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Vietnamese Identities
A Pre-AAS Workshop at Temple University
Weigley Room, Gladfelter Hall
Sponsored by the Vietnam Studies Group and the Center for Vietnamese Philosophy, Culture and Society
March 26, 2014
9:00 — Welcoming remarks

from Center for Vietnamese Philosophy, Culture and Society and Vietnam Studies Group.
9:15 — I. Panel 1: History and National Identity

  1. Indigenous Democracy in Vietnamese Ancient Culture
    by Hai Hong Nguyen
    PhD Candidate, School of Political Science and International Studies
    University of Queensland, Australia


    The international dominant discourse on the origin of democracy and democratic values has generally focused on the emergence of the Greek ancient city-states as well as the influence of English, French and American revolutions in the late 18th century.1 The justification for this seems to be strong by the fact that European powers took territorial expansion pilgrimages and turned the new lands under occupation into their colonies, creating hybrid cultures and leaving behind a political legacy that is characterized by colonial culture. Some scholarly arguments tend to emphasize the importance of European settlement and colonization for the development and durability of democracy.2 What is left behind by the European colonialists would be arguably called “colonized democratic culture”. It is the colonial occupation process advanced by the so-called ‘Mother State’ that destroyed characteristics of the indigenous culture which embodies democratic values, even a democratic model mirrored through the li fe of communities in the smallest cells of society, that are villages and communes, long before the arrival of colonialists. I label this as “indigenous democracy”, which tends to have been thus far overlooked.

    This paper aims to explore the democratic exposé in Vietnamese ancient village-commune culture. It is a cultural characteristic that has existed in the course of Vietnamese history, from the feudal time to the colonial period and even remains to some extent influential in rural community life in this modern one-party rule state today. The resilience of this cultural characteristic deserves a large-scale research project of both in-depth and in-width scope. The paper attempts to analyze and compare this indigenous democratic model against the background of universally endorsed modern democratic principles with a view to locating its genuine values as well as its relevance in the contemporary social-cultural context. Above all, the paper will not only bring about attention to one of the Vietnamese identities – the theme of this Workshop, but contribute to the on-going discourse of democratic theory, which mainly asks the question of whether or not there exists “indigenous democracy” beyond the coloni al influence.

  2. The historiography about Nguyễn Huệ and the Tây Sơn period and the condition of "disrupted modernity" of the modern Vietnamese nation
    by Nguyễn Quốc Vinh
    Harvard University, East Asian Languages and Civilizations (


    With the possible exception of the Vietnam War and Hồ Chí Minh in recent times, no other period and figure in Vietnamese history has generated so much passion and controversy as the short-lived but momentous Tây Sơn movement of the late 18th century and its most celebrated hero: Emperor Quang Trung Nguyễn Huệ. In the eyes of successive generations, his brief but brilliant career epitomizes the historical and psychological experience of modern Vietnam, and Nguyễn Huệ has thus never ceased to capture the historical and cultural imagination of a modern Vietnamese nation that has had to define itself in relation to his complex legacy and haunting presence. As modern Vietnam has gone through many trials and tribulations – from the Tây Sơn cataclysm to national unification under the last imperial dynasty, the colonial experience, the Vietnam War, postwar reunification and isolation, and recent reintegration into the global community – changing regimes, circumstances and epistemes have profoundly affected its sense of identity and conceptions of history. My ongoing historiographical project has sought to look at the process of how the Tây Sơn period and the figure of Nguyễn Huệ have come to be sites of memory (lieux de mémoire in Pierre Nora’s terminology): how he has partaken in the symbolic structure of collective remembering that shapes a sense of national identity for modern Vietnam.

    Consequently, in this paper I want to call attention to a condition peculiar to modern Vietnam in the two centuries since the Tây Sơn period, a condition of “disrupted modernity” (hiện đại dở dang) embodied in the figure of Nguyễn Huệ. Just as the glorious exploits of the Tây Sơn dynasty soon foundered upon the unexpected death of Nguyễn Huệ, many subsequent regimes would see their history-minded endeavors of self-fashioning disrupted or nullified by turns of events beyond their control and expectation. As a tragic figure of ill-fated talent, Nguyễn Huệ has thus become a resonant icon of Vietnamese disrupted modernity, a phenomenon marked by a recurrent pattern of disruption and incompleteness, of arrested beginnings and unfulfilled achievements. In surveying the discursive formation of Nguyễn Huệ as icon of history and the Tây Sơn period as subject of history from the vantage point of this notion of “disrupted modernity”, I hope to provide an alternative interpretive framework to gain new insights and understanding into the dynamics of collective memory and identity in modern Vietnam.

  3. The Past Doesn’t Pass: Memory and Identity in Commemorating the War Dead
    by Hoa T. Nguyen
    Trent University


    Commemorating an individual after their death in the form of a headstone or memorial is an important task for survivors, a task that is further complicated when the number of dead is in the thousands, or when the bodies cannot be recovered. In the circumstance of a large-scale mortuary event, how do the survivors effectively celebrate the lives of the deceased? Do commemorative acts serve to socially bind the victims together? Is individual identity erased in the process? And, what factors influence the organisation and presentation in these large-scale commemorations?

    My analysis focuses on historical context of Vietnam, in which the memory of the war and the trauma of facing mass death have left a powerful imprint upon the Vietnamese. This memory of the harsh past continues to be transmitted, historically and psychologically through generations. Treating commemorations of the war dead as “sites of memory” (Pierre Nora, 1989), I aim to emphasize the discursive role of social memory in identity politics, namely the negotiation and contestation among various agents in the practice of memory. Whether there is a Grand Identity that is constitute by a shared memory of every people, or each individual and group have their own “interpretation of the reality” (John Bodnar, 1992) and respectively their own identity?

    The paper results from a fieldwork-based study that I carried out in a village in the central part of Vietnam last summer. Public and state-run ceremonies as well as family commemorations for the war dead were observed. Interviews with the relatives of the war dead, veterans and local authorities were also conducted.

  4. “Because we are all compatriots”: People’s Diplomacy and the Vietnamese in France during the Vietnam War
    by Nguyen Nguyet
    Ph.D. student in History, American University, (


    During the Second Indochina War the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) conducted an elaborate, vigorous, and sustained diplomatic campaign aimed at “peoples of the world,” a strategy it called “people’s diplomacy,” to discredit the US war effort in world opinion, particularly in the West. Because US leaders often dismissed this campaign as DRV state-directed propaganda, they failed to realize the complex nature of the system of people’s diplomacy that involved a large number of methods, organizations, and individuals both in Vietnam and overseas. At the same time, the DRV could not control the actions of ordinary Vietnamese, especially outside the country, leading to unexpected reconfigurations of “people’s diplomacy” by many of the people involved. This paper is part of my dissertation project that aims to produce the first transnational history of efforts by the Vietnamese diaspora to promote an international antiwar movement.

    The Vietnamese in France, by the time of the American War, had had a long tradition of anti-war activism, resulting from years of fighting the French since at least after WWI when the latter brought about 100,000 Vietnamese to the country to be either workers or soldiers.3 Many of these Vietnamese became Ho Chi Minh’s followers, adopting his philosophy and methods, and later led the anti-war movements in France. This paper examines the work of these people to demonstrate that, in line with Harish Mehta’s4 conclusions, Ho Chi Minh developed, advanced, and perfected people’s diplomacy during the Second Indochina War. However, the top-down study of DRV policy abroad has not yet shown how the Việt Kiều in France who supported this strategy received only general guidelines and had to develop a variety of methods on their own to advance their cause. The end goal was to tell the world the Vietnamese people were one, and that they only wanted peace and independence. The specific objectives were to make the DRV and NFL as present as possible on the world stage. Acting in accordance with a steadfast commitment to non-violence, the anti-war Vietnamese distributed pamphlets on the streets, participated in and organized demonstrations, held information meetings and cultural/traditional festivals. In many ways their methods were not very different from those of their fellow Vietnamese anti-war activists in the US. The difference was, however, that these Việt Kiều were closely following the guidance from the DRV representatives in Paris and they coordinated their activities with the political and military developments in Vietnam. Their acts were part of the overall diplomatic strategy of the DRV, which was to strengthen and broaden their third front: the diplomatic front, beside the military and political ones.

    This paper uses archival material from the French Archives Nationales and the Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, as well as interviews with former Vietnamese activists in Paris, as the result of my research trip in the fall/winter of 2013. A considerable portion of relevant information, especially the police files, requires permission to be viewed and I would have to return to France next year in order to do so if the permission is granted. However, the presently available evidence in France suffices to attest to a typical pattern of the DRV’s people’s diplomacy strategy, which combines various state and non-state actors to achieve the end result: to put pressure on the US government through international public opinion and thus hoping to compel it to alter its Vietnam policy.

11:00 — Coffee and tea break

11:30 — II. Panel 2: Social and Cultural Identities

  1. American Consumer Culture and its Impact on Identity in the Republic of Vietnam in 1965
    by Helen Pho
    University of Texas at Austin


    The experience of war in Vietnam was a powerful force in shaping the identities of several generations of Vietnamese. After American escalation of war in 1965, rapid urbanization and the rise of a large service sector geared toward American GI consumption disrupted social relations, unsettled labor patterns, and aggravated economic problems in South Vietnam. This paper explores how these economic changes also exacerbated conflicts between Vietnamese on opposing sides of emerging cultural rifts centered on American consumer and mass media culture. Using news articles and political cartoons from Vietnamese publications such as Sống, Đất Tổ, Xây Dựng, Quyết Tiến, and Saigon Daily News, it demonstrates how changes to the South Vietnamese wartime labor economy led to vigorous debates about Vietnamese national identity.

    Specifically, the paper examines the public conflicts in the Vietnamese media over the burgeoning taxi industry in wartime Vietnam. The presence of so many Americans sparked explosive growth in the number of taxi drivers, yet ordinary Vietnamese people found it increasingly difficult to find and afford taxi service. Taxi drivers found it more lucrative to serve Americans exclusively, and doing so gave these taxi drivers greater access to higher wages and consumer goods than even doctors or lawyers. Thus, Vietnamese who pursued traditional educations and attained what they believed were respectable occupations saw their social statuses decline as a result of the American military presence. Impassioned reactions to the behaviors of taxi drivers in the South Vietnamese press illuminate larger concerns about the loss of Vietnamese identity and profound ambivalence toward the American military presence and American consumer culture. This paper analyzes this public response to gauge how the American military an d economic presence caused a profound re-examination of Vietnamese identity in an age of economic and cultural transformation.

  2. The Mixture of Film Styles and Questions of Identity in Contemporary Vietnamese Cinema
    by Qui-Ha Hoang Nguyen
    School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089


    This paper analyzes the current picture of Vietnamese cinema. In the context of globalization and the dominance of the Hollywood, the question of the identity of a national cinema has become a concern for many countries. Because of Vietnam's unique history, national identity as it relates to history and culture has played a very important role in Vietnamese life. Vietnam was ruled for 1000 years by the Chinese, about 100 years by the French and nearly 20 years by the Americans. The Vietnamese awareness of identity, accordingly, is influenced by this perspective on national territory.

    In this global sense, whenever the idea of national territory has been attacked by the transnational element, worries about identity have increased in Vietnam. Cinema, as the most modern and arguably influential art form in Vietnam, has become a particularly “sensitive” area. While having recognized that a globalized cinema has been the undeniable trend, many Vietnamese scholars are anxious that this trend could affect the tradition value of the national cinema.

    In this paper, I argue that globalization brings opportunities for modernization to Vietnamese cinema. Consequently, it encourages the development of several film styles: a domestic style and two other dominant styles influenced from Vietkieu filmmakers from America and France. This mixture of film styles creates values and new identity of Vietnamese cinema. I also suggest that this mixture of film styles should be considered part of a wider phenomenon of language and ethnic integration that has happened in Vietnam throughout history. I further examine the historical and social reasons why American and French filmmaking styles have found suitable land in different parts of Vietnam: the French style is more welcomed in the North, while the American style blossoms in the South.

  3. The Dialogic Construction(s) of Cham Identity at Po Klaung Garai
    by Dave Paulson
    Ph. D. student in anthropology, Temple University  


    Lockhart (2011) outlines four different textual traditions in the representation of Champa: An initial wave of French colonial scholarship based on archaeology, two subsequent phases of Vietnamese scholarship based in Saigon and Hanoi during the 20th century, and a more recent “pluralizing” trend by contemporary Vietnamese intellectuals. Each scholastic orientation presents a different representation of Cham history and its people from authoritative sources, while only recently have social scientists taken to understanding how the contemporary Cham take an active role in their identity construction (Nakamura 1999; Hamid & Effendy 2006; Brunelle 2008; Taylor 2007). This paper seeks to contribute to the latter trend through an investigation of religious place and its function as a productive site for the construction(s) of Cham identity today. Building off of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Phan Rang during the summer of 2012, this study utilizes a theory of practice (Bourdieu 1977) to consider how everyday experiences in and around the Po Klaung Garai temple play a central role in identity formation both by and about Cham communities. These range from the production and consumption of tourist ephemera, to the performance of religious ritual within the temple itself. Each practice works dialogically between people and place to produce a different chain or “thread” of memory in Hervieu-Léger’s (2000) sense, linking individuals and groups to a distinct past, present, and future. As these numerous threads emerge among different actors, they coalesce to articulate a representative economy of ideas (Keane 2007) about the Cham people and civilization. These complex, and at times contradictory portraits of the Cham, demonstrate the generative potential of religious place in Vietnam for weaving together asymmetrical threads of memory over time, while simultaneously operating as sites for the everyday, lived negotiations of ethnic identity in the context of 21st-century modernization.

  4. Engaging with Vietnam: Meditations on Cham-Vietnamese historical relations and developing the Intellectual Middle Ground
    by William Noseworthy


    The aim of this paper in the spirit of Vietnamese studies is to shed new light upon on of the most commonly discussed aspects in Vietnamese history: the relationship between the Vietnamese and the Cham peoples. There are deeply ingrained tensions in this relationship that have historical dimensions. Meanwhile, there are a number of contemporary circumstances that have the potential to improve this relationship in the future, leading to a better positioning of the Cham people within Vietnam. While the Cham historically derived from a collection of polities that flourished along the coastline of Vietnam before their eventual conquest by the Vietnamese, the contemporary provinces of Ninh Thuận and Bình Thuận are critical ‘field sites’ for researchers who are interested in any variety of topics including: educational policy, sustainable development, environmental awareness, cultural and religious diversity, and, in the end, history. Spotted with threatened ancestral grave sites, Vietnam’s first two proposed nuclear reactor sites (Ninh Thuan province), one of Vietnam’s first wind power projects (Binh Thuan) and touched by a deep history of contestation over local space, I argue that there is a deep need for a re-contextualization of the Vietnamese-Cham relationship with an effort to bring source material from both Vietnamese and Cham sources together for the sake of improving education on this subject in Vietnam, in the United States and, for the global community. In order to accomplish this task this paper relies upon a substantial review of English, French and Vietnamese scholarly materials, educational textbooks printed in Vietnam and Cham scholarly sources, with an effort to bring Cham language source material to a broader audience. In doing so this paper considers the most critical events in the long relationship between the Cham and the Vietnamese in two major movements: 1) being before 1651 and 2) being between 1651 to 1835. In doing so the paper highlights the positioning of the two peoples leading up to the colonial period in the context of the field of Southeast Asian history.

12:50 — Break for Lunch

2:00 — Discussion period for Panel Two

2:40 — Musical Interlude

Creativity and Traditional Music in Post-socialist Vietnam
by Alexander M. Cannon
Assistant Prof. of Music History/Ethnomusicology, Western Michigan University


Traditional music creation in contemporary Vietnam borders on the frenetic. Music practitioners and consumers involve themselves in many different performance types within Vietnam, in Asia and among communities of Vietnamese in diaspora. Traveling from Long Xuyên to Hồ Chí Minh City and then flying to Bangkok, Taipei and Kiev, musicians interact with a greater number of musical types, media and ideas than in previous decades. In the process, certain memories of the past fade and conflict with those held by others, forcing delicate negotiations of so-called “authentic” and appropriately “developed” performance practices. New communities sprout to make sense of these memories and practices, and leading musicians advocate disparate models of musical creativity to sustain them. To advance music practice, many musicians draw on both cultural-artistic policy proposed by the Vietnamese government and foreign audiences with access to capital and wide networks of potential collaborators. This scene of traditional music creation and conflict indicates an emergent post-socialist orientation in Vietnam, where capitalist and socialist ideologies interact and produce new experiments in artistic production. The coexistence of disparate outputs within the post-socialist context appears imperative to sustaining traditional music in the contemporary period. Indeed, communities of music performers are growing, and musicians are finding new audiences in Vietnam and abroad.

3:00 — III. Nôm Identities

  1. Border-crossing Images and the Roles of Local Communities: Collective Visualization of the "Three Kingdoms" in Vietnam
    by Dr. Nam Nguyen
    Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City


    The Sanguo yanyi (aka. Romance of the Three Kingdoms; hereafter, Three Kingdoms) has been with Vietnamese readers for long time: traces of this novel could be found in literary allusions embedded in Vietnamese literature as early as in early 15th century. Several characters of the novel have become integral parts of Vietnamese culture; and in their new visual representations realized by the locals, these characters vividly accompanied them in many different walks of life. The paper focuses on the transnational images of a number of scenes and characters from the novel. It shows how enduring cultural exchanges between China and Vietnam have continuously shaped and reshaped visual representations of the Three Kingdoms in the receiving culture, and how those representations have been localized by both Vietnamese and Chinese Vietnamese communities accordingly on the basis of different artistic and pictorial traditions. Through an examination of folk paintings, popular d ecorative arts, and religious sculptures, the paper also analyses the interaction between these traditions that has partaken in the integration of the novel into local culture up to present.

  2. 傱 Tuồng – An exerpt from a Nôm Drama 張屠肉傳 Trương Đồ Nhục truyện "The Tale of Trương The Butcher" Anonymous, 1892 (Introduction & Scene 1)
    Reading presented by Dr. Nguyễn Tô Lan, Harvard Yenching Institute
    Dr. Nam Nguyen, Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City &
    Dr. Ngô Thanh Nhàn, Center for Vietnamese Philosophy, Culture & Society, Temple University

    Synopsis: (booklet available here)

    [Introduction] Trương the Zen Master passes away suddenly during his meditation. He was captured by the Earth God and Marshall the Devil to be taken to Hell for trial.

    [Scene 1] The Zen Master was brought in front of the King of Hell. The Underworld Clerk revealed that there are two persons with the same last name Trương, and the warrant was intended for Trương the Butcher. They captured the Butcher, and the Zen Master was exonerated. Since his body was already cremated, the King of Hell orders the Zen Master's soul to be placed in the Butcher’s body.

    [Scene 2] Tuyết Nương finds her husband, Trương the Butcher, dead. She asks her neighbor, elder Trương Lão, to help with the funeral, and the shaman to perform the cleansing. The Butcher wakes up and speaks like a monk. He tries to explain to Tuyết Nương but to no avail. He then runs back to the pagoda.

    [Scene 3] The Zen Master knocks on the temple gate. His two disciples see the Butcher's face with their Master's voice. The Master explains. The two skeptical disciples test him with secrets that only the three of them know. The Zen Master passes the tests. Tuyết Nương arrives and demands her husband back but they shut the gate on her.

    [Scene 4] Tuyết Nương sues the disciples. The District Governor Trần Thông subpoenas the Zen Master and his disciples to court. Tuyết Nương confirms that her husband is illiterate. The disciples confirm that their Master is the only one who writes pagoda sacred texts. The Governor orders the monk to compose a poem with the rhyme 冤 oan [being falsely accused].

    The Tale of Trương the Butcher ends here, perhaps to allow different conclusions.

  3. 張屠肉 Trương the Butcher play: a preliminary research in comparative literature perspective
    by Dr. Nguyễn Tô Lan
    Harvard Yenching Institute
  4. Revisit 三千字解音 Tam Thiên Tự Giải Âm 1831: The first popular ideographic literacy course in Vietnam
    by Lê Mai Phương & Ngô Thanh Nhàn*
    *Center for Vietnamese Philosophy, Culture & Society, Temple University


    This paper introduces the pronunciation, spelling and textual analysis of the 1831 publication of 三千字解音 Tam Thiên Tự Giải Âm "Three thousand Hán ideograms in Vietnamese national tongue" by Ngô Thời Nhậm (1746-1803). Hán, borrowed Chinese ideograms, and Nôm, native ideograms, were both used in Vietnam then. The book consists of 3,000 pairs of Hán-Nôm entries, 7,614 ideograms in total. It is a poetic glossary in 4-syllable verses. Each Hán ideogram in bold is followed by one or more Nôm ideograms of the same meaning. This paper also compares the first edition with the anonymous 1915 edition and the 1959 edition by Đoàn Trung Còn. The book helps to give a glimpse of the ideograms, their meanings, and the Vietnamese language at the beginning of the XIXth Century, and has become the most popular spelling and vocabulary textbook since. It is now available online at NLV HN R.0468.

4:15 — Coffee and Tea Break

4:30 — Discussion of Nom panel

(can be continued during evening reception!)

5:00 – 5:30 — Closing Remarks and final discussion

Gladfelter Hall, Room 1016 1115 Polett Walk Philadelphia, PA 19122 Contact:

Center for Vietnamese Philosophy, Culture & Society Gladfelter Hall 1016 1115 Polett Walk red dot
Tel. 215 204 9207 red dot Temple University Philadelphia, PA 19122 Nôm page queries: Ngô Thanh Nhàn