6. Faces of Remembrance
Hue-Tam Ho Tai
In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne is the goddess of both memory and imagination. In giving her this dual function, the ancient Greeks remind us that memory is about imagining the past. In Vietnam, memory has no name, but it has many faces, and, like that of Mnemosyne, they are faces of women.
The burden of remembering the dead and of imagining war and its place in the collective past has fallen to a postwar population in which women vastly outnumber men. Some are mothers and widows hugging to themselves memories of loss; others are young women deprived by war of the hope of having families of their own, as Da Ngan poignantly reminds us in “The House with No Men.” Still others, grown up in peacetime, have little patience with war stories. But memory is not just a matter of who does the remembering; it is also about the types of images that are available for doing so. Indeed, there seems to be little difference between men's and women's use of gender stereotypes.
Photographs of peasant women, their faces lined with age and grief, fill museum exhibits that honor both those who gave their lives to the cause of independence and revolution and the mothers who allowed them to make that supreme sacrifice. Along highways, huge billboards show pictures of smiling young women in flowing tunics (ao dai) and conical hats. The billboards beckon foreign investors and tourists with their images of a friendly, peaceful country in which local tradition combines harmoniously with the global economy. Popular magazines,
This varied imagery attests to the importance of the figure of woman in the Vietnamese cultural landscape and to the multiple meanings it inscribes. Mothers, daughters, wives; peasant women and city girls; idle rich and toiling poor; resourceful and powerless; heroic and weak; self-sacrificing and selfish; traditional and cosmopolitan—these are some of the contradictory images of woman that populate the public discourse.
FEMALE CONSTANCY AND MALE ABSENCE
Only by disaggregating the concept of womanhood will we begin to understand how women can symbolize so many conflicting aspects of Vietnamese society and culture and, above all, how they can be made to represent both the power of memory and the fickleness of oblivion, both the debt that is owed to the revolutionary generation and the ingratitude of postwar youth.
If images of women can represent so many different things, it is precisely because woman as a singular conceptual category does not correspond to reality. Gender does not operate on its own but is inflected by age and kinship as well as class. This is especially true in Vietnam, whose language does not recognize the autonomy of the individual but instead enmeshes each and every speaking self in webs of familial and quasifamilial relationships. Images of women thus function in public discourse as a variety of social roles, each a concatenation of attributes and associations. Each image describes a discrete role totally unrelated to others even though, in real life, a woman performs multiple roles, some simultaneously, some successively. Among these, the most often publicly invoked ones are those of daughter, wife, and mother.A woman must negotiate her everyday self among these and many more roles, but in public discourse she is usually portrayed as a young victim of patriarchal oppression or as an admirably competent matron; as a devoted wife or a jealous shrew; as a self-sacrificing mother or a domineering mother-in-law. While one might argue that the necessity of discharging several roles simultaneously is at the origin of both negative and positive images of womanhood, in the symbolic language of public discourse, a woman is seldom described in more than one role at a time.
Some of the contradictions embedded in the different portrayals of
Vietnamese child-rearing practices, when combined with traditional segregation of the sexes, further contributed to the reversal of gendered notions of “inner” and “outer.” Children of both sexes were cared for in the women's quarters until the age of six or seven. At that point, boys ordinarily transferred to the company of men, while girls remained by their mother's side. It has been argued that, in the Confucian patriarchal family system, the continuity of the malecentered lineage entailed discontinuity and rupture for the women, who had to leave their natal families and were thrust into an alien and often frightening environment upon marriage. Men, however, experienced dislocation and loss at an even earlier age when they were taken from their mothers to begin the process of socialization into the world of males. Thus, despite the Confucian emphasis on the continuity of the male lineage, it is the image of the mother that represents the nostalgic days of childhood and the sense of connectedness with one's personal past. Idealized pictures of young mothers rocking infants in hammocks form a recurrent motif in the visual arts. Countless odes to motherhood have been penned by poets, while popular music, both traditional and modern, abounds in songs with titles such as “Mother's Love,” “Mother's Lullaby,” and “Mother's Song.”
In contrast to this picture of maternal tenderness and constancy, fathers are often portrayed as unreliable creatures, absent emotionally and often physically. This perception is linked to the cultural belief in the relative autonomy of men as beings who are free to “roam the lakes and the streams” (ho thi tang bong) while women are tied to their hearth. In 1924, while advocating the partial emancipation of women, Pham Quynh offered a metaphorical distinction between the essential natures of men and women:
|Men are like clouds in autumn|
|Women are like smoke in the hearth.|
|Though they reach different heights|
|They are both capable of soaring.|
It is the cloudlike nature of men, their lack of restraining bonds, that frees them and empowers them but also turns them into unreliable patriarchs. The fifteenth-century compilation of folktales Linh Nam Chich Quai (Wondrous Tales from South of the Passes) includes the story of “The Rock of the Woman Who Waits for Her Husband” (Hon Vong Phu). The story concerns a woman who is abandoned by her husband after he realizes that he has unwittingly married his own sister. As a child, he had been told that they would grow up to commit incest, and, wishing to avoid such a fate, he had tried to kill his sister. He had then fled, leaving her for dead. Upon finding that the prophecy had been fulfilled after all, he took flight again. The abandoned wife, ignorant of the exact relationship between herself and her husband or the reason for his abrupt departure, takes their child to the shore to look for him. Slowly, mother and child turn into a rock as they wait in vain. In the sixteenth-century folktale “The Woman of Nam Xuong” (“Thieu Phu Nam Xuong”), a soldier returns home after many years away at war. His little son, who had not yet been born when he left home, refuses to acknowledge him and informs him that his father only comes at dusk. The soldier immediately suspects his wife of infidelity. Distraught, she throws herself into a well. When dusk comes, the father takes his son to perform the daily ritual of ancestor worship. The little boy then points to the shadow his father casts on the ground and exclaims: “See, this is my father.” Only then does the man realize that, far from being unfaithful, his wife had tried to keep his memory alive during his long absence. Stories like this, often told to instill in young girls the importance of female chastity, underline instead the fearsome unreliability of male power. The twin images of constant mother and unreliable father continue to thrive in the contemporary Vietnamese imagination. In The Scent of Green Papayas (1991), by the expatriate filmmaker Tran Anh Hung, the father is portrayed as a feckless gambler who absconds with his wife's hardearned savings, plunging her, his mother, and his children into near destitution. His wife, by contrast, exemplifies boundless love, hard work, and uncomplaining selfsacrifice.
MOTHERS AND SOLDIERS
Given the portrayal of the nation as family-writ-large in Vietnamese culture, it is not surprising that the discourse on the nation teems with images of mothers. Ho Chi Minh took the lead in honoring them: “Our people is grateful to the mothers, of both North and South, who have given birth to and raised all the generations of heroes of our country.” Raising heroes for the nation is not the only role a Vietnamese woman performs in either real life or symbolic discourse. Other dimensions of the female condition are also utilized to represent war as well as war losses.
Western war literature largely focuses on the experience of battle and, thus, on the experience of men. In works of scholarship, this focus has only begun to extend beyond the battlefield, making it possible to discuss women's experience. But the face of war, in both fictional and scholarly literature, remains overwhelmingly a masculine one. In Fallen Soldiers, George Mosse argues that the advent of the French Revolution linked citizenship to soldiering, while the democratization of the military through universal conscription gave rise to a countercurrent that, by focusing on the largely aristocratic officers'corps, made it possible to associate the military with manliness. Although it emerged in the nine-teenth and early twentieth centuries, this celebration of the officers'corps as embodiment of manly virtues is rooted in the medieval chivalric ideal and goes back even further to the Greek and Roman traditions. In what Mosse calls the “Myth of War Experience,” combat became the ultimate test of manhood, the experience that separated the men from the boys, as well as the passport to full citizenship. Ironically, this myth was shattered by the Vietnam War. As a result, “the Vietnam War Memorial can stand not only as a monument to the fallen of that war, but also, snatching victory from defeat, as a monument to the death, however provisional, of the Myth of War Experience.”
By contrast, only a few works in the Vietnamese language celebrate combat or the feeling of brotherhood forged in battle. Instead of epic poems, praise songs, and ballads, most of the writings penned by the country's heroes are elegiac meditations steeped in the Buddhist belief in the transitory nature of fame and glory, and in the centrality of suffering to the human experience. One of Vietnam's greatest poems, The Lament of the Soldier's Wife (Chinh Phu Ngam Khuc), was written in the mid–eighteenth century by a male author, Dang Tran Con, not to
This tendency to devalue the military was slowly reversed in the late 1920s when anticolonial activists began seeking recruits from among colonial troops, and later, when both sides of the Vietnam War portrayed military service as an honorable and patriotic duty. As Shaun Malarney writes, the North Vietnamese state devised a whole set of commemorative practices to honor the war dead and generate popular support for its cause. This cause was described as a war of national salvation first against the French and later against the Americans. The valorization of the military, however, did not produce a cult of masculinity because it was in keeping with the traditional depiction of war as something forced on the Vietnamese people rather than initiated by them.
This historiographical tradition conveniently ignores the many episodes in which the Vietnamese have acquired territory by annihilating, displacing, or assimilating whole populations such as the people of Champa in what is now central Vietnam in the fifteenth century, and the Khmers of the Mekong Delta since the eighteenth century. It also obfuscates the numerous times when Vietnamese fought against Vietnamese rather than foreigners, during power struggles and episodes of peasant unrest. It highlights instead the experience of fighting in the defense of the homeland. This writing of history as a narrative of patriotic endeavor presents war not as an opportunity for men to test their mettle but as an evil necessity that must be endured by all. It allows heroism to be celebrated without associating it almost exclusively with battlefield combat, as is the case with much Western ideology. Heroism and courage are glossed instead as determination, endurance, the spirit of self-sacrifice, and, above all, the willingness to fight against an invader
Indeed, the representation of war as an exercise in patriotic selfdefense makes possible its feminization. It makes use of images of the country as victim of oppression and as family whose home is being invaded. These two images are linked to two different conceptions of womanhood. The first, the country as victim, is most closely associated with the figure of the vulnerable young girl at the mercy of cruel fate. Significantly, however, rape and defilement, which is perhaps the most potent metaphor available to describe the invasion of national space by foreigners, is not often used in Vietnam as it has been in the West from the Rape of the Sabine Women to the present. Women who have lost their chastity, whether willingly or not, are utterly stigmatized in traditional Vietnamese culture and thus cannot serve as national symbols. Few anticolonial tracts associate rape with colonial conquest, though appeals to women to join in the liberation of the nation and win their own emancipation in the process were a staple of patriotic rhetoric in the 1920s and 1930s. The most notable exception is Ho Chi Minh's Le Procès de la colonisation franc¸aise, which was written in 1925 with a French rather than a Vietnamese audience in mind and freely describes rape and pillage as colonial crimes.
If the victimization of the country is rendered through the figure of a young and weak girl, patriotic historiography that celebrates the struggle for independence begins with an uprising led by two women. Conventional history normally elides the lives of women, but the Trung Sisters, who led an uprising against Chinese rule in a.d. 39, are the most famous and perhaps the most beloved figures in the Vietnamese pantheon of heroic figures. They have been the subject of countless local cults since their death in a.d. 43, and of a state cult since the twelfth century. Their importance in Vietnamese culture lies not only in the fact that they were the first recorded heroes in centuries of struggle against Chinese domination but also in their gender. They lived in an era when Vietnamese society was characterized by bilateral kinship and uxorilocal marriages; they were descended in the maternal line from the legendary Hung kings and were daughters of a powerful lord. Over the centuries, however, both oral tradition and Confucian historiography turned them into paragons of feminine meekness and modesty. They have been cast as essentially timid women who set aside feminine decorum to avenge the wrongful death of the elder sister's husband and, in the process,
Stories such as those of the Trung Sisters and Lady Trieu have been used to explain the popular saying “When war comes, even women must fight” (giac den nha, dan ba cung danh), which suggests that women are recruits of last resort into the fight to defend the homeland. Unless war comes so close to them that they have no other alternative, women have no business fighting. As Nguyen Don Phuc reminded advocates of women's emancipation in 1925, “The virtue of the Oriental woman does not lie in quelling revolt in the East or bringing order to the North [danh dong dep bac]; nor does it reside in competing with men for sexual equality or in studying the stars or algebra. Even if they are educated, they should learn only the Four Virtues [tu duc]” It is, however, precisely adherence to the Four Virtues that enables women to contribute to the struggle against invaders. Among these virtues, resourcefulness and good management rank first. Women, after all, are charged with managing their households and protecting the wellbeing of their families, duties that call for skills worthy of a battlehardened general. The association between generalship and domestic management is humorously captured in the popular description of the housewife as “general of the interior” (noi tuong).
In Western thought, battle masculinizes the landscape as men organize to defend their homes, their fields, and their women, while the latter retreat to the comparative safety of their homes. As the French national anthem exhorts men, “Citizens, take up arms and form battalions, fight those who would slit the throat of your wives and daughters, and let
Working in a different vein, Drew Faust pointed out that the mobilization of Southern men in the Civil War feminized public space in the American South as women assumed tasks hitherto reserved for men. Nina Silber suggests another rationale for the feminization of the Southern landscape, this time focusing on the postbellum period. She argues that the defeat of the agrarian South enabled the more industrial, and above all victorious, North to turn it into an object of romance. In her reading, the feminization of the Southern landscape was largely a postwar phenomenon, a product of its defeat.
In Vietnam, however, war feminizes the Vietnamese symbolic landscape. The transformation happens not because women must move into public spaces left vacant by enlisted men but because the division between private and public becomes blurred. The feminization of the landscape is a sine qua non of the strategy of total mobilization that is necessary to rescue the nation from invasion. It works best when the population can be persuaded that it is under attack, that its home is imperiled. This strategy is based on the tradition of guerrilla warfare, which involves luring the enemy deep onto Vietnamese soil, where it would be surrounded by hostile peasants intent on defending their homes and villages. Guerrilla warfare is not only a strategy appropriate to the technologically inferior; it also has the advantage of not relying on the deployment of standing armies with welltrained officers. Instead, it blurs the distinction between the front line and the rear, between combatants and civilians, between the masculine battlefield and the feminine domestic space. When protecting one's home becomes synonymous with defending the homeland, women, too, can be mobilized, for if they can be portrayed as hapless victims, they are also expected to be resourceful, to behave as “generals of the interior.”
The South Vietnamese government ignored this tradition and consistently portrayed the Vietnam War as a civil war arising from ideological conflict; it also employed a high-technology strategy that depended on trained soldiers. Although it tried to generate support among the civilian
The importance of women's contribution to the war effort and of noncombat activities such as production work was publicly recognized by the North Vietnamese state during the War Against the Americans with the award of medals to women who had displayed the “Three Competencies” (Ba Dam Dang): competence in replacing men in production work; competence in mobilizing relatives into the army; and competence in fighting if necessary. Women who distinguished themselves in either of these endeavors received a medal that read: “Loyal, courageous and resourceful.” Of the three virtues thus recognized, only the second is not traditionally associated with femininity.
In a war of total mobilization in the defense of one's home, war service is not an entitlement to higher social status. With the return of peace, social order is restored as well, and all those who fought are expected to resume their prewar lives. The equation of home and homeland is attenuated, and women's managerial skills are once again confined to their domestic spheres. Women's very real contributions to the war effort in the North did not alter gender relations or their symbolic role in the public discourse.
KEEPERS OF MEMORY
If the invaded country can be associated with the figure of a helpless young girl, and if the country at war can summon up visions of the Trung Sisters and transform women's domestic skills into military ones, postwar remembrance has brought forth another image of women.
Memory is an important aspect of cultural production, a production that the state is eager to control. In the two decades since the war ended, the Vietnamese state has tried to shape collective memory to underline the continuity between the Revolution and the War Against the Americans, on the one hand, and past struggles for national independence, on the other. The year 1995, which marked the twentieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon (April 30) and the fiftieth anniversary of independence (September 2) and the founding of the Vietnamese People's Army (December 19), saw an outpouring of commemorative products, speeches, and rituals. It is customary in Vietnam to honor a man by paying one's respect to his mother. In the same spirit, it is the mother, rather than the wife, who is the cultural vector of grief and memory (fig.6.1). At the center of commemoration, therefore, was the face of the mother of heroes, full of pride in their deeds and sorrow for their loss.
War commemoration in Vietnam thus is quite different than in the West. In Western literature, war is often treated as a rite of passage that makes men out of callow boys. If a soldier succumbs, his memory is located with his wife or sweetheart. In the words of James Jones, war is a “widowmaker.” In Vietnamese commemorations of war, however, the dominant voice belongs to mothers rather than wives. Most soldiers were too young to be married when they went into the army, and thus were deprived of the culturally significant rites of passage that would have granted them entry into the community of adult men: marriage and fatherhood. But marriage in Vietnam does not require that a man “cleave only to his wife”; for him, the key emotional relationship remains with his mother. Even hardboiled veterans have been known to wax lyrical on the subject of motherhood: “In the life of each of us, our mother is our support, our faith, our sheltering shade, the stuff of life; always nurturing and raising us to become adults; mothers are ready to bear any burden, to sacrifice everything, never asking anything for themselves, except for the ultimate wish that their children should always be faithful to the Homeland and pious toward the people.”
The cult of motherhood may account for the abundance of statues,
Figure 6.1. A Heroic Mother poses in front of her son's altar, Hanoi. Photograph by Natalia Puchalt.
By fixing on the figure of the grieving mother, Vietnamese culture infantilizes the dead soldier. Unlike the Western soldier who has tested his manhood in combat, he remains eternally a child, as a popular song of the South suggests:
|She rocks her child, cradling the bullet that turns his wound red.|
|At twenty, her child went away to soldier.|
|And having gone, never came back.|
|Sleep my child, child of a yellow-skinned mother.|
|My god, this body once so slight.|
|Which I, your mother, once carried in my womb,|
|Which I, your mother, once cradled in my arms,|
|Why do you sleep at twenty?|
The statues, photographs, and paintings of mothers of soldiers were designed partly in homage to the soldiers, both dead and living, partly as a means of acknowledging the enormous sacrifices of the civilian population. These commemorative productions were functionally equivalent to the military cemeteries in which the soldiers who died during the Revolution and the War Against the Americans are buried. Another
As the anniversaries succeeded one another in 1995, it became clear that there was growing ambivalence about the past decades of war and revolution. Commemorative events were not only opportunities for the state to inject new vigor into its narrative of national glory and heroic struggle; they also occasioned contrapuntal, subversive questioning of this legacy of struggle. The adoption of the Doi Moi program of economic reforms and engagement in the global economy seemed to undermine the very rationale for war and revolution. In the wake of profound economic difficulties and the worldwide decline of Marxism-Leninism, the triumphalist mood of the immediate postwar period had dissipated and the meaning of victory had become clouded.
Commemoration that was structured not around the celebration of triumph but around the acknowledgment of loss seemed appropriate, and honoring the mothers of dead soldiers was particularly fitted to this purpose. But this was not entirely without risk. Focusing on the extraordinary losses suffered by the Heroic Mothers could—and occasionally did—lead to a questioning of the human cost of war. The combined toll for North and South Vietnam is well over three million, which does not take into account the three hundred thousand North Vietnamese soldiers officially listed as missing in action. In 1991, the playwright Ngo Thao, who had taken part in a major landmark of the 1972 Easter Offensive, the battle of Quang Tri, called that battle “a senseless tragedy.” Around that time, two veterans, one male and one female, published novels that captured this feeling of senseless tragedy: Bao Ninh with The Sorrow of War and Duong Thu Huong with Novel without a Name.
Acknowledgment that the Vietnam War was a civil war came late in
Figure 6.2. A Heroic Mother poses in front of a list of revolutionary war dead, Ho Chi Minh City. Photograph by Hue-Tam Ho Tai.
Heroic Mothers include only those whose sons and daughters died in the cause of the Revolution and the War Against the Americans. There are countless other mothers whose sons died fighting in the South Vietnamese army, and whose grief goes officially unacknowledged. Photographs of wrinkled women who are said to have lost three, five, or nine children blend into the collective figure of Mother Vietnam who loves
This commemorative silence is striking in light of what some scholars have called the “southernization” of Vietnam under Doi Moi, that is, its conversion into a replica of the pre-1975 South. In both the nostalgic recollections of disaffected southerners and the wishful projections of envious northerners, this pre-1975 South is not marked by war, chaos, or corruption, but represents an era of abundant consumer goods and relative freedom. Yet those who died so that the South could remain what the country as a whole is now becoming continue to be publicly unmourned.
The transformation of Vietnam along “southern” lines makes difficult comparisons between postwar Vietnam and postbellum America. Still, there are some similarities between the Vietnamese South and the American South. Both, unlike their northern counterparts, were heavily agrarian; both were defeated in a civil war; and both have been feminized in the cultural memory of their respective societies. The association of femininity with the Vietnamese South actually predates Communist victory. The lack of strong allegiance to Confucian ideology among southerners, their greater interest in making money rather than in acquiring diplomas or joining the bureaucracy—all these fed into a set of gender stereotypes in which women were associated with economic activities and lack of access to formal education and public life. Even the popularity of Buddhism in the South could be taken as a sign of femininity, since women were its greatest source of support. The North, however, with its stronger Confucian legacy and its role as a source of bureaucratic and political manpower, was cast as more masculine. Other regional differences were also described in gendered terms: southerners, living in the fertile Mekong Delta, were indolent and hedonistic in comparison with the rest of their compatriots.
The very qualities that seemed to explain southern defeat at war, however, may explain southern success in peacetime. With Doi Moi, postwar reconstruction has been cast in economic terms. The two heavily masculine sectors, the bureaucracy and the army, are retrenching while the private trading sector, a traditional feminine domain, is expanding. The social transformation of Vietnam since Doi Moi has generated
Figure 6.3. Billboard, Ho Chi Minh City. Photograph by Hue-Tam Ho Tai.
The year after Doi Moi was launched, the film How to Behave (Cau Chuyen Tu Te) by Tran Van Thuy was released in Hanoi. The film's theme was the search for the meaning of the term tu te, which can mean roughly “decency,” “kindness,” or “appropriateness.” As the filmmaker looked, mostly in vain, for people who lived according to this principle, he came across war veterans whose medals had been earned in battles from Dien Bien Phu (1954) to Khe Sanh (1968) but were now reduced to eking out a living driving pedicabs, repairing bicycles, or peddling vegetables by the roadside. Meanwhile, rich and idle young Vietnamese pursued the good life, which consisted of surrounding themselves with
This self-regarding young woman has her literary counterpart in the short story “The General Retires” (Tuong Ve Huu) by Nguyen Huy Thiep. In this story, which created a stir when it was published in 1988, Nguyen Huy Thiep pits a retired general against his daughter-in-law. Their confrontation is narrated in an affectless voice by the general's son, who is supposed to be the head of the family yet does not feel entirely responsible for the welfare of his household. The general symbolizes all the old virtues of the revolution but also its limitations.He clings to the spirit of egalitarianism in the face of growing social stratification. Coming from humble peasant stock, he is uncomfortable among the paraphernalia of middle-class aspirations his son and daughter-in-law are accumulating. He is more at ease with the peasant couple who care for his aged mother than with his own children and grandchildren, who despise his lack of education. Above all, he is made to feel superfluous and he eventually retreats from the domestic battlefield and rejoins his old regiment. The story ends with his son's laconic report that his father has died in battle, presumably in Cambodia.
The old general has been routed from his home (from which he had been absent for decades) by his daughter-in-law, who well deserves the popular nickname of “general of the interior.” She is the epitome of the competent housewife who knows to the last penny how much should be spent on wedding festivities: enough to cut a dash, not so much as to cause financial difficulties. Like her husband, she is well educated and thus a symbol of the postwar preference for knowledge over revolutionary
The loss of status and income of males in the public sector is captured in the short story “The Waltz of the Chamber Pot” (“Vu Dieu cai Bo”)by Nguyen Quang Than. The author sets up a humorous but sharp contrast between the poverty-stricken and ineffectual intellectual, the still powerful but obstructive party cadre, and the prosperous and productive (female) entrepreneur with whom both are involved. Although the intellectual is nominally on the payroll of a research institute, there is no money to fund his research, so he has to seek employment in the private sector.He is hired by the woman entrepreneur, supposedly to teach her little boy English, but in reality to be his nursemaid. The chamber pot is thus the symbol of his loss of status and of his fall into a demeaning, feminine occupation. The woman keeps in the good graces of the party cadre because of his remaining political clout but has little use for him personally because he is sexually impotent. Indeed, the only man capable of satisfying this cheerfully hedonistic woman is another (male) entrepreneur who breezes in and out of the story, bringing with him both news of the world outside Vietnam and funds of dubious provenance. The postwar economy, the story seems to imply, has reversed traditional equations between gender and power and has emasculated once powerful males.
WOMEN IN THE MUSEUM
The multifaceted role of women in society and cultural memory has found expression in the split personalities of the two museums dedicated to women, one in Ho Chi Minh City and the other in Hanoi. The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Women tries to negotiate the multiplicity of roles that Vietnamese society assigns to women by embracing an allinclusive definition of their identity. Thus, visitors are greeted by a large wall poster that details feminine qualities through the ages:
The Vietnamese women have the tradition of being “heroic, unsubmissive, faithful and competent: which are materialized in various fields of activity: the Vietnamese women fight off the enemy for national salvation. … When it was necessary, Vietnamese women also knew how to rule the country. South Vietnamese women are not only talented producers, creating well-known articles, but are also competent housekeepers, experts in family man-agement, tailoring, embroidery, in cooking tasty meals, making cakes and jams—thus embellishing the life of the family and society.
The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Women opened its doors to the public on April 4, 1985, in time to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Established before Doi Moi, it devotes far more space to showcasing women's wartime contributions than does its counterpart in Hanoi, which was inaugurated a full decade later.An official of the Hanoi Museum said, “We think that the Museum of Women of Ho Chi Minh City pays too much attention to war.We want to focus on the role of women in peace.” By the time the Hanoi Museum of Women opened in November 1995, the great wave of commemoration had largely ebbed, and public interest was refocusing on the present. In the lobby of the museum stands a bronze statue—the winning design in a competition that attracted over fifty entries—of a young mother holding a child aloft on her shoulder. In the words of the museum guide,
The statue is designed to represent the most valuable attributes of womanhood. She is shown with one hand forcing down the forces of disturbance. Her face is full of resolve, her breasts jut out to part the ocean waves. They are full of lifegiving milk.On her shoulder is perched a young child, for it is the responsibility of women to nurture future generations, their most sacred task. The child looks forward to the future, his arms stretched out to embrace all the challenges of life.
Over the statue is a huge chandelier whose lights are “in the shape of milk drops,” reminding spectators once again of the nurturing role of mothers (fig.6.4).A mural will be created as a backdrop for the statue
Figure 6.4. Mother and child statue, Museum of Women, Hanoi. Photograph by Hue-Tam Ho Tai.
Instead of trying to integrate women's multiple roles into a single identity, the Hanoi Museum of Women spreads them over three floors. The exhibits begin on the ground floor with celebrations of Vietnamese
In Ho Chi Minh City, the message inside the museum is somewhat more consistent and, as the Hanoi official suggested, more focused on women's revolutionary contributions, in keeping with the state's narrative. Outside, however, the commemorative concerns of the state are being undermined by those of private individuals. Although the museum is open free of charge, it has few visitors and a very small budget.As in other sister institutions in the South, the staff stretches the museum's income by allowing weddings to be held on its lawns and catering banquets.An annex is also used for meetings and dances. When the museum mounted a photographic exhibit in honor of Heroic Mothers in 1995, it flanked the lawn with temporary partitions upon which were affixed photographs of recipients of medals. They were women in their seventies or older, their faces etched with lines of sorrow, and they were invariably clad in drab peasant pajamas.On weekends, wedding parties would assemble in front of the museum for collective photographs. The bride was usually attired in a Victorian dress and the groom in a tuxedo. The pictures of old women who had lost their sons in the war formed a disregarded backdrop for the recording of the bride's passage into marriage and motherhood and the couple's affirmation of their membership in the rising urban, Westernized middle class. In southern towns and villages where museums are unavailable for this purpose, cemeteries to revolutionary martyrs have become a favorite spot for taking bridal pictures. Sites that are meant to commemorate war are thus used as backdrops for the reaffirmation of life and of social continuity. But the life and society they celebrate are very different from the ones that the Revolution
While the state wished to honor those women who had given more than three sons to the revolutionary cause, it was also seeking to enforce its birth control policy, which limited to two the number of children each family was permitted to have.At the beginning of the campaign, the state had emphasized the need to limit population growth in order to create “a stable society and a prosperous country.” By 1996, that patriotic slogan had been replaced by a less publicminded appeal: “Limit yourselves to two children in order to raise them and educate them well.” Such an appeal bespeaks the end of the wartime ethos personified by the Heroic Mothers and the ascendancy of the middle-class culture represented by fictional females and fashion models.It also signifies the declining power of the official epic narrative of glorious war and revolution to inspire.
In Fable for the Year 2000, a play written in 1991 by Le Hung, a young Vietnamese competes with an older man over the right to pass over a bridge. While the old man claims that the privilege of age and the enormous sacrifices his generation has made give him the right of way, the younger man retorts, “What legacy have you left us but dire poverty?” Discussions of postwar greed and selfishness form a strange contrast to 1920s debates about the collusion between the patriarchal family and colonial rule. In the 1920s, it was young people who, using the image of young girls to represent their own sense of powerlessness, attacked the family as oppressive. Their rebellion combined desire for personal emancipation and commitment to a cause that was both larger and nobler than the family: the liberation of the entire nation. In the 1990s, the tables have turned. Old soldiers, like the retired general of Nguyen Huy Thiep's short story, represent the revolutionary cause and the larger community, while the young mother who is unwilling to subordinate the good of her family to that of the nation represents the current retreat from public-mindedness.
Although Fable for the Year 2000 appears to pit revolutionary memory against postwar oblivion, forgetting comes from many sources and in many guises.It is not simple ingratitude, nor solely a matter of generational differences. For some, it can be a rejection of the epic narrative of national glory bought at the price of immense sacrifice which is at the
Forgetting can also be an attempt to keep the past from damaging the present. Memory may be socially constructed. It may be shaped collectively, but it also defines the nature and boundaries of community on the basis of shared experience and shared sentiment.It is usually evoked, even constructed, in communal settings such as weddings, funerals, or death anniversaries. These are events in which ties of kinship and community are ordinarily reaffirmed through the recitation of personal anecdotes as much as by participation in common rituals. Yet, the divisiveness engendered by war and revolution confronts many Vietnamese with the impossibility of using memory to reinforce family feelings. In the North, the wounds left by the Land Reform program of the 1950s have not completely healed. Novels such as Duong Thu Huong's Paradise of the Blind expose the rifts it caused in individual families. In the South, both war and revolution are behind the suppression of memory. The difficulty of remembering failure and defeat is only one factor in this suppression. Whereas many overseas Vietnamese mark April 30 as the Day of Shame (Ngay Quoc Han), in counterpoint to the Vietnamese state's celebration of victory and reunification, those who remain in Vietnam but fought against Communism do not have the luxury of publicly holding their own rites of remembrance. But southern forgetting is not merely a case of individual memory collapsing under the weight of state suppression. Practically every southern family has members who fought on different sides of the Vietnam War and whose sufferings are therefore blamed on different agents. Every memory calls forth a countermemory: stories of imprisonment under the South Vietnamese regime are countered by narratives of experience in reeducation camps under the new Communist one. Anecdotes celebrating heroic deeds in guerrilla bases are met with tales of tragic death on the high seas while trying to escape the country. Some extended families have members who bear the scars of torture and others who have been accused of inflicting torture on prisoners. Satisfaction at the outcome of the War Against the Americans (as its supporters call it) clashes with nostalgia for the prosperity and freedom of the pre-Communist era as others remember it. Sometimes the division of war is not spread across a large extended family but has to be accommodated within a single individual. Some mothers who have been honored because their sons
Thus, for the sake of family harmony, southern dead, absent from national commemoration, often go unmentioned in the collective narratives of their extended families. Condemned to the shadows, they refuse, however, to remain unmourned. Their demand to be recognized, however, threatens the peace of the community at the level of family, community, and nation. The destruction of the cemetery has fed popular stories of ghosts who wander along the highway where it used to be located and disturb the living, as do the wandering ghosts of popular culture who must be appeased by rituals of remembrance in the seventh month.
Bequests sometimes carry with them bitter memories.As the narrator of Paradise of the Blind recognizes, “Forgive me my aunt: I'm going to sell this house and leave all this behind.We can honor the wishes of the dead with a few flowers on a grave somewhere.I can't squander my life tending these faded flowers, these shadows, the legacy of past crimes.” New acquisitions, by contrast, come without the burden of memory.It is this dimension that makes them so desirable as building blocks in a new family narrative that is not made up of loss, grief, and divisive bitterness.
The consumer culture is stripping many symbols of war service of their commemorative shadows. The magazine Phu Nu (Women), which is published by the Ho Chi Minh City Women's Union, is full of articles about fashion. In June 1995, when commemorative activities were at their height, it ran an article on hats. The magazine cover featured a model who was too young to have been born while the War Against the Americans was being fought. She was wearing a black sleeveless silk top with a mandarin collar and frog closings, which managed to be reminiscent all at once of the black pajamas worn by peasants and guerrillas and of the Western fashion fad known as “Indochic.” On her head was a pith helmet. Colored green to provide jungle camouflage, this had once been a useful piece of military attire. Repainted shocking pink to attract
The complexity of women's representational roles in Vietnamese public culture should not obscure the fact that women have real lives that are infinitely more complex, and that women's images and women's lives are sometimes in conflict. Political liberalization made possible more open discussion of war and of women's experiences in war; it accompanied the transition to a market economy in which many women, especially the peasant women who contributed the most to the war effort, are losing ground. Thanks to the new openness, the picture of wartime gender equality is being modified. Meanwhile, their postwar circumstances are leading some women to rethink their sacrifices. The Heroic Mothers, icons of revolutionary memory, are often forgotten as real individuals.At the end of 1995, a published survey disclosed that half a million women were living alone without children to support them. Because this coincided with the tail end of the festivities honoring Heroic Mothers, it led to discussions in the press of the plight of women whose children had died in the war and were now destitute.It was disclosed that some women, including war veterans, were opting to have children outside marriage because they had little or no hope of finding a husband, yet wanted to experience motherhood and to provide a modicum of security for their old age. And while fictional female entrepreneurs seemed to be gaining in power and status in the new market-driven society, the press was also full of articles concerning young peasant women who had been lured into the cities by prospects of jobs in the private sector only to fall into prostitution.
Winners and losers in the market economy, young and old, grieving and forwardlooking, selfsacrificing and hedonistic, icons of memory, symbols of forgetting; women embody the dilemmas and contradictions that are involved in making sense of war and postwar, revolution and counterrevolution in Vietnam.
This chapter is a revised version of a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies in Honolulu, March 1996.
1. The Vietnamese term for commemoration, tuong niem, combines “imagining” (tuong) with “remembering” (niem). [BACK]
2. Da Ngan, “Nha Khong Co Dan Ong” [“The House with No Men”](1990), in Literature News: Nine Stories from the Vietnam Writers'Union
3. Margery Wolf, Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1972), 32–41. Her argument, which has already been questioned in the case of China, needs to be considered in the context of the Vietnamese tradition of village endogamy, which substantively modifies the effects of virilocal residence on women. [BACK]
4. Pham Quynh, “Dia Vi Nguoi Dan Ba trong Xa Hoi Nuoc Ta” [“The Position of Women in Our Society”], Nam Phong [Southern Wind] 82 (April 1924); quoted in Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 98. [BACK]
5. It would appear that the tale is based on a real event that took place in the fourteenth century. See Nguyen Nam, “Luoc Dich Quoc Ngu Cuoi The Ky XIX [“Translations into the Romanized Script in the Nineteenth Century”] in Tap Chi Han Nom [Han Nom Journal] 1, no.34 (1998): 20–31 n.13. [BACK]
6. George L. Mosse, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping Memory of the World Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). [BACK]
7. Ibid., 225. [BACK]
8. For a translation into English, see Huynh Sanh Thong, An Anthology of Vietnamese Poems from the Eleventh through the Twentieth Centuries (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996), 401–18. [BACK]
9. See Patricia Pelley, “The History of Resistance and the Resistance to History in Post-colonial Constructions of the Past,” in Essays into Vietnamese Pasts, ed.K.W. Taylor and John K. Whitmore (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 1995). [BACK]
10. This figure was prevalent in the cultural debates of the 1920s. See Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution, chap.3 (“Daughters of Annam”). [BACK]
11. Vietnamese discomfort with the equation of rape and invasion suggests a reason behind the discrepancy between Chinese accounts of the capture of the Trung Sisters in a.d.43 and Vietnamese oral tradition, according to which they met their death when they threw themselves into the Hat River to elude capture. [BACK]
12. Ho Chi Minh, Le Procès de la colonisation franc¸aise (Paris: Librairie du Travail, 1925).It has been suggested that Nguyen The Truyen actually wrote this book, since Ho, at the time, was either in China or on his way there from Moscow. [BACK]
13. Keith W. Taylor, The Birth of Vietnam (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983), 91. [BACK]
14. Quoted in Phan Huy Le et al., Lich Su Viet Nam [History of Vietnam], vol.1 (Hanoi: NXB Dai Hoc va Giao Duc Chuyen Nghiep, 1991), 225. [BACK]
15. Nguyen Don Phuc, “Dan Ba Dong Phuong” [“Oriental Women”], Nam Phong 101 (December 1925); quoted in Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution, 99. The Four Virtues are cong (good management), dung (decorous comportment), ngon (harmonious speech), and hanh (appropriate behavior). [BACK]
16. See Lynn Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution (Berkeley
17. Drew Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996). [BACK]
18. Nina Silber, The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865–1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993). [BACK]
19. This is vividly captured in Karen Gottschang Turner with Phan Thanh Hao, Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War From North Vietnam (New York: Wiley, 1998). [BACK]
20. The entire speech was printed in Saigon Giai Phong [Liberated Saigon], January 11, 1995. [BACK]
21. Trinh Cong Son, “Ngu Di Con” [“Sleep, My Child”], 1969, author's translation. [BACK]
22. David Ignatius, “Vietnamese Begin to Question If War Was Worth Sacrifices,” Washington Post, November 2, 1991. [BACK]
23. Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War; English version by Frank Palmos based on the translation from the Vietnamese by Vo Bang Thanh and Phan Thanh Hao with Katerina Pierce (New York: Pantheon, 1995); Duong Thu Huong, Novel without a Name, trans.by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson (New York: Morrow, 1995). Novel Wilhout a Name was originally written in 1989. [BACK]
24. This is based not on personal observation but on a private communication from a Hanoi intellectual. [BACK]
25. Trinh Cong Son, Gia Tai cua Me [Mother's Legacy], 1969. [BACK]
26. Mona Ouzouf, “Le Panthe ´on: L'Ecole Normale des morts,” in Lieux de me´moire, vol.1, ed. Pierre Nora (Paris: Gallimard, 1984), 157 [BACK]
27. Tran Van Thuy, How to Behave (Cau Chuyen Tu Te), 1988; distributed in the United States by First Films: Icarus. [BACK]
28. Nguyen Huy Thiep, “The General Retires,” in The General Retires and Other Stories, translated with an introduction by Greg Lockhart (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford in Asia, 1991). [BACK]
29. Nguyen Quang Than, “The Waltz of the Chamber Pot” [“Vu Dieu cai Bo”] (1991), in Literature News: Nine Stories from the Vietnam Writers'Union Newspaper, Bao Van Nghe, 6–37. [BACK]
30. This is a verbatim extract from the English-language portion of the wall poster. [BACK]
31. Communication with author, January 1996. [BACK]
32. Reported in Far Eastern Economic Review, May 11, 1992. [BACK]
33. Since the appearance of Maurice Halbwachs's pioneering work, Les Cadres sociaux de la me´moire, scholarly attention has focused on the social construction of memory. Less attention has been paid to social amnesia, although it is a theme that reverberates in societies that have undergone divisive episodes such as Indonesia in 1965 and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. In both cases, it is reported, it is memory, if publicly verbalized, that threatens community. [BACK]
34. Duong Thu Huong, Paradise of the Blind (1988), trans. Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson (New York: Morrow, 1991). [BACK]
35. On the link between failure and forgetting, see Michel Bozon and Anne Marie Thiesse, “The Collapse of Memory: The Case of the Farm Workers (French Vexin, Pays de France)” in Between History and Memory, ed. Marie Noelle Bourguet, Lucette Valensi, and Nathan Wachtel (Chur: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1990). [BACK]
36. Duong Thu Huong, Paradise of the Blind, 258. [BACK]
37. See in particular the accounts in Karen Gottschang Turner with Phan Thanh Hao, Even the Women Must Fight. [BACK]
38. See, for example, ibid., 157–63. Also Ngo Ngoc Boi, “The Blanket of Scraps,” in Literature News: Nine Stories from the Vietnam Writers'Union Newspaper, Bao Van Nghe, 96–123. [BACK]