The ideology of Confucianism is covered in more detail elsewhere
in this section, but a brief summary of its main features
will help to place it in an historical context. Confucius,
an official in the court of the Emperor of China, was active
around 500 BC, a time of great social turmoil in China.
To help people to live harmoniously, he developed a set
of precepts based upon formalised bonds of obedience – specific
obligations to family, society and the state.
Confucianism and Taoism
In its original form, Confucianism promoted a meritocratic
society embodying high ideals of personal behaviour and
loyalty. During the period when Vietnam was under Chinese
rule in the first century AD, Confucianism became interwoven
with Taoism. Taoism brought the notion of Yin and Yang –
the harmonious balance of conflicting elements, and with
it, a complex range of rituals and beliefs including mysticism,
magic, geomancy and fortune telling. The result was a highly
stratified society, somewhat similar to European feudalism
without the hereditary element. The Confucian/Taoist hybrid
fitted the Vietnamese family-based clan structure and still
dominates rural Vietnam today.
The common good – a guiding principle
Throughout the first and second millennia, a succession
of kings and emperors drew upon the conformity, selflessness,
obedience and duty of Confucianism to consolidate their
control over the Vietnamese people and maintain a powerful
centralised administration under an elite class of non-hereditary
mandarins and a ruler empowered by the 'Mandate of Heaven'.
The fundamental Confucian principle of placing the common
good above personal interest served Vietnam well during
times of conflict, particularly during the 20th century.
Confucianism as a catalyst
Although the inherent conservatism of Confucianism was an
obstacle to the communist radicals attempting to politicise
the Vietnamese people, its philosophy harmonised with creating
a classless socialist society based upon a centralised administration.
Communism spread through northern Vietnam almost as a matter
of course, by-passing the intense dialectic of left-wing
movements in other countries. In the south, the communist
movement was less successful because of its substantial
War, loyalty and selflessness
Perhaps the greatest impact of Confucianism was felt in
the years before and after World War II in the conflict
with the French, and later with the Americans and their
successive defeat of both France and America, the first
a major colonial power and the second one of the world’s
superpowers, by a far weaker, militarily inferior, undeveloped
nation is still difficult for foreigners to comprehend.
Though outnumbering the colonialists and the US forces,
the weaponry and military infrastructure of the Viet Minh,
and later the Viet Cong, was laughably primitive in comparison
with that of their enemies.
About a million Vietnamese combatants and
two million civilians died during those years, a colossal
figure in comparison with the 58,000 American casualties.
Many people from developed countries, particularly those
with a Judeo-Christian tradition, doubt that apparent self-sacrifice
on such a scale could ever be willing, and suspect that
the people were either coerced, or caught up in an extreme
form of nationalism. Neither is true. The unswerving loyalty
and selflessness of Confucianism, together with the practice
of ancestor worship, was the major factor in the outcome
of both conflicts.
For the love of family
For people from the west, it is considered noble to die
for the love of country or to prevent harm coming to a member
of one’s family. For our people, the Confucian tradition
and the practice of ancestor worship extends the family
bond to include the entire nation, and to die to protect
that family is to die with honour. When Ho Chi Minh told
the French that even if they killed ten Viet Minh for each
French soldier he would still win, he was simply echoing
the sentiments of the nation!