Viet Nam Expose: French Scholarship on Twentieth-Century Vietnamese Society

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A collection of essays written on twentieth-century Vietnamese society, Viêt Nam Exposé is one of only a handful of books written by French scholars for an English-speaking audience. The volume is multidisciplinary and represents a new trend in Vietnamese studies that addresses issues beyond politics, wars, and violence, exploring the complexity of more subtle power relationships in Vietnamese society.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I, "Vietnamese Society in the Early Twentieth Century," takes a micro approach to the study of Vietnamese society on the eve of the irreversible social transformation that occurred as the colonial infrastructure took root in Indochina. Part II, "Vietnamese Intellectuals: Contesting Colonial Power," contains biographical accounts of Vietnamese intellectuals who tried to reform their society under colonial domination. Part III, "Post-Colonial Vietnam: From Welfare State to Market-Oriented Economy," traces Vietnam's search for a viable economic model while maintaining itself as a socialist state.

The book speaks to diverse themes, including the nature of village life, the development of health care during the colonial era, the status of women, the role of Vietnamese intellectuals in the anticolonial struggle, the building of a socialist state, contemporary rural migration, labor relations, and Vietnam in an age of globalization.

Gisele Bousquet is Research Associate at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley. Pierre Brocheux is Maître de Conference of History, Université Denis Diderot-Paris VII.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472098057
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 12/4/2002
  • Pages: 488
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

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Viet-Nam Expose: French Scholarship on Twentieth-Century Vietnamese Society

By Pierre Brocheux

University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2002 Pierre Brocheux
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0472098055

Who Has Power in the Village? Political Process and Social Reality in Vietnam


The study of villages and Vietnamese rural society is tributary to a long historiographical tradition that, without interruption, has been pursued since the colonial era and the socialist period up to the present time. Let us state at the outset that this study fits into a general framework of ideas, which, though broad and highly diverse, has nonetheless benefited from the work of several generations of Vietnamese and foreign researchers, to whom we must pay tribute. But this short study enters also into a relationship of opposition to a certain historiographical legacy, which, across the ideological spectrum, has made the village into an immobile structure, naturally balanced and endowed with a political apparatus that has been described and explained in a way that seems to us entirely questionable. This last issue, namely, the distribution of power and the mode of government, is the subject of our inquiry in the present essay.

The system of village power is traditionally presented as a three-tiered structure: the Council of Notables on top, the officials of the commune in the middle, and an undifferentiated peasant mass at the base. According to this vision, it is precisely the access to public office that is supposed to give the villager the opportunity to pass from one tier to the next, in the context of a life that proceeds by stages: peasant, registered taxpayer, official of the commune (and perhaps the canton), notable, and, finally, with the elevation "from honorable mat to honorable mat," up to the highest point in the council. In this perspective, power is defined not by the officeholder's social group but by his position within the community, although the origin of this position is never specified. If the position gives power, we may wonder what gives the position. In fact, what is described here is a village without history, a village without a past, without an "engine"--an inert mechanism that permanently aims at balance and the sharing of tasks, with the subtext that penury necessitates solidarity, cooperation, and redistribution (forms of the famous "moral economy of the village").

When power in the village is mentioned, it is in reality a normative definition which is sought, a definition capable of encompassing all the systems and all the people. But village books of customary law, texts issued by the court, and even colonial legislative documents provide this encompassing definition: the system of power appears in these contexts to lie in the hands of "notables," former mandarins and literati, wise old men or young candidates for the examinations. It is rare indeed to see the evocation of regional differences. The figure of the notable is often mobilized as the keystone to this edifice. But never is there an explanation of the notable's function, nor any definition of what a notable is, where he came from, what he did, how he gained his post, and the nature of his post. The notable functions a little like the deus ex machina of ancient tragedies: he does not explain himself, does not vary, possesses neither origin nor future, but intervenes abruptly to reply to the embarrassing question: who runs Vietnamese villages?

But the exercise of power is not the representation of power by those who hold it, and the forms of its exercise are not local variations from a normative text. This may seem evident, but it conceals an important methodological approach, which can be summed up by means of the following question: who to believe: those who talk about "the village" or those who live in villages, those who wield power (and define it) or those who live under it? At present, only the former have expressed themselves, not because they enjoy any particular legitimacy but quite simply because the latter's voice has not been heard. The powerholders' vision dominated.

The recent discovery in Hanoi of communal archives has given rise to a veritable "Copernican revolution" that has allowed us, for the first time, to hear what the villagers had to say. Great piles of documents (approximately four thousand dossiers) are now available to us, and they now constitute a new and exciting point of departure for our interrogations. In the following pages, we aim less at a sketch of the chronological evolution of village life than at a definition of the real functioning of power in the village. New sources call for new methodologies, and in this essay I have deliberately opted to keep clear of the grand theoretical frameworks and normative documents produced by the upper echelons of Vietnamese society. My objective is, in contrast, to plunge deeply into the very heart of village social life at the end of the nineteenth century and attempt a detailed examination of the "microaffairs" of the time, of local life. These are packed full of information that, reorganized and synthesized, provides a clear definition of the nature and functioning of power in the village, which is a good deal more convincing than that which has dominated our thinking to date. What I am attempting to achieve here is, in the end, very simple. It is an analysis of the fragments, not of any discourse but of a social reality itself, understood through the documents generated by the village itself. The village lives, moves, and is subject to constant challenges, and this rather obvious observation allows me to pose the key question of this study: faced with documents from village archives, with trials, denunciations, riots, murders, clan struggles, spoliation, fiscal manipulations, and landless peasants--what remains of the ideal and homogeneous "village community"?

1. The Crucial Role of the Ly Truong: An Introductory Analysis

In the political structure of all Vietnamese villages, one man held a primordial position. His decisions had daily consequences for all families in the community. This was the ly truong, or "village mayor," on whose conduct the smooth--or not so smooth--functioning of village life depended. An analysis of the political role of this official is the necessary point of departure for our study of power in the village.

The Council of Notables (hˆoi dˆong ky muc) was headed by the first notable (tiˆen chi, "the first on the paper"), seconded by the second notable (thu chi), and included all those men who had occupied communal office in the past as well as currently serving agents (ly dich), former mandarins, old people (lao) or "rich and honorable people" (phu quy), literati, and so on. Among them, themselves part of the group of currently serving agents, were to be found those essential characters, omnipresent in the documents: the ly truong and his principal assistants, the pho ly (responsible for the execution of the ly truong's orders) and the huong truong (responsible for public works).

Using information taken from normative texts (especially village customary law books) and from well-known models drawn from large villages of literati (which were often the only ones studied), our traditional understanding of the organization of power in the village has rested on a hierarchical conception of the Council of Notables, presented in the following terms. First came the old men (lao nhieu and lao hang), then dignitaries holding an imperial title (chuc sac), then "Confucian" literati (tu van), then candidates at the examinations (huong than and thi sinh) and former communal and canton officials (chuc dich), and finally the soldiers and the ly truong in office. In fact, the whole society of the time found its place in this outline. But this model--for mere model it is--is far too broad for most villages.

In this hierarchical analysis--in which the ly truong was evidently at the bottom of the ladder--the quantitative factor was quite simply ignored. But there were of course, and this point is crucial to our understanding of power in the village, many more former ly truong in the Council of Notables than there were former mandarins or literati.

A quantitative analysis of sociological reality leads us to the following question. Mandarins and literati were indeed classified according to rank, but whom did this concern? Or rather, how many people did it concern? The typological hierarchy of the council was pertinent only for villages with strong traditions of learning (like D ˆong-Ngac or Yˆen-So, always used as examples), but in reality the majority of villages had no literati, no mandarins, no graduates, no candidates. Or they had them in very low proportions. In other words, the customary books set down plenty of places for these people, but that does not mean that those places were occupied. With at most one or two former petty mandarins per village, the classification was completed rapidly indeed.

Let us take a close look at a single district, for purposes of illustration. The Register of the Communal Authorities in the District of Ho'an-Long (near Hanoi) allows us to count exactly 533 notables (ky muc)of whom 117 were in 1905 currently serving (ly dich). As a whole, the group of notables was not huge, especially if we add that it was spread evenly throughout the whole district (on average, they made up exactly 13 inhabitants in every 1,000). This view from 1905 allows us to obtain a sort of snapshot of the situation at a particular date: in the ranks of the Council of Notables was assembled the entire administration of the previous years (here 1882-1905), with a few "gaps" (here 1888-90 for the ly truong of Nam-D ˆong, for example), which may be put down to deaths. As in all these cases, the date of entry to a place among the ky muc corresponded exactly to that of leaving the position among the currently serving agents (ly dich). This is the crucial dividing line, which we can identify within the Council of Notables: on one side those who had held communal office in the past, on the other those still in office.

Our example raises a simple question: who were the notables? And to answer this we need to examine what those men serving in 1905 were doing prior to that date. Where in fact did they come from? The results are quite clear: eight out of ten notables were simply very modest former officials of the commune (ly truong, pho ly, and huong truong). The former ly truong alone comprised precisely one-third of the Council of Notables, due to the rapid turnover in this post (three years). After them came the former canton officials (5 percent) and the old men and soldiers (2.5 percent). By contrast, the mandarinate and its officials (tho lai, thˆong lai, lai muc) were virtually absent (less than 1 percent). The Council of Notables was thus, above all else, an assembly of former and modest commune officials, and village power thus remained well and truly in the hands of men who had come up through the ranks, who were born and had worked in the commune itself. Its members came from the local peasantry, and the Council grouped competent, experienced men, men who were familiar with the machinery of power and the subtleties of village social life.

The Council of Notables was not a sort of council of savants. It was not made up of former mandarins, graduates, and men of letters. It was not an abstraction, the pure and angelic reflection of the "village community" and its "traditional hierarchy," but it was in fact a site of power and conflict. More than this, it was a site of conflict for power.

If the council was not made up of savants, its members were mainly the "little people" who had exercised modest authority in the village. The typical notable was a former ly truong or pho ly who had worked for several years before joining the council to play another role, a role henceforth more important for the fact that his past experience had given him a clear understanding not only of the functioning of communal administration but also of the networks and alliances in action within the village. The former communal official knew everybody, all the families and their little secrets, all the polemics and past conflicts; he had dispensed enough favors to build up a clientele, but, as a result of his role as arbitrator, he had also alienated a good number of villagers. His authority as a notable was thus indissolubly linked to the power he had previously wielded as an employee of the commune. It was thus on two counts (serving official, then notable) that the communal officials, especially the ly truong, appear to us to have played a central role in the distribution of village power. It is to them that we must now turn our attention.

The serving officials, or ly dich, ranked below members of the Council of Notables. They were responsible for the day to day running of the village. The ly truong was the head of the communal officials, a sort of village mayor, backed up by his assistants, the pho ly and the huong truong (these last were responsible for public works in the village and the maintenance of roads and dikes). The communal officials were few: in a third of all cases, there was just a single ly truong, and, in another third, this ly truong was seconded by a pho ly. The executive body of the Vietnamese village was thus a light structure composed of a maximum of one or two people. In the village, "executive power" well and truly belonged to the ly truong.

Who were these ly truong, the men in charge of the village? Given the extremely long process of working out dates of birth, I have limited myself to a small sample of five large and representative villages. For officials entering office between 1865 and 1905, the average age was thirty-one for the first communal post occupied. In these five villages, as everywhere else, the age hierarchy was as follows: the ly truong was always the oldest (on average thirty-one to forty-two years old), then came the huong truong (twenty to thirty-six), and finally the youngest of all was the pho ly (twenty-eight to thirty-two). Communal officials entering office were thus young men in their twenties, just starting out in their careers.

How long did officials remain in office? Was there any confiscation of power by local potentates? For almost one-third of the ly truong in our 1905 sample, the average period of service was 3.16 years, thus conforming to the 3-year rule governing the ly truong's period of office. It was quite surprising to discover that there was no power-holder who remained in place for a long period of time. The maximum period was only 13 years at Vinh-Phuc (1891-1904), and there are only six cases of ly truong who kept their posts for longer than 6 years.

What was the situation thirty years later? Our only source is a list, drawn up in 1938, of ly truong currently in office, which means that we remain ignorant of the dates on which they left their posts. But certain corrections in this unique and precious document can help us. In 1942, some names on the 1938 list were crossed out, owing to the recent dismissal or resignation of serving ly truong: these corrections note the date of retirement for some of these people, exactly eight cases out of 57 villages. These eight cases represent the sole data upon which we can rely for our knowledge of the exact length of service during the 1930s.

Examination of these eight cases indicates a radical change from the situation in 1905. All eight cases were of men whose service lasted longer than 6 years. The average length of service, moreover, is very high: no less than 13 years at the head of the commune's administration against 3.16 years in 1905. By its nature and extent, the change is vast. It deserves closer and more exhaustive statistical analysis, an approach that takes into account not only the eight cases noted here but all the other currently serving officials. If, by way of hypothesis, we retire all the ly truong at the date of December 1942--the last date to figure in pencil on the registers--we will find ly truong who had occupied their positions for a very long time, which confirms our conclusions from the eight established cases. At this point in time, when they had not yet finished their periods of service, some cases already appear remarkable, quite beyond comparison with the situation in 1905. Eleven cases in particular stand out, each of them exceeding 9 years of service (three mandates). And, while the majority of those eleven had not completed their fourth mandates in 1942, three of those men had completed the fourth mandate, three had already served five terms of office, and one was a few months short of a staggering eight terms. In all, in nineteen villages (eight established cases and eleven minimum cases) the ly truong remained in office for surprisingly long periods, between 6 and 25 consecutive years (at Nam-D ong, for example, Nguyen Van Tu stayed in office for 24 years).

This phenomenon is important: while the age of accession to office was similar at both dates, ly truong in the 1920s and 1930s kept their posts much longer, at the head therefore of groups of veritable local potentates. Given these data, we propose the following conclusion. From a springboard toward the Council of Notables, the office of ly truong had become a career in itself. This radical change in power, this pronounced tendency toward patrimonialization, will be the guiding line in our reflections on the power of the ly truong.


Excerpted from Viet-Nam Expose: French Scholarship on Twentieth-Century Vietnamese Society by Pierre Brocheux Copyright © 2002 by Pierre Brocheux. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Pt. I Vietnamese Society in the Early Twentieth Century
1 Who Has Power in the Village? Political Process and Social Reality in Vietnam 21
2 Village Rebellions in the Tonkin Delta, 1900-1905 61
3 Rethinking the Status of Vietnamese Women in Folklore and Oral History 87
4 Administrative Practices: An Essential Aspect of Mandarinal Training (Nineteenth-Early Twentieth Century) 108
5 In the Shadow of the Colonial Hospital: Developing Health Care in Indochina, 1860-1939 140
Pt. II Vietnamese Intellectuals: Contesting Colonial Power
6 Prince Cuong De and the Franco-Vietnamese Competition for the Heritage of Gia Long 187
7 A Vietnamese Scholar with a Different Path: Huynh Thuc Khang, Publisher of the First Vietnamese Newspaper in Quoc Ngu in Central Vietnam, Tieng Dan (People's Voice) 216
8 The 1925 Generation of Vietnamese Intellectuals and Their Role in the Struggle for Independence 251
9 Henriette Bui: The Narrative of Vietnam's First Woman Doctor 278
Pt. III Postcolonial Vietnam: From a Welfare State to a Market-Oriented Economy
10 The Economy of War as a Prelude to a "Socialist Economy": The Case of the Vietnamese Resistance against the French, 1945-1954 313
11 The Chronicle of a Failure: Collectivization in Northern Vietnam, 1958-1988 331
12 Labor Restructuring in Vietnam 356
13 Agro-Commodity Chains in Northern Vietnam: New Mechanisms for Old Stakeholders 373
14 Commuting from the Village to the City: Analyzing the Patterns of Migration of the People of the Northern Village of Hay to Hanoi 387
15 Facing Globalization: Vietnam and the Francophone Community 421
Contributors 457
Index 459
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