Vietnam confronts the Chinese ‘charm offensive’

Author: Le Hong Hiep, Vietnam National University

Vietnam is arguably the most ‘sinicised’ country in Southeast Asia, a distinctive result of more than 2000 years of intense interaction between Vietnam and China.

But the Vietnamese absorption of Chinese culture is neither a straightforward process nor an inescapable outcome of geographical proximity; it is much more nuanced. China’s cultural influence forms only one layer of Vietnam’s cultural identity. The most important and substantial element still rests with indigenous norms, customs and practices, while Vietnam’s cultural borrowings from Southeast Asia and the West form yet another layer.

Two distinct features characterise the Vietnamese absorption of Chinese cultural elements over the past 2000 years. First, Vietnam has been willing to borrow culturally from China as long as it is a voluntary, internal process rather than a forceful imposition from the north. Second, Vietnam’s borrowing from China is a selective process — most Chinese influences are filtered and adapted to fit local needs. So the ‘sinicisation’ of Vietnam could also be understood as the ‘Vietnamisation’ of Chinese elements. At the core of Vietnamese society and culture is still the overwhelming presence of its indigenous cultural and social values and norms, which shape Vietnam’s national identity and guide its perception of, and relations with, China.

One particular example is the spread of Confucianism into Vietnam. Confucianism was introduced during the Chinese-domination era that lasted more than 1000 years. But it could not gain a foothold in Vietnamese society until the country won its independence from China and began to treat Confucianism as a tool of nation building rather than a cultural legacy imposed by the north. Accordingly, the Ly dynasty built the Temple of Literature in 1070 to worship Confucius and established the Imperial Academy six years later to educate Vietnamese nobles and bureaucrats along Confucian lines. By the time the Lê dynasty came to power, Confucianism had been enthusiastically embraced as the ideological framework on which the Vietnamese state and society operated.

The Vietnamese also made a number of significant modifications to the imported ideology. For example, contrary to the Chinese Confucian tradition, Vietnamese society had a much greater recognition of women’s rights and accorded them a higher social status, and while Chinese Confucianism emphasises loyalty to rulers only, Vietnamese Confucianism stresses both loyalty to rulers and a sense of patriotism.

China’s historical cultural influence on Vietnam began to dwindle in the late 19th century, and the sinicisation of Vietnam symbolically faded away in 1918. This occurred with the abolition of all civil service examinations which had tested candidates’ knowledge of Confucian classics, and skills in prose and poetry using both Han and Nom characters. But more than 2000 years of interaction with China has left Vietnam with a multitude of Chinese cultural influences that cannot be undone overnight.

More recently, with the resurgence of China as a global power, Vietnam has been subject to a Chinese ‘charm offensive’, as the country seeks to spread its soft power worldwide. Since the early 1990s, Vietnam has been engulfed in a Chinese ‘cultural tsunami’ brought about by the overwhelming success of Chinese historical television series, music, movies and kung-fu novels. The popularity of Chinese cultural products in Vietnam — while partly explainable by the dearth of comparable Vietnamese products — can also be attributed to their quality, which has earned them a positive reception from Vietnamese audiences.

But this excessive Chinese cultural influence seems to have alarmed the government and Vietnamese Communist Party ideologists. Some critics have even complained that popular Chinese television series have made Vietnamese people more familiar with Chinese history than their own national history. This has triggered a number of reactions from the Vietnamese government, including a government-issued decree that ordered Vietnamese movies and television series to account for at least 30 to 50 per cent of the allotted time for movies on any Vietnamese television station.

Despite the apparent success of Chinese popular culture with Vietnamese audiences, resistance to unwarranted Chinese cultural influence still seems to become stronger when China makes purposeful, self-interested attempts to impress its cultural values. For example, the Confucius Institute initiative, one of the major components of China’s global soft power project, has made little headway in Vietnam despite its global success.

The Chinese ‘charm offensive’ is likely to expand globally, but may encounter major setbacks in Vietnam. While voluntary borrowings from China have formed a substantial layer of the country’s culture, Vietnam is also a country where memories of a millennium of forceful Chinese cultural assimilation are still alive today. Consequently, Chinese attempts to spread its soft power into Vietnam are likely to be limited by the country’s over-familiarity with Chinese culture. Vietnam’s traditional resistance to unwarranted Chinese cultural influence now stands as yet another obvious challenge that China must overcome if its ‘charm offensive’ is to ever succeed in this particular southern neighbour.

Le Hong Hiep is Lecturer at the Faculty of International Relations, Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City, and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.

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