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(157B) -- "Remodeling Broken Images: Manipulation of Identities. Towards and Beyond the Nation, An Asian Perspective", traduit par Karen Turnbull, in Ethnicities and Nations -- Processes of Interethnic Relations in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific, edited by Remo Guidieri, Francesco Pellizzi and Stanley J. Tambiah, Houston (Texas), Rothko Chapel, 1988, p. 229-58 (version raccourcie, amputée de sa première partie, de 1 à 3 compris).


Manipulation of Identities.


Towards and Beyond the Nation:


An Asian perspective (I)


by Serge Thion


Go to the second part of the text | 1 | 2 |

One part of the Cham people was exiled in Cambodia (where they had fought fiercely); the other part, however, remained in place, even conserving the Islamic religion which had for so long permeated the popular classes of this Hinduized state. As in southern China, the wave which brought the state apparatus and its civilizing process turned the rest of the Hindu-Malaysian-Javanese world toward thalassocratic tendencies and isolated it. The Chams were locked in and fell into oblivion: they reestablished a chiefdom, hid their treasures and the sacred objects of their royal cult with their mountain allies, and fell back on a religion that they understood poorly, its significance eluding them.

Much like those Japanese Christians who, after the proscription, continued to perform the rituals and pronounce the magic words in secret, in the process distorting a Latin that they did not understand, so the Chams, in the era of their defeat, mimicked an Islamic tongue whose meaning was quickly obscured as maritime contact ended. Thus they lost the meaning of this "Latin," which for them was Arabic. And when, later, contact was reestablished, primarily with the Muslim world, part of the Chams refused to undergo a second Islamization, to return to an orthodoxy which seemed to them to be a renunciation of the religion of their fathers.

While they lost contact with the exterior, and even with their brothers in Cambodia, the Chams did not lose touch with their mountain allies. The latter have often used Cham, both as the language of culture and in ordinary speech right up to the beginning of this century. The past was no longer supressed, and the re-Islamization favored endogamy. Arrogantly neglected by a Vietnamese society totally preoccupied with clearing and occupying the vast horizons of the great South, the Chams, bitter and impotent, fell back on themselves. They remained mistrustful of a modern nationalism, because it did not seem possible that they could fight a Vietnam armed by the state.

After conquering and assimilating the territory in which the isolated pockets of Cham lived, the Vietnamese embarked on a new world, the vast plains, tropical and swampy, of the Mekong delta. There, for as far as the eye could see, was more flat land than in all of Vietnam at the time. Standing at the edge of the Mekong delta in the seventeenth century, the Vietnamese undoubtedly felt much the same distress as some of their remote ancestors had when the Son of Heaven ordered them to set out for the South, to serve there as administrators and soldiers. The South has a torrid, pestilential climate; nature there is savage, defying domination and regulation. It is a place full of dangerous animals, beasts, and poisonous plants; of naked and unpredictable savages, lewd women and sorceresses; and of unknown demons. The complaints of some of the Tang mandarins oscillate between those of Ovid exiled at Tomes, writing the Tragics, and those of Bardamu, employee of the Compagnie pordurière du Petit Togo (see Schafer).

This humid, wild brush was barely developed. Under the loose suzerainty of a Cambodian monarchy in complete decline, the country was dotted with Khmer hamlets; in the north it was overrun by the formidable hunters known as the Stieng. The memory of a time some fifteen centuries before, when these infertile areas had harbored great trading ports-- agencies of exchange between an expanding India and China-- had totally disappeared. They were sunk in mud, as at Oc-Eo, where archæologists later would rediscover the remnants of a large emporium containing Hindu and Buddhist statues, even pieces of Roman money. "Funan" was perhaps an Indian agency when the Han had arrived in Tonkin.

But here too, soon enough, at this Cochin-Chinese point, a creole world was being born. It is here, in an era of which we know almost nothing, that we have to look for the mystery of the formation of the Khmer people. For everything seems Indian-- the statuary, the first inscriptions, even the names of kings and places transmitted to us through the Chinese Annals. Their reconstruction from Chinese phonetics (itself reconstructed for the era) unquestionably has a Sanskrit aspect. There is not even categorical evidence that the inhabitants of Funan spoke Khmer (although Funan has been traced to bhnam, modern Khmer phnom, mountain), but their political ancestry clearly is from Funan, arriving at Angkor via Chenla. By successive climbs toward the interior, they arrived in historical Cambodia, the center of a vast empire whose visible institutions owed almost everything to India. This borrowing by a ruling elite of a system so alien to local customs (no matter what the proportion was between notable immigrants and local chieftains at its center) inevitably created problems in acculturation for the mass of producers, who were not only agriculturalists, but also hunters and gatherers. Undeniably the birth and growth of Cambodia was a "civilizing" phenomenon in the sense that it integrated, transformed, and standardized the various groups. But this influence was neither as profound nor as lasting-- all things considered-- as that of the Chinese. Perhaps the reason for this will become clearer if we examine the history of India itself.

The unifying power of Indian civilization seems to lose its force in proportion to its descent downward on the social pyramid that it itself has set up. Purity, relationship to the divine, are a function of the individual's place on this pyramid. It is held together, one might say, by the top; it is the summit which guarantees a base that, by itself, has almost no value. And under the base itself, inaccessible to the grace given off by the Brahman high priest a kind of inhumanity with a human visage swarms-- untouchables, outcasts, aboriginal tribes, etc., which Karmic law drags out from the lowest spheres of the reincarnation cycle, an indescribable mixture of human and animal nature. At the same time that Hinduism unified and brought together, it divided society definitively by erecting impassable barriers between castes. It is this Hinduism of warrior-kings and priests, of kshatriya and Brahmans, that was exported to Indochina and the Indian Archipelago, apparently affecting only the ruling classes. Only in Bali, where Hinduism has held its own, do we find vestiges of a caste system. They are not detectable elsewhere, probably because the system never really worked, except for the priests and kings.

The documents reveal a steady expansion of the Khmer empire up to its heyday in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but they say little about the social reality thus encompassed. This was also the time when Theravada Buddhism was substituted for Hinduism, and today one can grasp the Khmer existence only within the Buddhist setting: the two are co-existent and indivisible. In this part of the world as in India itself, Buddhism came after Hinduism, which had provided the ideological underpinning for the first large states. Buddhism even extended the goals of the State because, in providing for the redemption of humanity in toto, it transcended inequality and the caste system. In this, it was revolutionary. The Buddhist king, replacing birth by the virtue of dharma, had more inclination toward universal sovereignty than the kshatriya king, primus inter pares. But whereas in India Hinduism had never stopped being the religion of the majority, so that it succeeded in diminishing and extinguishing Buddhism, in Southeast Asia Buddhism gave much greater vigor to the political structures it inherited, and thus assured their lasting permanence up to our own era. Only the Buddhists knew how to unite against the Chinese and halt their descent.

Khmer identity was thus carried on a wave of Buddhist thoughts and images which projected it toward the universal, coming together with the flow of the world and the transmigration of matter itself. However, the true state of things, the reality of power, the affairs of the kingdom-- in brief the ordinary human condition-- is always far from complete, from the realization of dharma, from the definitive accomplishment of the cardinal virtues. This distance, this lack of achievement, even when infinitesimal, represents fracture, a huge void. This failure in the political realm can become a battlefield and incite those forces which seek to replace one legitimacy by another. Religion relates to politics as a tourniquet, putting into power only that which has been tested, never taking power for itself, and bringing it not support so much as a request for its own protection.

It will be readily understood that the adherence of the faithful could not be converted without risk into loyalty toward a sovereign; candidates to the throne could be so numerous that more than one Buddhist king had to resort to massacring part of his own family in order to reign peacefully.

The great fission in these political systems is reflected in the way in which the subjects offer their membership and loyalty: to the kingdom rather than to the king. This abstraction does have a concrete form: the territory in which one lives and moves about, marked out by pagodas, carved out along the borders of the forest-- another world. The Khmer use one and the same word to designate both the kingdom and the territory (a part of the province): srok. Nothing precisely defines the srok: it is neither a network of villages, nor an ecclesiastical unity, and barely an administrative unit; it is above all a range of multiple activities that one can cover by foot. But the framework is not very strong. Houses are often dispersed, religious activities are voluntary, the administration is present only to levy taxes, the king is far away. The society provides hardly any institution which might serve as intermediary between the immediate family and the kingdom, one which would enable the individual to hold on to and expand his identity.

Over the cultivated territory that it recognizes is superimposed another which is at least as important: it is the supernatural, which overlaps into the natural and determines it. The Buddhist framework can remain; it is flexible enough to adjust to an enormous population of diverse ghosts and spirits whose requirements, although matter-of-fact, are no less determining. This invisible world has been studied, with more or less analytical success, by E. Porée-Maspero among the Khmers, S. J. Tambiah among the Thai of the North, by Melford Spiro among the Burmese, etc. Clearly, these are neolithic religions, fresh and lively before the birth, almost simultaneous, of Confucius and Gautama. The Shamanist component, in particular, is very revealing of a great prehistoric pan-Asiatic cultural base, which rises up from underneath the "historical" elaborations at the first opportunity. These components, I believe, are the essential ones in the identities of these groups. No doubt some ambitious anthropologists could show, in the manner of the Mythologies of Lévi-Strauss, that the ancient and preliterate cultures of the Asiatic world (and the Oceanic and the Amerindian), still alive and perceptible, are the shreds and fragmentary variations of a whole which no people has ever held in its totality, but out of which each has selected and adapted some elements which were compatible with it.

The very name Indochina, which the Europeans invented, describes the setting: the place where the civilizations of India and China met face to face and joined together. But there is a contrast to which very little attention has been paid. For two thousand years, China has considered that she had outposts in the area, has kept abreast of what happens there, and does not hesitate to intervene directly-- the last time was in 1979. India, on the other hand, appears never to have been interested in this region. The archives are silent: one finds in them no trace of any desire on India's part to intervene. Indians learned of the existence of an Indian cultural influence in Southeast Asia only at the beginning of the twentieth century, when European scholars discovered, identified, and analyzed monuments, inscriptions, and institutional evidence. They found undeniable Indian influence, going back at least to the early Christian era. These discoveries played a role in the birth of nationalism in India; a Greater India Society was soon started to glorify the historical role of overseas India. Despite certain excesses, many Indian scholars contributed much that was valuable to Indochinese studies. Today, as we know, Indochina occupies a privileged place in the foreign affairs of independent India.

Everything happened, it would seem, as if India had never been aware of what she did overseas, and I believe this is how it must be understood. Merchants, missionaries, and adventurers trafficked in this area, undoubtedly for their own profit. When later the maritime routes were confiscated by the Moslems, then by the Portuguese, the earlier memory was erased-- all the more since Hinduized Southeast Asia became either Buddhist or Muslim. But there is another reason: it is that this Indian influence, particularly spectacular since it produced such sublime masterworks as Angkor and Borubudur, as well as the music, dances, and shadow plays of this entire region, seems to me to be superficial. It in no way produced Indians, in the sense in which China had produced Chinese-- and by the millions. There is one exceptionally clear border: the line of mountain tops which separates the basins of the Brahmapoutre from those of the Chadwin, and which serves, grosso modo, as a frontier between India (Assam, Manipur) and Burma. There one finds the Naga, the Mizo, the Kachin, and other indomitable peoples. To the west is Assam, Bengal, India. In the east is a world without a name, and with a radius of about two thousand kilometers from east to west and five or six thousand from north to south, extending from the Mongolian steppes to the outskirts of Saigon, its sides furrowed by the rice-growing, statecontrolled plains. This is the world of those people-- between thirty and forty million-- who have rejected both India and China, turning down their writings and their great religions, and who have kept their shamans, their digging sticks, and their slash-and-burn agriculture. They are not a people; they do not even form tribes. I do not know what to call them since they have no collective identity. Sometimes they are related culturally, sometimes linguistically. I would like to use the term neolithic, setting aside the question of their tools, in order to indicate that they belong to one of the longest epochs in the life of modern man (sapiens sapiens). This they show by their esprit. They have sustained for two or three thousand years the pressures and assaults of a modernity-- that is, of societies that have overstepped the human scale, and which impose themselves on the individual like afatum hypostasized by kings and other bearers of charisma-- of which we are only the last, blind avatars.

To recapitulate our contemporary data on the Indochinese checkerboard: four population bodies, four cultural traditions which seem to oppose and fight one another. First, the Vietnamese stream, which has recently reached the southern tip of the peninsula. The physical contribution of China is far from negligible here, but essentially it developed through mutation in loco. Next, the Thai stream, which flowed into the Menam and Mekong valleys and ended by creating Buddhist principalities there. As George Condominas says, they developed, by a process of interlocking, into powerful States, the principal one being Thailand. Then the Khmer or Mon-Khmer world, the oldest population of the region, and indeed the most important substratum underlying the Vietnamese and Thai populations. Over a vast zone, it has held on and is now coming into view. The Khmer empire was brought together and homogenized, one part of it quite profoundly, as the E hemoglobin distribution map shows. Even within its borders the state was not always in a position to "khmerize" its cousins of the forests and the mountains. One of the surest and most often used means of "civilizing" the "savages" (phnong) was by launching military raids to capture slaves, or deporting populations to the plains. Even in the heart of the Khmer world there is thus also played out this dialectic of refusal to recognize the State, the maintenance of a "neolithic" identity. (It will be easier to understand what I mean by neolithic if I say that I include the Kuy of Cambodia, who inhabit [or inhabited] the forests of the northeast, and who were traditionally the most skilful blacksmiths in this region. Several of these refractory groups, moreover, are noted metallurgists.) Finally, the fourth group-- all those peoples without a state, sometimes referred to as "montagnards," who are present in all the States of the region, but who are poorly or not at all integrated into them. They belong to various linguistic groups (to name the most numerous, Mon-Khmer or Austroasiatic, Malayo-Polynesians or Austronesian, Thai, Tibetan-Burmese, and Vietnamese itself-- if one thinks of those ancient Vietnamese who in some way seceded several centuries ago and who are known by the name Muong [see J. Cuisinier]). Physically, they represent only a small fraction of the total population, but geographically they cover and exploit enormous areas, several of which have become strategically important.

For the above reasons, the sense of identity which the subjects in these States have of themselves is, in part, determined by relations with their neolithic periphery. Vietnamese, Thais, and Khmers absolutely refuse to see their own origins there. It is perceived as an insurmountable gulf. Those who have received "civilization," when they are not mistrustful, set themselves up as protectors and project onto the Other "savage" the kind of relations that they themselves have with their masters, the owners of the State. The Thai, in the north, make an effort to establish relations of dependence and of patronage with the tribespeople, sending Buddhist priests to the villages to spread the good word. The Khmers, who have forgotten that most of their ancestors were slaves to kings or noblemen, have not forgotten servile passivity in the face of the more powerful. And, in the Pol Pot reversal, this is what they expected from the khmer-loeu, when the "Khmers from on high" became the masters, in possession of the Party's truth by the very fact of their being "savages." The best disposed among the Vietnamese always think that they must reform the minorities for their own good, teach them the flooded-rice system and the alphabet, and believe that it is up to them to decide what is important to conserve in the tradition, or, because a particular custom would run counter to "progress," eliminate.

In the past, certainly relations were quite well-regulated, implying considerable economic exchange. The forest provided goods of great value to the economy of the plains, especially for the luxury of the Court. The latter wanted, moreover, the "tribute" which the montagnards paid to its grandeur. The colonial period upset this always precarious equilibrium by furnishing to those in the lowlands the means, medical among others, to penetrate and install themselves in the highlands. Apparently, the plains people who followed in the wake of the first European colonizers were not the cream of the crop. An era of violence, of plunder, exploitation, and of deportations and mass murders followed, in which thousands of villages disappeared. The professional denouncers of "genocide" were conspicuous by their absence.

Here is a quotation from Paul Mus:


To become aware of the contact between two cultures, it is good to leave them both; and it is the reaction of a moi, a man of the forest in the hinterlands of Phan-Thiet, which has best clarified for me this matter of Franco-Vietnamese relations. The Churu, who was at ease with me because we spoke together in his Cham dialect, told me of his admiration for the material power of the Vietnamese, for their scientific and industrial superiority; he tossed around this idea, apparently lacking words of this kind. He paid numerous compliments to the Vietnamese for their photography, for the automobile, for the railroad, and for the telegraph. I felt I could suggest that the French had something to do with all this, but my rough-hewn comrade roared with laughter: "The French have brought the automobile, photographyl When you have operated your camera, who has the secret for bringing out a picture? Aren't you going to find the Vietnamese in Phan-Thiet? And your autos, is it you or your chauffeurs who know how to drive and repair them?" Mus then asked him just what he thought the French had done here and he replied: "You are very great, very strong, nobody knows how to become as angry as you, so the Vietnamese take you for soldiers and police agents. They are shrewd customers, they know everything and they help themelves to everything." (Mus and Mac Alister, 86-87)


Around 1900, a missionary who traveled in western Cochin China met up with a local Vietnamese leader on a sampan (flat-bottomed boat) which took them both away. After some time had passed, the Vietnamese leader posed a question, which he seemed to have spent a good deal of reflection upon:

"I know that I can trust you and that you won't repeat to the administrator what I am going to ask you, but I beg you, tell me candidly how long the French are going to remain in the country?" And as the Father was astonished, the Vietnamese leader went on: "You don't want to say it, but you must know it. Come, is it in one or two years that the French are going away?" ("La Revue Indochinese," 1902, in Mus and Mac Alister 1972,122).

This story reveals what thousands of other anecdotes have illustrated in every part of the world; that the behavior of the Europeans was so strange, so incomprehensible to the eyes of the indigenous peoples, that the logical explanation must be concealed. There had to be a secret that explained the colonial presence. The appearance of the Europeans on the coast touched off an ethical and philosophical debate different in each locale. Mus, for example, noted that the Vietnamese, located as they were south of the Center, experienced a sort of discreet satisfaction at seeing the appearance of a power to the West; it lightened the weight of the Center on them. One also recalls the truly ethnographic descriptions of the Black Ship Scroll, the report embellished with encyclopedic illustrations, which was written down by Japanese mandarins who were sent by the Court to observe Perry's fleet during his first journey into Japanese waters.

This incomprehension, at the moment of contact, is itself readily understandable. The seamen displayed only a microcosm, partial and distorted, of their societies of origin. But above all, contrary to the idea prevalent today, the Europeans did not seem very dangerous at first. By the time the local populations knew more about the strength of the Europeans and the effects of their brutality, they could think of little more than to make use of the Europeans in local conflicts. Taking on the functions of intermediaries and advisors, the mercenaries, tradesmen, Westerners of all kinds-- rough Portuguese soldiers, Spanish priests, French cadets, Dutch merchants-- who plowed through Asia from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries played only a minor role. The Churu's reflections in the conversation with Paul Mus would have been entirely relevant at the very end of the eighteenth century, when Nguyên Anh used the services of the bishop of Adran, Pigneau de Béhaine-- his boats, artillerymen, and the soldiers of fortune recruited in France ad majorem Dei gloriam-- in order to overthrow the Tay Son "usurpers" and reunify Vietnam under a new crown. But this era, when the local potentates could utilize European power and knowledge to their advantage, often also at their own risk and peril, was destined to end with the beginning of the massive industralization, first of England, then of Western Europe.

In a Confucian world, in which mercantilism certainly had a place, but a subordinate one, European expansion was clearly menacing. First Japan, then China, Korea, and Vietnam, would shut themselves off from the West. That these barbarians were agents of disorder and of moral decadence was hardly surprising, since their place of origin was eccentric (off-center). To them, the animality of the human soul was proportional to the distance between place of birth and the Middle of the World, which is, opportunely, occupied by the son and representative of Heaven, the paragon of actualized humanity. They had nothing to lose by rejecting the invasion of this corruptive disorder.

Nguyên Ahn, who became the Emperor Gia-Long, had clearly perceived the risks. He demanded that his successors do without the aid of foreigners on whom he himself had greatly depended. The new dynasty would strengthen itself through an orthodoxy renewed at the classical Chinese fount. Faced with these rising perils, which were strongly evident even in the forbidden towns of Huê, of Yedo, and Peking, it was necessary to have recourse to the supreme weapon of virtue, of harmony with the decrees from Heaven and the will of the ancestors. The subversive elements left behind after the missionaries were finally expelled were like abscesses in which the virus of treason pullulated, and they must rid the country of them.

The concern with moral perfection did not interfere with concern for material efficacy. The image of an Orient snugly wrapped up in itself, ignoring the movement of the world, is of course only one of the wretched myths justifying all the piracy committed there. There were anguished calls for reform among the modernist mandarins, who were also touched by the philosophy of the Enlightenment (which they obtained in Chinese translation). Political struggles based on different viewpoints toward reform have now been well documented. Furthermore, internal crises, like that of the Tai Ping, were pointing to the urgency of the need for reform.

What was also lacking was a thorough analysis of the Western "phenomenon." Asia did send information missions to Europe and America in the nineteenth century, but the information circulated slowly and not very widely. One recalls, for example, the decision of the Court of Huê to purchase at Manila one of those steamships whose maneuverability had posed insurmountable problems to the Vietnamese fleet during the war. This precious acquisition was entrusted to the most competent metallurgists in the country, artisans whose talent still compels the admiration of modern technologists. Piece by piece, they copied the components of the machine, but, evidently because they lacked the theoretical knowledge, they could never make their imitation work. Fifty years later, the French were to rediscover it, quite rusted, at the arsenal of Huê.

This anecdote can be seen as a kind of exemplary tale: Asia (let us say the Third World) had understood that there was a secret to the power suddenly manifested by Europe, a secret she could understand only after having been destroyed by it.

The colonizers were not squeamish: if there were obstacles, they had to be removed; if there was opposition, it had to be erased. This esoteric trick had to be imposed on the local culture by kicks in the rear. The moment soon came when what was essential seemed, in the eyes of a part of the traditional elite, to be menaced with complete destruction. This was manifested in both Cambodia and Annam, in 1885-86, by legitimist revolts which marked the last convulsive movements of an agonizing political body. Whereas in Burma the subjects of Her Gracious Britannic Majesty abolished the monarchy with a stroke of the pen, the French republicans resurrected the Vietnamese, Khmer, and Laotian thrones in the hope of capturing the loyalties attached to them. The logic was not totally absurd. At three or four generations' distance, one can well see why ex-king Sihanouk was obliged to hold back for so long before he could enter the political arena. Yet there wasn't a politician in Saigon before 1975 who had not thought, from time to time, of resorting to Bao Dai, one of whose rare glories would have been to agree at the moment chosen by destiny, to become the special advisor, Vinh Thuy, of the republic of Ho Chi Minh.

The Vietnamese led an orphanlike existence after the revolt of the literati failed, just before the triumph of Paul Doumer at the turn of the century. A nagging doubt could no longer be avoided. Why was virtue defeated? What model should be followed? The Chinese republican movement? The meiji reform? Was it necessary to try to master Western knowledge? So many questions, and even more paths to explore.

We know the rest: the almost simultaneous emergence, in the period following World War I, of one nationalist current that can be called bourgeois, and of another that was nationalist-communist. I use this unusual name in order to show that the history of the Indochinese Communist movement, strongly orthodox in other respects, has always centered around the national question. The chronology of events since 1930 is well known (see Marr, Rousset, Turner, and many others), but what is important to grasp here is the veritable intellectual mutation which made them possible. The concept of the nation, with all the passions it entailed, underwent a radical transformation. It is not heir to but rather the abandoning of the concept elaborated in Europe in the nineteenth century. It is the reinterpretation of a past over and done with, with which continuity had been broken, more through the failure of the resistance to colonization itself than by the colonial intrusion per se. And if we refer back to the superb and prophetic manifesto of GoCong, which proclaimed a fight to the death, we see that our reading of it can easily explain this failure. Not only did resistance stop at a given moment, the people letting go of the sticks which should have driven the invader out, but the colonization profoundly altered both the landscape and, especially in the South, the society. This "liberation of productive forces" broke the traditional model, rendered it inoperative, and, selectively idealized, set it in the past. This rupture-- occurring during the first three decades of the present century, which, we might note, were also the decades in which the apotheosis of the colonial system was marching with great strides toward its Tarpeian Rock-- broke the image that the Vietnamese had developed of themselves. And while their image had to be rebuilt out of this debris, it would be done according to a new, imported logic, that of the modern nation. Like any "Poland," it would never stop subjecting itself to foreign invasions in order to free itself of them, but would constantly submit to others and reject them anew, as if a trans-historical and immutable identity, "Vietnamity," had remained hermetically sealed within itself, under the sign of the phoenix, always to return to its true being. Modern nationalisms are adept at creating these immutable histories. At the same time that this mythical core arose, becoming the common ground for intense trajectories, the remainder of the ancient tableau had to be repressed. Under these conditions, is it surprising to see among these hardy peasants-turned-revolutionaries-- fighting cadres, technicians of agitation-- the resurfacing of this Confucian conservatism which permeated village culture and which, after being ignored and repressed, has reemerged in the spirit and methods of the Communist cadres of today?

It is impossible here, in a few pages, to describe Vietnamese culture in a way that would allow us to discern the identity which is at its core. Once again, we return to the writings of Paul Mus, to the thesis of Dinh, and, especially, to the still unedited text of Neil Jamieson. The latter provides an interpretive framework, beginning with a subtle discussion of the concepts of yang and of yin which is extremely stimulating. He also very accurately pinpoints the cultural break, at least where it can most easily be seen, that is, in the literary movement.

On March 10,1932, there appeared in Saigon, in a weekly publication, a poem entitled Tinh Gia ("Ancient Love"), written by a most esteemed poet and essayist, Phan Khoi. Breaking with the thousand-year-old forms of classical poetry, he created a new mode of expression in which new sentiments could be expressed. To be brief, we can label this individualism. This point of departure for a "new poetry" in Vietnamese marks the tilting toward a new world, one which had asserted itself for a long time, but which only now, after a half-century of tension, succeeded in bringing to light the ancient principle of identity.

The movement gathered strength, several months later, with the transformation of a review, Phong hoa (Customs), under the direction of Nguyên Tuong Tam. Here is Jamieson's description:

"From the first issue published under his direction, Tam launched a powerful attack against the very fundamentals of Vietnamese society.... Tam tried to demonstrate that the traditional culture was so narrow, rigid, and outmoded that it had to be abandoned. He believed that national independence, prosperity, and the happiness of the individual had been rendered impossible by an overly sentimental attachment to outdated traditional values. According to him, this cultural conservatism was the greatest weakness of the Vietnamese people. He wanted to use his review to destroy the lure of the tradition and to create a new system of values, a new literature, a new society, a new way of life" (Jamieson 1981, 13). "Each side," wrote Tam in October 1932, "has its good and bad aspects, and one still doesn't know where morality is to be found. But when we take the ancient civilization and put it into practice before our very eyes, the result does not satisfy us. We can only continue to pin our hopes on Western civilization. Where it is leading us, we don't know. But it is our destiny to journey into the unknown, to continue to change and to progress" (cited in Jamieson 1981,14). To the indignant protests which everywhere arose, Tam responded abruptly: "The conservatives don't understand that one must destroy if one wishes to build. And these people, even if they had lived in the great era of the Yao or the Sung, would still have ended up lamenting the 'decline of customs,' and wanting to return to an even earlier era, to the time of caves and of raw meat" (ibid., 15).

Phenomena of this kind, with every conceivable variation and difference in point of view, occurred throughout all the states of this region. We are not speaking here of nationalisms which affected regions such as Malaysia or Indonesia where there had never been any political unity before colonization. The two most interesting cases to observe are Thailand, which was able to protect itself from direct colonization, but not from the impact of the West; and Cambodia, where the development was both slower and later.

Rupture was inevitable. The "anciens regimes"-- to use the conventional term-- are not what we call today, also by convention, nations. The term itself underwent a change, recovering its Latin and medieval origins (sometimes "tribe," sometimes "civilization"; of the nations which amalgamated the students of the Sorbonne in the Middle Ages were France, Normandy, Picardy, and Germany). This rupture between the Old (regime) and the New (the "national" order born in the West) can take on the most varied forms. In Thailand, as in Japan though in a different way, the rupture was progressive, and developed principally at the instigation of a part of the small ruling class. The name most often associated with the emergence of the modern state is King Chulangkorn (1868-lglo), because of the reforms which he introduced in the role and functioning of the administration. Ground had been broken by his predecessor, King Mongkut, who had initiated an important religious reform. The social ramifications of these alterations in the role of the state were to make themselves felt in 1932-- an interesting coincidence-- with a coup d'etat which relegated the monarchy, henceforth constitutional, to the background, a symbolic token of the political administration. This "revolution" marked the arrival on the scene of the power of a new generation-- a new social class, with a new political and cultural attitude. For the first time the sounds of a new language were heard, that, precisely, of national identity; for the first time a new principle outstripped in the hierarchy of values the two cardinal orders of monarchy and Buddhism. This is the concept of the Nation, to which henceforth these two principles were to be subordinated. The rupture had occurred. The content of this new idea which was being promulgated could remain vague and diffuse, and it was still limited to restricted circles. The significant fact was that the political goal had changed. It was no longer a question of striving for universal sovereignty, of the realization of dharma. The monarchy, its rituals and its charisma, were now to constitute one instrument, among others, for proceeding toward the new goal of national integration.

The process was still underway. National integration worked poorly in the north, where it was up against the montagnards, or in the south, where accommodation with Islam remained rather ticklish. But it operated well in the Khmer-speaking provinces of the southeast where assimilation to Thai identity had recently begun and was progressing very rapidly. There, as elsewhere, national feeling, linked in its origin to the interests of a small commercial and administrative class that succeeded in bridling the aristocracy, spread out from the top toward the bottom of society, through indoctrination and recruitment among the younger age groups, who had nothing to gain from the older totalitarianisms. During these same years there emerged in Burma the Thakin group, which forged a comprehensive conception of the Burmese nation, a reform movement and a struggle for national independence, as well as a socialist ideology which incorporated the essential elements of Buddhist thought. It was certainly the most ambitious of the movements of synthesis and renewal of the traditional framework-- perhaps made easier by the abolition of the monarchy in the nineteenth century-- but the fascinating originality of the Burmese experience remains little known on the outside. Perhaps better adapted than others to its local context, it did not spread beyond its natural environment.

The thirties also brought nationalist seething to Cambodia, centering around Son Ngoc Thanh, his journal "Our City," and the Buddhist priests and other satellites of the Buddhist Institute of Phnom Penh. But, essentially because of Cambodia's peripheral character in relation to the great economic channels and hence with the central currents of colonization, things moved more slowly in Cambodia and for a long time nationalism remained weak, fragmented, and poorly articulated. Only very slowly did nationalism penetrate an urban elite-- in large part Chinese and Vietnamese-- who could not make themselves understood in the rural countryside until the decade of the sixties, with the development of public education. (Elsewhere I have touched on the problem of the evolution of certain concepts, in particular that of revolution, where the environment is not very favorable to their growth.)

Briefly, one can say that what occurred in 1932 in Siam and Cochin China happened again in the old srok khmer in 1970. The overthrow of the monarchy was accompanied by an explosion of speeches-- republican, Jacobin, nationalistic, and xenophobic-- which tried to project the image of a strong and united State, the victorious expression of a nation rudely awakened, standing upright and facing the future. It was a comedy which was played out in Phnom Penh by the bourgeoisie, the minor civil servants, and school youths; it caught on very well in the cities, but fell flat throughout most of the countryside. The peasantry, hardly troubled by a modernization which as yet had scarcely touched them, chose to follow Sihanouk, whose rhetoric was at least as nationalistic, but was, in essence, royalist. Being counts more than saying in a village world where it is being that gives authority to saying and where saying is not the cause of being, as it is in modern politics.

We know that the huts where such simple calculations were weighed were soon to ignite under the explosion of iron and of fire, launched from the sky via that extraordinary modernizing agent, the USAF (United States Air Force). We also know that the struggle ended for lack of combatants, and that a handful of ultranationalist ideologues, extreme Stalinists, became the masters of the countryside. They were bearers of an interesting ambiguity: they proclaimed that the fixed aim for all was the (re)construction of the nation, that it was necessary to ensure its grandeur and its power. At the same time, in practice they believed that they need not abide by the forms which were customary in their ordinary political and social life, since they were treating the entire population as if, in varying degrees, it was part of the Communist Party. The population must comply with its ethics and its demands and be punished in case of failure, as if it had already joined the Communist avant-garde. The nation was, therefore, no longer the "classical" nation with its ecoomic diversity, its classes, its regions, and its cultural components. All marks of heterogeneity had to be abolished, and millions of people were relocated in an attempt to create a homogeneous mixture. The effect was atrocious and the penalty rapid: a profound and overwhelming discomfiture was to lead the Khmer Rouge to become what they had been before 1970-- small unsubdued bands roaming in a hostile forest.

Today Cambodia poses an extremely interesting case for specialists in political pathology, but one which they seem reluctant to examine closely. Here is an ancient country, heir to the oldest traditions in the area and possessor of Angkor, one of the wonders of the world, which finds itself doubly orphaned from what the modern world has everywhere imposed: a state and a nation. The state set up by the Vietnamese in 1979 has little substance, few resources, and its principles scarcely accord with reality. It is as if suspended above a country which it controls only from afar. In the villages, and on the outskirts of ancient urban centers, peasant society has reestablished itself unaided, retrieving its land and customs. Trade is conducted more or less freely across the Thai border, flooding the country under the passive eye of an impotent administration, which hardly commands the resources which would enable it to intervene. As for the nation, whose modern image had not yet reached the remote areas, it seems to be a theme and a form of discourse which are remarkably ineffective as an appeal to be invoked by all the political factions in the struggle. In 1979, when Vietnamese troops seized the country, the overwhelming majority of the populace accepted the foreigner with ease; a large number of those who then left belonged precisely to those strata of society which inclined toward the dominant bourgeoisie, and who did not feel they were in a position to regain their power. Their nationalism led them straight to the refugee camps, and from there to the great cities of the West, where they could at least attain their dream of rising in the social scale, at the price of abandoning their political ambitions.

It is not the natural exercise of good sense that was at work here. It is the fact that nationalism, when it is the ideology of the propertied or ruling class, is used only to justify their own ambitions. This is quite different from the situation prevailing among Cambodian farmers, who are more preoccupied with local conditions, and for whom Khmer identity is not an object of grievous concern, as it is for the intelligentsia and the petty urban bourgeoisie, who are always ready to protest the disappearance of the Khmer race. The concept of nation has not been developed to the point where it can be disengaged from the traditional images and concepts which center around the strok and the sang of the Khmers. For the peasant, these things, which signify membership are self-evident, and since they are lived there is no need to turn them into words. There is, moreover, a more general statement to be made here: the appearance of Tradition, of identity, of culture in a discourse which questions their foundations or their future, can only take place among people for whom such things are dead. Negritude can only be the concern of "white" blacks. It is more than a little paradoxical to hear the complaints-- precisely on the part of those who have chosen Westernization above all else-- about the dangers weighing on the future of Cambodia and on the Khmer civilization or "race." The villagers whom I have seen are more concerned about the coming of the rains. Myself included.

When, in the 1930S, the dam broke in the small Indochinese colonial world, the breach grew rapidly. The war, the placing of the French administration under Japanese guardianship, the Vichyist policy of mobilizing local youth, in a word, the acceleration of history, would widen the gap even further. The formidable intellectual resources of a people nourished in the space of a generation-- to a remarkable mastery of Western culture. By the tens of thousands, young Vietnamese would integrate themselves into a world which, compared with that of their fathers, must not have seemed particularly complicated, certainly without refinement. In the Iycee in France, in the 1950S, we all encountered Vietnamese among our fellow-students; they were cheerful young men, invariably brilliant.

Throughout the country, conservatism quickly surrendered. Westernization invaded the public world-- street, dress, all outward appearances-- but it stopped at the threshold of the home. There the Vietnamese family dwelled, like the dragon watchman, and the altar of the ancestors remained its center. The front of the house, facing on the street, was reserved for show, for the master of the house who, in the midst of his traditional furniture, received his visitors. The rear of the house remained the domain of the women, children, and servants-- a sort of effervescent gynaeceum, full of comings and goings, of murmurings, of small conspiracies. It is here that the real affairs of the family are transacted-- the family finances, the marriages, the economic and political arrangements. In appearance the men do everything, but in reality the women have decided everything. It is a world where a man is nothing and has nothing if he does not have a wife or a mother who will obtain everything for him from the wife or from the mother of some influential person, and who owes his own influence to the activity of the women in his household. Westernization stopped there. Sometimes it penetrated the front of the house: the old furniture was replaced by modern hardware, the wife sometimes appearing there to greet people. But these are insignificant details; the distribution remained the same.

The American war was to shake up the entire edifice and wreak havoc even here: sons, brothers, and sometime fathers, left for war, and were killed or injured; the daughters, working in the peripheral economy of the American bases, earned more than their fathers.

Amidst these crises, these dissolutions, the reaction was to recreate what remained of the family, exactly as it had been before. Ruined, murdered, corrupted, the families at each catastrophe-- and what family did not experience them?-- tried to reconstitute themselves as if nothing had happened, because the family represented the sole haven, the only security in this insane upheaval.

And then the war ended. It was time. Millions of individuals were stranded, uprooted from the benevolent family hearth. The cessation of combat also meant, from the very first days, the reunion of families. Brothers, cousins, who had not seen each other in thirty years because they had chosen opposing camps (most often with the general agreement of the family, anxious to diversify its loyalties) knew what they had to do-- first find each other again.

While the family remained a protective harbor, it was nevertheless immersed, sometimes submerged, in an intensely modern life. After having hesitated during the two generations which followed the conquest, the Vietnamese choice was complete and determined, especially in the great South. Peasant conservatism still existed, but often only as a calculated precaution in the face of innovation. In this delta, recently won over to agriculture, covered by great landed estates, the roots of the peasantry were superficial, compared with the thousand-year-old history of the villages of Tonkin. The center, poorer, confined in its narrow plains, was more conservative; since it was nearer to Huê and the mana of royalty, this too was economically rational. It is the South, young like the United States (when compared with Tonkin, which is old like France) which had to lead in modernization, above all the newly rich, who had been direct collaborators in the colonial enterprise. The American war was to furnish new and extraordinary means for gaining entry into a world whose model then was-- and quite logically-- Japan, example of an Americanized Asia, rather than old Europe. The yearning for this way of life was, quite clearly, great and profound; it touched the masses of people whose economic situation made such a fate most unlikely. The same thing also occurred in Cambodia. A sort of frenzy took hold of the townspeople, who waited for American gold just as some Melanesian peoples had awaited the arrival of cargo. I would, moreover, be tempted to extend the parallel somewhat further, because it was not simply a question of waiting: in both cases there was a misreading or misunderstanding regarding the mechanisms of production and the eventual place that these people could obtain in their midst. Western wealth presented itself as something to be captured by whatever means. It is an illusion that still exists, even today, in the China Seas.

The bias in this view of the West and of its potential, merits examination: in this respect Communist politics also appears, in effect, as a type of Westernization. The Communist reverence for "progressive" customs, has never created any illusions. It articulates a program which will cast aside the local bases in an attempt to transform society completely, since its intent is to establish a new economic base from which the rest must, objectively, follow. This productive aspect dominated their perspective, giving it locally a bias which was apparently the exact opposite of that imposed under the umbrella of the American war, which was essentially consumptive. It was in this interspace that a large part of the bourgeoisie chose to set itself up in April 1975, with the fall of Saigon. From a national perspective, on the verge of civil peace the priorities of the day were economic and social reconstruction. As for politics, it was conceded that that would be the prerogative of the conquerors, who had earned it, precisely by their national worth. One waited for them to harness the energies which would inevitably arise in order to heal the wounds and rebuild the country, with or without the money promised by the Americans. The redeployment of productive capacity was quite logical, and many people accustomed to the excessive consumption were ready, without doubt, to rally to this point of view which promised, ultimately, the coming of comfort and modernity, established on much saner foundations. Elsewhere, perhaps, one could chronicle in detail the failure which followed. For many reasons, which must include the politics of the new leaders, they were unable to reestablish an industry which would justify this choice. Once this situation became clear, the exodus began. The people who left, and who are still leaving, belong to varied social groups, and the individuals who are willing to take the risk of leaving the country do not all do it-- far from it-- to meet up with a fortune awaiting them abroad. But they all carry with them one conviction: the absence of a future. Whether the incompetence of the regime clearly demonstrated this, or because their social background condemned them to remain forever marginal, they were convinced that they would never regain, or acquire, the Westernization that they knew or dreamed about.

But even for those who remained, the demon of this murky modernity has not been exorcised. Once again it ran through the organism of the Communist state and entered sectors which had up until then seemed immune. Years after the departure of the Americans, Saigon continued to pour out a staggering quantity of "consumer goods" and to secrete parallel economies that ensnare a good number of the inflexible civil servants that the North has dispatched there since 1975. The abundance-- infinitely fragmented, finely sliced-- showed that the present regime was in no position to really bring about fullscale modernity. It is perhaps here that the break between (nationalist) communists and (nationalist) bourgeoisie which had divided Vietnamese society for fifty years, was reactivated.

The political stakes were clearly drawn: there were those who wanted abundance against those who wanted order. These are two versions, two sides of Westernization, stemming from the relation between people who cannot communicate, have nothing more to say to each other, because their horizons do not converge.



"The Falkland Islands," wrote Jorge Luis Borges (Le Monde, 28 January 1983), "was a war between two bald men who fought over a comb." This brilliant summary aptly points up the stake which nationalist manipulation has in our world. Up to a point, it achieves a lasting change in feelings of identity and cultural and social adherence, which is indeed a matter of particular cases and circumstances. The real threat, which risks the almost complete erosion of these feelings and their reduction to a few folklore notations with no practical relevance, does not stem from this. One can always assume that at any given moment a certain number of people will be ready to fight for their country, but not all of the people all of the time. No, the prodigious capital of feelings, tastes, passions, and of awareness of choices, which have been accumulated over hundreds of generations by groups of humans who were separate and unique, but also who were changing and exchanging, is today in the hands of a strange involuntary coalition. I cannot examine it in detail here but it can be called cultural industry. Nor does it help to harp on the old theme of the inevitably poor quality of these products. Does one really believe that traditional cultures created products of good quality only? Read the Rayamana-- it is a typical potboiler of the Fantomas genre.

What sets in is consumption. It will be easier to understand what I mean if one bears in mind that the world of industrialized consumption, which has only been established for about a generation at the mass level in Western societies, has created, practically speaking, no needs. Before, as after, this eruption, the individual had to be sheltered, to eat, to make "pipi-caca," to move about, and so on. It is in the manner of doing these things, in the ways and means of gratifying these needs and of access to them, that everything has altered. The idea that this new society creates new needs does not bear up under examination: all it does is to manipulate desires issuing from a common origin, to arrange them according to what is momentarily available in the marketplace. In the past, people were nourished on numerous vegetables, each available in its season. Today we derive nourishment from a few vegetables which are available in all seasons. The nutritive result is undeniably the same and has the advantage in terms of absolute quantity. The same holds true for the nutritive needs of the soul-- culture, emotions, everything that an atrocious psychology labels as affects. My comparison with vegetables remains pertinent: before society was based on consumption it would seem that there were fewer choices, and therefore less freedom. In reality, however, there was more, since there was a greater diversity of seasonal products on the market with a great variety of natural flavors. There was also regional diversity; from one district to another, the configuration was different. We might add that the mode of production also provided a thousand ways of acquiring these products, either at no cost or at prices based on personal human relationships. In the world of consumption, these singularities have disappeared-- flavors are constant and predictable, regional disparities have been eliminated. The use of money as a medium, made ever more generic and universal by banking practice, reduces the possibilities for personal access to goods to practices of theft and misappropriation. It seems to me entirely legitimate to transpose these data, which are concerned with the satisfaction of the stomach, to those of the spirit, since the processes of manufacture obey the same principles of organization, distribution, profitability, and therefore consumption.

Gradually, through the worldwide expansion of markets (observable and observed for a century and a half), in a process which still is very far from having reached its limits, the masses of humanity have, little by little, become incorporated into it. There is, however, a time lag of roughly one or two generations between their induction into the circuit of industralized production and their capacity to consume the goods they manufacture. This has been seen in the West, but nowhere more strikingly than in Japan today. Economists will tell you that, contrary to widespread opinion, Japan exports no more than any European country, indeed, less than many, because of the great increase in its internal market. But it is imperative to add, as one observes with amazement the truly frenzied consumerism of the Japanese, that this is a recent development, of little more than a decade. In this short time it has transformed Japanese society from top to bottom, not so much because it has changed the material structure, but because it has suppressed their traditional identity and experience. Time, time to be, no longer exists; it has been worn away by work, ground down by the thousand demands of consumption. All that made Japan, Japan, is still there, within reach, but no longer is there contact with it, because the drift toward the separate life, forced by new constraints rather than by new needs, renders it inaccessible.

The Japanese are obviously still Japanese, but they no longer have the time to be so. The real novelty is the young generation, whose first steps took place in this new atmosphere and who are not yet twenty years old. This generation has never known Japan-- it has had none of the experiences that go into making up the Japanese identity. On the contrary, it has been built around those elements of the industrialized culture which are available on a market which is no longer Japanese, but worldwide; which seems-- I say seems-- American. The mecca of the young Japanese is now New York. Japan, like Auvergne, is finished. What remains is folklore, fit for wedding-breakfasts, and very importantly, the language. It is language, I am convinced, which will be the last element of the traditional substance to drift away.

The capacity of modern capitalism to penetrate the entire planet-- its mountains and its beaches, its men and its women-- can, of course, be questioned. There are so many marginal areas which have nothing that warrants serious exploitation, that one can doubt that there ever will be any interest in them. That is another debate. But if already we must think that the richness and variety of humanity is destined to survive only in these interstitial niches, then we can indeed pass judgment on our present world, which for the price of one sanitized and disposable way of thinking, suppresses thousands that burst forth spontaneously out of a past which created us too, but which no longer does.




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