, “the contradiction between Độ and Hoàng was first of all a
contradiction in standpoint.”89 While Độ participated actively in the resistance and saw
it as his duty, Hoàng stood outside like a stranger and decided not to do anything.
While Độ was elated by any change in the revolution, Hoàng merely saw the ridiculous
and funny aspects of those changes.
In fact, “The Eyes” raised many significant problems. First, the frontier
between writers did not result from art problems, including talent, different style, view
and method, but mainly from political problems: whether they participated or not in the
resistance. Second, writers’ political attitudes were closely connected with their
attitude towards country people. Although people like Hoàng consented to and
believed in the resistance, in the gifted leading role of the Viet Minh, they were still
outsiders to the resistance for they did not accept country people and did not rank with
farmers. This was closely linked with the nature of the resistance, which was a
resistance of all the Vietnamese people, of which ninety percent were peasants. Now
we can understand why since 1943, in Theses on Culture, the slogan of ‘being popular’
was one of three main principles, and why after the August Revolution until the anti-
French resistance, the issue of being popular was always the main and foremost
concern, compared with the two other principles. Third, one’s attitude to the masses
was generally closely connected with one’s way of living. Despising the masses,
Hoàng’s family had a reticent life, and was separated from the people around them.
Their gate was always locked and guarded by a fierce dog. This living condition and
style were totally opposite to the Party’s policy, which required that writers and artists
had to live exactly like the masses, feel what they felt and say what they said. Fourth,
“The Eyes” also raised the issue of art’s object, which was the central issue of
revolutionary literature. In the pre-1945 literature, heroes were those who had been
petty bourgeois, young and romantic. For Hoàng, they should be like Tào Tháo in the
Stories of the Three Kingdoms. In contrast, for Độ, as a resistance writer, heroes were
rustic farmers, those who might be ignorant and awkward, but were dauntlessly
89 Nguyễn Ðăng Mạnh (1999), ibid.
152
fighting against the French invader. The new type of hero differed from that of
romanticism in one crucial point: he or she represented a very crowded community
bloc, and therefore had an enormous strength rather than just representing one or two
lonely individuals who had come out of the blue. This basic characteristic of the new
type of hero led to optimism in the resistance literature: unlike Hoàng, Độ still believed
in the final success of the resistance, despite his hard experiences in an arduous war.
With such a great significance, Nam Cao’s “The Eyes” has been widely hailed by
Marxist critics as a declaration of the new literature.
The Two Decisive Years 1948 and 1949
In the developing history of socialist realism in Vietnam, the years 1948 and
1949 are the decisive ones. Before that period of time, the Communist Party had
concentrated their efforts on political and military activities in order to seize power,
and then defend it. Consequently, it did not have many opportunities to concern itself
with the literary and artistic fields. The Theses on Culture, published by the Party in
1943, was a mere general strategic policy which aimed at calling upon writers and
poets to take part in the political struggle led by the Party, rather than one which put
forward a literary conception or a clear-cut and specifically creative method. The only
individual efforts to approach and introduce socialist realism were those of Hải Triều
and Đặng Thai Mai. From 1947, the Party officially assigned Tố Hữu, a young and
well-known poet as well as a political cadre, to be responsible for the fields of
literature and arts, which were directly dependent on the Department of Propaganda of
the Party's Central Committee led by Trường Chinh, its Secretary General.90 Gradually,
the Party came to exercise strict control over all literary and artistic activities. The
National Congress of Culture and the Conference on Literature and the Arts were held,
the Association of Vietnamese Writers and Artists was founded, and the propaganda on
Marxist literary theory was implemented more systematically and on a larger scale.
From 1950, as the Party started its counter-attack and the military situation became
90 Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995), op. cit., p. 209.
153
more tense, all literary and artistic activities were grinding to a standstill until the battle
of Điện Biên Phủ brought the war to an end and the Communist Party came to power
in North Vietnam.
Another significant change that the years 1948 and 1949 brought to the North
was that the political leaders took over the role of leading the ideology for literature
and the arts, as Vũ Đức Phúc remarks:
From the Second National Congress of Culture (1948) and the First National
Conference on Literature and Art (1948) onward, President Hồ Chí Minh, Trường
Chinh and Tố Hữu became theorists of Vietnamese revolutionary literature and
art. This phenomenon may be seen as a specific trait of Vietnamese conjuncture:
political leaders were art theorists as well... Other theorists, although productive
and prestigious, were not able to solve issues raised by the literary reality.91
It seems abundantly clear that two consequences may be derived from the fact
that political leaders took over the role of literary leaders: firstly, literature was
politicised; secondly, literary thoughts that those political leaders put forward tended to
become dogmas. In this chapter, we are going to study the redirection of Vietnamese
literary thinking in the period 1948 - 1949 by analysing the thoughts of two leading
figures: Trường Chinh and Tố Hữu.
Trường Chinh (1907-1988):
Trường Chinh, whose real name was Đặng Xuân Khu, was born on February 9,
1907. Until 1929, he attended the College of Commerce in Hanoi. He then participated
in a campaign to found the Vietnamese Communist Party in the North. In 1930, he was
a member of the Central Propaganda Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party.
At the end of the same year he was arrested and imprisoned by the French in Sơn La
before being released in 1936. In the late 1930s he lived in Hanoi. Professionally he
91 Viện Văn Học (1986), Văn học Việt Nam kháng chiến chống Pháp (1945-1954), Hanoi: Nxb Khoa
Học Xã Hội, pp. 57 and 67.
154
was a journalist and proof-reader at the Lê Văn Tân Printer;92 politically he was a
member of the Northern Region Committee. When the Second World War broke out,
he was engaged in clandestine activities. In 1940, he was the editor of the Giải Phóng
newspaper, which was the mouthpiece of the Northern Region Committee. In 1941, at
the Eighth Conference of the Central Party, he was appointed Secretary General of the
Party's Central Committee as well as Head of the Department of Propaganda and
Training. In that same year, he was the editor of the Cờ Giải Phóng magazine, which
later changed to Sự Thật magazine, as well as being the Party's central mouthpiece. In
1943, as Secretary General, he compiled his Theses on Culture while initiating the
establishment of the Cultural Association for National Salvation, which aimed at
gathering intellectuals and artists under the leadership of the Party. From 1951 to 1956,
he was the Party's Secretary General. In 1958, he was the Deputy Prime Minister. In
1960, he was the President of the National Assembly Standing Committee and
responsible for the ideological tasks of the Party. In 1981, he was elected President of
Vietnam. In July 1986, he was elected Secretary General of the Communist Party.
However, six months later, at the Sixth Congress of the Party, as Nguyễn Văn Linh
took over this post, he became the Advisor of the Executive Committee of the Central
Party. He died on 30 September 1988 at the age of eighty-one.
Among Vietnamese communist leaders, Trường Chinh has been widely hailed
as a theorist. His role in literary theory was widely recognized when he compiled his
Theses on Culture and especially in 1948, when he, on behalf of the Party, delivered
his report on Marxism and Vietnamese Culture at the Second Congress of Culture held
in Việt Bắc from 16 to 20 July, 1948.
Approximately twenty thousand words long and divided into seven chapters
(excluding the introduction and conclusion), Marxism and Vietnamese Culture focuses
on three main issues: general theory of culture, the development process of Vietnamese
culture, and specific issues related to literature and the arts.
92 Ibid., p. 219.
155
Trường Chinh used the first two chapters to present some of the basic concepts
of Marxist cultural theory. First of all he stated that culture, politics and law were the
elements which made up the superstructure of society. They were determined by
society's material conditions of life and at times brought their influence in return to
bear upon the material life. He also emphasized that, although economics determined
the culture of a nation, this did not mean that (i) when certain economic conditions no
longer existed, the corresponding culture would die out; or that (ii) culture and
economics always developed evenly, one keeping in step with the other. Being
determined by economics and society, in a class society a culture (especially literature
and the arts) would not be devoid of tendencies. “Each work of art implies a definite
social attitude. It sides with the oppressors and exploiters or opposes them.”93
Trường Chinh quoted Marx and Engels' well-known theoretical point in the
Manifesto of the Communist Party: “The ruling ideas of each age have always been the
ideas of the ruling class.”94 Then, with no further explanation, he went on to assert that,
at that particular time in Vietnam, there were two different types of culture: the antinational
culture which was fostered by the French colonialists and their Vietnamese
collaborators, and the patriotic culture of resistance. The latter had two tendencies or
two sub-divisions: the culture of the working class and that of the national bourgeoisie.
It is obvious that Trường Chinh's latter viewpoint springs from Lenin's theoretical point
of the co-existence of two types of culture:
The elements of democratic and socialist culture are present, if only in
rudimentary form, in every national culture, since in every nation there are toiling
and exploited masses, whose conditions of life inevitably give rise to the ideology
of democracy and socialism. But every nation also possesses a bourgeois culture
(and most nations a reactionary and clerical culture as well) in the form, not
merely of “elements”, but of the dominant culture.95
93 Trường Chinh (1974), Chủ nghĩa Mác và văn hoá Việt Nam, second edition, Hanoi: Sự Thật, p. 21.
94 Ibid., p. 13.
95 Lenin (1978), On Literature and Art, Moscow: Progress Publishers, p. 93.
156
According to Trường Chinh, the most outstanding feature of the counterrevolutionary
culture is that its unscientific content is enveloped in a scientific form,
while its poor content is hidden inside rich, glossy, subtle and sophisticated forms such
as cubism, impressionism, surrealism and dadaism. He compared those doctrines with
gaudy mushrooms sprouting from the rotten wood of imperialist culture.96 In contrast,
the most striking feature of the revolutionary culture was that it valued the truth by
laying bare social corruption and, at the same time, depicting a new age which comes
into being as an ineluctable historical event.
Trường Chinh summed up “the most revolutionary cultural standpoint in the
world”, and in Vietnam as well, as follows:
The working class constitutes the social basis.
National independence, people's democracy and socialism are the political basis.
Dialectical materialism and historical materialism form the ideological basis.
Social realism should be treated as the artistic basis.97
Under the spell of Marxism, Trường Chinh argued that ancient Vietnamese
culture, despite the valuable efforts of men of genius from different generations, had
two shortcomings: a weak scientific basis and a too-strongly Chinese influence.98
When Vietnam was dominated by the French, its culture was influenced by both the
Chinese and French imperialists.99 The national bourgeoisie, while not daring to fight
against the imperialists on the political and military fronts, carried out a cultural
struggle against feudal and backward thinking, thus contributing to the development of
Vietnamese literature and the arts. However, a real cultural revolution could only be
carried out under the Communist Party's leadership. This culture must have the
following characteristics: national, scientific and popular. From these three
characteristics, the Communist Party put forward three guidelines to establish the new
96 Trường Chinh (1974), op. cit., p. 19.
97 Ibid., p. 31.
98 Ibid., p. 33.
99 Ibid., p. 36.
157
culture: to be national, to be scientific and to be popular.100 Closely connected with
these three guidelines were the following three attitudes:
a. Be absolutely loyal to the Fatherland and the resistance; neither accept
compromise with reactionary thoughts and culture nor adopt either neutralism
or the attitude of on-lookers.
b. Strive to conduct scientific and technological research and apply the results to
benefit production, the struggle and human life; rely on Marxist theory as the
compass for action; combine knowledge with action, theory with practice.
c. Serve the people wholeheartedly; remain close to the workers, peasants and
soldiers, be in sympathy with the masses, learn from, but at the same time
educate and lead, the people.101
To carry out the above guidelines and adopt the above attitudes, cultural
workers who “fight for independence and freedom of the fatherland cannot remain
outside the National United Front in the fight against the French colonialist
aggressors.”102 Moreover, writers and artists should join tight organizations led by the
Communist Party.103
Vietnamese literary researchers have always extolled Trường Chinh's report on
Marxism and Vietnamese Culture. Thành Duy declared that it was “a scientific work
marking a great landmark in literary and artistic development” in Vietnam.104 Phan
Hồng Giang believed that this was the first time “Marxist cultural theories were
presented systematically and concisely” in Vietnam.105 According to Phan Cự Đệ, the
100 Ibid., p. 67.
101 Ibid., pp. 75-76.
102 Ibid., pp. 77-78.
103 Ibid., p. 79.
104 Tạp chí Văn Học (Hanoi), no. 2 (1997), p. 8.
105 Phan Hồng Giang, “Một số thu hoạch khi đọc cuốn Chủ nghĩa Mác và văn hoá Việt Nam của đồng
chí Trường Chinh”, Tác Phẩm Mới, nos. 45-46 (January and February, 1975), p. 23.
158
report was “the first systematic theoretical work on socialist realism in Vietnam”,106 “a
compass for all writers and artists in the first process of seeking the literary path.”107
Vũ Ðức Phúc maintained:
Marxism and Vietnamese Culture is a significant theoretical work which solves or
traces out measures to solve all current cultural and artistic issues and open a new
area in the development of literature and the arts of resistance.108
Vũ Ðức Phúc brought out much evidence showing Trường Chinh's
contributions to the theoretical field, the first of which was:
Before, many Trotskyists and scholars like Đào Duy Anh (with his book entitled
What is Culture, 1946) put forward incorrect cultural theories. Marxism and
Vietnamese Culture gives a clear definition of culture, bringing out correct and
scientific basic principles and laws on cultural development as well as the
relationship of culture with other aspects of life.109
The definition of culture in Trường Chinh's Marxism and Vietnamese Culture
that Vũ Ðức Phúc believed “clear”, “correct” and “scientific”, was in fact the first short
paragraph of Chapter One, “Culture and Society”:
Culture is a very vast domain which encompasses literature, art, science,
philosophy, customs, religion and more besides. There are people who hold
culture and civilization to be one and the same thing. History has shown, however,
that many nations had a culture before they had a civilization. It is not until
culture has enriched itself in substance and has developed to a certain point that it
becomes civilization.110
106 Phan Cự Ðệ and Hà Minh Ðức (1979), Nhà văn Việt Nam (1945-1975), vol. 1, Hanoi: Nxb Ðại Học
và Trung Học Chuyên Nghiệp, p. 373.
107 Ibid., p. 384.
108 Viện Văn Học (1986), op. cit., p. 53.
109 Ibid.
110 Trường Chinh (1974), op. cit., p. 9.
159
In fact, saying that culture and civilization are identical is not always incorrect.
As Raymond Williams points out, “civilization and culture (especially in its common
early form as 'cultivation') were in effect, in the late eighteenth century,
interchangeable terms”.111 In addition, when stating that “culture has enriched itself in
substance and has developed to a certain point to become civilization”, Trường Chinh
made two mistakes. Firstly, he unintentionally stated that culture is on a higher level
than civilization. Secondly, he placed culture and civilization in the same category,
whereas most critics agree that “civilization is now generally used to describe an
achieved state or condition of organized social life”112 and, culture is used to describe
“a process of 'inner' development” which includes a descriptive sense of the means and
works of such development, that is, culture is a general classification of “the arts,
religion, and the institutions and practices of meanings and values”.113
Although Trường Chinh has always been seen as a theorist of the Vietnamese
Communist Party and Marxism and Vietnamese Culture as his typical work, it may be
said that in his work, Trường Chinh either merely repeated general and basic
knowledge of Marxism and Leninism or he was immersed in tiny details, floundering
beyond his ability, in such issues as literary techniques and devices and collection of
material for writing. This was noticeable to many people from the very beginning. Hà
Xuân Trường, who was Trường Chinh's own secretary at that time, reminisced:
I remember the time when the sub-committee for literature and the arts had a
preparatory meeting for the Second National Congress of Culture, discussing
Trường Chinh's report on Marxism and Vietnamese Culture. Most of the ideas that
came across in the debate on the first chapter (the chapter that raised the very
general issue on Marxist philosophy) and the final chapter (“Some concrete
problems of our country's present literature and art”) differed immensely. Those
who opposed Trường Chinh argued that for intellectuals, there was no need to
111 Raymond Williams (1977), Marxism and Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 14.
112 Raymond Williams (1983), Key Words, A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, London: Fontana
Press, p. 57.
113 Raymond Williams (1977), op. cit., pp. 14-15.
160
bring up simple, general issues - issues that everybody already knew about, and
issues that were too concrete. Therefore, they did not come to a complete
agreement on many issues. Trường Chinh then explained that he needed to go
back to basic issues and concepts, because intellectuals in a colonial country like
Vietnam did not have enough knowledge of Marxism-Leninism. He also declared
that, although he himself compiled the report, the Central Standing Committee
had already approved it and President Hồ Chí Minh had read the report and
commented on it as well.114
From the above reminiscence, it may be easily seen that, on the one hand,
Trường Chinh was deliberate in affirming the power of political leaders over issues
related to culture and arts. When declaring that the Report was read and commented on
by Hồ Chí Minh as well as being approved by the Central Standing Committee,
Trường Chinh intended to end the debate. On the other hand, he also showed his
contempt for intellectuals, writers and artists since, according to him, they did not even
have a basic knowledge of philosophy and literary theory. As a result, the words that
he used were forceful words of power but not of theoretical language. For example, he
mentioned the issue of freedom:
Those who enjoy freedom are the ones who have cognisance of the objective,
inescapable laws of nature and society, and act within the limits defined by their
knowledge of these laws to bring about progress for humanity and their own
people. In contrast, all those who oppose social evolution, democracy and
progress will certainly be ground to dust under the wheel of history, and are then
'free' to serve as manure.115
He also mentioned the issue of criticism:
Some friends object to criticism as tantamount to 'washing our dirty linen in
public', thereby displaying our weaknesses for the enemy to seize and beat us
with. The criticism we have in mind is criticism that abides by principles and
democratic discipline and not 'free criticism'. There may be some who wish to use
114 Hà Xuân Trường, “Văn học và đời sống văn hoá văn nghệ mấy năm đầu kháng chiến chống Pháp trên
trang báo Ðảng”, in Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995), op. cit., p. 210.
115 Trường Chinh (1974), op. cit., p. 23.
161
criticism to sow dissension and doubt in the ranks of our people and supply the
enemy with documents to be used against us. They are not critics but troublemakers,
who seek not progress but provocation. Their place is not on the public
debating platform of a democratic country but in the prisons of the people's
government!116
These words are powerful but not convincing in solving literary theoretical
issues. The section he wrote on literature in Marxism and Vietnamese Culture was
quite short and concentrated only on some main points related to socialist realism.
Trường Chinh defined socialist realism as follows:
As we understand it, socialist realism is a method of artistic creation which
portrays the truth in a society evolving towards socialism according to objective
laws. Out of objective reality we must spotlight 'the typical features in typical
situations' and reveal the inexorable motive force driving society forward and the
objective tendency of the process of evolution.117
Trường Chinh did not go on to analyse the typical features and typical
situations but discussed how to depict the truth. He raised the question: “There are
objective truths which are unfavourable to us. For example: shall we report a battle we
have lost truthfully?”
Then he himself replied:
We can, of course, depict a lost battle, but in doing so, we must see to it that
people realise how heroically our combatants accepted sacrifices, why the battle
was lost, what our gains were and notwithstanding the defeat, that our combatants
never felt demoralised because all were eager to learn and draw the appropriate
lessons in order to secure victories in future battles. We can depict a local defeat
while showing that the war is going our way. It should be borne in mind that there
are truths worth mentioning, but there are also truths which are better left
unmentioned, at least temporarily, and if mentioned at all, the question is where
116 Ibid., p. 101.
117 Ibid., pp. 94-95.
162
and how they should be.118
It should be mentioned that, when discussing culture in general, in this report
and in other writings, such as the article entitled “Eighteen pieces of advice to be
considered when writing” in 1947, Trường Chinh spoke of three principles: national,
scientific and popular; but when he limited his discussion to literature and art, it seems
that he stressed merely the third requirement: the character of being popular.
According to Trường Chinh, the audience for artistic creation was the people, and
therefore, in order to produce good works of art, “what is essential is to live among the
masses of the people, that is to live a worthy life, the militant life of our people”;
furthermore, writers and artists should ask themselves: “Who is to enjoy and watch
what we are creating?” and create accordingly with “the average level of the majority
of the people.”119
More importantly, Trường Chinh advised writers to trust the masses' judgement
and rely on their opinion to check and correct their works. He believed that, although
the masses did not have much education, they were capable of more accurate criticism
of all works of art than professional critics,120 because “[t]he feelings of the masses are
pure, sincere and exceedingly warm. They show indifference only to insincere,
recondite, recherché, evasive, preposterous works of art and hate the monsters of
imagination.”121 In the end, he concluded:
The masses are the most impartial and perspicacious judges of art. If works of art,
once created, are devoured, admired, enjoyed, adopted, applied, and chosen by
the people as their daily spiritual nourishment, they must have value. In contrast,
those works whose birth is heeded and cared for by no one will die an early
death.122
118 Ibid., pp. 95-96.
119 Ibid., pp.100-101.
120 Ibid., p. 103.
121 Ibid., p. 94.
122 Ibid., p. 103.
163
We should pay attention to this significant change in Trường Chinh's attitude to
literature and the arts: during the previous year, in his article “Eighteen pieces of
advice to be considered when writing”, when referring to the literature of resistance,
Trường Chinh stressed three principles: to be national, to be scientific and to be
popular.
To be national:
1. Do not use any unnecessary foreign words.
2. Do not write any sentence according to foreign construction.
3. Do not use classical references (điển tích) that do not improve your piece
of writing.
4. Do not deflect from the precious literary tradition of the nation.
5. Do not slight the national literary capital.
6. Do not disdain the goodness of foreign literature and art.
To be scientific:
1. Be grammatically correct.
2. Do not use any superfluous word, except when deliberately repeating it for
emphasis.
3. Do not write any sentence that may be misunderstood or that might have
two meanings.
4. Do not separate our style from the people's language.
5. Do not write in disorder.
6. Do not use clichés from Vietnam or overseas (do not confuse clichés with
dialect and maxims.)
To be popular:
1. Dare to use the usual words of the masses.
2. Do not write anything that the average reader would not understand.
3. Do not write for only a small number of 'upper class individuals and
intellectuals'.
4. Do not write verbosely and quote uselessly in order to throw dust into
people's eyes.
5. Do not neglect the duty of raising the standard of the people just because
of a need to be popular.
164
6. Do not use vulgar and rude words just to increase your popularity.123
In his Marxism and Vietnamese Culture, when discussing culture, Trường
Chinh also mentioned and analysed thoroughly the three above principles. However,
when discussing literature and the arts, he especially stressed the third one: to be
popular. This may not be a change in his standpoint but only a change in his priorities.
When stressing the third principle, he also stressed the propaganda function of
literature and the arts. This resulted in a paradox: theoretically, Trường Chinh
recognized the close relationship between the arts and propaganda; they were not,
however, the same thing:
As it attains a certain level, propaganda becomes art, which in turn has the
unmistakable character of propaganda if it is to some extent realistic. Thus, we
can say that there are propagandists who are not or not yet artists, and that there
are no artists who are in no way propagandists.124
But in reality, when analysing the significance of literature, he only
concentrated on the propaganda significance and completely let the aesthetic and
cognitive significance pass unnoticed. He encouraged writers and artists to use art as a
kind of propaganda weapon. Thus, art gradually became a form of propaganda.
A great many writers and artists opposed Trường Chinh's viewpoint. In the
article entitled “To learn or not to learn”, published in Văn Nghệ, artist Tô Ngọc Vân
maintained that Trường Chinh's policy did not solve the legitimate uneasy state of
mind of writers and artists when they faced the conflict between the two ideals: to
serve either the masses or the arts. Furthermore, he definitely declared that if the
people did not have any knowledge of art, they were not able to criticize it accurately.
He wrote:
The people must learn about the art of painting to be able totally to enjoy the
paintings. They must learn about the voice of figures and colours to be able to
listen to what the figures and colours tell [...] When we know about Van Gogh's
123 Trường Chinh (1985), Về văn hoá và nghệ thuật, volume 1, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp. 50-1.
124 Trường Chinh (1974), op. cit., p. 92.
165
tragic biography, we can understand clearly and enjoy his emotional and stormy
style. When we understand the historic stand of cubism and its technique, we do
not waste time to mock it, or even if we mock it, we understand the reasons why
we do it.125
However, we should remember that, at that time, Trường Chinh was Secretary
General as well as head of the Department of Propaganda and Training of the
Communist Party. Thus, his voice had a special significance: it became both dogma
and policy. Writers and artists' doubtful and opposed attitudes were seen as signs of
their ideological ignorance. And for this reason, the Party decided to organise a fourday
debate on literature and the arts in Việt Bắc, from 25 to 28 September, 1949, with
the participation of a great number of writers and artists who had taken part in the
resistance. The aim of this debate, according to Vũ Đức Phúc, was to “help everybody
to understand clearly that when an artist does not have revolutionary thoughts and does
not strive to thoroughly study the working class, he will certainly have incorrect artistic
viewpoints and will create dull works of art.”126
At the Viet Bac Conference of debate on literature and art, Tố Hữu's role
became obviously noticeable as a direct leader of literary and artistic activities. He
actually kept this role at least until 1986, when he was eliminated from the Political
Bureau of the Party.
Tố Hữu (1920-2002)
Tố Hữu, whose real name is Nguyễn Kim Thành, was born in 1920 in Thừa
Thiên. He joined the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1939. In April of the same year,
he was imprisoned by the French. He escaped in March, 1942 and continued his
revolutionary activities. After the August Revolution, he was the chairman of the
125 Tô Ngọc Vân, “Học hay không học?”, Văn Nghệ, no. 10 (March 1949), p. 57.
126 Vũ Ðức Phúc (1971), Bàn về những cuộc đấu tranh tư tưởng trong lịch sử văn học Việt Nam hiện đại
(1930-1954), Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội, p. 208.
166
Insurrection Committee in Thừa Thiên - Huế. At the end of 1946, when the Resistance
War broke out, he was Secretary of the Thanh Hoá Province Party Committee. In 1947
he was responsible for artistic and literary activities in the Việt Bắc revolutionary base.
In 1951 he was elected the alternate member of the Party Central Committee and
became a full member in 1955. In 1960 he was a member of the Party's Central
Committee Secretariat. In 1976 he rose to alternate rank in the Political Bureau and
became a full member in 1980. In 1981 he was named Deputy Premier Minister. He
was dropped from the Political Bureau and from the government machinery as well at
the Sixth Party Congress in December 1986.
Having started writing poetry in 1937, Tố Hữu was seen as “the poet who
opens and leads the way for socialist realistic poetry”127 and “a great poet of Vietnam
in the revolutionary proletarian era”.128 Tố Hữu had seven collections of poems
published: Thơ (1946; when reprinted in 1959, changed to Từ ấy), Việt Bắc (1954), Gió
lộng (1961), Ra trận (1972), Máu và Hoa (1977), and Một tiếng đờn (1993).
Apart from writing poetry, Tố Hữu, as head of the Literature and the Arts
Department and later head of the Department of Propaganda and Training of the Party
Central Committee, was also the direct leader of Vietnamese literary and artistic
activities. His writings, as well as his speeches on literature and art, became the Party's
official standpoint. One of his first pivotal speeches was that given at the conference on
literature and art in Việt Bắc in September 1949, in which, as the Party's direct leader
of literary and artistic activities, Tố Hữu talked about the task of “building a people's
art (or a new-democracy art): to make thoughts revolutionary and activities popular” as
a strategic policy in the field of literature and art.
The first noticeable point in his speech was the concept of “people's art” itself.
In the Theses on Culture, (1943), The Resistance Will Win (1947) and Marxism and
Vietnamese Culture, Trường Chinh had used the terms “new-democracy culture” and
127 Chế Lan Viên, “Ðọc lại Tố Hữu”, in Tố Hữu (1991), Từ ấy... chào năm 2000, Huế: Nxb Thuận Hoá,
p. 12.
128 Phan Cự Ðệ and Hà Minh Ðức (1979), op. cit., p. 462.
167
“literature with a socialist realist trend”. The term “people’s art” was a totally new one.
Worrying that people might not understand it, Tố Hữu put another synonym: “or a
new-democracy art” in brackets. When this text was reprinted in 1973 in the book
entitled Building a Great Art Worthy of Our People and Our Era, its editors gave an
explanation in the footnote:
The term 'people's art’, as used by the writer, aims at setting up the artistic
direction our Party has decided to establish, which is of the people, serves the
people and has the people's art movement as the source and basis of the new
art.129
Tố Hữu's “people's art” term in fact met Trường Chinh's requirement in his
report on Marxism and Vietnamese culture, where Trường Chinh merely stressed the
characteristic of being popular when talking about literature and the arts. With his new
term, Tố Hữu officially regarded this characteristic and its propaganda function as the
most striking features of the new art. He asserted:
In order to become popular and raise the political consciousness of the people, a
work of art must first have a content related to their fate, raise and solve their
pressing issues, and connect with their life in their anguish, happiness, hatred and
aspirations. It must also have a form which suits their level of understanding and
feeling.
Any work of art containing backward and fantastic content will certainly not be
enjoyed by the people, even though written in a subtle way.130
Although embracing the dialectical viewpoint, communist literary theorists
usually think that the content and form of a literary work have a very close
relationship, Tố Hữu, in his statement above, separated them into two parts, believing
that the first was the most important. In fact, in regard to content, Tố Hữu only
concerned himself with the topic and the theme: the topic should be kept in close touch
with the people and the theme should solve their problems.
129 Tố Hữu (1973), Xây dựng một nền văn nghệ lớn xứng đáng với nhân dân ta, với thời đại ta, Hanoi:
Văn Học, p. 23.
130 Ibid., p. 31.
168
From such a standpoint, Tố Hữu opposed the trend of separating art from
politics, aestheticist thinking, and the attitude of worshipping pure art. He even
opposed the attitude of attaching too much importance to creative technique. He called
upon people to oppose “idle and impractical psychology which made literature and arts
lose their practical significance, turning art into a kind of luxury good that may
sometimes become an obstacle on the struggling road of the nation”.131 He put forward
some main tasks to be achieved: the first was to “popularise art and train new art cadres
from within the people”; the second was to “re-educate the ideologies and lifestyles of
current professional writers and artists, turning them into art cadres who serve the
people and the resistance in a practical way”.132 In the second task, there were two
main points: to revolutionise thought and to popularise activity.133
Revolutionising thought meant, on the one hand, to abolish idealistic thought
and individualism, and on the other hand, to learn dialectical materialism and historical
materialism in order to “find out the truth and clearly see the forward movement of
society”.134 Furthermore, it was not enough to clearly see the truth. “A true
revolutionary artist of the people must be one who is aware that his/her artistic ability
is active within the people and for the people. Thus, the issue of revolutionising
thought should go together with the issue of popularising activity.”135
Popularising activity meant living, labouring and fighting with the people in
order to gradually gain their habits and sympathize with their mood. During the debate
on social class issues held on 25 September, 1949, Tố Hữu pointed out another reason
for this requirement: most writers and artists come from the petty bourgeoisie class, a
class which naturally “oscillates, has unstable thoughts, [...] has no right thinking, no
sound outlook on life, and therefore is not able to look clearly at life. Of course, they
131 Ibid., p. 27.
132 Ibid., p. 28.
133 Ibid., p.125.
134 Ibid., p. 37.
135 Ibid., pp. 37-38.
169
are not capable of producing works of art which reflect feelings of life”. Tố Hữu then
affirmed that “Without the people's activities, we cannot have works of art which have
the character of being popular.”136
In the debate on Nguyễn Đình Thi's poetry on 28 September, 1949, Tố Hữu
saw the above characteristics as a criterion to judge literary works. He asked himself:
“What is the criterion of the beautiful?” Then answered: “I cannot use the 'self' as this
criterion. The writer has to ask himself: How do the people enjoy this piece of writing?
Do they feel anything? Are their feelings mentioned in it? If it does not reveal people’s
life or if it reveals the opposite of that, it cannot be seen as a good literary work.”137
This was also echoed in Nguyễn Đình Thi's speech on literary criticism in the debate
on the 26th:
A critic must see himself as the people's loudspeaker, understand them, try to
listen to them and mention their ideas. However, he should not imitate them
thoughtlessly but should try to avoid criticism based on knowledge that is
subjective, partial, or based on formulae or only on a few atypical opinions. The
critic's task is to direct people.138
The issue of socialist realism was also raised during the debate on art on
September 26, in Nguyễn Đình Thi's speech, in which he concentrated on two aspects
only: the relationship between instinct and wit when producing works of art, and the
relationship between reality and art. Referring to the first aspect, Nguyễn Đình Thi
mentioned familiar perceptions such as: art springs from instinct but should be
enlightened by wit, and present thoughts are almost political ones. Relating to the
second aspect, he maintained that socialist realism has three levels corresponding with
three different periods of time: firstly, in the old society, it unmasked the bad aspects of
the ruling class, which needed to be overthrown; secondly, in the revolutionary era, it
136 Ibid., p. 32.
137 Ibid., p. 46.
138 Văn Nghệ , nos. 17 and 18 (November and December 1949), p. 22.
170
reflected the progressive trend of life; and thirdly, in the socialist era, it truly reflects
the main aspects of the new life.139
From Nguyễn Đình Thi's speech, another issue was raised: Was socialist
realism able to be applied in Vietnam while it was not yet a socialist country? Tố Hữu
answered: “We have not yet been in a socialist era but we are in an era that is moving
forward towards socialism.”140
The debate on socialist realism on 26 September 1949 was, according to Vũ
Đức Phúc, “not profound enough, and does not sum up all the previous ideas of
theorists and critics on this creative method (phương pháp sáng tác). Nguyễn Đình
Thi's speech on the issue is not clear and suffers from shortcomings”.141 This may be
the main reason why, a month later, Tố Hữu went back to the same issue in his article
“The art issue”, in which he defined socialist realism as
a literary trend of the proletariat striving for the socialist ideal. Observing from the
dialectical materialist standpoint the real situation of social and individual life, it
recognized the good progressive as well as the bad degenerate truth in the chaotic
life, it saw the inevitable future trend of the object and presented this life in its
progressive subjective process, and it did not explain according to its objective
decisions.
Socialist realism, on the one hand, built a new type of human being and a new
life; and on the other hand it fought for the abolition of the old type of human
being and the old life.
A socialist realist writer and artist should be a philosopher, a politician, a military
person, a history writer, and a life organizer. He is an engineer of the new human
souls, the socialist persons’ souls.142
139 Ibid., p. 16.
140 Ibid., p. 18.
141 Viện Văn Học (1986), Văn học Việt Nam kháng chiến chống Pháp, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội, p.
63.
142 Tố Hữu (1973), op. cit., pp. 50-51.
171
By his new definition, Tố Hữu gathered some of what were seen as the typical
characteristics of socialist realism; for example, it might reflect the real situation and at
the same time predict the progressive general trend of society. When stating “socialist
realism is an art trend of the proletariat striving for the socialist ideal”, it seems that he
indirectly tried to answer the question that was raised and discussed during the debate
at Việt Bắc the previous month: do we not need to live in a socialist society to have a
socialist literature? This was a remarkable change, because in his Theses on Culture
(1943), Trường Chinh had maintained that the new Vietnamese culture that the
Indochinese Communist Party advocated was not yet a socialist culture or a Soviet
culture (for example the culture of the Soviet Union). This new culture is a type of
culture which has nationalism in its form and new-democracy in its content. Trường
Chinh also believed that “the cultural revolution is only completed when the political
revolution succeeds (the cultural revolution must follow the political one). The
methods of reforming culture that we put forward now are merely paving the way for
the future thorough revolution”.143
When stating that socialist realism might have existed before the success of the
socialist revolution, on the one hand Tố Hữu expanded the concept of socialist realism,
and on the other hand recognized that in the socialist literature socialism might be
merely a goal but not a reality. However, such a viewpoint is similar to the view that in
the two functions of reflecting and predicting socialist realistic literature, the latter
would be more important. The fact of emphasizing the function of predicting the
general progressive trend of history is similar to that of stressing the role of political
leaders. We now understand why, when analysing the conditions of success of socialist
realism, Tố Hữu first of all stressed two factors: the first was having a thorough grasp
of dialectical materialism and historical materialism; the second was “having a
thorough grasp of the Party's lines and policies as well as understanding the Party's
attitudes to a fact, a lifestyle and an individual. Only the Party can clearly see the
143 Lại Nguyên Ân and Hữu Nhuận (eds.) (1996), Sưu tập trọn bộ Tiền Phong, Hanoi: Nxb Hội Nhà
Văn, p. 34.
172
content of the reality and its developing law”.144 He required that writers should “be
under the leadership of the Party, which is a Party of wisdom. To accept the Party's
lines means to accept the truth and the inevitably progressive way of humanity.”145
In his report Marxism and Vietnamese Culture, Trường Chinh held that, in
order to have good works of art, “what is essential is to live among the masses of the
people”. It is “to commit oneself wholly to the movement”, “to share the people's joys
and sorrows, to labour and fight with them and to share their faith and hatred”.146 In his
speech “Building a people's art (or a new-democracy art): to make thoughts
revolutionary and activities popular”, delivered in September, 1949, once again, Tố
Hữu repeated the above statement. However, the point that he emphasized had now
changed: he did not concentrate on the people any more but on the roles of Party
leadership. With this change, the concept of socialist realism was restricted more than
ever before: it was now almost totally identified with the artistic creation itself being in
accordance with the Party's policy.
144 Tố Hữu (1973), op. cit., p. 51.
145 Ibid., p. 57.
146 Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995), op. cit., p. 101.
173
CHAPTER FIVE
Maoism and the Culture of War
In a Conference of debate on literature and art held in Việt Bắc in September
1949, on behalf of the cadre who was in charge of arts business, Tố Hữu raised seven
crucial and urgent tasks for Vietnamese writers and artists. The first six tasks were far
from new: they aimed at mobilizing the energies and strengths of the nation, glorifying
the victories of the anti-French resistance, laying bare the enemy’s schemes, and
similar aims. They were what the Vietnamese Communist Party had already been
called upon to do since its establishment in 1930. Only the seventh task, which was
reported in the Văn Nghệ magazine nos. 17 and 18, published in November and
December 1949, was remarkable: “to prepare to make contact with literary and artistic
movements from the new democratic nations, especially China.”1 Twenty-four years
later, when this article was reprinted in the book entitled Xây dựng một nền văn nghệ
lớn xứng đáng với nhân dân ta, với thời đại ta (Building a Great Literature and Art
which are Deserved to our People and our Age) in 1973, the last phrase, “especially
China”, was cut out.2
The disappearance of the phrase “especially China” reveals two things: first, the
relationship between Vietnam and China in the 1970s was no longer as warm as
before; and second, there was an attempt by the Vietnamese government to wipe out all
vestiges of influence from China. This attempt became public in 1979 when the
Vietnam - China war broke out. In Cách mạng kháng chiến và đời sống văn nghệ
1 Văn Nghệ magazine, nos. 17 and 18 (November and December 1949), p. 6.
2 Tố Hữu (1973), Xây dựng một nền văn nghệ lớn xứng đáng với nhân dân ta, với thời đại ta (Building a
Great Literature and Art which are Deserved to our People and our Age), Hanoi: Văn Học, p.
57.
174
(Revolution, Resistance and Arts Life), Hà Xuân Trường, who headed the Party
Committee responsible for art and literature, stated that although Mao Zedong’s
writings, including the Talks at the Yan’an Forum, had been imported into Vietnam,
their impact was not very deep or long-lasting.3
Maoist Influence
Historical accounts demonstrate that Hà Xuân Trường’s statement is not true.
From 1949 onwards, particularly after Hồ Chí Minh’s trip to China in early 1950, as
several historians have already remarked, “a crash campaign was launched to study the
Chinese revolutionary experience, and 200,000 copies of some forty-three Communist
Party books and articles were translated and printed.”4 In his Following Hồ Chí Minh,
the Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel, Bùi Tín reminisces:
The situation started to change towards the end of 1950 after we forced the French
to abandon their garrisons along the northern border, and the Resistance of the
Vietnamese people was able to link up with the People’s Republic of China which
was founded in October 1949. The ever-increasing amount of military and civilian
aid from China enabled the Viet Minh to strengthen its position. But it became
more complex and tension grew. Many people left the Resistance and returned to
the French-occupied zone as large numbers of Chinese advisers arrived and were
attached to every unit at all levels. The friendly, even cosy atmosphere which had
previously existed disappeared with talk of orthodox class warfare. Marxism had
come to Vietnam via Maoism.
[…]
The wind from the north first engulfed the Viet Bac region and then all the other
liberated zones. Chinese books, films, and songs were everywhere and all of us in
the Resistance regarded them as first-class works. […] At the same time, a
3 Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995), Cách mạng kháng chiến và đời sống văn học, 1945-54,
Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội, p. 213.
4 Zachary Abuza (2001), Renovating Politics in Contemporary Vietnam, Boulder: Lynne Rienner
Publishers, p. 42.
175
campaign got under way to encourage the reading and speaking of Chinese while
a constant stream of cadres was sent north to study in Peking, Shanghai, Nanking,
Nanning and Canton. For instance, Peking University threw open its doors to
hundreds of Vietnamese students. China was the immense rear area for the
Vietnamese Revolution. It was a tremendous advantage but we had to pay very
dearly for it. Having just escaped from the long night of being slaves to the
French, we were dazzled by the new light of the Chinese Revolution which was
acclaimed as our role-model. We accepted everything impetuously and
haphazardly without any thought, let alone criticism.5
According to Kim N. B. Ninh, “[n]owhere was Chinese influence more evident
than in the use of the rectification technique.”6 This technique was introduced into the
educational system as early as 1950, and into the literary circle in the winter of 1951.
Tô Hoài’s recollection of his first rectification session provides some details:
Waking up in the middle of the night, in the middle of the jungle hundreds of
torches were lit, slogan bands of black cloth with white words glittering: Disclose
weakness… Measure loyalty… Gut-wrenching cold weather. Ink-dark jungle
night. Filthy human beings, full of sins. Not enough. Not enough sincerity. Do it
over. Do it over again. Each time doing it over, uneasiness and worry mounted.
The wait to be cleared by the group remained long. Confessing to being
degenerate [e.g., sleeping with someone to whom one is not married] was easiest,
even if it were not true. Pounded the chest to say yes.7
After the Geneva Agreements, China’s influence in North Vietnam was even
growing. More and more books were imported into Vietnam, many of them were
translated into Vietnamese. Most of the Vietnamese who were sent abroad for
education went to China.8 More importantly, Maoist influence can be seen in the
5 Bui Tin (1995), Following Hồ Chí Minh, Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel, translated from the
Vietnamese by Judy Stowe and Do Van, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, pp. 14-5.
6 Kim N.B. Ninh (2002), A World Transformed, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, p. 112.
7 Quoted in Kim N.B. Ninh (2002), ibid., p. 113.
8 Ilya V. Gaiduk (2003), Confronting Vietnam, Soviet Policy toward the Indochina Conflict, 1954-1963,
Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, pp. 108-9.
176
thoughts of the top leaders of the Vietnamese Communist Party. The three principles,
nationalization, popularization and scientific orientation, prescribed by the Theses of
Culture9 drafted by Trường Chinh and cleared by Hồ Chí Minh,10 were clearly replicas
of Mao Zedong’s thoughts on China’s new democratic culture which would be “a
national, scientific and mass culture.”11 In 1947, Trường Chinh published a book
entitled Kháng chiến nhất định thắng lợi (The Resistance Will Win), which not only
set forth a three-stage evolution of the war but, as Vietnamese critics eulogize, also
became one of the basic documents of literary and cultural theory in the French War
period.12 However, according to Melvin Gurtov, this book was Maoist “to the point of
being plagiarized.”13 Hồ Chí Minh was also an admirer of Mao Zedong. In the second
Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party held in February 1951, Hồ Chí Minh
announced that the Vietnamese Communist Party rested ultimately upon the
foundations of Marxism-Leninism and it took Mao Zedong’s thoughts as its lodestar.
At that moment, one of the representatives from the South, Mr. Nguyễn Văn Trấn,
suggested: “Why don’t we write: Mao Zedong’s and Hồ Chí Minh’s thoughts?” but Hồ
Chí Minh refused: “No, I don’t have any thoughts but Marxism-Leninism.”14 Also at
that Congress, Hồ Chí Minh declared: “Anyone can make mistakes with the exception
of Comrade Stalin and Comrade Mao Zedong.”15 At another time, when being asked
why he did not write anything about the theory of communism, Hồ Chí Minh answered
9 The text of this work was reprinted in Nguyễn Phúc et al. (eds.) (1985), Một chặng đường văn hoá
(Hồi ức và tư liệu về việc tiếp nhận Ðề cương văn hoá (1943) của Ðảng), Hanoi: Nxb Tác
Phẩm Mới, pp. 15-20.
10 David G. Marr (1981), Vietnamese tradition on Trial 1920-1945, Berkeley: University of California
Press, p. 363.
11 Mao Zedong (1967), On New Democracy, Peking: Foreign Languages Press, p. 60.
12 Viện Văn Học (1986), Văn học Việt Nam kháng chiến chống Pháp, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội, p.
42.
13 Melvin Gurtov (1967), The First Indochina War: Chinese Communist Strategy and the United States,
New York: Columbia University Press, p. 16.
14 Nguyễn Văn Trấn (1995), Viết cho Mẹ và Quốc Hội, California: Văn Nghệ, pp. 150-152.
15 Olivier Todd, “Huyền thoại Hồ Chí Minh”, (translated from the French by Nguyễn Văn), in Hồ Chí
Minh, Sự Thật về Thân Thế và Sự Nghiệp, published by Nam Á, 1990, p. 276.
177
sincerely that he did not need to write because everything had already been written by
Mao Zedong.16
Hồ Chí Minh’s admiration for and allegiance to Mao Zedong was quite
understandable. Recently, several scholars, eager to see Vietnam on “its own terms”,
have demonstrated that, socially, Chinese influence over the centuries was deeper
among the literati than among the peasantry; geographically it tended to wane with
distance from the Red River delta; and chronologically it was particularly strong only
during certain periods, the fifteenth, late seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.17
However, no one can deny the Chinese influence on Vietnam, a country dominated by
China for over one thousand years, from 111 B.C. to 938 A.D. When Vietnam
overthrew Chinese rule and restored her independence, the cultural influence of China
continued, particularly at the official level, where the rulers of the new Vietnamese
state looked at Chinese ideology and administrative organization as their models.18 It
may be said that politically, militarily and culturally, China was for Vietnam both an
aggressor and a teacher. Vietnamese learned from China's administration, education,
philosophy, literature, the arts and even written language, while at the same time,
continuously struggled against all of China’s schemes of assimilation in attempting to
protect her national identity and cultural uniqueness.
From the mid-nineteenth century, when Vietnam was invaded and dominated
by France, Vietnamese Confucians sought intellectual guidance from the leaders of the
Chinese reform movement such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, whose writings
were regarded as a source of ideas about Western civilization which, in the Vietnamese
scholars' view, would be useful in the process of Vietnam's modernization.19 In 1902,
when Phan Bội Châu (1867-1940), one of the most prominent leaders of the early
16 Ibid., p. 277.
17 Victor Lieberman (2003), Strange Parallels, Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800-1830, vol. 1:
Integration on the Mainland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 340.
18 King C. Chen (1969), Vietnam and China, 1938-1954, Princeton (N.Y.): Princeton University Press.
19 See David G. Marr (1971), Vietnamese Anticolonialism 1885-1925, Berkeley: University of California
178
twentieth century Vietnam, went to China, there began a new revolutionary period
when China became an important base for the Vietnamese nationalist movement.
Several Vietnamese revolutionary organizations were established in China such as the
League for the Restoration of Vietnam (Việt Nam Phục Quốc Đồng Minh Hội) in 1912
and the Heart to Heart Association (Tâm Tâm Xã) in 1923, among others.20
From 1924, when Hồ Chí Minh, under the alias Lý Thuỵ, went to Canton from
Moscow as a Chinese translator at the Soviet consulate, China became a place where
Hồ Chí Minh gathered and trained revolutionary cadres with whom he founded the
Indo-Chinese Communist Party in 1930.21 Being educated in China, those people who
later became the major leaders of the Vietnamese communist revolution were strongly
influenced by their Chinese comrades. Following the Chinese model, Vietnamese
communists led the hungry peasants to revolt and to set up the Nghệ An Soviet, which
was suppressed immediately by the French army.22 It should be noted that “Trường
Chinh”, the pseudonym of Ðặng Xuân Khu, who served as Secretary General of the
Vietnamese Communist Party from 1941 to 1956, literally means “Long March”; he
borrowed from the name of a well-known military campaign led by Mao Zedong in
1934 and 1935. According to Tô Hoài, Trường Chinh told him and some other writers
that in the early 1930s he had learned the vernacular Chinese from Hoàng Văn Thụ and
could read Mao Zedong’s writings on the “new culture” in the original Chinese.23
However, before 1949, in order to win over the Western countries, including the
United States of America, and to unite the whole country to resist the French invasion,
the Vietnamese communists had to adopt the camouflage of a nationalist movement.24
20 Ibid.
21 For further details, see Ellen J. Hammer (1955), The Struggle for Indochina 1940-1955, Stanford:
Stanford University Press, pp. 79-82; Ken Post (1989), Revolution, Socialism and Nationalism
in Vietnam, vol. 1, Hants (England): Dartmouth, pp. 21-79; William J. Duiker (1996), The
Communist Road to Power in Vietnam, second edition, Boulder: Westview Press, pp. 17-8.
22 Stein Tonnesson (1991), The Vietnamese Revolution of 1945, London: Sage Publications, pp. 100-1;
and William J. Duiker (1996), op. cit., pp. 33-45.
23 Tô Hoài (1997), Hồi ký, Hanoi: Nxb Hội Nhà Văn, p. 373.
24 Robert D. Schulzinger (1997), A Time for War, the United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975, Oxford:
179
They pretended to transform the Communist Party into the Marxist Studies Association
and to hide their close relationship with the Chinese communists.25 This may be one of
the real reasons why in The Marxism and Vietnamese Culture (1948), Trường Chinh
did not refer to Mao Zedong’s talks on literature and art at Yan’an although he made
many of the same points as did the Chinese communist leader.
Maoism began to be imported massively into Vietnam in late 1949, when Mao
Zedong took power in China. His Talks on Literature and Art at Yan’an Forum was
translated into Vietnamese and published in Vietnam in 1949. This book was reprinted
in the same year.26 Furthermore, it was used as a textbook in several political
workshops and classes organized by the Vietnamese Communists. In a memoir
published in Cách mạng kháng chiến và đời sống văn nghệ, Nguyễn Thành Long
wrote: “I read the Talks on Literature and Art at Yan’an Forum and I still remember a
sentence which left a long-lasting impression on me: ‘Intellectuals are shits’. We had to
believe that and we had to deny ourselves.”27
Apart from Mao Zedong’s Talks on Literature and Art at Yan’an Forum, many
works of Chou Yang, the powerful cultural chief of the Chinese Communist Party,
were also translated and widely quoted on all cultural matters. These works include:
Văn nghệ nhân dân mới (The People’s New Literature and Art) in 1950; Phấn đấu để
sáng tạo những tác phẩm văn học nghệ thuật càng nhiều càng hay hơn (Strive to
Create More and Better Works of Literature and Art) in 1951; and in Kim N. B. Ninh’s
account: “In 1952, his recent speech to the Institute of Literary Research in Beijing,
which elaborated Mao Zedong’s directives on art and literature, was translated and
Oxford University Press, p. 29.
25 Ellen J. Hammer (1955), op. cit., p. 141.
26 Vương Trí Nhàn, “Những vốn quý không nên để phí phạm”, Tạp chí Văn Học (Hanoi), no. 1 (1997),
p. 64.
27 Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995), op.cit., p.527.
180
given a prominent position in two issues of the journal Văn Nghệ, the organ of the
Vietnamese creative community.”28
It can be said that Vietnamese literature in the period between 1949 and 1954
was mainly shaped by Mao Zedong’s Talks on Literature and Art at Yan’an Forum.
The Yan’an Forum on art and literature in May 1942 was widely regarded as “a
landmark in the history of Chinese Communist cultural policy,”29 where Mao Zedong
made two significant speeches. In the “Opening Remarks”, he emphasized the basic
tenets of socialist realism: in the struggle against Japanese aggressors and Chinese
nationalists, there were various fronts, among them the military and cultural fronts. In
the latter, literature took an important part. What Mao Zedong wanted was to ensure
that literature fitted well into the whole political machine of the Communist Party. In
so doing, he set out several issues for discussion: the problems of the class stand of the
writers, their attitudes, their audience, their work and their study. To these issues, Mao
Zedong’s points of view were very firm and clear. The stand of writers had to be that
of the proletariat and of the masses, and for those writers who were members of the
Communist Party, “this means keeping to the stand of the Party, keeping to Party spirit
and Party policy”.30 It seems that Mao Zedong regarded this view as a truth too
obvious to need further explanation or analysis. Using this class stand as a dogma, he
formulated the communist writers’ attitude towards different kinds of persons: with
regard to the enemy, the writers’ tasks were to expose their duplicity and cruelty, and
at the same time to point out the inevitability of their defeat; with regard to the allies,
the writers’ tasks were to support their resistance against the common enemy, to
criticize their impassiveness, and to oppose their reaction; with regard to the people,
the writers’ tasks were to depict and praise their labour and the struggle to help them to
make progress, and more importantly, as Mao Zedong insisted, “[a]s long as they do
28 Kim N.B. Ninh (2002), op. cit., p. 112.
29 Cyril Birch, “The Particle of Art” in Cyril Birch (ed.) (1963), Chinese Communist Literature, New
York: Frederick A. Praeger, pp. 21-2.
30 Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Zedong, published by the Foreign Languages Press in
Peking in 1967, p. 205.
181
not persist in their errors, we should not dwell on their negative side and consequently
make the mistake of ridiculing them or, worse still, of being hostile to them.”31
The original theory of socialist realism, which was formulated in the Soviet
Union in 1934, consisted of three basic ingredients: popular-mindedness, classmindedness,
and party-mindedness. Of these, it is clear that party-mindedness is the
most important. In the article “Party Organization and Party Literature”, published
nearly three decades prior to the promulgation of socialist realism as a literary theory,
Lenin stated that “literature must become part of the common cause of the proletariat,
‘a cog and screw’ of one single great Social-Democratic mechanism set in motion by
the entire politically-conscious vanguard of the entire working class. Literature must
become a component of organized, planned and integrated Social-Democratic Party
work.”32 Although, as T.A. Hsia commented, “Mao could not claim any originality for
his theory”,33 his emphasis was obviously different from that of his Russian comrades.
In both opening and concluding speeches, after several brief mentions of classmindedness
and party-mindedness, Mao spoke at length about the relationship between
the writers and their audience. In his “Opening Remarks”, he announced:
If our writers and artists who come from the intelligentsia want their works to be
well received by the masses, they must change and remould their thinking and
their feelings. Without such a change, without such remoulding, they can do
nothing well and will be misfits.34
In his lengthy “Concluding Remarks” given on May 23, 1942, Mao Zedong
continued to delve into the issue of the relationship between the writers and their
audience by raising the question: literature and art for whom? For Mao Zedong, this
question of “for whom” was a fundamental question of principle. However, he believed
that its answer was already given by Lenin in 1905 when he pointed out that
31 Ibid., p. 206.
32 Lenin (1967), On Literature and Art, Moscow: Progress Publishers, pp. 25-6.
33 T.A. Hsia, “Twenty Years after the Yan’an Forum”, in Cyril Birch (ed.) (1963), op. cit., p. 246.
34 Selected Readings From the Works of Mao Zedong, op. cit., p. 208.
182
revolutionary literature aimed at serving “the millions and tens of millions of working
people”, and therefore needed no further discussion. Mao Zedong only categorized the
so-called “working people”.35 For him, “working people” consisted of four kinds: first,
the workers who led the revolution; second, the peasants, who were the most numerous
and most steadfast of the workers’ allies; third, the soldiers, who were the main forces
of the revolutionary war; and fourth, the urban petty bourgeois and the petty-bourgeois
intellectuals.36 He emphasized that to serve these four kinds of people, writers “must
take the class stand of the proletariat and not that of the petty-bourgeoisie.”37
Unfortunately, in Mao’s view, many Chinese writers in the 1940s who were middleclass
intellectuals clung to an individualist and petty bourgeois stand, and as a result,
could not truly serve the masses of revolutionary workers, peasants and soldiers. But, if
writers did not serve the masses well, their works could not be regarded as good,
because, as Mao declared, “a thing is good only when it brings real benefit to the
masses of the people.”38 In order to serve the masses well, writers had to learn from
the masses, concentrate on their lives, typify their contradictions and their struggles,
and equally, popularise the works of literature so that the masses could understand and
appreciate them. Mao advised writers and artists to pay attention to “the wall
newspapers of the masses and to the reportage written in the army and the villagers.”39
Furthermore, he insisted:
China’s revolutionary writers and artists, writers and artists of promise, must go
among the masses; they must for a long period of time unreservedly and wholeheartedly
go among the masses of workers, peasants and soldiers, go into the heat
of the struggle, go to the only source, the broadest and richest source, in order to
observe, experience, study and analyse all the different kinds of people, all the
classes, all the masses, all the vivid patterns of life and struggle, all the raw
35 Ibid., p. 210.
36 Ibid., p. 212.
37 Ibid.
38 Ibid., p. 220.
39 Ibid., p. 219.
183
materials of literature and art. Only then can they proceed to creative work.40
A few days after the Yan’an Forum where Mao Zedong gave an opening and a
closing address, the Central Political Institute held a series of meetings in which those
writers who had been critical of the Communist Party’s policies, such as Ding Ling,
Xiao Jun and Ai Qing, were required to make self-criticism, and Wang Shiwei was
confined for five years, and after that was executed.41 The method of criticism and selfcriticism
was widely used in the literary circle for remoulding the ideological outlook
of wavering writers and artists. In respect to literary creation, according to Lu Ting-yi,
Mao’s speeches resulted almost immediately in the appearance of novels in the
traditional style of story-telling and poetry in imitation of the folk-song rhythm and
idiom.42
One year after the Yan’an Forum, the edited version of Mao’s speeches was
published.43 It became not only the official policy of the Chinese Communist Party but
also the theoretical foundation of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s literary policy for
several decades.
Mao Zedong captured power in mainland China in 1949, the same year that the
Vietnamese Communist Party organized a long conference of debate on literature and
art in Việt Bắc, a minimized replica of China’s Yan’an Forum.44 Tố Hữu gave the
opening speech, entitled “Building a People’s Literature and Art”.45 Differently from
40 Ibid., pp. 216-17.
41 Bonne S. McDougall and Kam Louie (1997), The Literature of China in the Twentieth Century,
London: Hurst and Company, p. 196.
42 Quoted in T.A. Hsia, op. cit., p. 237.
43 According to T.A. Hsia, “In LD November 15, 1942, p. 4, Chiang Pu quoted Mao as having
complained at the Forum about the writers ‘having neither life, nor Marxism-Leninism’. This
phrase is not found in the published texts.” (T.A. Hsia, op.cit., p. 246.) The sentence that
Vietnamese communist writer Nguyen Thanh Long recalled, which I quoted in the earlier part
of this chapter, could not be found in any English version of Mao’s speeches.
44 A full report of this conference of debate can be found in Văn Nghệ magazine, nos. 17 and 18
(November and December 1949).
45 Printed in ibid, pp. 103-114, reprinted in Tố Hữu (1973), Xây dựng một nền văn nghệ lớn xứng đáng
184
the Soviet socialist realism, which was described as “national in form, socialist in
content”,46 the Vietnamese people’s literature and art, like those in China, because of
their being in the process of struggling for national liberation, were defined as
“national in form, and new democratic in content”. However, instead of analysing the
concepts of “national in form” and “new democratic in content”, Tố Hữu concentrated
on the three basic principles of the people’s literature and art: to be national, to be
popular and to be scientific. These were also principles of the new culture put forward
by Trường Chinh, the then Secretary General of the Vietnamese Communist Party, in
his Theses on Culture in 1943. Based on these principles, Tố Hữu declared that
Vietnamese literature and art had three main shortcomings: they were backward,
unbalanced and poor. They were poor because several traditional genres of arts were
not well brought into play and several new artistic techniques were not applied with
sophistication. Their development was unbalanced: while the literary and artistic
activities of soldiers flourished, those of workers and farmers had withered. They were
backward because their contents did not reflect the reality of national liberation,
whereas their forms were too complex and too difficult to understand. In order to
overcome these three shortcomings, Tố Hữu put forward two policies. First, the
creative capacity of the common people had to be fully exploited. According to Tố
Hữu, in the anti-French resistance there were more and more people who wanted to
express themselves and who believed that they could create if they were taught how to
write and/or how to paint, etc. In his view, these people needed to be trained and to be
supported to become writers and artists. Second, professional writers and artists had to
do their best to create popular works which could be understood and appreciated by the
masses. Echoing Mao Zedong’s speech at Yan’an, Tố Hữu announced that
In our opinion, works of art and literature which become popular and those which
have a good effect on the masses, are those which first of all have a close
association with the fate of the masses, which rise and correctly solve the urgent
problems of the masses, which are linked with their happiness and unhappiness,
hatred and dreams, and which have a form suited to the level of the masses.
với nhân dân ta, với thời đại ta, Hà Nội: Văn Học, pp. 22-39.
46 C. Vaughan James (1973), Soviet Socialist Realism, Origins and Theory, London: Macmillan, p. 97.
185
A work which is even sophisticatedly written but backward and fantastic in its
content is certainly not appreciated by the masses.
Therefore, if the author lives distantly from the masses, does not understand the
daily activities of the masses, ignores their psychology, their language, and their
habits, and does not have a deep and sincere sense of responsibility for the
masses, how can he/she represent their lives? No author can produce popular
works without a popularised life.47
From these two policies, the Vietnamese Communist Party set forth the
strategic slogan “revolutionalize the thoughts and popularize the way of living”. To
“revolutionalize the thoughts”, writers and artists had to struggle against idealism and
individualism, and also to learn dialectic materialism and be willing to serve the nation.
To “popularize the way of living”, they had to live with and work with the masses in
order to understand them and empathize with them. Under this slogan, several
rectification campaigns were held, in which all writers and artists were required to
attend political classes where they learned Marxism - Leninism and the Party’s
policies, and more importantly, to make self-criticism publicly. Anh Thơ, a female
poet, confessed that in the early years of the resistance, she thought that a revolutionary
had to be more beautiful than others, so she used powder and perfume, but these habits
resulted in avoidance by her friends; later, drawing on this experience, she wore dyed
brown clothes, and her friends loved her again. Similarly, she once thought that
literature had to be mannered and complex; later she learned from her practical works
that the masses only loved simple and easy stories and poems, so she attempted to
change her style.48 Nguyễn Tuân, the secretary general of the Vietnamese Association
of Writers and Artists, claimed to abandon his three earlier works: Vang bóng một thời
(Echoes of the Past), Nguyễn (Mr. Nguyen) and Thiếu quê hương (Lack a Country),
which had been published prior to the 1945 Revolution, when he had been a writer of
the petit-bourgeois and feudalism.49 He also vowed that he would try to write novels
47 Tố Hữu (1973), op. cit., pp. 31-2.
48 Văn Nghệ magazine, the debate issue, nos. 17 and 18 (November and December, 1949), pp. 12-13.
49 Phong Lê (1972), Mấy vấn đề văn xuôi Việt Nam, 1945-1970, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội, p. 45.
186
instead of literary essays, his favourite genre, because he believed that novels could
represent reality more objectively.50 Like Nguyễn Tuân, Trần Đăng, a young writer,
longed to write completely objective works which truthfully mirrored life. Nguyên
Hồng, who was widely regarded by Vietnamese critics as the Maxim Gorky of
Vietnam, admitted that although he participated in the anti-French war for a long time,
he could not produce any significant work. The reason, in his view, was that he had not
yet felt a strong attachment to the resistance movement, his enthusiasm and sincerity
were still weak, and as a result, what he needed to do first was to re-educate himself.51
Along with rectification campaigns, writers and artists were encouraged to join
the army. When the anti-French resistance broke out in December 1946, several writers
and artists enlisted, individually and voluntarily, such as Mai Văn Hiến, Thâm Tâm,
Văn Chung, Nguyễn Công Hoan, and Nguyễn Đình Lạp. From early 1949, the
enlistment of writers and artists became a policy: they were required to join the army in
order to enrich their experience, enhance their view, and consolidate their political
standpoint. The enlistment of poets and artists like Tố Hữu, Thế Lữ, Nguyễn Xuân
Khoát, Thanh Tịnh and Phạm Văn Khoa was celebrated solemnly and reported in the
newspapers.52 In October 1949, more than thirty well-known writers and artists,
including Phan Khôi, Nguyễn Tuân, Nguyên Hồng, Kim Lân, Nguyễn Đình Thi, Trần
Đăng, Nguyễn Đỗ Cung, Tô Ngọc Vân, and Văn Cao, participated in the autumn -
winter military campaign,53 in which Trần Đăng was killed by the French more than
two months later.
In respect to creative activities, one of the deepest influences of Mao Zedong’s
thought was the domination of popular-mindedness. For a thousand years, Vietnamese
literature had been neither elitist nor popular. Regarding the Chinese literature as an
eternal, and even sacred, model, most Vietnamese writers were quite humble: they
50 Văn Nghệ magazine, the debate issue, op. cit., pp. 26-7.
51 Phong Lê (1972), op. cit., pp. 45-46.
52 Văn Nghệ magazine, nos. 12 and 12 (April and May 1949), pp. 58-61.
53 Văn Nghệ magazine, nos. 18-19 (November and December 1949), pp. 132-135.
187
wrote like students who tried to copy their great masters.54 The use of clichés was
considered evidence of erudition. However, their writings were far from popular,
because they were written either in Chinese script or in Nôm, a special script to
transcribe the Vietnamese language. Both writing systems were used by an
insignificant minority of the people. As a result, prior to the twentieth century,
Vietnamese literature was divided into two distinctive parts, folk literature, which was
based on oral tradition, and written literature, which was also called scholarly literature
(văn chương bác học). These names revealed that, for Vietnamese people, “written”
was a synonym for “scholarly”, and written literature was in some ways a privilege of a
small circle of learned people. From the late nineteenth century, as a French colonialist
policy, the quốc ngữ, a Romanised script, gradually replaced the Nôm script as the
official writing system of the Vietnamese language. Associated with this, a literature in
quốc ngữ was born and, thanks to the development of modern printing technology,
quickly became the dominant, and then, from the 1930s, the only trend of literature in
Vietnam.55 Interestingly, in its process of establishment, the literature in quốc ngữ had
little to inherit from that in Chinese script because of the difference in language. It also
had little to inherit from that in Nôm, because firstly, Nôm consisted of too many
loanwords, particularly from the Chinese, and secondly, the language of Nôm was
mainly that of poetry: before the twentieth century, no artistic prose was ever written in
Nôm. In building the literature in quốc ngữ, Vietnamese writers understood clearly that
in order to modernize Vietnamese literature, they had to concentrate on writing novels,
short stories, scholarly researches, and journalistic reportages in prose. The only
heritage that they could directly inherit for this task was the folk literature, especially
folk tales, from legends to anecdotes and funny stories. Not surprisingly, collections of
folk tales were among of the first works published in quốc ngữ in the late nineteenth
century.56
54 Trần Ðình Hượu (1998), Nho giáo và văn học Việt Nam trung cận đại, Hanoi: Nxb Giáo Dục, p. 423.
55 See Hoàng Ngọc Thành, “Quốc ngữ and the development of modern Vietnamese literature”, in Walter
F. Vella (ed.) (1973), Aspects of Vietnamese History, Honolulu: The University Press of
Hawaii, pp. 191-236.
56 For example, Trương Vĩnh Ký (1837-1898) published Chuyện Đời Xưa (Old Stories) (1886) and
188
It can be said that, with the introduction of literature in quốc ngữ, the trend of
scholarly literature and that of folk literature were amalgamated. It can also be argued
that, through this amalgamation, the “mass style” became one of the elements, which
constituted the canon of modern Vietnamese literature.57 However, in an attempt at
professionalization, Vietnamese writers, starting with the Đông Dương Magazine in
1913, and in particular the Nam Phong Magazine in 1917, advocated a polished style
which limited the use of colloquialism and was complicated in its syntactical structure.
In the period when only about ten percent of the population was literate,58 literary
readers were mostly middle-rank officials, teachers and students, those belonging to
the urbanized petit-bourgeois class. In the early 1940s, however, under Mao Zedong’s
spell, the masses came back, and this time became a dominant element in the literary
world.
The masses were seen first of all as a creative source, and in Mao Zedong’s
words, “the only source”, and “a mine of the raw materials for literature and art”,59
where writers and artists could learn about the variety and complexity of life and, more
particularly, refresh their language. In the opening speech at the Yan’an Conference,
Mao Zedong remarked that “[s]ince many writers and artists stand aloof from the
masses and lead empty lives, naturally they are unfamiliar with the language of the
people. Accordingly, their works are not only insipid in language but often contain
nondescript expressions of their own coining which run counter to popular usage.”60 In
Vietnam, Hồ Chí Minh advised journalists and writers that they had to learn the way
the masses spoke.61 Trường Chinh reminded writers that they should not be afraid of
Chuyện Khôi Hài (Funny Stories) (1882); Huỳnh Tịnh Của (1834-1897) published Chuyện Giải
Buồn (Funny Stories) (1886).
57 Nguyễn Hưng Quốc, “Tính đại chúng: kẻ thù của văn chương”, Văn Học (California), no. 211
(November 2003), pp. 33-46.
58 David G. Marr (1981), Vietnamese Tradition on Trial 1920-45, Berkeley: University of California
Press, p. 34.
59 Selected Readings From the Works of Mao Zedong, op. cit., p. 216.
60 Ibid., p. 207.
61 Hồ Chí Minh, et al. (1976), Về văn hoá văn nghệ, Hà Nội: Văn Hoá Publishers, pp. 63 and 72.
189
using the people’s common words, and never write anything which the masses
misunderstood or understood vaguely.62 Over the following decades, Vietnamese
writers were always taught that only the language of the masses was rich, various,
lively and creative. Nam Cao wrote in his diary of March 2,1948:
Every evening, the Tho villagers from the other huts came to ours to have a chat
or to read newspapers. I have more opportunity to understand better their
knowledge, their way of speaking and way of living, and their worries and wishes.
Thanks to that, I correct my style and find subject matters for writing.63
In a poetry competition organized by the Institute of Resistance Culture in
1948, the winning poems were praised thus: “How wonderful they are! This is exactly
what the masses have often talked of!”64 Tế Hanh recollected that during the anti-
French war, he did not write poems, he just wrote doggerel verses which were loudly
recited in public in order to promote a political campaign, and which made him feel
shameful every time he reread them.65 Tế Hanh’s colleague, Nguyễn Thành Long,
recalled that at that time he and several fellow poets, tried to imitate Tế Hanh in
writing poems which could be sung like folk songs.66
It is not difficult to understand why the Chinese and Vietnamese communists
emphasized the task of learning the masses’ language more than their comrades in
Russia and Eastern European countries. The first reason is certainly the people’s
cultural standard: in the mid-twentieth century, in both China and Vietnam, the
percentage of illiterate population was very high.67 Secondly, in both countries, the
62 Trường Chinh (1985), Về văn hoá và nghệ thuật, Hà Nội: Văn Học Publishers, pp. 50-51.
63 Nam Cao (1983), Chi Pheo and other Stories, Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, p. 173.
64 Đoàn Giỏi, “Một ít kỷ niệm về hoạt động của chi bộ văn nghệ Nam Bộ”, in Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh
Thơ (eds.) (1995), op. cit., p. 618.
65 In Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995), op. cit. , p. 505.
66 Ibid., p. 532.
67 According to David G. Marr (1981), in his Vietnamese Tradition on Trial 1920-45, published by the
University of California, Berkeley, at the end of the 1930s, about 10 percent of Vietnamese
population was literate; one decade earlier, this number was only about 5 percent (p. 34).
190
traditional literatures were written in a language other than those used in the everyday
lives of the masses: in China, until the May Fourth Movement in 1919, literary works
were mostly written in the Han classical language (“wenyan” in Chinese), but not in
the contemporary vernacular (“baihua” in Chinese),68 whilst in Vietnam, they were
mainly written in Chinese characters.69 In this context, the policy of attaching the
utmost importance to the language of the masses was an attempt to modernize their
own literature. This effort of modernization had begun even before the establishment
of the Communist Party: in 1917, Hu Shi (1891-1962), then a Ph.D. student at
Columbia University, under the influence of Ezra Pound’s “A Few Don’ts”, which
constituted the most deliberate statement of Imagist theory, put forward an eight-point
programme for a reform of Chinese literature. Of these, the last four points were: Don’t
use clichés and worn-out phrases; don’t use classical allusions; don’t write in
parallelism; and don’t avoid colloquial words and phrases.70
In spite of a long history of a close relationship between China and Vietnam,
Hu Shi’s reform programme and the May Fourth Movement in general had no direct
and immediate impact in Vietnam. According to Trương Chính, the most important
reason for this was the French colonial government’s policy of prohibiting books and
magazines from China in order to prevent the impact of Chinese revolutionary
movements.71 Another important reason that should be added is that, in the early
twentieth century, the main concern of old generation intellectuals in Vietnam, who
were familiar with the Chinese culture and who looked for a new “enlightenment”
from Chinese writers, was political rather than literary; whereas that of the new
generation intellectuals, who were trained in the French education system, was the
language in general rather than the literary language in particular: for them, the crucial
68 Wilt Idema and Lloyd Haft (1997), A Guide to Chinese Literature, Ann Arbor: Centre for Chinese
Studies, the University of Michigan, pp. 6-8.
69 See, for example, Nguyễn Ðình Hoà (1994), Vietnamese Literature, a Brief Survey, San Diego: San
Diego State University.
70 Wong Yoon Wah (1988), Essays on Chinese Literature: A Comparative Approach, Singapore:
Singapore University Press, p. 39.
71 Trương Chính (1997), Tuyển Tập, vol. 1, Hà Nội: Văn Học, p. 181.
191
decision that Vietnamese people should make was to develop with determination the
quốc ngữ, a new writing system for the Vietnamese language.72 The problem of literary
language only arose in the early 1930s when the Tự Lực Group considered the use of
popular words as the motto of their writing.73
The Viet Minh government, especially in the South, in the late 1940s and early
1950s, pushed this tendency to its extreme by stating that writers and artists had to
follow not only colloquialism but also the popular genres of the people. Free verse was
completely forbidden.74 The two of favourite forms of poetry were “lục bát” (six-eight)
and “song thất lục bát” (seven-seven-six-eight).75 These are the only indigenous forms
of traditional poetry in Vietnam. In its basic unit, the “lục bát” form was structured by
two lines: the first consists of six syllables, and the second consists of eight; the last
syllable of the first will rhyme with the sixth syllable of the latter. A poem in “lục bát”
can be constituted by one or more basic units. The “song thất lục bát” originated from
the “lục bát”. While the basic unit of “lục bát” is two lines, of six and eight syllables,
the basic unit of “song thất lục bát” is four lines, with seven syllables for the first two
lines, six for the third and eight for the last. A poem in “song thất lục bát” can be
constituted by one or more such basic units. These two poetic forms were popular first
in folk literature and then in written literature. Their forte lies in story-telling.76 Most of
the famous narrative poems in Vietnam, including the Tale of Kieu by Nguyễn Du
(1766-1820), were written in “lục bát” and to a lesser degree, in “song that lục bát”. In
giving prominence to the “lục bát” and “song thất lục bát” forms, the Viet Minh
72 See David G. Marr, “The Vietnamese Language Revolution”, in Wang Gungwu, M. Guerrero and
David Marr (eds.) (1981), Society and the Writer: Essays on Literature in Modern Asia,
Canberra: The Australian National University, pp. 21-33.
73 Phong Hoá, no. 87 (2 March 1934), quoted in Nhật Thịnh (n.d.), Chân dung Nhất Linh, California:
Ðại Nam, p. 131.
74 Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995), op. cit., p. 622.
75 Ibid.
76 Recent research on the poetic forms of “lục bát” and “song thất lục bát” can be found in Phan Diễm
Hương (1998), Lục bát và song thất lục bát (lịch sử phát triển, đặc trưng thể loại), Hanoi: Nxb
Khoa Học Xã Hội.
192
government also encouraged the writing of narrative poems so that people could sing
them and learn them by heart.
The Viet Minh government in the South preferred narrative poems to stories in
prose because, in the war conditions, poems would be easier than prose to remember,
and easier to disseminate among the public. In respect to stories in prose, novelists
were required to write them short. It was taught that readers only needed to have a
thorough grasp of the plot, rather than a description of the setting or an analysis of the
characters’ mood. Highly artistic devices of language were regarded as unnecessary.
Each story had to have a happy ending, in which good triumphed over evil.77 Through
this policy, Vietnamese literature retrogressed to the period of oral culture.
In both his opening and closing speeches at the Yan’an Forum, Mao Zedong
regarded the masses as the people whom writers and artists had to serve, and as “an
inexhaustible source” from which writers and artists could observe, experience, study
and analyse in order to proceed to their creative works. In respect to literary criticism,
he claimed that political criteria were more crucial than artistic criteria;78 and according
to the political criteria, “everything is good that is helpful to unity and resistance to
Japan, that encourages the masses to be of one heart and one mind, that opposes
retrogression and promotes progress.”79 The Vietnamese communists went further by
claiming that the masses were the real and most important critics of literature and arts.
In his Marxism and Vietnamese Culture, Trường Chinh wrote:
To be a good finished product, a work of art must be born of the movement and
the masses and return to where it originates. If one does not live with the army or
is not a member of an army unit, one cannot write a play about the army. Even a
play written by someone in the army itself still has to be performed before the
army and the people, and be touched up on the basis of criticism from various
army units and the people in order to ensure its artistic worth. The masses are the
77 Ibid., p. 623.
78 Selected Readings From the Works of Mao Zedong, op. cit., p. 221-2.
79 Ibid., p. 223.
193
most impartial and perspicacious judge of art. If works of art, once created, are
devoured, admired, enjoyed, adopted, applied, and chosen by the people as their
daily spiritual nourishment, they must have value. In contrast, those works whose
birth is heeded and cared for by no one will die an early death.80
After that, Trường Chinh put a question: “Do the masses have to learn about art
before they are capable of criticizing art?” and, as Secretary General of the Vietnamese
Communist Party, he gave a simple and clear-cut answer: “No”. He continued:
They are the most expert art critics of all, precisely because they have many ears
and eyes, sound judgment and a responsive collective sentiment. In this respect no
art critic can compare with the masses. It is quite possible that the majority of the
masses are not knowledgeable about some technical aspects, but the masses
include both experts and non-experts; what some cannot see, others can.81
There was at least one artist under the Viet Minh controlled area who publicly
disagreed with Trường Chinh. Tô Ngọc Vân wrote in the article “Study or Not
Study?”:
I […] reached a conclusion which was opposite of that stated by Mr. Trường
Chinh: the masses had to learn art in order to have a full appreciation of art, had to
learn how to listen to the sound of colours in order to understand what the colours
said.82
Trường Chinh kept silent, but his secretary, Hà Xuân Trường, an editor of Sự
Thực journal, the official voice of the Vietnamese Communist Party, wrote an article to
criticize Tô Ngọc Vân. Hà Xuân Trường asserted that
1. The masses do not need any training to sympathize with the artists’ feeling
and emotion.
2. The masses’ criticism is the decisive one.
3. The masses have the right of criticism without a need of obtaining
professional knowledge.
80 Trường Chinh (1994), Selected Writings, new impression, Hà Nội: The Gioi Publishers, pp. 274-75.
81 Ibid., p. 275.
82 Văn Nghệ magazine, no. 10 (March 1949), p. 56.
194
4. The artistic point of view must originate from the masses; the masses always
learn from each other and educate each other.83
Tô Ngọc Vân’s view was also criticized in the conference of debate on
literature and art in Việt Bắc in September 1949. After a long debate, several
conclusion were drawn:
1. The view stating that the masses have to learn techniques in order to evaluate
art is wrong.
2. The problem is to help the masses to participate in literary and artistic
activities, to develop the masses’ literary and artistic activities, and to try to
shorten the gap between the masses and literature and art.84
Finally, in the political rectification campaign in 1952, Tô Ngọc Vân made a
self-criticism that:
We believe in our own capacity and responsibility, in our friends’ love and
sincerity. We believe that the masses are not only an endlessly creative source but
also the bright and truthful critics of arts. We believe in the leadership of President
Hồ Chí Minh and our vanguard Party.85
In the early 1950s, writers were required to read their work aloud in front of a
group of people where they were working or living in order to draw comments prior to
their publication. Vũ Ngọc Phan recalled that those people were not necessarily
professionals. They might be illiterate workers or farmers who did not have any basic
knowledge of literature and art. However, he himself had to revise his works many
times after receiving their criticism. He also revealed that he often re-read in shame his
collection of folk stories, that had been written and revised after the masses’
criticism.86
83 Văn Nghệ magazine, nos. 15-16 (September and October 1949), p 74.
84 Văn Nghệ magazine, nos. 17-18 (November and December 1949), p. 22.
85 Quoted by Vũ Đức Phúc (1971), Bàn về những cuộc đấu tranh tư tưởng trong lịch sử văn học Việt
Nam hiện đại, Hà Nội: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội, p. 218.
86 Vũ Ngọc Phan (1987), Những năm tháng ấy, Hà Nội: Văn Học, p. 413.
195
With the appearance of the masses as a creative source and as the most
authoritative critics, the line between literary and non-literary works was eradicated.
Nguyễn Đăng Mạnh commented that in this period,
the social types and the artistic typification were identified; the role of creative
subjectivity of writers was denied; the aesthetic quality of the work of art and the
individual style of writers were belittled, etc. This was a period when literary texts
taught in schools were daily newspaper articles on agrarian reforms, and when
notes of real people and real facts were regarded as the highest genre of
literature.87
It can be said that Vietnamese literature after 1949 was the people’s literature.
In it the most striking characteristic was the domination of the masses: it was created
for the masses, and therefore it was evaluated by the masses. Literature was so
popularised that it became, on the one hand, a kind of oral literature which existed
without formal texts, and on the other, a form of journalistic discourse whose function
was very practical. In both cases, the people’s literature could effectively serve the
political aims of the Party but it could hardly be considered literature as an art of
language.
The Culture of War
The quick and strong impact of Mao Zedong’s theory of socialist realism on
Vietnamese literary thought and activity after the August 1945 Revolution can be
explained by several factors, geographical, political and cultural, of which the most
important one may be the war. During three decades, from 1945 to 1975, Vietnam was
always at war, first with the French, and later with the Americans. It can be argued that
it is the very culture of war that helped to create the type of intellectual and emotional
environment necessary for the easy reception of Maoism, an ideology which was
originally born in a time of war and aimed to serve that war. It can also be argued that,
87 Nguyễn Đăng Mạnh et al. (eds.) (1996), Một thời đại mới trong văn học, Hà Nội: Văn Học, p. 314.
196
together with Maoism, the war culture itself became one of the crucial factors in
determing the shape of socialist realism in the anti-French resistance areas during
1945-54 and in North Vietnam during 1954-1975.
Terms like “culture” and “culture of war” refer to an enormously complex
accumulation of theoretical speculation. One of the best-known scholars of cultural
studies, Raymond Williams, once said, “Culture is one of the two or three most
complicated words in the English language.”88 It is complicated partly because its
meaning changes over time. An illustration of this is the research completed in 1952 by
the two American anthropologists A.L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn, in which they
collected and analysed 164 different definitions of culture. Of these definitions, only
six appeared from 1871 to 1920, twenty two appeared in the 1920s, thirty five in the
1930s, and one hundred in the 1940s.89 The number of definitions clearly increased
steadily over the first half of the twentieth century. Since the mid-twentieth century,
the use of the term “culture” has even been thoroughly popularized. Culture seems to
be everywhere these days: we speak of Western culture, Asian culture, Chinese culture,
Vietnamese culture, and so on. We also speak of youth culture, academic culture,
political culture, and, as a result of the influence of globalization, the global culture,
and so on. The former President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin once said that Russia needed
“a new economic culture...[that is] a culture of dealing with money.”90 It can be said
that one of the most striking characteristics of modern times has been the fascination
with the issue of culture itself. As a result of this increased popularity, the range of
meanings to which it can be applied has become increasingly diverse. From global
culture, Western culture or Asian culture to economic culture and prison culture, the
connotation of culture varies greatly. It can refer broadly to the whole way of living of
88 Raymond Williams (1983), Keywords, A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, London: Fontana Press,
p. 87.
89 Bernardo Bernardi (1977), The Concept and Dynamics of Culture, The Hague: Mouton Publishers, p.
10.
90 Quoted in Christopher Clausen (1994), “The culture of culture”, The New Leader, June 6, 1994;
reproduced at Expanded Academic ASAP: http://0-
web1.infotrac.galegroup.com.library.vu.edu.au/itw/infomark/619/185/44345726w1/purl=rc1_E
AIM_0_A15729756anddyn=16!xrn_93_0_A15729756?sw_aep=vut_main.
197
a society or human beings in general. It can also refer, more narrowly, to activities
relating to music, art, literature, cinema and the like. However, in this chapter, the term
culture will be used as a “system of meaning”, a broad definition now gaining favour
among sociologists, anthropologists and cultural theorists. This view is summarized by
Ulf Hannerz as follows:
In the recent period, culture has been taken to be above all a matter of meaning.
To study culture is to study ideas, experiences, feelings, as well as the external
forms that such internalities take as they are made public, available to the senses,
and thus truly social. For culture, in the anthropological view, is the meanings
which people create, and which create people, as members of societies. Culture is
in some way collective.91
While this view includes the external forms of culture, its emphasis lies in the
shared ideas, experiences and feelings of a human community. It regards culture as a
symbolic system which governs the creation and use of symbols and signs. It shows
two major dimensions of culture. First, there is the cognitive dimension, which refers
to the knowledge shared by members of a group or society. Such knowledge provides
the conceptual content of a culture, and also underlies the way in which we interpret
and evaluate reality, as well as differentiating right from wrong. Such knowledge is
associated with a system of values and norms by which a society judges human
relationships to be moral or immoral, something to be good or bad, acceptable or
unacceptable. Without this knowledge, communication and community life are
impossible. Second, there is the affective dimension, which refers to the emotional side
of a people's lives, including their notion of beauty, their likes and dislikes, their ways
of enjoying themselves and experiencing sorrow, and so on.
Both these dimensions of culture are transmitted from generation to generation.
As a result, the processes of learning and sharing these cognitive and affective values
are an essential characteristic of culture. Culture, in this sense, can be defined as
everything acquired by individuals through social learning. Consequently, the way
91 Hannerz, U. (1992), Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning, New York:
Columbia University Press, p. 3.
198
culture is interpreted, taught and reproduced is in itself an important component of
culture. This explains why culture can be significantly influenced by the state because,
as most scholars agree, states play a key role in shaping the body of knowledge which
is dispensed by the education system, by community cultural centres, and by the media.
As Michael J. Mazarr summarizes:
All of the readings agree that states play some role in forming culture. Harrison
quotes Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “The central conservative truth is that it is
culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal
truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself” (p. 1). And
indeed there is a venerable school of thought that holds that “fundamentally the
state shapes society, not the other way around” (Zakaria 1995). Gellner (1983)
contends that industrial societies create a “school-transmitted culture” that “cannot
normally survive without its own political shell, the state” (pp. 36, 243).92
Furthermore, culture is not only what is transmitted from previous generations,
but also includes what each generation invents in order to meet the challenges of its
social and political environment. In this respect, culture becomes an expression of what
Michel Foucault calls “relations of power”. Culture provides the rationale, the standard
of truth, by which groups of people sort out differences, respond to problems and make
crucial choices. It is used to organize relations within and between groups, establish a
public identity, maintain social stability, and develop a position from which to argue
for political rights and dignity.
However, nowhere are the “relations of power” more evident than in a war
culture. If culture is defined as a system of meanings, a war culture should be
understood as a special system of meanings which underlies the whole society's
thinking in responding to war and its aftermath. In the cognitive dimension, a war
culture refers to specific norms and conventions which distinguish allies and enemies,
defining what people consider valuable and worth fighting for. In the affective
dimension, as Paul Fussell has observed, a war culture is dominated by fear and hatred,
92 Michael J. Mazarr, “Race and Culture: a World View”, The Washington Quarterly, Spring, 1996.
Read on the “Expanded Academic” website.
199
by guns and blood, by irrational actions and atrocious results, and by representation of
ideas, of patriotism, sacrifice, honours and traitors.93 What is also remarkable is that
within war cultures, the process of homogenisation in both cognitive and affective
dimensions accelerates very quickly. Normally, as a system of meanings, a culture
always consists of negotiated agreements by which members of a society agree to
relationships between a word or a type of behaviour and its corresponding significance
or meaning. In a war culture, such agreement is often made by propaganda, by
censorship or even by order from the government. In peacetime culture, people mainly
follow the example of their ancestors; in war culture, people tend to follow the
leadership of state and military authorities. Paul Fussell argues that
If you are trained to be uncritical of the military, you can easily go a little further
and learn to be uncritical of government and authority, and even to be uncritical of
all established and received institutions. The ultimate result is the death of the
mind, the transformation of the higher learning and independent scholarship into a
cheering section for whatever popular notions and superstitutions prevail at the
moment.94
It can be said that war culture is essentially an obedience culture in which the
masses suspend criticism of authority. This culture of obedience played a crucial role
in the literary culture in wartime. On the one hand, it enforced solidarity within the
literary community, shaping a community into a united frontline against a common
enemy. On the other hand, it turned all writers and artists into soldiers. The terms
“soldier-writer” and “soldier-poet” became popular in the period 1945-1975. These
were not soldiers who wrote poetry or prose but writers or poets whose works served
mainly as weapons against the common enemy. In a letter sent to Vietnamese artists
and intellectuals on May 25, 1947, Hồ Chí Minh called upon everyone to use their pens
93 Paul Fussell (1996), “The culture of war”, Society, Sep-Oct 1996; reproduced at Expanded Academic
ASAP: http://0-
web1.infotrac.galegroup.com.library.vu.edu.au/itw/infomark/619/185/44345726w1/purl=rc1_E
AIM_0_A18688805anddyn=8!xrn_55_0_A18688805?sw_aep=vut_main.
94 Ibid.
200
as “sharp weapons to fight for justice and destroy the enemies”.95 Three years later, in
another letter sent to Vietnamese painters, Hồ Chí Minh declared more bluntly:
“Culture and arts are also a front. You are soldiers in that front. As other soldiers, the
artistic soldiers have a clear duty: that is, to serve the resistance, the country, and the
people, particularly the workers, farmers, and soldiers.”96 Speaking at the Third
Congress of Vietnamese Writers and Artists held in Hanoi in 1962, Trường Chinh, on
behalf of the Party, put forward for the first time the concept of “Party-mindedness”,
which consists of four major components:
1. Writers and artists have to accept that literature and arts are used to serve
politics and the policies of the Party. They have to be loyal to the communist
ideals and struggle tirelessly for the victory of socialism.
2. Writers and artists, through their artistic and social activities, always try to
improve the leadership of the Party, consolidate the people’s faith in the Party,
and protect the purity of Marxist-Leninism.
3. Writers and artists are always in the attacking position, fighting against the
reactionary and depraved thoughts of imperialism and feudalism, and
capitalist and petty bourgeois ideologies.
4. Communist writers and artists, like all other communist members, have to
obey the Party organization...97
In a letter sent to the Fourth Congress of Vietnamese Writers and Artists held in
Hanoi in January 1968, the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party
declared that “Vietnamese writers and artists should be worthy of being valiant soldiers
against the Americans in the literary and artistic front”. In so doing, the Central
Committee instructed that:
With enthusiasm and determination, you should live passionately and for a long
time in the grassroots of the Party, associate with the common people who are
labouring and struggling: these should be regarded as the most important
95 Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995), op. cit., p. 9.
96 Ibid., p. 11.
97 Quoted in Viện Văn Học (ed.) (1978), Văn học, cuộc sống, nhà văn, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp. 303-304.
201
requirements in the process of creating literature and arts.98
Speaking at the Congress, Lê Ðức Thọ, the head of the Party Organization
Committee, emphasized that:
The existence of a literary work is not dependent on the author’s subjective desire.
While the youth in the whole country flock to join the army in order to fight
against the American invaders, our poets can’t be allowed to express such
feelings as ‘being distant from you I feel like a boat which is far away from the
dock’ or ‘it seems stormy in the heart’.99
Following the order of the Party, writers and artists were engrossed in writing
as soldiers. In a poem, Hoàng Trung Thông wrote: “Once again, we are writing our
poems on the rifle stock”,100 and Chế Lan Viên also proudly said: “the stature of poets
and the fortification are of equal height”.101 Titles of the works published by most
respected writers and poets in the North reflect the common tendency of the age: Ra
trận (Going to the Battlefields) by Tố Hữu; Những bài thơ đánh Mỹ (Poems Fighting
against Americans) by Chế Lan Viên; Chiến trường gần đến chiến trường xa (From a
Near Battlefield to the Far Battlefields) by Huy Cận; Nhắm thẳng quân thù mà bắn
(Shooting Straight at the Enemies) by Hồ Phương.
It can be said that under the communist leadership and within a war culture, the
social status of Vietnamese writers changed completely. Before 1945, Vietnamese
people were often proud of their literature. They called their country a country of
poetry (nước thơ) where almost everyone was a poet, using poetry not only in lyrical
expression but also in narrative forms, including historical and political writings. Poets
and writers were admired. They belonged to the highest class in society.102 In the
98 Hồ Chí Minh et al. (1976), Về văn hoá nghệ thuật, Hanoi: Văn Hoá, p. 36.
99 Quoted in Hà Xuân Trường (1977), Đường lối văn nghệ của Ðảng, Vũ khí, Trí tuệ, Ánh sáng, Hanoi:
Sự Thật, p. 96.
100 Viện Văn Học (1984), Nhà thơ Việt Nam hiện đại, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội, p. 291.
101 Ibid., p. 157.
102 In Vietnamese traditional society, apart from the king and mandarins, there were four main classes, of
202
1930s, under the influence of French romanticism, writers and poets were inclined to
regard themselves as an extraordinary kind of being. According to Hàn Mặc Tử, “apart
from angels and humanity, God created a third species: Poets. This species is very
precious and rare flowers.”103 Similarly, Chế Lan Viên stated that “a poet is not a
human being. He/she is a Dreaming Person, a Drunken Person. He/she is a fairy, a
devil, a spirit, a goblin.”104 In a poem called “Self-Portrait”, Thế Lữ presents himself as
“a strange chap” who is always alone with the Muse of Poetry as a friend.105 Xuân
Diệu compares a poet with a person who carries a thousand hearts in one heart and who
can understand the voice of the stream, the speech of birds, the sound of sobbing in the
rain and the cry of words struck by beams of moonlight.106 In another poem, Xuân
Diệu claims that “I am the only One, the Unique, the Foremost / I am
incomparable.”107 These imageries and comparisons, like clichés, can be found easily
almost everywhere in the 1930s literature, especially poetry. However, from 1945
onwards, they all disappeared. In wartime and under the Marxist spell, writers and
poets suddenly became soldiers, and as soldiers they understood that they were only
the lowest soldiers who were always far from the front line, and whose weapons were
only pens which could not actually kill the enemy. This explains why, in 1946 when
the war broke out, many writers could not write anything. They wanted first to live, to
participate in the struggle, and to postpone writing.108 Others believed that literature
always trailed along behind history, and as a consequence they always trailed along
behind the political leaders who were the true pioneers of history, the true avantwhich
intellectuals, including writers and artists, were on top, and the next were farmers,
workers and businesspeople (Sĩ, nông, công, thương).
103 Hàn Mặc Tử (n.d.), Chơi giữa mùa trăng, California: Xuân Thu, pp. 35 and 38.
104 Nguyễn Tấn Long and Nguyễn Hữu Trọng (1986), Việt Nam thi nhân tiền chiến, Paris: Institut de
l’Asie du Sud-Est, pp. 65-66.
105 Thế Lữ (1995), Tuyển tập, volume 1, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp. 76-78.
106 Xuân Diệu (1983), Tuyển tập, volume 1, Hanoi: Văn Học, pp. 65-66.
107 Ibid., p. 151.
108 This was discussed in details in the previous chapter.
203
garde.109 This is what Trường Chinh wanted to deliver in his poem “To Be a Poet”,
which has often been regarded as a manifesto of socialist realism in Vietnamese
literature:
To be a poet one must to join in the chorus that swells,
The choir of the planet in struggle;
Five continents fiercely resisting aggression
Through the world to raise high the flag of the people.
Seize the pen to cast down the world's tyrants
Make rhymes into bombs and from verse make grenades.
And when the time comes, let drop the pen,
Drop the pen and snatch up the sword! 110
Although Sóng Hồng points out that poets can “make rhymes into bombs and
from verse make grenades”, he still maintains that literature is less important than the
actualities of military struggle. Literature is also less important than productive labour,
as Chế Lan Viên asserts in his poem “The Practical Truth” which describes an
experience of a poet who worked for the first time on a rural farm:
All his life he has eaten the rice of the people.
Today he is transplanting rice for the people.
What good is all that futile verse that flows like water,
And does not serve the people so much as a single bowl of rice?
Literary criticism is even less important as Tố Hữu claims:
Dẫu một cây chông trừ giặc Mỹ
Hơn nghìn trang giấy luận văn chương.111
(Tố Hữu)
A bunji stick that kills the Americans
is much more precious than a thousand pages of literary criticism
109 Nguyễn Ðăng Mạnh et al. (eds.) (1985), Các nhà văn nói về văn, vol. 1, Hanoi: Nxb Tác Phẩm Mới,
p. 111.
110 Nguyễn Khắc Viện and Hữu Ngọc (eds. and trans.) (n.d.), Vietnamese Literature, Hanoi: Foreign
Languages Publishing House, p. 570.
111 Tố Hữu (1994), Thơ, Hanoi: Nxb Giáo Dục, p. 390.
204
It is clear that the concept of “soldier-writer” and “soldier-poet” changed the
artists’ status and the significance of literature in society. Furthermore, it dissolved the
awareness of individual personality. The collectivity dominated the individual. The
poet Xuân Diệu, who had been one of the pioneers of Vietnamese romanticism and
individualism in the 1930s, found ecstasy in community:
Body and soul, flesh and blood, I am with my people
warm with the ardour of the heart, sweating their sweat,
sharing the life and the struggle
of millions who suffer… the people I love.112
Tố Hữu captures this relationship between the community and the individual in
a well-known piece of poetry:
Như buổi đầu hò hẹn say mê,
Anh nắm tay em, sôi nổi, vụng về,
Mà nói vậy: Trái tim anh đó,
Rất chân thật chia ba phần tươi đỏ,
Anh dành riêng cho Đảng phần nhiều,
Phần cho thơ và phần để em yêu.
Em xấu hổ: “Thế cũng nhiều anh nhỉ?”
Rồi hai đứa hôn nhau, hai người đồng chí.
Like in the first intoxicating date,
I hold your hands, clumsy but passionate,
And say: This is my heart,
Truly divided into three red parts,
The biggest part is for the Party,
One part for you and one part poetry.
Embarrassed, she says “I don't deserve it”
And then we kissed, the two comrades.113
112 Nguyễn Khắc Viện and Hữu Ngọc (eds. and trans.) (n.d.), op. cit., p. 666.
113 Translated by Tôn-thất Quỳnh-Du, unpublished.
205
Tố Hữu's devotion to the Party is quite understandable. It was very common for
those who engaged in revolutionary activities. It was also quite common in traditional
Vietnamese society, where the fatherland was superior to family, and family, in turn,
was superior to the individual. However, we should pay attention to the last line, “And
then we kissed, the two comrades”. What is the function of the noun phrase “the two
comrades” here? It signals that this is first of all a kiss between two people who have
the same political ideals. Comradeship becomes a condition of erotic love, and also, of
the kiss. The distinction between the private and public life was erased. The entire life
of each individual was politicized. Lê Ðạt, one of the Vietnamese poets in the dissident
movement Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm (1956-58), decried:
Placing police stations and machinery in the centre of the human heart,
Forcing feelings to be expressed according to a set of rules promulgated by
the government.114
The domination of “soldier-writer” image also transformed the concept of
aesthetics. Traditionally, living in an agricultural society and seeking harmony between
nature and humans, the concept of beauty developed by Vietnamese poets and writers
was highly romantic. They often considered as beautiful what was tender and
dreamlike. They preferred to speak about the moon rather than the sun, the night rather
than the day, love rather than hatred. In the more than one thousand year history of
Vietnamese literature, no epic or epic-like work was ever written. In the Vietnamese
language, the word denoting “poetry” (thơ) is synonymous with the words denoting
“childhood” (thơ ấu), “naivety” (thơ ngây) or “wanderings” (thơ thẩn). However, after
1945, during the anti-French and then the anti-American wars, war and violence were
romanticized as poetic and touching. Phạm Tiến Duật wrote: “The road to the
battlefield is so beautiful in this season” (Đường ra trận mùa này đẹp lắm).115 Xuân
114 Translated by Neil L. Jamieson (1993), Understanding Vietnam, Berkeley: University of Califonia
Press, p. 259.
115 Phạm Tiến Duật (1983), Vầng trăng và những quầng lửa, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 42.
206
Diệu wrote: “Oh! How tender I feel while I hold the gun” (Ôi êm ái khi tay cầm vũ
khí).116 Lê Anh Xuân describes the death of a soldier in the Tet offensive of 1968:
Và anh chết trong khi đang đứng bắn
Máu anh phun theo lửa đạn cầu vồng.117
And he died still standing as he fired
His blood gushing out in harmony with the rainbow of ballistic fire.
The same aesthetic informs the following lines from Chế Lan Viên:
Hoan hô cái hầm chông
Hỡi cái hầm chông
Ta yêu người hơn vạn đóa hoa hồng.118
Long live punji sticks!
O the punji sticks!
I love you more than ten thousand roses.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, for those poets who love punji sticks119
more than roses to devote themselves to literature as the pure art of language. The
superiority of punji sticks over roses implies the superiority of life over art, and of
pragmatism over aestheticism. To some extent, it can be said that in the field of
literature, the culture of war is a-literary: its emphasis lies solely on the social effect of
literature, not literature in itself, hence wiping out the differentiation between literary
and non-literary writing. In Roman Jakobson's words, it defines the concept of
116 Xuân Diệu (1983), Tuyển tập, vol. 1, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 214.
117 Tế Hanh, Ngô Văn Phú and Vân Long (eds.) (1993), Thơ Việt Nam hiện đại, Hanoi: Nxb Hội Nhà
Văn, p. 389.
118 Chế Lan Viên (1985), Tuyển tập, vol. 1, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 151.
119 “Punji stick” is defined by The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language (fourth
edition, 2000) (http://www.bartleby.com/61/23/P0662300.html) as follows: “A very sharp
bamboo stake that is concealed at an angle in high grass, in a hole, or in deep mud, often coated
with excrement, and planted to wound and infect the feet of enemy soldiers. Also called punji
stake.”
207
literature by focusing on the “addressee” or “reader”; or in the words of the American
New Critics, on “what literature does”, and not on “what literature is”. 120
Focusing on the social and political effects of literature, Vietnamese leaders and
theorists paid special attention to a certain genre: reportage (ký). Normally, reportage,
which tries to reflect reality from an eyewitness account, and is often used by
newspaper reporters, particularly foreign correspondents, is widely regarded as a
journalistic rather than a literary genre. However, in Vietnam, because modern
literature emerged roughly at the same time as journalism, many novels were written in
the reportage manner and in reverse, many reportages have exhibited highly aesthetic
values.121 In these reportages, there are not only facts but also the authors’ own
experiences, and more importantly, their own personality. Vietnamese theorists of
socialist realism did not turn a journalistic type of writing into a literary one. But they
thought highly of reportage as a major genre in the field of literature. They called upon
writers and poets to write reportages about the “real people and real facts” (người thật
việc thật). In 1953, Hoài Thanh regarded the first reportages written by amateurish
writers in the anti-French war as the first foundation on which the new typical heroes
were formed in Vietnamese arts and literature.122 In 1962, Tô Hoài stated that:
A writer is the secretary of his/her age. [...] In my opinion, this honourable name
should be given first of all to those who write reportages and the like: these are
those who hold rifles, and like those who hold ploughs and hoes, they are the
majority and always at the front lines in all cultural battles and life.123
120 W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley (1946), “The Intentional Fallacy”, Sewanee Review,
Summer 1946, reprinted in The Verbal Icon by W.K. Wimsatt, London: Methuen, 1970, pp. 3-
18.
121 See Greg Lockhart and Monique Lockhart (trans. with an introduction) (1996), The Light of the
Capital, Three Modern Vietnamese Classics, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.
122 Văn Nghệ magazine, no. 46 (December 1953).
123 Văn Nghệ magazine, no. 8 (1962).
208
In 1967, Phạm Văn Đồng, the then Prime Minister of the North, called upon
writers and artists to concentrate on writing short reportages in order to serve politics at
that time. He said that:
Nowadays, looking back at the highly qualified works written by the
revolutionary South. What are they? They are works writing about the real people
and real facts such as Sống như Anh (Live Like You), Người mẹ cầm súng (A
Mother Holds a Gun), etc. Try to note down the facts and the people [that you see]
by any means and according to your own understanding.124
With such a view, most of the award-winning works of literature in the North
were reportage. For example, in 1965, the collection of letters sent from the South to
their relatives in the North Từ tuyến đầu tổ quốc (From the Frontline of our Country)
and the reportage-poem Sống như Anh (Live Like You) received Special Prizes.
Among eight award-winning pieces of prose, there were six reportages or reportagenovels:
Những ngày gian khổ (Arduous Days) by several authors, Cửu Long cuộn sóng
(Wavering Cưu Long River) by Trần Hiếu Minh, Người mẹ cầm súng (A Mother Holds
a Gun) by Nguyễn Thi, Bức thư Cà Mau (Letter Sent from Ca Mau) by Anh Đức,
Trường Sơn hùng tráng (The Grandiose Trường Sơn) by Hồng Châu, Rừng xà nu (The
Xanu Forest) by Nguyễn Trung Thành and Nguyễn Thiếu Nam.
Reportage became the favourite genre of the age. Not only writers but poets
also wrote in reportage, for example, Xuân Diệu had Đi trên đường lớn (Walking on
the Big Road) (1968), Chế Lan Viên had Những ngày nổi giận (Outraged Days). Chế
Lan Viên also wrote several poems in the reportage manner which were labelled
“reportage-poems”.
A similar situation can be found in the Soviet Union. From the 1920s, the
“ocherk”, a genre between a journalist’s report and an essay, not only flourished in all
Russian periodicals but, as Marc Slonim remarks, also occupied a large and honored
124 Phạm Văn Đồng (1975), Xây dựng một nền văn hoá văn nghệ ngang tầm vóc dân tộc ta, thời đại ta,
Hanoi: Sự Thật, p. 104.
209
place in Soviet letters.125 However, in the Soviet Union, this genre declined after the
death of Stalin. In Vietnam, it was dominant until the early 1980s.
It is often believed by Western theorists that the value of reportage or of realist
works in general depends largely on the degree of objectivity in the writing. However,
in the socialist realist culture, as it was formulated in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and
in Mao Zedong’s speeches in the Yan’an Forum in 1942 and adapted in Vietnam since
the 1940s, “objectivity” is not what is based on facts and things that can be seen or
measured but what is defined by dialectical and historical materialism and seen through
the glass of “partiinost”, the “Party-minded spirit”. In other words, to be objective is to
be faithful to the Party’s teaching. As a result, all depictions in reportages or socialist
realist literature in general were quite uniform: they viewed all situations in relation to
the Party line. For example, in their view, the world was divided into two camps:
capitalism (and its allies) and socialism; and human beings accordingly were
categorized either as capitalist, colonialist and reactionary or as socialist, revolutionary
and patriotic. In such a conflicting world, there is no place for those who want to
remain in a neutral position. A person who is a “middle-of-the-roader” can be treated
as an enemy, as stated in a poem written by Xuân Diệu:
Hello, Comrades. Let us unite our forces,
Destroy our mortal foes without remorse.
Landlords, notabilities and opposition groups
We must reduce to ash;
Middle-of-the-roaders and reactionaries,
Their bones we must smash.126
Any writer who confuses these categories could be criticized for not being clear
in their political thinking. The following poetic stanza written by Việt Phương can be
taken as an example:
125 Marc Slonim (1977), Soviet Russian Literature, Writers and Problems, 1917-1977, Oxford: Oxford
University Press, p. 170.
126 Translated by Hoàng Văn Chí, in Hoàng Văn Chí (1961), From Colonialism to Communism, A Case
History of North Vietnam, London: Pall Mall Press, p. 91.
210
Ta thắng Mỹ cho ngàn vạn năm đời sắp tới
Cho cả thời cháu con ta sẽ hỏi
Vì đâu
Ngày xa xưa trước năm 2000
Người ta giết nhau mạng người như hòn sỏi?127
We win over Americans so that a thousand years later
Our grandchildren will ask:
Why
In ancient times, before the year 2000
Did people kill each other; and human lives were like pebbles?
Almost immediately after its publication, elements of ambiguity in the above
stanza drew strong criticism from orthodox writers. Hoàng Trung Thông, one of the
leading figures in North Vietnamese literature commented:
Why “people”? Does the term “people” include us? It cannot and should not be
confused in this manner. Not only we but also our grandchildren should not
confuse this. If someone asks, the question should be: why did our grandparents
who lived before the year 2000 have the marvellous strength to win over the
Americans, a bloody invasive devil?128
Hoàng Trung Thông criticizes the term “people” used by Việt Phương because
he, like other Marxists, believes that in a class society, all people belong to definite
classes and follow definite political lines. There is no such thing as “people” or “war”
in general. These terms used generally are not only a misunderstanding but also a
dangerous political mistake: it eliminates the difference between friend and foe.
Similar arguments can be found everywhere in Vietnamese literary criticism
before the “renovation” period, which began in the mid-1980s. It can be said that for
the Vietnamese government, the nature of the Vietnam War against the Americans was
a use of force for defense against a foreign invasion, for punishment of evil. It was
127 Quoted in Hoàng Trung Thông (1979), Cuộc sống thơ và thơ cuộc sống, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 72.
128 Ibid.
211
therefore a just war, sometimes described as a “sacred war”. And because the war
against the Americans was considered a sacred war, Americans and their allies were
accordingly dehumanised and demonised. It should be noted that, in all wars, it is
common for the enemy to be dehumanised. The psychiatric report on William Calley
who was tried for killing hundreds of Vietnamese civilians in My Lai in 1968 showed
that he felt not as if he was killing humans but “rather that they were animals with
whom one could not speak or reason”.129 However, William Calley was quite
exceptional and his act of killing was regarded as a war crime. In fact, several people
had acted like Calley, although few managed to be reported so plainly. In Vietnam,
during the time of war, by contrast, enemies were publicly dehumanised in literature
and in the mass media. In the poem entitled “To Glorify Our Nation”, Tố Hữu writes:
Thực dân địa chủ một bầy
Chúng là thú vật, ta đây là người.130
Colonists and landlords are of the same herd.
They are beasts, and we are human.
It should be remembered that Tố Hữu was, and still is, regarded as one of the
leading poets, if not the leading poet in Vietnamese realist literature after 1945. He was
also a politician, a member of the Central Committee and the Politburo of the
Vietnamese Communist Party. During more than three decades, from the late 1940s to
the late 1970s, he was responsible for the literary and ideological activities of the
Communist Party. After that, he was promoted to the position of the first deputy Prime
Minister. The views of such a man on the one hand reflected the policy of the Party,
and also had a very strong influence on the Vietnamese propaganda machine. Such an
influence can be seen in the everyday usage of the Vietnamese language, where there
was a refusal to associate enemies with titles such as Miss, Mrs or Mr. During and even
after the war, Vietnamese people referred to the enemy as “thằng” or “con”. “Thằng”
means a little boy; and “con” means a little girl. Both indicate children or those who
129 Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim (1992), Four Hours in My Lai, New York: Viking, p. 21.
130 Tố Hữu (1994), Thơ, Hanoi: Nxb Giáo Dục, p 292.
212
are thought to be inferior and vile. When an adult is called as “thằng” or “con”, he or
she is considered as a thief, a beggar, a prostitute or the like. They are stripped of their
maturity and dignity.
In propaganda literature, the enemies were even more dehumanised. They were
often labelled through metaphors as dogs, foxes, tigers, snakes, wolves, animals,
beasts, ghosts, devils, etc. These metaphors justified the act of killing without remorse
or pity. To kill an enemy is not killing a human being, and therefore it cannot be
judged according to common ethics. In other words, Vietnamese people thought the
conduct of war was not subject to moral limitations. In describing an ambush, Tố Hữu
writes:
Chúng ta ở đây
Trên đầu chúng nó
Đại bác ta sau rèm tre nghểnh cổ
Trông xuống khoanh đồi đỏ
Như đĩa huyết còn tươi.131
We are here
on top of their heads
Behind the bamboo curtain our cannon cranes its neck
looking down to the red circle of small hills
that looks like a dish of fresh blood.
Poetic devices such as these have never been criticized in Vietnam. They are
regarded as a deep expression of the anger and hatred required to be generated against
enemies. What would be condemned as bloodthirsty in peacetime becomes normal and
permissible within a war culture.
Furthermore, the act of killing enemies was often romanticized and given a
sense of bliss. Chế Lan Viên, one of the finest poets in Vietnam, writes:
Ta đánh mày hân hoan như sinh đẻ
Và thiêng liêng như xây dựng kỳ đài.132
131 Ibid., p. 237.
213
Killing you, I feel bliss as if giving birth
and I feel sacred as if I am building a flagpole.
The same poet writes:
Hạnh phúc tính theo đầu người là anh giết bao nhiêu đầu giặc Mỹ
Như cây yêu đời sinh được mấy muôn hoa.133
Happiness is counted by the number of American heads you have cut off.
It's like a tree, in its love for life, giving birth to numerous flowers.
And again:
Hãy giết chúng như thiên thần giết quỷ
Trên mỗi xác thù, họng súng phải reo ca.134
Let's kill them like angels killing devils
On each enemy's corpse, our guns must sing aloud.
Underlying this glorification of killing is a culture of vengeance. Any kind of
war requires its participants to hate the enemy. In the so-called war for national
liberation, hatred becomes the highest virtue. One of the most popular slogans during
the anti-French resistance was “Love the country and hate the enemy”.135 This slogan
has its roots in the past. In the late nineteenth century, the poet Nguyễn Đình Chiểu
wrote in Lục Vân Tiên: “We hate because we love” (Vì chưng hay ghét cũng là hay
thương).136 Hatred towards the enemy was regarded as a manifestation of patriotism.
On behalf of the Secretary General of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Trường Chinh
132 Ibid., p. 197.
133 Ibid., p. 173.
134 Ibid., p. 149.
135 Viện Văn Học (1986), Văn học Việt Nam kháng chiến chống Pháp, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội, p.
43.
136 Nguyễn Ðình Chiểu (1980), Toàn tập, vol. 1, Hanoi: Nxb Ðại Học và Trung Học Chuyên Nghiệp, p.
111.
214
declared in 1947 that all cultural activities had to aim at stirring up public anger.137 In
September 1966, the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party
announced much the same idea to the people: “The activities of arts and literature play
a crucial role in educating people to hate American invaders and their henchmen.”138
As a result, hatred became a major theme in literature and one of the major goals of
national education.
In conclusion, it can be said that the culture of war and Maoism in Vietnam not
only informed an aesthetics of violence in which hatred, vengeance and crimes were
romanticized, but also created a culture of obedience in which writers and poets turned
into soldiers who used pens as weapons, and a culture of uniformity in which
dogmatism dominated people’s thinking. In this sense, socialist realism was very far
from being realistic, or even literary: it became a mere weapon for use in politics,
propaganda and ideological education. This explain why in Vietnam the doctrine of
socialist realism was first criticized by writers and artists who were living under the
communist regime, many of them members of the Communist Party. These criticism
resulted in the two major movements of dissidence, the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm affair
and the đổi mới, which will be discussed in the next chapters.
137 Trường Chinh (1985), Về văn hoá và văn nghệ, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 47.
138 Nhân Dân, 28 September 1966.
215
PART THREE
Peace and Free Market: Enemies of Socialist Realism
216
CHAPTER SIX
The Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm Affair, a “Peace Crisis”
Emerging in North Vietnam shortly after the end of the anti-French resistance,
the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm affair was the first intellectual dissident movement
occurring under communist rule. It is now among the most discussed issues in the
history of Vietnamese socialist realist literature, attracting special attention not only
from Vietnamese writers but also from Western academics. To date, there have been a
sizable number of research papers dedicated to this affair, written in Vietnamese, in
addition to a number in other languages. Examination of these writings, however,
reveals that the nature of the movement has been represented differently amongst
scholars. For some, especially Vietnamese scholars and critics, the movement was
primarily a political event involving Vietnamese intellectuals struggling against
communist totalitarianism.1 Others, for example Kim N. B. Ninh, represented the
movement as an intellectual dissent, essentially a “conflict between the government’s
vision and the intellectuals’ expectations of the new state and society”,2 or in the words
of Shawn McHale, “a clash of high modernisms” in which “[k]ey writers ignored,
marginalized, or attacked ‘feudal’ and ‘backward’ legacies from the past like
Buddhism or Confucianism”, whilst “[a]t the same time, they articulated a forwardlooking
vision in which scientific thinking and technology was invoked to shape and
transform society.”3 The distinction between these views is not clear-cut: under a one-
1 For example Hoàng Văn Chí (1983), Trăm hoa đua nở trên đất Bắc, (first published in Saigon in
1959), re-printed in Paris by Quê Mẹ in 1983; and Trần Gia Phụng (2002), Án tích cộng sản
Việt Nam, Toronto: Non Nước, pp. 149-216.
2 Kim N.B. Ninh (2002), A World Transformed: The Politics of Culture in Revolutionary Vietnam,
1945-1965, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, p. 122.
3 Shawn McHale, “Vietnamese Marxism, Dissent, and the Politics of Postcolonial Memory: Tran Duc
Thao, 1946-1993”, The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 61, no. 1 (February 2002), p. 9.
217
party ruled state like North Vietnam, all kinds of dissidence, even intellectual or
literary ones, usually had a large impact on politics and the dissidents were often
accused by the state of being counter-revolutionary. This chapter attempts to
demonstrate that the aim of the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm movement was two-fold:
politically, it was a struggle against Stalinist and Maoist totalitarianism; and artistically
it opposed the theory of socialist realism.
It should be noted that the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm affair broke out roughly in
the same period as the de-Stalinizing movements around the world erupted. The most
important and influential event for the participants in these movements was Nikita
Khrushchev’s secret report on Stalin, delivered on February 25, 1956, in which
Khrushchev accused Stalin of being a cruel dictator who had established a cult of
personality and killed millions of people, including loyal communists.4 In addition to
this event, there were several other dissident voices around the world such as the
rebellion of Polish workers in Poznan on June 28, 1956, the ferment of the Petofi
literary and artistic circles in Budapest, and the October Revolution in Hungary which
was crushed by Soviet intervention.5
These events were not direct causes of the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm movement,
but, as Georges Boudarel and Nguyễn Văn Ký have pointed out, they “found even
greater echo in Hanoi because they laid the ground for the gradual revelation of the
crimes and social catastrophes caused by the blind acceptance of Maoism”,6 and
through this, mobilized Vietnamese writers and artists to struggle for creative freedom.
More influential for Vietnamese writers and artists was the Chinese campaign
of “A Hundred Flowers Bloomed”, which was initiated by Premier Chou Enlai in
4 The English translation of this report can be found at http://www.trussel.com/hf/stalin.htm or
http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1956khrushchev-secret1.html. The Vietnamese version,
entitled Tờ Trình Bí Mật của Krúpsếp về Stalin (Khrushchev’s Secret Report on Stalin),
translated by Ðỗ Tịnh, published by Tủ Sách Nghiên Cứu in Paris in 1994.
5 See R. J. Crampton (1994), Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century, London: Routledge, pp. 275-
303.
6 Georges Boudarel and Nguyễn Văn Ký (2002), Hanoi, City of the Rising Dragon, translated by Claire
Duiker, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, p. 120.
218
January 1956 when he announced that it was necessary for the Chinese Communist
Party to understand intellectuals thoroughly and to give them due confidence and
support for them to work with real initiative. Three months later, the campaign was
officially launched by Mao Zedong when he exclaimed that “In the arts ‘let a hundred
flowers bloom’, and in scholarship, ‘let a hundred schools of thought contend’.”
Another month later, Lu Dingyi, director of the Propaganda Department of the Party
Central Committee, proclaimed that “socialist realism was not a method” and that there
were no rigid taboos, formulas or restrictions as long as literature and art served the
people and the new regime. During this campaign, lasting one year from mid-1956 to
mid-1957, Chinese writers, artists and critics were encouraged to speak out in criticism
of the errors of Party cadres, the subjectivism in their way of thinking, bureaucratism in
their way of work and sectarianism in organizational questions.7
Incidentally, the most influential element of the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm
movement was not China’s A Hundred Flowers campaign as an entirety, but the
writings of a Chinese leftist literary theorist, Hu Feng, who had been arrested and
imprisoned as a bourgeois individualist and counter-revolutionary leader before the
bloom of the Hundred Flowers campaign. Born in 1902, Hu went to Japan in 1927,
where he avidly read the works of Karl Marx in both English and Japanese translations.
In 1931 he became a member of the Japanese Communist Party as well as the Japanese
branch of the Chinese League of Left-Wing Writers. Deported to China in 1933 for his
leftist activities in Japan, Hu Feng developed a close friendship with Lu Xun, one of
the greatest writers in modern China, and became the leading theorist of the non-
Maoist communist group, with whom he published the literary journals July (Qiyue;
1937-1941) and Hope (Xiwang; 1945-46). These journals and his own works made
him famous as a provocative critic. In some scholars’ observation, “there was to be no
debate in literary circles after 1938 in which Hu Feng did not take an active role.”8 Hu
was also an outspoken critic of Mao’s view of literature and an opponent of Zhou
7 Hualing Nieh (ed.) (1981), Literature of the Hundred Flowers, vol. 1: Criticism and Polemics, New
York: Columbia University Press, pp. xiii-xxxvii.
8 Theodore Huters, “Hu Feng and the critical legacy of Lu Xun” in Leo Ou-fan Lee (ed.) (1985), Lu Xun
219
Yang, who was regarded as the “cultural czar” in communist China. After 1949, Hu
continuously clashed with Party authorities and official ideology. This clash reached its
peak in the early 1950s, when Hu Feng publicly expressed his resistance to what he
saw as doctrinairism in communist literary circles.9 In June 1954, Hu Feng submitted
to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party a book-length report,
entitled A Report on Literary and Artistic Practices since the Liberation, which was
summarized by Georges Boudarel as follows:
Foreseeing a ‘cultural desert’, he denounced […] the ‘five daggers’ stabbed into
the brains of creative artists: enforced communist ideology, inspiration limited to
the world of workers and peasants, ideological re-education, prescribed stylistic
forms, topics and themes decreed by the Party. According to Hu, socialist realism
should turn to man and assert itself as a kind of humanism (nhân văn). Since
artistic creation could not be subjected to any dictate, the existing monolith
needed to be split into seven or eight totally independent associations allowed to
compete with one another, with communists making up no more than a third of
the leadership in each. Writers, he declared, should not look at reality through any
prism whatsoever. Literature, as he saw it, is a completely open space, a place of
untrammelled creation based on total freedom of thought, the sine qua non for a
sincere and truthful work whose aesthetic value depends essentially on the artist’s
talent.10
The period of time in which Hu Feng’s view of literature was widely discussed
in China was also the period when Trần Dần (1926-1997), a young writer, was sent to
China to write the narrative for a film shot by the Chinese about the Ðiện Biên Phủ
battle, in which he had personally taken part. He stayed in China only two months,
from 10 October to 12 December 1954. It is interesting to speculate about whether
Trần Dần was exposed to any of Hu Feng’s papers during his brief stay. Were his own
and His Legacy, Berkeley: California University Press, p. 142.
9 Hu Feng’s thoughts on literature are discussed in Adrian Hsia (1972), The Chinese Cultural
Revolution, London: Orbach and Chambers, pp. 85-6; and more details in Liu Kang (2000),
Aesthetics and Marxism, Chinese Aesthetic Marxists and Their Western Contemporaries,
Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 93-110.
10 Georges Boudarel, “Intellectual dissidence in the 1950s: The Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm Affair”, The
Vietnam Forum, no. 13 (1990), p.156.
220
views influenced or shaped by them? According to Party cadres, the answer to this
question is “yes”, but his own friends seemed to deem it to be untrue, as expressed
through a cartoon published in Nhân Văn no. 2, September 30, 1956.11 Other sources
make different claims. In his Renovating Politics in Contemporary Vietnam, Zachary
Abuza wrote, “While in China, Dần became very influenced by the Chinese literary
figure Hu Feng, who wanted to broaden the acceptable bounds of literature”, but he
gave no evidence in support of this assertion.12 Trần Dần’s diary, which was published
in the United States of America in 2001, four years after his death, contained no
mention of anything related to Hu Feng or any literary events in China. These writings
compiled only various ideas he had for future works and thoughts about literature in
general. They were by and large a continuation of the same ideas he had pondered over
before he departed on this trip and showed no new influences. However, according to
Hoàng Văn Chí, what Trần Dần observed on this trip disappointed him very much.
Upon returning to Hanoi, he reportedly told friends: “Don’t follow the Chinese policy
of literature.”13 According to Georges Boudarel, Trần Dần “returned from his brief
mission with only one project in mind: to create a work that would both express his
own idea and spark an evolution of cultural politics.”14
Hu Feng’s influence can be seen more evidently in the case of Phan Khôi,
another leader of the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm movement, who went to China to
participate in the celebration of Lu Xun’s birthday in 1956. After returning to Vietnam,
Phan Khôi published a magazine entitled Nhân Văn (Humanism) which, as Zachary
Abuza commented, was “based on the philosophy of the Chinese dissident intellectual
11 This cartoon was re-printed in ibid., p. 160.
12 Zachary Abuza (2001), Renovating Politics in Contemporary Vietnam, Boulder: Lynne Rienner
Publishers, p. 47
13 Hoàng Văn Chí (1983), Trăm hoa đua nở trên đất Bắc, Paris: Quê Mẹ, p. 98. (Originally published in
Saigon in 1959.)
14 Georges Boudarel and Nguyễn Văn Ký (2002), op. cit., p. 118.
221
Hu Feng, who argued that ‘socialist realism should turn to a man and assert itself as a
kind of humanism (nhân văn)’.”15
It is difficult to deny Hu Feng’s influence on the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm affair.
It cannot be said, however, that this influence was decisive. Kim N. B. Ninh rightly
emphasized that “the concerns subsequently raised in the period of intellectual
questioning in Vietnam had long been in existence”, and “the seeds of the conflict
between the intellectuals and the Party’s cultural officials had been sown as early as
1948.”16 This is true. In the late 1940s, when Maoism was imported en masse into
Vietnam, an ideological rectification campaign, which was modelled on China’s cheng
feng, was launched, and socialist realism was recognized by the communist leaders as
the most desirable, if not the only, worthwhile creative method, several talented artists
and writers, including the composer Phạm Duy, the poets Vũ Hoàng Chương and Ðinh
Hùng, and the future novelists Mai Thảo and Doãn Quốc Sỹ, who had been involved in
the anti-French resistance because of their patriotism, decided to return to Frenchcontrolled
cities. In broad terms, as P. J. Honey has asserted, “the more the principles
learned from the Chinese communists were applied, the longer became the line of
disillusioned intellectuals, abandoning the ranks of the resistance movement.”17 Others,
who constituted the great majority, while still staying in the marquis and continuing to
fight against the French under the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party, did
not accept socialist realism or accepted it only with great reluctance, sometimes in the
agony of losing their individual freedom and independence. The painter Tô Ngọc Vân,
one of the first graduates of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine, and one of the
best artists in the history of Vietnamese fine arts, while being ready to serve as a
political propagandist, insisted that pure art was substantially different from
propaganda art in several aspects. In terms of purpose, propaganda art exists to
advocate a policy, raising political slogans and delineating a political path for the
15 Zachary Abuza (2001), op. cit, p. 48.
16 Kim N. B. Ninh (2002), op. cit., p. 129.
17 P. J. Honey (ed.) (1962), North Vietnam Today: Profile of a Communist Satellite, New York: Praeger,
p. 6.
222
people to follow, whereas true art is an expression of an individual soul. In terms of
technique, in propaganda art, the political message must be direct and forceful,
whereas true art is much more subtle, only suggesting meaning and evoking emotional
responses from the viewers. In terms of value, propaganda art has temporary worth,
whereas the value of true art is everlasting.18 Phan Khôi, who was deeply and fervently
involved in resistance activities, even participating in the military campaigns in spite of
his age, complained privately in one of his poems, written in 1952: “My mind and
heart are no longer my own” (Tim óc như không phải của mình),19 and “From the
resistance point of view, I am useless” (Kháng chiến thấy thừa ta).20 In 1950, in a
conference on art organized in Việt Bắc, the poet Hoàng Cầm, who was head of the
Army’s professional psy-war entertainment unit, declared that “the Party should have
no hand in the professional areas of art.”21
This discontent, which had been kept under wraps in wartime, exploded when
the French war ended in 1954. The nine-year war against French invasion and
occupation ended with a victory for the Viet Minh at Ðiện Biên Phủ and officially,
through the Geneva Agreements, signed on the night of July 20 – 21, 1954, provided
for a cease-fire throughout the whole of Vietnam. However, the price of peace was
high: Vietnam was temporarily divided into two parts for two years, awaiting a
reunification by general election which, for various reasons, was never held. The
seventeenth parallel was established as a provisional line of demarcation: the South
was controlled by the American-sponsored government, led by Ngô Ðình Diệm, and
later, by Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, becoming a strategic bastion of the United States; and the
North was controlled by the Viet Minh, led by Hồ Chí Minh.22
18 Tô Ngọc Vân, “Tranh tuyên truyền và hội hoạ”, Tự Do, no. 1 (July 1947).
19 Quoted in Vũ Hoàng Chương, “Sao lại thế được?”, Hợp Lưu, no. 33 (February and March 1997), p.
116.
20 Hoàng Văn Chí (1983), op. cit., p. 59.
21 Nhà xuất bản Sự Thật (1959), Bọn Nhân Văn – Giai Phẩm trước toà án dư luận, Hanoi: Sự Thật,
p.102.
22 For further information, see Bernard B. Fall (1965), The Two Vietnams, a Political and Military
223
In the second half of the 1950s, in the South, the Ngô Ðình Diệm government
tried to suppress French-supported forces and other opposition in order to gain control,
and resettle nearly one million refugees who had immigrated from the North.23 In the
North, the Hồ Chí Minh government, on the one hand, attempted to rebuild the
economy and lay the foundations for socialism, and on the other hand, prepared for a
long and fierce struggle for national reunification. In the process of building the
foundations for socialism, the Hồ Chí Minh government focused on two major tasks:
firstly, to continue to push the land reform program; and secondly, to establish a Partycontrolled
state apparatus.24
The land reform program consisted of two major campaigns: the land rent
reduction campaign during the years 1953 and 1954; and the land reform campaign
proper during the years 1954 and 1956. Both were designed to be part of a class
struggle against ‘feudal’ landlords and the traditional village elite. The aim was to
liquidate the landowning class, redistributing the wealth, mainly land, from the rich to
the poor, and establishing a proletarian dictatorship in the countryside.25 In the middle
of the second campaign, as a result of the Eighth Plenum of the Central Committee in
August 1955, it was believed that landlords “were acting as agents of the imperialists
and their lackeys, particularly in carrying out sabotage”, the mobilization for land
reform was extended into “a hunt for spies and counter-revolutionaries”.26
Consequently, many people were falsely thought to be landlords and spies, and
executed by the People’s Courts. Common among them were middle peasants or even
people who had participated in the anti-French war and had been adopted by the Party
Analysis, London: Pall Mall Press.
23 See Stanley Karnow (1983), Vietnam, a History, New York: Penguin, pp. 206-239.
24 See Bernard B. Fall (1965), op. cit., particularly Chapter 8 “Garrison State”, pp. 130-168 and Chapter
9 “Road to Socialism”, pp. 169-200; William J. Duiker (1996), The Communist Road to Power
in Vietnam, Boulder: Westview Press, pp. 179-214.
25 Hoàng Văn Chí (1964), From Colonialism to Communism, a case History of North Vietnam, London:
Pall Mall Press, p. 163.
26 Ken Post (1989), Revolution, Socialism and Nationalism in Vietnam, vol. 1, Aldershot (England):
Dartmouth, p. 272.
224
as part of the revolution. This practice was later recognized at the Central Committee’s
Tenth Plenum as resulting in “serious errors”, and a Rectification of Errors Campaign
was launched, lasting for the greater part of 1957.27 All of these events made the period
1956-57 one of crisis for the Vietnamese Communist Party and its government in the
North. It was marked by widespread discontent and unrest, not only among those who
had been wrongly accused but also in the ranks of the local Party and intellectuals, in
particular professional artists, writers and musicians, who publicly voiced doubts
concerning the workings of the system.28
For the second task, in respect of society, since September 1955, the
government has operated the system of “hộ khẩu”, stemming from China’s hukou,
meaning “the household registration”, which contains the names of all family members
with brief resumes, including their ages, occupations and religions.29 This “hộ khẩu” is
necessary for all administrative processes, such as education, work, admission to
hospital, registration of marriage and birth, the buying of rice from the state-run stores
and moving from one city to another.30 In respect of culture, the Vietnamese
Association of Literature and Art, which was formed in 1948, was replaced by the
Vietnam Union of Literature and Art, consisting of several professional associations, of
which the Vietnamese Association of Writers was officially established in April 1957.
There was also an association of those writers who were serving in the army. These
associations were not purely professional but also political, administratively belonging
to the Vietnam Union of Literature and Art and the National Front of Vietnam, but it
27 Ibid., p. 280.
28 More information on the land reform program can be found in Edwin E. Moïse (1983), Land Reform
in China and North Vietnam: Consolidating the Revolution at the Village Level, Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press.
29 See Trần Minh, “Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm, một tư trào, một vụ án, một tội ác” in Diễn Ðàn Dân Tộc
Dân Chủ, no. 9 (March 1997), p. 3. Trần Minh is a pen name of Nguyễn Minh Cần, the former
deputy president of Hanoi in the 1960s before deciding to live in Russia as a refugee.
30 More details on “hộ khẩu” can be found at the website Immigration and Nationality Directorate
http://www.ind.homeoffice.gov.uk/default.asp?pageid=4328
225
was voluntarily put under the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party through
its Central Committee of Propaganda.31
All of these economic, social, political and cultural policies increased the
discontent and indignation of writers and artists, and were really the causes of the Nhân
Văn - Giai Phẩm movement. In other words, this movement was first of all a response
to the Maoist policies in post-Geneva Vietnam. China’s A Hundred Flowers campaign
or Khrushchev’s secret report and several other political events in Eastern Europe acted
as catalysts which consolidated the belief of Vietnamese intellectuals and encouraged
them to struggle for their creative freedom.
The process of transformation from revolutionary to dissident is typified in the
case of Trần Dần, one of the leading figures of the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm affair.
Trần Dần was born on August 13, 1926 in a well-established family. At the age
of twenty, together with other poets, Vũ Hoàng Ðịch and Ðinh Hùng, he published a
very short-lived journal Dạ Ðài (The netherworld) to advocate symbolism. The journal
ceased after just one issue, which was published on 16 November 1946, one month
before the outburst of the anti-French resistance. In 1948, he joined the army, fighting
against the French on the northern borders, and became a member of the Vietnamese
Communist Party one year later. In the last years of the anti-French resistance, he
worked as an artistic and propagandist cadre. In 1954, he was involved in the military
campaign at Ðiện Biên Phủ, at which he wrote his first novel, about this fierce battle,
Người người lớp lớp (Wave after Wave of Men), which was published early in 1955,
and as Georges Boudarel noted, “had brief commercial success”.32 However, as Trần
Dần revealed in his diary, he was not very happy with this novel. Some time between
September 20 and October 1, 1954, a few weeks before his China’s trip, he wrote:
I have just completed the novel Wave after Wave of Men. [It is] about the Ðiện
Biên Phủ battle. But I am sick of it. There is just a little truth of war in it. And
31 Trần Ðộ (1988), Ðổi mới và chính sách xã hội, văn hoá, Ho Chi Minh City: Nxb thành phố HCM, pp.
202-3.
32 Georges Boudarel and Nguyễn Văn Ký (2002), op. cit., p. 118.
226
there are fewer truths about myself in it. It is not the war, nor myself.
Consequently, although I wrote up to 300 pages, I don’t like it as much as my
recent poem “As you saw”, which is more or less six pages!
[...]
I want to describe soldiers who are very old and those who are very young; poor
peasants and sons of landlords; sons of bourgeois and workers, students and
illiterate men. [...] The heroes and the cowards. Those who arrived cowards but
became heroes. Those who arrived heroes but became cowards. Those who used
guns to fire at the enemy and those who used guns to harm themselves. The quiet
soldiers and the talkative soldiers. The gentle people and the reckless people. The
docile people and the stubborn people. And most of them are reluctant to study
(politics), to listen to the cadre talking over politics. Being reluctant to listen to
cadres talking a lot. Being reluctant to see their thoughts controlled. Control,
control my cock!33
A few pages earlier, he wrote:
Why have I met short-sighted and stiff people everywhere? As a result, I want to
write more; I want to write what I have dared not to write. And I want to write
without censorship. Because if I write under censorship, I will meet such people.34
After returning from China, Trần Dần became sadder. He wrote in his diary on
20 December 1954:
Nothing changes in the artistic and literary body. There are still the thoughts of
despising artistic labour, regarding the army artists as mere soldiers, distrusting
literature and art. There are still affected, demanding and rigid policies which try
to “militarise literature and art”. My life has been sunk in these policies, as were
my friends.
It is so difficult.
But I have heard a lot of voices raised. Protest. Discussion. Ridicule. And even
cursing. These are notices of death of suppressing policies and thoughts on the
army’s literature and art.
33 Trần Dần (2001), Ghi, Paris: TD Mémoire, pp. 47-8.
34 Ibid., p. 45.
227
In recent days, I have been so sad.
I have suffered from headaches.
And resentment.
[...]
What do I want?
• a right and open policy on literature and art.
• a creative life. The old must be poured out. The new should be
accumulated and then poured out whenever it is needed. These two tasks
should be done simultaneously.
• practice artistic devices. Poetry is my favourite. Novel. Short story.
Literary reportage.
• Reading. Novel. Literary theories. Philosophy. Economy. So ignorant. So
ignorant. Art is the fullest way of perceiving and representing life. The
artist should be a great intellectual.35
It is not surprising that after that, Trần Dần started to publicly voice his dissent.
But he was not alone. Around him there was a group, consisting of two poets, Hoàng
Cầm and Trúc Lâm, two composers, Tử Phác and Ðỗ Nhuận, and a playwright, Hoàng
Tích Linh, all of them in the army. Like Hu Feng, they had the same goal, to convince
the Vietnamese Communist Party of the need for artistic and intellectual freedom. At
first, they received a favourable response from many people, including several highranking
cadres. In February 1955, Trần Dần and his like-minded artists presented their
proposals to General Nguyễn Chí Thanh, the head of the army’s General Political
Department (Tổng Cục Chính Trị). The text of their proposal was never published,
however, though from several passages, quoted in attacks on its authors, we know that
they demanded
• that the army’s writers and artists would participate in a professional
Association of Literature and Art rather than being under the control of
the army’s General Political Department (Tổng Cục Chính Trị) and the
Department of Propaganda and Political Education (Cục Tuyên Huấn);
35 Ibid., p. 63.
228
• that the imposition of army laws and regulations on art and literature,
and the political commissars’ grip on artistic creation, be ended.
• and that writers and artists be able to obtain creative freedom and
independence.36
In the view of Georges Boudarel, one of the best experts on the Nhân Văn -
Giai Phẩm affair, the above proposal launched “a campaign labelled the ‘Hundred
Flowers’ in the Department of Culture of the Vietnamese Army. It would be another
year before a more famous movement of the same name was launched in China”.37
However, the Party and the military leaders dismissed all the demands in the proposal.
According to Hoàng Cầm, General Nguyễn Chí Thanh had asserted: “The spirit of this
statement of policy proposal is the unruly ideology of capitalism. It shows that
capitalist ideology has begun to attack all of you comrades!”38 Shortly after this event,
in defiance of a prohibiting order of the Party, Trần Dần fell in love with a young
Hanoi woman who was Catholic and whose family had immigrated to the South nearly
a year earlier. In order to marry the woman he loved, on 23 April 1955, he asked to
leave the Party and the army. In his diary, he declared that “you should have the guts to
risk your life for a poetic experiment.”39 This attitude irritated his leaders, and
consequently he was put under house arrest from 13 June to 14 September 1955. After
that, he was forced to attend a land reform campaign in a rural village in Bắc Ninh for
the purpose of political re-education.
These disciplinary measures came too late. Dissidence had become a common
mood among many writers, artists and intellectuals in Hanoi. In February 1956, while
Trần Dần was in Bắc Ninh province, his poem, “Nhất định thắng” (We must win) was
published in Giai Phẩm 1956 (1956 Fine Works), which was later renamed and
36 Vũ Tú Nam, “Sự thực về con nguời Trần Dần”, Văn Nghệ Quân Ðội, no. 4 (1958), p. 50; Kim N.B.
Ninh (2002), op. cit., p. 130.
37 Georges Boudarel and Nguyễn Văn Ký (2002), op. cit., p. 119.
38 Quoted in Kim N.B. Ninh (2002), op. cit., p. 130.
39 Trần Dần (2001), op. cit., p. 77.
229
became well known as Giai Phẩm Mùa Xuân (Fine Works of Spring), with eight other
contributors, including four poets: Hoàng Cầm, Lê Ðạt, Phùng Quán and Văn Cao, and
four artists, Nguyễn Sáng, Sỹ Ngọc, Tử Phác and Tô Vũ. This forty-eight page
collection is very humble, not only in its length but also in its genres: it consists of nine
poems, two songs, and two miscellaneous notes. An introduction written by the
publishers was short and humble, consisting only of two sentences: “On the occasion
of the beginning of the year 1956, we are glad to introduce this collection to readers.
These are small poems, songs and drawings which contribute to the present struggle for
peace and unification and also reveal several new discoveries in artistic creation.”40
The major themes of the collection were the assertion of belief in the Party and the
revolution; criticism of several negative aspects in society; and a thirst for innovation
in literature and art. No work dealt directly with politics. However, it was still
castigated by the Party’s cadres as reactionary, mainly because of its inclusion of the
poem “We must win” by Trần Dần, in which he depicted the difficult life in the North
after the Geneva Agreements; in particular, he repeated the refrain which is, in Kim N.
B. Ninh’s words, “painful, echoing the poet’s doubts and sense of isolation”41:
I walked
and saw no streets
no houses
Only the rain falling
upon the red flags.
The political and cultural cadres in the Party reacted strongly to this
publication. Copies of Fine Works of Spring were confiscated. Trần Dần was arrested
while he was still in the Bắc Ninh province with the land reform team. A wave of
criticism of him emerged in Hanoi newspapers. According to Phan Khôi, in his article
“Phê bình lãnh đạo văn nghệ” (a criticism of the leadership in the field of literature and
art), published in Giai Phẩm Mùa Thu 1 (Fine Works of Autumn 1), a criticism
session, organized by the Association of Literature and Art, gathered about one
40 Giai Phẩm Mùa Xuân (1956), p. 2.
41 Kim N. B. Ninh (2002), op. cit., p. 139.
230
hundred and fifty people, and lasted from 7:00 pm to 1:00 am, to accuse Trần Dần of
being anti-revolutionary. Hoài Thanh, one of the most ardent advocates of the notion of
art for art’s sake in the 1930s and now a member of the Executive Committee of the
Association of Literature and Art, fiercely accused Trần Dần, both at the session and in
an article published in Văn Nghệ magazine no. 11, March 1 – 7, 1956, for being
influenced by Hu Feng.42 He also stated that the goal of the attack on Trần Dần was to
send a message to the other writers and artists who had participated in the Fine Works
of Spring.43
It seems that this message was not heard. Those who wrote for Fine Works of
Spring were not afraid. Other were not afraid either. In September 1956, a new
magazine, published by the Minh Ðức Publishing House and edited by Phan Khôi, one
of the most notable scholars, writers, poets and journalists, entitled Nhân Văn
(Humanism), which was clearly inspired by Hu Feng, appeared. This tabloid-sized
magazine was published five times (on September 20 and 30; October 15; November 5
and 20, 1956). The sixth issue was banned and seized at the printer’s even before it was
set.44 The Minh Ðức Publishing House also re-printed the first issue of Giai Phẩm Mùa
Xuân, and went on to publish four more: Giai Phẩm Mùa Thu tập 1 (Fine Works of
Autumn, volume 1) on 29 September 1956; Giai Phẩm Mùa Thu tập 2 (Fine Works of
Autumn, volume 2) on 30 September 1956; Giai Phẩm Mùa Thu tập 3 (Fine Works of
Autumn, volume 3) on 30 October 1956; and Giai Phẩm Mùa Ðông tập 1 (Fine Works
of Winter, volume 1) on 28 November 1956. Clearly, it was from these two magazines,
that the name of the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm affair stemmed. However, it should not be
forgotten that, apart from these two magazines, there were other magazines which also
raised dissident voices, for example, Trăm Hoa (Hundred Flowers), whose name itself
was an echo of China’s A Hundred Flowers Campaign launched by Mao Zedong,
published by the poet Nguyễn Bính, consisting of ten issues between October and
42 Quoted in Kim N.B. Ninh (2002), ibid., p. 140.
43 Hoài Thanh, “Tôi đã sai lầm nhu thế nào trong việc phê bình bài ‘Nhất Ðịnh Thắng’ của anh Trần
Dần”, Văn Nghệ magazine, no. 139 (September 20-26, 1956).
44 Georges Boudarel (1990), op. cit., p. 161.
231
December, 1956; Ðất Mới (New Land), a forum for tertiary students; Nói Thật
(Speaking Openly), published by the writer Hoàng Công Khanh; and Tập San Phê Bình
(Critical Review), which lasted until the end of 1957. Some other magazines which
were strictly controlled by the Party and government were also more or less influenced
by the Nhân Văn Giai Phẩm view, such as Văn (Literature), which was established as
the first magazine of the Writers’ Association, published in thirty-seven issues; Văn
Nghệ (Literature and Art), published by the Union of Literature and Art; Hà Nội Mới
(New Hanoi) and Thời Mới (New Times).
Overall, those who participated in the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm affair can be
divided into four main categories. The first comprised young writers, most of whom
were in their thirties, beginning to devote themselves to literature or becoming famous
after 1945, such as Trần Dần (1926-1997), Hoàng Cầm (1922 - ), Lê Ðạt (1929 - ),
Phùng Quán (1932 – 1995), Hữu Loan (1916 - ), Phùng Cung (1928-1997), and Ðặng
Ðình Hưng (1924-1990). The second comprised the older generation of writers, who
gained their reputation before 1945, such as Phan Khôi (1887-1959), Văn Cao (1923-
1995), Trương Tửu Nguyễn Bách Khoa (1913-1999), Thuỵ An (? - ?), and Nguyễn
Sáng (1923-1988). The third category included several well-known intellectuals such
as Ðào Duy Anh (1904-1988), who was widely regarded as the father of Vietnamese
lexicography and anthropology, Nguyễn Mạnh Tường, who had acquired two
doctorates in France while still in his twenties, and the internationally known
philosopher Trần Ðức Thảo (1917-1993), a former Husserlian and later Marxist, who
joined the group around Jean-Paul Sartre and Merleau-Ponty’s Les temps modernes,
and whose works, originally written in French, were widely translated into several
languages, such as English, Italian, and Japanese.45 Finally, the fourth category
included several literary activists such as Nguyễn Hữu Ðang (1912 - ), who became
well known after organizing the independence memorial when Hồ Chí Minh
proclaimed Vietnamese independence in 1945, and Trần Thiếu Bảo, an experienced
publisher, who owned the Minh Ðức Publishing House, which published most of the
dissident works in the mid-1950s. Among these names, with the exception of Thuỵ An
45 Shawn McHale, op. cit., pp. 7-31.
232
and Trần Thiếu Bảo, who had stayed in Hanoi during the French war, all returned from
the resistance areas where they had spent nine years in struggling against the French
under the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Not only were they
involved in the colonial struggle, some of them had also enthusiastically embraced the
process of transforming themselves into the ‘new men’ as Ðặng Thai Mai noted
[f]rom the very beginning, they applied themselves with enthusiasm and energy to
whatever activity their country demanded of them in time of war. They fought
alongside ordinary coolies, resisted their country’s enemies side by side with the
peasants. They shared with these men the terrible privations of life in the jungle
and, like them, they lived and worked in an atmosphere of the most fervent
patriotism.46
Of these people, Trần Ðức Thảo was quite typical. After returning from France
where he had been studying for ten years, Trần Ðức Thảo sincerely desired to immerse
himself in Vietnam. In Tô Hoài’s memoir, Cát bụi chân ai (Dust on Whose Feet),
published in Hanoi in 1992, Trần Ðức Thảo “abandoned his Western clothing and
eagerly adopted a peasant’s plain brown shirt and pants”. Furthermore,
At night he slept without a mosquito net, even though we were in the jungle at the
head of the Lo River, and at nightfall, mosquitoes came out in droves. “I returned
late [to Vietnam], I have to train for hardship for times with you”. Trần Ðức Thảo
spoke seriously. Not long after, Trần Ðức Thảo collapsed with malaria.47
Phan Khôi was another example. Born in 1887, Phan Khôi was fifty-nine years
old when the French war broke out, but he was still involved in the resistance. In 1949,
when the Association of Literature and Art launched the campaign for enlisting writers
and artists in the army (phong trào văn nghệ sĩ đầu quân), Phan Khôi, at the age of
sixty-two, volunteered to join the soldiers in their military activities. Phan Khôi’s
image, shown in the excerpt below, was regarded as the most beautiful image in the
launch of this campaign:
When he stepped up to the stage, a military cadre wanted to give him some help.
46 Quoted in Zachary Abuza (2001), op. cit., p. 44.
47 Quoted in Shawn McHale, op. cit., p. 12.
233
But he refused. It seems from his heart that he did not want to receive any
privileges because of his age. His eyes were a little bit dazed, but there was an
apparent smile on his stern face.
“[…] What is my goal in this campaign? It is to observe reality in order to write.
Apart from this, I am not sure that I can complete other duties and the rigid
discipline in the army.”
His eyes sparkled and his voices became stronger:
“But I want to try.”
Carrying his cane, he returned to his place. The sound of applause burst out like a
tide. Thousands of eyes looked at him. The military band played the song “Lên
đường lập chiến công”.48
Despite their different backgrounds, these writers, artists, intellectuals and
activists nonetheless had two common goals: politically, they all attacked
authoritarianism, dogmatism and bureaucratism; and artistically, they all opposed the
theory of socialist realism. However, most critics and researchers have concentrated
mainly on the political goal. For example, in the eyes of the Vietnamese Communist
Party, the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm was first of all a political revolt by several counterrevolutionary
intellectuals. Hoàng Văn Chí, whose pen-name is Mạc Ðình, the author
of Tâm trạng của giới văn nghệ ở miền Bắc (The Disposition of the Intellectual Circle
in the North), and Trăm hoa đua nở trên đất Bắc (Hundreds of Flowers Bloom in the
North), the first books on the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm published outside North Vietnam,
considered this movement a spontaneous insurgence of intellectuals against the
communist dictatorship.49 Ken Post, in Revolution, Socialism and Nationalism in
Vietnam, volume one, also emphasized mainly the political aspects. For him, the Nhân
Văn - Giai Phẩm affair was one of the signs of unrest within the North’s writers and
artists who were deeply resentful of “the suffering of families of those imprisoned
during the land reform and the deficiencies of the state shop”, and who “denied the
48 Vương Trí Nhàn, “Lớp nhà nho cuối cùng và cuộc kháng chiến chống Pháp”, Hợp Lưu, no. 33
(February and March 1997), pp. 118-120.
49 Hoàng Văn Chí (1956), Tâm trạng của giới văn nghệ ở miền Bắc, Saigon: N.p.; and Trăm hoa đua nở
trên đất Bắc, Saigon: Mặt Trận Bảo Vệ Tự Do Văn Hoá, 1959, reprinted in Paris by Quê Mẹ in
1983.
234
Party a monopoly on patriotism” and made demands “for more freedom, for guarantees
of legality, for democratic controls over the Party and government or at least over their
cadres.”50 Others, while recognizing the two aspects of the movement in their analysis,
still placed greater emphasis on the political dimension, where, generally speaking, a
consensus was more easily reached. For Zachary Abuza, the main focus of Nhân Văn -
Giai Phẩm was “the lack of democracy, the monopolization of power in the hands of a
few, and the stagnation of politics in general”.51 For Georges Boudarel, they raised two
critical problems in politics the solutions to which the Communist leadership was to
postpone sine die: (a) freedom and democracy; and (b) legality, human rights, and the
strengthening of institutions.52 For Kim N. B. Ninh, they spoke of “the concern with
the contraction of private space and the establishment of a ‘Party-governed regime’
(chế độ Ðảng trị).”53
In relation to the artistic dimension of the movement, greater differences can be
discerned in the views of writers and researchers. The aim of Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm,
according to Georges Boudarel, was to open up all fields of thought and research;54 to
Patricia M. Pelley, the aim was to “reclaim their creative independence”;55 according to
Zachary Abuza, it was to concentrate on “the issue of ‘truth’ and the legality of
alternative and independent sources of information”;56 and finally, according to Kim N.
B. Ninh, it was to argue “for more freedom within the intellectual sphere and
demanded changes in the current leadership of art and literature.”57 However, it can be
50 Ken Post (1989), Revolution, Socialism and Nationalism in Vietnam, vol. 1, Aldershot (England):
Dartmouth, pp. 286-288.
51 Zachary Abula (2001), op. cit., pp. 48-50.
52 Georges Boudarel (1990), op. cit., p. 165.
53 Kim N.B. Ninh (2002), op. cit., p. 144.
54 Georges Boudarel (1990), ibid.
55 Patricia M. Pelley (2002), Postcolonial Vietnam, New Histories of the National Past, Durham and
London: Duke University Press, p. 120.
56 Zachary Abuza (2001), ibid.
57 Kim N. B. Ninh (2002), ibid.
235
argued that, with respect to literature and art, the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm mainly
constituted an attack on the theory of socialist realism.
This view was first suggested by Nguyễn Hữu Ðang, one of the leaders, if not
the leader of the movement, who was also sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment, in
an interview broadcasted on the RFI. His statement was recorded as follows:
In respect of politics, Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm was substantially the struggle of a
number of intellectuals, writers, artists and members of the Vietnamese
communist Party against Stalinism and Maoism. The importation of Stalinism and
Maoism resulted in many phenomena which could be called dictatorship, or more
accurately, strict totalitarianism.
[…]
The common attitude among those who were involved in the Nhân Văn - Giai
Phẩm was that none of them accepted the extremist and totalitarian regime which
was a result of the proletarian dictatorship. But what was the manifestation of this
struggle against Maoism and Stalinism?
In the final analysis, the essential issue for them was creative freedom. [Writers
and artists] did not accept the socialist realism launched by Stalin and Zhdanov,
but wanted to return to the nineteenth century critical realism of the West, that of
Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant, Hugo, and Stendhal.58
Nguyễn Hữu Ðang’s view makes two main points: firstly, socialist realism was
regarded as a major manifestation of Stalinism and Maoism in the field of literature
and art; and secondly, Vietnamese writers at that time were basically disciples of
realism, and they wanted to continue to use the realist techniques which had been
popular in nineteenth-century France and even in Vietnam prior to the Second World
War.
It should be noted that in the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm affair, Vietnamese writers
did not oppose realism as a whole. This can be seen in the proposal, written by Trần
Dần on behalf of a group of writers and artists in the army, sent to the army’s General
Political Department and the Party’s Department of Propaganda and Political
58 Thuỵ Khuê, “Phỏng vấn Nguyễn Hữu Ðang”, Tivi Tuần San, no. 510 (3 January 1996), pp. 56-60.
236
Education in February 1955, which was never published, and which has been known
only through a few passages quoted in attacks on its author:
The highest expression of a writer’s responsibility is his respect for, and his
faithfulness to, truth. That is the supreme measures by which one appraises a
writer and his works... To respect truth and abide by it is both the responsibility –
the platform – and the method of an author’s work... Truth, with its breadth and
scope, transcends all directives, all theories... If it goes against a program or an
order, writers should conform to it and not distort and force it into the framework
of politics... Revolution needs no apostle to burn incense and praise programs and
has even less use for shamans who celebrate its cult as they clap cymbals and
intone litanies... Today one finds in our literature much artifice (and even
hypocrisy). To call it by its right name, it’s a hackneyed, simplistic, elementary
literature. The writer sets up a frame and then crams reality into it.59
Trần Dần did not write anything new in the first three sentences quoted above.
This is what realism advocates: literature is a mirror of reality in which the vital quality
of descriptions and narratives is faithfulness. This is also how socialist realism is
understood through its official definition given by the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934:
“Socialist realism […] requires from the artists a truthful, historically concrete
representation of reality in its revolutionary development.”60 However, from the fourth
sentence, starting with “If it goes against..”, he is opposed to orthodox socialist realism
which interprets the concept “faithful” quite vaguely, not based on reality as it is or as
the individual perceives it, but on the Party’s understanding of “reality”, its
“revolutionary development” and the needs of the masses. In the socialist realist
hierarchy, “faithfulness” is put under three basic principles, namely, “narodnost”
(people-ness), klássovost” (class-ness) and partíinost (party-ness), in which, as C.
Vaughan James emphasizes at the beginning of his treatise Soviet Socialist Realism,
Origins and Theory, the last element is dominant.61
59 Georges Boudarel (1990), op. cit., p. 157.
60 Marc Slonim (1977), Soviet Russian Literature, Writers and Problems, 1917-1977, second revised
edition, London and Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 165.
61 C. Vaughan James (1973), Soviet Socialist Realism, Origins and Theory, London: Macmillan, p. 1.
237
Refusing to “distort” and “force” reality into the framework of politics means to
refuse the “partíinost” principle, which is also understood as refusing the Party’s
policies and orders. This is one of the reasons why the Party’s and government’s
leaders became so incensed with the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm group and, as a result, the
event quickly became political. It is also a reason why the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm
writers requested freedom as the first and most vital condition of artistic creation, and
of realism as well:
[A] writer must be allowed quasi-absolute freedom in the choice of his subject, of
his characters, of his style to express attitudes and feelings. All hindrances and
restraints must be proscribed as enemies of realism.62
In order to avoid being accused of being anarchists, they carefully limited their
understanding of “freedom” in choosing “subjects”, “characters” and “styles to express
attitudes and feelings”. In this context, “freedom” is understood as having the right to
be sincere, and furthermore, innovative. Not surprisingly, “sincerity” and “innovation”
became two of the most popular themes in the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm literature,
particularly in poetry.
Phùng Quán, one of the youngest members of the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm group,
had a poem which was widely considered as a manifesto of the righteous writers and
poets of all times:
... a man, sincere and true,
will laugh when, happy, he wants to laugh,
will cry, when, sad, he wants to cry.
If you love someone, say you love.
If you hate someone, say you hate.
Someone may not talk sweet and flatter you –
still, don’t say hate when you feel love.
Someone may grab a knife and threaten you –
still, don’t say love when you feel hate.63
62 Quoted in Zachary Abuza (2001), op. cit., pp. 46-47.
63 Translated from the Vietnamese by Huỳnh Sanh Thông, The Vietnam Forum, no. 13 (1990), pp. 175-
76.
238
In a poem entitled “New” published in Fine Works of Spring, Lê Ðạt regarded
those who refused to innovate as old lime pots that had been used by betel nut chewers
and now were being thrown away:
There are several people who manage to live a hundred years
Like lime pots
The longer they live, the more mediocre they become
The longer they live, the smaller they become.64
Being tired of such a fate, Lê Ðạt appealed to “make it new” as the Western
modernists did in the 1920s and 1930s:
New! New!
Always new!
Fly high
Fly far
Above the signs of the old
Above the deteriorating sidewalks
Surpassing today
Surpassing tomorrow, the day after,
Always surpassing...65
Carefully, in another poem, which was printed on the first pages of the
collection, Lê Ðạt confirmed:
I carry my pen, following the Party
And charge straight into the forefront.66
But later, in another poem, Lê Ðạt criticized the Party for
Placing police stations and machinery in the centre of the human heart,
Forcing feelings to be expressed according to a set of rules promulgated by
the government.67
64 Lê Ðạt, “Mới”, Giai Phẩm Mùa Xuân (1956), p. 29.
65 Ibid. Translated by Kim N.B. Ninh (2002), op. cit., p. 138.
66 Lê Ðạt, “Làm thơ”, Giai Phẩm Mùa Xuân (1956), p. 4.
67 Neil L. Jamieson (1995), Understanding Vietnam, Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 259.
239
Clearly, it is almost impossible for writers and poets to be sincere and
innovative without struggle against totalitarianism. This may be among the reasons
why Phan Khôi, based on the above quatrain on the lime pots, wrote a short essay,
entitled “Mr. Lime Pot”, describing and analysing several facts around the custom of
chewing betel, and, linked with this custom, the pots which were used as lime
containers. These lime pots, after long use, filled up with hard, dry lime so that they
became unusable and had to be replaced by new ones. Phan Khôi concluded his essay
as follows:
In summation, people show their reverence and respect to a lime pot by calling it
“Mister” because it has lived a long time, filled up hard and dry inside, its mouth
covered over, sitting in melancholy on an altar or up on a wall, like an earthen or
wooden statue, speechless, motionless.68
From Hoàng Văn Chí in the mid-1950s to Zachary Abuza in the early twentyfirst
century, almost all scholars have interpreted this essay as an implicit allusion to
Hồ Chí Minh and several leaders who were old-aged at that time. In Neil L. Jamieson’s
words:
Hồ Chí Minh had been the leading Vietnamese Communist since the late 1920s
when he organized the Youth League among young political exiles in Canton.
Phạm Văn Ðồng, Võ Nguyên Giáp, Truờng Chinh, and almost all the other
important leaders had played an important role in the party for decades. The
implication was that these men might have grown too rigid, too closed, that like
lime pots they had lost their usefulness after long use. Perhaps it was time to put
Hồ Chí Minh and his grey-haired cronies on the shelf; to venerate them, to give
them titles showing reverence and respect, but to get new leaders to conduct the
affairs of government.69
Not surprisingly, Phan Khôi was immediately perceived as reactionary and
revisionist, an ungrateful person and a senile old man, unable to overcome his
ingrained bourgeois mentality and who wanted to cause controversy for its own sake. It
68 Ibid., p. 261.
69 Ibid.
240
seems that Phan Khôi accepted this challenge not because of his political ideology but,
more reliably, because of his own vision of intellectual and literary ethics: for him, a
righteous and gifted writer can be compared with the thorny roses whose best quality
lay not only in their talent but also in their stubbornness:
What sort of rose is without thorns?
Just let it not be a rose without blossoms.
If it is to be a rose, it must have blossoms.
Who would tend a rose with only thorns and no blossoms?
O rose, I love you very much.
You have thorns, but a fragrant scent as well.70
In order to be roses which had both “thorns” and “fragrant scent” in literature
and art, the duties of writers and artists were twofold: firstly, they had to break down
the system which restrained their freedom, and therefore their capacity for creation;
and secondly, they had to attack several literary and artistic canons which aimed at
limiting the horizon of aesthetics. The first task resulted in requests to restructure the
literary mechanism in which the proposals most often mentioned were those to
abandon censorship and the political commissars’ grip on artistic creation. In
completing this task, a theoretical issue had to be solved: the relationship between
literature and politics. This issue was first raised by Phan Khôi in his article “Phê bình
lãnh đạo văn nghệ” (A criticism of leadership in the field of literature and art)
published in the Fine Works of Autumn, volume 1, and further discussed by Trương
Tửu in his three successive essays: “Bệnh sùng bái cá nhân trong giới lãnh đạo văn
nghệ” (The sickness of the personality cult within the leadership of literature and art),
published in the Fine Works of Autumn, volume 2; “Văn nghệ và chính trị” (Literature
and Politics) published in the Fine Works of Autumn volume 3; and “Tự do tư tưởng
của văn nghệ sĩ và sự lãnh đạo của Ðảng Cộng Sản Bôn-sê-vích” (Freedom of thought
of intellectuals and the leadership of the Bolshevik Communist Party), published in the
Fine Works of Winter, volume 1.
70 Zachary Abuza’s translation in Zachary Abuza (2001), ibid.
241
In “A criticism of the leadership in the field of literature and art”, Phan Khôi
pointed out that there were two opposite classes in the Vietnamese literary circles: the
literary leaders (lãnh đạo văn nghệ) and the literary masses (quần chúng văn nghệ). In
his opinion, firstly, such an opposition between these two “classes” only began to
appear after the French war; and secondly, while this opposition was quite normal
under capitalism, it was clearly a bad symptom in a socialist society: it showed
mistakes in leadership. Then, after criticizing some of these wrongs, he went further by
insisting that what writers and artists longed for most was freedom. He emphasized that
this was not anarchic and unprincipled freedom, but a freedom in the field of literature
and art only. To support such a notion of freedom, Phan Khôi discussed the so-called
“unwritten contract” between the state and writers:
It is obvious that literature and art must serve politics, and as a result, politics
must lead literature and art. But we must ask: if politics wants to achieve its goal,
can it use slogans, banners, notices and decrees without literature and art?
Sincerely answering, perhaps politics must tap literature and art on the shoulder
and say: I am attached to you because I want to use your art. Once that is out in
the open, literature and art agree. But this artistic area is a separate area of
literature and art, where it cannot be covered by politics, and where literature and
art must demand freedom. As such, I think politics has no reason to disagree.
“Both sides win”, such a principle is applicable for any cooperative situation
today.71
For Phan Khôi, in the field of literature and art, the “personality” of the writers
and artists was the most valuable element with which the aesthetic values were created:
Each of us possesses his own art and reflects his own personality in it. Only this
kind of art and personality can create the spectacle of a hundred flowers rivalling
each other in charm. On the contrary, if one compels all writers to write in the
same style, there may come a day when all the flowers will be changed into
chrysanthemums.72
71 Phan Khôi, “Phê bình lãnh đạo văn nghệ”, Giai Phẩm Mùa Thu 1 (1956), pp. 8-9.
72 Neil L. Jamieson’s translation in Neil J. Jamieson (1993), op. cit., p. 258.
242
Apparently, in supporting and developing Phan Khôi’s ideas, Trương Tửu
published in Fine Works of Autumn 2 a long essay about the sickness of the cult of
personality in the leaders of literature and art. For him, this cult of personality was a
real “disease” which was very popular and harmful in Vietnam. However, he
emphasized that
I do not say that this is a sickness of Vietnamese writers and artists, because in the
past and at present as well, no self-esteemed writers and artists have ever accepted
the personality cult. Art is creative and free. The personality cult is a blind
obedience and slavery. These two things are like water and fire, which cannot be
in co-existence.73
But why did the “sickness” of personality appear? In Trương Tửu's opinion, it
appeared when a number of people in the Party monopolized the leadership in the field
of literature and art. At first these people believed that the Party had never made
mistakes, then they went on to believe, or try to make other people believe, that the
leaders of the Party had never made mistakes, and finally, as a result of these
disbeliefs, the cult of personality came into being. In his view, it was the very leaders,
with their bureaucratic and authoritarian mode of leadership, who prevented the
development of a revolutionary literature and art after the end of the French war. It was
time all of these leaders were dismissed, given that the “literary masses” (quần chúng
văn nghệ) could democratically manage their professional activities themselves. He
asserted that leadership in the field of literature and art had to be returned to
professional writers and artists, regardless of whether or not they were members of the
Vietnamese Communist Party. In making this request, writers and artists did not want
to divorce literature and art from politics. They agreed that all works, even professional
ones, had to serve politics, serve a common policy for the benefit of the masses.
However, this service could only be completely done if professionals were in control of
their own activities.74
73 Giai Phẩm Mùa Thu 2 (1956), p. 5.
74 Ibid., pp. 3-14.
243
This view was supported by Ðào Duy Anh, one of the pioneers and most
prestigious scholars of Vietnamese lexicography and anthropology. In his article
“Muốn phát triển học thuật” (To foster scholarship), published in the Fine Works of
Autumn, volume 3, Ðào Duy Anh admitted that Vietnamese scholarship was very low
and backward. The reason for this, in his opinion, was the total distrust of intellectuals
and of professionalism which was very common in Vietnam. He pointed out that
It is not unusual to see cadres without any experience outside of politics, or who
pretend to be specialists, put in charge of a cultural or academic journal 75 ... Their
narrow-mindedness leads to a loss of professionalism which engenders superficial
research; and only those ideas which conform to classical Marxist themes or to the
speeches of our leaders have the right to be cited.76
Also in the Fine Works of Autumn, volume 3, in his essay “Văn nghệ và chính
trị” (Literature and Politics), Trương Tửu continued to delve into these questions. He
started his long argument by emphasizing that the most basic and crucial issue in the
course of establishing a theory of socialist literature was the relationship between
literature and politics. In his opinion, once this issue was properly solved, several other
issues, such as the relationship between creative freedom and the Party’s leadership,
between the need to serve political purposes temporally and the achievement of
eternally aesthetic values, and between art and propaganda, would also be solved
accordingly.77 In searching for answers to this fundamental question, Trương Tửu
looked back on the whole history of literature and art. In the final analysis, he reached
the conclusion that
In order to create a distinguished world, writers and artists must have a
distinguished view, a distinguished perception of reality, a distinguished
imagination, and a distinguished method of expression. They must maintain,
secure and develop this distinguishedness so that no outer force can harm or
75 In the original Vietnamese, Ðào Duy Anh used the word “tổ chức” (văn hoá hay học thuật) (Fine
Works of Autumn 3, p. 37), so it should be translated as “institution” instead of “journal” as in
Georges Boudarel and Nguyễn Văn Ký (2002), op. cit., p. 123.
76 Quoted in Georges Boudarel and Nguyễn Văn Ký (2002), op. cit., p. 123.
77 Trương Tửu, “Văn nghệ và chính trị”, Giai Phẩm Mùa Thu, vol. 3, p. 4.
244
destroy it. They must have freedom to observe reality, to feel, think, imagine, and
use language to reflect reality truthfully. “Freedom” here means: struggle against
all kinds of suppression in thinking, all orders, all formulas, all authorities which
force us to speak what we do not want to speak, to think what we do not want to
think, accept as correct what we regard as wrong, to love what we hate, praise
what we protest against. Without this freedom, creation will become false.
Falsehood is an enemy of art. Falsehood will terminate art. A work of art which is
not crystallized from sincere emotions and deep thoughts of the very author will
be a pale reflection of reality. It will be parched because of its lifelessness. It is
not art, and therefore it cannot be touching.
The reason why classical works have had great impact on readers is that their
creators had the bravery to be themselves in social conditions which did not allow
people to be themselves. They were free to see, feel, think, and speak their minds
in a society where they were compelled to see, feel, think and speak in accordance
with the dominant formulas. They had overcome the fetters of the exploiting class
in order to tell the truth, to have the freedom to speak truthfully. They satisfied
those who needed to know the truth, those who were oppressed and wanted to be
liberated. Thanks to this characteristic, their works have been loved, respected,
appraised by the masses of people although they had not belonged to the masses
and did not completely escape from ruling class ideologies. That is the very great
value of the classical writers.78
It can be said that Trương Tửu is the critic who went furthest in challenging the
orthodox Marxists in Vietnam by attacking one of the most fundamental tenets of
socialist realist theory: the relationship between literature and politics. His views,
which have been almost ignored by the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm experts in the West,
who are inclined to pay more attention to the political rather than the artistic aspects of
the movement, were regarded as most provocative and dangerous thoughts. In counterattacking
his views, apart from a number of articles published on various newspapers,
magazines, and anthologies, such as Bọn Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm trước toà án dư luận,
there was an entire book of 102 pages, written by two historians, Văn Tân and Nguyễn
Hồng Phong, entitled Chống quan điểm phi vô sản về văn nghệ và chính trị (Oppose
78 Giai Phẩm Mùa Thu 3 (1956), p. 9.
245
non-proletarian views on literature and politics) with a subtitle as follows: “Nhân
những ý kiến của ông Trương Tửu về văn nghệ và chính trị đã đăng trên báo Nhân Văn
và Giai Phẩm mùa thu và mùa đông” (On the occasion of the publication of Mr.
Trương Tửu’s opinions on literature and politics in the Nhân Văn magazine and Fine
Works of Autumn and Winter). This book was published in 1957 by Sự Thật, the
official publishing house of the Vietnamese Communist Party.
Apart from criticizing the literary mechanism whose major goal was to restrict
writers’ and artists’ creative freedom, the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm group concentrated
their harsh criticism on several literary canons which were systematically established
by the Party and government through various means and under multiple forms,
including criticism, propaganda, education and, in particular, literary awards. The first
attempts to canonize socialist realist literature started in 1951 when Hoài Thanh
published Nói chuyện thơ kháng chiến (Talking about resistance poetry) and Xuân
Diệu published Tiếng thơ (Poetry’s Voice), both aimed at extolling the poems written
on the resistance and by amateur poets, most of them in the army. It was also in 1951
that the first literary awards by the Association of Literature and Art were given. The
Outstanding Prizes were given to reportages written on the lives and military
achievements of several “heroes” and “emulation fighters” (chiến sĩ thi đua). The first
prize went to Vùng mỏ (Mine area) by Võ Huy Tâm (1926-1996), a coal-mine worker,
whose novel had been carefully edited and well refined by Huy Tưởng (1912-1960),
one of several examiners.79 After the Geneva Agreements, one of the first activities in
the field of literature and art was to continue to canonize socialist realist aesthetics. Of
these, the most noticeable event was the 1954-1955 Literary Award organized by the
Vietnamese Association of Literature and Art. In the prose category, the first prizes
were given to Ðất nước đứng lên by Nguyên Ngọc and Truyện Tây Bắc by Tô Hoài;
the second to Truyện anh Lục by Nguyễn Huy Tưởng and Con trâu by Nguyễn Văn
Bổng; the third to Vượt Côn Ðảo by Phùng Quán, Cái Lu by Trần Kim Trắc, Lên nông
truờng by Hồng Hà and Nam Bộ mến yêu by Hoài Thanh. For poetry, the first award
79 Nguyễn Xuân Sanh, “Chín năm - một đoạn đuờng”, in Phong Lê and Lưu Khánh Thơ (eds.) (1995),
Cách mạng kháng chiến và đời sống văn học 1945-1954: Hồi ức - Kỷ niệm, Hanoi: nxb Khoa
Học Xã Hội, p. 198.
246
was given to the collection of poems Việt Bắc by Tố Hữu, the second to Ngôi sao by
Xuân Diệu, Nụ cười chính nghĩa by Tú Mỡ, and Ðồng tháng Tám và Dặn con by Trần
Hữu Thung; the third to Thơ chiến sĩ by Hồ Khải Ðại.
This literary award, and closely linked with it, the attempt to canonize the new
aesthetics and literature, failed to attract public support. After the winners were
announced in March 1956, Hanoi’s intellectual community burst out with criticism. It
was revealed that at least three of the winners were also the examiners in the same
competition: Xuân Diệu, Nguyễn Huy Tưởng and Hoài Thanh.80 Furthermore, as Phan
Khôi commented in his essay “Phê bình lãnh đạo văn nghệ” (A criticism of the
leadership in the field of literature and art), what concerned people most was that a
majority of the awarded works were regarded as worthless, even that by Xuân Diệu,
one of the best-known and finest poets in the pre-war period.81
In A World Transformed, Kim N. B. Ninh stated that “[a]lthough Tố Hữu won
first prize in the poetry category, the fiercest protest was voiced against the second and
third prize winners, the collection Ngôi sao (Stars) by the established poet Xuân Diệu
and the collection Thơ chiến sĩ (A soldier’s poems) by the soldier Hồ Khải Ðại”.82 If
this is true, it is easily understandable. At the time, Tố Hữu, a member of the Central
Committee, was in charge of cultural and intellectual activities. His collection of
poems Việt Bắc was published with a print-run of twenty thousand copies, “a number
unheard of in that period”, as Xuân Trường,83 Georges Boudarel84 and Kim N. B.
Ninh85 have remarked; this means, in Kim N. B. Ninh’s words, it was “accessible to
80 Phan Khôi, “Phê bình lãnh đạo văn nghệ”, Giai Phẩm Mùa Thu (1956), vol. 1, p. 16.
81 Ibid., pp. 13-16.
82 Kim N. B. Ninh (2003), op. cit., p. 134.
83 Xuân Trường, “Ðọc tập thơ Việt Bắc của Tố Hữu”, reprinted in Phan Trọng Thưởng and Nguyễn Cừ
(eds.) (1980), Tố Hữu, Nhà thơ cách mạng, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội, p. 106.
84 Georges Boudarel (1991), Cent fleurs écloses dans la nuit du Vietnam: Communisme et dissidence,
1954-1956, Paris: Editions Jacques Bertoin, p. 119.
85 Kim N. B. Ninh (2002), op. cit., p. 131.
247
all, a tool for the propaganda effort as well as an example to intellectuals of the content
and forms of the new literature.”86 Alongside this publication, a tide of eulogy emerged
in the North media regarding Tố Hữu as the “leading flag” of revolutionary poetry
(ngọn cờ đầu của thi ca cách mạng). Nguyễn Ðình Thi (1924-2003) alone published
three articles in 1955 to analyse the greatness in Tố Hữu’s poetic style.87 Clearly, Tố
Hữu was not only a poet, but a powerful poet. Most critics were scared of him, and
therefore, understandably, they shifted their criticism to those writers and poets who
did not hold important positions in the government or the Party, such as Xuân Diệu and
Hồ Khải Ðại. However, there were still several poets who openly criticized Tố Hữu’s
poetry. For example, Nguyễn Viết Lãm wrote “Những nhược điểm của tập thơ Việt
Bắc” (The weakness of Việt Bắc) in the Ðộc Lập magazine no. 99, March 1955;
Nguyễn Văn Phú wrote “Vài điều non yếu trong nghệ thuật tập Việt Bắc” (Several
artistic weakness in Việt Bắc) in Văn Nghệ magazine, 30 April 1955; Hoàng Cầm
wrote two articles, “Tập thơ Việt Bắc ít chất thực tế” (Việt Bắc lacks the matters of
live) in Văn Nghệ magazine, 10 April 1955, and “Bổ sung ý kiến của tôi về tập Việt
Bắc” (Some further opinions on Việt Bắc) in Văn Nghệ, 10 May 1955; Hoàng Yến also
wrote two articles, “Ðọc tập thơ Việt Bắc của Tố Hữu” (Reading Tố Hữu’s Việt Bắc)
in Nhân Dân 3 April 1955, and “Việt Bắc có hiện thực không?” (Is Việt Bắc realistic?)
in Văn Nghệ magazine, 20 March 1955; Lê Ðạt wrote “Giai cấp tính trong thơ Tố
Hữu” (The class-mindedness in To Hưu’s poetry), published in Văn Nghệ magazine in
April 1955.88
Hoàng Cầm compared Tố Hữu’s collection to a big jar of water which had been
diluted with a little bit milk.89 Lê Ðạt had a similar opinion: “In some aspects, Tố
86 Ibid., p. 131.
87 These are: “Thơ Tố Hữu đi vào thực tế quần chúng”, Văn Nghệ magazine, July 14, 1955; “Lập
trường giai cấp và Ðảng tính, vấn đề hiện thực và lãng mạn”, Văn Nghệ magazine, July 21,
1955; “Nhà thơ lớn lên với thời đại”, Văn Nghệ, August 4, 1955.
88 The list of these articles can be found in the bibliography of Tố Hữu, nhà thơ cách mạng, op. cit., pp.
635- 646; Huỳnh Lý and Trần Văn Hối (1962), Giáo trình lịch sử văn học Việt Nam, vol. 6,
Hanoi: Nxb Giáo Dục, pp. 262-6.
89 Quoted in Ðông Hoài (1970), Qua những chặng đường văn nghệ, Hanoi: Văn Học, p. 146.
248
Hữu’s poems are useful. He made a great effort to serve the political task. His poems
are good lessons on policy. But good lessons on policy are neither realist, nor
proletarian.”90 Trần Dần wrote a nearly 3000-word essay entitled “Cách nhìn sự vật
của nhà thơ Tố Hữu” (Tố Hữu’s view), finished in May 1955, but not published until
after his death, in which he discussed at length the literary style of Tố Hữu. In Trần
Dần’s opinion, Tố Hữu’s poetry had three striking characteristics. Firstly, it contained
nothing new. His best poetic lines were classic, and full of clichés. In terms of
aesthetics, he was a lazy poet who followed tradition and formula, but made no attempt
to discover and create. Secondly, Tố Hữu’s vision was very narrow. When he loved
someone, these people became smaller. He was not able to recognize and present the
grandeur of the revolutionary leaders and soldiers, the capital city Hanoi and the
liberated areas during the resistance war against the French, his favourite topics.
Thirdly, Tố Hữu’s view was full of pessimism and sadness. He tried to use poetry as a
weapon with which to serve politics and the masses, but he failed. In conclusion, Trần
Dần agreed with Hoàng Cầm, Lê Ðạt and others that Tố Hữu was basically a pettybourgeois
who devoted himself to the proletarian revolution.91
*
It should be noted that between 1955 and 1957 the Vietnamese Communist
Party and government in North Vietnam were reasonably tolerant of their dissidents.
Both Nhân Văn and Giai Phẩm were allowed to publish five issues each before being
officially banned. From 1955 to 1957, although nearly all dissidents were sternly and
repeatedly criticized in the public media or at political conferences, with the exception
of Trần Dần and Tử Phác, no writer or artist was arrested. Most of them remained in
their professional posts. Their works were even published in some official mouthpieces
of the Party or government such as Nhân Dân or Tổ Quốc.
90 Ibid., p. 152.
91 Trần Dần (2001), op. cit., pp. 141-148.
249
There are several reasons for this initial tolerance. Firstly, it was influenced by
changes in political culture in China, the Soviet Union and some Eastern European
countries. Secondly, as expressed by Georges Boudarel, the “fingers” of the
Vietnamese authorities “had been burned by the very harsh methods of agrarian
reform”.92 Thirdly, as Hirohide Kurihara argues, during this period the Party actually
admitted mistakes in its literary policies.93 Finally and more importantly, the
authorities did not believe that the dissident movement posed a threat to the regime. In
Following Hồ Chí Minh, the Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel, Bùi Tín argues
that socialist realism, in the form of Chinese or Soviet films, was “far more familiar to
Vietnamese youth than the writers of the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm group”.94 In his
memory, “in those days nobody could get hold of copies of Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm to
see for themselves what the fuss was all about.”95 Zachary Abuza agrees with this
remark: “The appeal of these dissidents was somewhat lost on the broader public
because nearly ninety percent of the population were illiterate or semiliterate
peasants.”96
However, when the criticism in the dissident magazines and journals became
increasingly more political and directly challenged the Party’s leadership, and these
views began to have a deep influence on many other writers and artists, the Party hardliners
decided to launch their huge campaign of counter-attacks. Several anthologies,
pamphlets, and special issues of journals were published. An anti-Nhân Văn - Giai
Phẩm affair dominated the press, including editorials, commentaries from orthodox
writers and letters from readers. Among the main tactics used were: to link the Nhân
92 Georges Boudarel (1990), op. cit., pp. 167-68.
93 Hirohide Kurihara, “Changes in the Literary Policy of the Vietnamese Workers’ Party, 1956-1958”,
in Takashi Shiraishi and Moto Furuta (eds.) (1992), Indochina in the 1940s and 1950s, Ithaca:
Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, pp. 165-196.
94 Bùi Tín (1995), Following Hồ Chí Minh, The Memoir of a North Vietnamese Colonel, translated from
the Vietnamese and adapted by Judy Stowe and Ðỗ Văn, Bathurst: Crawford House Publishing,
p. 35.
95 Ibid.
96 Zachary Abuza (2001), op. cit., p. 52.
250
Văn - Giai Phẩm group to Trotskyism, or to the anti-Communist plots of the
Americans and the South Vietnamese government; to use slander, depicting the
dissident intellectuals as people who were extremely hypocritical and debauched. As in
Shawn McHale’s summation:
A reader encountering these criticisms for the first time must have come away
with the sense of the complete moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Party’s
critics. Allegation piled on top of allegation. “The wicked actions of the Nhân Văn
- Giai Phẩm group are clearly in accord with the plot of the Americans and [South
Vietnam’s President Ngô Ðình] Diệm to destroy the north,” A variety of articles
claimed that the accused were Trotskyists coming into the open. One stated that
Nguyễn Hữu Ðang was from a landlord family; was egotistical and selfish;
wanted to be an emperor or general; sold materials on the black market (in [the]
early 1940s); that he had gambled at night on floating gambling dens before 1945.
Another article accused Phan Khôi of denouncing the anti-imperialist forces to the
secret police before 1945; furthermore, this account claimed, the Việt Minh
security police (công an) had caught Phan Khôi red-handed, sometime after 1946,
smoking opium in the Vietnamese Nationalist Party [Việt Nam Quốc Dân Ðảng]
offices! Thuỵ An was accused of being close to the families of the French general
de Lattre de Tassigny and the colonial-era Chief of the Sureté Marty; of being a
lover [nhân tình] of a member of the Vietnamese Nationalist Party; and, in
general, of being part of a group within the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm group that used
thugs and prostitutes to debauch others (see Nhân Dân April 13-23, 1958).97
On January 6, 1958 the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Politburo passed a
resolution accusing “saboteurs on the ideological and cultural front”:
By exploiting the weaknesses of the arts and letters front and in particular the
confused nature of thinking of the majority of artists and writers, the saboteurs
have contrived to continue their activities and to cause very serious damage. It is
clear that the anti-Socialist and anti-Party elements have profited from our laxness
to continue their attacks on us in the sphere of ideas under the guise of arts and
letters. The activities of these saboteurs among the artists and writers constitute a
97 Shawn McHale, “Vietnamese Marxism, Dissent, and the Politics of Postcolonial Memory: Trần Ðức
Thảo, 1946-1993”, The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 61, no. 1 (February 2002), p. 19.
251
most dangerous threat and must be dealt with urgently.98
After that, two “courses” on ideological rectification were organized, the first in
February, attracting one hundred and seventy-two participants, and the second in
March, three hundred and four participants. In both courses, those who participated in
the Nhân Văn and Giai Phẩm were forced to make public self-criticism or apologies for
their mistakes. Four people refused to attend these courses: Phan Khôi, Trương Tửu,
Thuỵ An, and Nguyễn Hữu Ðang.99 Writers and artists were divided into teams and
sent either to factories or to the rural villages to “reinforce their ideological platform”.
On June 4, 1958 Tố Hữu read a long report on the struggle against the Nhân Văn - Giai
Phẩm clique which was soon published in book form.100 On the same day, the
Vietnamese Union of Literature and Art issued a resolution accusing the Nhân Văn -
Giai Phẩm of being revisionist and counter-revolutionary.101 A day later, more than
eight hundred members of the Vietnamese Union of Literature and Art passed another
resolution expressing their support for the Union’s resolution, promising to do their
best to study Marxism Leninism and the Party’s policies.102 In the following month, the
professional associations announced their punishment for the members of the Nhân
Văn - Giai Phẩm group. Hoàng Cầm and Hoàng Tích Linh were expelled from the
Executive Committee of the Writers’ Association; Sĩ Ngọc and Nguyễn Sáng from the
Executive Committee of the Visual Artists’ Association; Văn Cao and Nguyễn Văn Tý
from the Executive Committee of the Musicians’ Association. Phan Khôi, Trương Tửu
and Thuỵ An were expelled from the Writers’ Association; and Trần Duy from the
Visual Artists’ Association. Others were expelled from their professional associations
for a period of three years, including: Trần Dần and Lê Ðạt (from the Writers’
98 Quote in Zachary Abuza (2001), op. cit., p. 55.
99 Hoàng Văn Chí (1983), op. cit., p. 36.
100 Tố Hữu (1958), Qua cuộc đấu tranh chống nhóm phá hoại Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm trên mặt trận văn
nghệ, Hanoi: Sự Thật.
101 Nhà xuất bản Sự Thật (1959), Bọn Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm trước toà án dư luận, Hanoi: Sự Thật, pp.
337-39.
102 Ibid., pp. 335-36.
252
Association), Tử Phác and Ðặng Ðình Hưng (from the Musicians’ Association).103
Apart from these, Trương Tửu, Trần Ðức Thảo, and Nguyễn Mạnh Tường were forced
out of their universities and even out of the public eye.104
A year and a half later, in January 1960, five people participating in the Nhân
Văn - Giai Phẩm were put on trial in the Hanoi court: cultural activist Nguyễn Hữu
Ðang and novelist Thuỵ An (real name Lưu Thị Yến) were sentenced to fifteen years
in prison, publisher Minh Ðức to ten years, and two of their collaborators to six and
five years.105
This trial officially ended the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm affair. However, two
important things should be mentioned. Firstly, the punishment suffered by the Nhân
Văn - Giai Phẩm members was much longer and more severe than what had been
announced in the North Vietnamese press, and what had been expected by the
condemned writers and artists. Most of them were expelled from all forms of literary
and artistic activities not only for three years but in fact ten times longer: thirty years.
The membership of the Vietnamese Writers’ Association of Trần Dần, Lê Ðạt, Hoàng
Cầm, Phùng Quán and Hoàng Tích Linh was not restored until February 1, 1988.106
During these thirty years, they were not allowed to publish anything except a number
of translations that they were ordered to write, and even then their names were not
acknowledged. They were also expunged from all kinds of historical records except
those relating to the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm affair. Secondly, after suppressing the
Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm group, the Vietnamese authorities vigorously promoted socialist
realism as the only theory of literature and art, starting one of the darkest periods in
modern Vietnamese history. This Maoist-style socialist realism was only challenged
103 Ibid., pp. 310-11.
104 See Nguyễn Mạnh Tường (1992), Un excommunié: Hanoi, 1954-1991, Procès d’un intellectuel,
Paris: Quê Mẹ; Phạm Trọng Chánh, “Tiểu sử triết gia Trần Ðức Thảo (1917-1993), Trăm Con
(Toronto), no. 12 (June 1993), p. 36; and Phạm Trọng Chánh, “Triết gia Trần Ðức Thảo và vụ
án Nhân Văn – Giai Phẩm”, Trăm Con, no. 13 (August 1993), pp. 17-20.
105 Georges Boudarel and Nguyễn Văn Ký (2002), op. cit., p. 126.
106 Văn Nghệ, no. 8 (February 20, 1988).
253
again in the đổi mới (renovation) movement which was launched in 1987 under the
impact of the Russian glasnost and perestroika policies.
254
CHAPTER SEVEN
Ðổi Mới and the End of Socialist Realism
If the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm affair in the 1950s has been remembered as a
tragic crisis for socialist realism, the đổi mới (renovation) movement, which occurred
in the second half of the 1980s, will be remembered as a “happy ending” of this
theory.
While the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm affair, attached closely with the Chinese
Hundred Flowers Bloom campaign, was limited to the field of literature and art, and
was basically a cultural phenomenon, the đổi mới movement emerged from the broader
context of re-directing the Party’s fundamental policies on the economy, politics and
culture, which have changed the nature of the socialist regime. While Nhân Văn - Giai
Phẩm appeared in a very closed-door society where the voices of dissent were rarely
heard outside the literary circles, the đổi mới writers and artists have lived in a
globalized era in which they can easily and quickly make contact with the international
community, including the community of approximately three million overseas
Vietnamese. However, both Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm and đổi mới movements were
politically constructed: they were both products of, and responses to, certain conditions
of national and international politics.
The đổi mới policy, which was officially adopted by the Vietnamese
Communist Party at its Sixth National Congress in December 1986,1 was on the one
hand a response to the failure of the state-controlled economy, and, more particularly,
1 On the “đổi mới” policy, more information can be found in Dean K. Forbes, Terence H. Hull, David G.
Marr, and Brian Brogan (eds.) (1991), Đổi Mới, Vietnam’s Renovation Policy and
Performance, Canberra: Department of Political and Social Change, ANU; Irene Norlund,
Carolyn L. Gates and Vũ Cao Ðàm (eds.) (1995), Vietnam in a Changing World, Richmond
255
to the collectivism in which most people refused to work in large, state-governed
agricultural institutions;2 and on the other hand, an echo of Gorbachev’s glasnost and
perestroika programs in the former Soviet Union. While glasnost and perestroika
began, first of all, with political and cultural reform, Vietnamese đổi mới favoured
political stability over radical changes and favoured economic restructuring as its
ultimate priority. While glasnost and perestroika resulted in the collapse of socialism,
the Vietnamese đổi mới aimed at building a “market economy with a socialist
direction” which “opened the way to new forms of ownership and management,
including a resurgent private sector and market, decentralization of management, and
expansion of economic ties with the non-socialist world.”3 At the same time, it also
maintained one-party rule.4 One year later, the Vietnamese Communist Party officially
extended the đổi mới policy to the field of literature at a meeting between the Secretary
General Nguyễn Văn Linh and about one hundred Vietnamese writers, artists and
scholars in Hanoi, where Nguyễn Văn Linh publicly admitted that “the Party
leadership regarding culture, art and literature was, as noted by many, undemocratic,
authoritarian, and high-handed.”5 Most important, he urged writers not to “bend their
pens” and distort their writing, but instead to be courageous in attacking all “negative”
manifestations in society, even from the high-ranking cadres. He rectified the former
situation by announcing that writers were now “untied” (cởi trói) and freed from the
previous censorships and restraints.6 This announcement from the top leader of the
(England): Curzon Press.
2 Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet, “Rural Society and State Relations”, in Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet and Doug
J. Porter (eds.) (1995), Vietnam’s Rural Transformation, Boulder: Westview Press, pp. 65-96.
3 William S. Turley and Mark Selden (eds.) (1993), Reinventing Vietnamese Socialism, Đổi Mới in
Comparative Perspective, Boulder: Westview Press, p. 1.
4 Eero Palmujoki (1997), Vietnam and the World, Marxist-Leninist Doctrine and the Changes in
International Relations, 1975-93, London: Macmillan, p. 180.
5 Nguyễn Văn Linh, “Let Writers and Artists Actively Contribute to Renovation”, Vietnam Courier, no.
1 (1988), p. 11.
6 This meeting was reported in Văn Nghệ magazine, 17 October 1987. The text of Nguyễn Văn Linh’s
speech was printed in Tuổi Trẻ, 17 October 1987, reprinted in Nguyễn Văn Linh (1988), Ðổi
mới để tiến lên, vol. 1, Hanoi: Sự Thật, pp. 160-168; and Nguyễn Duy Bắc (ed.) (2001), Về
lãnh đạo, quản lý văn học nghệ thuật trong công cuộc đổi mới, Hanoi: Nxb Chính Trị Quốc
256
Party had an immediate liberating effect on literary production in Vietnam. It opened a
movement of đổi mới literature which lasted from roughly 1987 until 1990.
However, it should be noted that the đổi mới literature was not only a product
of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s changed policy but also, more importantly a
consequence of a long and complex struggle on the part of writers who wanted the
truth to be told in high quality works of arts. This struggle had started with the Nhân
Văn - Giai Phẩm affair in the 1950s, and was continued a few years after the 1975
victory of the North over the South by a group of writers and theorists who were of a
generation entirely educated under the socialist regimes in North Vietnam, the Soviet
Union or Eastern European countries.
It can be said that after the 1975 victory, with the exception of those who had
been evacuated, those arrested, and those who adopted a firm stand against
communism, most Vietnamese writers, in both North and South, began dreaming of
works of greatness, along the lines of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Henri
Barbusse’s Fire. In 1976, Viễn Phương, one of the writers of the National Front for the
Liberation of South Vietnam, wrote zealously:
We must write, write about the battlefields in Saigon and Gia Ðịnh, about Củ Chi,
a bulwark [of revolution]. We must write not for us but for those who are dead
and those who are still living and also for the next generations. We must pay our
debts to history. There are many topics and characters that have passed through
my mind.7
With the same enthusiasm, another writer, Phan Tứ, wrote:
In my novels I used to take a relatively short portion of real life, from a few
months to a year. Now I wish to write a work that would directly reflect the
changes in a number of different characters, representatives of different social
classes, who all originate from the South but whose activities have been
constantly spreading, from the beginning of the August Revolution to the day our
Gia, pp. 79-87.
7 Tạp chí Văn Học, no. 5 (1976). Quoted in Viện Văn Học (1979), Văn học Việt Nam chống Mỹ cứu
nước, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội, p. 98.
257
country was entirely liberated.8
Such zeal and hope can be seen even in the titles of collections of poetry or
essays published after 30 April 1975: Ngày vĩ đại (The Great Day) (1975) and Bay theo
đường dân tộc đang bay (Following the Flight of the People) (1977) by Chế Lan Viên;
Hồn tôi đôi cánh (My Soul on Two Wings) (1976) by Xuân Diệu; Chân dung người
chiến thắng (The Portrait of a Victor) (1977) by Phan Thị Thanh Nhàn; Như đi trong
mơ (As Walking in a Dream) (1977) by Hoàng Trung Thông, and Hạnh phúc từ đây
(Happiness Henceforth) (1978) by Giang Nam, and so forth.
As time passed, this tide of fervour veered towards complete extinction. Until
1986, when the đổi mới policy was adopted, very few writers in the former Saigon
made their appearance in the communist-controlled magazines and journals. Even
those who had worked clandestinely in Saigon for the communists before 1975 such as
Vũ Hạnh and Sơn Nam wrote sporadically. Furthermore, those from the North, after a
short period of enthusiasm and emulation, also showed signs of being stalled, running
around in circles. In his article “Tâm sự sáng tác” (Confidence about Creative
Writing), written in 1980, Nguyễn Văn Bổng wondered:
With an illustrious and victorious revolution, with two holy and sacred
resistances, with a heroic people, a glorious Party, and an army radiant with its
feats of arms, we thought we would have created great literary works wherever we
touched our pens. Indeed, during the resistance, with so much hardship, with our
blood even staining the pages we wrote, we were able to build a literature which
our Party valued highly. Why don’t we have any great work now that the
resistance has been successful and all conditions are favourable to us?9
With introspection, he continued:
From the day our country was totally liberated and unified from North to South,
that is, for more than four years now, I have published two diaries, written three or
8 Ibid. Hoài An’s translation in Nguyễn Hưng Quốc, “Vietnamese Communist Literature”, translated
from the Vietnamese by Hoài An, in Nguyễn Xuân Thu (ed.) (1994), Vietnamese Studies in a
Multicultural World, Melbourne: Vietnamese Language and Culture Publications, pp. 125-26.
9 Nguyễn Văn Bổng (1982), Bên lề những trang sách, Hanoi: Tác Phẩm Mới, p. 158. Hoài An’s
translation in Nguyễn Hưng Quốc, “Vietnamese Communist Literature”, op. cit., p. 127.
258
four short stories and a number of other articles for newspapers. My friends have
found most of my writings acceptable. There have been expressions of great liking
as well as warm and severe criticism. It seems to me, however, that I haven’t
achieved much.10
Nguyễn Văn Bổng is nevertheless one of the lucky people. Indeed, in the same
period, Anh Ðức published only a modest collection of short stories, Miền sóng vỗ
(Region of Rolling Waves), in 1982; Phan Tứ only a thin volume of memoirs, Trong
mưa núi (In the Mountain Rain), in 1985; and Nguyễn Quang Sáng turned to writing
for children and for film, whilst Nguyên Ngọc stopped writing for good. It is obvious
that there was a big crisis in the socialist realist writers’ innermost world, especially for
those people who had been sent to the South to fight among the soldiers, who had
spilled their own blood on the pages they wrote in order to build up what was called
“the liberation literature of the South”.
The crisis was above all a crisis of faith and trust which was recognised even by
many conservative writers and critics.11 With the South occupied and the country
unified, the people of both regions could mix freely, and consequently the propaganda
of the communist government about the paradise in the socialist regime of the North
versus hellish poverty of the South was revealed to be false. One of these people was
Dương Thu Hương, who later became the most provocative and most famous writer in
Vietnam. Born in 1947, at the age of twenty Dương Thu Hương volunteered to spend
ten years in the tunnels and air-raid shelters of central Vietnam, where much of the
heaviest bombing took place, as a member, and later a leader, of an artistic troupe and
youth brigade whose missions were to “sing louder than the bombs”, boost soldiers’
morale with theatrical performances, care for the wounded and bury the dead.12 When
10 Ngưyễn Văn Bổng (1982), op. cit., p. 156. Hoài An’s translation in Nguyễn Hưng Quốc, “Vietnamese
Communist Literature”, ibid.
11 For example, poet Bằng Việt, in a speech at a conference of the Executive Committee of the Writers’
Association in 1988, stated: “There have been symptoms of serious crisis of faith. People do
not believe that our regime can be quickly renovated. People do not believe that we can change
the economic situation.” Quote in Nguyễn Trọng Nghĩa, “Tính đồng bộ và siêu tốc đổi mới
trong văn nghệ”, Ðoàn Kết (Paris), no. 5 (1989), p. 28.
12 Brian Eads, “Dương Thu Hương – She dares to live free”, Reader’s Digest, October 1998; re259
the war ended in 1975, as one of three lucky survivors of the group of forty, she
hitched a ride to Saigon to see relatives who had moved to the South in 1954, after the
Geneva Agreements, and who, in her imagination, had been living miserably under the
American-controlled regime. However, reality was completely different from her
expectation. She was struck by their wealth, and elegance and especially by their
freedom. In an interview for ABC Radio, conducted by Peter Mares, she said:
My first impression was the sight of books being sold everywhere on the
sidewalks. […] I stared in amazement at those books, whose authors I had only
heard about, like Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Balzac, Stendhal, Anatole France and so
on. And there were so many books by American authors. That really stunned me. I
was also amazed that there were lots of radios and cassette players on sale in
Saigon. Because at that time in the north, people could only use a very
rudimentary kind of radio. Those having radios that could pick up foreign
broadcasts had to have a permit from the police.
That was when I started to realise something was wrong with a regime that forces
people to listen to only one system of radio, which effectively blocks out all other
sources of information, that confines knowledge to a dark corner.13
Dương Thu Hương’s disillusionment was shared by many writers and
intellectuals in Vietnam. This disillusionment became more serious as the years passed
by, when their destitution did not seem to be abating. After the war, Vietnam became
one of the poorest countries in the world; Vietnamese people were in danger of
starvation several times; living conditions were even worse than before 1975.14 There
are several possible explanations for these facts: the legacy of a long and devastating
war, the new wars between Vietnam and Kampuchea (1978-1988), and then between
Vietnam and China (1979); the United States of America’s economic embargo on
produced at http://www.insight.org/1998news/092.htm.
13 Peter Mares, “Breaking the surface”, The Australian’s Review of Books, December 1997 and January
1998, p. 20. A similar statement can be found in Robert Templer (1998), Shadows and Wind,
London: Little, Brown and Company, p. 185.
14 See, for example, Võ Nhân Trí (1990), Vietnam’s Economic Policy since 1975, Singapore: Institute of
Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 106-7; David M. Finkelstein, “Vietnam: a Revolution in Crisis” ,
Asian Survey, vol. 27, no. 9 (September 1987), pp. 973-990.
260
Vietnam, which not only deprived Vietnam of multilateral loans and assistance but also
cut off her commercial ties with Western countries. However, more and more people
had come to believe that it was the Vietnamese Communist Party that was responsible
for the post-war economic failure in Vietnam.15 It should be noted that, almost
immediately after 1975, following Stalin and Mao Zedong, Vietnamese leaders
believed that Vietnam could be modernized via socialist industrialization and the
collectivisation of agriculture.16 This belief was clearly an illusion. For the socialist
industrialization plan, Vietnam was dreadfully short of capital, technology and
technicians; for the agricultural collectivisation plan, the Vietnamese government was
completely lacking in support from the farmers, who lost their cultivated lands and
therefore their motivation for working.17 All of these resulted in food shortages and an
overall stagnation of living conditions for millions of Vietnamese.18 This situation was
depicted by Trần Vàng Sao, who joined the National Liberation Front in 1965, in a
poem entitled “Hearsays”, which was written in 1982 but was not published until the
launch of the đổi mới movement:
this one croaked
named Nguyen Van He
eight years old
cassava poisoning
dead three days before his mother knew
rites performed by neighbours
Tran Van Ha
15 David G. Marr and Christine P. White (eds.) (1988), Postwar Vietnam: Dilemmas in Socialist
Development, Ithaca: Cornell University, p. 3.
16 Võ Nhân Trí (1990), op. cit., pp. 58-180; Christine Pelzer White, “Alternative Approaches to the
Socialist Transformation of Agriculture in Postwar Vietnam”, in David G. Marr and Christine
P. White (eds.) (1988), op. cit., pp. 133-146.
17 See Ngô Vĩnh Long, “Some Aspects of Cooperativization in the Mekong Delta”, in David G. Marr
and Christine P. White (eds.) (1988), op. cit., pp. 163-173; Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet, “Village-
State Relations in Vietnam: the Effect of Everyday Politics on Decollectivization”, The Journal
of Asian Studies 54, no. 2 (May 1995), pp. 396-418.
18 Võ Nhân Trí (1990), op. cit., pp. 106-107.
261
forty years old
four children
hoeing in the mountain
hand grenade blew up
died
wife and children could not get there in time for funeral
person lying here
a man without known
name age home village
died wearing a Puppet-Army shirt
a pair of brown woman's pants
lain face down five meters from railroad tracks
face beaten flat no eyes nose hands or feet
dead person here
twenty six years old
shot
a bullet through the head
first and last name: Pham Van Te
reason: committed a robbery then ran
did not stop when called
Nguyen Han
thirty nine years old
stabbed self in throat
with a broken bottle of orange soda
some said because of madness
did say before death
nowadays
there's not even shit to eat
Nguyen Thi Lun
thirty four years old
Le Van E thirteen years old
Le Thi Muon ten years old
262
Le Van Thuoc six years old
Le Thi Ly two years old
suicide by pills
in kitchen
nearby a few warm worm-eaten sweet potatoes
were found inside a rimless woven basket
note left behind said
too much hardship can't stand it
me and my kids must die
Tran Thi Lan
two and a half years old
sick with no medicine
died
Nguyen Van Lon
forty five years old
starved for too long then ate too much
died
no close relatives
Nguyen Van Thu
twenty six years old
died shirtless on a pile of garbage
in the middle of the market
Nguyen Huu Thuc
fifty years old
died at a banquet table
could not be rushed to hospital
more than a thousand people at funeral
Phan Ngoc The
died during cholera epidemic of 19..
lived to be forty two years old
263
buried here are four children
approximately six to nine years old
dengue fever
lain dead in market
Pham Huynh Thuong
died at fifty six years old
popped blood vessel
while reading a speech
near the end19
Unquestionably, it was these living conditions which caused an explosion of
scepticism and dissatisfaction among the population, particularly in artistic and literary
circles. The most typical manifestation of this scepticism and dissatisfaction was the
indifference of the artists and writers concerning the exhortations of the Party when the
wars with the Khmer Rouge and with China broke out in 1978 and 1979. In literary
circles, little attention was paid to the Party’s recommendation to turn each poem, each
fiction, and each essay into a bullet shooting at the enemy. Most of writers and poets
acted as though nothing had happened at the borders.20 No piece of poetry or prose
connected to these wars attained fame. If the fighting against the French left a number
of excellent poems from Hoàng Cầm (1922-), Quang Dũng (1921-1988), Hữu Loan
(1916-), Hồng Nguyên (1924-1951), Nguyễn Ðình Thi (1924-2003) and Tố Hữu
(1920-2002), and if the war against the South and the Americans also left many
remarkable poems and novels by Chế Lan Viên (1920-1989), Phạm Tiến Duật (1941-)
Nguyên Ngọc (1932-), and others, the last two wars against China and Cambodia, on
the contrary, did not leave any work – either in prose or poetry – that had some
resonance in the readers heart and soul.
19 Translated by Dinh Linh in The Deluge, New Vietnamese Poetry, unpublished.
20 Nguyên Ngọc, “Ðề cương đề dẫn thảo luận ở hội nghị đảng viên bàn về sáng tác văn hội Hội Nhà Văn
Việt Nam”, re-printed in Trăm hoa vẫn nở trên quê hương, published by Lê Trần (California)
1990, p. 130.
264
Not only indifferent to the Party’s appeal to use literary works to support the
fighting, writers, in a kind of uproar, were expressing opinions which stood more or
less squarely against the Party’s orthodox viewpoint. This opposition movement,
started in 1978, was repressed in 1980 and 1981. It broke out again in 1987 when the
Secretary General Nguyễn Văn Linh opened the floodgates of criticism.
The person who inaugurated the opposition movement was Nguyễn Minh Châu
(1930-1989), a colonel in the North Vietnamese army, a loyal member of the
Vietnamese Communist Party and a well-known writer. In his short article “Viết về
chiến tranh” (Writing about War) published in Văn Nghệ Quân Ðội (Army’s Arts and
Letters) in November 1978, Nguyễn Minh Châu stated that writers who had often
written about war all wished to improve the quality of their creative writing. But as he
confessed, while looking back at those works written on the wars against the French
and the Americans, he and his friends were displeased with them, and their readers
were not quite satisfied with them either. The main reason, in his opinion, was that in
their works, the human characters merely played “the role of threads on which to string
the various events”: they tended to be “portrayed one-dimensionally – usually as too
virtuous and yet lacking in truth”. Going further, he found another reason which lay in
the underground of the Vietnamese wars:
In both wars of resistance, we were always a weak party fighting against
overwhelmingly powerful enemies, and that forced us to seek victory at any cost
for the sake of national survival. That peculiarity perhaps compelled us to set
aside and shelve heart-breaking truth, untruths, and such aspects of each person’s
character as not directly conducive to victory.
Finally, Nguyễn Minh Châu concludes:
In the deepest recesses of our minds as Vietnamese, reality in literature seems at
times not the actual reality but the reality that everyone is hoping for, is dreaming
of. Perhaps there are few peoples on earth as prone to dreams as we are. We
writers quite empathize with our people, but does it stand to reason that we’ll
succeed in reassuring everybody with our portrayal of the dreamed reality?
All the above points to this: along the road to realism, we must at times declare
265
war on own beautiful, long-cherished concepts.21
Nguyễn Minh Châu’s article was received quietly. It did not stir any
exclamations of agreement or disagreement. However, one of the most respected
theorists in Vietnam, Hoàng Ngọc Hiến (1930-), caught his ideas and developed them
in an essay entitled “Về một đặc điểm của văn học nghệ thuật ở ta trong giai đoạn vừa
qua” (On a characteristic of our literature and art in the period just passed) which was
published in Văn Nghệ weekly in 1979.22 In agreement with Nguyễn Minh Châu,
Hoàng Ngọc Hiến said that socialist realism in Vietnam in the recent past was obsessed
too much by the concept of “sublimity” (cái cao cả), which resulted in several
consequences: in aesthetics, what should exist encroached upon what did exist; in the
artistic mode of description, rationality superseded feeling; in the structure of works,
content took precedence over form; in the image of new human beings, reason replaced
sentiment; in imagery, essence took over appearance. These consequences, in their
turn, had a great impact on Vietnamese literature, which had became unrealistic
because it represented only what should be instead of what is. Furthermore, under the
stringent leadership and censorship of the Party, writers did not write what they saw,
felt or thought, they wrote according to general formulas imposed on them by their
superiors. Hoàng Ngọc Hiến concluded his essay by labelling the so-called “socialist
realism” as “doctrinaire realism” (chủ nghĩa hiện thực phải đạo).
Unlike Nguyễn Minh Châu’s article, Hoàng Ngọc Hiến’s essay stirred up
writers and artists throughout the entire nation, causing concern and anger in the Party,
which, as a result, reacted strongly. Hoàng Ngọc Hiến was forced to suspend his
teaching position at the School of Creative Writing for about four years, from 1979 to
1983.23 The Party mobilized a considerable number of writers, including Trần Độ,24 Hà
21 Nguyễn Minh Châu (1978), “Viết về chiến tranh”, Văn Nghệ Quân Đội (Hanoi), November 1978,
reprinted in Nguyễn Minh Châu (2002), Trang giấy trước đèn, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội,
pp. 50-63, translated into English by Huỳnh Sanh Thông, published in The Vietnam Review, no.
3 (Autumn-Winter 1997), pp. 438-446.
22 Hoàng Ngọc Hiến, “Về một đặc điểm của văn học nghệ thuật ở ta trong giai đoạn vừa qua”, Văn Nghệ
magazine, no. 23 (June 9, 1979).
23 See in Hoàng Ngọc Hiến’s biography at the William Joiner Centre website:
266
Xuân Trường,25 Kiều Vân,26 Tô Hoài,27 and others28 to criticize Hoàng Ngọc Hiến’s
viewpoint throughout all forms of media. Furthermore, in June 1979, the Party
organised a conference among those writers who were also Party members in order to
consolidate the Marxist stand. Ironically, Nguyên Ngọc, the then deputy general
secretary of the Vietnamese Writers’ Association and editor-in-chief of the Văn Nghệ
magazine, who was responsible for that conference, shared the anxiety and doubt
expressed by Nguyễn Minh Châu and Hoàng Ngọc Hiến. In the “Outline for
Discussion” prepared for the conference, Nguyên Ngọc admitted that
(a) the realistic values in the post-war Vietnamese literature were very limited
because, in his words, “the fate of the whole nation, the whole people, is very obvious,
but the fate of each person, of each member in the community, is very brief and
simplistic. The patriotic inspiration is dominant but the social struggles are not very
clear. The poetic idealism of the fighting is strongly represented but the prosaic
complexity of life is weaker.”
(b) the post-war literature was problematic. This problem can be seen in the
literary quality of publication: “There are a lot of books but no works of literature”; in
the relationship between authors and readers: it is “very indifferent”; in the readers’
attitude: “Readers are lukewarm towards the books that they are reading”; and in the
writers’ attitude: they are lukewarm towards life, the nation and the socialist
revolution. In Nguyên Ngọc’s observation, in the socialist reorganization of agriculture
http://www.joinercenter.umb.edu/Programs/Education%20Progams/Rockefeller%20Fellowship/Rockefe
ller%20Fellows%202000_2001%20Bios.htm
24 Trần Ðộ (1982), Văn Nghệ, Vũ Khí của Cách Mạng, Hanoi: Sự Thật.
25 “Sự nghiệp của Ðảng sự nghiệp của văn nghệ”, Tạp chí Cộng Sản, no. 3 (1980); “Một số vấn đề văn
nghệ đang đặt ra”, Nghiên Cứu Nghệ Thuật magazine, no. 36 (January 1981); and “Quan hệ văn
nghệ và chính trị”, Nghiên Cứu Nghệ Thuật magazine, no. 43 (February.1982).
26 Nghiên Cứu Nghệ Thuật magazine, no. 30 (January 1980).
27 Văn Nghệ magazine, no. 42 (October 20, 1979).
28 See Nguyễn Mộng Giác, “Nguyễn Minh Châu và Hoàng Ngọc Hiến, những người cầm bút trung
thực”, in Trăm hoa vẫn nở trên quê hương, published by Lê Trần in California, 1990, pp. 80-
95.
267
and industry, and in the battlefields between Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge and
between Vietnam and China, “writers are almost completely absent, even those who
had been traditionally very active and involved in the past wars.”
(c) Finally, Nguyên Ngọc maintained that there was no such phenomenon as
“reactionary” or “anti-Party” thought in Vietnamese literature as several people had
wrongly believed. However, he still admitted that Vietnamese writers were obviously
vacillating. “It is not uncommonly that writers don’t really believe in what they have
written.”29
Nguyên Ngọc’s view was echoed by another famous writer, Anh Ðức. In his
report, read at the Third Congress of the Vietnamese Writers’ Association, and later
printed in the daily Nhân Dân, Anh Ðức made known the situation, after 1975, of
many writers who, having spent almost their whole lives for communism, suddenly
became confused, losing their own confidence and their trust in their comrades,
denying their past revolutionary experience, which had no small influence on the
steadfastness of their ideal, on their way of thinking and on their viewpoint.30
As a result of this vacillation and disbelief, Vietnamese literature after 1975
was quite different from what it had been before 1975. The differences lay essentially
in the image of characters and the main themes of the works.
Almost all central characters of the novels and poetry before 1975 were ideal
characters. Sứ, Út Tịch, Cao Bá Tuyết, Nguyễn Văn Trỗi, Tnú, Trần Thị Lý in the
works of Anh Ðức, Nguyễn Thi, Bùi Hiển, Trần Ðình Vân, Nguyên Ngọc, and Tố
Hữu, were extraordinary human beings who knew only victories, never defeats. Even
when they died, their deaths were described as a victory of revolutionary heroism,
which fostered more than ever the fighting spirit of the revolution. Those characters
were rather monolithic and simple, very much like a straight line, having no doubt or
29 Nguyên Ngọc’s “Đề cương đề dẫn thảo luận ở hội nghị đảng viên bàn về sáng tác văn học Hội Nhà
Văn Việt Nam”, published in Trăm hoa vẫn nở trên quê hương, op. cit., pp. 127-133.
30 Nhân Dân, December 28, 1983.
268
perplexity, and knowing no internal struggle. Their ideals and faith were chosen once
and for all. It seemed they had no personal lives, no sleepless nights of their own. Their
lives were all tied up with various stages of the revolution.
Literary works after 1975 were different. In Nguyễn Minh Châu’s Lửa từ
những ngôi nhà (Fire from Those Houses), Lê Lựu’s Mở rừng (Forest Opening),
Nguyễn Trí Huân’s Năm 1975, họ đã sống như thế (They Lived that Way in 1975),
Nguyễn Trọng Oánh’s Ðất trắng (White Earth), Nam Hà’s Ðất miền đông (The
Eastern Region Land), Chu Lai’s Nắng đồng bằng (Sunlight on the Plain), and
similarly in the poetry of Nguyễn Duy, Thanh Thảo and others, the ideal characters,
which had been very typical with traditional socialist realism, were absent. Instead, we
find what were known as positive characters (“nhân vật tích cực” in Vietnamese). They
were in the process of struggling in order to improve themselves, to elevate
themselves, but were always facing the danger of corruption and sometimes they were
indeed corrupted.
With the replacement of ideal characters by positive ones, the voice of post-
1975 literature differed from that of the previous period. Before, the dominant voice
was epic and one-way eulogy. After, that same voice continued to exist, but there
appeared already another voice which was relatively tragic. The authors began to talk
about losses and sacrifices, cowardice and treason: in an act of heroism, there were
moments of weakness and discouragement; battlefields were full of blood; and blood
was flowing not only on the other side, the side of the enemies. It can be said that, in
the pre-1975 literature, victory was something natural, a matter of fact; after 1975,
victories had to be exchanged with the lives of many people across generations.
The tendency of change could be found also in works dealing with present
topics which focused on the building of socialism. In Hạt mùa sau (Seeds for the Next
Season) by Nguyễn Thị Ngọc Tú, Ðứng trước biển (Standing before the Sea) and Cù
lao tràm (The Eucalyptus Island) by Nguyễn Mạnh Tuấn, Giấy trắng (White Paper) by
Triệu Xuân, Chân dung một quản đốc (Portrait of a Manager) by Nguyễn Hiểu
Trường, among others, one could find a great number of characters who, the day
269
before, had been war heroes, and now, in time of peace, became incompetent cadres,
immoral and greedy.
The above changes were, nevertheless, halfway changes only. Writers still tried
to avoid depicting tragic realities in the war and the dead-end situation of socialist
building during the post-war period. Critics and theorists still thought within the rigid
frame of dogma and formulas: literature had to serve politics and was put under the
leadership and control of politics. No one dared to question the policy of the Party.
A real change started only in October 1987, when the Communist Party chief,
Nguyễn Văn Linh, in his meeting with a group of about one hundred writers and
intellectuals in Hanoi, gave his official approval to critical writing. Nguyễn Văn Linh,
after complaining that the literature written since the end of war had been poor,
confessed that the Party was in part to blame. In his opinion, in the past, the Party had
made several serious mistakes in its policies and its management. It had undervalued
the role of literature and arts in society. It had fettered writers and artists with
dogmatism and formulism. He then urged writers to tell the truth, even the ruthless
truth.31
Two months after this memorable meeting and frank dialogue, in early
December 1987, the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Political Bureau proclaimed
Resolution number 05, entitled "To renovate and upgrade standards of leadership and
management in literary, artistic and cultural activities, and stimulate creative capacity,
in order to lead literature, arts and culture to a new stage of development". This
resolution states:
Freedom of creativity is the vital condition for producing genuine values in
culture and arts, and for developing talents. All artistic works that do not violate
the law, are not reactionary (anti-national, anti-socialist, anti-peace) and are not
degenerate (propagating crimes, diffusing licentiousness, destroying human
dignity), have the right to be freely circulated and placed under the assessment
31 See Văn Nghệ magazine, 17 October 1987; Tuổi Trẻ, 17 October 1987; Nguyễn Văn Linh (1988), op.
cit., pp. 160-168; and Nguyễn Duy Bắc (ed.) (2001), op. cit., pp. 79-87.
270
and judgement of public opinion and criticism. The Party and the State encourage
public discussion and debate in order to search for the truth. It is necessary to
make a gleeful atmosphere for creative activities, which invokes much inspiration,
and gives rise to the development of new genres and forms of expression.32
It can be said that the đổi mới movement in Vietnamese literature was officially
launched by Nguyễn Văn Linh’s speech in October and legalized by the Political
Bureau’s Resolution no. 05 in December 1987. This movement can be seen in three
aspects: creative, critical and theoretical writing.
In the realm of creative writing, the list of authors who have been widely
regarded as innovative is quite long. Of them, the most famous are Nguyễn Minh
Châu, Ma Văn Kháng, Lê Lựu, Dương Thu Hương, Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, Phạm Thị
Hoài, Bảo Ninh and Phùng Gia Lộc in prose; and Nguyễn Duy, Thanh Thảo, Ý Nhi
and Trần Vàng Sao in poetry.
These prose writers and poets were very diverse in style but they had at least
one point in common: they all recognized antagonistic contradictions between
members of the proletariat, and as a result of this they all recognized tragedy in
socialism. In the Maoist view, which strongly influenced the Vietnamese communists,
“there were two types of social contradictions: those between ourselves and the enemy
and those among the people themselves.” While the first contradiction was
antagonistic, the second, in ordinary circumstances, was not. The reason for that, in
Mao Zedong’s explanation, is that in socialist society, “the system of exploitation of
man by man has been abolished and the interests of the people are basically the
same.”33 In North Vietnam, according to Trường Chinh, one of the Party’s leaders, “all
the classes of exploiters have been abolished”, and “the imperialists and feudal
landlords have been overthrown, the people of the various nationalities are bound
32 Full text of this resolution was published in Nhân Dân, December 5, 1987, and Sài Gòn Giải Phóng
daily in Hồ Chí Minh City, December 6, 1987, reprinted in Nguyễn Duy Bắc (ed.) (2001), Về
lãnh đạo, quản lý văn học nghệ thuật trong công cuộc đổi mới, Hanoi: Nxb Chính Trị Quốc
Gia, pp. 12-26.
33 Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Zedong, Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1967, p. 356-57.
271
together by mutual affection, have discarded racial prejudices and united ever more
closely within the Vietnam Fatherland Front to fight the US imperialists and their
flunkeys and build a new life.”34 In such a united society, everyone loved each other. In
socialist realist fiction before the đổi mới movement, it is impossible to find any
negative character who belonged to the working class or the so-called progressive
forces. Although they could indeed make several mistakes in their thoughts or in their
behaviours, nevertheless, (i) these mistakes, in the Vietnamese communists’ oft-quoted
words, were only “phenomena”, and not the “nature” of the new socialist people; (ii)
these mistakes did not lead to antagonistic contradictions among themselves; and (iii)
in the end, thanks to the patient and effective education of the Party, they always
overcame their shortcomings to become good citizens or cadres.
Several đổi mới writers recognized that this view was too simplistic and
artificial. In front of Nguyễn Văn Linh in his historical meeting with writers and artists,
Nguyên Ngọc, then editor of Văn Nghệ magazine, “talked of a ‘lost generation’ of
artists and writers who had been forced to ‘talk only about success, never failure; about
achievements, never losses; about correct decisions, never mistaken ones.”35 In the
same vein, in an interview published in 1988, Nguyễn Minh Châu stated:
As gentle and harmless writers, in our whole lives we have not harmed anyone nor
committed any crimes; we have only praised. However, the greatest mistake of
each of us was that we were afraid of evil and cruelty. And because we thought
that we could do nothing, day-by-day we pretended that such evil and cruelty did
not exist, that life was free from evil and cruelty, that human fate was free from
grievances and injustice.36
Nguyễn Văn Bổng (1921-) was excited to hear that the depiction of the bad
which had been prohibited for a very long time, was now permitted:
It is unknown when and by whom there has existed an order: Don’t write about
34 Trường Chinh (1994), Selected Writings, Hanoi: The Gioi Publishers, pp. 705-706.
35 Robert Templer (1998), op. cit., p. 179.
36 Văn Nghệ, no. 50, December 3, 1988, reprinted in Nguyễn Minh Châu (2002), op. cit., pp. 152-157.
272
the bad! Or if you write, just write to some extent, in this aspect but not that one,
at this level and not that one, of this person but not others, etc. There have been
various arguments which were given: good is nature, whereas bad is just a
phenomenon; there should not be confusion between the good and the bad; when
the class struggle is decisive, “don’t wash one’s dirty linen in public” and “don’t
bring grist to somebody’s mill”.
As a result, the bad which had existed in the old societies and which appeared in
the process of establishing the new society is not openly criticized. […] Now, we
are given the right to write about the bad, and we are encouraged and urged to do
so. […] This is new: literature recovers its responsibility and its influence.
Literature is able to contribute its voice in the course of social democratisation.37
As a result of this recognition, as Greg Lockhart observes, in 1987 and 1988
"detailed accounts of rural poverty and the maladministration of official 'bullies'
(cường hào) suddenly became typical of the new wave reportage in the major journal
of the National Writers Association, Văn Nghệ. Some of the journal's most cogent
pieces were even republished in a popular anthology called The Women Kneel (Báo
Văn Nghệ, 1988).”38 Both reporters and creative writers dug deep into the most
sickening and disgusting side of socialist society. They revealed a cruel tyrannical
regime which trod on peasants39, trampled on workers40, crushed intellectuals and
domineered writers and artists,41 those very members that should be considered the
foundation on which socialism was to be built.42 A number of other writers such as
Dương Thu Hương in her Paradise of the Blind, and Ninh Ðức Ðịnh in his “Oh! What
a Bitter Orange” published in Văn Nghệ magazine on February 18, 1989, turned
37 Nguyễn Văn Bổng, “Nghĩ về cái mới trong tiểu thuyết của ta hiện nay”, Nhân Dân, 22 May 1988.
38 Greg Lockhart and Monique Lockhart (translated with an introduction) (1996), The Light of the
Capital, Three Modern Vietnamese Classics, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, pp. 3-4.
39 For example, “Tiếng đất” by Hoàng Hữu Các in Văn Nghệ, June 11, 1988, and “Cái đêm hôm ấy đêm
gì?” by Phùng Gia Lộc, Văn Nghệ, August 6, 1988.
40 “Lời khai của bị can” by Trần Huy Quang, in Văn Nghệ, September 12, 1987.
41 “Sự nghiệt ngã của nghề nghiệp”, by Hà Văn Thuỳ in Văn Nghệ, August 20, 1988.
42 See Hoàng Ngọc Hiến (1990), Văn học - Học văn, Ho Chi Minh City: Trường Cao Ðẳng Sư Phạm
thành phố HCM and Trường Viết Văn Nguyễn Du, pp. 106-107.
273
towards the past and revealed some of the savage crimes the communists had
committed during their campaign of land reform in the mid-1950s in North Vietnam, in
Dan Duffy’s words, “a shameful period that sounds horrid even in Hy V. Luong’s
sympathetic Revolution in the Village Tradition and Transformation in North Vietnam,
1925-1988 (University of Hawaii Press, 1992)”.43
Under the pens of several đổi mới writers, the history of the Vietnamese
Communist Party became a history of crimes and the socialist society became a
wicked, vulgar, mean-spirited and lustful society. They abandoned socialist realism for
critical realism. This led to two interesting phenomena: firstly, the restoration of Vũ
Trọng Phụng (1911-1939), one of the best critical realist writers of the 1930-45
generation, whose works had been banned in the North for decades;44 and secondly, the
revival of social reportage as a literary genre. Previously, communist theorists had
accepted only political reportage which portrayed the “real facts and real people” as an
effective propaganda for the socialist ideals. In the đổi mới movement, social reportage
which focused on the negative sides of society flourished in Vietnamese literary
magazines. Most of the works which attracted readers’ attention were examples of
social reportage, especially those published in Văn Nghệ magazine in Hanoi.45
However, these pieces of reportage, although brave and conscience-stirring, were
meaningful only in forms of journalism and social studies. They were not great
achievements in the sphere of literature. The greatest literary achievements were
mainly in the genres of the novel and the short story.
Among those who, by their literary works, portrayed the antagonistic
contradictions among the proletariat and their allies and the tragedy within socialist
43 Dan Duffy (1993), “Paradise of the Blind”, The Nation, April 12, 1993.
44 Vũ Trọng Phụng’s works which have recently been translated into English include: “Household
Servants”, in Greg Lockhart and Monique Lockhart (trans. with an introduction) (1996), The
Light of the Capital, Three Modern Vietnamese Classics, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University
Press, pp. 121-156; Dumb Duck, translated by Peter Zinoman and Nguyễn Nguyệt Cầm (2002),
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
45 See Greg Lockhart, “Introduction, First Person Narratives from the 1930s”, in Greg Lockhart and
Monique Lockhart (trans. with an introduction) (1996), op. cit., pp. 1-49.
274
society, the most prominent are Dương Thu Hương, Nguyễn Huy Thiệp and, to a lesser
degree, the poet Nguyễn Duy.
Nguyễn Huy Thiệp started to publish in 1985, but in the first two years, his
works were not of great significance in the aesthetic sense. Only since the short story
“The General Retires”, which was published in Văn Nghệ magazine on June 20, 1987,
has Nguyễn Huy Thiệp “enjoyed a meteoric rise to prominence in the Vietnamese
literary world”, receiving within two years at least ninety favourable critical articles in
major journals alone.46 Since then, he has become well known as a new talent, and
furthermore, as the best writer of his generation, the pioneer of the attack on socialist
realism and “doctrinaire-ism” (chủ nghĩa phải đạo), one who generates various
controversial debates among critics in Vietnam and abroad. Even those who took a
conservative stand in criticizing him had to agree that his pen was smart and
distinguished. Introducing the book entitled Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, tác phẩm và dư luận
(Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, Works and Criticism), the editor wrote:
In contemporary literary life, there has never been a phenomenon like Nguyễn
Huy Thiệp. After having appeared in literary circles for only two or three years,
Nguyễn Huy Thiệp quickly attracted the attention of the reading public... it is
almost as if every new story of his has provoked discussion and debate throughout
the country from north to south. There are those who sing his praises until they
run out of words; there are those who disparage and denounce him; and there are
those who call for him to be brought to court and imprisoned.47
One of the most important themes in Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s short stories was the
alienation of people under the socialist regime. With a starkly simple and chilling style,
Nguyễn Huy Thiệp pitilessly unveiled all the misery, degradation and ridicule of
humankind and the collapse of morals in society. Most of his characters are vulgar and
mean-spirited, or, in Greg Lockhart’s words, the “murky inklings of animal-human
46 Greg Lockhart, “Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s Writing: Post-Confucian, Post-Modern?”, in Nguyễn Xuân Thu
(ed.) (1994), Vietnamese Studies in a Multicultural World, Melbourne: Vietnamese Language
and Culture Publications, p. 158.
47 Quote from K.W.Taylor, “Locating and Translating Boundaries in Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s Short
Stories”, The Vietnam Review, no. 1 (Autumn – Winter 1996), p. 439.
275
affinities”.48 Agreeing with Lockhart, Qui-Phiet Trần adds: “I suggest that by likening
humans to animals Nguyễn means to show the bestiality of humans that socialist
realism refused to recognize, as well as the slough of a post-war society unequipped to
face the onslaught of capitalism in the wake of economic reforms.”49
According to Peter Mares, in Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s fictional world, “money is
king”.50 This can be clearly seen in the short story “Without a King”, where there is a
conversation between two brothers:
Doai said: “I’ll marry My Trinh next year, Mr Daylight has promised me one stick
of gold. You think one stick’s enough to buy a house?” Kham said: “In my hands,
I can multiply it into several sticks.” Doai said: “To have business skill is the best,
the other skills, like art, literature etc., are all useless.51
It can also be seen in Thiệp’s better-known “The General Retires”, which was
interpreted by Qui-Phiet Tran as follows:
What drives General Thuan, who is already retired, back to the front where he is
killed in action is his disillusionment with the empty ideals he was pursuing in his
entire military career as well as his dissatisfaction with the moral condition of his
family and his people: his son is a cuckold; his daughter-in-law is a ruthless
business woman who raises her German shepherds on aborted foetuses she brings
home from her maternity clinic. At his nephew’s wedding the general is shocked
by the guests’ behaviour: they are cheap and rude and have eyes only for money.52
It seems that, in Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s world, there was no brotherhood, no
fraternal feelings. There was no love, no feelings between husband and wife; only
trifling and mean calculations about money. In Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s stories, the
48 Greg Lockhart (trans.) (1992), op. cit., p. 10.
49 Qui-Phiet Tran, “The General Retires and Other Stories” (book review), Studies in Short Stories, vol.
32 (Winter 1995).
50 Peter Mares, op. cit., p. 21.
51 Ibid.
52 Qui-Phiet Tran, ibid.
276
characters seem to be in perpetual bargaining for profit. Mai Ngữ in his article “Cái
tâm và cái tài của người viết” (The Heart and Talent of a Writer), made the following
observation:
The writing of Nguyễn Huy Thiệp reflected a reality of our present society, a
society that has lost its stability and balance, a society that is suffering alienation
with regard to spirituality and morals, a society that is upsetting all relationships
concerning human life and human dignity. Dregs at the bottom are rising fast and
dominate life on the surface, causing the water container to overflow and pollution
is to be found everywhere.53
The three short stories by Nguyễn Huy Thiệp which stirred up public opinion
most dramatically are “Vàng lửa” (Fired Gold), “Kiếm sắc” (A Sharp Sword) and
“Phẩm tiết” (Chastity), which, in Greg Lockhart’s words, “gave important Vietnamese
historical figures unusual and unflattering fictional lives.”54 The trademark of these
stories, as well as of all of Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s historical fiction, according to K.W.
Taylor, is “the nature of heroism”,55 and according to Peter Zinoman, “is the way his
depictions of well-known figures violate official assessments.”56
One of the major characters in “Fired Gold” is Nguyễn Du (1766-1820), who is
widely considered by many Vietnamese scholars to be the greatest and best-loved poet
of Vietnamese literature of all time. However, Nguyễn Huy Thiệp portrayed him as a
man “whose face had been crumpled by sufferings... He was better than others because
of his dignity. But what value did his dignity have when in real life he lived in a corner
of his small house and was always hard pressed for money? His compassion was a kind
53 Mai Ngữ, “Cái tâm và cái tài của người viết”, Quân Ðội Nhân Dân, no. 9791 (August 27, 1988),
reprinted in Phạm Xuân Nguyên (ed.) (2001), Ði tìm Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, Hanoi: Nxb Văn Hoá
Thông Tin, pp. 418-428.
54 Nguyễn Huy Thiệp (1992), op. cit., p. 3.
55 K.W. Taylor, “Locating and translating boundaries in Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s short stories”, The
Vietnam Review, no. 1 (Autumn-Winter 1996), p. 443.
56 Peter Zinoman, “Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s ‘Vàng Lửa’ and the Nature of Intellectual Dissent in
Contemporary Vietnam”, Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter, vol. 3, no. 4 (January
1992).
277
of small compassion which could save nobody.”57 Furthermore, in Nguyễn Huy
Thiệp’s depiction, Nguyễn Du was a cultural hybrid, possessing no distinguished
identity:
[Vietnam] is like a virgin girl raped by Chinese civilization. The girl concurrently
enjoys, despises and is humiliated by the rape... Nguyễn Du is the child of this
same virgin girl and the blood which flows through his veins contains allusions to
the brutal man who raped his mother.58
In conventional accounts, king Gia Long, who reigned in the early nineteenth
century, has been regarded as a tyrant who suppressed hundreds of peasant rebellions,
and a traitor to his country by allying with the Siamese and Chinese and relying too
heavily on French advisors who later invaded Vietnam. In Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s “Fired
Gold”, through the character Phăng, Gia Long is praised as “a valuable raw material
making history alive. It was the generosity of a politician, generosity which not only
performs charity in an isolated particular organism, but also constitutes a propelling
force for the community, without which the whole community would be moss-grown
or disintegrated.”59
However, as almost all critics agree, the most provocative character in Nguyễn
Huy Thiệp’s historical fiction is Quang Trung, not Gia Long.60 In the story “Chastity”,
king Quang Trung, who has been widely regarded by official historiography as a
peasant rebel leader and one of the greatest heroes in Vietnamese history, was depicted
by Nguyễn Huy Thiệp as a brutal and sexually depraved despot who spoke cruelly and
acted cruelly.
Obviously, it was not Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s intention to downgrade Nguyễn Du
and Quang Trung in order to deify Gia Long. As K.W. Taylor points out, Nguyễn Huy
57 Nguyễn Huy Thiệp (1999), Như những ngọn gió, Hanoi: Van Hoc, pp. 334-35.
58 Ibid., pp. 335-36.
59 Ibid., p. 336-37.
60 See, for example, K.W. Taylor, “Locating and Translating Boundaries in Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s Short
Stories”, in The Vietnam Review, no. 1 (Autumn – Winter 1996), p. 445.
278
Thiệp has erased the boundaries between hero and anti-hero as asserted by official
historiography, but he has not given up on heroism”.61 In his stories, Ðặng Phú Lân
and Ngô Thị Vinh Hoa, the two persons who are powerless before “the forces of
history”, obtain some supernatural quality; for example, when Lân is beheaded, he is
bloodless; when Vinh Hoa’s tomb is opened nearly two centuries after her death, her
corpse radiates health as if she is still alive. “The message here is that true virtue and
intelligence are not to be found in the real Vietnamese world, but only among
supernatural beings.”62
With regard to the real Vietnamese world, by erasing the boundaries between
hero and anti-hero, it seems that Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s intention was probably twofold:
to destroy idols and to promote a new morality. Quang Trung was an idol, and so was
Nguyễn Du. All idols are fake. Gia Long said in “Fired Gold”: “Every glory is built on
dishonour”. As for promoting a new morality, Nguyễn Huy Thiệp praised all political
actions that brought great result to the people. In “Fired Gold” the character Phăng
said:
Backward economic activities can only offer an austere life to the people. The
problem is to stand up, to stretch out and become a powerful nation. To do this,
we must have the guts to bear frictions in relations with the world community.
Old-fashioned scholarship and political masturbation will never create clear and
healthy relationships. The time will come when world politics resembles a bowl of
mixed salad, where the concept of purity would be meaningless.63
Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s antagonists in Vietnam concentrated their arguments on
the fact that he had offended some heroes of Vietnam. The advocates of Nguyễn Huy
Thiệp’s viewpoint argued that history is different from literature: in relating history one
has to be faithful and accurate, in literature one can invent or fabricate.
61 Ibid., p. 446.
62 Ibid.
63 Nguyễn Huy Thiệp (1999), op. cit., p. 337.
279
In Vietnam, both his antagonists and supporters tried to avoid one crucial point:
when he advocated the destruction of idols, all idols, Nguyễn Huy Thiệp obviously had
no intention of sparing Hồ Chí Minh, whom for many decades the communists had
made every conceivable effort to give the image of the supreme idol. Peter Zinoman, in
his critical essay on “Fired Gold” found that Nguyễn Huy Thiệp made a lot of
connections to encourage readers to see his “characters and their predicaments as
metaphors for their contemporary equivalent”.64 Furthermore, Nguyễn Huy Thiệp
draws connections “between his creations and the contemporary political scene by
using double-edged and anachronistic language”. Peter Zinoman gave some examples,
one of which was:
The story’s concluding passage uses the two meanings encoded in a single word
to expand a critique of the nineteenth century Vietnamese political regime into an
indictment of the present one. In its original Vietnamese, the passage reads:
Triều Nguyễn của vua Gia Long lập ra là một triều đại tệ hại. Chỉ xin lưu ý
bạn đọc đây là triều đại để lại nhiều lăng. (The Nguyen Dynasty set up by
King Gia Long was a great depraved dynasty. Please pay attention dear reader,
for this was the dynasty that left many mausoleums / royal tombs...)
In Vietnamese, the word “lăng” has two distinct meanings. It can denote a royal
tomb such as the dozen odd royal tombs built by Nguyen monarchs which today
dot the landscape surrounding Huế, the old royal capital. Or “lăng” can mean
mausoleum, in the specific sense of the sombre architectural monuments which
house the corpses of Lenin, Mao, and Hồ Chí Minh. While the preceding sentence
signifies that the “lăng” being referred to is of the nineteenth century variety, the
word’s modern connotation, and thus the sentence’s implicit attack on modern
“depraved” lăng builders, cannot be avoided.65
In poetry, the counterpart of Nguyễn Huy Thiệp is Nguyễn Duy. Born in 1946,
Nguyễn Duy composed poems quite early, winning a national prize in poetry in 1973.
Only after 1975, however, did his poetry thrive, and since 1980 it has been truly fiery
64 Peter Zinoman, “Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s ‘Vàng Lửa’ and the Nature of Intellectual Dissent in
Contemporary Vietnam”, Vietnam Generation Journal & Newsletter, vol. 3, no. 4 (January
1992).
65 Ibid.
280
and eminent. According to a revelation by Nguyễn Quang Sáng in the epilogue of Mẹ
và em (My Mother and You) in 1987, many of Nguyễn Duy’s poems were banned
from publication.66 The poem “Looking from afar... at the fatherland”, published in
Sông Hương magazine no. 37, May 4, 1988, represented the summit of Nguyễn Duy’s
frustration and opposition. Mai Quốc Liên accused him of “insulting our fatherland
without restraint and so violently that he came to describe our fight against the
Americans in bitter and ironical terms.”67
In fact, Nguyễn Duy has never insulted his fatherland, he has only insulted the
heroes and leaders that the Party had polished carefully and put on the altar:
Fake idols were sizzling in fat and fried onions;
Burping, they smelled bad to our heart and liver.68
Nguyễn Duy has only insulted the boastful words concerning the eminence of
socialism:
After the war I am still involved,
our country is rich, why so many beggars?
Nguyễn Duy has only insulted the schemes of using false arguments in
demanding institutional and thinking renovation to dodge the most urgent and
indispensable issue, namely, the renovation of the regime itself:
Is it reasonable to chew charcoal and hay again?
I beg you Mr Institution, I beg you Mrs Thought
Do you twitter please, those bird songs eternally.
Nguyễn Duy has only insulted that “illustrative” literature of, in Dương Thu
Hương’s words, those “colonial public servants”69 who proliferated in Vietnam under
the communist regime:
66 Further information about Nguyễn Duy can be found in Nguyễn Bá Chung, “Coming Full Circle: a
Conversation with Nguyễn Duy”, Manoa, 14.1 (2002), pp. 100-104.
67 Mai Quốc Liên, “Ðôi điều bàn lại” , Nhân Dân, September 11, 1989.
68 This poem was translated into English by Hoài An in Nguyễn Xuân Thu (ed.) (1994), ibid.
69 Dương Thu Hương, “Ðôi điều suy nghĩ về nhân cách của người trí thức”, Ðất Nước magazine (West
281
It has become rarer and rarer
To sacrifice one’s life for a good cause
What am I?
To whom am I necessary?
But the strongest sentences are the following:
Is it genuine renovation or just pretending?
Can we really replace contaminated blood?
The đổi mới movement was not only made up of fiction and poetry but also of
debates, polemics, arguments, and critical and theoretical essays. It can be said that the
đổi mới movement opened the floodgates of criticism. Never in the history of socialist
realist literature since the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm affair in the mid-1950s have
Vietnamese critical activities flourished as in the đổi mới period. Not only critics but
also creative writers wrote critical articles and participated in literary debates. The
crucial point of these critical activities, as Greg Lockhart argues, was “a perception
that, in the mindless wartime propaganda of socialist realism, the quality of
Vietnamese literature had seriously declined.”70 This perception was first put forward
by Secretary General Nguyễn Văn Linh in his meeting with writers and artists in Hanoi
in October 1987, as mentioned above, when he wondered: “It seems to me that our
achievements in literature and art since liberation day have not been great. Am I
right?” In response, most Vietnamese writers said: “Yes, you were”.71 In July 1988, Lê
Ngọc Trà summed up: “In the end, after many hesitations and whispers, it is the first
time we have had enough courage to speak out and speak publicly a truth: our
revolutionary literature is still poor.”72
Vietnamese socialist realist literature was not only poor, it was also un-literary.
According to Mai Quốc Liên, there were several writers who declared that socialist
realist literature had been a “eulogising literature” (văn học tụng ca), “royal palace
Germany), no. 54 (1988).
70 Nguyễn Huy Thiệp (1992), op. cit., p. 5.
71 This meeting was reported in Văn Nghệ, October 17, 1987.
72 Văn Nghệ, July 16, 1988.
282
literature” (văn học cung đình), “syrup literature” (văn học xi-rô), and even “literature
of petty and stinking language” (văn học tiểu ngữ và xú ngữ).73 Mai Ngữ, in his article
“Về một thời kỳ đã qua” (On a past period), called socialist realist literature a literature
of news agency, of propaganda (văn học thông tấn / văn học tuyên truyền).74 The
literary critic Lại Nguyên Ân called it the “literature of officialdom” (văn học quan
phương).75 Writer Dương Thu Hương in “Ðôi điều suy nghĩ về nhân cách của người trí
thức” (Some reflections on the intellectuals’ dignity), called it the literature of
“mercenaries and fake intellectuals whose real nature was that of colonial public
servants”.76 Writer Nguyễn Minh Châu, in his well-known article “Hãy đọc lời ai điếu
cho một giai đoạn văn nghệ minh hoạ” (Let us read a funeral oration for a period of
illustrative literature and art), called it the literature of cowardice and humiliation.77
Writers not only blamed socialist realist literature, which they themselves had
built up for decades under the leadership and censorship of the Vietnamese Communist
Party, but they also tried to seek the causes of this failure. One of the most frequent
causes lay in the Party’s policies on literature. According to Dr Nguyễn Khắc Viện, a
well-known scholar of Marxism and Vietnamese culture,
In the economy, centralization and bureaucracy has hurt the daily life of the
people; in the culture, it has had an even worse effect. The people have been told
how many kilos of rice to eat each month; the poets have been told how many
poems to write each month. Everything is decided from above – how to write,
how to think. It is forbidden for writers to create or to think for themselves. In this
situation, human beings lose their nature and become like machines.78
73 Mai Quốc Liên, “Ðôi điều bàn lại”, Nhân Dân, September 9 and 11, 1989.
74 Mai Ngữ, “Về một thời kỳ đã qua”, Văn Nghệ Quân Ðội, no. 7 (1988).
75 Văn Nghệ, no. 9 (February 27, 1988) and Sông Hương, no. 31 (May and June 1988).
76 Dương Thu Hương, “Ðôi điều suy nghĩ về nhân cách của người trí thức”, Ðất Nước magazine (West
Germany), no. 54 (1988).
77 Nguyễn Minh Châu, “Hãy đọc lời ai điếu cho một giai đoạn văn nghệ minh hoạ”, Văn Nghệ, nos. 49-
50 (December 5, 1987), reprinted in Nguyễn Minh Châu (2002), op. cit., pp. 127-139.
78 Quoted in Nguyen Thu Lieu (1988), “Artistic Freedom in Vietnam”, Vietnam Update (Winter / Spring
1988), p. 12.
283
According to playwright Lưu Quang Vũ, in the literary field in Vietnam “there
was only one person who thought for everyone, one head for all heads”, and this
arbitrariness destroyed all creations, and resulted in a dry situation for literature and the
arts.79 More bitterly, critic Nguyễn Ðăng Mạnh, in front of Nguyễn Văn Linh, claimed
that in Vietnam “leaders despised writers and artists deeply. Writers were regarded as
young boys and girls who always needed to be put under control”.80 This idea had been
written by Nguyễn Ðăng Mạnh himself one month earlier: “People often said that our
literature was mature, and our writers and artists were soldiers and heroes, but they
treated writers and artists like young boys and girls.”81 And this idea was publicly
accepted by another writer, Mai Văn Tạo, who complained that “Never before have
writers and artists been scorned as [they are] these days.”82 It should be noted that the
same complaint had been made by scholar Ðào Duy Anh, a member of the Nhân Văn -
Giai Phẩm group, who, in the mid-1950s, bitterly stated: “in the resistance, [...]
intellectuals were not respected. [...] today [...] intellectuals are still disdained”, and
after another few pages, “in the political cadres’ attitude can be seen their scorn for
intellectuals.”83
Like the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm three decades earlier, the đổi mới writers and
critics, in fighting for their intellectual and creative freedom, could not avoid one of the
crucial issues: the relationship between politics and literature. In this regard, it seems
that some đổi mới writers went further than their predecessors: they did not need to
pretend to believe that the dependence of literature on politics was something "natural"
or "indispensable". For Nguyễn Ðăng Mạnh, one of the main reasons for the standstill
of literature was the identification of literature and politics. Politics needed
propaganda, it created an illustrative literature. Consequently, a literature which aimed
79 Văn Nghệ, October 17, 1987.
80 Ibid.
81 Văn Nghệ, August 29, 1987.
82 Quoted in Nguyễn Trọng Tín, Văn Nghệ, July 3, 1988.
83 Ðào Duy Anh, “Muốn phát triển học thuật”, Giai Phẩm Mùa Thu, vol. 3 (1956), pp. 35 and 38.
284
at "emotionalising" political contents was not able to be great."84 Hồ Ngọc claimed that
“literature and art were independent from politics”, 85 and that "culture, art and politics
must be separated, not only in the thoughts of the artists but in organization and in the
minds of the leadership, especially those who lead arts organizations.”86 Nguyễn Văn
Hạnh believed that "literature and politics were in mutual dependence."87 Lã Nguyên
asserted that “politics was a jurisdiction, an official and orthodox mechanism, whereas
literature and art were non-official consciousness, a self-consciousness of people."88
Lại Nguyên Ân reached the conclusion that the relationship between politics and
literature is by nature that between those who hold power and lead the nation and those
intellectuals who create art. This is also the relationship between two hegemonies in
society. The political hegemony either rejects or supports literature and art; but even
when it supports literature, it can only create literary coteries who try to express the
orthodox ideology of the state and consequently produce nothing new. A great writer is
one who expresses the consciousness of the people and escapes from the orthodox
ideology of his/her age.89
Finally, the đổi mới writers and critics directly challenged the theory of
socialist realism. Lê Ngọc Trà, who had been trained in literary theory in the Soviet
Union, argued that “literature was not a reflection of reality but it was first of all an
activity of self-understanding of writers through which literary work could become a
land that fostered human emotions, a garden where human souls flowered, as a distinct
form of existence and development of human beings’ intellectual lives”.90 Lê Ngọc Trà
84 Quoted in Lê Xuân Vũ (1988), "Quan hệ giữa Văn Nghệ và chính trị không phải là quan hệ giữa hai
‘bá quyền’ trong xã hội”, Tạp chí Cộng Sản, no. 11 (1988), p. 7. (Nguyễn Ðăng Mạnh's original
comments were published in Văn Nghệ, August 29, 1987.)
85 Ibid.
86 Quoted in Nguyen Thu Lieu (1988), ibid.
87 Quoted in Lê Xuân Vũ (1988), ibid.
88 Ibid.
89 Ibid.
90 Lê Ngọc Trà (1988), “Về vấn đề văn học phản ánh hiện thực”, Văn Nghệ, July 16, 1988.
285
also criticized the concept of “generality” and “typicality” in socialist realism. He
wrote:
For many years now, our literature has had the task of building up an image of
HISTORY, THE COUNTRY OF OUR ANCESTORS, THE PEOPLE, THE
MASSES. But we are too absorbed in the "epic” form, in the collective image of
people, and pay too little attention to the task of describing the destinies of people
and establishing original images of individual persons and their lives. THE
PERSON is usually only described by a few simple outlines sketched into a
general picture of the glorious mass of the people. One of the demands made of
works about war and revolution has required that writers describe the destiny of
people in the whirlwind of history. Therefore, literature only reflects the person
through its descriptions of history, but it needs to reflect history through
descriptions of the destiny of the person.91
At the height of criticism, Hoàng Ngọc Hiến, a Soviet Union-educated theorist,
bluntly stated:
Socialist realism is a fake conception which has caused a long unhappiness for
writers, artists, researchers and leaders. At the beginning it was put forward as a
flag whose function was to gather [writers and artists]. However, it became
dangerous because people turned it from a flag to an academic perception in order
to make it more noble and all-purpose. This argument is useless.92
Facing such a strong criticism and fearing that the Vietnamese communist
government could be collapsing as it was in Eastern Europe; at the end of 1988 the
Vietnamese Communist Party decided to restrain the đổi mới movement in literature
and art. Nguyên Ngọc, writer and editor-in-chief of Văn Nghệ, the weekly organ of the
Vietnamese Writers’ Association, was sacked, presumably for publishing stories by
Nguyễn Huy Thiệp.93 Vũ Kim Hạnh, journalist and editor general of Tuổi Trẻ
91 Quoted by Greg Lockhart, in Nguyễn Huy Thiệp (1992), op. cit., p 6.
92 Văn Nghệ, March 5, 1988.
93 Nhân Dân, 14 September 1988; Sài Gòn Giải Phóng, 4 October 1988; Văn Nghệ, no. 40 (October 1,
1988), Ðoàn Kết (Paris), no. 407 (November 1988); Murray Hiebert, "One Step Backward,"
Far Eastern Economic Review, May 4, 1989, p. 15.
286
newspaper in Hồ Chí Minh City, was dismissed for publishing an article revealing Hồ
Chí Minh’s love affair when he had been in China more than half a century earlier.94
The Sông Hương review was suspended for a while because of its support of đổi mới
writers. In Zachary Abuza's summation:
The Central Committee's Culture Commission shut down eight magazines and
newspapers, while the editor in chief of Sài Gòn Giải Phóng was fired and the
editor of Vũng Tàu Côn Ðảo arrested for his paper's outspoken and critical
reportage. Numerous other editors were also purged: Bùi Minh Quốc from Dalat
Lang Bian, Tô Hoà of Sài Gòn Giải Phóng, Tô Nhuận Vỹ of the literary review
Cửa Việt, and Trường Giang of Giáo Dục và Thời Ðại, the latter for apologizing
to its readers for not publishing a critical response by Phan Ðình Diệu to an article
by Le Quang Vinh published first in Sài Gòn Giải Phóng and then in Nhân Dân.95
Later, the Party dissolved its Committee of Literature and Art when its head,
Trần Ðộ, appeared to be supporting the people asking for a renovation in these areas.
General Secretary Nguyễn Văn Linh called Dương Thu Hương a "dissident whore"
when she published her second novel, Paradise of the Blind;96 and the government
arrested and detained her for seven months when she sent the manuscript of her novel,
Novel Without a Name, to an overseas publisher in 1991. Several writers and poets
were arrested, such as writer Tiêu Dao Bảo Cự and poet Bùi Minh Quốc, who were
placed under house arrest for two years from September 1997 to October 1999.97
It is clear that Vietnam is still a one-party ruled state, and the government still
holds a monopoly on publishing, forbidding independent presses and journals, and
trying to keep a strict control on literary life. However, while the Vietnamese
Communist Party and government can maintain their dominant position in politics,
94 Robert Templer (1998), op. cit., p.164.
95 Zachary Abuza (2001), Renovating Politics in Contemporary Vietnam, Boulder: Lynne Rienner
Publishers, p. 138.
96 Zachary Abura, "Loyal opposition within the VCP", a paper delivered at the conference on Vietnam in
2001: Prospects for economic and progress.
97 "The silencing of dissident", at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2000/vietnam/Viet004-02.htm.
287
they are not able to rescue the theory of socialist realism. Socialist realism is menaced
and annihilated not by the dissident writers or critics but mainly by the free market
system which has been adopted by the Vietnamese Communist Party since 1986.
Under the free market system, there are three important facts which have emerged in
the field of publication. Firstly, for the first time, at least after 1975 for the South,
Vietnamese culture has become a mass phenomenon: Dương Thu Hương's novel,
Paradise of the Blind, which was banned shortly after publication, sold out at least
60,000 copies98; Văn Nghệ magazine under Nguyên Ngọc's editorship had a circulation
of more than 120,000 copies;99 Lưu Quang Vũ's plays were produced across the
country and attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers.100 Secondly, as a consequence
of the above fact, the press and publication have become an economic resource in
which many local governments and government organizations want to invest. This is
the main reason for the unprecedented increase of the number of publishers and
magazines. According to a report by the Ministry of the Interior, by 1988 only half of
the four hundred newspapers in the country were licensed and nearly forty percent of
the books published that year were published illegally.101 Thirdly, publishers, which no
longer receive endless subsidies from the state as before, must do their best to survive
and to make profits.102 In doing so, one of their priorities is to publish the best-selling
98 Henry Kamm (1996), Dragon Ascending: Vietnam and the Vietnamese, New York: Arcade
Publishing, p. 159.
99 Văn magazine (California), nos. 78 and 79 (June and July 2003), p. 7.
100 Nguyễn Ngọc Giao, “Ðằng sau ‘vụ án’ báo Văn Nghệ”, Ðoàn Kết (Paris), no. 407 (November 1988),
p. 28.
101 Zachary Abuz (2001), op. cit., p. 140; and Tạp chí Cộng Sản, no. 12 (1988), p. 17.
102 Bùi Công Nguyên, “Vietnamese Publications in Vietnam and Overseas”, http://talawas.org, March, 1,
2004, gives more details: “There are currently 59 state owned publishers in Vietnam. Most of
them are located in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. […] All publishers are self funded, except
those which aim to promote national profile, such as Nxb Chính Trị Quốc Gia (National
Political Publishers) which publishes political materials, or books associated with law and
regulations, Nxb Thế Giới (The World Publishing House) which mainly prints books and
materials in foreign languages (English, French, Russian, Chinese, etc), Nxb Văn Hoá (Culture
Publishers) which specializes in producing cultural materials and Nxb Giáo Dục (Education
Publishers) which produces textbooks and educational books. […] To survive, all publishers
have to compete with the others to sell their products by improving books’ quality. To be
successful, publishers have to understand the market demands or what readers want to read.”
288
books, and in order to obtain such possible best-selling books, they must co-operate
with "private agents" (đầu nậu) who are skilful in business and have a large connection
within the literary circles. As a result of these activities, no one, not even the extremely
conservative, continues to create or publish literature under the spell of socialist
realism; and no one spends their energy to defend socialist realism. Since the early
1990s, the field of literary theory has been very calm and quiet. There has been no
debate for or against socialist realism, whereas writers and poets are eagerly
experimenting with their writings on symbolism, surrealism, nouveau roman, concrete
poetry, and even postmodernism; critics and theorists are eager to study many non-
Marxist theories, from New Criticism to Phenomenology, Semiotics, Hermeneutics,
Receptive Aesthetics, and also postmodernism.103 In 2001, the Vietnamese translation
of an anthology of essays written by the Russian formalists, Art as Device: Theory of
Russian Formalism, was published;104 followed by two anthologies on postmodernism:
Postmodern Short Stories in the World105 and Postmodern Literature in the World,
Some Theoretical Issues.106 No one criticizes them on behalf of socialist realism. In
September 20, 2003, the Politburo issued Resolution no. 81-QÐ/T.Ư. to establish the
Committee of Theorists and Critics, whose goals are to build up the Party’s policy of
literature and art. However, in the resolution and some articles and interviews about it,
the term “socialist realism” was never mentioned.107
103 See, for example, Phương Lựu (1999), Mười trường phái lý luận phê bình văn học phương Tây
đương đại, Hanoi: Nxb Giáo Dục. The ten “schools” of literature discussed in this book are:
analytical psychology, semantics, New Criticism, pragmaticism, phenomenology,
existentialism, semiotics, hermeneutics, receptive aesthetics, and sociology of literature.
104 Nghệ thuật như là thủ pháp: Lý thuyết chủ nghĩa hình thức Nga, edited by Ðỗ Lai Thuý, Hanoi: Nxb
Hội Nhà Văn.
105 Truyện ngắn hậu hiện đại thế giới, edited by Ðoàn Tử Huyến, Lại Nguyên Ân and Lê Huy Bắc,
Hanoi: nxb Hội Nhà Văn and Trung Tâm Văn Hoá Ngôn Ngữ Ðông Tây, 2003.
106 Chủ nghĩa hậu hiện đại thế giới, những vấn đề lý thuyết, edited by Ðoàn Tử Huyến et al., Hanoi: Nxb
Hội Nhà Văn and Trung Tâm Văn Hoá Ngôn Ngữ Ðông Tây, 2003. This anthology consists of
several articles written or translated by some overseas Vietnamese writers; most of which were
published in Viet Journal (Melbourne), no. 7 (2001). This issue can be read on http://tienve.org.
107 Ngô Phan, “Thêm nhiều tiếng nói cho Ðảng”, Thể Thao và Văn Hoá, nos. 7, 8 and 9 (January 30,
2004), p. 46; reproduced at http://www.talawas.org ( February 2, 2004).
289
Unquestionably, socialist realism, both as a theory and as a movement, has died
in Vietnam. A very quiet death.
290
CONCLUSION
Theoretically, socialist realism was built upon two cornerstones: Engels’ notion
of tendentiousness and Lenin’s principle of partiinost. While Engels believed that “the
more the opinions of the author remain hidden, the better for the work of art”,1 Lenin
advocated a tendentiousness in the most naked sense: writers had to speak out clearly
and strongly their political attitudes.2 According to George Steiner, Engels and Lenin
“were saying different things” and “they were pointing towards contrasting ideals.”3
These contradictory views have split Marxist critics into two different camps: the
orthodox group and those whom several scholars aptly called the “para-Marxists”. In
the early 1930s, the founders of socialist realism, including Andrei Zhdanov and
Maxim Gorky, rigorously proclaimed the orthodox position. Thus, although Engels’
pronouncements were still repeatedly quoted, Lenin’s policy and its inheritance,
Zhdanovism and Stalinist aesthetics, actually dominated socialist realism, whose ideal
was, precisely, in Steiner’s words, “the reduction of literature to ‘a small cog and a
small screw’ in the mechanism of the totalitarian state.”4
Originating as a set of demands put forward by the Communist Party, socialist
realism, as Herman Ermolaev comments, is a “collection of political prescriptions
rather than a literary phenomenon.”5 Nicholas Luker agrees: “For all the forests of
paper and seas of ink which have been exhausted since 1932 in attempts to define,
reflect and promote the doctrine, it remains essentially a Stalinist device to enlist
1 Marx and Engels (1978), On Literature and Art, Moscow: Progress Publishers, p. 91.
2 Lenin (1978), On Literature and Art, Moscow: Progress Publishers, pp. 24-9.
3 George Steiner (1967), Language and Silence, London: Faber and Faber, p. 337.
4 Ibid., p. 338.
5 Herman Ermolaev (1977), Soviet Literary Theories 1917-1934: The Genesis of Socialist Realism, New
York: Octagon Books, p. 159.
291
literature and art in the service of the Communist state. [...] Political, not literary,
considerations are paramount.”6
Such a theory was first introduced into Vietnam by some revolutionaries whose
main interest was political, not literary. All of these people had their first contact with
socialist realism through the French press, but later took the relevant Chinese materials
as their major references, in which Maoism had become the dominant element in their
view of literature. This change was made partly by the wars, from the Second World
War and the French War, which prevented the importation of the French press and
literature; and partly by political choice: from 1949 when Mao Zedong seized power in
mainland China, China became the closest and most important ally of Vietnam, at least
until 1975 when the American War ended. However, for Vietnamese people, China
and Russia were not only allies but also masters from whom they had learnt everything
in building a new regime. Consequently, the para-religiousness of socialist realism in
Vietnam was so strong that almost everyone was pleased with several canonical texts
imported from China and Russia. From the anti-French resistance onwards, as a
Vietnamese researcher remarks in his work on the 1945-54 period, “the theorists of
Vietnamese revolutionary art and literature were Hồ Chí Minh, Trường Chinh, and Tố
Hữu. That was a development that could be seen as representative of the Vietnamese
situation: the leaders of the Party were all theorists of art and literature.”7 But these
leaders did not have enough time or even knowledge to discuss any problem of
literature in depth. The canonical texts of Vietnamese socialist realism, therefore,
consisted only of several simple pronouncements on literature by leaders in various
forms, including letters, speeches and resolutions, all of which focus on one sole
aspect: the relationship between literature and politics. In this context, it is easy to
understand why socialist realism is labelled as a “doctrinaire realism” by several
Vietnamese writers.
6 Nicholas Luker (ed.) (1988), From Furmanov to Sholokhov, an Anthology of the Classics of Socialist
Realism, Ann Arbor: Ardis, p. 34.
7 Quoted in Kim N.B. Ninh (2002), op. cit., pp. 84-85.
292
This doctrinaire realism was accepted by writers and intellectuals mainly during
wartime, when a choice of literary theory was synonymous with a choice of political
stand: it resulted in unity, and therefore a manifestation of patriotism. This is one of the
reasons why socialist realism in Vietnam was well developed only in two periods: the
French War (1946-1954), and the American War (1964-1975). In these two periods,
the most favorite and most successful topic was that of military struggles against
foreign invaders. This is a traditional topic in the history of Vietnamese literature, and
therefore writers and particularly poets easily felt at home with it. Most of them were
happy to be soldiers in the battle of literature. In other words, it can be said that the
dominant inspiration during the time of war was nationalist rather than socialist.
However, when the war ended, the consensus between government and writers
was challenged. Writing under political guidance and control was no longer considered
a manifestation of patriotism. In the innermost soul of each writer and poet, patriotic
enthusiasm was replaced by creative ambition. Between politics and literature, most of
the talented writers and poets chose the latter, and as a result, for better or for worse,
became challengers of the political powers. It is not accidental that both dissident
movements in Vietnamese literature happened in peacetime, one immediately after the
war, and one a few years later. But because communism is an international network,
the dissident movements, which protest against it, are also international. The voices of
Vietnamese dissent from orthodox socialist realism can only be raised in accord with
the cultural changes in the communist world. Behind the Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm in the
mid-1950s were the de-Stalinization movements in the Soviet Union and some Eastern
European countries and the campaign of A Hundred Flowers Bloom in China. Behind
the đổi mới movement in the mid-1980s were the policies of glasnost and perestroika
in the Soviet Union. It is almost impossible for writers and intellectuals alone to
challenge socialist realism, which is sponsored by the authoritarian state.
Socialist realism was not only an international movement but also an
institutionalized literature. In the Soviet Union, as Harold Swayze has remarked: “An
outstanding feature of the Soviet literary scene is the vast bureaucratic apparatus that
exercises surveillance over the whole range of activities involved in the production of
293
literary works.”8 In Vietnam, the Party and government also successfully established
an organizational system for controlling writers. During the đổi mới movement, several
Vietnamese writers labelled their literature a “cadres' literature” (nền văn học cán bộ),
in which all writers were government officers, receiving salaries from the state to
write, and in turn, they wrote to serve the government. This system, in Miklos
Haraszti’s words, creates a “new aesthetic culture in which censors and artists are
entangled in a mutual embrace.”9
What writers have lost in such an institutionalized literature is surely their
independence and their individual identity. But theoretically speaking, these losses
might not be causes of the failure of socialist realism. History reveals a great number of
writers who could write well under autocratic systems, which occupy the longest part
of human history. Writing an introduction to Perspectives on Literature and Society in
Eastern and Western Europe, Geoffrey A. Hosking argues that “it is usual for good
literature to be published only with great difficulty, and with risks for author and
publisher alike.”10 However, Vietnamese writers still believe that lack of freedom is
one of the main reasons for the decline of the quality of literature. In his article “Let us
read a funeral oration for a period of illustrative literature and art”, Nguyễn Minh Châu
narrates an established writer whose name is not revealed who, being drunken, was
laughing and crying at the same time, and said: “Thanks to the fear, I can survive and
continue to write until now.” And Nguyễn Minh Châu asks: “We are cowardly, very
cowardly, aren't we? Is there any Vietnamese writer who, in his/her heart, does not
think he/she is cowardly? The fear makes us cowardly.” And he continues: this
cowardice makes Vietnamese literature an illustrative literature, which has no
8 Harold Swayze (1962), Political Control of Literature in the USSR, 1946-1959, Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, p. 224.
9 Miklos Haraszti (1987), The Velvet Prison: Artists under State Socialism, translated by Katalin and
Stephen Landesman, New York: Basic Books, p. 5.
10 Geoffrey A. Hosking and George F. Cushing (eds.), Perspectives on Literature and Society in Eastern
and Western Europe, New York: St. Martin’s Press, p. 1.
294
significant value.11
It is not surprising that Vietnamese literature has been known to the world only
by the works written by the đổi mới authors such as Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, Dương Thu
Hương, Bảo Ninh, and Phạm Thị Hoài, among others. However, most of these writers
are still obsessed with politics. Being suppressed by an authoritarian state for a long
time, when they spoke out, the first thing was often a criticism of authoritarianism and
bureaucratism. In other words, most of writers who were dissenting from socialist
realism became critical realists who also use literature as a weapon to fight against
“negative elements” in society. Both movements of literary dissidence in Vietnam were
associated with certain similar facts: a revival of Vũ Trọng Phụng (1912-39), one of
the masters of Vietnamese realism who lived and worked in the pre-revolutionary
period; the priority of reportage as a genre; the dominance of critical inspiration
towards bureaucratism and authoritarianism. Besides, after being suppressed for a long
time, people had a passionate need to express themselves in terms of their innermost
being. These phenomena made dissident movements more progressive in terms of
politics than in aesthetics: people rejected socialist realism in order to return to critical
realism and romanticism. Experiments in style and language often came into being
quite late, when most social and political concerns and excitements had quietened
down.
However, historians can be pleased with the story of socialist realism not only
in Vietnam but also around the world: it has a happy ending. As Irina Gutkin notes in
The Cultural Origins of the Socialist Realist Aesthetic 1890-1934: “In the decade since
the beginning of perestroika, characterized by the revolutionary changes that brought
down the Soviet Union itself, socialist realism, as a worldview and a social contract
regulating the relations between art and society, has died.”12 In Vietnam, the one-party
11 Nguyễn Minh Châu, “Hãy đọc lời ai điếu cho một giai đoạn văn nghệ minh hoạ”, Văn Nghệ magazine
nos. 49-50 (December 5, 1987), reprinted in Nguyễn Minh Châu (2002), Trang giấy trước đèn,
Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Học Xã Hội, pp. 127-139
12 Irina Gutkin (1999), The Cultural Origins of the Socialist Realist Aesthetic 1890-1934, Evanston,
Illinois: Northwestern University Press, p. 151.
295
rule has not collapsed. But since the application of the free market system in the late
1980s, even in the field of culture, including the press and publication generally,
socialist realism has quietly been abandoned, not only by writers, poets, critics and
theorists, but also by publishers and, reluctantly, politicians. In this respect, one of the
Marxist views is proved: “literature [...] ultimately is determined by the economic
base.”13
13 In a letter to W. Borgius of January 25, 1894, Engels wrote: “Political, juridical, philosophical,
religious, literary, artistic, etc., development is based on economic development.” A part of this
letter was reprinted in Marx and Engel (1978), On Literature and Art, Moscow: Progress
Publishers, p. 58.
296
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