Between Sacrifice and Desire: National Identity and the Governing of Femininity in Vietnam 0415944317, 9780415944311

This title explores the role of women in the politics of national identity in Vietnam. Drawing on extensive and diverse

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Between Sacrifice and Desire: National Identity and the Governing of Femininity in Vietnam 
 0415944317, 9780415944311

Table of contents :
Book Cover......Page 1
Title......Page 4
Copyright......Page 5
Dedication......Page 6
Contents......Page 7
Acknowledgments......Page 8
Introduction......Page 12
Patriarchy and the Socialist State......Page 18
National Hegemony and Gender Identity......Page 22
The Evolution of the Vietnamese Press......Page 25
Media Reception, Party Politics and Ethnographic Challenges......Page 27
Part One Media and Governmentality......Page 34
1 Defining the “New Vietnamese Woman”......Page 36
2 Building Civility through Happy Families......Page 90
3 Governmental Entertainment......Page 120
Part Two Mediated Subjects and Identity Struggle......Page 150
Preface to Part Two......Page 152
4 On the Uncivil Margins......Page 154
5 Market Morality......Page 188
Conclusion......Page 220
Notes......Page 226
References and Bibliography......Page 242
Index......Page 250

Citation preview


Edited By Edward Beauchamp University of Hawaii



EAST ASIA HISTORY, POLITICS, SOCIOLOGY, CULTURE EDWARD BEAUCHAMP, General Editor ENGINEERING THE STATEThe THIRD DELIGHTThe Huai River and Reconstruction in Internationalization of Higher Education Nationalist China, 1927–1937David in ChinaRui Yang A.Pietz RETHINKING JAPAN’S IDENTITY JAPANESE DIRECT INVESTMENT AND INTERNATIONAL ROLEAn IN CHINA Locational Determinants Intercultural PerspectiveSusanne Klein andCharacteristicsJohn F.Cassidy VILLAGE, MARKET AND WELLSH K -KENA Late Medieval Daime BEING IN A RURAL CHINESE Sukiya Style Japanese Tea-houseRobin TOWNSHIPTamara Perkins Noel Walker STATUS POWERJapanese Foreign FROM TRANSITION TO POWER Policy Making toward KoreaIsa Ducke ALTERNATIONDemocracy in South WORDS KILLDestruction of “Class Korea, 1987–1997Carl J.Saxer Enemies” in China, 1949–1953ChengHISTORY OF JAPANESE POLICIES Chih Wang IN EDUCATION AID TO THE TRIFURCATING DEVELOPING COUNTRIES, MIRACLECorporations, Workers, 1950s–1990sThe Role of the Sub Bureaucrats, and the Erosion of Japan’s governmental ProcessesTakao Kamibeppu National EconomySatoshi Ikeda A POLITICAL ECONOMY STATE FORMATION, PROPERTY ANALYSIS OF CHINA’S CIVIL RELATIONS, AND THE AVIATION INDUSTRYMark Dougan DEVELOPMENT OF THE THE BIBLE AND THE TOKUGAWA ECONOMY (1600– GUNChristianity in South China, 1860– 1868)Grace H.Kwon 1900Joseph Tse-Hei Lee OPENING THE DOORImmigration, Ethnicity, and Globalization in JapanBetsy Brody THE POLITICS OF LOCALITYMaking a Nation of Communities in TaiwanHsin-Yi Lu JAPAN’S FOREIGN POLICY MATURATIONA Quest for NormalcyKevin J.Cooney

BETWEEN SACRIFICE AND DESIRE National Identity and the Governing of Femininity in Vietnam

Ashley Pettus

Routledge New York & London

Published in 2003 by Routledge 29 West 35th Street New York, NY 10001 Published in Great Britain by Routledge 11 New Fetter Lane London EC4P 4EE Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group. This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005. “To purchase your own copy of this or any of Taylor & Francis or Routledge’s collection of thousands of eBooks please go to” Copyright © 2003 by Taylor & Francis Books, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Pettus, Ashley. Between sacrifice and desire: national identity and the governing of femininity in Vietnam/by Ashley Pettus. p. cm.—(East Asia: history, politics, sociology, culture) Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-415-94431-7 (Print Edition) 1. Women—Vietnam—Conduct of life. 2. Femininity—Vietnam. 3. Women— Vietnam—Social conditions. I. Title. II. East Asia (New York, N.Y.) HQ1750.5 .P43 2003 305.42′09–dc21 2002036623 ISBN 0-203-49130-0 Master e-book ISBN

ISBN 0-203-57639-X (Adobe eReader Format)

For Charlie






Introduction Nationalism, Women and Modernity in Vietnam PART ONE: MEDIA AND GOVERNMENTALITY




Defining the “New Vietnamese Woman”: National Femininity and the Struggle for Socialist Modernity



Building Civility through Happy Families: The Women’s Union in a New Era



Governmental Entertainment: The Popular Press and the Policing of Femininity




Preface to Part Two



On the Uncivil Margins: Feminine Tradition and Economic Aspiration in Phuong Lien



Market Morality: Negotiating Merchant Identities in Hoan Kiem











I WOULD LIKE TO EXPRESS MY THANKS TO THE SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH Council for generously funding my research. I am also grateful to the University of California for awarding me a Berkeley Fellowship, which funded my three years of course work in the Department of Anthropology. At Berkeley, I would like to express my gratitude to the members of my dissertation committee—Professor Aihwa Ong, Professor Paul Rabinow, and Professor Frederick Wakeman—for their time and attention. I am particularly grateful to Professor Aihwa Ong for her extensive comments, advice and moral support during the writing process. In Vietnam, I wish to thank Professor Phan Huy Le and the Center for Cooperation in Vietnamese Studies for their sponsorship and assistance. I am also indebted to the leadership of the Hanoi Women’s Union and, in particular, to Mrs. To Thi Phuc, for allowing me to observe Union programs and for facilitating my interviews with Hanoi women. In addition, I am very grateful to the women of Phuong Lien precinct and to the fabric sellers of Hang Da market, who took time to share their thoughts, feelings and stories with me. Finally, I am enormously thankful for the love, support and understanding of my family. Without them I could not have persevered.

List of Abbreviations


Hoi Lien Hiep Phu Nu Viet Nam—The Vietnam Women’s Union Hoi Lien Hiep Pbuu Nu Ha Noi—The Hanoi Women’s Union Phu Nu Tbu Do—Woman of the Capital (Newspaper) Phu Nu Viet Nam—Vietnamese Woman (Newspaper) Van Nghe—Literature and Arts (Newspaper)



Introduction Nationalism, Women, and Modernity in Vietnam

IN THE EARLY SPRING OF 1995, THE ARMY MUSEUM IN HANOI FEATURED A special exhibit of “Heroic Mothers.” The show commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Armed Forces and was part of a year long, much publicized campaign to honor those women who had made “great sacrifices for the Fatherland.” Inside the glass cases, the aged faces of Vietnamese women stared out at the viewer. Some photographs showed stooped women, with blank or disoriented expressions, being escorted on to the awards podium by smiling officials in military uniform. A typical caption read “Mrs. Nguyen Le Thi from Bac Thai province lost her husband, one brother, and three sons in the French and American wars.” Alongside the photographs were small pieces of the women’s clothing and the everyday tools they’d used during wartime: a stained blouse, a tattered wash rag, a mortar and pestle. The objects attested to the women’s humble backgrounds and to the hardships they’d endured waiting for their men who never returned. Captured behind glass, these items served to fossilize their owners as living relics of a lost age—a time when the weakest were willing to give the most, when the cause of the nation came before personal and family concerns. The Army museum exhibit marked an important moment in the cultural politics of market transition in Vietnam. In the mid-1990s, Vietnamese society was caught up in a fevered race from the past. Market reforms, begun in the late 1980s and referred to as doi moi or “renovation,” had unleashed the energies and aspirations of a population long stifled by the deprivations of war and socialist economics. In Hanoi, new money transformed neighborhoods seemingly overnight. Families used their recent earnings from private enterprises, land-use sales, or a child working abroad, to replace tin-roofed shacks and backyard chicken coops with tall, pastel-colored, concrete “villas.” A new class of urban consumers drove Honda motorbikes and filled their houses with large screen TVs and Japanese sound systems. Well-groomed businesswomen, in high heels and fashionable jeans, sold imported goods from an endless procession of storefronts and market stalls throughout the city. Foreign investors built gleaming


business hotels beside stark soviet-style apartment complexes, and the first toll highway appeared, cutting through suburban rice paddies, speeding visitors to and from the airport. The rapid pace of economic growth in the early 1990s brought new moral and social problems. By 1995, average per capita income in the countryside was less than one quarter of that in urban areas (roughly $610 in Hanoi and $800 in Ho Chi Minh City)—a disparity that challenged the ideological premise of the ruling communist Party. Rural migrants fled overcrowded land plots in search of day work in the cities. “Social evils,” such as prostitution, gambling and drug addiction, were on the rise. Corruption was rampant, and “foreign cultural influences” were blamed for polluting the values of the post-war generation. Amidst the economic and social upheaval of the new market era, the “Heroic Mothers” tribute stood as a stark reminder of a past generation’s selflessness and simplicity. The local and national press hailed the tribute as a welcome—if long overdue—acknowledgement of the extraordinary suffering endured by ordinary Vietnamese women in both the French and American wars. A museum official, who escorted me through the exhibit, explained that these were “true Vietnamese women,” mothers who “sacrificed throughout their whole lives,” who “loved their children” and “gave everything for the nation.” A cadre from the Hanoi Women’s Union described the show as a “good education for young women today who know nothing of sacrifice.” Yet, while espousing the virtues of the Revolutionary generation, the exhibit clearly located its subject in an irretrievable past. Though still living, the war mothers had become museum pieces—objects of nostalgia and awe for a modernizing nation increasingly estranged from its own history. Their lives of poverty and loss testified to how far Vietnam had come in a few decades. They were no longer models to be emulated, but vehicles for engaging in a properly modern appreciation of national tradition. The “Heroic Mothers” exhibit offered insight into a complex process of postwar national soul-searching that linked conflicting definitions of Vietnamese femininity to the economic goals and cultural dilemmas of market modernization. Throughout the 1990s, Vietnam’s communist-led government sought to associate the new requirements for economic development with a strengthening of national traditions. Educational campaigns explicitly tied the criteria for building productive middle-class households, to the reinforcement of Vietnamese family values and women’s traditional domestic talents. While canonizing an earlier patriotic code of heroic female selflessness—in which mothers “sacrificed” children and young girls forfeited marriage prospects for the greater good of the nation—the state simultaneously encouraged women to commit themselves single-mindedly to the betterment of their households. On neighborhood loudspeakers, in community meetings and at state cultural celebrations, government officials called on women to fulfill their national


responsibility as mothers and wives by improving their knowledge of hygiene, birth control, child nutrition, proper parenting and home economics. At the same time, the Vietnamese print media employed popular forms of entertainment to emphasize women’s role in the defense of national character and traditions. State-owned newspapers and magazines, energized by a liberalized market, published glossy advertisements for foreign consumer products alongside harrowing tales of domestic crisis. The stories—both real and fictional—detailed the fates of those who put money and self-interest before family duty, who “aped the West” and forgot the meaning of filial piety. Most targeted women as the primary offenders: mothers who neglected their children, wives who looked down on their husbands, daughters who disrespected their in-laws. By juxtaposing moralistic critique and economic enticement, the press conveyed a host of competing injunctions to middle-class female readers: enrich your family, but avoid excessive ambition; modernize your appearance, but remain modest; put your domestic duties first, but continue to advance your “scientific knowledge.” The media’s scrutiny of female choices, attitudes and conduct communicated the tenuous divide between national development and cultural degradation and defined the moral angst of a nation caught on the edge of capitalist transformation. This book examines the cultural contradictions of Vietnam’s transition from a socialist to a market economy through the lens of nationalist discourses on femininity. Across the Cold War world, socialism’s demise as an ideological and economic system has transformed the terms and priorities of nationalism. In the former Soviet Union and parts of Eastern Europe, crumbling nation-states and resurgent ethnic and religious rivalries have fueled a new wave of national struggles, linking political and cultural self-determination to the development of free market societies. In Vietnam and China, by contrast, the new objectives of nationalism have focused on the containment of economic reform within existing, communist-led political systems. Here, the deeply entrenched partystates have replaced the goals of anti-imperialist class struggle with those of national prosperity and cultural strengthening in an effort to promote and control the process of economic growth. While the horrific costs of ethnonational conflicts in Eastern Europe and elsewhere have been among the darkest features of the ‘new global order,’ the human consequences of the more peaceful, yet politically repressive nationalisms of Asia have been far more difficult to surmise. How, for instance, do the surviving communist states use narratives of the nation to mitigate the contradictions between an old form of government and a new form of economy in the transition from socialism to capitalism? Which social groups and human qualities are prized and which are denigrated in the promotion of a national community based on cultural tradition, economic growth and political continuity?


In Vietnam, the answers to these questions reside in the particular uses and abuses of the Vietnamese woman as a repository for the perceived losses and a vehicle for the cultural aspirations of national modernity. The dramatic reorientation of society from the collective realities of war and socialist production to the priorities of household enrichment and economic competition has involved multiple forms of national cultural invention that rely on different definitions of Vietnamese femininity. On the one hand, the Vietnamese state— through its cadre of culture managers—has worked to promote a politically compliant and economically productive middle class through the disciplining of women as agents of family management and moral education. The ‘enlightened’ Vietnamese housewife combines modern domestic know-how with traditional feminine virtue. She must ready her household to meet the criteria for national development, as she protects the respectability and integrity of the Vietnamese family from the market’s corrupting influences. On the other hand, tabloid and news journalists, along with fiction writers and cultural commentators, have employed the Vietnamese woman as a key allegorical tool for reflecting on and critiquing the human costs of market transition. Many of these media voices have mined a mythologized past for national values that can transcend the cultural distortions of the socialist years and, at the same time, provide a moral counter to the materialism of the new capitalist era. They have relied on opposing female types—the acquisitive urban daughter-in-law vs. the selfsacrificing peasant mother, the ambitious entrepreneurial wife vs. the simple country girl, or the ‘emancipated’ intellectual vs. the devoted housewife—to map the moral health of the nation, from its sacred and endangered sites to its points of decadence and decay. The broad societal preoccupation with the terms of femininity in Vietnam reflects a dramatic convergence of political and popular efforts to reformulate the national idea in the chaotic aftermath of war and failed socialist planning. Women, as both symbols and disciplined national subjects, have provided the cultural terrain on which the government and the wider public have sought to define what should constitute ‘our national traditions’ in the face of global capitalist integration. Which elements of pre-Revolutionary culture should be recuperated? Which aspects of the recent war-time and socialist past should be retained, canonized, or dis carded? The questions of female character, duty and behavior that have become central to the current dilemmas of national identity in Vietnam are rooted in earlier struggles for national independence and modernity, which established women’s deep cultural responsibility to uphold the shifting ideals of the nation.


NATIONAL FEMININITY IN THE QUEST FOR SOVEREIGN MODERNITY For centuries before Vietnam faced the challenge of the West, Vietnamese women provided a recurring point of distinction between indigenous Vietnamese customs and the Sino-Confucian state system. The Vietnamese people’s long history of anti-Chinese resistance produced a pantheon of feminine folk heroes whose military triumphs marked momentary assertions of ancient matriarchal Viet traditions against an ultimately dominant court-centered Confucian order. The most famous of these were the Trung sisters, who led a brief but spectacular rebellion against Chinese overlords in the first century A.D. and whose spirits became the object of popular cult worship in village temples and festivals throughout the country. The Vietnamese woman’s traditional dress—a brown silk gown worn over a long black silk skirt, with a green silk belt knotted around the waist—also served as a sign of ethno-national independence, surviving a thousand years of Chinese rule (from 207 B.C. to A.D. 939) and subsequent attempts by Chinese governors, and later Sinicized Vietnamese emperors to eradicate it. After Vietnam fell to the French in the mid-nineteenth century, the Vietnamese woman emerged as a complex symbol of the country’s cultural and political predicament. Vietnamese intellectuals began to debate the status of woman as a way of addressing the virtues and failings of Confucian tradition, which was widely blamed for the nation’s passivity in the face of European aggression. Questions of women’s education, domestic position, dress, economic and leisure activities provided Vietnamese nationalists of the 19-teens and 1920s with a safe forum for discussing the goals of cultural modernization and resistance under the watchful eyes of colonial censors. By the 1930s, however, the Vietnamsese women’s role as a vehicle for cultural deliberation began to give way to the political priorities of anti-imperialist class struggle and to a new, ultimately decisive articulation of the relationship between the national and feminine condition. The Indochinese Communist Party (“ICP”) recognized women as the most exploited members of an oppressed society, as the ‘slaves of slaves,’ and explicitly linked women’s emancipation to the Vietnamese people’s freedom from feudal and capitalist rule.1 In the decades that followed, Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary leadership relied on the Vietnamese woman to embody the values and aspirations of the new socialist society and to resolve the cultural quandary that lies at the heart of nearly all colonial and post-colonial nationalist struggles—namely, how to forge an authentic path to modernity that will ensure the nation’s equal and intrinsically sovereign status in the world. Observers of nationalist movements, in Asia and in the West, have widely recognized the importance of gender to the ways in which modern nations are


imagined and constructed. Examining the alliance between nationalism and notions of bourgeois respectability in 19th century Europe, for example, George Mosse (1985) describes the complementary ways in which symbols of masculinity and femininity served to define and defend Germany’s and England’s middle class ideals. While the “manly Englishman or German” displayed “freedom from sexual passion, the sublimation of sensuality into leadership of society and the nation” (13), he writes, woman was “the guardian of the continuity and immutability of the nation” (18). Mosse argues that woman’s idealization as the “custodian of national tradition,” detached from real world striving, contributed to her de-emancipation in the 19th century, as “she lost the small gains she had made during the Enlightenment” (99). Similar gender dichotomies have been found at the center of anti-colonial nationalisms. Partha Chaterjee (1993), who argues against seeing the national struggles of Asian and African peoples as derivative of Western modular forms, describes how Indian nationalists in the 19th century sought to secure a space of sovereignty and “difference” from the modern West by dividing the world into “material” and “spiritual” domains. Women were assigned to the spiritual realm where their family roles, codes of dress and customary practices— while subject to modernizing reform through “women’s education”—signified and protected the nation’s sacred ‘internal essence’ against the profane influence of the West. Through this dichotomous system, Chaterjee maintains, India’s men could pragmatically engage in the ‘external’ culture of the colonizer, selectively appropriating key “material techniques” of Western modernity, while women defended the terms of cultural authenticity. This new form of national patriarchy, Chaterjee observes, had detrimental consequences for women’s place in the nation. “By associating the task of female emancipation with the historical goal of sovereign nationhood, [the nationalists] bound [women] to a new and yet entirely legitimate subordination” (130). The Vietnamese case illustrates the value and the limitations of these arguments. The Indochinese Communist Party’s (ICP) ascendance within the anticolonial factions of the 1930s established a new alliance between the women’s movement and the nationalist cause. Vietnamese Marxists linked progressive change in women’s treatment and legal status (for instance, women’s right to vote, freedom of marriage and divorce, and equal pay for equal labor) to society’s liberation from a whole system of colonial and class oppression. Yet while party leaders subsumed the women’s cause within a larger popular struggle, they did not abandon the idea of a separate female morality. The communists were prepared to eradicate the harshest Confucian traditions (most notably, the “three submissions,” which mandated a woman’s obedience first to her father, then her husband, and finally her eldest son), but they sought to retain and rework milder patriarchal codes. They saw no contradiction in assigning


women’s inferior status to social forces, while, at the same time, exalting women’s ‘natural’ virtues of endurance, faithfulness, compassion and selfsacrifice as invaluable to the national cause.2 These feminine moral attributes allowed the revolutionary movement to ground its emancipatory promises in primordial sentiments and sacred traditions based on the patriotic struggle of oppressed and against oppressor, victim against persecutor, meek against powerful. The more the party praised the brave and selfless contributions of mothers, wives, and daughters to the national cause, the more the Vietnamese woman’s prescribed qualities took the form of a national obligation that would secure her subjugation in the new nation. Vietnamese women’s responsibility for the nation, however, was not confined to the ‘internal’ sphere of tradition. They also had to provide an image of national progress—in ideological as well as material terms. Vietnamese women provided Ho chi Minh’s government with powerful emancipatory subjects. As the weakest and most “backward” members of the feudal-capitalist order, they furnished the party with a set of negative cultural attributes—such as, “greed,” “superstition,” “ignorance” “pettiness” and a pecuniary (or “petty bourgeois”) nature—that could only be overcome through progressive education and re-socialization. During the Resistance War against the French, from 1945 to 1954, the Viet Minh targeted women in mass literacy campaigns that combined reading and writing skills with political indoctrination. The effort to “enlighten” women continued in the North after 1954, under the Ho Chi Minh government’s program of ideological reform. By transforming women from “backward” peasants, “dishonest” merchants, and “bourgeois” housewives into skilled socialist “workers,” the party sought to display Marxism’s triumph in Vietnamese society and the country’s transformation from a “feudal” agrarian order to a modern, industrializing nation. The socialist state’s cultural requirements imposed on Vietnamese women a complex double burden. Not only were women asked to defend the ever-shifting terms of Vietnamese tradition through their roles as mothers, wives and daughters; they also had to stand for modernizing progress. The nationalist quest for sovereign modernity in Vietnam involved the recruitment of women, not as a means of opposing the West, but rather as vehicle for overcoming Western modernity’s modern/ traditional divide. Patriarchy and the Socialist State Socialist states, despite their ideological commitments to “gender equality,” have tended to replace one form of patriarchy with another. In North Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s, the government took important steps toward improving women’s family status—first, by outlawing polygamy, child


marriage, and parental control of a child’s choice of marriage partner and, subsequently by introducing labor cooperatives, which enabled women to work outside the home for pay, reduced their dependence on parents and in-laws and improved their economic and social position relative to men. Yet, women’s participation in the new socialist society remained contingent on their service to the national cause. While the party promoted the “new Vietnamese woman’s” educational and professional advancement, it simultaneously sought to recast the Confucian terms of domestic femininity—the obligations of dutiful daughters, devoted wives and sacrificing mothers—as the cornerstone of a national socialist morality. The state needed new Vietnamese women to harmonize and domesticate the imported ideals of socialist egalitarianism and scientific progress. Thus, nurses were “heroic” for mothering the nation’s wounded, female engineers stood for “progress” as long as they served the masses, and female factory workers had “equality” as long as they maintained the proper “Vietnamese style.” Ideas about gender and the nation have intersected under socialist regimes in ways that have nearly always produced contradictory norms of feminine progress and domesticity. In Romania, for example, while the state brought women into the public workforce and radically reorganized family roles and structures, it nevertheless maintained an essential link between nationhood and motherhood. Katherine Verdery (1996) points out that despite claims about the “fetus as social property,” newspapers under Ceaucescu extolled “women’s noble mission as rearers of children and guardians of the nation’s future,” while the regime promoted large families as an expression of the “the most beautiful traditions of the Romanian people” (67–68). By contrast, in Maoist China, state promises of gender equality failed to alter significantly the traditional malecentered structures of family and village.3 At the same time, women were used in public discourse as potent signs of the nation’s political liberation. As Lisa Rofel (1994) notes, the party linked China’s subjugation to women’s historic oppression and thus sought to strengthen the nation by redefining national womanhood based on the politically inspired category of “work.” Only those activities associated with the new public space of the state were positively valued as “work,” while activities linked to the household were officially denigrated as “petit-bourgeois” labor or domestic enslavement.4 In socialist Vietnam, Revolutionary codes of national femininity began to fracture and blur as state priorities shifted from socialist construction and national defense in the 1950s and 1960s to national unification and fiscal recovery in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, the Vietnamese woman’s obligation to represent and reconcile the nation’s competing needs only intensified as Vietnam entered a postwar period of ideological uncertainty and economic collapse. For women this meant that while the state’s normative gender demands increased, women were


less able and in many cases less willing to meet them, thereby provoking increasingly repressive techniques of state control. The failures of these late socialist years—both in economic and cultural-political terms—informed the dramatic reorientation of economic policy and governmental tactics that began with the market reforms of the late 1980s. In a new era of market transition and global capitalist integration, the state turned to women in new ways to ensure the material and spiritual requirements of national modernity. WOMEN IN THE POLITICS OF MARKET TRANSITION At the Sixth Party Congress of 1986, the Vietnamese government agreed to abandon its centrally-planned economic model in favor of a system based upon voluntary exchanges between independent producers and consumers. The steps taken in the ensuing years largely dismantled the command structure of the socialist economy, by freeing agricultural cooperatives from state control, commercializing the state sector and granting legal status to private and family enterprise. As Soviet aid disappeared between 1988 and 1990, the Vietnamese government opened the door to direct foreign investment, initiating the country’s incorporation into the global economy. The market reforms, known as “doi moi” significantly increased the importance of the family to the wealth of the nation. In the countryside, local collectives—no longer subject to district level dictates—allocated land to individual farming families for private use. Farmers could now freely sell their product on the open market and trade across district and provincial borders. As market-driven, household-based production became the norm, agricultural output increased dramatically. By 1990, after years of reliance on rice imports, Vietnam became a major rice exporter. In cities and towns, the doi moi reforms greatly expanded the opportunities and incentives for households to increase their incomes through private enterprise. As state industries were forced to become market-sensitive and profit-oriented, they reduced their labor forces, usually laying-off women first. Many female workers and cadres turned to private selling in order to supplement their husbands’ diminishing state salaries and pensions. Families with relatives working overseas used their foreign earnings to start-up private businesses or to pay for home improvements. Others sold off parcels of land in an increasingly lucrative real-estate market. Over the past decade and a half, economic freedoms have brought a new level of material comfort to an urban population that long suffered under a regime of chronic shortages and rationing. Yet, as the household’s productive role has increased so too have the threats to its stability and integrity. Gambling, drug use, prostitution and divorce have flourished in an expanding urban culture driven by profit and consumer desire. As subsidies for education and healthcare


have diminished and as public participation in political organizations has declined, the Vietnamese government has looked to the family and to women, in particular, to provide a buffer against the corrupting influences of the market and to condition the population—physically, morally and intellectually—to meet the demands of national development. The state’s desire to foster prosperous, self-sufficient and politically compliant households in the doi moi era has increased the cultural premium placed on women’s ‘traditional’ roles as nurturing mothers, devoted wives and skilled housekeepers, largely at the expense of the progressive ideals of the socialist years. Socialism’s collapse as an economic and ideological system has transformed and intensified nationalist demands on women in many parts of the world. In those countries where communist regimes were forced out, successor governments and parties have frequently linked their political agendas to the ‘retraditionalization’ of society. In Hungary, as well as in Croatia, the resurgent nationalisms of the 1990s had a specifically antifeminist content, which crystallized around the subject of abortion. Politicians in these societies drew popular support by blaming socialism for promoting women’s public roles at the expense of the nationally ‘sacred’ institutions of motherhood and the family.5 In Vietnam, as in China, the political priorities of market reform have focused on continuity rather than conflict with the socialist past. As the state has sought to liberalize the economy within the framework of communist party rule, it has rationalized its new policies as a “next stage” or a “necessary correction” on the path to a “prosperous socialist society.” In practice, the government has sought to manage the inherent contradictions between economic policy and political ideology by promoting a vision of national modernity based on the “civilized” and comfortable middle class family. This official model of modern domesticity aims to harmonize society’s material aspirations in the new market era with the political, social and economic concerns of the state. The “new family” combines traditional values of filial piety, maternal devotion, and marital faithfulness with the rational-scientific standards of the modern nuclear household—namely, proper nutrition, hygiene, economic discipline, birth control, marital “democracy” and good parenting. The effect is to define “progress” as the natural culmination of the Vietnamese national spirit. The ‘enlightened’ Vietnamese housewife stands at the center of this national middle class ideal. At a safe remove from both the poverty and “backwardness” of the countryside and the immoralities of the market, she endows the state’s development policies with the mark of cultural continuity, as she ensures her household’s compliance with the official norms of civilized citizenship. Family values have provided a disciplinary theme in the popular press as well, though in a less explicitly political form. Vietnam’s liberalized print media— not unlike that in post-Mao China—has celebrated its new freedom from the


restrictions of socialist propaganda through images of femininity that provide both a source of consumer titillation and a post-socialist language of cultural identity and tradition.6 While still subject to close official censorship, newspapers under doi moi have been free to address “social and psychological problems” as long as they avoid substantive political critique. This ‘societal’ coverage has catered not only to tabloid tastes but also to the more reflective side of the urban middle class experience—that is, to the modern condition of spiritual and moral alienation. The press has indirectly participated in the state’s efforts to re-domesticate feminine identity by relying on images of female deviance—of excessive ambition, promiscuity, independence and greed—to both represent and explain the emotional losses and social dislocation that have accompanied the rise of the market. Together, popular and official discourses of women’s middle class responsibilities have served the nation’s competing needs for global inclusion, modern recognition and cultural authenticity in the doi moi era. In its most recent incarnation, Vietnamese nationalism reconnects with colonial-era discourses and 19th century bourgeois ideals of the modern, disciplined and self-regulating nuclear family as the “fountainhead of the national spirit” (Mosse: 1985, 20). It is difficult not to recognize parallels between the Vietnamese state’s current preoccupation with the virtuous middle class woman and the treatises of Vietnamese reformers’ in the 1920s, who sought to define national domestic mores (proper cooking methods, health and hygiene practices, dress style, and so on) for a small but conspicuous native bourgeoisie.7 Yet the interruption of three decades of modern socialism has clearly complicated the contemporary construction of national middle class morality in Vietnam. The normative codes of the new Vietnamese housewife exist in awkward juxtaposition to earlier ideals of feminine heroism and progress, which continue to inform both official and popular ideas of feminine virtue. As we will see, the tensions between Revolutionary, socialist and modern middle class definitions of Vietnamese tradition continue to frustrate the Vietnamese woman’s ability to fulfill her national obligations, while constraining the possibilities for alternative feminine identities. National Hegemony and Gender Identity The terms of permissible feminine identity in Vietnam have become both more contradictory and more confining precisely at a time when the “open door” policies of the market reform era have widened the field of cultural possibilities. Both the state’s and the society’s growing uncertainty about the essence of Vietnamese culture, in the context of capitalist integration, have increased the burden on women to retain certain ‘internal’ national qualities, which are


themselves caught in a process of flux and redefinition. In 1990s Hanoi, Vietnamese women, who were striving to earn for their families, faced a host of conflicting messages about the value and propriety of their work and about their responsibilities as mothers, wives and citizens. Though they were no longer subject to the heavy-handed tactics of party propaganda in their everyday lives, women confronted the expectations and social rules of national femininity through state billboards and loudspeakers, newspapers and television, rumor and gossip. These media directly and indirectly shaped the terrain of social meanings about what was normal and what was deviant, what was desirable and what was dangerous, in the new market society. Judith Butler (1990) points out that gender identities are not fixed subject positions, but rather the effects of “repetitive acts of signification” carried out “under duress.” “As a strategy for survival within compulsory systems,” she writes, “gender is a performance with clearly punitive consequences” (147). In Vietnam, the consequences of transgressing the rules of femininity are played out, in exaggerated form, through tabloid tales of “lost happiness,” of infidelity, parental neglect, divorce and suicide. These accounts of feminine failure work alongside media images of consumer affluence and (official and popular) discourses of “civility” and “tradition” to mark the shifting normative boundaries within which women must perform their roles as mothers, wives, household managers, and providers. In the mid-1990s, I spoke to Vietnamese women merchants, civil servants, former factory workers, seamstresses and petty vendors in order to determine how the cultural politics of market transition had affected their sense of themselves and their place in society. Age proved to be the most determinant variable. While older women of the Revolutionary generation easily identified with a concept of national tradition that combined heroic sacrifice with a Confucian-informed sense of family duty, women in their thirties and forties struggled to reconcile the mundane pressures of their lives with the contradictory demands of national middle class morality. This younger ‘transition’ generation came of age in the difficult post-war pre-reform interim of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Their early training in the principles of socialist “gender equality” failed to prepare them for the market-era codes of domesticity, which have at once demanded and disparageed their commercial efforts, while disallowing any legitimate feminine identity outside the family. In discussing their lives, describing their communities or inquiring about America, these women displayed various forms of affirmation and complaint, nationalistic avowal and cynical parody that conveyed their uncomfortable subjection to an increasingly implausible feminine ideal. Despite their frustration, however, few women from this ‘transition’ generation stepped outside the dominant idioms of national womanhood. When


contesting the demands of husbands, in-laws and tax collectors, market sellers relied on the hallowed language of feminine suffering, invoking their status as “sacrificing” mothers, “enduring” wives and “exploited” workers in opposition to the negative stereotypes of “rich business-women.” At the same time, laid-off factory workers with home-based kiosks attributed their neighborhood’s social decline to the neglectful ways of “newly rich” mothers, while castigating their poorer neighbors for leading “backward” and “uncultured” lives. Modest civil servants, meanwhile, criticized more educated women for abandoning domestic feminine traditions like cooking and cleaning and for overly embracing Western notions of equality. The gender consequences of Vietnamese nationalism were born out in the discursive practices of Vietnamese women within and on the margins of Hanoi’s emergent middle-class. In struggling to signify and make sense of their place in the complex moral order of post-socialist society, they fell back on the tools at hand—that is, on the national cultural certainties that ensured their continued subjugation to the nation.8 As Raymond Williams writes, It is in [the] recognition of the wholeness of the process that the concept of “hegemony” goes beyond “ideology.” What is decisive is not only the conscious system of ideas and beliefs, but the whole lived social process as practically organized by specific and dominant meanings and values (1977, 108–9). The communist party has sought to ensure its political survival, through the economic and social upheaval of market reform, by harnessing the hegemonic power of Vietnamese nationalism to its shifting governmental objectives. METHOD AND SOURCES This book employs media representations of female virtue and vice as a window onto the moral and ideological dilemmas attending Vietnam’s struggle for economic prosperity and cultural sovereignty in the post-Cold War era. In taking this approach, the book joins others in history, anthropology and cultural studies that seek to place gender at the center of the study of nationalist movements and post-colonial histories.9 The importance of femininity to the construction of modern national identity, in Vietnam and elsewhere, makes the analysis of women’s treatment in state and popular culture—from official propaganda to soap operas, memoirs, tabloids and novels—an indispensable tool for understanding how governments and societies seek to craft authentic modernities in an increasingly global world.


In this project I seek to balance an understanding of the governmental uses of women—as symbols of the nation and agents of middle class discipline—with an appreciation of how Vietnamese women’s lives and identities have been shaped and constrained by nationalism’s demands. I take my cue from the historian, Joan Scott, who writes: Women’s history must focus on Women’s experiences and analyze the ways in which politics construct gender and gender constructs politics. Feminist history then becomes not the recounting of great deeds performed by women but the exposure of the often silent and hidden operations of gender that are nonetheless present and defining forces in the organization of most societies (1988, 31). I begin with the second half of this formula, by examining the intersection between the politics of national identity and the governing of femininity in socialist and post-socialist Vietnam. I rely heavily in this endeavor on the official Vietnamese press, which has continued to serve as a primary vehicle of state pedagogy directed at women. The Evolution of the Vietnamese Press The French introduced printing presses to Vietnam in the late nineteenth century at the same time that they imposed the Romanized Vietnamese script, known as quoc ngu, inadvertently providing the Vietnamese people with important tools for their political liberation. Vietnamese intellectuals of the 1920s used popular journals to discuss their country’s modern transformation— from the fate of Confucianism, to the meaning of patriotism and the rise of urban social problems—focusing on women as both symbols of national oppression and markers of the cultural dangers and possibilities of modernization. The colonial era newspapers exposed women to a new kind of informal education that, while still disorganized and eclectic, established the Vietnamese woman’s responsibility to the modern national idea. As the communists rose to prominence in the late 1930s, cultural debate gave way to political mobilization. In contrast to the culturally lively journals of the 1920s and early 1930s, which directed their attention to the relatively small urban middle classes, the Viet Minh press sought to enlighten the Vietnamese masses and recruit them to the Revolutionary cause. Ordinary peasants and laborers— schooled through the party’s mass literacy campaigns—could write in to the editors of the Viet Minh paper, Cuu Quoc (National Salvation) describing their experience and asking for advice.10 The newspaper as “propaganda” (defined by the party as ‘each tuyen truyen’) aimed to shape new national subjects who would


recognize their personal suffering as the result of the nation’s collective oppression at the hands of French imperialists and “feudal” collaborators. This new pedagogical form drew as much from a Confucian tradition linking knowledge to moral control as from the Western model of the modern print commodity. Following Independence and national partition, in 1954, North Vietnam’s communist government institutionalized the print media’s role as a political tool for educating the masses. The major publications were the mouthpieces for the various mass organizations and ministries formed under party’s authority and guidance. In addition to the party daily, Nhan Dan (The People), the Youth Union, the Women’s Union, the Labor Union, and the party’s Association for Literature and the Arts each put out a regular paper. Every published article— from editorials and news accounts to advice columns and short fiction—carried the message of revolutionary struggle and ideological reform to the reader. Women appeared as common subject matter in all of the major newspapers; in particular, the Women’s Union’s paper, Phu Nu Viet Nam, and the party’s literary journal, Van Nghe, explicitly linked stories and commentary about women to the official campaign to promote a “new Vietnamese woman.” Articles instructed female readers—including newly literate peasants and laborers as well as more educated urban workers and civil servants—in how to live, how to manage family and collective responsibilities, what to value and how to conduct themselves in public and private. The shifting tone and content of media discourses of femininity—from the late 1950s through the early 1980s —provide a template of the cultural and ideological contradictions that plagued the communist state through three decades of war and socialist nation-building. The party’s need to harness the terms of female virtue to the national agenda required increasingly repressive disciplinary tactics as the power and persuasiveness of Revolutionary nationalism began to dissipate under the strain of socialism’s disappointments. The market reforms of the late 1980s allowed for more separation between politics and media, but the two have continued to be linked through a shared governmental focus on the family. In the doi moi era, the techniques of governance no longer reflect the ideal of a ‘mass’ society, in which restriction of choice, group pressure and threat of penalty compel individuals to comply with official production targets and behavioral codes. Instead, the new priorities of economic development and political continuity have directed the state’s attention to the population’s “wel fare”—to the enhancement of its health, wealth, happiness, and productivity.11 As the problems of economy have shifted from the collective to the household, the government has pursued new forms of intervention into the domestic realm that aim to increase the consensual participation of citizens in their own development and improvement. The


Women’s Union has become a primary agent of the state’s new ‘philanthropic’ pedagogy. Under the rubric of “family happiness” the Women’s Union has worked to promote the well-planned, self-policing nuclear household through training sessions, contests, pageants and “women’s clubs.” These media work to differentiate women based on their ‘fitness’ for national development, designating some woman as cultural models, others as vulnerable, middle-class neophytes, and still others as ‘unready’ rural outsiders. The commercial press provides a complementary venue in which nationalist priorities converge with feminine disciplining. While still under state ownership, newspapers and magazines in the doi moi era have been encouraged to turn profits. The Hanoi Women’s Union paper, Phu Nu Thu Do, and the Youth Union’s paper, Tien Phong, in particular, have achieved a particularly successful blend of tabloid entertainment, social criticism, psychological drama and moral education that has kept them popular with consumers and acceptable to party overseers. A close reading of these and other newspapers, dated between 1990 and 1996, reveals how a journalistic focus on the inequalities and spiritual losses associated with the market has served to reproduce a conservative discourse on tradition and family values that is distinct from, yet consistent with, the party’s governmental interests. By turning their attention to ‘real life’ human struggles, editors have provided readers with a much needed respite from the sterile, dogmatic style of the socialist years. Yet, newspapers have continued to play a pedagogic role—one that reads less as “propaganda” than as public opinion. Unencumbered by the earlier dictates of party ideology, popular journalism and literature have been free to oppose the legacies of stateinduced feminine progress as well as the immoralities of capitalism, by relying on the politically transcendent language of national femininity. As popular participation in state organizations has declined in recent years, the media has become an increasingly important mode of public moral governance for a nascent middle-class, caught in the disorienting process of market transition. Media Reception, Party Politics and Ethnographic Challenges The task of determining women’s experience of national gender discourses in Vietnam—that is, the first part of Joan Scott’s formula—posed a number of immediate challenges. Cultural studies of popular media reception have tended to rely on a unifying site, such as a television program, a film, or a novel.12 While a number of newspapers and magazines in mid-1990s Vietnam drew a large and constant readership, the possibilities for studying popular response to a particular article or story were necessarily limited. At the same time, participants in state cultural campaigns were unlikely to offer candid


commentary on their reasons for taking part or their attitudes toward government goals. A central challenge of this study rested in identifying women’s direct and indirect responses to the dominant messages of Vietnamese womanhood, which were both produced by and conveyed through media and state practices. In approaching this problem, I chose two ‘ethnographic’ settings in Hanoi where I planned to interview women about their lives and hopefully gain insight into how they coped with the contradictory demands of feminine virtue. I focused on sites which I believed exemplified different aspects of the moral and economic dilemmas of market transition. The first was a neighborhood called Phuong Lien, on the edge of central Hanoi, which had been a factory workers’ “village” during the socialist subsidy years. When I moved there in 1994, the community was in a state of flux. Many former workers remained unemployed. Bleary eyed young men sat around local kiosks smoking cigarettes and playing cards, while migrant laborers constructed new cement villas for real-estate prospectors and newly rich residents. Plaster dust and the constant sound of hammering filled the neighborhood’s winding paths. The authorities had recently labeled the area a center of “social evils,” because of its high rates of male opium use and a burgeoning prostitution trade that catered to out-of-town cadres in a nearby Soviet-built hotel. Most of Phuong Lien’s women worked in petty vending jobs or home-based handicraft production, supporting children and, in many cases, husbands who no longer received state wages. My second site was a central Hanoi marketplace, where a more affluent class of women sold domestic and imported fabric. The majority of these women formerly attended university, worked in government offices or as “guest workers” in the Eastern bloc. In the new economy most had become primary family earners, supporting their households’ precarious place in the new urban middle class. Yet as merchants they occupied an ambiguous moral status in the post-socialist society. They did not fit the official model of the enlightened Vietnamese housewife, nor were they immune to negative media images of acquisitive and “pragmatic” wives. Their lives embodied the contradictions of a national middle class ideal that failed to acknowledge the necessity for women’s economic striving in the pursuit of modern prosperity. As I set out to pursue my research, I faced a series of official hurdles. My sponsors at Hanoi’s National University initially received my topic with enthusiasm “Ah, women,” my host at the Center for Cooperation in Vietnamese Studies declared, “that is a very important subject. Vietnamese women are very good, their lives are very hard (rat kho). They must sacrifice a great deal. If you want to understand Vietnamese culture you must first understand Vietnamese women!” This pat validation soon gave way to uneasiness, however, when I described my intention to use ‘participant observation’ and informal


interviewing methods to gain insight into women’s lives. Vietnam’s “open door” policies, which drew droves of foreign investors and tourists to Vietnam in the early and mid 1990s, had not been extended to the society at large. The party remained highly suspicious of Western researchers and journalists, especially as it struggled against the perceived threat of “peaceful evolution”—that is, the fear that Western “imperialist” forces were conspiring to take advantage of Vietnam’s market reforms to encourage the country’s “peaceful” adaptation of democratic institutions and capitalist culture.13 Although my topic seemed innocuous enough, academic officials needed governmental approval before allowing me to proceed. I submitted a proposal to the President of the Hanoi Women’s Union, who after weeks of delay, relegated my case to the local People’s Committee office in Phuong Lien precinct, the first location I planned to study. After more weeks passed, the People’s Committee office passed the permission forms down to the local Women’s Union representative who, unable to find anyone below her, eventually agreed to assist me. In both research sites, the officials charged with overseeing my project were uncomfortable with the self-directed research method I proposed. They asked that I provide them with a list of interview questions for their endorsement. They also insisted on selecting respondents and arranging interviews for me. Nga, the Phuong Lien Women’s Union leader, explained that many women “didn’t understand problems clearly,” “were confused,” and “lacked education.” She chose subjects who met at least one of a number of model criteria: a strong ‘heroic’ background, a Women’s Union affiliation, a successful home enterprise or a clean and well-kept house. I conducted the interviews in women’s homes or at their workplaces with at least one Union official in attendance. Later, after the authorities were comfortable with my presence, they allowed me to meet with groups of women more freely—to spend time in a local kiosk, at a market stall or in a neighbor’s home. Yet I never achieved the kind of cultural immersion within a family or a community that often enables an anthropologist to enter into their subjects’ worlds. I never felt entirely removed from the government’s reach, but was always aware that my attendance in women’s homes or at group gatherings influenced women’s topics of conversation as well as their practices of self-representation. I soon discovered that the state was not a discrete presence, but rather a set of discursive conventions—ways of representing the self and the nation to an outsider—which individuals took up in diverse and inconsistent ways. There was no fixed boundary between the personal and the political, the private and the public in women’s narratives and discussions. Instead, women shifted constantly between patriotic essentialism and personal complaint, challenging my assumptions about the existence of ‘authentic’ subjectivities beneath the oppressive weight of party rule. As both products and critical interpreters of national discourses, Vietnamese women asserted a lack of


fit between their everyday lives and the rules of feminine virtue, while they simultaneously laid claim to those rules in a serious play of cultural and class distinction. Their efforts to articulate their burdens and thwarted aspirations— whether through complaint, envy, humor or subversive fantasy—never wholly exceeded the constraints of nationally coded gender meanings. Instead, their voices defined the normative terrain of femininity as a space of contestation and struggle, as resilient as the national idea itself. OUTLINE OF CHAPTERS This book is organized in two parts. The first set of chapters investigates the ties between gender, media and national identity, from Independence in 1954 through the current reform era, concentrating in particular on the implications of market transition for new modes of governmentality. The second set of chapters explores Vietnamese women’s responses to the dominant discourses of national womanhood in two distinct urban settings. Chapter 1 focuses on North Vietnam during the decades immediately following national partition in 1954 and examines the central place of women in the cultural and ideological politics of socialist nation-building. The discussion investigates the official media’s treatment of women from the mid-1950s through the early 1980s, drawing examples from the Women’s Union newspaper, Phu Nu Viet Nam, and the party’s literary journal, Van Nghe. These papers provided the primary pedagogical forum through which the party disseminated the characteristics of a “new Vietnamese woman” to the socialist society’s growing population of female readers. Based on careful archival pruning of newspaper content over three decades—including fictional stories, confidence letters, and real-life morality tales—the discussion draws out the links between official definitions of national femininity and the increasingly conflicting ideals of social and scientific progress, national tradition, and economic modernization. By tracing the shifting preoccupations and tenor of these newspapers, against the historical backdrop of collectivization, war, economic decline and postwar unification, the chapter examines the strains and cracks in the state’s vision of socialist modernity and their disciplinary consequences for Vietnamese women. The discussion pays particular attention to the emergence, in the early 1970s, of a post-revolutionary generation of urban women, whose attitudes, behaviors and aspirations challenged the official codes of social ist womanhood. The party’s use of the press to reign in and re-school this wayward generation reveals the growing contradictions in the national feminine ideal and provides a critical window onto the postwar unraveling of the “new society.” The chapter relies on a large number of detailed examples both to support the validity of the argument and to provide the reader with a sense of how everyday


propaganda may have been experienced by North Vietnamese women in the socialist years. Chapter 2, “Building Civility through Happy Families,” examines the transformation of the Vietnam Women’s Union under doi moi, from a political organization aimed at mobilizing women for socialist construction and national defense to an official agent of social welfare and cultural management, concerned with readying the population to meet the demands of economic development and global participation. When the modern nuclear household displaced the collective as the primary unit of production in the late-1980s, the state increased its reliance on women’s domestic ‘talents’ and identities both as a key to the nation’s economic progress and as a cultural buffer against the incursion of Western capitalist values. This chapter focuses on the efforts of the Hanoi Women’s Union to promote a standard of middle class “civility” which defines the model Vietnamese woman as an enlightened housewife—a woman who ensures the health, wealth and happiness of her family through a combination of modern knowledge and traditional family values. The discussion centers on the “Happy and Civilized Family” campaign—conducted by the Hanoi Women’s Union in 1994— which culminated in a series of festive family contests held throughout the city and its surrounding suburbs. The chapter considers how the state’s ‘civilizing’ mission differentiated women base on their readiness for “development” and their need for official intervention into their domestic lives. In chapter 3, “Governmental Entertainment,” I move from the center of bureaucratic party culture to the consumer-oriented terrain of popular print media in order to examine further the place of femininity in postsocialist discourses of national identity. In the years since doi moi began, market forces have transformed the Vietnamese press from a one-dimensional tool of party propaganda into a highly differentiated commodity under loose but persistent government control. While newspapers are no longer obligated to advance and celebrate the New Socialist Society, the state retains ownership of all publications and tightly censors all political discussion. These constraints have limited the possibilities for popular expression and debate within the press to particular forms of social and cultural commentary and moralizing critique that “serve the national interest.” At the same time, the print media’s commodification under doi moi has promoted the packaging of governmental messages as entertainment and has oriented readers’ desires for post-socialist cultural freedoms toward images of global capitalist consumption. This chapter considers how the contradictory forces shaping contemporary Vietnamese media have intensified the journalistic reliance on femininity as a language for addressing the cultural anxieties, social conflicts and material yearnings associated with capitalist transition.


Chapter 4 (Part Two), “On the Uncivil Margins,” explores women’s responses to the governmental messages of state culture and popular media within a “workers” neighborhood on the periphery of central Hanoi. Over the past fifty years, the precinct of Phuong Lien has evolved from a suburban agricultural village to a factory workers’ community to a transitionplagued center of “social evils.” The majority of adult women in the precinct are retired and laid-off workers who have sought employment in the informal economy as vendors, construction laborers and home handicraft producers. In the wake of reforms, male unemployment in Phuong Lien has become endemic, contributing to high rates of alcoholism, gambling and drug addiction. Women have taken up a variety of low paying, often physically strenuous jobs in order to sustain their families. Based on formal interviews and informal discussions, the chapter investigates how women mediate between the domestic and economic realities of their lives and the dominant codes of national womanhood in their efforts to portray themselves as ‘true’ Vietnamese mothers and wives. The discussion contrasts the discursive practices of an older generation of Resistance veterans with those of a younger, socialist-schooled generation of women who had to adapt to the market economy at the time that they were starting families. Caught between the socialist promises of “gender equality” and the patriarchal demands of the household, this ‘transition’ age group struggled to represent themselves through the constraining language of Vietnamese femininity. While some of these women enacted their moral dislocation through narrative disjunctures and contradictions, others took up the dominant terms of respectability and immorality in a parodying show of their inescapable deviance. In chapter 5, “Market Morality,” I examine the national constraints on feminine identity in the context of Hanoi’s struggling merchant community. Drawing on interviews conducted with female market sellers in central Hanoi, I examine women’s responses to the morally complex status of business as a feminine occupation in post-socialist Vietnam. While market selling has traditionally been considered “women’s work” (an extension of feminine domestic talent), it has taken on extra-domestic significance within the new capitalist economy, potentially threatening the patriarchal order of the postsocialist family. In differentiating themselves from the tabloid images of greeddriven women, female market sellers sought to reclaim the space of Vietnamese femininity by portraying themselves as self-sacrificing mothers and wives and as victims of unjust governmental and economic forces. Only through humor and fantasy could they chal lenge the moral constraints that defined their subjugation to an unrealizable national feminine ideal.


Part One Media and Governmentality


1 Defining the “New Vietnamese Woman” National Femininity and the Struggle for Socialist Modernity

IN 1945, THE FOUNDERS OF THE NEW DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM (“DRV”) declared that Vietnamese women were no longer doomed to live their lives as the ‘slaves of slaves,’ but would be recognized as equal members of a newly independent nation. The DRV constitution guaranteed women the “same political, economic, cultural, social and family rights as men” (article 24), and, in January of 1946, Vietnamese women went to the polls for the first time, electing ten women to the Revolutionary government’s 400-seat Chamber of Deputies. Marxism’s ascendance within the nationalist struggle eclipsed the debates over women’s roles—their education, social behavior and domestic responsibilities—that had divided Vietnamese intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s. The Viet Minh leadership under Ho Chi Minh had succeeded in appropriating the ‘women’s question’ as an integral part of their broader revolutionary agenda. By wedding the ideals of women’s liberation to the people’s struggle against colonial rule and a feudal-capitalist class system, the communist party secured women’s investment in the goals of national emancipation. Over the next eight years, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese women threw themselves into the fight against the returning French colonizers, demonstrating through their political and military efforts a desire to play a visible and equal part in the new public space of the nation. National inclusion, however, required more of Vietnamese women than concrete contributions to the country’s liberation. Following the French defeat and the signing of the Geneva agreement in 1954, the DRV’s communist leadership called upon “new Vietnamese women” to represent their nation’s complex and evolving identity—to serve as symbols of both social and industrial progress and of timeless national virtues. As the most subjugated members of the old feudal and colonial order, women became a critical focus of ideological reform in the new society. Throughout the early years of socialist construction, in the 1950s and 1960s, the party sought to demonstrate the success of Marxist-Leninist principles in Vietnamese society by elevating women


from “superstitious” housewives and greed-driven merchants into educated, socially active and politically enlightened citizens. State propagandists celebrated women’s achievements as technicians, cooperative leaders, doctors and teachers, as the victories of socialist modernization. Yet, at the same time, the party strove to link the new order to a primordial national past by identifying women’s domestic roles as the cherished and immutable elements of a national cultural tradition. As devoted and self-sacrificing mothers and wives, women embodied a traditional morality that was highly compatible with a revolutionary national character based on selfless dedication to the country’s salvation and to the collective interests of the people. As Party General Secretary, Le Duan, declared to a gathering of political cadres in 1959: It is in women that we find the essence of our national characteristics. The fine traits of the Vietnamese character are first of all present in Vietnamese women. I noticed in prison that most of our revolutionaries had fine women as mothers.1 The Vietnamese woman’s dual symbolic role as a marker of revolutionary progress and a vessel of timeless tradition situated her at the core of the party’s cultural struggle to forge a uniquely national path to socialist modernity and to project this synthesized ideal to the outside world. From the early years of collectivization, in the 1950s and early 1960s, through the American War years, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and into the postwar economic crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the North Vietnamese state sought to define a “new Vietnamese woman” in accordance with the often conflicting terms of socialist ideology, economic modernization and ‘national character.’ Over this threedecade period, the terms of the official feminine ideal changed, becoming increasingly inconsistent and austere as the regime struggled to hold together the competing elements in its modernizing vision of a socialist Vietnamese nation. This chapter examines the shifting definitions of the “new Vietnamese woman” as a window on the cultural dilemmas and crises of socialist nation building in North Vietnam. The DRV state relied on the Vietnam Women’s Union—as the party organization responsible for mobilizing, educating and representing women—to prescribe models of female virtue appropriate to the nation’s evolving political and economic priorities. The Women’s Union’s newspaper Phu Nu Viet Nam (Vietnamese Woman) along with the party’s literary journal Van Nghe (Literature and Arts) provided the primary means for disseminating the criteria of socialist womanhood to the female masses, many of whom learned to read in the guerilla-style literacy campaigns of the Resistance years. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Phu Nu Viet Nam and Van Nghe provided


female workers and peasants, as well as more educated middle class women, with social and moral guidelines for participating in the “new society.” Through fictional stories, depicting model women and their deviant counterparts, Van Nghe, instructed women in how to become enlightened socialist citizens. At the same time, Phu Nu Viet Nam’s weekly advice columns steered women through the process of personal transformation, presenting the trials of women’s private lives as examples of the larger ideological struggles at work in the society. These pedagogical techniques continued into the early American war years of the mid and late 1960s. As the Women’s Union sought to mobilize women for the war effort, the newspapers served as critical tools of propaganda aimed at wedding women’s self-identities and aspirations to the goals of collective production and national defense. Both Phu Nu Viet Nam and Van Nghe, published stories of individual heroism and redemption that worked to saturate the struggles of ordinary women’s lives with political and national meanings, eliminating the boundary between the personal and the social, the private and the public, society and the state. Real-life accounts of emotional loss, family conflict and romantic crisis provided a popularly compelling vehicle for imparting the values of cooperative labor and patriotic service to a still idealistic generation of readers. By the later war years, however, increased economic hardship and the coming of age of a new, post-Revolutionary generation challenged the ideological and moral cohesion of the new society. In the early 1970s, as the government struggled with the growing contradictions between socialist policies and the goals of economic modernization, the press subjected women readers to increasingly inconsistent and austere messages about how to live, think, appear and behave. Newspapers harshly chastised young urban women, in particular, for deviating from the codes of both socialist progress and traditional feminine virtue by conducting themselves in frivolous, immodest and ‘inappropriately’ modern ways. As the Revolutionary categories of “modern,” “progressive,” “backward” and “traditional” began to blur, the press policed the minutiae of women’s manners, dress codes and life choices in a frantic effort to reassert party control over the terms of national femininity. After the war ended in 1975, the economic failures of national reunification further weakened popular commitment to socialist ideals in the North and intensified the press’ moral disciplining of the post-Revolutionary generation of women. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the socialist economy in full decline, the Women’s Union focused on the economic behavior of urban women as rep resentative of a new plague of “pragmatism”—a moral disease that was undermining the selfsacrificing spirit of the patriotic war years and threatening the harmony of the postwar family.


By tracing the shifting preoccupations and tenor of the women’s press, against the historical backdrop of collectivization, war, economic decline and postwar reunification, this first chapter explores the strains and cracks in the state’s vision of socialist modernity and their disciplinary consequences for Vietnamese women. The party’s everyday discourse on feminity, communicated through official newspapers over these three decades, provides a glimpse of the internal landscape of Vietnam’s socialist and wartime past that has remained largely inaccessible to outside observers. I begin each chronological section with a brief introduction to the historical context in which a number of salient themes appeared in the official news media. These themes illuminate, in different ways and at different points in time, the central place of national femininity in the party’s efforts to construct a modern socialist nation. WOMEN AND SOCIALIST TRANSFORMATION IN THE EARLY DRV—1954 TO 1964 In pre-Revolutionary Vietnam, Vietnamese women’s lives were tightly circumscribed by the requirements of family production—a system that depended upon the economic, social and cultural subordination of female members. Confucian morality limited women’s roles to the home, where their primary duties were to enrich, promote and perpetuate the patriarchal clan. Daughters learned the “four virtues” of chastity, diligence, physical grace and deferential speech in order to ensure the honor of their father’s family and later of their husband’s family. Among elite and upwardly mobile families, wives took care of the “interior”—the housework, children, family finances, aging relatives—so that their husbands could study to become mandarins. They relied on superstition and prayer to bear sons, knowing that if they failed, they would have to reconcile themselves to the arrival of a second or third wife. Although marriage relations were less hierarchal in peasant households (with men working alongside their wives in the fields), village culture denied peasant women any legitimate public authority; women were excluded from the governing ‘council of notables’ and barred from the village communal hall (or dinh), where seven-year-old boys sat on the lowest rung. In the domestic realm, peasant women could wield some influence by managing the family budget and contributing to the household income through petty trade. Yet, since Confucian tradition defined a woman only in terms of her relationship to male authority (as a daughter to her father, a wife to her husband, a mother to her son), women’s economic activities were ultimately subject to male control. The Viet Minh’s final defeat of the French in 1954 brought unprecedented changes to peasant women’s lives in North Vietnam. Immediately after taking control of the northern half of the country, Ho Chi MimVs- government


launched a land reform campaign aimed at eliminating the landlord class and universalizing a pattern of small peasant holdings farmed by household labor. Party cadres, mainly from urban areas, moved into villages to spur class struggle. They recruited poor peasants, including women, to ally with middle peasants (those owning land that they farmed themselves), and to denounce local landlords and rich peasants. Many women who had been active in village defense during the colonial resistance fervently joined the campaign. At public hearings, they vented rage at village patriarchs, accusing them of economic exploitation as well as physical and sexual abuse. Some of the most militant female participants rose to leadership posts in the newly radicalized village governments. By 1957, in the final phase of the campaign, women made up 30 percent of land reform activists.2 The government halted the land reform movement in 1957, acknowledging that many party members and peasants had wrongly applied class categories as weapons of personal retribution.3 Following a period of political self-criticism, known as the “Rectification of Errors,” the government moved to collectivize agriculture in the hope of discouraging the reassertion of the rural class structure and channeling any agricultural surplus toward the industrialization of the country. Party leaders decided to follow the Chinese rather than the Soviet example, by introducing cooperatives before achieving agriculture mechanization. They sought to encourage voluntary peasant participation by establishing a first wave of ‘semisocialist’ cooperatives that allowed for a balance between individual ownership and collective operation. Cooperative members pooled land, equipment and livestock and in return received rent for the amount contributed. In addition, the cooperative allocated a minimum of five percent of the available cultivable land per capita to its members. Families used this “5 % land” to meet their subsistence and income needs, often growing vegetables and raising chickens and pigs in the household garden.4 The introduction of cooperatives in the late 1950s brought tangible changes to peasant women’s everyday lives and contributed to a reorganization of the family economy. While the prior land reform campaign had officially broken with tradition by granting women land in their own name, in practice most of the land had been doled out to male-headed households in which women remained subordinate laborers. Marriage and kinship continued to serve as the primary forms of labor recruitment under the campaign’s universal pattern of family production, and women still faced forced marriages, often to boys well below working age. The cooperatives, in contrast, reduced women’s dependence on the family and improved their economic and social position relative to men; by providing women with access to childcare centers, cooperatives enabled women to work outside the home and receive pay for their labor. In addition, the income from collective labor—in combination with


the 5% land—made it possible for many young couples to set up nuclear households apart from the parental domicile, thereby liberating young women from the economic tyranny of their in-laws. New legislation introduced in 1959 further strengthened women’s family position by outlawing polygamy, child marriage and parental control of their children’s choice of marriage partner.5 In many northern villages, women led the cooperative movement, persuading men and older villagers to contribute land, tools, animals and labor to the collective farms, and often running up against the once-immovable authority of husbands, parents and in-laws. The most avid women participants rose to management posts in their village cooperatives, gaining political influence and a new level of responsibility beyond the domestic sphere.6 In the cities, the regime’s efforts to socialize the country’s still primitive industrial sector inspired less activism and support on the part of women. Beginning in the late 1950s, the government set about transforming “bourgeois” housewives, “exploitative” businesswomen, petty traders, and poor laborers into members of a revolutionary “working class” that would serve as the vanguard of the nation’s socialist industrialization. Most of Hanoi’s “large bourgeoisie” had fled south in the immediate aftermath of the French defeat, leaving behind an increasingly insecure population of medium and small businesspeople, nearly half of whom were women. The Hanoi Women’s Union assumed responsibility for “reeducating” these women so that they could take part in the capital’s new economy and culture. The Union conducted ideological training sessions, in which formerly exploited female laborers gave testimonials of past injustices, and ‘bourgeois’ women were compelled to renounce their “capitalist way of life” and participate in “productive labor.” Female business owners, who did not wish to abandon their property, had to form “joint enterprises” with the state, in which state managers dictated all work responsibilities and pay levels. At the same time, Union cadres pressured petty traders, first, to join trader cooperatives—aimed at stabilizing market prices and ridding sellers of “dishonest business practices”—and, subsequently, to become legitimate “workers” in state factories, handicraft collectives or social services. By 1960, women made up 70% of Hanoi workers engaged in the production of goods such as, beer, sandals, matches, dyes, rattan, bamboo and knit products.7 The collectivization movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s provided the DRV regime with the first real opportunity to include women as active and visible participants in the building of the new socialist society. Farming cooperatives and state factories served as vehicles of moral and ideological transformation by liberating women from the bonds of the feudal family structure and from the “backward” mentality of small peasant production and petty trade. Working alongside their ‘comrades,’ as machine operators,


technicians, agricultural producers and advisors, women provided powerful symbols of Vietnam’s social and economic “progress.” In the language of state pedagogy, women who joined cooperatives had successfully overcome old preoccupations with private property and personal gain and embraced the new priorities of community welfare and national development. Those who resisted were called “feudal.” Only by serving society through collective work could they successfully over-come the “backward thinking” of the “old society.” Yet, while official propaganda promoted and celebrated women’s new public roles, it nevertheless it continued to define female virtue in terms of domestic relations. The newly socialized woman—as cooperative leader, village teacher or Women’s Union cadre—did not stand for gender equality per se, but rather for a new definition of the ‘good’ Vietnamese mother, wife and daughter. By participating in the collective, she did not escape her household obligations, but rather gained a correct understanding of those essential duties. Official newspapers worked during these early years of collectivization to help women understand their roles and responsibilities in the new family of the socialist nation. JOINING THE COLLECTIVE FAMILY In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the press presented the process of female transformation as a struggle between the generations, in which a new breed of young, “progressive” and socially committed women had to lead their unenlightened mothers and grandmothers. In 1959, the year that cooperatives formed in most villages, the advice column of Phu Nu Viet Nam featured the complaints of frustrated youths whose mothers-in-law opposed their participation in cooperative affairs. In one such letter, a woman describes how she has been working as a Women’s Union secretary in her village, in charge of advising women cooperative members on improved farming techniques. Although she has won the confidence of the villagers, her in-laws refuse to join the cooperative. They continue to follow “old customs,” insisting that she harvest and replant her family plot using traditional methods. She has attempted to “struggle” with her in-laws, but realizes that as a daughter-in-law, living in their home, she is dependent on them. The advice columnist—“Thanh Tarn” or “Pure Mind”—advises her to remain in her Women’s Union post and try to persuade her husband’s parents of the advantages of the cooperative through the example of her good work results. “In this way, you will serve the movement to advance your village both as a good Women’s Union secretary and as a dutiful daughter-in-law (con dau thao).”8 The Women’s Union sought to integrate the ‘progressive’ traits of the youthful female cadre with the traditional expectations of a virtuous daughter and wife, by carefully inserting the virtues of modesty and chastity into the


model of the new socialist woman. In another letter submitted to Phu Nu Viet Nam in the same year, a young woman writes that she fears going to live with her future husband’s family because they disapprove of her cooperative activities and will likely prevent her from “attending meetings and progressing in her studies.” She complains that her in-laws object most strongly to her participation in music classes. “Thanh Tarn” explains that the woman’s in-laws were influenced by the “old system,” under which musical performers were scorned because they “were forced to live in a romantic way.” She advises the young woman to work hard to show her husband and his parents how the music of the cooperative “serves the people and production.” At the same time, she must be sure to maintain “correct moral conduct” while participating in these activities so as to avoid any “incorrect romantic notions” that could negatively affect her marriage.9 The inversion of the traditional mother-daughter relationship within the context of the cooperative movement reflected a new official notion of filial duty in which children best served their parents by first serving the goals of the party. The newly educated youth provided the state with its most potentially powerful tool in the eradication of “backward” traditions. Once mothers came to understand the advantages of the new policies, they would recognize their daughters’ rebelliousness as a deeper form of loyalty. A fictional story, published in the party literary paper, Van Nghe, in 1959, depicted the conversion of a “feudal” mother by her activist daughter. 10 In the story, titled “Early Rice Harvest,” an old woman condemns her daughter, first, for marrying a man whom a fortune-teller declared “ill suited “and, secondly, for donating her share of family land to the cooperative. The mother recalls that: When her daughter was small she was very well behaved. She did everything she was told. Yet, since she started going to those meetings, wearing a badge, ‘with a flag in her hands’ (nam tay cam co) she has become stubborn and argumentative. The old woman builds a wall in order to keep the cooperative from encroaching on her fields with their “new technologies.” When her daughter tries to sign her up with the cooperative, she balks. “You are still young and fit,” she tells her daughter. “You should be self-reliant. If you join the cooperative you will certainly suffer a loss.” But once the harvest season starts, the mother observes how quickly the “young and cheerful” workers cut the rice plants for the cooperative, while she harvests her private fields slowly and alone. Later, her daughter presents her with a donation of “special rice” from the cooperative and explains that even though the experiments on her fields were unsuccessful, those of another team came out well. “When you join the cooperative,” she tells


her mother, “everybody shares their benefits and losses with you.” The old woman finally follows her daughter’s advice and, “smelling the rich scent of the new rice,” sets off to join the cooperative. In the early years of the DRV, the ideal of moral conversion through collective work extended to other forms of labor as well. The press promoted state construction and mining teams as the salvation for women living outside the fold of village society. Prostitutes were among the most popular targets in these transformation scenarios. As victims of a debauched colonial society, they sought a second chance in the new socialist community. In “Happiness,” another Van Nghe story published in 1959, Hien is a former “brothel girl” who has worked hard on state construction projects for the past five years.11 Though she can never forget the scars of her past, she has managed to become a model worker who feels “proud and happy” when she sees the results of her labor. Her dedication wins her the love and respect of a young electrician who works on the site with her. Yet, out of shame, Hien refuses his marriage proposal. Hien’s coworkers finally persuade her not to feel inferior in the new society. “When people understand you,” one friend explains, “they will love and care for you.” The author concludes with a vision of the new socialist Utopia: “The sun shone brilliantly, revealing the splendid promise of the the happiness of the workers, Hien and Tarn, that was coming into bloom.” The transformation of prostitutes into good workers emphasized the charity of the new system toward the victims of the old regime. Even fallen women could become wives and mothers and assume a legitimate place in society if they contributed to the collective cause. Private merchants, by contrast, presented a greater challenge to the machinery of state propaganda. As exemplars of the “petty bourgeois” mentality, they were viewed less as victims of past injustices than as parasites on the colonial economy. Although large numbers of women traders moved into socialist production in the late 1950s, some petty sellers continued to operate, profiting from the inefficiencies of the state economy and, subsequently, from the disruptions of war. The small scale of their activities excluded them from membership in the exploiting class of landlords and other “enemies of the people.” Yet, their self-reliant lifestyle and commitment to personal gain posed a persistent temptation to the working masses who were laboring under the promise of future prosperity and collective happiness. The party strove in its conversion mission to depict not only the merchant’s ideological “backwardness,” but also her moral failings as a mother and a wife. In the Van Nghe story, “An Old Friend,” published in 1961, the narrator, Ngoc, is a teacher, who pays a visit to her friend, Thoa, a private seller.12 Thoa had had great success in one of the city’s largest markets during the Resistance years in Hanoi. But, recently, she has fallen on hard times. She now barely ekes out a living selling goods from her home in a small provincial town. Thoa


describes how fed up she has become with her selling life. “It seems to make my eyes bleed (trat mau mat) to earn a single dong, not like before when I could easily earn a hundred dong.” These days, the people no longer trust her. They assume that she is cheating them even when she has given them a fair price. Seeing her friend in such despair, the narrator recalls their earlier days together, when Thoa was known throughout the market not only for her beauty, but also for her business confidence and skill. “She had been everywhere…Hai Phong, Nam Dinh, Bac Giang…and had connections in every province.” Thoa had also been fond of giving her friends advice. The narrator recalls one of Thoa’s earlier speeches: It is the same in every period, Ngoc, you’ll see; if you are clever you will survive, if you are foolish you will die. The wise gain advantage over others, while the stupid are consumed. Wherever you go in the world, money is the most powerful thing! Life is nothing without money! Now everything has changed. Ngoc tries to persuade Thoa to apply for a job on a state enterprise. But, showing her friend her pale hands with their thin white fingers, Thoa explains: “Working in the scorching sun for eight hours a day, your face becomes dirty, and then only the devil will look at you!” Ngoc can not help passing silent judgment on her friend: “[Thoa] expected a brighter future but didn’t want to endure any personal losses.” Two years later, when Ngoc returns to look for her old friend, she finds a new road running over the spot where Thoa’s house once stood. She learns from the neighbors that Thoa is now laying bricks at the state construction site and living with her daughter in the workers’ dormitory. When the two friends meet, Ngoc immediately notices Thoa’s changed appearance. The hard work has made her cheeks red, her body stronger. She seems “much younger and more beautiful.” Thoa’s young daughter, who in the past was chronically sick, is now healthy and attending a state kindergarten. Embracing her child, Thoa tells Ngoc that she has resisted the temptations to return to business. “I am still young, so I must have ideals,” she explains. “I need money, but I do not live for money… We are building this factory for ourselves and our children, aren’t we?” Collective labor has made Thoa both a better citizen and a better mother. By joining the struggle for social progress, she has attained the national feminine virtues of endurance and self-sacrifice. The party’s condemnation of private selling would continue throughout the coming decades of socialist disciplining. Because women’s market activities had always been an integral part of peasant subsistence in both pre-colonial and colonial Vietnam, the government did not attempt to eradicate these practices outright in the early years of the DRV. Smugglers and large-scale business owners,


who refused state cooptation, faced legal prohibitions; but ordinary market traders more often encountered psychological pressure in the form of an intensifying barrage of social critique that aimed to discourage them from continuing their trade.13 By portraying private sellers as self-serving cheaters who preyed on the poor, the party sought to sow sufficient popular distrust to drive them out of business by shame or economic necessity, whichever came first. Ideally sellers would choose to reform themselves, and then actively convince others, as in the case of a small wares vendor reported in Phu Nu Viet Nam in 1962, who felt so much guilt for “exploiting” her poor customers that she quit her business and started a weaving cooperative. She recruited other women in need of work and became a factory manager, “contributing an important step for the North on the road to Socialism.”14 Despite the rhetoric of exploitation, the party primarily objeected to private sellers’ independence from the moral, political and economic control of the new socialist order. In struggling to make a daily profit, the merchant exhibited an over-riding concern with the welfare of herself and her family that superseded any interest in society or nation. Through the cooperatives and the cultural counseling provided by the press, the state aimed to substitute the collective family of society/nation for the real family of the private household as the principle authority governing female behavior. The party sought to appropriate and redefine the virtuous qualities of mothers, wives and daughters in the interests of socialist construction and national struggle. ‘Good’ women were those whose personal choices in the family, with friends or at work reflected their understanding of and primary allegiance to the collective interest. The principles of self-control, self-sacrifice and hard work that had long governed Confucian codes of female virtue in Vietnam had to be transplanted from the domain of marriage and filial duty to that of socialist nation building. MAKING THE PERSONAL POLITICAL The confidence pages of the women’s paper in the late 1950s and early 1960s served as a primary arena in which the party inserted its modern moral authority over women’s personal lives. The advice column of Phu Nu Viet Nam constantly featured stories of heartbreak, marital crisis, bro ken engagements and forbidden passions, recounted by women in the throes of very immediate private dramas. The editors used the discourse of socialist moral reform to transform these personal sagas into political lessons. Each individual scenario and call for help presented the party— through the voice of “Thanh Tarn” or “Pure Mind”—with an opportunity to define the correct relationship between the individual, the family and society and to assert itself as the highest arbiter of women’s sexual and filial relations.


In a 1961 letter submitted to Phu Nu Viet Nam, for example, a young woman writes of her anguish, waiting for her lover to divorce his wife, whom he claims he no longer loves. Rather than address the particulars of the woman’s dilemma, “Thanh-Tarn” responds to her predicament as an example of an incorrect conception of love. According to our new conception, we must reject the idea of love as a thing that can not submit to any law and requires only spontaneous feeling…. This concept of love is egoistic love and is opposed to our society today. Those who hold this view are still slaves to feudal capitalist feelings, and only think of themselves…. This way of loving lacks revolutionary morality.15 In order to apply this advice, the young woman must make the necessary cognitive leap to see her personal actions and “uncontrollable feelings” as a problem of class-consciousness and abstract social laws. By participating in an adulterous relationship, she has committed an offense, not so much against her own family or that of the man she loves, but against the new society. She should consider the unfortunate wife of her lover and remember that “when thinking about one’s own happiness, one must also think about the happiness of others and of society.” She must understand and uphold the new marriage laws which “guarantee the rights of the individual and society” by prohibiting the “stealing” of other women’s husbands. As a general rule, the party discouraged any romantic relations—pure or illicit —among Vietnamese youth. Such frivolous concerns were thought to distract young people from the important work of revolution. A woman archaeologist I met in 1995 recalled the strict prohibitions she faced as a university student in the 1960s: I didn’t dare think about boyfriends back then. My teachers and my parents would have said that I wasn’t serious, that I wasn’t committed to my studies, which meant that I wasn’t thinking about the society and about improving our country.16 In response to a letter submitted in 1962 from an eighteen year old girl, who wonders if she should take back her previously unfaithful boyfriend, “Thanh Tarn” insists that the girl is too young to make clear decisions about love: All youth today want to ‘study and become good communists.’ …but if one is always worrying about love, and individual happiness, then it will be easy to neglect this high goal. For now you should worry about your


studies and career, so you will fulfill your work well…and mature. Then you will make clearer, more stable judgments about love…and your dreams and aspirations will come true. The advice column often included quotations from Lenin to lend support to the party’s message of moral discipline. In this instance, Lenin warns young men and women: You mustn’t be low and base and allow your strength to be wasted…. Knowing how to manage and control yourself, knowing how to mold your actions toward discipline, that’s what it means not to be a slave. This is also necessary in love… Through this strict code of personal asceticism, the party aimed to wed young women’s hearts, minds and bodies to the socialist cause. Female university students, cooperative activists and industrial workers represented the new society’s social and ideological progress, its distance from the “feudal” and “romantic” feminine codes of the past. Phu Nu Viet Nam sought to promote the public status and activism of its youthful readers by calling on them to maintain a high degree of academic seriousness. Yet, once married, women faced a more complicated regimen of self-management and improvement. While the party encouraged women to assume new responsibilities in agriculture and industry, it also expected them to fulfill their traditional household roles. The “new Vietnamese woman,” as a wife and a mother, had to perform her domestic obligations in the same spirit that she approached the rest of her societal work— that is, as an expression of her commitment to national and socialist goals. DOING ALL THINGS WELL In 1961, the Women’s Union launched the “Five Goods” campaign, aimed at encouraging women to “do all things, and do all things well.”17 Reminiscent in prescriptive form of Confucianism’s “four virtues,” the Five Goods movement called on women to 1. Fulfill the goals of production and economize well. 2. Follow all state policies and laws. 3. Participate in management. 4. Advance in their studies. 5. Raise their families and educate their children well.18 Not surprisingly, many women at the time had difficulty achieving all five points. A 62 year old merchant, whom I met in Hanoi in 1996, recalled the obstacles she and her friends faced raising their families in the northern Vietnamese province of Hai Hung in the early 1960s.


We studied the Five Goods and because all of us were very enthusiastic and very patriotic, we wanted to realize all of the points. But, in fact, after we were married and had children we didn’t have time to continue our studies and participate in so many Women’s Union activities. Probably most of us only realized three or four ‘goods,’ and still we were very hard working.19 The confidence pages of Phu Nu Viet Nam in the early sixties reveal the strain that the Five Goods ideal placed on the psyches of young working women. In one letter submitted in 1964, a factory worker worries that she will never achieve all five ‘goods.’ Although she has been able to realize the first four points by working well for her cooperative, she worries that she has become an inadequate mother. Her busy schedule and her husband’s long absences prevent her from keeping a close watch on her children, who are becoming increasingly disobedient and doing poorly in school. The newspaper provides a letter of response from another reader— a mother and wife who has succeeded in “doing all things well.” “Your situation may seem difficult,” she counsels the troubled woman, “but it is no different from that of most women today.” She offers her own experience as a model, advising the woman to put in “more effort” by teaching her children to do housework and visiting with their teachers. I have seen women who, because they haven’t taken pains to raise their child carefully and thoroughly, return home every day faced with tidying up the house and they immediately begin yelling at their child, so that their child is miserable and they are also miserable. As a result, health and production are negatively affected far more than they would be if these women had made the effort to teach their children from the start. 20 While the women’s paper provided readers with living models of the Five Goods ideal, it could do little to alleviate the real burdens women faced in their daily struggles to serve both family and society. Those exemplary wives who struggled successfully with “feudal” husbands and in-laws for the right to take part in social affairs did not reflect the experience of a large number of rural women who never made it to the Women’s Union training courses or evening literacy classes because of the sheer weight of their household responsibilities. In a cruel twist of fate, many peasant women ended up scorned or abandoned by husbands who, having ‘progressed’ through cadre education, now found their rural wives inadequate mates when compared to the more ‘advanced’ women working in the towns and cooperative offices.21 The women’s advice column in the early 1960s frequently featured letters from desperate women, who were stunned by their husbands’ changed affections and terrified by the prospect of


raising their children alone. In advising these women, the newspaper struck an awkward balance between the progressive language of women’s rights and the principles of feminine domestic duty. While informing women of the new marriage and family laws—which prescribed, among other points, the equality of husband and wife “in all aspects”22—Phu Nu Viet Nam simultaneously reminded women to perfect their motherly and wifely roles. In one letter published in 1963, a woman writes to “Thanh Tam” that her husband wants to divorce her even though she has “made no mistakes.” The woman explains that she has five children and no money and is afraid for her future. “Thanh Tarn” advises her to appeal to the courts for protection. Yet, at the same time, she should strive to make her husband see what a good wife and mother she is. You should think about the reasons why your husband wants to leave you. Sometimes men just become depraved (sa nga) by their objective circumstances and for this they should be criticized. But many of us [women] do not yet actively strive to be productive in work, to study well, to organize the family affairs, to take care of our children, to become good people and to give our husbands not only love, but respect and esteem. So now you should try to be full of feeling for your husband. He comes from the countryside, he was in the army and educated by the revolution. If you are skillful (kheo leo), admonish him lovingly (kbuyen nhu anh), recall all the times you’ve shared meals together, and speak of the feeling of love his wife and children have for him, then certainly he will realize his mistake and change his mind….23 During the early years of collectivization, the party aimed to harmonize women’s progressive public roles with their traditional family obligations in order to harness the terms of feminine morality to the national socialist cause. In promoting the cooperative movement, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the press sought to replace the priorities of the domestic family with those of the collective family. Phu Nu Viet Nam and Van Nghe provided readers with a new definition of filial piety that inverted the customary relationship of children to their parents, calling on ‘good’ socialist daughters to lead and enlighten their “backward” parents and in-laws. Newspaper stories—real and fictional— conveyed to female merchants, as well as to others outside the bounds of the new society, that they could only become good mothers and worthy wives by taking part in cooperative work. Meanwhile, the confidence pages advised young women to translate their personal desires into political terms by eschewing their romantic interests for the fruits of socialist progress. The Five Goods campaign codified the “new Vietnamese woman” ideal and exposed its practical contradictions. Despite their best intentions, many women


—rural and urban alike—could not meet the competing demands of social and domestic work. In counseling them, the women’s paper clearly placed the feminine virtues of domestic devotion, self-sacrifice, and diligence above the emancipatory promises of socialism. The “new Vietnamese woman” best served the new society by recognizing and carrying out her filial, maternal and marital duties as a form of national service. The persuasiveness of this formula largely depended upon readers’ ability and willingness to identify their interests with those of the nation and society. While the cooperative movement provided women with an ideological and economic rationale for seeing their personal lives in collective terms, the war effort that followed presented an even more compelling case. EVERYTHING FOR THE FRONT: THE EARLY AMERICAN WAR YEARS—1965 TO 1968 In March of 1965, the United States began air attacks on North Vietnam in an effort to oppose and disrupt the DRV’s support of Southern communist forces. Contrary to American assertions at the time, Northern military involvement in the Southern conflict had been relatively minimal prior to 1965. The Hanoi regime had provided politically backing to the National Liberation Front (NLF) (the force opposing the Saigon regime, which had its roots in the southern branch of the Viet Minh) since its formation in 1960. But Hanoi had yet to supply the NLF with large numbers of weapons or men.24 The U.S. bombing raids and the simultaneous arrival of American ground forces in South Vietnam in 1965 precipitated a mass mobilization of North Vietnamese troops to “defend the nation” and reoriented the energies of the new society toward the war cause. American bombs dramatically disrupted the day-to-day business of socialist construction in North Vietnam that had been underway in a climate of relative peace for ten years. Air raids upset work schedules and forced schools, colleges and factories to relocate to safe rural areas. Urban families split up, as parents evacuated their children to the countryside, lodged them in peasant homes, and then rejoined their offices and work teams in distant locales. For women across the country, the escalation of the American War brought the familiar fear and sadness of separation from husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, whose military duty might extend three, five or even ten years, if they were lucky enough to return at all. Yet, women had little time to dwell on the pain of loss. As men left the farms and factories en masse to join the front, women had to meet the goals of wartime production and care for their families on their own. The physical and emotional strain of the war effort, carried out under the ongoing threat of US air attacks, created a climate of shared suffering and


indignation in the late 1960s that many women in the 1990s recalled with both pain and nostalgia. A retired 64-year-old factory worker, who spoke to me in 1995, described the effects of the first wave of bombings on her family and working class neighborhood in Hanoi. Before that time, most of us did not hate America. But when the American planes started bombing, we couldn’t believe it. Why do they want to kill us? We couldn’t understand. Everyone was very afraid. And now many people wanted to fight America. Many of the men from this hamlet went into the army and many of the youth, who were still studying, joined the youth volunteers. They said they would first ‘save the country,’ and only after that would they return to their studies. For us women, that time was very difficult. We had to evacuate our children to the countryside, 40 or 50 kilometers from Hanoi, in Bac Ninh. At that time we had to use [ration] tickets to buy and sell goods. We had to return to Hanoi to purchase food, clothing and blankets and bring [them] back to the evacuation area. Because of the bombs, we only dared return to Hanoi by bicycle in the evening or late at night. But there were times, when the alarm would sound at night as well. I remember riding with my children and many goods piled on the bicycle when we heard the alert. I was terrified, my children were crying…25 The engine of state pedagogy responded quickly to women’s new burdens in a society wholly absorbed by the demands of war. In March of 1965, in the wake of the first bombing raids, the Women’s Union launched the “Three Responsibilities” or “Ba Dam Dang” movement, which called on women to assume responsibility in three critical areas: 1. To take charge of agricultural and industrial production, and all other work activities left vacant by men; 2. To manage all family affairs and encourage husbands, sons and brothers to join the army. 3. To support soldiers at the front and to take up arms when necessary.26 The campaign drew its name from the Vietnamese term—dam dang—which translates literally as ‘responsible’ or ‘capable’ and refers to women’s efficient handling of the domestic sphere. During the war, the party expanded the meaning of dam dang to include women’s new roles in the public domains of economic production, social work and national defense. The Ba Dam Dang movement promoted women’s scientific and technological progress as a form of patriotic service to the nation. In the rural cooperatives, women learned to use the heavier and more technical farm ing equipment that had previously been operated by men. With guns slung over their shoulders, women ploughed fields, drove tractors and constructed dikes. Female cadres, trained in Three Responsibility schools across the countryside, taught women


Fig. 1. Evacuating Hanoi during the American bombing, December, 1972 (photo courtesy of the author).

new technologies of seeding and irrigation aimed at increasing rice yields.27 In factories, on construction sites, and in coal mines, campaign propaganda pressed women workers to increase their productivity despite the disruptions caused by the bombings. Women labored under slogans such as: “Our hearts may stop beating, but our machines will not stop running!” and “Improve your skills, compete to be good workers.” Those who broke production records were recognized as “labor heroines.” Yet, while the ba dam dang woman increased her social and economic role in society and defied the dangers of military attack, she continued to fulfill her family obligations. A “labor heroine” was deemed heroic not simply because she attained high production levels during the bombings, but because she achieved these results while caring for her children on her own.28 The ba dam dang woman’s specific virtue lay precisely in her ability to combine harmoniously these multiple kinds of service. She embraced the party’s goals of social and scientific improvement, displayed courage in the face of enemy threat, and yet never lost sight of her primary identity as a wife, daughter, and mother. During the early and most patriotic years of the war, from 1965 to 1968, a compelling model of national womanhood emerged that effectively combined socialist ideas


of progress with the domestic feminine qualities of self-sacrifice, nurturance and devotion. EXTOLLING HEROIC FEMININITY The official press played a central role in promoting the ba dam dang ideal among North Vietnamese women. In the early stage of the war, Van Nghe presented readers with stories depicting heroic young women who achieved an ideal balance of feminine tradition and modern science. While men were called to the front, women were asked to “defend the rear”—to fight the war on disease, poverty, ignorance, and nature’s brutal elements. Nurses were a favorite heroine type. Frequently they were unmarried girls who had left the safety and familiarity of their home villages and towns to tend the nation’s sick and wounded. These young women not only exemplified self-less bravery in their willingness to risk their lives for their patients but, more importantly, carried the virtues of maternal love and wifely devotion into the new public space of the nation. Their ‘heroism’ lay specifically in their ability to reconstitute domestic femininity within the external realm of national struggle and socialist development. In a Van Nghe story published in 1966, titled “Returning to a New Place,” Ly is a nurse who has been working in a makeshift clinic at the front.29 She and her colleagues are responsible for transporting fallen soldiers from the battlefield to the operating room. Ly is extremely dedicated to her job and thus is dismayed when she learns that she has been re-posted to a clinic in an evacuation area. She had always told herself that if she “couldn’t fire a gun against the cruel and treacherous Americans,” at least she could work to reduce the number of casualties, “to stem the flow of blood of those who fought and struggled against the enemy.” Now that she has been transferred, “she feels as though she has been stripped of this right.” Yet, her colleagues and supervisor help her to see that her “concept of protecting patients and war invalids is not correct.” In order to fulfill all of her responsibilities, she must recognize that serving the nation from the ‘rear’ is no less important than working on the front lines. After a few months in her new post, she receives a letter from a former patient—a soldier, who wants to thank her for the kind care she gave him during his most terrible days in the evacuation clinic. I remember you most clearly, because you sat at the end of my bed holding the needle that transfused the blood into my leg. Under the lamplight, I could see the sweat pouring from your worried brow. After that there were the hot afternoons in May and the steaming nights without a bit of wind. My stomach wounds that had just been operated


on caused me excruciating pain, and you had to hold me in your arms like a little child… As a nurse at the rear, Ly can apply her maternal virtues to the care of the nation. In contrast to the dramatic and dangerous quality of her previous post, she must now commit herself to the mundane problems of patient care. The hospital has become her household, and she sets her mind to improving hygienic conditions. Her efforts win her the admiration and praise of her patients and coworkers. Young heroines, eager to make their contribution from the front or the rear, filled more humble occupations as well. While nurses presented the clearest combination of bravery, scientific progress and maternal love, the conditions of war created opportunities for ordinary peasant girls to distinguish themselves as exceptional patriots, possessing ideal feminine traits. The “Story of Miss Duyen,” published in another 1966 issue of Van Nghe, describes how a village girl from an impoverished family interprets the call to defend her homeland as a chance to help her village fight the constant threat of floods.30 Determined to fill in for her absent father, she trains herself to work the recently purchased pump system. She leads a village youth campaign to convince all members of the community to use the new technology. “We are now ready to wait for even larger rain storms,” the girl concludes, “to struggle and to win…just as our soldiers are sitting behind their guns, ready and waiting to shoot down the American planes.” Girls without special skills could express their selfless patriotism through displays of great physical courage. In a third Van Nghe story from 1966, a young woman in charge of a local railroad station places her life in immediate danger in order to protect a train carrying urgent supplies to the front.31 She offers to sit beside a slow-detonating bomb that was discovered next to the tracks in order to indicate to the conductor when it is about to explode. After the train has passed safely, she confesses that she has no experience working with bombs but only wanted to fulfill her duty to the front. The author reminds the reader of how much this heroine was willing to sacrifice for the Fatherland: “The girl has a very nice name, co Thao, meaning devoted; she has a daughter not yet five years old, and she loves her daughter very much.” The code of heroic femininity during the early war years encouraged women to step outside of the household and to acquire the technical skills needed to improve and protect society. In mastering technologies of healthcare, environmental control and village defense, women were not simply replacing men but, more importantly, strengthening the nation/family by directing their feminine virtues toward the collective good. The bravest examples risked losing


Fig. 2. Two Vietnamese women retrieve the remains of a U.S. plane shot down in Vinh Phu province, July, 1972 (photo courtesy of the author).

the chance to mother their children, love their husbands, or care for their parents, in order to nurture and protect the nation. TO LOVE IS TO SACRIFICE While the press celebrated women’s feats of physical courage and technological expertise as testimony to the “new Vietnamese woman’s” heroic character, relatively few women were likely to realize this ideal. Tied to their household chores and field or factory jobs, the majority of North Vietnamese women endured a less dramatic, more long-term form of sacrifice: namely, the emotional task of living chastely apart from their husbands for years at a stretch. In order to insure a steady stream of recruits for the struggle, the government needed to eliminate the emotional as well as the economic deterrents that might prevent young men from leaving their families. The Three Responsibilities campaign instructed women to view the departure of their loved ones as a source of pride rather than grief and to encourage this separation out of a higher love for the nation. A good wife should be positive and supportive on the eve of her husband’s departure. She should put his mind at ease, by showering him with promises of faithfulness and reassuring him of her determination to carry on in his absence. Such female optimism served the goals of productivity as well. Faced with the indefinite absence of their new husbands, young wives


often suffered acute bouts of depression and anxiety, which decreased their energy and enthusiasm to work for the collective good. In a 1995 interview, a 55-year-old retired factory worker in Hanoi’s Phuong Lien neighborhood recalled the worry and stress she experienced in the wake of her husband’s departure for the war: The American war years were the most difficult time in my life. When my second child was only a few weeks old, my husband went into the army. I was very young then, not yet twenty, and, because my mother and father had both died, I had only myself to rely on. At that time, we had to evacuate our children to the countryside, about 50 kilometers away. Because I had to earn money in the city, I could not stay with them. I found work in the inspection room of a rubber factory, and I brought food to my children at the end of every week. When I first started working in the factory, I often could not concentrate on my work. I didn’t know how long my husband would be gone. I was always thinking ‘if he never returns, I will have to raise my children alone, and they will never know their father’s face.’ My husband was stationed in Laos during the war. He didn’t come home until 1975. I would often go two or three years without news from him.32 During the mid and late 1960s, Phu Nu Viet Nam counseled its readers to transcend their personal suffering by viewing their hardship as part of a shared sacrifice for the nation. The paper devoted many of its pages to emotional accounts from women who had come to terms with their husbands’ absence after grasping the “correct” meaning of love and happiness. In one article from 1965, a teacher describes the initial anger and despair she felt when her husband informed her—one month after their wedding— that he was leaving in two days for the front.33 She refused to say good-bye to him and ignored his appeals to write. When she returned to her job, she could not stop the flow of “pessimistic thoughts”: How could I know when he would return! We only have real happiness when we are young. Once we are old there is no more…. How could I know whether my happiness would be guaranteed, whether I would be compensated for all the time I have waited? Thinking this way, my work began to decline sharply… Yet, after reading the women’s paper and talking to her colleagues and friends, her “concept of happiness changed.” She came to understand that by obstructing her husband from fulfilling his duty, and failing to help him feel enthusiastic


about leaving, she was preventing them both from finding the happiness they desired. “The conscience and virtue of the revolutionary cadre would always haunt me, and prevent me from peacefully enjoying an egoistic happiness based on self interest.” Freed of selfish thinking, she began to write to her husband frequently. She now felt proud to be married to a man who was “making an active contribution to the building of the country.” The sacrifice required of mothers entailed an equally radical revision of the personal or “egoistic” view of love. In the mid and late 1960s, many middleaged and older Vietnamese women had already lost husbands and brothers in the previous struggle against the French. The enlistment of their sons in a second war carried extremely painful memories, as well as the terrifying prospect of living alone and uncared for in their old age. As part of its wartime propaganda efforts, the Women’s Union sought to refine the characteristics of the ‘good mother’ in order to clarify the relationship between maternal love and national duty. The tie between mother and son, even more than the marital bond, was central to the party’s code of patriotic virtue. In Vietnam’s patrilineal and patrilocal descent system, sons enjoyed a disproportionate investment of their mother’s labor, nurturance and love. While daughters “married out,” sons remained “inside,” perpetuating the ancestral line, and, in the case of eldest sons, eventually becoming the heads of the household in which a mother would live out her final years. Mothers thus strove to insure the health, affection and loyalty of their sons. War inevitably presented mothers with a conflict between self-interest and national duty—a contradiction which the party sought to resolve by celebrating motherhood as a fountain of revolutionary virtue in society. As General Secretary Le Duan asserted in 1959, mothers had the potential to “transmit all the finest traits of the Vietnamese character” to their children.34 It followed that a mother who encouraged her son to fight was not only fulfilling her national duty, but also expressing the highest form of maternal love. The Women’s Union relied on peer example to convince women to accept this formulation. During the mid and late 1960s, Phu Nu Viet Nam asked readers to respond to letters of emotional distress submitted by women struggling with the loss of their sons. Drawing on their own personal experience, model respondents expressed sympathy and understanding for fellow mothers, and then gave a clear account of how they successfully overcame their own struggle between self-interest and collective service. In one such response, published in 1966, a woman who lost her husband in the colonial resistance describes her anguish when her first son— whom she raised on her own and always expected to have at home—left for the front.35 “If he returns home, then I will be very happy. But if he is lost, how will I endure the misery? I have not yet even arranged a marriage for him….” It is only after receiving a letter from her son


that she begins to find peace and is able to return to her work. Her son writes to tell her how much he appreciates the sacrifices she made for him, but how he must now be far from her in order to continue the struggle that his father started. The letter transforms her pain into a sense of pride in having raised such a “wise” and “revolutionary” son. “I am now ready to send my second son to follow his brother, to struggle for the country for however long it takes until there is not a single American enemy left on our land.” Decades later, the poverty and loneliness of thousands of elderly women across Vietnam would testify to the painful cost of such maternal patriotism. As the most vulnerable members of the postwar society, the war mothers have received little more for their past sacrifices than a tiny widow’s pension and the government’s belated recognition of their “heroic” status. THE MERCHANT AS NATIONAL DEVIANT The wartime ideal of personal sacrifice exemplified by the ‘heroic mother’ set in relief the merchant woman’s unpatriotic and self-serving practices. In the mid and late 1960s, private sellers continued to challenge the party’s efforts to wed women’s hearts, bodies and minds to the national struggle. Although many women traders had been successfully absorbed into the cooperative economy since the mid-1950s, the disruption of war provided opportunities for smallscale businesswomen to fill in the gaps left by inefficient government distribution.36 In city and town markets, independent sellers offered an alternative to the long lines and limited selection of goods found at state shops. Women’s Union officials objected to these women less for their defiance of state economic policies than for their apparent indifference to the collective concerns of a nation at war. In her single-minded pursuit of personal gain and her refusal to participate in the organizations of the socialist society, the merchant woman rejected the prescribed subjectivity of the “new Vietnamese woman.” As the war effort got underway in 1965, the women’s paper published a growing number of articles condemning the independent and irreverent behavior of private sellers, particularly their disregard for the dangers posed by American bombing raids. Although government decrees restricted market activities to sheltered areas and evening hours, groups of sellers frequently gathered in broad daylight along large roads, where they were most likely to find customers. In one article from a 1965 issue of Phu Nu Viet Nam, the author describes the efforts of a local official to deter a group of market women from selling their goods during the day. The women dismiss the official’s advice by shouting at him:


No one has free time to go to the market at night like you [cadres]! Where there are people who sell, there will be people who buy, you can’t prohibit the market! …You are so fearful, you see airplanes that don’t even exist! We will worry about our own fate. We didn’t ask you to protect us!37 The market seller not only exhibited a cavalier attitude toward her safety; she was also willing to jeopardize her children for the sake of profit. While patriotic mothers across the country were enduring painful separations from sons and daughters serving at the front, merchant women relied on their children as an economic resource. A 1966 article in Phu Nu Viet Nam describes a seller who persistently evades government efforts to help her evacuate her children to the countryside. Each time the local cadre approaches her, she claims either that her children are sick or helping a relative. In fact, the author explains, the seller’s children are working for their mother, “rising at dawn” everyday to buy goods at the state store, which can then be resold at “cut throat prices” along city sidewalks or in public movie theaters. The author asks rhetorically: Is it that the woman is not satisfied with the money her husband sends home to her? If her children face difficulties, the city government is ready to help her arrange a safe place for them to go to school! Or is it mainly that she is so greedy for the small profit she sees before her, that she is willing to let her children become ‘petty traders,’ taking up the cheating tricks of the past?38 Government officials assumed that some women traders were simply beyond the reach of reform efforts; yet they hoped to save businesswomen’s children by removing them to a more positive environment. The evacuation campaign aimed not only to secure the safety of the child, but also, in the case of market children, to insure that the evil habits of capitalism did not continue into another generation. By neglecting to send her children to the countryside, the urban seller denied them the right to continue their education and—as one article from Phu Nu Viet Nam put it—to improve themselves under the influence of the “upright and kind character” of the “working people.”39 She failed to express the “correct” form of maternal love, by preventing her children from taking part in the collective family of the nation. In 1969, the tenor of state propaganda aimed at women began to change. The women’s paper no longer reserved moral condemnation for the private merchant, but focused a censoring eye on a wider population of women. Phu Nu Viet Nam and Van Nghe continued to publish stories of labor heroines, selfless mothers and courageous nurses, but Phu Nu Viet Nam, in particular, now began


to juxtapose these accounts with harsh crit icisms of young women whose everyday behavior offended the image of the “new Vietnamese woman.” No single historical event can account for this marked shift in the newspaper’s pedagogical style and preoccupations after 1969. Rather, the cumulative effects of a declining economy, wartime fatigue, and the coming of age of a new postRevolutionary generation combined to weaken the party’s hold on the hearts and minds of female citizens, and of the youth in particular. During the later American war years, the Women’s Union struggled to school young women in the codes of socialist progress and feminine tradition, as these national codes themselves became increasingly contradictory and ambiguous. DISCIPLINING A WAYWARD GENERATION: THE LATER WAR YEARS—1969 TO 1975 The DRV’s agricultural economy began to decline as early as 1965, when the government decided to expand rural cooperatives from the semi-socialist model (comprising 50 to 100 families in a village hamlet) to a “higher level” Soviet model. In the upgraded system, villagers had little incentive to work efficiently or diligently, since they were remunerated based on work points rather than on the amount they produced or the equipment that they had contributed. The cooperatives suffered from a pattern of “foot dragging” in which members sought to accumulate as many work points as possible with the minimum investment of labor. A further problem was that, unlike the smaller cooperatives of earlier years, the “higher level” communes did not support a close relationship between cooperative and family-based production. Work teams comprised villagers from different families and neighborhoods and thus discouraged a sense of shared investment in the commune’s success. Commune members often failed to maintain collective property, allowing tools and machinery to fall into disrepair and farm animals to languish. In addition, villagers resented having to support numerous cooperative officials who did little or no agricultural work and who appeared woefully unqualified for their positions. 40 As rice yields fell between 1968 and 1970, U.S. bombing attacks on North Vietnam intensified. Damage to factories and infrastructure strained the government’s ability to provide living wages for the population while continuing to finance the war. Despite an ongoing flow of aid from the Soviet Union and China, real incomes among both agricultural and worker/cadre families declined steadily as the government siphoned any economic surplus to war industries and the front. Tight rationing and chronic shortages of basic consumer goods made the call for personal sacrifices harder to bear. By the end of the 1960s, many women had to rely on supplemental private activities in order to meet their “three responsibilities.” In rural areas, women


devoted ever greater amounts of time to the small household plots that they had been allowed to keep, achieving yields more than twice as high as those on collectivized land.41 Some cooperatives—impressed by this level of productivity —established “sneaky contracts” (khoan chui) with villagers, allowing them to farm underused cooperative land or raise pigs independently in exchange for a set share of the output.42 In the cities and towns, women often had to take up surreptitious petty selling schemes in order to feed their families. Many Hanoians, who are in their thirties and forties today, can remember their mothers illicitly selling cigarettes, cakes or garments from home during the later war years. One thirty-year-old woman—a foreign airline employee—whom I interviewed in 1996, recalled feeling humiliated and fearful whenever school friends or neighbors discovered her mother’s activities. “I tried to make up excuses whenever one of my friends saw my mother selling cigarettes to a neighbor,” she explained. “After a while, I just stopped inviting people to my house.”43 As financial hardship pressed some mothers to take up what the women’s paper termed “shameful” and “improper” forms of work, it also undermined the political enthusiasm of youth. The economic decline of the later war years coincided with the coming of age of the first generation of Vietnamese women with no memory of the deprivations suffered under colonialism and, hence, little appreciation for the achievements of the Revolution. While many northern girls still embraced the national cause by volunteering for military youth brigades in the late sixties and early seventies, a growing number of others, mostly in the cities and towns, had begun to tire of revolutionary culture and of the personal sacrifices it required. As the fighting raged on, bringing greater privations to the population, many young women were determined to pursue the ordinary preoccupations of youth—with beauty, fashion, romance and wealth—despite official calls for renewed self-discipline and austerity. The desire for attractive, feminine clothes drove some girls to cheat the subsidy system, often to the detriment of other customers. In one instance, described in a 1969 issue of Phu Nu Viet Nam for example, a group of Hanoi girls used their ration tickets to buy up all of the children’s clothes at state stores. They hoarded the garments in order to take them apart and reassemble them into stylish blouses and skirts for themselves. The article condemns the girls’ behavior as selfish and unpatriotic and asks “Where are the morals of these girls?”44 In 1969, the National Confederation of Trade Unions launched an educational campaign that aimed to improve the political consciousness of young women workers. Under the theme of the “Morality of the New Vietnamese Woman,” the movement called on young women to improve their productivity and “revolutionary spirit” by combating individualism and other “wrong attitudes.” Propaganda cadres from the party’s Trade Union organization provided lesson


plans explaining the connection between the Vietnamese woman’s tradition of “undaunted patriotism, courageous struggle against oppression, industrious labor, and family responsibility” and the morality of the working class. Because the working class had inherited the Vietnamese woman’s tradition of selflessness and revolutionary sacrifice, the texts pointed out, women workers had a special role to play in heightening “working class consciousness,” promoting socialism and national independence and building “democratic” and “harmonious” families.45 The campaign apparently did little to improve young women’s socialist work ethic. By 1970 the women’s paper was voicing the party’s growing concern over the younger generation’s disdain for “productive labor.” As one article, addressed specifically to female youth, explained: Many students still think that to do productive labor is a waste of study time. There are a number of young women workers who have not yet guaranteed their work days and work hours and who have not yet consented to study technological culture. And there are many of you in the countryside who avoid field labor. In the cities, a small number of young women have taken up smuggling, looking for ways to steal public funds in order to make a living. Labor is at once a duty and a requirement of human life; through labor youth can realize their abilities and have confidence in their physical and spiritual strength. Young women, let us always be proud to be the people maintaining the vanguard role on the productive labor front!46 As the war effort dragged on and poverty increased in the early 1970s, the Women’s Union could no longer rely solely on the messages of patriotic sacrifice, socialist asceticism and collective struggle as the basis for prescribing codes of female behavior. New formulations and rhetorical resources were required to justify the state’s claim over the terrain of women’s personal lives in the context of growing ideological malaise and the unmet aspirations for national development. The party needed women more than ever to affirm the virtues of the ‘national character’ and to symbolize the kind of society that should inherit the fruits of military struggle. Yet, while earlier codes of heroic femininity were no longer sufficient, the Women’s Union struggled to integrate the oftencompeting ideals of cultural tradition, socialist equality, technological progress and economic development within a coherent model of Vietnamese womanhood. Increasingly, the press portrayed contradictions between these elements of national identity as problems of female discipline. The motivational propaganda of the 1950s and 1960s gave way in the early 1970s to repressive critique, divorced from any national mission and aimed at the minutest details of personal conduct.


MAINTAINING THE SOCIALIST IMAGE Beginning in the early 1970s, state propaganda aimed at women focused increasingly on the behavioral problems and moral failings of young urban females. Factory workers, office girls and teacher training students were expected to serve as symbols of the nation’s socialist progress and economic modernization. Yet, because they were living in or around urban areas, away from their families and outside the disciplined culture of military service, these women were susceptible to a variety of habits and attitudes incompatible with the ideal of the “new Vietnamese woman.” Party officials particularly objected to the immodesty and extravagance that many female workers and students displayed in their personal conduct and appearance. Despite on-going shortages and a climate of wartime asceticism, a new breed of carefree young women was willing to go to great lengths to enjoy themselves and enhance their beauty. In an effort to correct the mistakes of the younger generation, the women’s paper introduced a “style” page in 1970, titled “Noi Chuyen Phong Cach” Many of the articles on this page chastised wayward girls who offended the nation’s image by dressing and behaving in ‘improper,’ un-socialist ways. Other articles sought to delineate the correct style and feminine attributes of Vietnam’s modern socialist woman. Yet, far from providing a clear picture of Vietnamese femininity, this new pedagogical campaign accentuated the tensions within and between Vietnam’s relationship to the past, to the West and to the principles of modern socialism. One of the most worrying aspects of the increasing delinquency among young women was their embrace of a notion of leisure time hitherto unthinkable under the pressures and hardships of war. By indulging their need for recreation, city girls appeared in the eyes of authorities to be escaping the strict confines of state and family control and entering a domain of unchecked personal and sexual expression. Their recklessness posed a threat not only to productivity, but also to the carefully constructed ideal of the progressive young woman as wedded to the collective work of society. An article from a 1971 issue of Phu Nu Viet Nam harshly indicts “many young women in the cities” for undermining the revolutionary achievements of “today’s women” by engaging in “weak” and “unattractive” behavior. Their conduct, the author points out, undermines the nation’s image in the eyes of “foreign visitors” (most likely Chinese and Russian in 1971). In many public places there are young women, who dress up, stand together shyly, timidly, drawing curious stares and sniggering from passersby. Many girls go to work in clothes meant for recreation; and because they don’t want to dirty these clothes, they must work gingerly


and thus can not achieve a high level of production…. At theaters, in the street, at concerts, there are those who wear clothes that are immodest, too open, too tight, and they have disheveled hair. They don’t realize that they appear strange to other people. There are also many girls who speak and laugh loudly, make noise in public places, and use slang words like may (‘you’) and tao (I), when they speak to each other. Some even use obscene language. They waste a lot of time on having fun…. Often foreign visitors come to visit Vietnam and they carry home an impression of our country based on the qualities and appearance of Vietnamese girls…. The ways of dressing, walking, speaking and enjoying oneself are symbols of the ideology, feeling, and cultural level of the people. We are a socialist laboring people, with a modern and scientific culture, in which women are equal to men in both family and social activities. We must pay attention to the construction of a new style of young woman, of a person who has beauty both in the content of her life and in her external appearance.47 The party’s desire to project a properly socialist national image led to meticulous policing of women’s attire. Party cadres in factories, college dormitories and state offices closely censored girls who strayed from a modest workers’ aesthetic. A fabric seller named Binh, whom I spoke to Hanoi’s Hang Da market in 1996, bitterly recalled her difficult transition from the youth volunteer movement to factory work in the early 1970s. I had been a member of the ‘youth volunteers’ (thanh nien xung phong), and we had great enthusiasm, because we wanted to help the soldiers. But after that, when I began working in the sandal factory, everything changed. When we were volunteers we often didn’t have enough to eat, but still we were very happy. Afterwards, we began to think more about what we didn’t have. Everyday life was so wretched. We were so poor. We had nothing! We never had meat, even for Tet. And we were only allowed a small amount of fabric for our clothes. In truth, we were not free to ‘dress up’ (an mac dien) anyway. If someone came to work in a pretty blouse, everyone would look at her and wonder how she got it. And the cadres at the factory would criticize her, they would say that she was ‘showing off (an mac trung tro) or that she was ‘imitating the West’ (dua doi phuong tay). One day, I wore a pair of pants to work that had flared bottoms, and my supervisor told me that I couldn’t participate in the Youth Union activities at our factory anymore.48


Party officials frequently used shame as a means of deterring young women from ‘aping the West.’ An article in a 1972 issue of Phu Nu Viet Nam, describes a harsh moral lesson meted out to a young factory worker, who arrived at work with a modern ‘beehive’ hairstyle.49 The factory cadres pretended not to recognize her and refused to let her enter the factory. Finally, after she had stood bewildered outside the gate for nearly an hour, they called her into the supervisor’s office. Holding a mirror up, the supervisor asked her: Do you look like other women who work here? …Young women should adorn themselves to make themselves attractive, but they must keep the Vietnamese style. Vietnamese beauty is simple and pure. You can improve your clothes to be more attractive, versatile and healthy. But you should not imitate the fashions of the capitalist European countries…. A moral Vietnamese woman does not dress this way… While the women’s paper sought to oppose Vietnamese beauty to the frivolity and immodesty of the West, it also recognized the need to ‘modernize’ the Vietnamese woman’s dress code in order to reflect the nation’s cultural and economic development. By the early 1970s, the business of prescribing a national feminine style had become a difficult balancing act. While heroic images of youth volunteers dressed in army fatigues and peasant girls armed with guns continued to fill official newspapers, the Women’s Union struggled to define an appropriately modern, peacetime fashion. In 1973, with the Americans in retreat and the government eager to attract postwar Western aid, the women’s paper called on readers to refine and feminize their appearance. “In addition to other worthy virtues like faithfulness and responsibility (dam dang),” a 1973 article in Phu Nu Viet Nam explained, “Vietnamese women need to be extolled by foreign countries for wearing modest, graceful and subtle clothes.”50 The Women’s Union sought to enhance the ‘grace’ and ‘subtlety’ of women by encouraging skirts as an alternative to simple drab-colored trousers. Paradoxically, few women at the time felt comfortable following this advice. Even in Hanoi, the fear of appearing vain and frivolous prevented most women from wearing skirts until the early 1990s. The women’s paper tried to convince readers to adopt a modest Western style by explaining the advantages of skirts. “Many of us think that wearing a skirt is pretentious overdressing,” another 1973 article asserted, “but there are many simple styles. Furthermore, skirts are cooler and more relaxed and will create a more cheerful and fresh atmosphere.”51 By 1975, Phu Nu Viet Nam was explicitly imploring women to adapt Western styles suitable for a “modern life.” One article called on women to abandon the traditional black silk trousers associated with poor rural peasants. The author


explains that, although these pants are popular because they identify women as “binh dan” or “common,” they are nevertheless “unhygienic” and unflattering. Black covers stains, while white, as you can see in a hospital, makes stains clear. And, in terms of aesthetics, many people feel a strong dislike when they are faced with this kind of black pant…. The pants do nothing to enhance the appearance of Vietnamese women, but rather exaggerate their short stature.52 The best way for Vietnamese women to enhance their feminine qualities, the author continues, is through a ‘correct’ adaptation of Western clothes. We have been trying to encourage women to wear skirts for a long time now but without success. The first goal is to encourage students and young women to wear Western clothes—dresses, skirts, shirts, etc. because they are likely to lead a movement in the change of fashion. The beginning is the most difficult stage; we shouldn’t fear that this will be a sudden or abrupt change. Look how easily young girls change from their leisure clothes to army uniforms when they have to do their military service! …In terms of Western clothes, we will provide careful information about prices, aesthetics and convenience. Right now we just want to emphasize that Western clothes are more suitable for a modern life. They are neat, sturdy and appropriate for the style of the “new woman.” The preoccupations of Phu Nu Viet Nam’s style section during the later war years revealed the party’s growing concern not only with maintaining the younger generation’s labor productivity and ideological commitment, in a climate of growing poverty, shortages and wartime fatigue, but also with projecting a favorable national image to the outside world. The content of this image had to accommodate the increasingly nuanced distinctions between socialist propriety and aesthetic severity, on the one hand, and between Western immodesty and ‘modern’ standards of beauty, on the other. While young women’s frivolous ventures into capitalist fashions risked undermining the nation’s status in the eyes of its socialist benefactors, the drab colors and poor quality of wartime peasant and worker clothes failed to reflect the modern and refined cultural style that the party hoped to convey to the wider international community. As the women’s paper schooled its readers to adopt ‘appropriate’ Western dress, despite the dangers of appearing pretentious, it articulated the “new Vietnamese woman’s” obligation to fulfill and resolve the conflicting priorities of national modernity.


MISUNDERSTANDING EQUALITY Alongside instruction in proper dress, Phu Nu Viet Nam provided its younthful readers with lessons in proper feminine comportment and manners. While continuing to remind young women of their “progressive” laboring role in society, the Women’s Union grew increasingly concerned in the early 1970s that the disruptions of war and the unintended effects of socialist ideology had prevented the post-Revolutionary generation from developing traditional feminine qualities. The city girl’s loud laughter, obscene language and generally crass behavior not only threatened work discipline; it also indicated a misguided notion of gender equality. Too many urban youth, the paper pointed out, wrongly viewed customary codes of social respect as “feudal” and “backward” behavior. They mistook the fruits of Revolutionary liberation for personal freedoms—an error that jeopardized the values of domestic femininity. During the bombing evacuations of the early 1970s, Phu Nu Viet Nam frequently reported on city girls who had offended their rural hosts by failing to observe traditional etiquette. A 1973 article, for instance, describes an elderly rural woman who chastises her urban boarder for speaking in a disrespectful way to her mother-in-law.53 The young evacuee retorts that her mother-in-law is “feudal” and that “today we have equality and don’t need to follow the old ways of speech.” The village woman sternly instructs her: “Our society only values people who have morality. You still must treat your elders with respect.” Phu Nu Viet Nam frequently used peer comparison as a means of drawing attention to the faults of inappropriately modern girls. Compared to the pedagogical campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s, the language and tone of the 1970s propaganda was harsher, it aimed not merely to criticize but, in many cases, to humiliate the offender. An article from 1973, for instance, describes two best friends—Phan and Bich—who work together in the same office and share a room in a workers’ dormitory.54 Despite their close friendship, the two girls have very different personalities. “Phan has a composed disposition; she always speaks prudently and with forethought…. While Bich is completely different: she laughs noisily, talks incessantly, and heedlessly walks anywhere at any time.” One day, after returning from work, Phan overhears a group of women in her housing compound talking about Bich. “Truly Bich has no shame,” one woman insists, as she sits washing clothes. “She will stand and talk to anybody, laughing and chattering with her hands in her pockets…” Another woman, holding an infant, adds: …Bich doesn’t know what shame is. Just look at the way she dresses, in those narrow, straight black velvet pants, in shirts and blouses of all types and sizes. Her hair changes style every month. These days, she has cut


her hair too short…somehow in order to look ‘cute.’ During working hours, if she hears about some pretty fabric for sale, she just leaves to buy it at any price. The women’s words pain Phan who views her friend, Bich, as a sister. In the past, Phan had tried to advise Bich about her behavior, but she had always spoken in vague terms in order to avoid angering Bich. Now, Phan resigns to speak to her friend directly. She tells Bich: “There are women who say that your short hair cut makes you look like a boy. There are others who say that you are a woman but yet you don’t have a bit of [female] sexuality (gioi tinh)”. Bich appears unmoved as she listens to her friend’s words. Finally, she responds: Good grief, who knows what you’ll hear if you listen to the opinion of the masses! Those mothers with infants, they are hard to please. Anything males can do, females can do. That’s what equality is! Those women like to pick people apart. It is hard to be friends with such women! The author leaves the reader with a somber judgment of Bich: Because of her attitude, Bich has no close women friends, including Phan, a person who very sincerely hoped that Bich would progress, not only in her work, but also in her lifestyle and in her relationships with other people… The moral backlash against the overly ‘liberated’ young woman expressed the party’s fear that the younger generation was wrongly embracing the ideology of gender equality as a source of personal freedom from the demands and expectations of patriarchal family culture rather than as a component of collective national service. The women’s paper often scrutinized the minutiae of girls’ social interactions in order to elucidate the distinction between a correct “progressive” attitude and promiscuous or irreverent behavior. A 1974 article, for example, targets a group of boisterous factory girls on holiday at the beach who mistakenly equate being ‘modern’ with behaving in a boldly flirtatious way. One girl, named Tarn, feels increasingly uneasy and ashamed as she watches her friend, Nga, joking loudly with a group of young men. Tam is horrified when Nga spots a well-known play actor on the beach and convinces him to have his picture taken with Nga and her friends. Looking on uncomfortably, Tam recalls how her friends are always criticizing her for being too “timid.” “You should be more like Nga,” they say. “Wherever Nga goes she acts familiar and natural…. You are too hesitant and too old fashioned! Young


people today must be eloquent, vivacious, and youthful….” The author sternly clarifies the misconceptions of Tarn’s friends to the reader: Yes, you should assert yourselves boldly in work and be eloquent in communication, but you still must always maintain a level of subtlety and politeness. If Nga’s behavior is ‘natural,’ Tam should certainly not follow her lead. Good heavens!55 Through such articles, the Women’s Union persistently reminded city girls that “equality” and “liberation” did not imply a retreat from their duties as daughters and as future wives and mothers. Instead, the “new Vietnamese woman” needed to cultivate those positive aspects of traditional femininity—such as, modesty, self-restraint, self-sacrifice, and family devotion—that distinguished her from men and enabled her to serve as a reservoir of national tradition. The Women’s Union increasingly looked to an older generation of women to help reign in and retraditionalize wayward youth. A NEW ROLE FOR MOTHERS By the early 1970s, examples of pioneering young women instructing their “backward” mothers in the lessons of socialism had virtually disappeared from the pages of the official press. A new breed of articles had appeared in their place, praising mothers for providing models of correct femininity to their daughters. Mothers who were in their forties, fifties and sixties in the 1970s were part of the generation that had experienced colonial rule and consequently had a clear appreciation of the enormous costs of the national resistance and the achievements of socialism. Many of these women had directly participated in the Revolution. Yet, as children, they had acquired a firm sense of their obligations to a patriarchal family culture that included the Confucian “four virtues” of chastity, grace, diligence and deferential speech. In the eyes of the party, these women embodied an ideal balance of revolutionary ideals and traditional feminine qualities that the new generation of youth clearly lacked. The style section of Phu Nu Viet Nam in the 1970s presented young readers with a wide range of motherly advice—from lessons in domestic etiquette and proper speech to instruction in the correct uses of free time. The content of these articles reflected the party’s struggle to reinstate traditional feminine morality, while continuing to promote the values of socialist progress. In a 1974 article, for instance, a mother warns her daughter not to “view lightly” her responsibilities at the table.56


When she eats at someone’s house, or when someone visits her house, it is through the meal that people will be able to determine the manners of a mother’s daughter. A daughter must always be thoughtful and delicate… A detailed description follows of the correct way to set the table, serve the rice, and clear the guests’ dishes. The mother recalls how her own mother shamed her when, as a child, she “rudely” poured soup in her own bowl before others were served. “You mustn’t ignore such small matters,” she now cautions her daughter, “because small matters can become habits that are difficult to break.” A similar article from 1975 criticizes young women who neglect those domestic responsibilities most essential to Vietnamese female character. In this case, the male author learns that his girlfriend is “lacking certain virtues,” when her mother declares that she is “like a boy” because she doesn’t help out with housework.57 The mother explains to him: She doesn’t know how to do anything, except how to earn [cooperative] ‘work points.’ She doesn’t manage or arrange anything for her mother. Yet, I was always told in the past: ‘try to have a daughter because she will take care of you later on.’ Each time the author visits his girlfriend, he observes how rarely she assists her mother with cooking, cleaning, and tidying up. I understood that my friend’s mother wished her daughter would take care of many things. My girlfriend was clearly lacking this quality. And yet I know that many of my male friends who go out with girls like her— and maybe even love them and think that they are nice looking— they are hesitant when they consider ‘building a family’ with these girls. Is it not true that these girls will later organize their households poorly? …I thought about the words of my girlfriend’s mother: “she is just like a boy!” The author assures his girlfriend’s mother that he will help her daughter improve this aspect of her character. “This made [my girlfriend’s] mother very happy and now she cherishes me all the more.” While the women’s paper relied on maternal example to restore domestic feminine virtues in the younger generation, the editors also enlisted mothers to help reinstate the youthful seriousness of the 1950s and 1960s. These seemingly contradictory discourses illustrate the party’s effort to harmonize a patriarchal cultural tradition with the modernizing goals of a socialist society. While, in


some instances, mothers warned their daughters to cultivate certain traditional feminine traits or risk being deemed unmarriageable, at other points, they urged them to advance themselves intellectually. In addition to chastising girls for their misconceptions of gender equality, the Women’s Union attributed certain aspects of young women’s bad behavior to the persistence of a preRevolutionary “women’s temperament” or “tinh dan ba” From this view, Vietnamese girls, who engaged in petty gossip, held superstitious beliefs and made indecent jokes were not merely behaving in an unrefined way, they were also neglecting their opportunities for enlightenment and advancement in a modernizing society. The revolutionary generation of mothers—for whom education had been a hard won prize of national liberation as well as a “progressive” social duty—advised their daughters to replace negative feminine habits with a disciplined focus on rational and scientific subject matter. An article, from a 1973 issue of Pbu Nu Viet Nam, for example, praises a mother who instructs her daughter to do away with ‘tinh dan ba’ by improving the way she spends her leisure time with friends: Why don’t you behave more like your two friends Thu and Lien? When they meet boys they discuss algebra problems, they speak about important heroic things. I would like you to have friends like them. From now on, you should change your conversations with your friends. When your friends come to the house, you should bring out a math lesson, a literature lesson or any serious problem that you can discuss together. Or you can discuss a scientific invention that you have read about in a book or magazine…. In this way you won’t have time left for pointless chatter.58 In another article from 1975, a mother advises her daughter not to “waste time” talking aimlessly with her friends and “sprucing herself up.” Instead she should commit herself to mature and studious activities.59 If we spend the time in a day frittering away the hours or foolishly worrying about something, then the day will certainly seem very long. But if a person pursues a project with aspiration, passionately studying or carrying out an experiment or a research thesis, then if the project takes one year, five years or even ten years, the time will seem too short! In employing the Revolutionary generation of mothers as moral examples, Pbu Nu Viet Nam expressed the party’s concurrent desires to defend feminine tradition against the unintended effects of socialist gender equality, on the one hand, and to promote women’s social and scientific progress, on the other. The


style page called on girls to cultivate pre-socialist domestic habits and customs, and, at the same time, urged them to advance themselves through study. The young women who sought to satisfy these competing criteria in the early 1970s risked offending a further element in the formula for socialist modernity. By striving to advance their knowledge, academically-minded girls potentially threatened the political ideal of the ‘mass’ society. The goal of modernizing young women’s minds thus carried its own ideological liabilities, which warranted further disciplinary attention in the press. “EVERYTHING IN ITS RIGHT PLACE” While the women’s paper instructed frivolous girls to progress intellectually, it simultaneously portrayed women’s pursuit of higher learning as a source of unwanted class distinctions between urban and rural society. The ideal of social egalitarianism remained an ideological priority for the party in the early 1970s as peasant sacrifices on the battlefields continued to grow. An educated girl risked appearing pretentious if she did not choose to apply her knowledge to serve the masses. An article in a 1970 issue of Phu Nu Viet Nam, for example, describes a falling out between two high school best friends over their different plans after graduation.60 While one girl intends to return to her village to work for the cooperative, the other hopes to secure a research position in a city office. Despite the lifetime of friendship these girls have shared, the author concludes that it is impossible and undesirable for them to continue as friends, because “they have different ideals and concepts of service.” Unlike Tam, who recognizes the need to repay society for her education, Thien has no sense of duty. She has already taken on the “polished” airs of the city with her “Hong Kong style blouse,” and her hair tied up “in a high knot.” Girls who pursued higher education had to be careful not to draw attention to themselves in public. The women’s paper frequently scolded university girls for ‘showing off’ their recently acquired knowledge on buses and trains. A 1974 article, for example, describes two female students practicing Russian together on a crowded bus. An old man steps forward to reprimand them, explaining that they should use their “mother tongue” when they are among their own “native people.” The girls attempt to ignore him, but he continues: Everything should be in its right place…. If you are talking to a foreigner then it would be acceptable and appropriate to use Russian, but when you are among people of your own nationality you should only speak in Vietnamese, because it is easier for others to understand. Furthermore, it is clear that you girls are not yet proficient in this language. I am sure that


there are people here who are better Russian speakers than you, and they are likely to assume that you girls are showing off.61 The two students discover moments later that the old man is a Russian professor himself, and they are thus suitably “ashamed.” In a similar article from the same year, the author criticizes a girl who discusses her “exhausting” student life with fellow passengers on a train and then falls asleep with her textbooks “proudly displayed for others to see.” 62 In condemning any expression of individual status distinction by university girls, the party’s culture managers hoped to contain the intellectual and social advances of the post-Revolutionary generation of women within the boundaries of service to state and society. Young women who did not define their academic pursuits in collective terms risked appearing haughty, vain and inappropriately Western. Yet, those educated women who agreed to serve the rural masses, as agents of social and scientific progress, often confronted a wall of popular resistance that was likely exacerbated by the press’ negative propaganda about city girls. Nguyet, a 55-year-old Hanoi science teacher, whom I interviewed in 1996, recalled her first job posting in the northeastern Vietnamese province of Thai Binh in the early 1970s. After I graduated from the Teacher Training College in Hanoi, I went to work in the countryside, in Thai Binh. I was a science teacher in a school serving a number of villages about thirty kilometers from the provincial capital. At that time, most of my friends did not want to work in the countryside, because they were afraid of being miserable. The countryside was very poor. There was little food and no places to go for enjoyment. But, I agreed to go. Because my brother was in the army, I thought that I should also ‘serve the nation and the people’ (phuc vu nuoc va nhan dan). But when I got there, it was very difficult for me, because I was a ‘city girl’ (gai pho) and I was very young and some of the villagers, and even some of the other teachers, didn’t have faith in my abilities. I remember I always tried to wear simple clothes, like countryside people. But still, I was quite lonely and sad. After the war, I was happy to return to Hanoi.63 A fictional story published in a 1973 issue of the literary paper, Van Nghe, echoes the experience described by this teacher and critically illustrates rural society’s prejudices toward educated young women. The story, “Ky Niem Long Tin” or “A Memory of Trust,” depicts the struggle of a young agricultural engineer, named An, who goes to work as a researcher and adviser in a rural commune.64 An—an educated daughter of urban cadres—is eager to learn from


a local expert about the “realities” of farming. But she confronts opposition from the cooperative manager, Mr. Hoi, who views her as “a presumptuous young girl.” Although he allows her to stay in his home, he conspicuously avoids contact with her and rebuffs her efforts to discuss farming techniques. Only after An proves herself to be a skilled cook do Mr. Hoi and his family begin to treat her with kindness. Suddenly An realized that she had been very naïve. ‘When in Rome, do as Romans do’ (nhap gia phai tuy tuc). Our elders were not wrong. How can we force people to follow our customs? It is the same with this work. It is true that I am an engineer, but I can not tell the people here that they must follow the theories that I have learned in school. An devotes herself to domestic work in the hopes of winning Mr. Hoi’s recognition and respect. Yet her efforts only increase Hoi’s unwillingness to view her as an engineer. After she prepares a particularly delicious meal for the family, Hoi’s wife praises her: “I think you are a city girl who is not only studious but also good at housework.” Mr. Hoi adds, with a laugh: “In fact, it seems more correct that you are an engineer of cooking!” Hoi finally agrees to let An visit the cooperative’s fields, but he assigns her to the least significant commune office, in charge of providing meals to workers. An nevertheless manages to observe the local farming practices closely. She discovers that the cooperative has been harvesting the rice paddy too young, and she recommends a change in the fertilizer composition that would stimulate sprouting. Mr. Hoi chastises An for speaking out of turn and refuses to heed her advice. In the end, An and her female allies in the cooperative watch with frustration as the season’s rice harvest is ruined. Stories like this one, when read against the Women’s Union’s warnings to university girls, reveal the inconsistencies in official thinking on the subject of women’s intellectual advancement. Propaganda aimed at shoring up the revolutionary ideal of a classless society in the early 1970s increasingly contradicted the objectives of social and technological progress. For women to serve the goals of socialist modernization as teachers, doctors, scientists and engineers, they could hardly avoid distinguishing themselves from the rural masses, whose ideas about women’s roles lagged far behind official social policy. The younger generation of urban women in the 1970s provided a clear disciplinary focus for the party’s growing concerns about the ideological direction and cultural identity of the nation. Female factory workers, university students and office employees embodied both the social advances of the new society and the cultural costs of protracted war and socialist progress. Their


relative independence from parental authority, and their youthful preoccupation with fashion, leisure, and romance, gave rise to official fears about the loss of traditional family values and femininity in the wake of women’s wartime movement into the public realm. At the same time, as symbols of the country’s “ideology, feeling and cultural level,” young women were critical to the party’s efforts to define the nation’s complex relationship to socialism and to the West. While Phu Nu Viet Nam condemned girls for wearing frivolous capitalist fashions, the editors simultaneously sought to modernize and refine Vietnamese feminine style by encouraging women to abandon poor peasant clothes in favor of Western dress. In a similarly contradictory way, the paper utilized mothers both to school young women in traditional domestic virtues and to advocate a message of feminine progress based on scientific study. The tensions between the values of tradition and the goals of economic, cultural and technological modernization were, in turn, exacerbated by the ideological priorities of the collective society. Academically serious girls risked offending socialist egalitarian ideals if they did not apply their educational capital to the collective good. Yet, paradoxically, those who agreed to serve the masses in the cause of national progress were often thwarted by the traditional gender prejudices and class suspicions of peasant society. In the immediate postwar era, the party’s moral disciplining of the postRevolutionary generation of women continued, as these women now became wives, mothers and household managers confronted with a deteriorating economy and the failed promises of socialism. Phu Nu Viet Nam’s pedagogical critique focused increasingly on the economic behavior of urban women as the most glaring symptom of the postwar society’s loss of Revolutionary values and ideals. No longer able to rally patriotic sentiment against a foreign imperialist foe, the party amplified its attacks in the late 1970s and early 1980s on internal threats to the ‘national spirit’ and, in particular, on those who transgressed the codes of Vietnamese femininity. THE POSTWAR ECONOMY AND THE PLAGUE OF PRAGMATISM—1975 TO 1985 After its final defeat of South Vietnamese government forces in 1975, the Hanoi regime set about unifying the country under communist rule. Wartime propaganda had taught North Vietnamese troops to see themselves as “liberators,” who were freeing their Southern countrymen from a debauched and exploitative order. Yet once the initial euphoria of victory had passed, disillusionment quickly set in. Northerners were shocked by the modern infrastructure and technological wealth of a society that had previously been described to them only in negative terms. At the same time, the NLF and many


of its Viet Cong fighters and supporters, soon resented the arrogance and greed of the Northern forces, whose leaders had little formal schooling and scant knowledge of Southern conditions. Eager to harness the Southern economy to the goals of socialist industrialization, the state quickly took control of privately owned factories and pressured peasants to join farming cooperatives and production collectives. Planners in Hanoi gave little thought to the compatibility of these measures with the South’s particular agricultural and manufacturing economies. As the economic historian, Melanie Beresford, points out: “Prices for both industrial input sales and grain purchases by the State were based on those prevailing in North Vietnam, rather than on any consideration of the supply and demand situation prevailing in post-war South Vietnam.”65 Not surprisingly, Southern resistance to collectivization remained high (especially in the relatively wealthy Mekong Delta region), frustrating government efforts to extract the agricultural surplus needed to support the goals of industrialization. Peasants responded to low state prices for rice and other foodstuffs either by selling their product on the free market—where they could obtain better prices in order to afford high priced state-supplied goods (often diverted onto the free market by corrupt officials)—or by producing only enough to support themselves and their families.66 In 1978, the government reacted to declining production levels in the South, by clamping down on the South’s private sector and, in particular, on the ethnic Chinese merchant population concentrated in the Cholon quarter of Saigon, now renamed Ho Chi Minh City. This campaign sparked a mass exodus of ethnic Chinese from Vietnam and led to deteriorating relations with China—a primary source of foreign aid to the DRV during the war years. Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in late 1978 eliminated the remaining sources of Western aid and provoked ‘punitive’ attacks from China in 1979. Unusually bad weather in 1978 and 1979 further pushed the nation’s economy to the brink of collapse. Between 1977 and 1979 state procurement of total agricultural output in the country fell from 14 to 10 percent and in the Mekong Delta region alone from 19 to 8 percent.67 The failures of collectivization in the South and the collapse of production levels in the nation as a whole forced the regime to confront the contradictions between ideology and economic reality. Beginning in 1979, the government initiated limited agricultural and industrial reforms that recognized the importance of individual incentives and the market mechanism for increasing the production and supply of goods. Many cooperatives and factories throughout the country—faced with rising cuts in state supplies—had already begun to look for better ways of operating by setting up unofficial relationships with private producers and consumers. In the wake of the unpopular military


conflicts with Cambodia and China, party leaders finally conceded some ground to popular pressures for economic reforms. In 1981, after months of internal debate, the government passed legal measures that gave producers more autonomy in the way they utilized resources and disposed of surpluses. Under the new rules, factories had to continue to meet official production targets and sell their product to the state at designated low prices; but they could now sell any additional products on the market, as long as they gave priority to state trading organs and used the gains to acquire more production inputs. In agricultural cooperatives, the policy known as “Contract 100” decentralized control of the labor process by replacing piecework assignments, extended to work brigades, with product contracts, established between the cooperative and individual households. Farmers were now motivated to work their portion of cooperative land with the same level of efficiency and commitment that they devoted to their private household gardens, since any surplus they produced could be sold on the free market.68 While the 1981 reforms increased production levels in both agriculture and industry in the early 1980s, they did not mark a retreat from the economic and ideological principles of socialist development.69 The party’s leadership continued to be dominated by aging war heroes, most of whom—having earned their credentials in the and-French Resistance— remained committed to a Leninist vision of socialist society. They hoped to utilize the gains from a more incentive-based system of production to strengthen the state economy, without granting full legitimacy to the free market. Despite its concessions to producers, the party remained hostile to private sector trade. This partial approach to economic liberalization allowed wide discrepancies to emerge between official policies and economic practices. These inconsistencies had particular consequences for women. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the temptation for women to find supplemental sources of income increased, as state wages continued to fall and chronic shortages drove up consumer prices. The material hardships that every-one had endured during the war years became intolerable to many urban women in peacetime, especially as news spread of the relative riches enjoyed in the newly conquered Saigon. Furthermore, because Confucian tradition had always defined the market as a low-status, feminine domain, wives were far more likely than husbands to venture into illicit petty trade in order to improve their household’s living conditions. Women also predominated at the lowest level of state trading organs, where as official sellers of scarce government goods they had opportunities to earn ‘black market’ profits. While corruption flourished at the highest levels of government bureaucracy during the postwar years, the authorities primarily addressed the proliferation of unofficial capitalist activities through periodic crackdowns on unregistered traders and ‘economic saboteurs’


and through virulent press propaganda—much of it aimed at women. As the party struggled to assert its dominance over a disenchanted and increasingly cynical population, the press portrayed women’s market dealings—both the illicit and the innocuous—as acts of moral betrayal against both society, and the family. BETRAYING ‘THE PEOPLE,’ BETRAYING THE FAMILY The pervasive shortages in the subsidy economy of the late 1970s and early 1980s fostered an urban culture of petty bribery and fraud. As popular desire for consumer goods intensified in the wake of years of wartime deprivation, government suppliers of scarce commodities increasingly colluded with private traders in order to profit from the widening gulf between state and free market prices. In the 1950s and 1960s, party propaganda promoted state saleswomen as examples of “new socialist women” who provided an honest alternative to “exploitative” merchants. Yet, now these government employees were the conspicuous villains in a postwar social order that, as the political scientist, Gareth Porter, points out, “was increasingly polarized between workers and cadres on fixed incomes and those with opportunities to engage in trade or business, whether legally or illegally.”70 Phu Nu Viet Nam published a flood of articles in the early 1980s reporting on the immoral behavior and dishonest practices of state sellers. While the primary beneficiaries of illegal trade were middle and high-ranking bureaucrats— particularly those dealing with economic management or holding authority in production or trade units71—the state saleswoman provided a convenient symbol of the betrayal of patriotic and socialist values by greed-driven individuals. Hanoi residents encountered government sellers daily—selling rice and other staples at state shops, serving coffee and tea at government kiosks, or manning the ticket booths at train and bus stations. In an economy of ration slips, long lines, and chronic shortages, the state saleswoman wielded enormous power. Her inordinate control over people’s lives made her synonymous with the indignities and hardships of the postwar subsidy era. The newspaper accounts of the early 1980s depict haughty sellers siphoning off goods to friends and relatives and conspiring with private dealers to stash away precious supplies, while lines of exhausted workers, honest cadres and weak retirees wait anxiously to purchase rations. Many of the articles are signed by an anonymous member of the public—simply, “a customer” or “a consumer”— identifying the newspaper as the voice of ‘the people’ against the crimes of the privileged and the corrupt. In one article from 1981, for instance, the narrator describes his experience waiting in a line to buy meat.72 He and the other “tired customers” watch a woman bypass the queue, enter the shop and emerge


“carrying a delicious piece of meat and a satchel of pig’s feet.” Minutes later, the seller announces that the meat has sold out. When the narrator returns to the line the next day, he learns that inspectors from the trade branch have discovered several portions of meat hidden in the seller’s stall. In another article from the same year, the narrator castigates a state vegetable seller who arrogantly dismissed her customers’ complaints after she gave the last batch of spinach to her personal acquaintance. …Miss Mui, the vegetable seller, gave “priority” to Miss Thuy, allowing her to step in front of the other customers and inconsiderately take the last batch of spinach without paying. This practice violates the rules and principles of selling in the [state] commerce branch and if the “acquaintance” is a company employee then this practice is all the more reprehensible! Furthermore, a state saleswoman who looks down on consumers and assumes the right to be rude and imperious to her customers is certainly not a person who serves the people.73 The women’s paper reported as often on the saleswoman’s rude and disrespectful behavior as on her economic crimes. Emboldened by her offi cial status, the government seller represented the worst of the post-Revolutionary woman’s faults. She neglected traditional codes of respect, looked down on the poor, avoided manual work, and thought only of her-self. An illustration accompanying a 1980 article on Phu Nu Viet Nam’s style page depicts an old woman dressed in peasant clothes approaching a female ticket seller at a state restaurant. The young seller is perched up high behind the counter; her eyes are cast down, avoiding the customer’s gaze. The narrator describes how the seller coldly responds to the old woman’s inquiries, causing the woman to leave without ordering.74 While the actions of state saleswomen presented clear cases of illegal profitseeking and immoral behavior, the party grew equally alarmed by the numbers of ordinary women workers and cadres turning to private trade in order to supplement state incomes. Most of these women had not committed a formal crime; yet their activities offended official codes of femininity at a time of acute economic uncertainty and ideological disillusionment. In party parlance, women who engaged in the free market were following “a pragmatic way of life” that was incompatible with the revolutionary values of Vietnam’s socialist society. The “pragmatic” person, as one 1981 article in Phu Nu Viet Nam explained, “holds an indifferent attitude toward class and national interests” and puts “personal gain” above all else.


People who live this way don’t know how to love others, to care for or love their parents; they only consider what profit they can gain from them. This attitude is very apparent in choices of occupation, where the pragmatic person considers that work away from the city does not suit her ability and strengths…. Unfortunately, there are still many young women who see the advantages of this type of lifestyle.75 In the early 1980s, the Women’s Union condemned the “pragmatic” outlook of women traders and businesswomen not only for undermining the high ideals of the Revolution but also for jeopardizing the harmony and happiness of the postwar family. The socialist economy’s sharp decline in the late 1970s and early 1980s coincided with the massive demobilization of the nation’s wartime army. Men returned home to wives they hadn’t seen often for as long as five or even ten years and to children they didn’t know. They also encountered a civilian society largely devoid of the collective spirit and heroic idealism that had thrived in the early war years. In Hanoi, in particular, the bleak state of the subsidy economy threatened not only the vitality of wartime values but also the stability of the reunited socialist household. A woman’s ‘pragmatic’ decision to supplement her family’s income, by engaging in the traditionally feminine domain of petty trade, could place additional strain on a marriage already vulnerable to the psy chological and emotional challenges of postwar adjustment. In the context of the collapsing socialist economy, this ‘women’s work’ often accounted for a disproportionate share of the family income, threatening the household position of state-employed husbands and minimizing the ideals that defined their military careers. The women’s paper sought to deter readers from entering the market by portraying private businesswomen not only as defectors from legitimate socialist work but also as failed wives and mothers. Regardless of a woman’s motives for taking up trade, ‘capitalist’ practices inevitably corrupted her heart, eroding her respect for her husband and destroying her willingness to love and serve others. In a typical article from a 1981 issue of Phu Nu Viet Nam, the author describes the wife of an honorable doctor, who—after eighteen years of marriage—turned to illicit business dealings in pursuit of a more comfortable lifestyle.76 In the early years of marriage, the author explains, the woman was a “responsible” and “caring” wife and mother. But the hardships and deprivations of the war years made her greedy. After the war, she began to engage in private selling in order to satisfy her “individualistic” desires. Relations with her husband —an honest, state-employed doctor, who had served the wounded at the front — grew strained, as she devoted less time to her children. When the family moved to Ho Chi Minh City in 1977, the situation rapidly deteriorated.


Living in an environment still full of the poison of neo-colonialism, she truly embraced a criminal path to earn a living, and she became rich. The family’s house, provided by the state, had been sufficient to live in. But she now had surplus money to buy a larger, more beautiful ‘estate.’ People observed that she ate and dressed in an ostentatious manner. And every day, the life of her family grew more discordant. Finally, the unavoidable happened: the couple applied to the court for a divorce. A local official testified to the judge that the doctor’s wife was “a person who could not stand legitimate work, who likes to eat expensive food, spends her time with illegal business people and often curses her husband and children.” The eldest child claimed that his mother “did not revere” her in-laws and that, while his father was “modest” and “valued money earned through labor,” his mother was “wasteful” and “extravagant.” The second child testified that her mother “only worried about material things,” and showed little “feeling” toward her children. The judge granted the children’s request to live with their father. The doctor’s wife promised to correct her mistakes and requested to be reunited with her family; however, the author remains skeptical. …I don’t know if you [readers] will consider that I am too rigid or not when I say that real family happiness can only come from a revolutionary lifestyle that is clean and pure. Isn’t that right? Women conducting more benign forms of petty trade presented less flamboyant symbols of immorality, but they were no less threatening to the official model of the socialist family. As the urban economy grew increasingly polarized between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’—between those with private sector access and those without—women in factory jobs faced the constant temptation of turning to small-scale selling as a means of increasing their household incomes. The Women’s Union sought to convince women to remain content in the postwar era with the material simplicity that they had endured during the war years. The paper continued to use peer comparison as a primary pedagogical method. In another article from 1981, for instance, the author contrasts the lives of two women friends, who have chosen different paths in the subsidy economy.77 While chi Hien has remained a factory worker despite the hardships of a fixed salary, chi Lua “looked for every means to request early retirement from her factory” so that she could set up a sundry goods stall next to her children’s school. After two years in business, Lua sees that her family enjoys better meals and more expensive clothes than her friend’s family can afford. But Lua is nevertheless bothered by other disparities. She observes the “closeness” Hien shares with her son and daughter, who always greet their mother after


work and help out with housework. Hien’s son is more studious than Lua’s son, who often skips school and hangs around his mother’s shop smoking cigarettes. “What’s the point of studying,” Lua’s son complains to his mother, “when I know I will end up working with my hands in a factory?” Similarly, Hien’s daughter, who began work in a state production unit at the same time as Lua’s daughter, has since advanced to a higher work level and earned a scholarship to study overseas. A few years ago, Lua’s family was not at all different from Hien’s family. The two women were close friends and their children were close friends as well. But these past few years the two households have gone in different directions. Absorbed by selling, chi Lua neglects family work and is less interested in her children than she was in the past. Business has made Lua stop asking her daughter to contribute to the family income because her daughter’s salary is worth so little. Only a few months after Lua started selling, her daughter began to ask her for money to buy clothes. In the past, when her daughter used state coupons to buy a pair of pants, she would weigh the pros and cons of a purchase and discuss it at length with her mother. But now she doesn’t hesitate to spend 20 dong for a pair of “Saigon” clogs or a month’s salary for a ‘fashionable’ blouse. Lua herself has also changed. Not only does she neglect her family responsibilities, but she bitterly reproaches her husband for “not knowing how to earn extra money.” In the evenings, he finds reasons to visit his coworkers to discuss the new production policies— “things that Lua no longer understands or takes an interest in.” Lua ponders the costs of her selling life as she enviously observes Hien and her family enjoying the Tet holiday together. The Women’s Union’s campaign against female “pragmatism” provided an ideologically convenient and consistent explanation for the erosion of both socialist and family values in Vietnam’s postwar urban society. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, women’s ‘unofficial’ trading practices not only challenged the scope of state institutions and ideals, but also potentially compromised women’s domestic priorities and threatened the reassertion of men’s household authority. Yet, it was not only women’s capitalist proclivities that endangered the stability of reunited urban families. Socialist ‘progress’ itself presented new obstacles to the postwar resumption of domestic relations. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Women’s Union struggled to reconcile the goals of women’s intellectual advancement with the need to educate women about their roles and obligations as wives.


PROGRESS vs. DOMESTICITY ON THE EVE OF MARKET TRANSITION The convergence of military demobilization and economic collapse, at the start of the 1980s, had different implications for rural and urban families. In the countryside, millions of male soldiers returned home to resume their traditional positions as heads of households precisely at a time when the collective structure of agricultural cooperatives was giving way to more autonomous household production. The “Contract 100” reforms of 1981 encouraged rural women to retreat from the public sector roles that they’d held during wartime and devote more time to the family economy—dividing their labor between housework, childcare, and private production in the household garden. By contrast, in the cities, where the ‘progressive’ values of gender equality had made greater inroads, patriarchal traditions did not reemerge as fully or as clearly as they did in the villages. Instead, many urban couples—workers and civil servants— struggled awkwardly in the postwar years to bridge not only the emotional and psychological distance, but also the educational and professional gulf that divided husbands and wives during the war years. In the late 1970s, the party took a less ambiguous stand on the importance of women’s intellectual advancement than it had taken in the early 1970s, when upholding the ideal of the ‘mass’ society remained paramount. After the war ended in 1975, the official goals of industrialization took on greater significance, overshadowing the class solidarity and anti-intellectualism that had characterized the anti-American ‘people’s struggle.’ The government’s Second Five Year Plan, for the period immediately following unification (1976–1980), called for greater investment in heavy industry, especially engineering, and for the development of “education, culture and health work.”78 In line with this focus, Phu Nu Viet Nam critically addressed the social obstacles to women’s scientific advancement. A 1977 article, for instance, strongly encourages female students to overcome “social prejudices,” “negative study conditions,” and “psychological limitations,” in order to succeed in math and science. If they want to study well and succeed in science, girls must try many times harder, in an enduring and unrelenting way. Only if they have the will to overcome all difficulties and hindrances in life, only if they are masters of their own feelings, will they be able to move toward a mastery of science and find happiness in developing their abilities to contribute to the progress of society.79 By the end of the 1970s the Women’s Union had reversed its earlier message to girls about the impropriety of displaying their academic skills and ambitions in


public. An article in a 1979 issue of Phu Nu Viet Nam praises a university student for reading her foreign language textbook on the bus despite the jeers and taunts of the young male passengers around her.80 The author commends the girl for her studiousness and criticizes the young men for accusing her of pretentiously imitating the West. I personally respect that girl very much. I think that for those in the younger generation, regardless of their status position, it is necessary to take time to study. In all the progressive socialist countries, it is common practice to read a book on a train, on a bus or in a park. In our country, this custom is not yet widespread, but it is a life activity that should be encouraged. Those teenagers are truly deserving of reproach and I would like to send a message to them: if they consider reading a book in public to be a “new fashion” then I would recommend that they start practicing that new fashion! The “industrialization-first” policies of the late 1970s encouraged women’s academic and professional advancement in urban areas, while large numbers of young men remained mobilized to fight in the Cambodia and China conflicts of 1978 and 1979. When men returned to civilian life in the early 1980s, many found that they were less skilled than their wives. In some cases, men who had married their high school sweethearts came home from war to find that their wives had finished university and moved into prestigious office jobs, while they could only find work as factory laborers or mechanics. The strain of such status discrepancies provoked numerous letters to Phu Nu Viet Nam’s advice column in the early 1980s. In 1984, for instance, a woman wrote to “Thanh Tarn” that she and her husband had been unable to find happiness after he returned from the army, because her position as an engineer at a government ministry made him “feel inferior.”81 Although they had graduated from high school together, his years in the military only qualified him for a job as a worker in an electrical plant. Their son suffered because his father “rarely paid attention to his school work.” The woman asks: “Can a family find true happiness if a wife’s knowledge, salary and social position are greater than her husband’s?” “Thanh Tarn” acknowledges that the woman’s problem has become widespread in society, and she advises her to avoid the “superficial attitude” that leads some wives to “look down on” their husbands. “He carried a gun and went through many days of trial on the battle field. You should not think simply that you are better than your husband, but should recognize that he has also surpassed you in many areas….” The marital tensions in urban families like this one exposed the contradictions between socialist policy and domestic tradition in the postwar


years. In responding to such letters, the advice column sought to instill in the successful woman cadre, office worker, or intellectual, the proper attitudes and sensibilities of a Vietnamese wife. While continuing to advocate women’s intellectual development in the early 1980s, the women’s paper reminded readers—as it had in the past—that their domestic obligations and identities took precedence over the emancipatory promises of socialism. The state’s progressive education policies had to be balanced against the rising official concern that some ‘modern’ women might prove unwilling or unfit to fulfill their roles as devoted wives and mothers in the wake of their wartime sacrifices and gender ‘advances.’ This concern became more pressing with the onset of true market reforms in the late 1980s, when the household fully displaced the collective as the primary unit of economic production and as the central focus of state social and cultural management. *** From the early 1950s through the early 1980s, Vietnam’s communist party/ state relied on women to reconcile the competing elements in its evolving vision of national modernity—to provide proof of social and industrial progress and to embody an enduring national ‘essence.’ During the initial decades of socialist construction and patriotic struggle against America, the model of the “new Vietnamese woman” effectively combined women’s new public responsibilities with the timeless feminine virtues of selflessness, hard work and maternal devotion. The “Five Goods” and the “Three Responsibilities” campaigns aimed to harmonize women’s domestic identities with their collective contributions, supplanting the traditional moral authority of the family with the ideological imperatives of the socialist state. Yet by the later war years, the formula that linked a woman’s personal wellbeing to her participation in the national cause had begun to break down. The decline in the socialist economy, in the early 1970s, fed the growing disillusionment and ideological malaise of a postRevolutionary generation of women, who had never experienced the feudal oppression of the colonial era and who thus lacked the patriotic fervor and convictions of their mothers. As the direct beneficiaries of socialist gender ‘progress,’ these young female workers and university students took the gains of the Revolution for granted. They mistook “equality” for personal freedom; they were ‘modern’ but un-socialist, educated but self-serving, and largely unschooled in traditional domestic virtues. The Women’s Union’s efforts to discipline wayward youth illustrated the inconsistencies in the state’s vision of socialist modernity. The urbanized young woman became a focus, simultaneously, for the goals of cultural development and the fears of Westernization, for the defense of family tradition and the desire for social progress, and for the aims of technological advancement and the ideal of an egalitarian society.


In the immediate postwar years, the party considered the behavior and choices of the post-Revolutionary generation of women—now wives and mothers struggling to support their families—as a potential threat to the stability of the reconstituted urban family. As rural women retreated from the collective realm into their traditional household roles, many urban women— workers and civil servants—pursued the possibilities of the market, threatening not only the ideals of the revolution but also the codes of domestic femininity. While the “pragmatic” private businesswoman provided the party with a vividly culpable agent in the erosion of the socialist family ideal, the educated and ‘progressive’ socialist woman posed a more ideologically problematic challenge to the harmony of the postwar urban household. In the early 1980s, Phu Nu Viet Nam’s pedagogical focus on urban wives revealed the increasing contradictions not only between political ideology and economic reality, but more specifically between the espoused goals of socialist progress and the postwar reconstruction of domestic tradition. The economic reforms of the late 1980s—known as “doi moi” or “renovation”— increased the importance of the household to the wealth and identity of the nation. Following an inflationary crisis in 1985, the party agreed in 1986 to abandon the centrally-planned economic model of the DRV and move toward an economic system based upon voluntary exchanges between independent producers and consumers. In the ensuing years, the government freed agricultural cooperatives from state control (a step that heralded their demise), commercialized many state industries, granted legal status to private and family enterprise, and opened the door to foreign investment, initiating the country’s integration into the global economy. The transition from a collective to a market economy shifted the focus of official cultural pedagogy from the management of the collective and society to the enhancement of the individual household. In the new market era, state propaganda no longer addresses urban women as vanguard socialist workers, but rather as skilled domestic caregivers, responsible for the health, happiness and civil obedience of modern middle class families. As the government has sought to recondition the population to meet the demands of market-driven development and global competition, the party’s culture managers have introduced new norms of ‘civilized’ domesticity to replace the socialist ethics of collective participation and heroic’ productivity. The “new Vietnamese woman” of the doi moi period is an enlightened housewife, who stands at a distance from both the poverty and “backwardness” of the countryside and the immoralities of capitalism. In promoting this ideal, the Women’s Union has had to refashion its method and its mission. It no longer enjoys the political hegemony over women’s lives that it achieved during the decades of war and socialist construction. Rather, in the new market era, the Women’s Union has become one of an increasingly fractured array of


cultural media—under varying degrees of party influence and control—that seek to prescribe and critique women’s role in the transformation of Vietnamese modernity.


2 Building Civility through Happy Families The Women’s Union in a New Era

IN 1995, THE MEETING HALL OF THE HANOI WOMEN’S UNION PRESENTED A hybrid governmental space of old symbols and new concerns. A red banner, bearing the revolutionary slogan “There is nothing more valuable than independence and freedom” hung above the requisite bust of Ho Chi Minh, providing the only decor in an otherwise colorless and dank room. Yet the reports pinned on the walls announced a more contemporary set of priorities. Alongside letters from war veterans, commemorating the August Revolution and Ho Chi Minh’s birthday, official notices displayed the city’s gains in family planning compliance, the rates of school attendance and the names and testimonials of rehabilitated drug addicts and prostitutes. A number of captioned photographs showed successful female loan recipients shaking hands with city officials. Others depicted the charitable visits of local Union members to the homes of the poor, the elderly and the disabled. While the Women’s Union’s social agenda has retained much of the language of former propaganda campaigns, its objectives have changed from the regimentation of public life, in the interests of socialist production and national defense, to the enhancement of private households that will be willing and able to contribute to the nation’s development. The market reforms of the late 1980s ushered in a new regime of state/ society relations by shifting the locus of economic productivity from state cooperatives to private families and individuals. As older governmental priorities —both military and ideological—gave way to a struggle for material prosperity and global participation, the Vietnamese state developed a vested interest in its population’s welfare: that is, in the physical, mental and spiritual fitness of a citizenry newly freed from the dictates of a centralized command economy. The health, wealth, and happiness of the Vietnamese family were no longer the abstract promises of a future socialist Utopia, but the requisite ingredients for building a politically stable and internationally competitive society. The Women’s Union has played a central role in channeling official energies toward improving the Vietnamese household as a source of both economic growth


and national cultural strengthening. In Jacques Donzelot’s (1979) framework, the ‘renovated’ Women’s Union has become a new kind of “philanthropic” agent that aims to improve the family in two basic senses: first, as an autonomous body capable of supporting and regulating its own members and secondly, as a mechanism for conveying official norms into the private, domestic sphere.1 The Women’s Union has replaced its earlier strategies of political mobilization and ideological reform with less heavy-handed tactics of “social economy”—policies intended to unburden the state of the cost of its poor and unproductive citizens. By providing women with capital loans, hygienic knowledge and reproductive technologies, the Union has promoted household self-sufficiency under the umbrella of state-sponsored “development.” At the same time, the Women’s Union has served a governmental objective beyond the economic, by contributing to a redefinition of national morality and culture based on the challenges of post-socialist modernization. The state’s campaign for population improvement has aimed to achieve global standards of economic and social progress, while recasting these ‘external’ criteria as intrinsic national attributes —that is, as the realization of Vietnamese values in a period of peace and prosperity. The official use of the term van minh, which literally translates as “being civilized,” embodies this convergence of material and cultural ambitions. The importance of van minh to the Women’s Union’s efforts, and more broadly to the Communist state’s newest vision of national modernity, warrants the concept’s careful explanation at the outset of this chapter. “CIVILITY” AS MODERN NATIONAL MORALITY In her far-ranging study of national cultural practices in post-Mao China, Ann Anagnost (1997) examines the official uses of “civility”— wenming— as a central discursive tool in the economic and moral disciplining of the Chinese peasant population. The notion of “civility,” she claims, operates broadly as a measure of the population’s fitness for participation in international processes of production, exchange and development. Anagnost describes wenming as a “discourse of lack” that constructs ‘the people’ as morally, physically and intellectually deficient—as unready for political sovereignty—while they are “being disciplined and rendered docile for the employ of global capital” (1997: 78). These disciplinary impulses, she explains, take the form of official injunctions and incitements: “don’t gam ble, don’t banquet, be a ‘civilized’ worker, aspire to a ‘comfortable standard of living’.” The wenming concept brings together the values of spiritual and economic development. Peasants, who submit to the educational efforts of the Dengist state are described, in official discourse, as having undergone a moral transformation that in turn leads to their material improvement, elevating them as models of productivity and


“civility.” As a cultural strategy, the reform-era uses of wenming work to obscure “the uncanny compatibility” between a socialist political imaginary and the interests of global capitalism; at the same time, Anagnost points out, they project an ‘alternative’ model of modernity that can supersede the liberal democracies of the West. This model has its reference point in the illiberal capitalisms of Japan and Singapore, which are seen to have successfully negotiated the relationship between cultural/spiritual identity and material progress.2 The Vietnamese concept of “civility” or van minb shares a number of salient features with the Chinese notion of wenming. In Vietnam, where international labor and capital markets have only recently begun to make inroads, van minh designates the terms of inclusion in the processes and benefits of global economic development. The meaning of van minh refers broadly to those qualities associated with the developed societies of Asia and the West: namely, political order, modern education and health standards, economic discipline and real prospects for prosperity. At the same time, the van minh discourse links these material criteria to elements of spiritual strengthening, to revitalized traditions that cast the state’s newest vision of modernity (of party-controlled capitalism) as a triumph of primordial national culture. The notion of being “civilized” combines colonial ideas of cultural evolution and modernist aspirations for economic and scientific “progress” with the ideal of a timeless spiritual past capable of providing an ethical-moral counter to the unruly forces of Western capitalism. The rhetoric of “civility” operates most persistently in the governmental realm of the family because it is here that the problems of economic fitness and national moral health come together. Van minh is frequently coupled in official discourse with the term van hoa, meaning ‘cultured.’ A veteran cadre from the National Fatherland Front3 offered the following definition of a “civilized and cultured family,” during a 1995 family planning conference in Hanoi: Gia dinh van minh, van hoa means treating your wife with respect and understanding, respecting your parents, and living in a civilized way… that is, obeying government laws, living in harmony with your neighbors, having a clean and tidy home and practicing family planning. This [concept] is a very important part of our culture. It has always been there, but before now, because of war and poverty, we were not able to develop it fully. Only today, do we finally have the necessary conditions to realize the goal of the ‘civilized and cultured family.’4 As in the past, the Vietnamese woman has furnished the state with its primary vehicle for reconciling disparate and opposing elements of national modernity.


Her status at the center of the household has made her the principal agent and representative of official norms of “civility.” Her domestic obligations— previously construed as a complement to her societal responsibilities—have taken on new significance as the skills and virtues most critical to national cultural preservation of and to the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the population. As objects of Women’s Union training, Vietnamese women must no longer strive to be “labor heroines,” but rather enlightened housewives —all-capable mothers and wives uniting tradition, economic discipline and scientific progress in the new disciplinary space of the modern family. This chapter examines the tactics and consequences of the Vietnamese state’s “civilizing” mission through a close investigation of the policies and practices of the Vietnam Women’s Unions. I begin by considering the transformation of the Women’s Union as an institution—its shift from the doctrinaire methods of socialist disciplining and mobilization to a more ‘philanthropic’ pedagogy of “national development.” I then turn to the particular cultural media—the training programs, family contests and commemorative pageants—through which the Hanoi Women’s Union, in particular, has attempted to draw women into the fold of official modernity. The Women’s Union, I argue, has not applied its new disciplinary techniques uniformly. As in the socialist past, the state has continued to identify certain groups of women as requiring more remediation than others. In the current market era, however, the grid of respectability and deviance has changed. The Women’s Union no longer evaluates women based on their working class credentials, ideological commitment or public contributions, but rather on their relative distance (in cultural and spatial terms) from a standard of civility increasingly associated with Hanoi’s educated and affluent middle class. The differentiating effects of the state’s civilizing efforts appeared clearly in a 1994 Women’s Union movement to build the “Prosperous, Egalitarian, Progressive and Happy Family.” The campaign promoted a new model of Vietnamese femininity that has its apex in the comfortable, civil servant household of central Hanoi. Contests held in the city’s relatively well-off districts served to showcase participants’ successful assimilation of global “scientific knowledge” and traditional family values. By contrast, those held in the capital’s outer reaches and less reputable neighborhoods intervened more explicitly in contestants’ domestic lives with the intent of schooling women to become more effective household managers in an age of increasing market competition and “social evils.” The implications of these governmental distinctions, I argue further, extended into the contexts of Revolutionary and wartime commemoration, where the task of memorializing a patriotic, but less civilized, national past fell to the Women’s Union’s elderly followers and to those on the city’s geographic and cultural margins.


“RENOVATION” IN THE WOMEN’S UNION Through the nearly three and a half decades of war that followed Vietnam’s declaration of Independence in 1945, questions of women’s well being— their health, wealth and happiness—were rarely addressed by official policy. When these issues did emerge in state discourse, they were subsumed formulaically within the broader agenda of national struggle.5 Equality between the sexes would only be realized when all Vietnamese were free. A healthy life was an unselfish life, defined by hard work and dedication to the family, the factory and the front. The practical and ideological demands of war discouraged any recognition of women’s distinct social and economic hardships. With the cessation of fighting on Vietnam’s borders in 1979, the government was able to shift its primary focus from military strategy to the beleaguered national economy. Yet, during the early 1980s, the Women’s Union continued to emphasize women’s dual role in the family and the “national struggle,” although now the struggle was for economic improvement, and women were pressed to distinguish themselves as socialist producers, supporting families and “building the nation” through their efforts. The logic of mass mobilization continued to dominate the governing of women throughout the early post-war years, and few tangible efforts were made to recognize women’s interests or to improve their lives.6 The market reforms of the late 1980s provided the Women’s Union, for the first time, with the resources and incentives to do more for women than promote their participation in national defense and production. “Only after 1986,” Nguyen Kim Cue, the director of International Relations for the Vietnam Women’s Union explained to me in 1994, “did we have the necessary conditions to address women’s health, nutrition, family situation and income opportunities.” Market liberalization generated the economic funds and human energies needed for the Women’s Union to begin to approach the complex issues of poverty and “backwardness” in post-war society. International aid organizations—attracted by the ideological implications of doi moi—augmented this support, by joining up with the Women’s Union to address problems of “women in development.” Through collaboration with agencies such as CARE and Save the Children, the Union set up capital loan programs, rotating credit schemes and local handicraft industries in poor rural villages and marginal urban neighborhoods. These programs, in Nguyen Kim Cue’s words, aim to “encourage women to use their capabilities to enrich themselves and their families.” At the same time, the Women’s Union began to address the growing “social evils” associated with market transition, such as drug addiction, prostitution, AIDs, and divorce, as part of its expanded pedagogical and ‘philanthropic’ purview. While police interdiction in the heroine and sex trades


intensified in the 1980s and 1990s, the work of prevention has fallen to the Women’s Union’s efforts at family education and improvement. “Since doi moi,” Nguyen Kim Cue explained further, “we have focused on strengthening the family, because we believe it is only through healthy and stable families that the Vietnamese people will be able to develop the country and protect society from negative foreign influences.” The Women’s Union’s changed priorities were evident at its national cadre training school, which I visited late in 1994. Located near central Hanoi, the Women’s Cadre School stands out as a vestige of the earlier socialist era. Its dark and decrepit dormitories house mostly poor female students from villages and small towns throughout North and Central Vietnam. In the new market period, Hanoi women have tended to shun careers in government social work, opting instead for more remunerative educational paths, such as English, computer technology, or business management. The cadre school’s curriculum reflects an awkward combination of old political obligations and new concerns. In 1994, students began their studies with a foundation in Marxist-Leninist theory, but then moved quickly to the more extensive “working skills” (nghiep vu cong tac) courses. Core subjects included “protection of health,” “child rearing education,” and “population control.” Students continued to learn how to “conduct propaganda among the masses,” but now the stated purpose was to encourage people to follow “scientific practices” and to “apply new knowledge” in their lives.7 The school had also added “gender studies” to the curriculum. I attended a 1994 training seminar for Women’s Union leaders at which, the instructor—a Union cadre who had just returned from a conference in Bangkok—outlined the differences between “sex” and “gender” and provided rudimentary examples of gender discrimination in the Vietnamese family. In one scenario, a husband returns home late from the office, having stopped on the way to drink beer with his colleagues. He immediately chastises his wife for not having dinner on the table. “Of course, he does not notice that the house has been swept, the laundry has been washed, and the children have been fed and put to bed. Why not?” the instructor asks rhetorically. “Because that is just ‘housework’ or ‘women’s work’ and not official business, right?” The students nodded and laughed knowingly. Despite the Party’s long-stated commitment to “equality between the sexes,” the concept of gender was entirely new to Women’s Union cadres. “In the past we always heard about ‘equality,’ but it was only a matter of theory,” Binh a 58-year-old Union leader from the northern province of Hai Hung explained. “Today we are finally learning what this idea actually means for women in our society.” In the postwar struggle for “renovation” and “development,” the Women’s Union has aimed to shift the cause of women’s rights from the abstract realm of


Party ideology to the concrete contexts of women’s lives. “It is not enough for women to have equality under the Constitution,” Nguyen Thi Ky, a director of the Women’s Cadre School, explained, “if they are still abused in their homes and they don’t have the necessary conditions or the knowledge to raise healthy children…” While Union leaders have sought to address some of the everyday forms of gender oppression that were largely ignored during the decades of war and socialist construction, they have explicitly linked the pursuit of women’s equality to the goal of shoring up the Vietnamese family. In practice, Union cadres work to ‘empower’ women by helping them become more capable wives and mothers, through birth control training, nutrition and parenting education, and small business assistance. Rather than emphasizing women’s rights to greater ‘public’ authority—either in terms of bureaucratic advancement or control of large-scale capital resources (factories, private companies, etc.)—the Union has focused on the Vietnamese woman’s entitlement to a better family life based on ‘democratic’ marriage relations, fewer children and good health standards. Cadres are trained to criticize the patriarchal abuses of “backward” husbands as part of their effort to strengthen, rather than question, the Vietnamese woman’s primary domestic identity, her role as the moral manager and protector of the household. POPULATION IMPROVEMENT THROUGH POPULATION CONTROL The Women’s Union’s post-socialist approach to gender equality has shaped both its message and its methods in the doi moi era. The family planning campaign has relied on a vision of domestic progress that equates the limiting of births with a woman’s successful fulfillment of her role as wife and mother. Since the government established a National Committee on Population Control and Family Planning in 1984, in response to the severe shortage of arable land in the country’s most densely populated regions, the Women’s Union has worked to spread knowledge of birth control throughout the country and to persuade couples to follow a “one to two child” policy. Vietnam has largely avoided the Draconian methods of population control found in China, which have resulted in the widespread abandonment of female children. Penalties for exceeding the two child limit in Vietnam have been relatively minimal; while civil servants risk a fine or a demotion, poor peasants face “propaganda” visits from their local Women’s Union representative, who will counsel them on the importance of avoiding future births and likely pressure the woman to have an IUD implanted. The central obstacle to family planning policy in Vietnam lies in the Confucianbased preference for sons. In rural areas especially, couples who already have two or more daughters often ignore official restrictions in the hopes of


producing a male heir. Women’s Union cadres strive to persuade noncompliant couples to put the health of mother and child before the desire for a son, arguing that too many children will impoverish the family and diminish a woman’s ability to care for her children and maintain her health and appearance. A propaganda cartoon, frequently displayed in Women’s Union offices and newspapers, depicts the gradual deterioration of a rural woman’s strength and beauty as she progresses from one child to three. In the first image, she appears young and stylish pushing a baby stroller (a recent luxury in urban areas); in the second image she is thinner but manages to shoulder her two infants on either side of a bamboo pole designed for carrying water; in the third image, she appears worn out and disheveled as she strains to carry three sickly children, two buckets of water and a basket of rice. The family planning campaign seeks to appeal to a young couple’s desire for the comfortable, modern lifestyle exemplified in the government poster images that adorn highways, city streets and public parks. The posters depict a three-person nuclear household with the daughter or son in crisp school clothes, or a baby with plump, rosy cheeks, and parents dressed in modest, civil servant attire, bearing mannequin-like expressions of middle-class contentment. Such official imagery has had limited impact on poor rural people, many of whom have never left their village or district. As Ninh, a Women’s Union cadre from Hanoi’s rural Soc Son district, explained to me: Government slogans and pictures are not enough. Many village people here will not pay attention to these things because their lives are too difficult. They are always worrying about having enough food and medicine for today. They hear “One to two children is enough” and they know that that is state policy, but they don’t see how this policy can help them in their family situation. The formidable challenges of the family planning campaign have encouraged the Women’s Union to ‘renovate’ its propaganda methods. In the 1990s cadres began incorporating poetry into their political work in the hope of increasing receptivity to their message. Poetry has become an important medium of Union education. “All Vietnamese people love poet ry,” Ninh explained. “It is a part of our culture that will never be lost.” At a family planning conference in 1995, Ninh presented a propaganda poem that chastises a bullying husband who pressures his wife into having more children and then lies to the authorities.


Is it true you prevented your wife From have a coil (IUD) set? It’s a long and confusing story And of course difficult for anyone to check Is it true that you were a bully, Threatening anyone who dared put a coil inside your wife, Before she has born you a son? Is it true that you insisted stubbornly That the mistake of bearing children close together, That the failure to follow family planning, All was the fault of your wife? Is it true that you answered So many questions asked you With nothing but denials? I would like to warn you, It will be difficult now for you to bully your wife!8 Another poem, written by a cadre from Hanoi’s Ba Dinh district, appeals to a woman’s desire for a happy and healthy household, in which her child will excel and she will retain a youthful feminine appearance. Now let’s listen to them discuss The population target, remember to take notes One to two children for each household Only then, will family happiness endure With many children, you’re sure to suffer, sisters Your beauty will fade, your figure will decline You’ll worry about food and medicine for your little ones They won’t be healthy enough to play Sisters, we must remind each other If you limit your births, your child’s happiness will be long Your child will grow quickly, be obedient and clever You and your husband will live together happily until you’re old and gray.9 The Women’s Union’s has employed traditional cultural forms for propaganda purposes as a part of a strategic response to the governmental objectives and socioeconomic contexts of market transition. While drawing on a legacy of “art for the masses,” family planning poetry appeals to a post-socialist climate of cultural revival and, at the same time, serves to situate the official goals of ‘development’ in a discourse of modern national morality. Denouncing


patriarchal brutishness and invoking the values of personal health, beauty and family happiness, the poems cast current definitions of progress as attributes of an indigenous cultural heritage. The political uses of tradition in the current era are at once pedagogically instrumental and constitutive of a new formula for civilized modernity that links the development of the family to the strengthening of national culture and the economy. TRADITION IN THE SERVICE OF PROGRESS The use of traditional cultural forms for government propaganda is not a new phenomenon in Vietnam. As David Marr (1981) points out, Viet Minh cultural cadres fighting for Independence in the 1940s frequently used poems, folk songs, stories and aphorisms to convey the message of patriotic struggle to the masses. After Independence, the Communist State utilized certain traditional ritual contexts as a venue for the promotion of state ideology, while simultaneously repressing many spiritual beliefs and practices deemed “feudal” and “backward.”10 The government’s more liberal economic and cultural policies under doi moi have given rise to a resurgence of popular traditions. The anthropologist Hy Van Luang (1993), has attributed the intensification of traditional life cycle rituals in rural villages in the North to both an increase in peasants’ economic surplus and the growing importance of reciprocal ties between neighbors and kin in the aftermath of decollectivization. In the cities, meanwhile, the proliferation of ‘religious’ activities and practices—from pagoda worship to fortune telling to elaborate family weddings and funerals— reflects a convergence of new spiritual needs and materialist preoccupations under the morally disorienting impact of the market.11 The state has attempted to channel this burgeoning interest in cultural tradition toward its own governmental agenda. While continuing to condemn “superstitious” practices and the use of religious worship for “immoral” ends, the party has promoted the selective revival of certain appropriately ‘national’ traditions as essential ingredients in the development of a prosperous and civilized society. The Women’s Union has utilized tradition most explicitly in the battle against market-driven “social evils.” In recent years, hundreds of hotels, massage parlors and karaoke bars have sprung up along Hanoi’s previously quiet streets, providing havens for the city’s drug and prostitution trades and a breeding ground for HIV infection. The Women’s Union has responded to this new social crisis by adding “traditional values” to its list of norms of family improvement, along with birth control, proper nutrition and modern hygiene. Although the rise in prostitution since doi moi has clear links to social and economic disruption in the countryside—specifically, to a shortage of land per capita, a high rate of rural underemployment and diminished economic


prospects for unmarried girls—the Women’s Union has viewed the problem as a symptom of a weakened family system. “Prostitution is not so much the result of poverty,” Nguyen Kim Cue, the Women’s Union’s international affairs spokesperson, insisted. “We have found that it is more often the result of poor upbringing, in terms of the values that mothers impart to their daughters.” As a remedy, the Union has sought to reintroduce Confucianism’s “four virtues.” “These values,” Nguyen Kim Cue explained, “form the basis of a moral and healthy life for the Vietnamese woman. They are a part of our culture and need to be adapted to fit the present day society.” Of the “four virtues”—which include diligence (cong), physical grace (dung), polite speech (ngon), and chastity (hanh)—the last is viewed as most important for contemporary Vietnamese women.12 According to Vuong Thi Hanh, Vice-President of the Vietnam Women’s Union: “Faithfulness is the best way for women to prevent diseases like AIDS and to maintain harmony within the home.”13 The Women’s Union organizes lullaby contests as a venue for teaching women traditional moral virtues. A cadre from Hai Hung province, studying at the Women’s Cadre School, explained the importance of these contests to her work. Many women have forgotten the lullabies (hat du) that their grandmothers and mothers sang to them. During the war years, we didn’t have the conditions to maintain this tradition. The economy was too poor and we were always worrying about bombs. These lullabies contain important moral education for both mother and child. With so many bad influences in society today, women need to learn these traditional songs again.14 The Women’s Union employs “traditional culture” as both an antidote to the ills of market modernization and a vehicle of civilizing progress. In their revived form, the “four virtues” not only provide a defense against the corrupting effects of capitalist integration, they also contibute to a modern code of national morality that is viewed as essential to improving of the Vietnamese household as a source of national wealth and cultural strengthening. The Vietnamese state’s current struggle for national modernity subverts any dichotomy between the material and the spiritual by advancing the idea that economic development first allows for and in turn depends on the cultivation of traditional values.15 The Women’s Union’s efforts to revitalize and inculcate certain cultural traditions as norms of family maintenance explicitly serve the goals of national development. These norms place knowledge of hygiene and knowledge of lullabies on a single plane of moral development—a level of civilized middle-class citizenship that defines the model Vietnamese woman’s newest responsibilities to the nation.


THE HAPPY FAMILY CAMPAIGN In 1994, the Hanoi Women’s Union brought together its new governmental priorities and methods in a movement to promote the “Prosperous, Egalitarian, Progressive and Happy Family.” The campaign corresponded to the United Nation’s International Year of the Family and aimed to encourage Vietnam’s compliance with global standards of social development in areas such as child health, AIDS prevention, parenting awareness, and family planning. In preparing for the campaign the Hanoi Women’s Union drew on a system of clubs that had been started in the late 1980s as a means of increasing urban women’s participation in Union activities. The clubs focus on the Women’s Union’s central concerns—increasing women’s knowledge of science and tradition and helping women lead “happy, healthy and civilized” lives. But they try to address these issues in a way that is both entertaining and relevant to women’s lives. As To Thi Phuc, the Vice-President of the Hanoi Women’s Union and the founder of the clubs explained: Before doi moi conducting propaganda was rather simple. Everything was about sacrificing for the war and helping to build socialism. We worked very hard then, but society was simpler. There were government subsidies and everyone was basically in the same situation. Today, living conditions are much better, but the Union’s work is more complicated. Many Hanoi women don’t want to join the Women’s Union because they think it is outdated and boring. ‘It’s just political’ they think, so they feel it has nothing to offer them. They are busy with their families, and with earning money, so they say they do not have time to participate. We have tried to make the clubs both fun and educational, to help women with their everyday lives in the new economic situation, and to help them achieve family happiness.16 The Women’s Union organizes clubs at the precinct, district and city level and focuses the educational content on women’s concerns at various stages of life. For new mothers there are clubs that teach infant care, solutions to marital conflicts, and women’s legal rights, as well as lighter topics such as cooking, home decorating and fashion. For mothers with one or two children, there are family planning clubs that provide information about birth control and techniques for raising a “healthy and obedient child.” For teen-age girls there are clubs that address “love and sexuality,” “how to prepare for marriage,” and “how to apply make-up.” There are also arts clubs—attended mostly by the older generation—where women learn and perform national folk songs, traditional opera, dance, drama and poetry. All of the clubs combine “cultural activities”


with “scientific knowledge,” Phuc explained, as a way of making them “more enjoyable and appealing to women.” In preparation for the International Year of the Family, club participants learned about laws relating to marriage, divorce and the protection of children. They studied pamphlets on birth control methods and listened to speeches given by Union cadres on maintaining domestic harmony, preventing juvenile delinquency and taking care of aging parents and in-laws. In poorer precincts, members were encouraged to participate in women’s savings groups and loan programs that would help them increase their income and “build prosperous families.” Propaganda workers went door to door in their local communities registering women to commit themselves to building “cultured families” (gia dinh van hoa). Neighborhood loudspeakers called on residents to condemn “backward ideology” and “negative family practices,” and to stamp out the evils of drug addiction, gambling, prostitution and superstition.17 The campaign culminated in a series of festive contests held throughout the city. In each precinct (phuong), Union representatives selected the “best families” (gia dinh tot nhat), from among those that met the “cultured family” standard, and invited them to take part in local competitions on the theme of “Building the Civilized and Happy Family.” The winners went on to compete at the district level and, if they were successful there, to the citywide finals. The campaign occupied that intermediary space between state socialism and market capitalism in which the party seeks to construct a new version of national modernity. The contests were partly reminiscent of socialist emulation movements, known as thi dua, in which teachers and other civil servants were judged on their knowledge and correct implementation of ideological concepts. Yet, in contrast to the official rituals of the past, the Happy Family competitions provided a beauty pageant atmosphere. Inside the contest halls, Hanoi’s harsher realities slipped away. The majority of the contestant couples were civil servants: teachers, ministry bureaucrats, postal clerks, nurses, policemen, military officers and other state employees, who had been recruited through their workplaces. A number of women participants were new stay-at-home mothers. Merchants and poor laborers, who make up an increasingly large proportion of Hanoi’s female workforce, were conspicuously absent. Combining socialist kitsch with the trappings of middle-class consumerism, the contests projected the ideal of a law-abiding, prosperous and educated citizenry serving the development of the nation. In July of 1994, eleven one-child couples competed in Ba Dinh district’s Happy Family finals. Ba Dinh is one of Hanoi’s more prosperous districts. The area contains numerous ministry buildings and national monuments (including the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum), as well as many high-level official residences. Although large numbers of newly moneyed outsiders and rural labor migrants


have flowed into Ba Dinh in recent years, the district continues to be popularly characterized as a “government area.” Women’s Union officials in Ba Dinh described their district as representative of the Vietnamese people’s “cultural standard” or dan tri—a notion that implies educational status and an orderly lifestyle, more than simply income level. As one Women’s Union cadre explained during the Ba Dinh contest: Most of the women [contestants] here are educated. They understand about family planning and have a good knowledge of parenting. Because they are always either at the office (co quan), or at home taking care of their families, they rarely have a chance to dress up (mac dien) like this. So they really enjoy coming here to participate.18 The Ba Dinh contest was held at the Vietnamese popular opera house (nha hat cheo)—a cold Soviet-style auditorium, brightened only by official red banners and a red velvet stage curtain. The contestant families competed before a panel of judges consisting of Union and city officials and various ministry “experts,” who evaluated them on the basis of their child’s “intelligence and talent” and their knowledge of the principles of “civilized” family life. The women contestants wore the traditional Vietnamese ao dai—the long, closely fitted tunic draped over flowing, floor-length pants. Some ao dai were adorned with sequins, others had garish floral prints or bright satin sheens. Though the ao dai originated during the French period, as an updated version of traditional SinoVietnamese dress that was most popular among the native bourgeoisie, the party has recently rehabilitated it as a sign of civilized feminine tradition and thus an appropriate national costume. The male participants wore Western-style suits (often ill-fitted or over-sized) that they had likely rented or borrowed for the event. The first contestants’ six-year-old daughter played “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” on a Yamaha electric keyboard, while her mother, dressed in a bright blue ao dai sang along in English. During the performance, electrical problems caused the little girl’s keyboard to go suddenly silent and the mother’s microphone to emit deafening screeches. The audience of relatives, friends and Women’s Union cadre seemed unfazed. They whispered to one another about the family’s appearance. The women seated near me praised the child’s pink, ballerina-style dress with its elaborate ruffles and bows. They declared that the mother looked “young” and the father was “handsome and tall.” They compared the couple to contestants they’d seen in previous contests. During the question and answer segment, the husband and wife sat in plush red armchairs, while the announcer posed a series of questions extracted from the Women’s Union study manual. The correct response required that the contestant apply international principles of


health care, population control, child development or “democratic” marriage to the Vietnamese context. Q: “What is your concept of family happiness? A: In my opinion, family happiness is a husband and wife who love each other, respect each other, and have equality. Secondly, it is important to limit the number of children for the wealth and happiness of the family. The number of children in the family also affects the development of our nation in the world. Most of the contestants were well prepared. Despite stage jitters, they were able to make the necessary links between “scientific knowledge,” “family happiness” and “national prosperity.” They recited the International Rights of the Child, explained clearly the educational importance of maternal “kindness” and “humanism,” and described the dangers of “over indulging” a child. A few lost their way and, in their nervousness, resorted to random parroting of campaign rhetoric. Balancing precariously on high-heeled sandals, a woman in the final couple froze up on the final question: “Why is family planning important for Vietnamese people and society?” To fill the silence, she spouted disjointed maxims from her Women’s Union training, evoking nervous laughter from the audience. A family must have a stable income to be happy…. We must have knowledge about how to raise healthy children…. Happiness means equality between husband and wife…. I never hit my daughter. I try to explain to her the difference between right and wrong…. The announcer quickly stepped in to help her. You answered well. But perhaps if you had had more time to prepare, you would have said: family planning is very important for both the development and prosperity of the society and for the health and happiness of each family. You can’t have a strong society without happy families and you can’t have a happy family without a prosperous society. Isn’t that right? As the woman left the stage, her relatives rushed up and showered her with packaged roses. While the judges retired to make their decisions, disco lights lit up the auditorium and colored smoke filled the stage. A woman in a sequined purple


evening gown performed a series of Vietnamese pop songs. Huge diamond earrings framed her powdered white face, red lips and sharply painted brows. Though she was clearly an amateur singer, the spectators sat transfixed. Her glittering image gave the event a cosmopolitan feel, reminding the audience of their place in a new era of urban prosperity. Afterwards, the judges announced the winners. The first place family—a kindergarten teacher and a policeman with a five-year-old daughter—received a set of Teflon cookware and the chance to compete in the city-wide championship. The Ba Dinh contest combined the values of enlightened parenting and gender equality with the material aspirations of an emergent middle class. The participants not only stood as representatives of new global standards of knowledge, they also reflected the nation’s new prosperity and cultural sophistication. Women contestants were judged at least as much for their interpretation of modern femininity—for their slender figures, their embellishment of the traditional ao dai, and their child’s adornment— as for the accuracy and fluidity of their responses. In contrast to more conventional forums of state propaganda, the Ba Dinh contest had a festive aura. The participating families clearly exemplified the “civilized” ideal, and thus the purpose of the event was less to test parents’ knowledge than to project an image of the prosperous nuclear household within the sanitized domain of official culture. Civil servants of modest income appeared glamorous and well off, enjoying harmonious married lives with talented and obedient children. Untainted by the pressures of the market, they projected a happy unity of moral discipline, political compliance and economic progress. The celebratory and status-affirming atmosphere of the Ba Dinh contest contrasted with the tone of contests held in other parts of Hanoi. Although the Happy Family movement targeted the whole of Hanoi province, the Women’s Union applied the campaign’s goals differently in different locales. Ann Anagnost (1993) notes the “territorialization” of attributes of wenming-civility across the increasingly uneven economic landscape of 1990s China. She points out that the gradations of development—between Jiangdon and the immediate hinterland of Shanghai, and more significantly, between China’s prosperous coastal regions and the poorer provinces of the interior—provide a map of the civilizing process within the nation-space itself.19 In Vietnam, distinctions in levels of civility within the administrative province of Hanoi are similarly dwarfed by the wider gap between the cities and their surrounds, on the one hand, and the impoverished highland regions of Central and North-Central Vietnam, on the other. Within the spatial microcosm of Hanoi, the official discourses and practices of civility differentiate local populations based on their rela tive degrees of economic, educational and moral “lack”—that is, their


distance in economic, cultural and geographic terms from the standard of middle-class modernity represented by the Ba Dinh contestants. Dong Da district lies within the vicinity of central Hanoi, but for historical reasons occupies a more marginal place on the city’s cultural and economic map. Prior to Independence, most of Dong Da remained agricultural land. After 1954, the government began to build factories and house workers (mostly former peasants) in the area. A number of the district’s precincts still bear the imprint of their village pasts, with narrow dirt paths, scattered thatch roofs and the traditional village communal house (dinh). In recent years, this “working class area” (khu vuc lao dong) has seen an influx of more wealthy residents—some from the countryside, enriched by recent land sales, and others from the city’s congested commercial center, drawn by cheaper land prices and the chance to build single family homes. Market reform has also led to the construction of numerous new hotels, beer halls and restaurants in the district. The combination of poverty and increasing urbanization has made the district a fertile ground for “social evils.” Prostitution, gambling and drug addiction are more prevalent here than in Hanoi’s wealthier, more stable districts such as Ba Dinh, Hoan Kiem and Hai Ba Trung. Union officials and local administrators in Dong Da were eager to enumerate their district’s improvements. They pointed to the numbers of prostitutes who had been “rehabilitated” and to the social and educational support that had been provided to the wives and mothers of drug addicts. The president of the Dong Da Women’s Union branch emphasized the district’s emerging middle-class status: …This district is developing quickly. Compared to the past, even five years ago, there are many new businesses here. Many families have a stable income. They want to educate their children to the highest level possible. They know that in order to succeed in the new social and economic situation it is necessary to have training.20 In October of 1994, Hoa Duoc precinct in Dong Da district held its “Happy and Civilized Family” contest. As a precinct-level event, the setting was necessarily less formal and more intimate than that of Ba Dinh’s district-wide contest. But there was a substantive difference as well. The questions asked of the Dong Da contestants reflected a more detailed intervention into the domain of the personal. More was asked of the Dong Da participants because they were perceived to face greater obstacles in their ascent to civility. As one Women’s Union cadre explained: These women are in the process of building new families. There are many negative influences in the city and in this area in particular that can


affect the harmony of the marriage and can lead to divorce. The contestants here can provide models for other women in the district, many of whom come from poor families and do not have new knowledge about [building] the ‘cultured family.’21 The announcer began by applauding the growing numbers of new participants in the Women’s Union clubs: “The young women here, in Dong Da district, are very eager to take part in the movement to build happy, civilized and cultured families. I believe they have all studied very hard and, as you can see, they are also quite beautiful!”22 Most of the contestants were newly married women in their early twenties. A number of them held administrative jobs in state companies, one had a home tailoring business and two others were stay-at-home mothers. They bore the marks of urban sophistication relevant to mid-1990s Hanoi: long shapely skirts, festive floral dresses, high-heeled lace up boots, and freshly cut bobs. Each stepped up to the microphone with confidence, seemingly eager to exhibit her mastery of the material. The first contestant provided a detailed response to the question: “What are the requirements for Vietnamese women today?” In order to be modern women, we must overcome the feudal ideas of the past. We must have equality between husband and wife and we must nurture and teach our children. We must get rid of negative traditions like the “three submissions,” which keep women oppressed and prevent women from developing their knowledge fully. Today it is very important for women to improve their understanding of science, to keep up with new ideas and technologies…. At the same time, to be good Vietnamese women, we must maintain a strong sense of morality. We must remember the “four virtues” and apply them in our lives every day. We must continue to respect and care for our parents. Only if we have knowledge and morality can we succeed in building happy, cultured and civilized families. Other questions similarly required that respondents navigate the normative terrain where ‘tradition’ and ‘progress’ merge. For instance, when one contestant was asked: “How should Vietnamese women make themselves beautiful?” she replied: I think it is important for women to strive for both internal and external beauty. Beauty encompasses how you do housework, cooking and how you raise children. It includes your relations with your family, your friends and the community. Spiritual beauty is always more important


than physical beauty. But today, women have the conditions necessary to improve their appearance. We can learn about modern fashion from all over the world and we can develop our own traditions of beauty. When we make ourselves beautiful, we make society beautiful and we enhance the image of our nation in the world. While contestants were expected to study all areas of the “Happy and Civilized Family” campaign, the questions in this precinct’s contest focused disproportionately on “harmonious” marriage and the morality of the young modern wife. Rather than merely recite policy platitudes, the women were asked to elaborate in detail on questions of personal and domestic life. Q: When husband and wife have disagreements (for instance, about a large spending decision, or about the method of educating their child, etc.), should you stubbornly defend your position in order to get your way? What is the best way to preserve the happiness of the family? A: In the life of a family, disagreements between husband and wife are hard to avoid. When there are differences, husband and wife should have a fair, equal discussion in which each person calmly explains their point of view. I shouldn’t stubbornly defend my position in order to get my own way. Even if my idea is correct, I must look for a skillful way to persuade my husband, so that he will be happy to accept my view. It is necessary to solve contradictions and disagreements through calm and clear discussion, otherwise it is very easy for differences to break up the harmony of the family and have negative effects on the family members, especially the children. Q: You had a close friend of the opposite sex before you were married. Up until now, you have maintained this friendly relationship, but your husband has become increasingly jealous of this friendship. How should you behave in this situation? A: It is necessary to bring all of these kinds of relationships out into the open so that my husband clearly understands the pure nature of the friendships. Ideally I would hope for my friend to become the friend of my husband as well. But, if this is not possible, I would decrease the amount of time I spend with my friend so that it does not compete with or interfere with my marriage relationship. After the question session, the participants displayed their skills in the traditional arts. Some sang hat cheo, the Vietnamese popular opera form, exchanging their Hanoi fashions for traditional folk dress. Others performed cai luong, theatrical skits in which male characters were portrayed as buffoons and


Fig. 3. “Happy family” finalists compete in Dong Da, Hanoi, 1994.

windbags, foolishly opposing their wives’ attempts at family planning. The contest served to celebrate the district’s recent attainment of modern standards of beauty and the qualities of the enlightened middle class wife. The audience of local cadres, war veterans, and precinct residents applauded the women’s performances and laughed loudly through out the proceedings, frequently exclaiming to one another “She is very beautiful!” and “She is very intelligent!” The contrast between the Ba Dinh and the Dong Da contests reflects a relatively subtle distinction between an affirmative display of the “cultural standard” and the successful assimilation of some of the city’s newly cultivated, middle class aspirants. The differences in tone and content between these two events all but disappear when set against the pedagogic setting of a more rural district contest. The morning before the Dong Da contest, I attended a related Women’s Union event in the village of Dai Kim, which is in Hanoi’s Thinh Tre district, approximately thirty minutes by car from central Hanoi. Dai Kim is a scenic village that specializes in the production of flowering plants, woven mats and festival cakes. The majority of women residents work in agriculture and handicraft trades, while the men commute to the city center for trade. In 1994, the authorities had targeted the area for tourism development; they hoped to open a ‘model village’ for foreign visitors by the year 2000. These plans made Dai Kim a critical site for the introduction of the “civilized” family ideal.


On the day of my visit, nearly every woman in the hamlet had turned out for the contest.23 According to the local People’s Committee representative, the village’s lack of cultural diversions encouraged women to participate in events. The women contestants—ranging in age from 18 to 30—sat in a row against the wall of the People’s Committee meeting room. They nervously adjusted their dresses and whispered teasing remarks to each other about their special hairstyles and attire. They were clearly uncomfortable to be on display in this official setting. The event had drawn a number of government visitors from Hanoi, including a state television crew. The contest was intended to showcase popular knowledge of family planning and the development of the “democratic” and “harmonious” household in a village setting. It was also an opportunity for the Women’s Union to introduce modern domestic norms to women on Hanoi’s provincial—and morally vulnerable—borders, where household health and productivity have become increasingly vital to social stability and successful economic development. The government’s plans to make Dai Kim a “model village” for tourism intensified official attention to the preservation of tradition —that is, to the shoring up of family values such as filial duty, marital fidelity and wifely devotion. “We want to be sure that we don’t follow the example of Thailand,” the Dai Kim People’s Committee President explained to me. “We must develop without opening the door to all the negative influences of the West.” The Happy and Civilized Family contest provided a venue in which to recruit Dai Kim’s women to serve as civilizing agents, who would help to prepare their families and their community for the national and international gaze. Before the contest began, the Vice-President of the Hanoi Women’s Union, To Thi Phuc, spoke directly to the participants about their responsibilities for maintaining “family happiness” in a context of rapid economic change and urbanization. She encouraged the Dai Kim women to consult the urban magazine Phu Nu Thu Do (Capital Woman) where they would learn how to modernize and improve their bodies and minds. Only by adapting cosmopolitan standards of femininity would they ensure the harmony of their marriages and the stability of their households. Now that our economy has improved, women need to know how to develop the conditions that will guarantee their family’s happiness…. There is a growing problem today of young husbands going into the city for business, while their wives stay at home. In the city, they see many modern girls who are very beautiful. When they return home, they may look down on their wives and feel frustrated that their wives aren’t more beautiful. Younger sisters, you must be aware of this. You must strive to make yourselves attractive to your husbands.


Phuc went on by urging the women to increase their attentiveness to their spouse’s wants. “With the dangers and temptations of the city so close, younger sisters, you must strive to meet your husband’s needs within the home.” The contest questions reinforced the message that the village population still lacked important aspects of civility and that women were responsible for regulating and bettering their families in response to the market’s new social and economic pressures. The contestants plucked questions from an ornamental tree. Q: If your husband has a drug addiction, what should you do? A: I must work hard to help my husband. This is my responsibility as a wife. I should find out if he is happy in his work and try to understand his frustrations. I must determine the causes of his unhappiness that led him to drugs, so that I can help him to overcome his addiction. Q: If your parents-in-law are sick, what should you do? A: I must be sure to get them the right medicine, and enough of it to make them better. Also, I must strive to help my husband, to make sure that he is calm, so that he can continue to build the family economy. While the Dai Kim contest contained frequent references to the “egalitarian marriage relationship” and the “democratic family,” these slogans operated primarily as vague signifiers of cultural progress. Feudal customs like the “Three Submissions” should be eliminated; “backward” husbands should not obstruct a woman’s use of family planning methods, and so on. In terms of the event’s practical pedagogy, gender equality was subsumed under the ideal of “family happiness,” which required the strengthening of women’s role as domestic caregiver and moral manager. “Be aware of your husband’s business,” To Thi Phuc warned, If he goes frequently to beer halls and comes home late, you must determine why he is not happy at home. Younger sisters, the divorce rate in our country is rising. You must defend your family happiness. Compared to both the Ba Dinh and Dong Da contestants, the Dai Kim village women were relatively unschooled in the “civilized” standards of middle-class femininity. They thus required the greatest official intervention into the realm of the personal. The Women’s Union utilized the contest setting to draw these young provincial wives into the fold of official modernity—both in an immediate sense, by placing them on display in their best Western dress in front


of government officials and television cameras, and in a more Foucaultian disciplinary sense, by instilling in them an awareness of their inferiority vis-à-vis the urban feminine standard and their need for conscientious self-improvement in the domestic domain. As the Union extended its civilizing efforts further away from the city’s cultural and economic center, the need for techniques of family remediation and enhancement increased. While Ba Dinh contestants provided a readymade display of global knowledge and domestic discipline, Dong Da participants stood as aspiring students, eager to prove their membership in the ‘cultured’ middle-class and to distinguish themselves from their district’s seedier elements. The Dai Kim women, in contrast, required clear instruction about their place in the geography of civility and about what was expected of them as wives, mothers, and household managers in a climate of economic opportunity and moral uncertainty. The Happy Family campaign exemplifies a rudimentary form of what Jacques Donzelot (1979) terms ‘policing’—the development of techniques of social governance that link population welfare to the moral regulation of the family. The Women’s Union strives to improve the health, wealth and well-being of women and children through instruction in modern domestic maintenance and through the restoration of traditional family values. The “prosperous, egalitarian, progressive and happy family” must possess the knowledge and economic discipline associated with wealthier and more developed societies and yet, at the same time, recognize these achieved attributes as the natural outcome of indigenous moral virtues. The Happy Family contestant must embrace her heightened domestic role as a mark of progress while she meets the disciplinary requirements of the new economy as the dictates of Vietnamese tradition. The state’s civilizing mission aims to promote norms of development and respectability that effectively blur the contradictions between the market economy and the socialist state by casting both as elements in a larger project of national cultural strengthening. This effort requires invention as much as indoctrination. The enlightened housewife of the Happy Family campaign is a careful construct of the official imagination. While Women’s Union cadres claim that they seek to address the concrete concerns of women’s lives, the 1994 contest forums presented a fantasy realm in which public policy and private desire merged. The pageantlike proceedings concealed the realities of the market beneath a model of middle-class domesticity that failed to account for the everyday pressures women face in the new economy. Although most of the contestants held some form of employment outside the home, none of the contest questions referred to women’s non-domestic work. Businesswomen and merchants (phu nu buon ban), as I have mentioned, were conspicuously absent from the events, while women employed in either the state or agricultural economies (nurses, office


workers, teachers, farmers, and handicraft workers) were not asked to discuss their earning activities, career ambitions or the challenges of balancing motherhood with “work in society.” The contests addressed the market only indirectly through a cautionary discourse on “social evils” which conveyed to women their role as the first line of defense in the battle against drug addiction, gambling, and marital infidelity. Equally absent from the sanitized setting of the Happy Family campaign were the memories and legacies of the recent past—the emotional and physical privations of war and the sacrifices made to now-defunct socialist ideals. This patriotic but less civilized history has remained outside the official image of the prosperous and forward-looking Vietnamese household. While neo-Confucian tradition has gained new relevance in the state’s reinvention of modern Vietnamese culture, the images and ethics of anti-imperialist and working-class struggle have been far more difficult to integrate into the contemporary national imaginary. As the ideological and experiential gulf between the socialist past and the market-oriented present has widened, the government has sought to acknowledge the sacrifices of the war generations without jeopardizing its new vision of modernity. The Women’s Union—as a primary agent of official culture —has worked to memorialize the heroism of the past, presenting women’s wartime selflessness as the endangered essence of a national spirit that flourished in an earlier and morally distant time. This remembrance effort has enlisted the participation of certain groups of women who can serve as market modernity’s Other, embodying both the cultural purity and the cultural lack that such a status entails. COMMEMORATION AND RENOVATION The Army Museum’s “Heroic Mothers” exhibit of 1995, appeared during a period of growing popular cynicism about the enormous human costs incurred by Vietnam’s decades of war. Celebrated novels, such as Bao Ninh’s Sorrows of War and Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without a Name, voiced the widespread sentiment that the ideology of heroic sacrifice had reaped a terrible toll on the spiritual and emotional life of individuals and families. The tribute to the mothers of fallen soldiers was, at least partly, an attempt to appease those critics who felt that the state had ignored the catastrophic suffering of its ordinary citizens. Yet, as a message about national womanhood, the exhibit had a more ambiguous intent. Displayed as rare artifacts, the old women’s tools and clothing urged the viewer to remember and sympathize with the war mothers’ lives—their years of hard work, endurance and patience—but not to emulate them. The state was honoring these frail and impoverished women on terms no longer relevant to a society intent on achieving global standards of economic and


cultural modernity. The war mothers had given up being mothers to their sons in order to be mothers to the nation. In a peacetime era that equates the nation’s future with the health, productivity and self-sufficiency of the family, the model Vietnamese mother fulfills the ideal of female sacrifice through loving devotion to her child’s physical and intellectual development. She will never have to choose between protecting her son and serving her country, because the two paths have become synonymous in the construction of a “civilized” and prosperous national citizenry. While satisfying the government’s need to recognize and reward the contributions of society’s weakest members, the “heroic mothers” provided an additional service. They helped reduce a population’s ambivalent and complex feelings toward its recent history to a process of sorrowful reflection, relegating a sea of incomprehensible loss to a distant and increasingly exotic past. In the months leading up to the Army Museum exhibit, the Women’s Union organized a series of commemorative events. The years 1994 and 1995 contained numerous dates of national remembrance, including the fortieth anniversary of the Dien Bien Phu victory, the fiftieth anniversaries of the People’s Armed Forces, the August Revolution and the Liberation of Hanoi, and the twentieth anniversary of the “Liberation of the South” and National Unification. While the official media ran extensive tributes to the nation’s military history, the Women’s Union set up special clubs through which women could participate in official celebrations. These club participants were distinct from those who took part in the Happy Family camResistance war against the French. They enjoyed the clubs’ camaraderie— the chance to chat with old friends, to sing political ballads and lullabies, and to wear their best ao dai. At an August Revolution club celebration paign. Most were retired women who had been patriotic youths during the held in Hanoi’s central Hoan Kiem district, a woman seated next to me explained: These women are old already. They don’t have much to do now, so they like to get together like this and sing. It’s their only opportunity to perform like this. Retired women such as these like to take an interest in cultural activities. In the past, they were too poor and too busy because of the war and because their children were still small. Now they have a chance to enjoy themselves a bit. All of the nearly forty participants were in their sixties and seventies. A woman veteran of the 1954 Dien Bien Phu battle performed a song about Vietnamese women with the refrain “know how to love, know how to sacrifice….” Another participant recited a poem “Waiting for You” (“Cho Anh”) about a woman’s


unwavering fidelity to her soldier fiancé. A third sang a popular wartime lullaby, “Springtime in Hanoi,” to the accompaniment of an electric keyboard. 24 In Hanoi’s relatively cosmopolitan center, commemorative activities like this one have largely been confined to the leisured elderly. Younger women have neither had the time nor the inclination to participate. “It is very difficult to attract young women to these clubs,” chi Phuc, the Vice-President of the Hanoi Women’s Union, explained, because they view them as old people’s culture. They don’t consider that these activities have any meaning for their lives. They would prefer to go out with their friends or to watch television at home with their families. Generally speaking, the younger generation in the city is not interested in Revolutionary arts activities (nghe thuat each manh). In terms of traditional culture, they are more interested in going to the pagoda. Outside the city’s urban core, however, the official practices of remembrance have targeted a wider population and served a broader governmental purpose. In communities beyond the reach of the Women’s Union’s civilizing goals, the August Revolution clubs provided a fall-back pedagogical venue, linking periphery to center. What served as a quaint forum for female comradeship and nostalgia in Hanoi’s civilized interior became, for women on the underdeveloped edges of the city, a singular setting for national cultural participation. Soc Son is the poorest and most rural of Hanoi’s districts. For officials in central Hanoi, the nearly one hour drive to the district qualifies it as a “trip to the countryside” (di nong thon). On the day of Soc Son’s August Revolution Club celebration, representatives from the Hanoi Women’s Union complained bitterly about the inconvenience of the assignment. One cadre swore to the others that a bureaucratic mistake had been made, that she was supposed to be attending a Hoan Kiem district event in the city center. The solemn mood of the car ride contrasted dramatically with the atmosphere in the Soc Son meeting hall, where more than three hundred people had gathered to watch and participate in the Women’s Union festivities. The contestants in the front rows huddled in groups, talking excitedly, as they combed each other’s hair and applied make-up. A gaunt woman in her forties explained to me, over the giggles of her friends: “We have been practicing every week for many months. This is the first time our club has performed outside the village, so we are very nervous!” Most of the women pulled their long hair back into a tight ponytail. They coated their dark and sun-weathered faces with a white pancake make-up that gave them a surreal, almost frightening look. Many wore simple work pants and blouses. Others donned loose fitting ao dais that accentuated their thin bodies. A


few of the younger, more robust women were dressed in soldier uniforms with green military hats. I asked one of the contestants, following Vietnamese etiquette, how many children she had. She looked away, laughing nervously, and said only “Many! Many!” Although this was not officially a family planning event, the contestants appeared acutely aware of their distance from the standard of middle class civility. “She is ashamed to say,” the woman’s friend interjected teasingly, “because she has five children. Not good!” The announcer began the proceedings by commending the women for making the long walk from their villages to the district capital. He also thanked the Women’s Union officials for coming out from the city to attend. The first group of contestants performed a song about Ho Chi Minh that is commonly sung in elementary schools. The women stood stiffly in a row and sang in muffled voices. Their timid rendition gave them an aura of child-like obedience. A teen-age troupe followed with a hat treo (folk opera) performance. Dubbing the words to the accompaniment of a cassette, two girls dressed as soldiers serenaded their sweethearts before going off to war. Next, a pair of young women acted out a familiar family planning skit that features a Women’s Union official protecting a poor woman from her husband’s “feudal backwardness.” The final group of contestants performed a national political ballad, They held up the hammer and sickle and waved the Vietnamese flag as they sang. The contest lasted for eight hours, without any lag in audience attendance. All of the women received a prize that included a small envelope of money and a tin box of tea cookies. The first place contestants also won the chance to perform their routine at a province-wide celebration held in central Hanoi. In his concluding remarks, the announcer spoke of the importance of “art for the masses” (van nghe nhan dan) in “developing and strengthening our socialist nation.” He encouraged the women to “continue to build our national traditions” with the help of the Women’s Union. On Hanoi’s impoverished perimeter, commemorative events like this one provided a governmental setting in which to school women not yet ready for the more sophisticated requirements and interventions of the Happy Family campaign. As Yen, a Hanoi Union cadre, explained: Many of these women are illiterate, and even those that can read don’t have time or money for magazines or newspapers. Most of them don’t have radios or televisions either. They work hard in the fields all day, and then they must take care of their children, wash clothes, and cook. It is difficult for them to study the requirements for the ‘cultured and civilized family.’ Their lives are different from those of city women. We try to organize activities like these that they will enjoy, because these women rarely have an opportunity to spend a day outside of their village.25


For the Soc Son women, the August Revolution celebration offered a rare moment of escape from their mundane working lives—a chance to go into town, to dress up and perform on stage in front a wider community. The event’s content was less important to the participants than the cultural forum in which it took place. Although one of my Women’s Union hosts made a point of reminding me repeatedly that “Ho Chi Minh is very important to all Vietnamese people,” none of the Soc Son contestants I spoke to made any mention of the occasion’s political or historical significance. The use of the hammer and sickle— notably absent from all of the commemorative events I attended in central Hanoi —was not a mark of Soc Son’s greater revolutionary fervor but rather of the district’s developmental lag. Socialist imagery and political symbols, like outdated fashions, have become the reserve of those on the economic and cultural periphery of Vietnam’s market-driven prosperity. The Women’s Union’s job is to draw participants into the governmental fold by appealing to their cultural interests and aspirations. Places like Soc Son—where popular horizons likely end at the district capital—provide a ready audience for the official tactics of remembrance. However obsolete these slogans and practices may have become in the city, they continue to signify the cultural center for those beyond the market’s globalizing pull. The contexts of official commemoration highlight the Women’s Union’s role in mapping the norms of national civility onto an increasingly class-stratified society. In the doi moi era, the party’s culture managers have neither been able to blithely ignore nor readily assimilate the ‘heroic’ past into their projected model of Vietnamese modernity. The Women’s Union has contributed to the state’s effort to acknowledge the human toll of the war years while relegating the social and political values of that era to the margins of the rapidly modernizing national space—to the nostalgic (and nostalgized) elderly, on the one hand, and to the unsophisticated rural poor, on the other. This strategy can only provide a short-term solution to the awkward dissonance between the party’s ideological history and its present governing agenda. Eventually the aging feminine representatives of the national past will die, and the villagebound female celebrants will raise their cultural expectations. But in the current transition-era, these un-modern ‘others’ enable their more “civilized” urban sisters to forget: to serve, untainted, as bearers of a modern national morality based in the improvement and regulation of the family. The Women’s Union’s commemorative practices are thus integral to the conditioning of the population for the future. The enlightened Vietnamese housewife must take from the past an appreciation of an eternal national spirit and, at the same time, recognize her place on a progression toward a more advanced cultural standard. In promoting the health, wealth and happiness of her family, through a combination of modern knowledge and traditional feminine virtues, she presents the ideal of


national womanhood as the fruition of past sacrifices and the restoration of primordial Vietnamese values. The ‘renovated’ activities of the Hanoi Women’s Union exemplify a new form of governmentality in Vietnam. The challenges of market reform have entailed a shift from government strategies of mass mobilization to new techniques of population improvement geared toward readying individuals for the dangers and demands of capitalist development. While maintaining its official role as the political representative and advocate of Vietnamese women, the Women’s Union has acted as a grassroots administrator of government policies that aim to regulate the health, productivity and moral behavior of the family. The Union’s ‘philanthropic’ goals of protecting women and children have required new interventions into the private realm of domestic relations. The introduction of birth control technologies, the censure of “backward” husbands, the promotion of “progressive” and “scientific” parenting techniques, and the advancement of “democratic” marriage relations, all form part of a broader effort to construct the nuclear Vietnamese family as the locus of national modernity and the Vietnamese woman as its key civilizing agent. In promoting healthy, happy and prosperous households, the Women’s Union has not only worked to impose modern international standards onto various aspects of domestic life, but, more importantly, has sought to root these global criteria in the values of a reconstructed Vietnamese tradition. This “civilizing” mission has targeted women as the essential link between norms of economic and social development and the cultural terms of national identity. The Vietnamese woman/contestant fulfills the official feminine ideal in the doi moi era by becoming a competent and caring middle-class housewife— a domestically committed woman who is enlightened by science, educated about tradition and untainted by the market’s immoralities. The Women’s Union’s new governmental priorities, I have further argued, require varying degrees and forms of pedagogical intervention within the developmentally uneven space of the nation’s capital. The Happy Family contestant from Hanoi’s relatively prosperous center needs little corrective disciplining compared to the semi-rural villager, caught in the uncivil path of urbanization and commercial growth. While the former needs only the proper governmental venue in order to represent the national feminine model, the latter must be subjected to a far-reaching transformation, encompassing her physical appearance, marital skills, and emotional and mental acuity. In carrying out new forms of propaganda, the Women’s Union classifies women according to their moral, physical and economic fitness for “development” as it seeks to draw more and more women into the fold of official modernity. These differentiating tactics appear in another form within the contexts of political commemoration. The problems of integrating the Revolutionary and socialist


past into the current discourse of “development” have been partially addressed through the encasement of wartime values within a modern domain of nostalgia and sorrowful reflection. At the same time, the ghettoization of “art for the masses” on the outskirts of Hanoi has provided a venue for paying tribute to the party’s founding political mandate, while exposing the uneducated poor to the disciplinary interests of state culture. The Women’s Union’s ‘renovation’ under doi moi reflects a broader official endeavor to adapt the institutions of the socialist state to the conditions of market transition. While Union leaders have sought to update their mission’s style and content, their programs have nevertheless remained confined to the realm of “state propaganda.” The Women’s Union contestant enters a formal realm of government that is wholly removed from the settings and struggles of her everyday life. The pageant-like setting presents a world cleansed of the market’s conflicts and temptations. The Union’s pedagogic message is largely preventative: comply with official middle class norms and you will avoid the costly pitfalls of the “open door” era; stay on the path of responsible citizenship and you will achieve financial stability and happiness. In a period when alternative cultural media are increasingly available, relatively few urban women actively choose this civilizing supplement. Those who take part have consented to the recruitment efforts of neighborhood or workplace officials. Popular indifference remains a primary obstacle to the Women’s Union efforts to attract Hanoi participants. The Union’s sterilized celebrations of national modernity have limited appeal for an urban population eager for foreign cultural products and more cosmopolitan forms of leisure. Vietnam’s commercial print media, by contrast, has provided urban audiences with a compelling mix of moral pedagogy and entertainment—one that allows individuals to interact with images from the wider capitalist world and, at the same time, encourages them to relate personal experiences to ‘public’ norms. The liberalized press, as I discuss in the next chapter, at once extends and deviates from the disciplinary contexts of state propaganda; its governmental techniques work to ‘police’ the domestic domain of femininity not through the construction of abstract cultural models, but rather through the melodramatic representation of “real” family life.

3 Governmental Entertainment The Popular Press and the Policing of Femininity

ON SATURDAY AFTERNOONS IN CENTRAL HANOI, LARGE CROWDS converge on the city’s major newsstands. Arms stretch in eagerly toward the overflowing display table. Hands thrust 200, 500 and 1000 dong bills at the besieged sellers. University students and educated professionals snatch up weekly and biweekly magazines such as Quan He Quoc Te (International Relations), Viet Nam Dau Tu Nuoc Ngoai (The Vietnam Investment Review) or Kinh Te Phat Trien (Economic Development), as well as literary papers like Nguoi Hanoi (The Hanoian) and Van Nghe (Literature and Art). Teenage girls and young women reach for glossy copies of Thoi Trang (Fashion) and how-to guides with titles like “180 Explanations for the Age of Budding Love,” “A Housekeeping and Make-Up Handbook” or “The Art of Being a Wife.”1 Studious high-schoolers select poetry journals such as Hoa Hoc Tro (School Flower) and Tuoi Xanh (Green Age), while those with a taste for sensational crime buy up copies of An Ninh Thu Do (Capitol Security) and Cong An Thu Do (Capitol Police). Vietnam’s print media has grown exponentially in the years since doi moi began. Market forces have transformed the press from a largely onedimensional tool of state propaganda into a highly differentiated commodity under loose, but persistent government control. The major official papers from the war and subsidy years remain entrenched institutions today, but they must now accommodate a growing number of news and entertainment journals that have taken full advantage of the reform era’s “open door” climate. Articles on international sports heroes, American political scandals and Hollywood divorces now appear alongside official news of national dignitaries, policy initiatives and cautionary tales of fam ily discord. The various women’s papers frequently include photographs and relationship quizzes taken from Western fashion magazines. They juxtapose these imported excerpts, seemingly randomly, to tabloid and soap opera stories of neglectful Vietnamese mothers, adulterous wives and disrespectful daughters. There is no explicit discourse linking global information and imagery to internal news and cultural commentary. Instead, decorative images of young Vietnamese women, wearing saccharine grins and


the newest international fashions, adorn the covers and punctuate the pages of popular publications. These immaculate beauties advertise a new era of pleasure and prosperity, as they blur the contradictions between the enticements of capitalist culture and the disciplinary concerns of national identity. The ‘renovation’ of Vietnam’s print media has proceeded on broad but clear terms: greater editorial freedom on social, economic and cultural issues in exchange for political stability. As long as editors do not question the integrity or desirability of Communist Party rule, they can continue relatively unhindered to woo their specific readerships. No longer bound to advocate and celebrate the New Socialist Society, the press has taken up the conflicts of everyday social life as a source of consumer titillation and moralistic critique that aims to define rules for living in the chaos of modernizing reform. The new “reality”-oriented journalism entertains as it regulates social norms. While advertising the promises of market prosperity and global integration, bestselling newspapers and magazines dramatize the problems of social disharmony, family breakdown and personal suffering that have attended the market economy’s rise. Readers can enjoy the voyeuristic pleasure of learning about other people’s passions and tragic personal mistakes, as they affirm the boundary between their own behavior and the actions of those who give in to ‘immoral’ desire. The liberalized press occupies a hybrid cultural space between the purely ‘political’ and the purely ‘popular,’ that serves the interests of social management as it feeds consumer fantasy. Recent developments in the Vietnamese media raise questions about the applicability of the concepts of “civil society” and “public sphere” to a liberalized, post-socialist society under an authoritarian party/state system. Jurgen Habermas recognized the important role of the media in the maintenance and expansion of the public sphere in Western society: Citizens act as a public when they deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion; thus with the guarantee that they may assemble and unite freely, and express and publicize their opinions freely. When the public is large, this kind of communication requires certain means of dissemination and influence: today, newspapers and periodicals, radio and television are the media of the public sphere (1991: 398). China scholars in recent years have debated the relevance of Habermas’ ideas to the historical transformations of the ‘public’ realm in China, particularly in the post-Mao era.2 Philip Huang (1993), for instance, chooses to set aside the Western civil society model, with its implicit opposition of state and society, public and private, in order to trace the changing composition of a “third realm”


through the Qing, Republican, Mao and post-Mao eras. He identifies a rich territory of institutions, associations and practices that are characterized by their mediating role between ‘formal’ governance and ‘informal’ social life. The particular balance of state and societal influences in this intermediary public space, he argues, largely shapes the sociopolitical conditions of a given historical period. While the Maoist collective era entailed the increased ‘state-ification’ (Habermas’ term) of nearly all mediating forms of social, political and economic organization, the contemporary market reform era has been marked by growing ‘societalization’ of the third realm. Thus, he concludes, the current liberalization and marketization of Chinese society does not signal a “lasting assertion of societal autonomy against the state,” but rather the emergence of new forms of negotiation and interpenetration in this crucial third space.3 Mayfair Yang (1999), meanwhile, in a discussion of public spaces in “transnational China,” chooses to retain the Habermasian notion of public sphere, but in a more fluid and contextualized form. Rather than assess the presence or absence of civil society in contemporary China by looking for evidence of the (historically and culturally discrete) formation of a ‘free’ and ‘rational’ public, Yang approaches the public sphere as an “ongoing process and struggle” that is characterized, in different locales, by diverse efforts to create and maintain public spaces of independence from the state, the market and the family system. She recognizes that all public spheres are historically unstable. As processes rather than fixed entities, they are always in danger of government incursion and cultural commodification. In Vietnam, the prospects for a public sphere are endangered at the point of their inception by the particular convergence of state controls and market forces in the formation of a new, liberalized space of public discourse. The persistent constraints on political questioning and the continued state ownership of nearly all news organs in Vietnam have confined the possibilities for popular expression and debate to specific forms of societal commentary and critique that serve the “national interest.” At the same time, the increased commodification of print media promotes the packaging of governmental messages as entertainment and orients readers’ desires for post-socialist cultural freedoms toward images of global capitalist consumption. Defined by its intermediary status between the state and the newly market-driven society, the press lures audiences with signs of cos mopolitan progress and prosperity, as it inscribes the space of an emergent middle-class public with the normalizing terms of the national. The Vietnamese woman stands at the center of these new practices of governmental entertainment. While photographs of virginal beauty queens provide a Utopian vision of national development—or, in Richard Dyer’s (1992) terms, “the image of ‘something better’ to escape into, or something we want deeply that our day-to-day lives don’t provide”—the melodramatic


portrayal of real and fictional women links the terrain of private female conduct to the crises of national identity. The disciplinary efforts of the press are felt in the persistent condemnation of the “pragmatic” middle-class woman who betrays sacred Vietnamese values through her neglect of essential family duties. In contrast to the prescriptive tactics of Women’s Union contests, which expunge the unsavory aspects of middle class striving from the model of “civilized” womanhood, the liberalized media identifies and magnifies the disease of immoderate female desire as a principle threat to the integrity and survival of Vietnamese culture. In the public soul-searching of post-Cold War Vietnam, the controlled and contradictory definitions of femininity provide a moral map of the nation’s goals for “development” and the terms of national accommodation to the dehumanizing logic of the market. I begin this chapter with an overview of the print media’s ‘renovation’ in the market reform era, in order to define the contours of this new hybrid, intermediary space of public cultural discourse. In negotiating the terrain between government policy and consumer taste, Vietnamese newspapers and magazines have engaged in the controlled criticism of petty corruption and social injustice. In the most glaring cases of official wrongdoing, a number of leading papers have stood as representatives of ‘public opinion.’ Yet, the dangers of substantive political criticism in Vietnam have led the more popularly oriented and potentially resistant voices in the media to the safer investigative milieus of social and cultural life. Here, I argue, a journalistic concern with the inequalities and spiritual losses associated with market development paradoxically serves to reproduce a ‘conservative’ discourse on national values that is distinct from, yet consistent with, the disciplinary interests of official culture. As an illustration, I present the case of Phu Nu Thu Do (Capital Woman)—a publication that has linked its commitment to non-propagandistic coverage of “social reality” to the discovery and restoration of ‘authentic’ cultural traditions. The nostalgic sensibility, I maintain—while at times resistant in intent—supports a broader body of social commentary that presents the middle class female, in various forms, as the potentially destructive element in an already endangered family system. Melodramatic fiction, personal memoir, tabloid and soap opera stories provide emotionally charged accounts of human suffering and anomie that turn on the displacement of pre-capitalist virtues by irreverent, modern daughters-in-law and emasculating, money-driven wives. In examining a number of examples from the press, I consider how the terms of female virtue and deviance provide a convenient language for addressing the troubling realities of class and cultural division, in a society still subject to the claims of an official socialist imaginary. Media commentary on society’s growing social and economic divisions has largely been confined to dramatized situations of family discord, between parents and children or husbands and wives,


Fig. 4. Cover from the women’s magazine “Woman,” Sunday, June 18, 2000.

avoiding analysis of broader societal conflicts between, say, workers and employers, rural migrants and bourgeois urbanites, or sellers and tax collectors. The opposition of a nouveau riche bride to her impoverished peasant father-in-


law, or of a simple rural seller to a domineering middle-class wife presents the inequalities and disjunctures of the present as personalized problems of female character, rather than deep-seated contradictions within the social order. Media strategies of cultural idealization and societal critique, I argue, serve to condemn those forms of female agency that might enable a woman to transcend the status of a “sacrificing” rural mother or an “enduring” dutybound housewife and so undermine her ability to represent the nation in its critical time of need. FROM PROPAGANDA TO ‘PUBLIC OPINION’ The “renovation” of the Vietnamese media arose as an integral part of market reform. The government relied on the press to promote its new economic priorities to the population. At the same time, newspapers became the principle narrators of the reform process, describing as well as commenting on the changes in the country’s economic and social landscape. In official terms, the press has served as a vehicle for mobilizing public opinion and human efforts in the service of economic transition. As the chief editor of the Vietnam Courier explained to an international audience: We had no one to copy from in our reforms and it is also our policy not to copy from anyone. Thus, the leadership in our country decided to muster the energy and wisdom of the entire population, and in this difficult and momentous work it has called on the press to join in the mobilization. I can cite the example of the Labor Code, which took several years to elaborate and several months to canvas the opinions of the masses. These opinions were aired during the meetings of mass and social organizations or directly sent by the constituencies to their deputies in the National Assembly. A large portion of the opinions was carried in the newspapers, over the radio and on the television. Such mobilization is unprecedented in the history of the press in our country.4 In contrast to the pre-reform period when newspapers functioned exclusively as tools of state propaganda, the doi moi era. has allowed the press to take on a more genuinely meditative role—at once conveying official policy to readers and presenting a version of ‘the people’s’ interests to the authorities. A number of publications have worked to establish their popular credentials by portraying themselves as the voice of public indignation in the battle against local corruption. These papers have exposed various injustices perpetrated by petty officials. The most notorious case of press intervention in the political process occurred in 1993, after a Hanoi policeman attempted to rob and then murdered


a 21-year-old messenger late at night on a city bridge. The incident took place during a period of simmering social frustration over growing official corruption and the ineffectual practices of the legal system. The police murder fit a disturbing pattern. An official, driven by greed, had taken advantage of his position to break the law and exploit the powerless. The victim of the crime drew a flood of popular sympathy. He was a young man from a poor and “patriotic” family, who was struggling to earn a living as a courier for a joint-venture company. When it was discovered that the policeman’s family had attempted to bribe the victim’s father to drop the charges, the press galvanized an outpouring of public fury. The editors of two popular Hanoi papers published weekly letters from readers, condemning the conduct of the police investigators and demanding justice for the young courier’s family. The controversy progressed from the question of the policeman’s guilt to the precise category of the murder conviction under the criminal code. During the final days of interrogation and testimony, a crowd of more than 10,000 people stood outside the courthouse awaiting the verdict. In the end, the policeman was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.5 Despite the court’s insistence that “public opinion” (du luan) had not swayed its judgment, the newspapers celebrated the verdict as a victory.6 They had successfully mobilized ‘the people’ against the evils of official privilege, avarice and deceit. Their struggle tapped into a reservoir of officially sanctioned public anger in the face of local inequity. Yet while Party leaders officially condoned the media’s exposure of government corruption in the 1990s, their tolerance has been limited to the lower echelons of the bureaucracy. Newspapers that criticize more prominent officials risk harsh government retribution. In 1998, a newspaper editor was convicted of “abusing democratic rights” in order to harm the “national interest,” after he published a series of articles documenting high-level corruption within the Customs Department.7 The broad official definition of “national interest” allows the authorities to revoke the press’ newly-won freedoms whenever they perceive a potential threat to political stability. The Vietnam Courier chief defended the government’s media policies by clearly stating the terms of press independence. There is always full liberty of expression for anyone who wants the people to be happy and free from foreign domination in whatever form. One thing I am sure of is that there is no press censorship, as has been claimed by some misinformed people…. All the newspapers shall have to take responsibility for what they write. And this responsibility cannot be placed in the hands of any single private individual. We cannot accept that a newspaper refuses to accede to the government line or, worse still, foments social unrest. Our government has made it clear more than once


that political stability is the prerequisite for economic development. Which is why the primary task of the press and any other institution in the country is to contribute to building up and strengthening this stability (Pham Thinh 1995:38). The prohibition on substantive government criticism has confined the potentially resistant voices in the media to the more pastoral concerns of social life —that is, to the problems of romantic love, marital incompatibility, the disintegration of family bonds, the psychological and emotional toll of money, and the search for spiritual solace and meaning. In some forms, this exploration of the ‘private’ realm of individual and family struggle has offered an alternative discourse to official definitions of progress and modernization, by highlighting the losses and unfulfilled hopes of the post-war era. In other cases, the journalist has served more explicitly as a pedagogical agent of the state, by dramatizing the market’s dangers and the costs of an indulgent and disorderly lifestyle. The liberalized press has offered sufficiently diverse subject matter, editorial perspectives and styles to meet the interests and desires of a growing middleclass audience. Yet, the convergence of state limits and market incentives has worked to contain the possibilities for opposition and difference within a discursive space of national values that isolates personal conduct as the focus of public regulation. INVESTIGATING “SOCIAL REALITY”: THE CASE OF PHU NU THU DO The most avid proponents of the new Vietnamese journalism—namely, the editors and writers of some of the leading informal news publications— commonly described their work as an “investigation of social reality” (nghien cuu thuc te xa hoi). “Before doi moi,” an editor at a Hanoi-based paper explained, “we could only report on government policy. But now, we can address the real problems that are affecting people in their everyday lives. Our first priorities are family relations,” he explained, “problems, such as divorce, delinquent children, and caring for aging parents.”8 The various “social evils” of gambling, prostitution, drug addiction and AIDS also topped the list of favored topics. In the mid-1990s, Phu Nu Thu Do (Capital Woman) was one of the most popular of the Hanoi-based news papers. Founded in 1986 by the Hanoi Women’s Union, the paper exemplifies the hybrid quality of the newly ‘renovated’ press. While the Women’s Union provides Phu Nu Thu Do with office space and the necessary legal and institutional backing, the style and content of many of the articles fall outside the parameters of official state culture. In addition, the journalists include many young men as well as non-cadre women.


The chief editor of Phu Nu Thu Do described her work to me in 1994 as a struggle to break away from the old style of propaganda journalism in order to “speak to a wide audience in a non-political and truthful way.” A lively, frankspoken and intelligent woman, Mai Thuc studied literature as a graduate student in the subsidy years. She was passionate about her studies and soon ran into trouble with her supervisors at Hanoi’s Institute of Literature. “They told me that my thesis had to serve politics,” she explained, “but I wouldn’t agree, so I failed.” Fortunately, she was able to find a job as a journalist. She worked as an education reporter for Hanoi Moi newspaper, before being invited by the Hanoi Women’s Union to head their new publication, originally called Phu Nu Ha Noi. The paper has thrived under her leadership, surpassing the more conventional national Women’s Union paper, Phu Nu Viet Nam, in popularity among Hanoi audiences. Mai Thuc attributed her publication’s success to its focus on the “real conditions” of Vietnamese society—“not only problems affecting women, but all members of the family: husbands, wives, the youth, and the elderly.”9 A typical topic for the paper in the mid-1990s was the city’s prostitution problem. A series of articles in 1994 detailed the entrapment of naive provincial girls by abusive brothel owners and described the criminal collusion behind the growing numbers of illicit massage parlors, hotels and karaoke bars.10 Other popular subjects included the causes and consequences of divorce, individual struggles against poverty and misfortune, generational conflicts, and the fate of cultural traditions. The paper also covered awkward social topics that rarely appear in the press, such as sexual impotence and homosexuality.11 The socially aware reporting that Mai Thuc espoused bears little resemblance to what Western audiences recognize as social realism. In practice, the Hanoi journalist’s freedom to “investigate social reality” involves permission to discuss the “negative aspects” of society—that is, to examine the downside of market reform from the perspective of various human failings, such as selfishness, greed and callousness. The purpose remains, in the Confucian and socialist traditions, pedagogic. The journalist may report on social ills, as long as he or she poses problems as moral predicaments, either between evil actors and innocent victims or between ‘external’ influences and ‘internal’ values. An article devoid of moral instruction risks presenting a merely “pessimistic” vision of the present — an image that might provoke deeper questioning into the nature of the political system and the roots of social inequality.12 Greg Lockhart (1996) has contrasted the Vietnamese journalism of the 1990s with the brief but historically critical period of realist reportage in 1930s Vietnam. In his discussion of 1930s writers, such as, Tarn Lam, Vu Trong Hung, Trong Lang, and Hoang Dao, he emphasizes the important role of first person narrative and the emergence of “new nationalsocial categories” in the creation of a new literary journalistic form.13 These authors broke away from established


literary practices by employing methods of ethnographic immersion to ‘investigate’ the human consequences of the colonial city’s modern transformation. Their goal was to provide readers with a ‘mirror’ of social reality—images that would heighten their self-awareness—rather than with models or words of guidance by which to live. The early years of doi moi saw a momentary revival of such investigative reportage (in particular, a flurry of “detailed accounts of rural poverty and maladministration by official ‘bullies’”14); yet, Lockhart notes regrettably, such efforts were quickly suppressed in favor of “social commentary that tends to ply readers with moralistic advice” (1996:4–5).15 The editor of Phu Nu Thu Do readily described her paper as a form of education, both moral and practical. She did not openly identify any conflict between the “investigation of social reality” and the prescribed role of the press as a normative guide for society. One of her paper’s greatest concerns, she explained, was “to teach young people how to live in the new social and economic environment.” Her frustration with the old-guard powers above her—with the aging Women’s Union cadre who “don’t want to change”—arose not from the notion of her pedagogic responsibilities per se, but rather from the type of material deemed appropriate for this important job. “Is it enough to tell people to follow the government line?” Mai Thuc asks. “How can that help them? We need to go out into the streets, into people’s homes to find out how they are living and what difficulties they are confronting in their lives.” In investigating this unmediated level of society, Mai Thuc defined her purpose, not as a struggle to transform social consciousness in the manner of the 1930s realists, but as a search for authenticity. She described herself as a “cultural researcher,” rather than a journalist, who aimed to unearth Vietnamese practices, values and beliefs from beneath the layers of political ideology and distortion. “Feudal” and “oppressive” aspects should be discarded, she allowed, but “we must return to those positive traditional elements that define our national culture (van hoa dan toc).” The “return” that Mai Thuc proposed differs from the civilizing goals of official culture primarily in its refusal to treat tradition as an unproblematic attribute of modern cultivation. While Women’s Union training programs emphasize the compatibility between modern cultural standards and traditional values, the pedagogy promoted by Phu Nu Thu Do dramatizes and sentimentalizes the losses and conflicts that have attended society’s race for wealth and the modern lifestyle. NOSTALGIA AS SOCIAL CRITIQUE Mai Thuc’s journalistic contributions in the 1990s focused on neglected stores of Vietnamese knowledge and values: on forgotten people, communities and


practices that needed to be rescued and revitalized in the present. Her topics often appear arcane beside the dramatic accounts of heartbreak, murder and family discord, or the beauty and style tips typically featured in her publication. In a 1994 issue, for example, she contributed an article on the revival of a traditional family business that produced matrimonial rice cakes in the old section of Hanoi. The “Banh Com Nguyen Ninh” rice company has “awakened the tastes and smells of Hanoi…and the vitality of the family clan (dong bo),” she writes. The article intersperses poetic and emotional descriptions with the words of a Nguyen Ninh family member. In the kitchen, the flame of my ancestors burns again. [My siblings and I] tell each other to keep the delicate and refined ways of this occupation alive…. There was a time when people complained that eating such refined food was a ‘luxury’ (i.e. pretentious). How could they know that this [delicacy] is the culture (van hoa), the soul (tam hon) and the essence (tinh boa) of our parents and grandparents. We greatly respect our mother for instilling in her daughter-in-law an understanding of the subtle, refined and difficult aspects of this occupation. “What has enabled this tradition to pass from one life to another?” Mai Thuc asks rhetorically. “It is the children of the Nguyen Ninh family, who show their gratefulness to their ancestors by maintaining the origins of the famous Nguyen Ninh product.”16 Mai Thuc’s account opposes the ethics of a traditional family business both to the ideological codes of the subsidy era (when such food was considered ‘pretentious’) and to the consumerism, corruption and social discord of the contemporary market period. She praises the extended family clan—rarely extolled in the modernizing discourse of the Women’s Union— as the endangered “essence” of “our traditions.” She yearns for a return to Hanoi’s presocialist values and invokes the virtues of filial piety, feminine diligence and devotion as a critique of the current urban culture. In 1994, she published a small anthology of her writings about people, places and institutions that “continue to maintain the ancient culture and dynamism of Hanoi.”17 Many of the articles focus on women. In “the Silent Wives,” for instance, Mai Thuc seeks out a number of Hanoi’s war widows, who describe lives of loneliness, hardship and unwavering faithfulness on the margins of society. Loc was a strong, determined and spirited woman. She understood that to marry a soldier would mean sacrifice. The day he left for the war, she implored him: “Please come back, no matter how terribly you are injured. I will always love you.” When she lost him, she cried herself


unconscious…. Happiness only came to her in her dreams. But her greatest sadness was that her children could never be cared for and guided by their father’s strength and skills, which she could never duplicate.18 The widow’s poignant story contains a sharp indictment of the current peacetime social order: Now, my children are grown, the years and months of hardship are past us, but the sadness doesn’t seem to lessen. Sometimes the sadness is compounded because of society. As a woman cadre, I see so many scenes of injustice every day that I can do nothing about. Today… black and white are confused. While criminals brag in honeyed tones, few people listen to the decent and honest people.19 Mai Thuc returns to the theme of marital faithfulness in her conclusion. “This year, at more than sixty years old, Loc is still his kind and thoughtful wife, as she has been for all the 25 years that he’s been gone.” The enforced separation between politics and culture in the liberalized press inherently constrains Mai Thuc’s resistance stance—that is, her attempt to promote “social reality” over “propaganda.” In the doi moi era, journalists have been free to criticize bureaucratic indifference through portrayals of individual suffering. Yet, by appealing to tradition as a counterpoint to contemporary social ills, their critique remains safely within the bounds of an officially sanctioned cultural discourse that routinely subjects modernity to the demands of national authenticity. The media’s increased attention to women’s “real” experiences and hardships has tended to reaffirm what Partha Chaterjee (1993) terms women’s “social responsibility” to uphold and protect the “inner spirituality of the nation.” OLD MOTHERS, NEW DAUGHTERS Mai Thuc’s studied appreciation of Hanoi’s forgotten customs and spiritual qualities stands out in the press as an effort to elevate popular journalism above its tabloid tendencies. Throughout much of the new socially-oriented print media, the nostalgic appeal to ‘traditional values’ is less literary and more explicitly prescriptive. The pages of middle-brow papers such as Phu Nu Thu Do, Phu Nu Viet Nam, Tien Phong, Nguoi Hanoi and Dai Doan Ket, are full of accounts of family breakdown, real and fictional, caused by the loss of moral principles in a new era of prosperity. Foremost among these endangered virtues is filial piety, which provides the moral benchmark dividing a humane and harmonious


past from a discordant and alienating present. Women serve as the necessary signifiers at both ends of this moral/historical spectrum. The idealized Vietnamese mother, who knows limitless sacrifice, finds her modern-day antithesis in the self-serving and irreverent middle-class daughter-in-law—a symbol of the depravity of the new urban landscape. The traditional tension between mothers and their sons’ wives in Vietnam’s patrilineal and patriarchal social order has been a continuing focal point of postRevolutionary discourses on the family and on the meaning of women’s “liberation.” As we saw in chapter one, official pedagogy of the 1950s and 1960s condemned “feudal” and “backward” mothers who confined their daughters-inlaw to domestic service and prevented them from working for the national cause. In recent decades, the focus of official reproach has shifted from the conservatism of the older generation to the ingratitude and impiety of the young. As market forces have gained strength in Vietnam, the inherently conflictual relationship between Vietnamese mothers and daughters-in-law has tipped in favor of young urban wives. The concentration of economic opportunities in urban areas has encouraged rural sons to find work and set up families far from their natal homes. As the extended household has become less common, especially in cities and towns, a mother’s need to assert her control over the young female interloper (the rival for her son’s loyalty and affection) has given way to a more desperate and demeaning struggle for material resources. Left behind in the village, many aging mothers (and fathers) have become an economic and moral burden for their upwardly mobile, urbanized children. A young wife’s interest in maintaining her own nuclear family and securing a modern middle-class lifestyle often conflicts with her husband’s duties to his parents. In the social upheaval of market reform, the ‘liberated’ urban daughter-in-law has come to represent modernity’s threat to the traditional values of ancestor worship and the inviolability of family bonds. The author of a 1994 article in Phu Nu Viet Nam, for instance, compares his wife to his mother and finds the former sorely lacking in the most valuable feminine qualities. Life with his wife is “often unsatisfactory,” he explains, because she “works all the time” and never has time to do the cooking. He recalls how much care his mother put into the family’s meals, how “happy” mealtime was, and how much “she sacrificed (never eating much herself) for her children.” His wife, in contrast, often “flies into a rage” and uses words “like bombs” in order to “destroy her rival.” At these times, in particular, he remembers his mother. Through my whole life, I never once heard my mother speak angrily or loudly…. She was always sweet and gentle and it seemed as if the gen tleness of women was the most miraculous medicine to cure all the


bad habits of men. The only time I ever saw my mother angry with my father was when she sat at his bedside, holding his hand, imploring him: “why do you go before me?” The author attributes his mother’s virtues to her rural roots. She was “only a country woman,” raised in “the wet rice civilization.” Women like his wife have been “much luckier than the previous generation.” Educated at university, they have acquired knowledge “as old as the earth.” “Why can’t [my mother’s] qualities be maintained today?” he asks.20 Published in the national women’s paper, this personal memoir is typical of the morally reflective journalism that appears alongside articles on health programs for women, portraits of exceptional female leaders or accounts of new divorce legislation. The idealized image of a mother who denies herself food to feed her family and lives only to nurture others is disturbingly at home alongside the ‘progressive’ advocacy of the women’s press. The author’s romantic depiction of primordial rural motherhood serves less as a prescriptive model for female readers than as a reprimanding reminder to the culturally amnesic middle class woman. When the author asks why the virtues of this simple “country woman” can not be maintained in the present, he rhetorically reduces the disruptive effects of economic development and urbanization to the moral failings of over-privileged modern wives. This form of personal commentary channels the popular and political anxieties over the growing divide between rural and urban, old and young, into the familiar pedagogical language of national femininity.21 The media’s condemnation of the impious modern daughter-in-law has assumed a variety of forms, ranging from simple morality tales to sensational stories of greed, passion and violence. True accounts often read like fiction, as authors attempt to dramatize domestic incidents, portraying the real participants as actors in a larger struggle. A 1995 article, titled “A Daughter-inlaw’s Regret,” for example, describes a young wife in Hanoi who dreads the periodic visits of her impoverished rural mother-in-law. She considers “countryside people” to be an imposition and resents having to dress in a conservative “flannel house dress” for her mother-in-law’s benefit. The young woman’s impiety reaches an extreme, when she attempts to prevent her husband from giving money to his mother following a devastating crop failure. Only after taking the family savings and fleeing with her child to her birth parents’ home does the daughter-in-law finally realize her mistake. The author concludes this real-life parable by explaining: So, the woman’s daughter-in-law does, after all, understand morality. She has not lost her human feeling. The old woman is very happy.


Not because of the money, but because her son and his wife will live in harmony, and because her daughter-in-law is still a pious child.22 This story utilizes the reassuring instructive style of the pre-doi moi press: bad women can be redeemed through correct moral training. Yet, in the current period, traditional family values rather than socialist ideology provide the morally transformative medicine. The actors’ generic quality locates the story in the realm of official propaganda. Published on an editorial page alongside essays on “government policy solutions,” the article defines the preservation of female morality as a problem of national cultural management—that is, a matter of redressing the divisive effects and inequalities of the market. Occasionally, the conflict between ‘good’ mothers and ‘bad’ daughters-inlaw is illustrated through an actual, news-making event. In such instances, the formulaic condemnation of the irreverent young wife takes on the quality of tabloid reportage. The more scandalous the incident, the less need there is for the author to inject the omniscient, moralizing tone of state pedagogy. The journalist relays the story, incorporating the feelings and perspectives of the real people involved. Thus, the critique reads more as popular moral consensus than as official cadre conservatism. A feature article in a special issue of Phu Nu Thu Do, for instance, describes a household thrown into crisis by an explosive confrontation between a mother and daughter-in-law. The story is told from the perspective of a 35-year-old husband and father. The man reflects back on the domestic trouble caused by his wife, who proved to be an “impudent daughter-in law.” Thu came to live with his family in 1987, he explains, shortly after they were married. From the outset, she failed to win the respect and love of her mother-in-law, Ba Men. Ba Men disliked Thu’s “harsh” and “independent-minded” (tu y tu quyen) nature and considered her lifestyle to be “untidy” and “wasteful.” When Thu became pregnant, she did not tell her mother-in-law, but instead confided in the neighbors, causing Ba Men to “lose face” in the community. When Thu returned from the hospital, she immediately took the baby to her parents’ house without receiving permission from her in-laws. The tensions between the two women intensified once Thu became a full-time housewife. When gold disappeared from the eldest son’s bedroom, all the members of the household suspected Thu. One day, Thu overheard her mother-in-law and sister-in-law discussing her failings. She burst out of her bedroom, cursing the two women. When her mother-in-law tried to push her back, Thu struck her in the face. Then, her sister-in-law tried to intervene and Thu attacked her, biting off part of her ear. The police arrived, arrested Thu and brought the sister-in-law to the hospital. In the weeks that followed, Thu’s husband tried to comfort his mother and sister


and take care of his infant son. As the Tet New Year approached, he wondered “how he would ever convince his mother and sister to forgive his wife.” This sensational story of domestic violence serves as a warning tale about the importance of filial piety and traditional femininity to the family system. Socialist condemnation of oppressive “feudal” mothers-in-law has given way in the market era to a more ‘popular’ form of moral disciplining that targets the overly liberated daughter-in-law as a threat to family harmony and tradition. Always a potential breeder of disloyalty, the modern daughter-in-law easily embodies the danger posed by ‘external’ influences to ‘internal’ relations and feelings. As a figure of excessive feminine independence, she must be redomesticated. Thus, Thu—driven to madness by her inability or unwillingness to conform to her in-laws’ expectations—finds salvation in the chastening lessons of a magnanimous mother-in-law. Spared a prison term, she faces a future of rehabilitation in her in-laws’ home. Ba Men loved her son and her grandson. Although she was still very angry, her maternal feelings made her reconsider. She persuaded her daughter not to prosecute Thu. Ba Men went to the police and requested a compromise: she would bring her daughter-in-law home to be educated. After this violent incident, Thu finally realized all the things she had caused. She thought about the New Year, about how she would obey her mother-in-law’s words to live morally and modestly, and to learn from earlier experience and from her mistakes that others have pointed out to her. Nam was sure that once his wife understood the good heartedness of his family, once the whole family understood each other, then his life with Thu and their infant son would become ever more happy, under the protection of the extended family.23 SATIRIZING THE ‘LIBERATED’ MIDDLE CLASS WOMAN While the women’s papers have singled out the wayward daughter-in-law for moral rehabilitation, Vietnamese novelists and short fiction writers have provided a more complex picture of family breakdown in which the avaricious middle class wife is only the most conspicuous element. The most widely known literary indictment of Vietnam’s post-war consumerist society is Nguyen Huy Thiep’s The General Retires—a story about an aging war hero who returns home after years on the battlefield to find his family and the world transformed. The story features an extraordinarily depraved daughter-in-law, who cheats on


her apathetic husband and supplements her household’s income by raising pet dogs that she feeds with aborted fetuses taken from the maternity hospital where she works. Thiep’s sardonic treatment of the spiritual and moral degradation of Vietnamese society in the early years of market reform contributed to the banning of his work in the late 1980s. Yet, aspects of his critique have become comfortably ensconced within the less politically charged practices of the popular media. A short story that appeared in a 1994 issue of Nguoi Hanoi addressed the postwar themes of class and generational conflict through character types that have become fixtures in a popular cultural discourse on the ‘spiritual’ costs of market modernity. “Bao Hieu” (“Fulfill One’s Filial Duty”) by Tran Xuan, tells the tragic tale of Mung—a poor and honest pho seller who devotes his life to his only child and son, Vui. Despite his parents’ many sacrifices, Vui turns out to be a cold and ungrateful son. He does not visit when his mother falls ill with cancer and arrives late for her funeral, dressed in “Western-style mourning clothes.” Vui attends university, becomes a major in the army’s propaganda department (a job that will keep him out of harm’s way), and subsequently becomes the director of a company in Hanoi. Consumed by his own success, he rarely visits his father in the countryside. Then, one day, he arrives at his father’s home in “a Japanese car,” accompanied by a “girl in gaudy make-up and a short skirt well above the knee.” Vui explains that his new wife, Thoa, is the daughter of his company’s president. “This is a civilized time,” Vui tells his father. “One can’t be a stickler for formalities like in the past when things were very backward. So, today I am a director in the company of my wife’s family.” A colorful denunciation of nouveau riche “civility” ensues. The young couple has decided to sell the old man’s house and bring him back to Hanoi to live with them. The arrogant Vui appears meek and emasculated beside his shrill, moneyed wife. A few days later, Mung is delivered by hired car into the alien world of his daughter-in-law’s home—”a three story, white washed house” full of servants— where he is shocked to see that Thoa wears “a thin skimpy dress” and drinks beer with dinner. The old man’s countryside ways embarrass his son and offend his daughter-in-law. He asks for rice wine (a drink only suitable for “servants and cyclo drivers”) and smokes his water pipe in the front garden. “You are an old man and yet so inconsiderate,” Thoa scolds him. “Spreading this untidy waste around here, you are very unclean!” On one occasion, Mung enters his son’s room to look for a match and finds the young couple in bed. Thoa quickly unclasped her white thighs from around Vui’s body and jumped down, with a violent frown on her face. ‘You are so uncivilized!’ she screamed at the old man. ‘You act as if you were back in the countryside! Next time you want to enter, remember to knock!’


Mung confines himself to his tiny attic room, foregoing meals and all human contact until, finally, he hangs himself.24 The literary satirizing of new middle class values critiques the hollowness and hypocrisy of “civility” in the context of contemporary family life. While the Women’s Union has defined the “civilized” and “happy” household as a product of law-abiding productivity and enlightened tradition, the popular media seems to mock this governmental Utopia by focusing on the inhumanity and culturally degrading effects of modern aspiration. Yet these distinct discourses complement each other in their shared preoccupation with the middle class woman as the moral linchpin determining the fate—the harmony, progress, and cultural survival—of the Vietnamese family. “The pursuit of material development independent of ethico-moral development would lead to the brutalization of life and to social disorder,” Ann Anagnost observes in her discussion of China’s wenming campaign (1997:84). “Civility” devoid of spiritual values, Mung’s tragic story warns, creates a truly uncivil world in which the modern daughter-in-law/wife—bound only to her own desires—inverts the traditional family order, turning husbands and fathers into dependents. Popular literature has depicted the disorienting effects of post-war society through humor as well as tragedy. While many writers have relied on stereotypes of the grasping middle class woman to convey the immorality of the market, others have comically employed the trappings of feminine “progress” as a means of highlighting the displacement of earlier codes of national masculinity. A story titled “An Influential and Powerful Wife,” published in a 1995 issue of the literary paper, Van Nghe, depicts a bumbling and disoriented army veteran, named Tien, who must adapt to his diminished status both at home and in the wider postwar society. During his military tour, Tien’s wife climbed the ranks of the official bureaucracy, becoming a prominent figure in an office of social affairs. She travels abroad, studies English and entertains important guests. Tien struggles to understand her and to resume marital relations. When he attempts to flatter her by telling her she “looks plump” (a woefully out-of-date compliment in these more cosmopolitan times), he offends her feminist sensibilities. He is unable to move beyond the memories and simple pleasures of his military days. When his wife’s colleagues visit, he embarrasses her by immediately asking them which army unit they fought with and how long they have been back in civilian life. He knows no other topic for conversation. In his postwar married life, he has become a “sheepish” attendant, living in the shadows of his wife’s powerful career. When he visits his wife’s home village for a family ceremony, his new status becomes painfully clear. The trip to the countryside was both happy and sad. He was happy to meet many of his close relatives. Everyone greeted him enthusiastical ly.


But then he was also sad because it often seemed as if everyone had forgotten him. He heard his wife’s aunt explained to various guests: “Tien is currently idle. He stays home and cooks for his wife and daughter, who have grown plumper and more fair complexioned! His wife and daughter are certainly grateful for his good nature’”25 Although the number of women occupying top political positions in Vietnam has actually declined since the war period, the caricature of the domestically dominant and publicly powerful urban wife resonates with post-war anxieties about the erosion of the masculine space of nationalist struggle.26 The rise of the market economy has not only undermined the patriotic virtues of the past; it has also detached the gender achievements of socialism from the collective context of national “progress.” In the new era of economic privatization, the prominent female civil servant, businesswoman or intellectual potentially threatens the reconstitution of family patriarchy by jeopardizing a husband’s status as household head. Through exaggerated portrayals of avaricious and selfimportant wives who ‘misunderstand equality,’ stories like this one send a message to middle-class women to re-domesticate their identities or risk endangering their marriages. The middle-class woman has provided the media with a politically palatable object on which to focus the stream of social discontent that has arisen in the wake of market reform. The mourning of family values in journalism and fiction —beginning with the Vietnamese woman’s filial, marital and maternal obligations—has answered popular longing for the certainties of tradition, as it supports the government’s promotion of healthy and harmonious families. The most socially disaffected voices in the press have helped reinforce the disciplinary interests of state culture by linking the regulation of femininity to the national integrity of Vietnamese modernity. FEMALE DESIRE AND THE “DISEASE OF MONEY” The nostalgic fetishizing of pre-socialist family traditions in the media operates alongside and in concert with older disciplinary themes from the war and subsidy years, which seek to regulate women’s commercial ‘nature’ by policing the terms of female agency and desire. As voices in the popular press have increasingly romanticized the qualities of feminine sacrifice, piety and domesticity, the practical contexts in which middle class urban women might realize these ideals remain elusive. The marketization of Vietnamese society has placed new demands on women’s customary economic responsibilities and proclivities. As subsidies have eroded and state salaries declined, female “pragmatism” and “money-mindedness” have become ever more indispensable to


the survival and prosperity of the fam ily. Yet these gendered qualities have remained fraught with tension in the normative practices of the press. The Vietnamese state’s rhetorical emphasis on building wealth and national prosperity sends an ambivalent message about the moral status of female economic strategies. The Women’s Union has contributed to this ambiguity by excluding discussion of women’s income earning practices from its promotion of “civilized” and “happy” families. The ‘renovated’ press addresses women’s relationship to the market in a more overtly critical, though no less contradictory way. Set against cosmopolitan fashion images, age-defying makeup tips and recipes for healthy cooking, news accounts of economically ambitious women stand out as a sinister warning call. The media focuses its censure on women who have failed to maintain the essential balance between desire and sacrifice. Driven to improve their lives, they have lost sight of their primary duty to family. Women’s market participation today remains disproportionately weighted in the realm of small-scale trade. Yet as private business practice has moved from the ideological margins of socialist society to the mainstream of economic culture, there are no longer clear barriers confining women’s commercial activities to the traditional domestic domain. In the 1990s, cautionary tales of women’s unchecked economic drive proliferated, giving voice to the fear that women’s economic efforts to improve their families’ lives might take on a life of their own, oblivious to the hierarchies and values of the household. The Vietnamese press has directed much of its pedagogical energy toward convincing women that the freedoms of the market, if embraced too strongly, will only bring misery and misfortune. An article in a 1994 issue of Phu Nu Viet Nam outlines the dangers posed by the market to the health and stability of the Vietnamese family. The author quotes a friend, who declares that: “to live in this period, you must know how to make money, but you must also know how to resist the extraordinary power of money.” Those who put all their energies into enriching their families and themselves risk losing their happiness altogether. The author laments that the “peaceful evening scene of a husband, wife and child united around a rice tray under the lamplight is no longer a reality for many families.” While both men and women are clearly vulnerable to the “disease of money,” it is women’s ambition and desire that the author presents as the greatest cause for public concern. Very few women “have the health, energy and organizational talent to take care of their children, look after their children’s studies, and still have time to invest in business or other work of their own.” More often, the author contends, the children’s welfare is sacrificed. Today there are many young wives…who use the pretext that they must ‘take care of work relationships,’ in order to indulge in fancy food, to


enjoy themselves in the evening, at night, or on days-off, while leaving their children at home with a tray of cold rice or with money to go to the nearby kiosk. What would these pitiful children think if they knew the real situation of their mother? How will they grow up if their mother continues to live in this way?27 It is only a small step from “fancy food” to marital infidelity and sexual wantonness. The press is full of stories of women who use sex in order to advance their careers and business ventures. Financial aspiration quickly transforms middle-class wives from dutiful, loving spouses into deceitful Westernized women.28 Media expressions of anxiety over women’s economic ambitions have been fueled by the dramatic social and occupational changes brought on by market reform. In the late 1980s and early 1990s ailing state factories and bloated governmental offices tended to lay off female employees first. Many women, whose salaries were already lower than their husbands,’ chose early retirement in order to receive a small severance payment, which they could use to start businesses in the informal economy. As we saw in chapter one, by the late 1970s, growing numbers of women workers were taking up semi-illicit selling in order to supplement meager state incomes. This nascent market experience— combined with the traditional view of trade as ‘women’s work’—made it easier for wives to take advantage of new economic freedoms in the initial years of reform. Husbands, mean-while, often remained in their official posts even after the work had run out. As factories closed and state offices cut back staff, male employees who were unable to parlay their skills into acceptable private sector jobs frequently stayed home, collecting small pensions and relying on their wives’ market earnings. The market reforms have clearly benefited men at the top of Vietnam’s political and economic hierarchy—that is, the high-level government officials and state company directors. But more modest civil servants, along with army veterans and intellectual workers, have fared less well. In particular, teachers, writers, and journalists have faced the rankling devaluation of their professions in the new economy. Their frustration over the rise of mercantile interests at the expense of higher cultural values has certainly contributed to the critique of official corruption and greed within literature and the press. These sentiments, I believe, also inform the more pervasive cultural indictment of ambitious urban wives, who are discontent with their husbands’ limited incomes. It is the voice of the honest civil servant, the worried intellectual or the aging soldier that often narrates the media stories of emasculating and money-driven women. As the logic of the market has infected marital and family relations, nostalgia for a


simpler and purer time has fueled the familiar moral critique of women’s pecuniary nature. While the private market seller has become an accepted and indispensable fixture in the post-subsidy urban economy, she remains, within the media critique of modernity, a morally suspect type. Doi moi has encouraged women to take up selling, with the Women’s Union providing loans to poor would-be merchants. Yet, the tactics used by the determined seller in the increasingly competitive marketplace continue to provoke disapproval in the press. The ambitious merchant combines the cultural “backwardness” of the preRevolutionary past with the lawlessness and greed of the present. To further her business ends, she utilizes “superstitious” traditions (such as praying for luck at the pagoda), regularly cheats her customers and neglects her children. An account of an immoral market seller in a 1994 issue of Phu Nu Viet Nam might have appeared in a 1950s or early 1960s issue of the paper, when the campaign to reeducate the petit-bourgeois woman was in full swing. The details of the narrator’s profile and predicament, however, clearly situate this article in a contemporary cultural discourse on errant middle-class femininity. An old and injured war veteran describes an “interesting lesson” he learned while shopping at a Hanoi market. His wife is a “fat old woman” (mu beo) who is “busy day and night at the office.” She insists that he shop and clean the house while she is at work. One day, he goes to the market and encounters a young vegetable seller, who convinces him to buy a bunch of greens for 1000 dong. The woman assures him that she is giving him a fair price. “When we see old men like you in the market, we feel compassion,” she explains. “Anyone who has the heart to charge you too much should be punished! I assure you, Uncle.” The old man agrees to buy the vegetables for 1000 dong. A few minutes later, he observes another customer haggling with the same merchant. Hearing the price of 1000 dong, the woman customer curses the vegetable seller and offers only 300. The seller at first refuses, and the woman walks away. But then the seller calls her back and agrees to a price of 400 dong. The army veteran is stupefied. “600 dong is a small sum these days. One can only pity that vegetable seller that she has to make an oath, pretending like a play actor, and squandering my trust.” When the old man returns to the market the next day, he sits down beside the seller and inquires in a friendly tone: “I have watched you, sister. It seems that you must go to pray at the pagoda often, no?” The seller responds enthusiastically, explaining how praying to the Buddha lifts up her soul, and helps her to feel “refreshed.” “How did you know, Uncle?” She asks. The old man smiles and answers: “I guessed that you must pray very hard because you tell many lies. You were lucky just yesterday when you lied about the price of a bunch of vegetables…” The seller does not let him finish. She turns to look at


him with a friendly expression: “Come now, Uncle! If you agree to buy, then I sell. I never lied about anything at all!”29 In earlier years, the market woman made an easy target for press pedagogy in her refusal to join the national struggle and her willingness to put personal profit before collective interest. Though no longer an economic deviant, the female merchant under doi moi has provided the press with a useful vehicle for condemning the moral costs of market transition without substantively challenging the new economic order. As honest and humble citizens bemoan the loss of human feeling and family values in a profitdriven society, the shrewd market seller obeys her own code of morality. She makes a perfect partner for the narrator’s bullying, work-driven wife, who orders her husband to do the shopping, warning him not “to throw money away on ‘the people’.” The doubly victimized narrator—a product of an earlier and more virtuous time—reminds readers of how depraved the world has become under the feminized rule of the market. While journalists have utilized the dishonest merchant and the ambitious middle class wife to illustrate the inhumanity of contemporary modernity, they have simultaneously construed the impoverished rural woman as a symbol of what has been lost. A 1991 article in Tien Phong, for example, depicts a rural female trader as the embodiment of a nationally authentic and pre-modern feminine ideal, in direct contrast to the urban feminine type. The narrator, a Hanoi man, recounts his chance encounter with a young rural vegetable seller on a road leading into the city. When the narrator’s bike breaks down, the girl offers to use her heavily loaded pack bike to tow him. Her simplicity and kindness entrance him. “She laughs constantly…in a way that makes one feel perfect and complete (vien man)”. He recalls his youth, and then thinks sadly of his wife, “who is rarely so happy or so kind.” Later that day, the narrator sees the young girl selling her vegetables on a city street. He recognizes his wife among the group of customers. He observes his wife handle the girl’s produce and ask her in a harsh and suspicious tone (“the same tone she uses to speak to me”) whether the vegetables contain pesticides. Suddenly noticing him, his wife orders him over and scolds him for being gone so long. The other women laugh. The vegetable seller laughs as well, in her “sweet way.” She then jokes to her customers: “You ladies really bully your husbands, the same way my husband treats me. Lazy to work, just good at yelling!” The narrator is too ashamed to meet the seller’s gaze.30 This story highlights the important class distinction in the media’s critique of female business practices. The migrant vegetable seller is among the weakest participants in the new market economy. Confined by poverty and tradition, she sells only to subsist, traveling long distances each day for paltry earnings. She remains thoroughly controlled by the patriarchal fam ily order, a victim of a


‘bullying’ rural husband. Her virtue lies not only in her sweet and generous spirit but also in her essential lack of agency. She does not scheme for profit or strive for a better life, but rather seemingly accepts her lot with “simple laughter.” The author longs to return to the romantic era of his youth, when women were still gentle and innocent like the young vegetable seller.31 DISCIPLINING THE MIDDLE-CLASS ASPIRANT Alongside the media’s harsh indictments of greedy sellers and emasculating wives, a more subtle form of moral policing has appeared in sober real-life accounts of personal heartache and tragedy. In the early and mid 1990s, numerous articles conveyed an ominous message about female agency and the market through tales of respectable women who had made fatal errors in judgment. The stories focus on virtuous provincial wives, led astray by their determination to improve their families’ living standards. The accounts warn female readers that an excess of material striving can back-fire, that the market, however necessary, is an unwholesome pursuit, more likely to diminish than augment a woman’s happiness. The narrator is often a sympathetic relative, friend or neighbor, who recounts the subject’s downfall, not as a moralizing cadre or a cynical cultural critic, but as an ordinary member of the public. In a 1993 article in the youth paper, Tien Phong, for example, a son describes the events leading to his parents’ divorce. Before market reform, his mother and father were both teachers. They lived a “simple and happy life” in a small city and were very much in love. During the subsidy years, the narrator’s mother was a model Vietnamese wife. ”[She] took care of everything. She raised us and created good conditions for my father to work, write poems and entertain his friends.” But once doi moi began, things changed. His mother followed the rest of society on the “the path of economic development.” She wanted her husband and children to “be the same as their friends,” so she turned to business. Her husband did not support her decision. He refused to accept the money she earned. He began to spend less time at home and more time with his students. He no longer wrote poems to his wife, but wrote them instead to his female pupils. Consumed by jealousy, the wife began to “behave unreasonably” toward her husband; her anger and suspicions drove him to apply for a divorce. The son regards both of his parents with compassion. His mother’s only fault, he explains, was allowing her jealousy to take over. His father, he allows, was wrong to have shifted his affections toward his students. The real culprit is the market economy, which destroyed his parents’ love.32 This eye witness account of family breakdown avoids both the harsh cultural stereotyping and the admonishing official tone of much of the media’s commentary on businesswomen. Yet, as an instructive tool, the story has a


more potent effect. Media tales of overtly immoral women exhibiting the negative traits of selfishness, greed and “pragmatism” serve to reinscribe the public space of market modernity with the well-worn categories of Vietnamese femininity, so that audiences can have little difficulty differentiating themselves from the terms of national transgression. Less condemnatory stories like the one above tend to evoke sympathy for all of the characters involved. There are no ‘good’ or ‘evil’ players, only the familiar problems of coping with market transition. Rather than prescribe a clear path to “happiness,” these accounts present generalized expressions of remorse over the costs of economic development. In moving the reader to ask ‘what would I do in such a situation?’ the articles instill the need for careful forethought, for restraint and concern, in the face of the market’s unavoidable logic. Even if a woman believes she is acting selflessly to meet her husband’s and children’s needs, she may unwittingly be jeopardizing her family harmony, by foregoing other feminine duties in the drive for wealth. She may no longer have time or energy to prepare family meals, to entertain her husband’s friends or to look after her appearance. This kind of disciplinary message appears in another Tien Phong account of marital breakdown published in 1995. In this case, the author is a high school student who observed a couple in her hometown.33 The story recounts the tragic fate of a hardworking young wife, whose determination to earn money drives her husband away. Married at seventeen, the woman lived with her husband in a village outside of the northern provincial capital of Thai Nguyen. A few years into marriage, the couple decided to start a home business making fermented eggs. The young woman resolved to overcome all financial obstacles; through her drive and persistence she succeeded in getting the business running. Every week, her husband brought the eggs to the city to sell. The enterprise quickly became profitable, providing the couple with a comfortable income. Yet the more successful her business became, the harder the young woman worked. She rejected her husband’s suggestion that they hire an employee, because she was unwilling to waste the expense. “It is better that we save money,” she explained, “so that in the future we will have everything we need.” She rose before dawn every morning and worked late into the night. Her neighbors watched as she grew thinner and her skin darkened from long hours in the sun. She rarely spared a cent to buy herself a bowl of pho. “After you’re dead,” the neighbors asked her, “what good will the money be?” Meanwhile, her husband’s trips to the city grew longer, and when he was home he showed less and less interest in her. Finally, one day, he disappeared. The woman went to the city to search for him. Dejected, she returned home to find the house ransacked and half of the couple’s savings gone. Her husband had left a note explaining:


We want different things from life. You don’t need love, you are happy with a life of work, earning money, and nothing else. I am different. I am sure you will be able to find another man easily, because you are a hard worker and you know how to become rich. We must separate…. I can not live like this anymore. The woman finally realized her “mistake”—only too late. While the author does not praise the husband for his actions, she does not criticize him for cheating on his wife or pilfering her savings. He is only human, the author suggests. He needs more than money to achieve happiness. The young woman has brought her misfortune upon herself. Her hard work has been misplaced. She has neglected her health, her looks, and thus her duty to her husband. She must try, however futilely, to win him back. The message here is reminiscent of the Women’s Union’s warning to young wives on the outskirts of Hanoi. You are responsible for keeping your husband from straying, chi Phuc advised the village women in Thinh Tre district. You must be sure to meet your husband’s needs in the home or he will be seduced by the attractions of the city.34 The provincial middle class aspirant occupies a critical place in the moral management of Vietnam’s post-socialist society. As the nation opens its doors to the forces of global capitalism, the health and readiness of its emergent middle class population has become increasingly essential to ensuring the cultural integrity and social stability of economic growth. As we saw in chapter 3, the Women’s Union has focused its civilizing mission most sharply on those women situated on the border between urban cosmopolitanism and rural tradition. Their proximity to the material possibilities of modernity combined with their relative lack of resources has made these women and their families especially susceptible to the market’s “social evils.” The press has participated in official state efforts to discipline the aspiring middle class woman by inculcating in her the correct balance between sacrifice and desire, duty and aspiration. Media accounts of the provincial woman’s everyday trials and disappointments work to police the boundaries of acceptable female agency and ambition, by reminding women of the personal costs of compromising their domestic roles. In the struggle to escape poverty, the newspaper sagas warn, women on the edges of market prosperity must ward off the dangers of divorce, drug addiction, and child delinquency by tending first to the psychological, emotional and physical needs of their households. Through various practices of critique—from nostalgic memoir to dogmatic condemnation, satirical stereotyping and real-life melodrama— the popular press maps the terms of national femininity onto the increasingly variable public space of post-socialist society. This regulatory process relies primarily on negative example. While Women’s Union forums pro vide participants with clear


criteria for becoming model mothers and wives, the print media presents strikingly few cases of ideal middle class women— that is, women who successfully combine traditional morality and economic prosperity with modern scientific knowledge. The absence of such adulatory accounts partly reflects the unpopularity of old-style press pedagogy that subjected audiences for decades to stultifying treatises on the “new Vietnamese woman.” In the competitive marketplace, newspapers must entertain. Scandal and tragedy will always sell better than instructive praise. Yet, more importantly, the lack of positive portrayals of prosperous urban wives and mothers reflects the unattainable nature of this modern feminine ideal outside the fabricated settings of government contests. One of the rare articles I found commending an urban woman’s economic contribution in the new market society described a wife in a supporting role to her financially successful husband. The story appeared in a 1996 issue of Nguoi Hanoi and details the achievements of a small construction company that overcame enormous “financial obstacles.” While the owner formally attributes his success to his willingness to “always renovate and always develop,” he confides to the journalist that he has an extremely understanding wife. “She is very sympathetic (het suc thong cam) to the production and business conditions of the company,” the business owner explains. “She takes care of all of the family work so that I can focus on business without worry.” The journalist points out that the owner’s wife left her office job to raise the couple’s three small children and to take care of her husband’s parents. She takes great satisfaction in her husband’s success. Even when she has to nurse her [husband’s] father, bed-ridden these past six years, and shoulder the care of her deceased older sister’s two young daughters, still her compassionate smile blossoms knowing that she is making it possible for her husband to make his way in the world through his work.35 The image of a husband sufficiently well-off to enable his wife to stay home remains a distant fantasy for the majority of Hanoi women working to achieve a semblance of the consumer comfort displayed in current magazines and television advertisements. Rather than providing a practical model for readers to follow, such adulatory news accounts reinforce the official vision of a new phase of national modernity in which the woman serves as the enlightened caregiver ensuring her household’s harmony and prosperity. Uncompromised by any obligation or desire to earn, this benign domestic manager shores up her family in a spirit of selfless devotion. She remains insulated from the market’s corrupting influence by her husband’s professional success. Her talents do not threaten his domestic or social sta tus, but rather provide the support system on


which he depends. This vision of a contented couple, successfully balancing traditional values and modern economic goals, excludes the large majority of aspiring middle class women who can not escape the realities of commercial struggle. *** Since the onset of doi moi, many Vietnamese editors and journalists have recast themselves as “public spokesmen,” “social investigators” and “cultural researchers,” eschewing their conventional role as voices of state propaganda. They have sought to carve out a non-political space of “social reality” from which to address the moral and social costs of market modernity. Yet the primary effect of their efforts has been to resituate the terms of national salvation and tradition from the realm of political ideology to the “real life” settings of family discord. As Lisa Rofel (1994) has observed in China, the “cultural economy of state power” in Vietnam continues to shape images and meanings of the nation in milieus seemingly far removed from the purview of socialist politics and development policies. Through its dramatization of the conflict between family values and modern aspiration, between ‘internal’ virtues and ‘external’ influences, the popular press challenges the state’s seamless presentation of national development, as it promotes the goals of national cultural governance in the form of entertainment. The continuities between the political and the popular—between old-style propaganda and new-style public commentary—do not negate the transformative significance of the new regime of state-society relations under doi moi. The print media’s wider ‘social’ scope in the current era has contributed to the production of a more complex web of meanings and images of Vietnamese femininity. What Michel Foucault (1980:119) has identified as the “productive aspect of power” can be seen in the proliferation of media discourses linking problems of female character to questions of national values. A rural seller, once formulaically equated with unpatriotic “individualism” and “backwardness,” can today embody the virtues of poverty and female modesty, as well as the modern man’s yearning for the innocence of youth. A prominent female civil servant or Western educated intellectual may, in some settings, symbolize the country’s cultural advances; yet, when set against her socially and economically displaced husband, she stands for the excesses of gender “progress.” Meanwhile, a seemingly dutiful provincial wife can serve to illustrate the precariousness of feminine virtue and family values in the face of the market’s inexorable pull. The loosening of controls over newspaper content and style under doi moi has inspired ever more meticulous efforts to identify, define and evaluate the Vietnamese woman’s possible subjectivities in relation to the shifting parameters of “national culture” and “tradition.” The media’s preoc cupation with the moral condition of Vietnamese womanhood extends


from the heart of official culture to the margins of acceptable social criticism and reflects the centrality of femininity to the widening struggle to refashion a modern national identity in the aftermath of war and socialism.


Part Two Mediated Subjects and Identity Struggle


Preface to Part Two

THIS BOOK HAS THUS FAR FOCUSED ON THE VIETNAMESE WOMAN’S importance, as both a symbol and a disciplined subject, to the cultural politics of socialist construction and market transition. Chapters 2 and 3 have illustrated how the governmental priorities of building a globally-fit middle class and strengthening national culture in the post-Cold War era have produced new discourses and models of femininity that promote women’s domestic talents as key to the Vietnamese family’s prosperity and stability. We have seen how diverse cultural media with apparently distinct political objectives (the state’s civility campaign, at one end of the spectrum, and popular literary satire at the other) converge in their common treatment of women as uniquely responsible for the moral health of the nation. The perspectives of Vietnamese women themselves have largely been absent from this discussion. I have yet to address the effects of media messages and state expectations on women’s everyday lives —their choices, aspirations and happiness. The second portion of this book attempts to fill this gap. In the two chapters that follow, I present the results of research conducted in two Hanoi communities in the mid-1990s: the first, a former working class village caught on the edge of capitalist urbanization and, the second, a marketplace located in the heart of the city’s commercial district. Drawing on data from interviews carried out in both official and unofficial settings, I examine the ways in which women of different generations and socioeconomic backgrounds invoke and challenge the codes of national femininity as they represent themselves, their communities and the nation to an outsider. Neither the popular press nor the Women’s Union, I maintain, can be viewed as a discreet locus of domination; instead, they togeth er form a grid of practices and assumptions—overlapping and often contradictory— that shape the possibilities of female identity. As Vietnamese women within and on the margins of Hanoi’s emergent middle class strove to assert their status as “sacrificing” mothers,


“enduring” wives, and “civilized” citizens, they conveyed the terms and the limits of their subjugation to the national idea. Michel Foucault has argued: “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (1978:95) The Vietnamese women I spoke to did not express their resistance to the dominant rules of gender identity through outright opposition, but rather through the disjunctures and discontinuities in their personal narratives and discussions and through rituals of humor, complaint and parody. As the language of nationalism has continued to define and constrict the meanings of the feminine, Vietnamese women have continued to struggle for words and for a discursive space in which to articulate the conflicts of their lives and the frustrations of middle-class aspiration.

4 On the Uncivil Margins Feminine Tradition and Economic Aspiration in Phuong Lien

THE VIETNAMESE MEDIA’S FOCUS ON THE MORAL CONSEQUENCES OF market reform has tended to obscure the mundane pressures and hardships that women face in the post-subsidy economy. Journalists and editors have eagerly exposed the plight of village girls turned prostitutes, of “left on the shelf” (“e roi”) women seeking to bear children out-of-wedlock, and of poor female college students driven to elderly male ‘patrons.’ Yet they have generally confined their depictions of women’s everyday struggles for household subsistence and improvement to tabloid tales of domestic strife or nostalgic portrayals of ‘heroic’ sacrifice. Many Hanoi women I spoke to insisted that the newspapers “exaggerate” the faults of women in order “to teach women who have done wrong.” The priorities of governmental entertainment have contributed to the persistent gap between public cultural discourse on female character and the realities of most women’s lives. A number of female researchers and intellectuals in Vietnam have addressed this divide by highlighting the market transition’s impact on Vietnamese women’s economic, health and social status. Many of these studies have focused on decollectivization’s effects on rural women’s work load, educational attainment, marriage age and quality of life.1 Others have looked at the influence of privatization and the removal of state subsidies on urban female workers.2 This latter group has emphasized women’s dis-advantaged position in the process of economic restructuring. Le Thi (1996) points out, for example, that women made up more than 60% of workers laid off from state enterprises in 1991 and 1992. Of the women who remained in the state sector, 35% received only “irregular” work. Women also earned less than their male coworkers. Meanwhile, state com panics that have managed to survive in the market economy have been disinclined to hire female workers, because of their heavy household responsibilities, their maternity-leave requirements and low skill levels relative to men.3 These conditions have encouraged large numbers of women in urban areas— including returning guest workers and rural migrants—to seek jobs in small


private enterprises and in the growing informal economy. The most common occupations include small-scale trade, food vending, home handicraft production, restaurant work, laundry washing, and construction work. These jobs have tended to be very unstable; workers rarely receive labor contracts, health protections or income guarantees in case of sickness, pregnancy or a market slump.4 Many urban women—especially those who are widowed, divorced or abandoned, or whose husbands are disabled veterans, retired pensioners or unemployed workers—have become the primary earners in their households. Increasingly, their uncertain earnings form the foundation of their family’s subsistence in the new market economy. Thus, while general living conditions in Hanoi have greatly improved since the onset of doi moi, a majority of women have experienced a greater workload and more mental pressure, as they struggle to balance domestic responsibilities with the income demands of the market. The weight of women’s economic burden in the doi moi era has detrimentally affected family stability. A number of Vietnamese studies conducted in the 1990s blamed the “prolonged drudgery” of many women’s lives, as well as women’s lack of opportunities “to improve their cultural knowledge,” for the country’s rising rates of divorce and domestic violence.5 The official media’s tendency to omit or misrepresent women’s everyday life struggles has led a few Vietnamese feminists to condemn what they see as a return to “feudal attitudes” regarding work and family.6 Le Thi, the founder of a national Women’s Studies program in Vietnam, has criticized “those view points” that seek to justify the decline in women’s formal employment and training opportunities by invoking the importance of women’s “natural” domestic role in the process of economic development and national strengthening. She has stated clearly what the Vietnam Women’s Union has failed to recognize in promoting “civilized,” “happy” and “prosperous” households. When discussing the building of cultured families, the fostering of family happiness, it is not enough to appeal to only one side, to make demands only on the woman, who is praised as the center of family life, as the pillar, as the living soul of the family…who must make sacrifices, be resigned, kind-hearted, good-mannered, do-all, and take care of everything in the family to ensure a full life for husband and wife, parents and children…. There is no solid and soul-lifting happiness if it depends only on the woman alone (Le Thi 1996b:73) Today, such feminist voices remain faint against the resounding cries—in academia, popular culture and administrative policy—for the strengthening of national culture. The moral and economic challenges of market transition have


produced new discourses of national identity that problematically conflate “progress,” “development” and “prosperity” with a re-traditionalization of the feminine. The ‘heroic’ virtues of self-sacrifice, endurance, hard work and faithfulness have remained central to contemporary tropes of Vietnamese womanhood; yet these qualities have been displaced from the former collective contexts of war and socialist construction and inserted into a peacetime vision of family happiness that implausibly links traditional feminine virtues to the attainment of middle class civility—that is, to the building of a prosperous, democratic, and wellplanned household. The new model Vietnamese woman must strive to “advance” herself and her family without transgressing the newly configured terms of feminine tradition. In the urbanized “workers” village of Phuong Lien, the declining state sector had given way in the mid-1990s to a still inadequate informal economy that confined many residents to the unsettled periphery of urban modernity and prosperity. “Social evils,” such as gambling, prostitution and drug addiction flourished, as new market freedoms—both economic and cultural—collided with local frustration, boredom and despair. Faced with high rates of male unemployment, many Phuong Lien women were working as neighborhood vendors and wage laborers. They put in long-hours for little pay and went home to often stressful domestic situations with inadequate living facilities. Others from more economically stable households ran small home-based enterprises (in handicraft production, domestic animal raising or tailoring) which supplemented or replaced their husbands’ incomes. The Phuong Lien women whom I interviewed and got to know between 1994 and 1995 related the codes of Vietnamese femininity to their personal lives in diverse ways. They drew on the often contradictory languages of Revolutionary “progress,” Confucian tradition and middle class “civility,” conveying both the intersections and the disjunctures between personal and national identity. Generational experience, personal history and household economic status directly influenced the consistency and certainty with which Phuong Lien women invoked the terms of feminine virtue and good citizenship as they signified their status as workers, mothers, wives and national subjects. At the same time, the pattern and content of women’s responses varied according to the discursive context in which they were spoken. The local authorities were concerned that I not “waste time” talking to “uncultured” or “mixed up” people, and they thus confined a portion of my research to the officially monitored settings of model residents’ homes. Later, I was able to speak to ‘ordinary’ women in more relaxed, informal venues—such as a neighbor’s living room, the corner tea stall, or a breakfast kiosk. Yet, the distinction between ‘on the record’ and ‘off the record’ responses was never a simple question of affirming or rejecting the official line. The prevailing


discourses of national femininity did not operate as external compulsions on individual subjects. Rather, women’s reactions to and commentary on the ideals promoted through the Women’s Union and the popular media functioned as ‘signifying practices’ through which women enacted their place—their degree of belonging or lack of fit—in a complex field of gender meanings and prescriptions. Judith Butler (1990) has argued persuasively against any notion of a ‘pure’ or ‘true’ self that exists outside “the rules that govern the intelligible invocation of identity.” She maintains that subjects take shape through their engaged immersion in a range of convergent discourses that enjoin individuals to be a given gender—”to be a good mother, to be a heterosexually desirable object, to be a fit worker, in sum, to signify a multiplicity of guarantees in response to a variety of different demands all at once” (Butler 1990:145). Individuals become recognizable as particular genders—as natural mothers, gentle wives, and responsible household managers—through a regulated process of discursive reiteration “that conceals itself and enforces its rules precisely through the production of substantializing effects.” Individuals can not rise above the convergence of gender injunctions existing in a given society at any particular time. Yet, the obligation to constitute oneself as a subject, through the patterned repetition of multiple gender meanings, at once restricts and enables the assertion of alternative spaces of identity. The very inability of many people to realize successfully the myriad, often conflicting components of any particular feminine (or masculine) ideal produces the potential for, what Butler calls, “a complex reconfiguration and redeployment” of signs (1990:145). In other words, the “failures” of individuals to fit the model create possibilities for subtle contestations and inversions of prevailing gender codes. In Vietnam and in Phuong Lien, in particular, the inherently contradictory standards of modern middle-class femininity allowed for a complex array of signifying “failures.” The lack of fit between many women’s formative experiences, economic situations and strained domestic lives, on the one hand, and the conflicting national ideals of cultural progress, family happiness, and feminine tradition, on the other, complicated my informants’ efforts to define themselves in nationally-coded terms. While an older generation of reputable Phuong Lien women fluidly identified their lives with the convergent principles of a Revolutionary and Confucian feminine morality (thereby situating themselves in the idealized space of the “heroic mother”), younger women revealed to varying degrees the uninhabitable quality of post-war norms of national femininity. Caught between the socialist promises of “gender equality” and the market era conditions of family patriarchy, women in the ‘transition’ generation (those who came of age during the post-war subsidy years) struggled to represent themselves through the constraining language of national


womanhood. While some of these women enacted their moral dislocation—their entrapment in a field of irreconcilable demands—through simple discursive breaks, others took up the terms of respectability and immorality in a parodying show of their inescapable deviance. THE MAKING OF AN ‘UNCIVILIZED’ NEIGHBORHOOD Phuong Lien precinct is located in Hanoi’s Dong Da district, less than fifteen minutes by motorbike from the city center. Yet, in cultural and socioeconomic terms, the distance is far greater. When I first arrived in Phuong Lien, in the fall of 1994, I was struck by the winding dirt paths and the scattering of thatched roofs and shaded kiosks tucked just behind a congested urban thoroughfare. The area retained a village-like quality, reinforced by the presence of a traditional communal house (or dinh) and a local pagoda (or chua). Yet, shortly after I moved in, I became aware of the neighborhood’s more recent reputation as a center for “social evils.” “Oh, Phuong Lien, that’s a laborers’ area (kbu vuc lao dong)” a journalist friend at Phu Nu Thu Do commented. “There are lots of ‘hotels’ around there,” she added, alluding to the growing prostitution trade. A shopkeeper in the center of town seemed genuinely disturbed when I told her my address. “Why do you live there, Madame? That’s a black people’s area,” she said, referring (I later learned) to the exported stereotype of American urban ghettos. I considered this information as I began to explore my new surroundings. Signs of human distress were everywhere, just below the surface image of a quaint village community. Along the narrow muddy path where I rented a house, explosive neighborhood brawls frequently disrupted the hum of morning routines. A man caught a thief trying to steal his family’s only bicycle. Two mothers came to blows over a dispute between their children. A drunken husband, wielding a bottle, chased his wife out of the house. Desperate poverty pressed up against conspicuous consumption. Rowdy youths in a newly built “villa” played their stereo at deafening levels, oblivious to an elderly couple in a tiny shack next door. Newly moneyed residents drove gleaming Honda motorcycles past bleary-eyed men in the corner tea stall. Migrant workers slept in open-air construction sites, built as investment properties by urban speculators. Yet in the midst of growing social discord and inequality, many residents sought to hold onto an ideal of community closeness and simplicity. “Here it not like in the city,” a retired cyclo driver, told me when I first moved in, “people here help each other. They are full of feeling…. Most of us are laboring people (nguoi lao dong). But rich or poor, we don’t differentiate. We leave our doors open.”


Prior to Independence, Phuong Lien was comprised of two villages (Kim Lien and Trung Tu), situated on the edge of colonial Hanoi. The local population worked primarily in agriculture—tending rice fields and raising vegetables and fish in the surrounding lakes and ponds. During the war years, nationalist fighters used these villages as entry points into Hanoi. The guerrillas hid in the marshy waters, as village women worked above them, gathering greens and harvesting small fish. Later, during the American bombings, the same area provided the “gun nests” (u sung) from which local defense forces fired at attacking American planes. Beginning in the mid-1950s, the economy of Phuong Lien began to shift from agriculture to industry. Young people from the surrounding countryside—many of them youthful veterans of the National Resistance—arrived to work on state construction projects and in new state factories. They left behind villages and families decimated by war to join the ranks of the nation’s new “working class.” They purchased small plots of land from the government for nominal sums and lived in simple houses and shacks crowded along the village’s narrow dirt paths. With little or no formal schooling, they built bridges, processed food for export, made rubber products, wove textiles, and packaged medicines. As the government’s infrastructure needs increased, the fields around Phuong Lien gave way to paved roads, a national poly-technical college and a foreign diplomats’ compound. Those who had previously raised crops now waited in long lines to purchase rice and vegetables with government tickets. As the area was incorporated into the urban subsidy economy, the precinct took on the identity of a “laborers’ area,” which it retains today. During the American war years, young families in Phuong Lien, like families all over Vietnam, underwent painful trials of separation. While their men were away at the front, women struggled to raise their children on their own. Because of the proximity of state factories, American bombs fell heavily in and around Phuong Lien. Women workers evacuated their children to the countryside and then returned to their jobs, shuttling back and forth each week with food and provisions. After the war, living conditions worsened. Soldiers returned home, often physically weakened or disabled, to a climate of economic scarcity and growing despair. In recalling the immediate post-war years, many of the Phuong Lien women I spoke to rarely got beyond the sheer weight of physical deprivation. “Life was terrible,” a 44-year-old seamstress declared. “The rice was always moldy and smelled bad and you had to wait in a very long line to buy it…. When my children’s clothes were worn out I couldn’t give them new ones, because we never had enough fabric.” Doi Moi brought tangible improvements to life in Phuong Lien. With open markets, food flowed in from neighboring provinces. Meat could now be bought easily in the local market, along with a large variety of fruits and vegetables.


Clothing and fabric became readily available. 60% of houses by 1994 had running water (40% used public taps), so residents no longer had to wait in line at the public well. Commenting on his precinct’s recent advances, the Phuong Lien president explained: “Today Phuong Lien is a village within the city. The life of the people here is the life of the center already.” Yet, as Phuong Lien has been absorbed into Hanoi’s growing consumer culture, the community has faced social dislocation and economic disadvantage. The local population’s legacy of dependence on state factory jobs consigned many in the post-subsidy years to the margins of urban prosperity. In the 1960s and 1970s, Phuong Lien residents achieved generally lower levels of education than cadre and intellectual families in the city center. Many had to leave school by or before the seventh grade because of the disruptions of war and the financial needs of their families. In addition, relatively few Phuong Lien households had sufficient capital—often procured by having strong government connections, rights to valuable land, or family members working overseas—to start profitable private businesses in the wake of market reforms. As government factories began to lay off workers and reduce employee hours, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the majority of Phuong Lien residents increasingly relied on the local informal economy to sustain their families. In 1996, the precinct’s People’s Committee President estimated that only one third of Phuong Lien’s residents still worked in state offices and factories, while one third worked in small-scale handicraft production and another third in the service trades (such as vending, haircutting, seasonal cake making, cyclo driving).7 Although no official statistics were available on the gender division of work in the precinct, local administrators I spoke to agreed that men made up the near total of the state employees, while women predominated in the handicrafts and services. By the mid-1990s, male unemployment had become endemic within the younger generation of Phuong Lien residents. As older male workers began to ‘retire’ from declining state factories, few young men were being hired to replace them. A small number of Phuong Lien men found sufficient capital to start their own businesses—making furniture in home workshops, or washing cars along the new 4-lane thoroughfare that borders the precinct. Others became street barbers, cyclo drivers and, in a few cases, construction workers, competing with growing numbers of men from within and outside the city. But many of the local youth considered these jobs— especially construction—to be unsuitable. “As Hanoi people,” the precinct President explained, “these young men see heavy manual work as the work of migrant laborers from poor provinces like Thanh Hoa and Nam Ha.” The wages for these jobs tend to be extremely low (less than $1 a day)—a measure of the abundance of desperate seasonal workers streaming in from the countryside.


Phuong Lien women, meanwhile, took up various forms of work that were deemed inappropriate or undesirable for men. In addition to handicraft trades (making sweaters, sandals and decorative arts), many Phuong Lien women, in the mid-1990s, held physically strenuous and low-paying jobs as petty vendors. Those from the precinct’s poorest households worked alongside rural male migrants on local construction sites. Because Vietnamese women’s informal earning activities are viewed as an extension of their household responsibilities, the local officials I spoke to did not characterize women’s lack of steady wage jobs as an “unemployment problem.” As the Phuong Lien People’s Committee President put it: “Women here are very hard working. They have found many ways to earn money to improve their families’ lives.” Such praise for women’s economic adaptability and diligence underscored the notion that, while men require jobs that are both stable and socially suitable, women’s earning is fluid and unspecific—a matter of domestic maintenance rather than social status or identity. In the wake of market reforms, basic public services in Phuong Lien— such as garbage collection and road maintenance—were significantly scaled back or eliminated. Inhabitants in the precinct’s most crowded and impoverished pockets had to manage infrastructure upkeep by themselves. After heavy rains, neighbors negotiated the repair of flooded sewers. Despite government promises, the narrow mud paths remained unpaved because residents could not yet contribute the necessary money and man-power. In the face of sharply reduced budgets, the local administration focused on controlling community vices. Phuong Lien’s geographic location, combined with its large numbers of idle young men, promoted the neighborhood’s reputation as a haven for social crimes.8 Bordered on one side by Lenin Park (a recreational area known for illicit nighttime activities) and on the other side by a handful of hotels frequented by out-of-town cadre, the precinct’s inconspicuous network of dirt paths provided a fertile environment for illegal gambling, prostitution and drug use. In the 1990s Phuong Lien directly in the path of a number of state-sponsored development projects—a fact which made “civilizing” the local population a top government priority.9 The walls of the precinct police department displayed photos of drug busts and brothel raids alongside mug shots of criminals. Meanwhile, the local branches of the Women’s Union and the Fatherland Front focused their ‘philanthropic’ work on educating families about the causes of juvenile delinquency, the importance of family planning and the dangers of drug use and prostitution. Poverty prevented most Phuong Lien women from participating in Union activities, which required a nominal fee and took time away from wage work and household chores. To compensate, the precinct administration relied heavily on the public loudspeaker system. At least once a week, the local People’s Committee broadcast messages of community discipline.


Fig. 5. Young men playing cards in Phuong Lien.

A familiar voice instructed residents to “uphold the refined and courteous traits of the traditional Hanoi citizen,” to treat neighbors with “politeness” and “respect,” to maintain “clean” and “orderly” households, and to practice family planning. Occasionally the loud speakers also publicized employment opportunities for the young men languishing in the neighborhood kiosks.10 Official concerns over Phuong Lien’s public image made the process of interviewing local women particularly difficult. After weeks of stalling over permission forms and letters of introduction, the local Women’s Union leader, chi Nga, agreed to arrange meetings for me with fifty women between the ages of twenty and seventy. Not surprisingly, her selected subjects were more representative of Phuong Lien’s Revolutionary past than its unsettled and fragmented present. The majority of the respondents were older Women’s Union members, veterans of the National Resistance, who had retired from factory jobs into productive home-based enterprises. They combined patriotic wartime values with a traditional feminine morality, emphasizing wifely endurance and a selfless commitment to family. As we set out on our first day of interviews, chi Nga explained to me: Here, you will see, women are different than in other parts of the city. They work hard to improve their lives in the market economy, but they still maintain many traditional attributes. They put their family


responsibilities before everything, and they still take an interest in society and show concern for their neighbors. NATIONAL PARTISANS, ENDURING WIVES, PRODUCTIVEWORKERS The women who moved to Phuong Lien in the 1950s and early 1960s formed the core of the neighborhood’s idealized image of itself as a community of simple laboring families opposed to the greed and callousness of the surrounding city. Many of these women lost parents and extended family members during the Resistance war. They married young soldiers and came to this suburban village with few possessions and little or no formal schooling. Through years of toil and deprivation, they improved their lives—sending their children to school, sometimes even to college, rebuilding their bamboo and thatch houses out of brick or cement, and supplementing their husbands’ military pensions with resourceful retirement enterprises. Their adaptation to the market economy reflected a continuity, rather than a break, with both the wartime ethics of personal sacrifice and self-sufficiency and a Confucian cultural code that confines all feminine striving to the realm of family service. In narrating their lives, this founding generation of Phuong Lien workers represented themselves as the bearers of a national feminine character—an ideal increasingly fetishized in the popular media’s critique of market modernization. At 65, Ba Men11 raised pigs for sale behind her four-room brick house along one of the precinct’s narrow paths. She arrived in Phuong Lien in 1955, accompanied by her new husband, a fellow partisan in the Resistance campaign. They “rented a bed” (a small workers’) and went to work on government construction projects. Having never attended school, Ba Men joined a “common people’s literacy class” (lop binh dan) in the neighborhood. The couple eventually saved enough for a thatchroofed house. When the American War broke out, Ba Men’s husband returned to the army, leaving her behind to raise their four sons. She described the war years as the most difficult period of her life. “It was very hard to find milk. I had to constantly think about how to get through the day, how to find money to buy food to feed my children.” To support her family, Ba Men worked as a cook at the nearby medical college and later packaged medicines at the local hospital. Her husband returned home in 1975, disabled by a “nervous” condition. He received a small military pension, but was unable to help out with household chores. He was often “moody” and “hard to please.” When discussing her marriage, Ba Men shifted between Revolutionary idealism and the stoic resignation of a duty-bound Vietnamese wife. She distinguished her generation’s priorities from those of the present-day youth


His sister introduced us. But really we met because we were both partisans in the campaign. In those days, nobody chose their husbands because of their wealth. We only chose them because of their actions (hoat dong). Because the country was at war, we valued the soldiers, the cadres. Back then, I was active too, defending the village. So we valued each other for what we did, not because of money. We used to be working until late at night…. I really liked participating. The youthful camaraderie and romance of the Resistance years soon gave way to the hardship of wartime separation; marriage became a test of feminine endurance rather than a matter of shared experience and affection. Asked about about her “marital happiness,” Ba Men explained: Generally speaking, [my husband] was always away in the army, while I took care of everything at home. (Did you love each other?) Sure we did ... if not, we could never have had children! (Laughs) But our life was hard. We were very poor…. In Vietnam, even if you are not happy, you still must endure (phai chiu). Even if two people don’t share feelings anymore (khong bang long), they still must stay together. I could never look for someone else, or ‘go around’ (di choi) with another man. People would talk. They would criticize me. I am a Vietnamese woman, so I must know how to endure. Ba Men’s words conveyed neither regret nor self-pity. She embraced the principle of feminine endurance as an inescapable condition of Vietnamese womanhood. Within these constraints, happiness could only be achieved through an unflagging commitment to family maintenance. Market reforms significantly improved Ba Men’s economic circumstances. She now earned enough raising pigs to provide for herself and her husband. With contributions from her grown sons—two of whom have finished college and secured “good salaries”—she rebuilt her house out of cement and bought a small television. She characterized the new economic system as a correction on the “mistakes” of the past. The market, from her view, rewarded the basic work ethic that had governed her life. In the past, because of war, no one had enough to eat. Then, with the subsidies, even if you were very hardworking, your salary was very small. You could only eat meat once or twice a month. Today it is better. If you work hard, you earn more. If you work less, you earn less. To be happy, to have enough, you have to keep thinking about how to take care


of your children, how to manage your home. You must plan all the time and work very hard if you want to get out of poverty. Ba Men’s sense of responsibility for her family’s welfare was informed by her economic trials during the husbandless American War years and by the accompanying calls for patriotic self-sacrifice in the “rear.” This nationalist ethic of self-reliance was wholly compatible with a pre-Revolutionary, Confucian ideal of wifely acquiescence and silent endurance. Ba Men’s cohort—the generation that came of age during the anti-colonial Resistance—took on the rudimentary ideals of national revolution, while remaining largely unaffected by the subsequent modernizing discourses of socialist gender equality. These women’s nascent revolutionary status enabled them to embody the contradictory elements of a national feminine tradition that proved less accessible to a later generation of “new Vietnamese women.” 67-year-old Ba Quy, for example, had also participated in the Resistance, married a soldier and endured years of hardship raising her three children in Phuong Lien on her wages from a rubber factory. During an interview, she echoed Ba Men’s disapproval of the contemporary desire for rich husbands, emphasizing the importance of women’s economic independence. …It is not good to marry a rich man. Rich men will always look down on you. They will never respect you. I encourage my daughter not to marry a rich man, but to rely on herself, on her own efforts. Only when you earn things yourself will your husband value you. I don’t take my husband’s entire pension for family expenses. I leave him half so he can spend it with his friends, however he chooses. I taught my daughter to do the same with her husband. I also save the money I earn, so if I have to go to a wedding or to pray, I don’t have to bother my husband for money. Ba Quy followed up the theme of economic self-reliance with a reiteration of the importance of wifely compliance and docility. She described the criteria for a “happy marriage” as follows: When I talk to my daughter, who is 25 and still unmarried, I tell her that to be happy with a husband she must let him be the head of the family and she must always be enduring and patient (luon luon phai nhin, phai nhan nai). Even when she knows clearly that he is wrong, she should never say so at the time. She should always wait until later, and then she should speak to him in a soft and gentle way (phai noi diu dang).


The values of economic independence, domestic responsibility and marital acquiescence similarly shaped the older generation’s view of itself as the moral foundation of the community. In interviews, members of the Resistance generation frequently identified themselves as “workers” or “laborers” (nguoi lao dong), laying claim to a locus of national/community authenticity that distinguished them from a class of money-driven new-comers. They contrasted the character of “most Phuong Lien women”— those that “know how to sacrifice” and “work hard”—with that of a minority of women from “rich households,” who place wealth before family and raise disrespectful and unruly children. They attributed the rise in juvenile delinquency in their neighborhood to the influx of newly moneyed families. As a 58-year-old retired factory worker explained: The children of orderly and established families are more obedient. In this precinct (phuong) there are a number of delinquent children. This is because their mothers are always out earning money. They don’t pay attention to their children’s education. The children of rich families are often spoiled and disobedient. Before the open door period, there was no prostitution or drug use here. But since these newly rich people (nguoi mot giau) arrived, the phoung is no longer as safe or peaceful as before. Most of the nouveau ricbe families in Phuong Lien came from the surrounding provinces. They used capital from relatives working overseas or from profitable land sales to start up construction material businesses or to buy and resell local real estate. Older Phuong Lien women criticized them not so much for their prosperity as for their uninhibited pursuit of wealth, their desire to profit without toil and their apparent neglect of family responsibilities. In distinguishing themselves from women in “rich families,” members of the Resistance generation echoed the media’s governmental message that the Vietnamese woman’s economic striving must never exceed her domestic commitments, her role as duty-bound mother and wife. These Phuong Lien women reiterated their normative status as “workers” (nguoi lao dong), presenting themselves and their ‘established’ community as the standard bearers of an uncorrupted core of human values, which, like the nation itself, faced the growing threat of disruptive external influences. They invoked their modest economic and educational circumstances as a source of moral identity in the disorienting process of market reform. Loc, a 65-year-old Phuong Lien woman, who operated a knitting workshop in her home, contrasted the ethics of “laboring families” to those of newly-moneyed families.


I told my children, when they were still young: ‘as you begin your work in the factory, you must win the respect of others, you must value others, and you must labor very hard. Because we do not have a lot of education, we can not do work that involves paper.’ …Laboring families (nha lao dong) teach their children to behave in a way that will make people trust and believe them. If I am not truthful, I can not earn a living because people will not want to work with me. The rich families (nha giau) I see today don’t teach their children about respecting others or about honesty and hard work. So the children only think about getting things they want. Members of the Resistance generation asserted their identity as “workers” and national partisans most emphatically in response to the question of praying at the pagoda—a topic that clearly evoked the legacies of their youthful revolutionary training. In the mid-1990s, Hanoi’s pagodas were receiving a flood of new devotees. In addition to elderly Buddhist women who have traditionally taken charge of the pagoda’s ritual life and upkeep in Vietnam, large numbers of Hanoians with little or no formal knowledge of Buddhism were using prayer as a means of coping with the promise and unpredictability of the new economy. Students, traders, gamblers and entrepreneurs, the lovesick and the ambitious, crowded in beside the elderly to place offerings, light incense and utter feverish appeals to an array of Buddhist and indigenous Vietnamese deities. In the popular media’s critique of market modernity, merchant women are the primary perpetrators of “praying for money.” Their “superstitious” activities undermine the truly “spiritual” purpose of the chua and underscore the culture of dishonesty that reigns in the marketplace. For the older generation of Phuong Lien women, the issue of going to the pagoda, with what frequency and for what reasons, provoked further expressions of their status as “workers” and Revolutionaries in opposition to the immoralities of the market. “I was in the Resistance, so I don’t think about something I want to pray for under my breath” a 62-year-old Phuong Lien woman declared. “I am not superstitious. I only ask myself over and over: ‘How can I be sure my family is healthy?’ ‘How can I make sure that my children study hard?’” Similarly, a 67-year-old operator of a home cake business invoked he family’s modest background and her generation’s working-class values in order to distinguish herself from today’s money-driven youth. I am from a simple working family. So, I don’t carry bowls of incense… I don’t know how to bow in prayer the way those people do. I see that there are many people who know how to prepare offer ings for the pagoda, but who are in fact very treacherous, bad people. That is why I


am not superstitious…. In the past we never had this movement of going to the pagoda. The older people went, but not the young generation. We never thought about this. But today the youth in the city are more superstitious. They go and beg for this thing or that thing at the chua or the dinh. They go and pray to become rich! The political and personal experiences of Phuong Lien’s Resistance generation allied these women to a set of principles that served as clear markers of moral and social distinction in the disorienting process of market transition. By invoking a plurality of ‘gender guarantees’ (Butler: 1990)—condemning “superstition,” delinquent youth, money-driven marriage, and so on—these Phuong Lien women signified their status as sacrificing mothers, enduring wives, productive workers, and self-sufficient household managers. They reiterated the popular media indictment of middle-class greed—not out of cautious obedience to official ideology but as a means of validating their life experiences and sacrifices. They embraced the new market economy but only within the confines of a particular work ethic and moral code—a set of convictions informed at once by Confucian family values, Revolutionary ideals and their wartime struggles for economic stability and self-reliance. As the officially chosen representatives of Phuong Lien, they easily occupied a space of national feminine tradition in opposition to the multiple forms of capitalist immorality emanating from the city’s more youthful and acquisitive culture. For the local Women’s Union leader, chi Nga, these women’s voices served to link Phuong Lien, in its current marginal state, to the cultural legacies of national struggle. The Resistance generation provided a safely positive face for a community increasingly overrun and compromised by the process of market transition. Nga had a harder time recruiting younger respondents. She explained to me that “most young women were too busy” to be interviewed. Those she did find were not typical of the majority of Phuong Lien women in their thirties and forties. Many were Women’s Union affiliates whose husbands were gainfully employed in the state or private sector. They were able to stay home as “housewives” and engage in sideline selling or handicraft activities. A few others ran successful home-based enterprises that provided jobs to unemployed members of the community. In contrast to the Resistance cohort, these younger ‘model’ citizens expressed a more studied knowledge of the dominant terms of national morality; they were less able to relate personal experiences and beliefs to the larger constructs of Vietnamese womanhood. Instead, they struggled to mediate the divide between national ideals and the realities of their domestic lives.


NAVIGATING THE MORAL TERRAIN OF TRANSITION’ For Phuong Lien women who came of age during the post-war subsidy years, between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s, the formative period of their adult lives was a time of ideological disillusionment rather than Revolutionary idealism. As children, they went to school in a climate of anti-American and anti-Western zealotry, fueled by the U.S. bombings and the heavy emotional toll of long-absent fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. They became wellversed in the promises of the new socialist society, in the principles of social and gender “equality” and the path toward cultural “progress.” Yet, as they began work in state factories, they soon found these ideals overshadowed by the mundane problems of subsistence in a scarcity economy. They married fellow workers and former-classmates and settled into domestic lives dominated by the enervating rhythms of factory paydays and state market queues. When economic reforms began, this generation experienced the new opportunities and demands of the market as a break from, rather than a continuation of, past experience. After a decade of economic decline and stagnation, Phuong Lien women in their late twenties and thirties had high aspirations for an improved standard of living. Faced with rising school fees and a climate of growing consumerism, they were eager to replace their disappearing factory wages with more profitable earning activities in the informal private economy. Yet, they lacked the experience of economic selfsufficiency as well as traditional ethics of feminine “sacrifice” and “endurance” that had so shaped the previous generation. Raised on government subsidies and the “progressive” ideals of socialist production, younger Phuong Lien women have had no clear moral or ideological framework through which to approach the (re)domestication of their economic roles. As petty sellers, seamstresses, and home handicraft workers, they have not only lost the socialist guarantees and public recognition of the state workplace, but have had to reconcile their expanded economic burden with the unmediated patriarchal culture of the family. Their struggle to carry the weight of household maintenance and to increase family income has heightened their sense of confinement within the norms of domestic tradition and feminine virtue. The Phuong Lien women in their thirties and forties whom I was allowed to interview, came from some of the neighborhood’s more economically stable households. They nevertheless indirectly expressed the moral tensions of market transition. While Resistance veterans replied to personal questions such as, “How did you choose your husband?” and “What are the secrets to marital happiness?” by presenting their individual struggles as testaments to a cultural model, younger Phuong Lien women relied on the language of duty and


obligation to cover the inconsistencies between national feminine ideals and personal realitites. Through formal reiterations of abstract moral principles, in which they frequently contrasted “Vietnamese” or “Asian values” to Western norms, they presented an account of national femininity that largely excluded their subjective experience of the rules. Ninh, a 44-year-old housewife with a small home kiosk, said only that her husband (a state engineer) was “easy going” and that their married life was “ordinary,” before moving quickly to a formal description of Vietnamese women and marriage. Vietnamese women are very different from Western women. Even though Vietnamese women work in many important positions in society and have to entertain a variety of social relations in their work, they nevertheless can not exceed the bounds of a faithful husband and wife relationship. There are many women in Vietnam who may have many differences with their husbands, but who maintain a very admirable quality: they will sacrifice themselves for their children. They realize that if they divorced, they could maybe remarry and have a happier future. But, because of their children, they won’t do it. This is something that is in the blood of the Vietnamese woman, her essential character. Perhaps, under the market economy, there will be some influences on women. But I am certain there will only be a few. I do not think that Western women can be like this. Ninh’s contemporaries echoed her authoritative description of the Vietnamese woman’s “essential character,” though not always in as enthusiastic or patriotic a tone. In contrast to older respondents, women in the transition generation did not convey a seamless connection between national tradition, political progress and domestic gender roles. Their higher levels of education and greater knowledge of alternative cultural models made it more difficult for women in their thirties and forties to convince themselves of the national value of patriarchal family norms. A 42-year-old Phoung Lien woman, for instance, who sold rice out of her home while her husband worked as a train technician, explained that she decided to retire from her job in a sandal factory after her mother-in-law became ill. Her earnings from rice sales supplemented her husband’s salary and enabled the couple to pay for her mother-in-law’s medicines and her youngest child’s school fees. When I asked her if she was happier now than in the past, she offered a studied response. She briefly enumerated the material improvements in her household and neighborhood, and then offered a formal description of Vietnamese womanhood—an explanation to herself, as much as to me, of the cultural logic governing her life circumstances.


Vietnamese people, like other Asian people, place great importance on respecting their elders and on maintaining the harmony of the family. In the West, women are freer to follow their own desires. They can marry and then if they are not happy, they may divorce and find a different husband. But here, the woman must take responsibility for all the members of her household. She must care for her husband’s parents when they are old and sick. She must live for her husband and her children, and not for herself. Respondents who were willing to discuss the particulars of their domestic lives often contradicted their formal accounts of national ideals. Phuong Lien women in their twenties and thirties rarely espoused the virtues of wifely “sacrifice” and “endurance” as a formula for family happiness. Instead, they invoked the modern principle of a “democratic” and “egalitarian” marriage in opposition to the “backward” and “feudal” attitudes of their parents and grandparents. Yet this discourse of cultural progress did not extend into their more candid commentary on their personal domestic lives. Thuy, a 32-year-old woman, who ran a small home-based enterprise with her husband making hand-painted calendars, explained that “a husband and wife must be equal” and “they must respect each other” in order for the marriage to be happy. Unlike her mother, she pointed out, she had been able to finish high school and attend an arts college, where she met her husband. “In my generation, women can not be under their husbands, always sacrificing and enduring the way the old people do. We have a different consciousness. We must have a role in society too.” The couple described their business as a “partnership.” He decides which art designs will sell, while she manages the administrative side, paying the workers and connecting with retailers. Later in the interview, however, after her husband had left the room, Thuy offered a very different assessment of contemporary gender relations in Vietnam. She described to me, in hushed tones, the division of child care responsibilities in her household. My husband often hits our son to teach him. So, of course, my son listens to his father. He is afraid of him. From me, he looks for pampering. He knows I won’t hit him. I love him too much. So he’s only afraid of his father…. His father makes a very serious and strict face when he is angry, so I am also afraid. Vietnamese men really grasp the notion that they are the heads of the family, and Vietnamese women must be very submissive and compliant to their husbands (phai rat phuc tung chong). This is characteristic of East Asia… So even though women in Vietnam may be earning a lot of money, they still must fear their husbands.


While Thuy sought to portray herself as a representative of the doi moi era’s cosmopolitan values through the civilizing discourse of “marital democracy,” she could not extend this language to her own domestic life. In her everyday role as mother and wife, she experienced the terms of Vietnamese tradition as a continuing source of repression and constraint. The disjuncture between national ideals and domestic realities emerged in a different form in the comments of another economically successful Phuong Lien woman. Ngoc, a 40-year-old former factory worker, who now ran a construction materials business from a newly renovated three-story home, shifted abruptly during the interview from an authoritative discussion of national morality to the frustrations of her marriage. An active Women’s Union member and a descendent of a strong Buddhist family, she spoke at length about the “correct” uses of the pagoda, about the need for “sincerity,” and about the misguidedness of those who pray only “to get rich.” She emphasized the value of “hard work” and the importance of “treating neighbors with respect,” condemning the “uncivil” ways of newly rich families from the provinces. Yet, on the subject of marriage, her tone became more informal. She complained bitterly of the excessive burden of raising children and running a family business in a climate of increasing economic competition and dishonesty. Although she said her husband was “kind” and “never hit the children,” she explained that he lacked “business sense” and thus could not contribute to household management. Sure, he praises me, and he indulges our children…but I have to make all of the important household decisions. Why? Because my husband is a fool (gan do). He is too easily taken in by people. He is too generous to others and doesn’t consider his family’s interests. For example, whenever any neighbors need work done, he quickly offers his help. Or he offers to let them knock down part of our property so that they will have more room. He is not sensible. He doesn’t look after our family’s interests. These days, you need to know who is trustworthy. When my husband goes away on business, I often have to fix his mistakes. This is very difficult for me…. I often wish my husband were different (co tinh net khac), so that I wouldn’t have to worry so much. Although Nga had selected Ngoc as an authoritative moral spokeswoman and community model, Ngoc failed to present the expected model of enlightened feminine domesticity that the Women’s Union seeks to foster. She portrayed her household responsibilities as the burden of an unsatisfactory marriage, rather than as unquestioned elements of feminine tradition. While espousing many of the ethical principles embraced by the Resistance generation, she did


not embrace the wifely ideal of “endurance”—that is, a life of of selfless worry and hard work in the service of the family. Ngoc’s harsh indictment of her excessively benevolent husband conveyed an image disconcertingly close to the demonized media figure of the emasculating middle-class wife. “She must be very tired today,” Nga said, laughing nervously as we left Ngoc’s house. “We should probably come back another time.” NATIONAL MORALITY IN AN UNCIVIL LOCALITY The disparities between women’s personal experiences and the codes of national morality emerged more starkly in my discussions with Phuong Lien women who were not chosen for interviews. My house in hamlet three shared a muddy path with some of the poorest households in the precinct. Nga had conspicuously avoided this cluster of residences in her selection of interviewees. My immediate neighbors often saw me pass by with Nga on my way to an interview. They responded awkwardly to my greetings at these times, clearly inhibited by the presence of a Women’s Union leader and uncomfortably aware of their exclusion from the official Phuong Lien tour. Yet, in the evenings, I was able to converse with them in a more relaxed setting. My next door neighbor’s house served as a regular gathering place for a group of women from the hamlet. Most of Ba Bai’s visitors were construction workers, petty sellers and elderly retirees, whose daily lives revolved around the people and events on the hamlet’s narrow dirt path. When I joined their discussions, the conversation shifted between patriotic accounts of Vietnamese history and tradition and complaints about the community’s poverty and “backwardness.” These women frequently countered their own efforts to represent the nation and to affirm the authenticity of Vietnamese values with personal expressions of desire and discontent. Self-conscious of their distance from the ideals of middle class citizenship, they inadvertently dramatized the practical discontinuities between their aspirations for a “civilized” lifestyle and the demands of feminine tradition. My neighbor, Ba Bai, a 65-year-old retired factory cook, ran a small sundry shop in front of her two-story cement house. She appeared materially well off relative to her immediate neighbors. Her family had been able to renovate their home after selling a portion of their land to a young urban speculator. Bai’s shop had no competitors on the narrow path and she kept her doors open late. Women stopped by throughout the evening to purchase cigarettes and beer for the men in their households and to chat with neighbors. Some of these women had received short-term loans from Ba Bai to support their own petty selling efforts. Despite her prominent status in this corner of the hamlet, Ba Bai had a disgruntled demeanor. Her husband, a retired driver for a state company, suffered from a heart condition that confined him to the house. The youngest of


her four sons remained jobless and dependent, five years after finishing high school. Unlike the formal interview respondents from her generation, Ba Bai did not have a ‘patriotic’ background; she was not among the Resistance fighters who immigrated to Phuong Lien following Independence. Instead, she and her husband were Phuong Lien natives, born into families of petty sellers and smallscale suburban cultivators. The Revolution had not significantly altered their economic circumstances. “Before ‘54, we were poor, and afterwards we were still poor. We did small selling and then we worked for the State. But nothing changed” she explained. “We did not participate in the Revolution, so we did not receive any priority.” On many of my visits, Ba Bai spoke to me only in abstract slogans. When discussion turned invariably to the economic disparity between Vietnam and America, she gruffly injected patriotic pronouncements to explain why Vietnam had “not yet had a chance to develop.” “Vietnamese people always want to be independent. We will never be slaves again…. All Vietnamese people love the army.” Some evenings, she held court for long stretches of time, describing in gruesome detail the types of torture that the French and then the Americans had used against the communist fighters. Although she had not participated in the Resistance, she presented herself as a nationalist authority, allying herself with those Revolutionary traditions that divided the heroic past from the pragmatic present. Yet, when her attention shifted to the neighborhood’s economic conditions or to the stresses of household maintenance, her patriotic rhetoric quickly gave way to bitter indignation. Ba Bai emphasized the injustice of her lot rather than her capacity to “endure.” Tomorrow is our National Day, but what is the sense of celebrating Independence if we still do not have work! My son is 23 and he is still unemployed. Here, we must do everything ourselves. I must earn money for my whole family, even though I have already retired. Because my husband is sick, he can’t do anything. He is not a Party member, so he does not receive government support. He received only a small pension from his office, but it is finished now… Ba Bai’s complaints about her personal circumstances encouraged her visitors to shift from tactics of national affirmation—that is, from efforts to verify cultural tenets through the eyes of an outsider—to the material preoccupations of everyday life. Talk of salaries, food prices, luxury items and school fees dominated much of the evening discussions at Ba Bai’s house. There was regular talk of friends and acquaintances who were lucky enough to have relatives working in the West sending dollars home regularly. Those people now had Honda motorcycles, gas stoves, and lakeside “villas.” A number of Ba Bai’s


guests in their thirties and forties requested detailed information about living conditions in America and expressed a self-conscious desire to distance themselves from the dinginess and chaos of Phuong Lien. These wives and mothers—most of them construction work ers and petty vendors—spoke as enlightened critics of the “disorderly” households and “backward” practices of many hamlet residents. They discarded the claims about “community harmony” and “village feeling” that had marked my initial arrival in the neighborhood in favor of a form of local castigation that positioned them closer to the “civilized” standards of the city center. The house across the path from Ba Bai’s was an object of general derision among the nightly congregation. It was a one-room mud and thatch hut that housed three generations of one the hamlet’s poorest and most discordant families. The elderly grandparents were continually at odds with their daughterin-law, a part-time construction worker, who bore the physical marks of her husband’s alcoholic rages. The young couple had three daughters, of whom the youngest two were twins. The tiny, malnourished seven-year-olds had already dropped out of school. Ba Bai’s regular indictment of the old grandmother for failing to pay her debts provoked a general rebuke of the family’s inability to care for their children. Bai’s visitors condemned the mother, in particular, as “ignorant”(ngu dot) for not practicing family planning. Worst of all, they said, she had refused to give up one of her twins for adoption by an Australian woman. Yen, a 32-year-old construction worker, pointed out: She had the chance to send one of them to the West. That child could have been educated and then she could have sent money home. But she said no, and now she is too poor to send the children to school. She is very backward! Her house is never clean, those children are always dirty…” Another family, with seven children, aroused similar disdain. The husband was a reputed opium addict who had abandoned his job as a cyclo driver. The wife, a beautiful but gaunt woman in her early thirties, worked sporadically on construction sites around the neighborhood. They lived in a one-room shack without running water, alongside the hamlet’s garbage dump. A few years back they had given up one of their daughters for adoption by a German woman. “At least now they get some money each month from the Western lady (ba Tay),” Tarn, a 42-year-old cake seller, commented. But that house is still overcrowded and the children are always causing fights in the road. She doesn’t know how to teach her children. She doesn’t think about improving her family. She just keeps having more


children. Because her husband doesn’t agree to follow family planning, she just continues… I think she is afraid of him. He is no good. He has no salary. He just takes money for drugs and beer…. It’s too bad the Western lady couldn’t take two or three of those children. Phuong, a 22-year-old neighbor and new mother, suggested that the unfortunate woman should leave her husband and return to her parents’ house outside Hanoi. “But she doesn’t know about the law,” Tarn countered, “she is too stupid!” Ba Bai’s visitors abruptly cut short their condemnation of the hamlet’s poorest members when I asked whether they would ever give up a child that they were too poor to raise. “Never!” they unanimously declared. “Vietnamese people can not do this,” Yen, the construction worker, explained with little sense of inconsistency. “Vietnamese women really love their children! We could never let someone else raise them! Vietnamese women must live for their husbands and their children…” The women’s return to the discourse of national femininity forestalled further discussion of the “backward” neighborhood mothers or any acknowledgement of the apparent contradictions in their own points of view. Their desire to resituate themselves as representatives of traditional Vietnamese morality widened the field of anecdotal tales. 32-yearold Yen told the others a tragic story she’d read in one of the papers about a couple in Hanoi’s wealthy West Lake district who had “lost their happiness” after the wife had gone to work in Germany. The woman found a German boyfriend and never returned to Hanoi. Now the Vietnamese husband had died in a traffic accident, leaving the six-year-old son alone. The newspaper was seeking an adoptive family for the boy. Yen’s listeners were easily moved. A flood of pronouncements on the state of Vietnamese womanhood ensued. “How could a mother leave her son like that?” “Women like that just want to ‘ape’ the West (dua doi).” “They go over there, they see all the expensive things and then they don’t want to come back here and work hard.” Yen sought to clarify the point for me: “This kind of woman is very bad, chi Ly. In Vietnam, it is not like in America where a woman can simply leave if she is not happy. Vietnamese people consider a mother’s love to be the most important thing….” For my Phuong Lien neighbors, media images of female virtue and vice offered a realm of national cultural discourse that, while based in “social reality ”(that is, in the personal crises of strangers’ lives), was wholly dissociated from the poverty-born pressures of their local world. Speaking as Phuong Lien residents, the women harshly criticized those neighborhood elements whose ‘uncivilized’ lives signified their community’s exclusion from the promises of “development.” They embraced the language of modern social management and middle-class citizenship, by chastising undisciplined hamlet mothers for bearing


Fig. 6. Older women relax in a tea stall, Phuong Lien precinct, Dong Da, Hanoi, 1995.

children they couldn’t support and for passively enduring abusive, ‘undemocratic’ marriages. Yet, moments later, the logic of this critique gave way to practices of national affirmation and a need to confirm their place in the timeless category of the good Vietnamese mother. Their ameliorative prescriptions for the hamlet’s poorest women would inevitably disqualify those women as ‘true’ Vietnamese mothers and wives. From Ba Bai’s living room, the path out of poverty appeared at odds with (rather than dependent upon) the principles of female sacrifice, endurance and maternal devotion. As my neighbors moved uncertainly between the reified terms of national identity and their own frustrated desires for prosperity and “development,” they conveyed the inaccessibility of the current Vietnamese feminine ideal. RECONCILING TRADITION AND ASPIRATION: THE APPEAL OF “OSHIN” In their struggle to resolve the inherent contradictions between personal aspiration and national belonging, my Phuong Lien neighbors found some respite in an imported television drama. The Japanese serial “Oshin” aired in Vietnam between 1995 and 1996 and was enormously popular throughout Hanoi. Through twenty minute episodes, the program told the biographical story of the woman who founded Japan’s first supermarket chain. Born into


rural poverty in the late 19th century, Oshin struggled to survive, first, as a child servant in the households of wealthy feudal families and, later, as a hairdresser in Tokyo. Her life story parallels the upheavals of Japan’s modern history. With each installment, Oshin undergoes another moral, physical or emotional trial. She endures the abuse of her employers, barely escapes an arranged marriage, aids a handsome Revolutionary, flees the home of her cruel and oppressive mother-in-law, survives an earthquake and the cataclysms of war. She is separated from and later reunited with her infant son, and she heroically shelters and raises the child of another woman. Through her honesty, compassion, talent and perseverance, Oshin rises through the economic ranks of Japanese society to become a highly successful businesswoman. Her story is at once a testament to female self-sufficiency and economic talent and a showcase of traditional feminine ideals of self-sacrifice, grace and loyalty. The beautiful, vulnerable and modest Oshin triumphs over a world full of cruel and powerful forces. She takes on the feudal inequalities of her time without compromising the essence of Japanese womanhood. Significantly, the drama unfolds through Oshin’s recollections of her life to her devoted grandson, a modern young man who seeks to understand the hardships and lost values of the past. The broad appeal of “Oshin” in Vietnam reflected the cultural dilemmas and popular yearnings of the doi moi era. In the early 1990s, Vietnam’s emergent status as a potential “Tiger economy” promoted a new level of cultural engagement with Asia’s prominent economic powers. Japan, South Korea, Singapore and increasingly China were not only potential investors in the nascent Vietnamese market; they also provided Vietnam’s Communist government with relatively palatable models of capitalist development, in which prosperity was achieved without full capitulation to Western cultural imperialism. In contrast to the liberalized print media, Vietnam’s state-run television in the 1990s retained tight control over audience access to American and European images.12The broadcasting of a select number of television dramas from Japan and China provided a politically acceptable solution to the popular desire for “social-psychological” (tam ly xa hoi), as opposed to strictly ‘political,’ films. These programs promoted audience knowledge of the cultural and historical commonalties between Vietnam and her neighbors and encouraged an awareness of “Asian values” in the context of economic globalization.13 As illustrated in the preceding chapter, the Vietnamese media’s critique of female agency in the market era has allowed for few accessible models of a morally affirmative path to a prosperous and “civilized” family life. The ideal of the enlightened housewife, who contributes to her household’s economic success without exposing herself to the temptations and brutalities of the market, rarely if ever appeared outside the official setting of a Women’s Union


pageant. The character of Oshin, in this context, provided an appealing feminine image in which economic striving and cultural tradition were harmoniously combined. On the most immediate level, “Oshin” was a compelling soap opera that engaged audiences in an ongo ing personal drama set in a culturally familiar space. Phuong Lien viewers attributed their enthusiasm for the program to a strong identification with the main character’s qualities and experiences. As Yen, the 32-year-old construction worker, explained: Oshin suits Vietnamese people well because she has a kind of morality, a patient stick-to-it-ness (nhan nai), a good ability to endure. Vietnamese people feel familiar with this [quality], because it is close to their own experience. So when we watch this film we are connecting with ourselves (tu lien he voi minh). We recognize that we also had a time in our lives like that. Another of Ba Bai’s visitors, a woman in her early fifties, reasserted Oshin’s relevance to the Vietnamese woman’s experience. Oshin is a poor girl from the countryside, but she is very honest, a good person. In the story, she improves her life through her own good work. She becomes a hairdresser and through her skill (su kheo tay) and perseverance (nhan nai), she moves up in society. This is similar to Vietnam where people usually pursue one occupation their whole life. Also, the way Oshin raises herself up by her own hand…Vietnamese people like this very much. It is different in American and Western movies, where I see people do many different things. They are always changing their occupation. We don’t like that so much. Oshin is very much like Vietnam. In the context of Vietnamese/Western comparison, Oshin provided an unproblematic stand-in for the values of Vietnamese femininity in an era of economic progress. As an archetype of feminine endurance, hard work and simplicity, Oshin offered historical confirmation of the traditional gender codes so adamantly espoused by members of the Resistance generation. Convincingly, in this drama, poverty constitutes the basis for those human virtues that enable a woman to prosper without compromising her internal ‘spirit.’ The heroine maintains ideal feminine qualities even as she strives to improve her circumstances. At the same time, her tale establishes a viable link between personal and national struggle. As Oshin pulls herself up by ‘her own hand,’ Japan becomes a modernized, prosperous and “civilized” nation that is culturally distinct from the West. The appealing trajectory of Oshin’s life encouraged


Vietnamese viewers—who were otherwise caught in the contradictory bind between feminine tradition and aspiration—to invoke the importance of “Asian values.” As Phuong, the 22-year-old mother, commented: Although Oshin works hard outside the home, she never forgets about her family and her children. Like women in other Asian societies, Oshin must maintain female tradition (truyen thong phu nu). She does not follow the way of life of Western women. While Oshin’s life unfolded in a time and place distinct from the Vietnamese present, her story furnished viewers with a means of positively envisioning a union between national traditions and material progress. In the moral confusion of Vietnam’s market modernization, Oshin became a useful cultural abstraction. She helped to defer the inconsistencies between the personal and the national by serving up a culturally proximate, yet historically and spatially removed image of female virtue. As a Japanese version of national femininity, Oshin was free of the trappings of Vietnamese state propaganda and, more importantly, of the cultural conundrums plaguing post-Revolutionary discourses of the ‘good’ Vietnamese woman. Local viewers could embrace Oshin as part of themselves without having to contend with the usual disjunction between patriotic prescription and the everyday pressures of domestic life. By the end of 1995, “Oshin” had become a descriptive term, entrenched in the vocabulary of Phuong Lien residents. An inebriated cyclo driver bragged to me one evening about his wife, who ran a local kiosk: “She is very capable (rat dam dang). She is just like Oshin. Hard working, sacrificing, and she knows how to earn money!” In my presence, Ba Bai and her visitors struggled to signify simultaneous, yet incompatible, identities as authentic Vietnamese women and as modern “civilized” citizens. Their comments expressed a frustration with their community’s failure to approximate a standard of material success associated with more developed capitalist societies and, increasingly, with Hanoi’s nearby commercial center. They bemoaned their husbands’ poor salaries, calculated the economic benefit of sending a relative overseas, and criticized their “backward” neighbors for lacking the sense to improve their lives. Yet, their expressions of aspiration and discontent drew them uncomfortably far from the terms of Vietnamese womanhood. Confined to the stressful margins of urban modernization, my neighbors signaled their uncertain relationship to the norms of national femininity by shifting abruptly between two discrete discursive domains. How could they assert their status as ‘good’ Vietnamese wives and mothers (their distance from the image of the Westernized, money-driven female) and still express the unsatisfactory conditions and unmet desires of their everyday lives? While the fantasy realm of a Japanese drama provided a partial


and temporary resolution of this dilemma, the Vietnamese media has continued to reinforce an essential incongruity between feminine virtue and economic ambition. PARODYING DEVIANCE ON THE MARGINS A few Phuong Lien women I met responded to the inaccessibility of the modern middle-class ideal by engaging in more potentially subversive discursive tactics. Rather than struggling to affix themselves to the increas ingly abstract terms of Vietnamese womanhood, these women contended with their ‘lack of fit’ by parodying the normative categories of female deviance. Mai and Tuyet were fixtures in hamlet three’s corner tea stall—a locus of neighborhood disrepute, which Ba Bai and her visitors were careful to avoid. These two women were joined together less by an inherent friendship than by their common position on Phuong Lien’s social margins. Aware of the disparity between their personal circumstances, on the one hand, and the dominant images of feminine virtue and middle class respectability, on the other, they opted to exaggerate rather than minimize the divide. They subverted the seriousness of official forms of social regulation by mocking the terms of free market “evil.” In the process, they voiced the cultural contradictions that confined their lives. At 36, Mai sold rice porridge and noodles from a tiny fly-infested kiosk at the entrance to the hamlet’s dirt path. She had a round, open face and an exceptionally sturdy build. Since ‘retiring’ from her factory job in 1990, she’d struggled to subsist at the bottom end of the local economy. By working twelvehour days, preparing and selling food, she barely managed to support a family of four. She received weekly loans from Ba Bai to cover the cost of supplies, repaying her debt at the end of each week. She retained just enough to feed her children and pay their school fees. Mai’s husband had worked briefly as a brick maker, but when this work “ran out” he descended quickly into a cycle of unemployment and drunkenness. Though cowed and ashamed, he was unable to exert more than the feeblest effort helping Mai set up and close down her stall each day. When discussing the market reforms, Mai candidly admitted that her life had been better under the subsidies. My factory salary was small, but it was stable. I didn’t have to worry the way I do now about having enough money for school fees, clothes and shoes for my children. Back then, my husband worked. He was not the way he is now. So, although we were poor, we had enough. Today, if I have more freedom, I don’t need it. Where is my happiness?


Despite formidable obstacles, Mai had succeeded in keeping her two teen-aged children in school and away from the corrupting influences of the neighborhood. Her son and daughter were always cleanly dressed and polite, and they avoided the popular youth hangouts in the hamlet. Mai was adamant about her children’s education. “No matter what, I have to create the conditions for them to go to school” she explained. “If they are going to have more opportunities than I have had, then they must continue to study.” Yet, while Mai exemplified the maternal spirit of sacrifice, hard work and endurance, she conspicuously lacked the feminine virtues of “gentleness” (diu dang), “grace” (duyen dang) and “subtlety” (te nhi). Her irreverence and forthright manner stood out even in the crass environment of the neighborhood corner. She was known to strike her husband after his all-night drinking bouts. On one occasion, I saw her slap and chastise her younger brother for cheating on his wife and impregnating a girl down in Hue. On another evening, I witnessed her furiously scold a young neighborhood girl for staying out late and worrying her parents. During breaks from her food stand, she sat with the neighborhood men in the tea stall, barely concealing her cigarette beneath the table. The tea stall regulars teasingly referred to her as “ghe” (formidable), “to” (big), “manh khoe” (physically strong) or “hu” (naughty). Uniquely, Mai never engaged in the patriotic discourse of national culture for my benefit. She spoke frankly of the increase in divorce, infidelity and wife beating in the neighborhood, often to the consternation and embarrassment of her food stall customers. Her daily struggle to provide for her family, care for her children and endure her alcoholic husband left her with little energy or inclination to idealize the community or to represent the nation. 41-year-old Tuyet was Mai’s closest companion and nemesis. Financially, Tuyet was somewhat better off; she and her husband—a state electrician—had recently added a second bedroom onto the small cement house they shared with their 22-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter. The family had also sold off a small portion of their land to a real estate speculator. Although Tuyet and her husband came from what Phuong Lien’s older generation termed “established ‘worker’ households,” Tuyet was prone to the conspicuous consumption associated with the uneducated, newly rich from the provinces. A large color television set and video player dominated her family’s living room. During her daughter’s engagement dinner, the television and stereo played simultaneously, loud enough for the entire hamlet to hear. To supplement her husband’s salary, Tuyet sold snails with her daughter from a part-time kiosk next to Mai’s stall. Her primary trade, however, was the numbers business—the ‘black market’ selling of lottery tickets to her neighbors.14 Tuyet conducted most of her sales from the corner tea stall where she found her steadiest clientele. Tuyet herself gambled avidly. She also prayed often at the local pagoda. She explained, “I pray often,


not only on the first and fourteenth of the [lunar] month, for the success of my business, the health of my family and the happiness of my daughter’s marriage.” Tuyet’s “superstitious” practices and illicit business dealings provoked disapproval from her neighbors. Although many hamlet residents regularly bought lottery numbers from Tuyet, they did not include her in their nightly gatherings. When neighbors saw me talking to her, they would teasingly shake a finger at me, as if to reproach me for socializing with a criminal element. Mai and Tuyet’s rapport consisted of a kind of jocular hostility. Each viewed the other as a marker of her own precarious moral status in the community. During my visits to the corner tea stall, I became a useful vehicle in their ongoing game of mutual denigration. Self-conscious of their proximity to the area’s much-publicized “social evils,” they regularly insulted each other with official labels of criminality and moral deviance. Early on, for instance, Tuyet told me that Mai had “left her husband” (bo chong)—a statement that I was prone to believe since I had not yet met or seen Mai’s husband. I only realized the joke after I asked Mai about her marital status and saw her expression of embarrassment. For Tuyet, the prank played on Mai’s predicament—her unhappy marriage to a public drunk whom she dominated physically, economically and temperamentally. Mai’s devotion to her children and her obvious lack of any promising suitors ruled out the possibility of divorce. Yet, her de facto independence from her husband, combined with the nefarious social milieu in which she dwelled, placed Mai in dangerously (and, thus, humorously) close proximity to the compromised figure of a divorced woman. Along these same lines, Tuyet liked to joke that Mai was working as a prostitute. When she saw Mai approaching, she would say: “Look! There is chi Mai returning from the hotel!” In retaliation, Mai would warn me to stay away from Tuyet, not to believe anything she said and never to visit the pagoda with her. “Tuyet is very dangerous. She is ‘mafia’” Mai explained, using the borrowed English word that has come to stand for all kinds of market-spawned criminal activities in Vietnam. Mai’s loudly whispered warnings about Tuyet were intentional exaggerations of Tuyet’s semi-illicit trading activities. By calling Tuyet “mafia,” Mai parodied the terms of her friend’s local disrepute and underscored her unsuitability as a representative of Vietnamese womanhood and “civilized” society. Sitting around the tea stall in the afternoons, Tuyet and Mai included the local men in their sparring sessions. “This guy here is an opium addict! He steals money from his wife!” Mai said of one young customer with cloudy, blood shot eyes. “This one likes to go to the brothel (o diem)!” Tuyet declared of a middle-aged man beside her. The men tossed back insults, insisting to me that Mai was “like a man,” that Tuyet could “never be trusted.” Tuyet and Mai used humor to contend with their disqualification as models of national femininity. Rather than pretend to an image of middleclass propriety


or national authenticity, they irreverently exaggerated their ‘failure’ to display the ideal characteristics of the modern Vietnamese woman. Through their street corner antics, they expressed their inability to fit the normative model of the ‘good’ Vietnamese wife and mother despite their fulfillment of their domestic duties. Anthropologists, such as Anna Tsing (1993) and Lisa Rofel (1999), have illustrated the important role of performance in the subversion of dominant gender norms by marginalized groups and individuals in society. Applying Judith Butler’s (1993) insights to the Chinese context, Rofel notes that such performative practices are not a reflection of creative free will, but rather “are compelled by the compulsory nature of normative demands for identification. These include, but are not limited to, threats of exclusion and abjection” (1999: 125). In Mai’s monotonous struggle for subsistence under the weight of her alcoholic husband, and in her continued willingness to sacrifice for her children’s future, she clearly exhibited the virtues of a devoted mother and an enduring wife. Yet she could not signify those feminine qualities of middle-class “civility”—of wifely gentleness, scientific knowledge, and an appreciation for national tradition—that permeate popular media and state pedagogy. Her failure to participate in the expected discourses of national identity—especially in the presence of a Westerner—revealed her alienation from the codes of Vietnamese femininity and her frustration with the failed promises of doi moi. “During the war, we understood that women had to sacrifice in order to save the nation (cuu nuoc)” Mai explained, as we sat at her Kiosk one afternoon. “But today we still must sacrifice, always sacrifice, and for what? My family is still very poor. Will my daughter have to live this way when she has a family? I don’t want that for her.” Tuyet presented a more ambiguous example of female character. Like Mai, she was focused on improving her family’s standard of living, yet she had chosen a less strenuous and more profitable strategy. Her efforts to augment her household’s income through prayer, gambling and illicit lottery ticket sales called to mind the media images of greedy urban wives. “It’s true, I am very superstitious,” she remarked during an unusually somber moment at the tea stall. “I am always hoping and praying that I will be able to earn more money, because I want my children to have a more comfortable life than I had.” In her unapologetic embrace of ‘immoral’ earning methods, Tuyet saw herself as a devoted mother and wife, who put her family first. She was intent that her son finish vocational college and that her daughter have a beautiful wedding. And she remained faithful to her husband as she worked to supplement his state salary. By labeling each other as “prostitute” and “mafia,” Tuyet and Mai parodied their mutually deviant status and threw into relief the oppressive nature of a national gender regime that fails to account for the contradictory


demands on women to “serve” and to “advance” their families in the new market economy. *** In formal interviews and informal conversations, Phuong Lien women responded to the dominant codes of Vietnamese womanhood and “civilized” progress in a variety of ways, reflecting neither a clear pattern of obedience nor of refusal. Variables of generational experience, personal history and socioeconomic status shaped the degree of consistency and certainty with which individual women signified their identities as sacrificing mothers, enduring wives, hard workers, good Revolutionaries or enlightened citizens. While the founding generation of Phuong Lien “workers” easily situated themselves in a narrative of personal/national struggle—in which their trials during the anticolonial Resistance, the American War and the subsequent subsidy years reinforced the patriarchal domestic codes under which they lived—younger Phuong Lien women revealed a more uncertain relationship to the contradictory tenets of national progress and feminine virtue. For those women who came of age during the post-war years of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the difficult transition from economic subsidies and socialist “gender equality” to the demands of a patriarchal, market-dependent household constrained their ability to identify with the governmental terms of “family happiness” and authentic Vietnamese womanhood. They invoked these disciplinary norms as formal codes of obligation and distinction, external to and often incompatible with their marital realities and economic burdens. For my neighbors in hamlet three, a desire to rise above the “backwardness” of their surroundings and to speak as enlightened middle-class citizens accompanied a simultaneous need to identify themselves as ‘true’ Vietnamese women, impervious to the corrupting influences of the West. The striking disjunctures in the flow of their evening discussions signaled the difficulty of reconciling the goals of household advancement (in an environment of sparse economic opportunity and high male unemployment) with a code of national morality that polices the limits of female striving and desire. Ba Bai’s visitors found temporary respite from this dilemma in a Japanese television drama that enabled them to imagine a seamless union of feminine virtue and upward mobility. Finally, the discursive practices of two neighborhood women, who clearly transgressed the norms of respectability, revealed the potential for gender subversion along the edges of an economically marginal community. Mai and Tuyet’s parody of moral deviance in my presence was not simply a selfconscious admission of their unfitness as national feminine models. Through their irreverent humor, they enacted their confinement in a field of unrealizable demands. Their self-denigrating practices voiced their frustration with the


limited range of acceptable gender identities. If we can not signify our status as patient and productive housewives, their antics declared, we will define ourselves as prostitutes and criminals! There are no allowable or recognizable positions in between.


5 Market Morality Negotiating Merchant Identities in Hoan Kiem

PHUONG LIEN’S ECONOMICALLY FRUSTRATED RESIDENTS VIEWED HANOI’S central commercial district, less than five kilometers away, with a combination of longing and disdain. The crowded, frenetic streets, tourist hotels and consumer affluence of Hoan Kiem signified both the material promise and the spiritual losses of capitalist development. People in Phuong Lien assuaged their sense of exclusion from the city center’s progress by reiterating their status as “simple workers” and “honest villagers”—as hold-outs against an encroaching urban society that valued money over “neighborly feeling.” In these local myths of community and tradition, the “business woman of the center” (phu nu buon ban o trung tam) provided a vivid point of opposition. The stereotyped Hoan Kiem merchant—shrewd, greedy and neglectful of family duties—was a useful emblem of middle class materialism. Her anti-national qualities resonated throughout official and popular media, furnishing a convenient stand-in for the multiple causes of social disorder and moral decline in the doi moi era. As the state has entreated its citizens to build productive, prosperous and “civilized” families, the practices of female merchants have continued to be viewed through a lens of socialist and Confucian traditions that define private trade (or buon ban) as both morally suspect and subordinate to official forms of “work.” The model Vietnamese woman should engage in buon ban only as a necessary economic stopgap, as a transitional or supplemental form of household maintenance, rather than as a means of personal advancement or societal contribution. This cultural view has prevented urban merchants from receiving the analytical or political attention given to ‘legitimate’ categories of female employment in the process of eco nomic reform. Feminist intellectuals in Vietnam significantly exclude the category of private retail dealers from their discussions of gender inequities in the new economy. While they cite statistics showing that a growing percentage of urban women are engaged in private commerce, they limit their investigations of Vietnamese women’s socioeconomic and cultural status to the clearly victimized or clearly


‘progressive’ classes, such as exploited wage laborers, overburdened agricultural workers, homeless women, or pioneering female intellectuals.1 The political invisibility of the middle-class seller makes all the more alarming her conspicuous use in the media as a marker of national moral decline. In this final chapter, I examine the ways in which a group of women merchants in central Hanoi contended with the legacies of Confucian and socialist attitudes toward private trade, as they strove to prosper in the economy of the mid-1990s. I consider how women shopkeepers and market stall owners in Hoan Kiem mediated between the dominant cultural meanings of buon ban (as informal “women’s work” or, alternatively, as a morally suspect expression of feminine desire), on the one hand, and the daily realities of domestic maintenance and market competition, on the other. Despite popular stereotypes of “businesswomen in the center,” Hoan Kiem’s female traders formed a population as internally varied and contradictory as the city itself. They included former factory workers, management cadre, state sellers, overseas ‘guest workers,’ students, teachers, intellectuals, crafts people, and lonely retirees. Together, they made up part of a loose and shifting middle-class that has emerged out of the still unsettled convergence between the bureaucratically hierarchical state sector and the more fluid consumer economy. Through access to the necessary economic capital and commercial space, Hoan Kiem’s merchants escaped the ghettoized status of Phuong Lien’s disenfranchised “workers.” Yet their marginal economic advantage has carried a high cultural price; as urban sellers they have had to contend with society’s negative assumptions about their moral character as well as with an unsympathetic government that views their ‘illegitimate’ work as a key source of tax revenue. As in Phuong Lien, generational factors shaped the ways in which women in Hoan Kiem applied the codes of national tradition and progress to their personal lives. While older buon ban women (those between their late fifties and early seventies) distanced themselves from the derogatory images of the middleclass female trader by emphasizing their obedience to Confucian norms of feminine smallness and domesticity, younger merchants (those in their thirties and forties) struggled to reconcile their increased economic responsibility under doi moi with the pervasive cultural constraints on their decision making power and independence. This ‘transition’ generation of socialist-educated women could neither wholly embrace the self-denying ethics of their elders nor identify with the “Westernized” ways of the younger, post-war generation. Caught between the rules of feminine tradition and the new possibilities of the market, these merchant wives and mothers had few avenues through which to express their sense of domestic entrapment and spiritual discontent. They sought solace and relief within the confines of a clearly circumscribed moral community—


that is, in the jocular camaraderie, subversive performance and everyday rituals of the marketplace. HO AN KIEM AND THE NEW MERCHANT CLASS Hoan Kiem district serves as both the cultural center and commercial hub of Hanoi. The 4.5 square kilometer area contains many of the landmarks and institutions most closely associated with the city’s and the nation’s traditions: most notably, Hoan Kiem lake—in which, legend holds, the 15th century emperor, Le Loi, restored his sword after defeating the Chinese— and the imposing colonial era Opera House where the Viet Minh announced their initial seizure of Hanoi in August 1945. Numerous temples dedicated to the cults of ancient spirits and national heroes also stand in the city’s historic center. Just south of the lake, the former French Quarter retains the architectural legacy of colonial villas, shops and administrative buildings, which after 1954 were transformed into multi-family residences and state offices. To the north of the lake, the Old Quarter preserves many of the original street names that identified the city’s traditional handicraft trades—such as, “screen making street” (Hang Manh), “fan making street” (Hang Quat), “leather tanning street” (Hang Da) and “red dye street” (Hang Dao). This maze of winding, densely populated avenues formed the city’s ancient commercial district, which at the time of colonization included a “Cantonese” area of more affluent shops and residences and a larger “Annamese” section of tightly packed artisans’ stalls and thatched roofed huts. The French modernized many of the buildings and roads in this native business area and replaced the city’s open-air market days with a number of covered markets.2 Today, Hoan Kiem district contains six marketplaces, the largest of which—cho Dong Xuan—serves as a trading center for the whole country. When the Viet Minh successfully “liberated” Hanoi in 1954, the city center was already in economic and social turmoil. News of an imminent French defeat had led many propertied Vietnamese bourgeoisie, colonial “collaborators” and wealthy Chinese merchants to flee to the South. Max Clos, a French observer writing for Le Monde in the months following the Viet Minh victory, described a state of panic among the city’s remaining small business people. Hundreds of small businessmen find themselves ruined. Three-quarters of the shops in Hanoi are shut; others have been turned into popular restaurants. Shops and stores are trying desperately to dispose of their stocks. Tinned goods, liquor, shoes and cloth have all become luxury goods that few can buy. Prices of foodstuffs have soared…. (9). With the threat of closure to their businesses many traders have tried to reach Haiphong in an effort to leave Northern Vietnam. If they fail to


do so they are threatened with “voluntary” enrollment for work on dam building or railway repairs…(11).3 Official Vietnamese sources paint a contrastingly congenial image of the transition. The remaining population of so-called “medium” and “small bourgeoisie” were invited, following reeducation, to participate in the Capital’s “new economy and culture.” Some of these businesspeople were from longstanding mercantile families, while others were the recent inheritors of enterprises that had been abandoned by owners who had fled south. 50% of this remaining “bourgeois” population was female, and the majority of these women were involved in commerce.4 According to the Hanoi Women’s Union’s official account of this period, “many [women from business households] were initially worried. Because of the enemy’s distorting propaganda and the flight of the ‘large bourgeoisie,’ they did not yet understand how the government’s policy would develop….” The Women’s Union and the Fatherland Front set up “retraining sessions” to help women see that “they would only find equality and happiness under the socialist system.”5 Business owners who wished to retain their enterprises were required to submit their inventory for state inspection and then to form a joint state-private factory (cong tu hop doanh) in which the new state managers would assign all work responsibilities. The Women’s Union account glosses over any conflicts in this “restructuring” process: Through three years of restructuring, more than 1000 bourgeois women were trained and the majority of them received the government policy well and mobilized their husbands and children to follow…. More than 500 bourgeois women participated in the labor and official business of the “jointly operated” factories. One woman was a director of a factory. Those women who were allotted work positions worked actively and positively, and did not concern themselves with the heaviness of the work. They bore difficulties in order to study politics, to study the guidelines of government policy.6 The Women’s Union viewed ‘official’ work in state factories and cooperatives as essential to the advancement of women’s social position and to the Revolutionary goals of “gender equality.” Private selling—as an extension of a “backward” and “feudal” domestic realm—did not qualify as legitimate “work” in the new society. The successful recruitment of thousands of urban female sellers into government factories and offices was a crucial stage in the conversion of Hanoi into a capital of socialist “progress.” Yet, as we saw in chapter 1, private trade was never wholly eliminated in Hanoi during the socialist years. Instead, an illicit but highly complementary relationship emerged


between private sellers and the state distribution system, which reinforced the official image of buon ban women as morally corrupt. Particularly in the postwar subsidy era, collusion between state sellers, economic cadre and “black market” merchants (or “economic saboteurs”) ensured an urban class of middle and high-level bureaucrats privileged access to scarce commodities.7Hoan Kiem district’s high concentration of bureaucratic elites, state commercial offices, distribution centers and markets encouraged the growth of a non-official economic sector well before the liberalizing reforms of the late 1980s took effect. Illegal private trade, while widely resented by those citizens lacking the connections to benefit from it, was a fixture of Hoan Kiem’s socioeconomic landscape in the dark years preceding doi moi. Once the official stigma on private business was removed, ordinary women workers and cadres—long witness to, but excluded from, the benefits of free trade— entered the market in droves. With the onset of doi moi, Hoan Kiem quickly emerged as the center of the city’s new commercial growth. Foreign investment offices moved in, vying for the chance to transform decrepit state buildings into expensive tourist hotels. Private shops sprang up on nearly every block, as residents converted portions of living space into retail enterprises. After years of war damage and economic neglect, the district’s markets were rebuilt and expanded to accommodate an exploding population of small merchants. Many of these were women with no previous selling experience—‘early retired’ teachers, factory workers or cooperative managers—who had acquired the needed capital (anywhere from $300 to $1000 U.S.) to open a market stall. Often, the start-up money came from a relative who’d spent time as a guest worker or student in Czechoslovakia, East Germany or the former Soviet Union.8 Other sources of funds were retirement pensions or loans from friends who’d already begun selling. Some new merchants were former state sellers, whose previous position of economic privilege had afforded them the resources to enter the newly competitive marketplace. Their prior selling experience was not always a clear occupational advantage, however, since they, more than anyone, had to unlearn the laws and assumptions of the subsidy system in order to adapt to a market economy in which “the customer is God.” In the Old Quarter, long dormant artisan shops, which after 1954 had either been closed or forced to operate in a restrictive state “partnership,” reemerged. Some were now run by elderly women—former embroiders, silk weavers, silversmiths, shoemakers and handicraft sellers—who opened businesses on the site of their pre-Independence trades. Younger merchants along the old commercial streets often worked in their in-laws’ shops. After the reforms, these ‘transition’-generation women left positions as kindergarten teachers, factory workers or university students to take on new economic responsibilities in their husbands’ families. The desirability and scarcity of real estate in Hoan


Kiem’s commercial center has tended to discourage grown sons from establishing independent residences. In many of the Old Quarter’s multigenerational households, women’s transition into commercial activities has involved a return to pre-socialist forms of family dependence. BUON BAN WOMEN AND THE “CULTURAL STANDARD” Local administrators whom I spoke to in the mid-1990s, described Hoan Kiem as the nation’s “cultural standard” (dan tri)—a term that connotes an ideal balance of material prosperity and cultural tradition. The large numbers of civil servants and successful business owners living in the area contributed to the district’s high literacy levels and low school dropout rates. Women’s Union leaders cited Hoan Kiem women’s “advanced scientific knowledge of health and parenting” as the main reason for the district’s nearly universal compliance with family planning policy and low mother-child mortality rate.9 Not surprisingly, Hoan Kiem district placed first in the finals of the 1994 Happy Family competition. The winning couple were not part of the growing business class but rather state employees—a school administrator and a teacher. The government has promoted Hoan Kiem’s rapid commercial development despite its persistent distrust of private traders. Merchants have occupied an ambiguous place in the Women’s Union’s representations of the district’s economic and cultural progress. While buon ban women provide an important source of tax revenues, they remaine largely outside the fold of official culture; they practice family planning and invest in their children’s education, yet rarely take part in Women’s Union clubs or official events. The Women’s Union installs representatives in all of the district’s markets in order to insure that the necessary propaganda reaches women sellers. These Union cadres work with market administrators to see that all merchants are legally registered and that they pay their taxes and stall fees on time. Periodic announcements over the market loudspeakers further stress the importance of market hygiene, of avoiding fire hazards by burning incense or ritual paper, and of treating customers “in a civilized and polite way.” As I began my research among buon ban women in Hoan Kiem, I met with bureaucratic obstacles only slightly less daunting than those I encountered in Phuong Lien. The local Women’s Union leaders were pleased that I had chosen their district to study, since they had many achievements to celebrate. Yet, they were extremely cautious arranging interviews for me. A 1994 fire in Dong Xuan market set off protests from merchants who believed the state should have compensated them for their losses. Union officials wanted to be sure that I didn’t “waste time” talking to any of these “mixed up” (lung tung) sellers. They


also wanted to confine my interviews to “educated” merchants who “clearly understood the law”—that is, the tax codes, stall fees, and appropriate standards of behavior. They worried that some buon ban women might not be able “to speak clearly about Vietnamese culture.” Such individuals, they said, were “only interested in profit”; they were often “untruthful” and did not “keep up the tradition of Vietnamese women.” Implicit in this characterization was an assertion of the proper place of feminine business practice in relation to the Vietnamese woman’s primary domestic identity. As the Hoan Kiem Women’s Union President put it: We try to impart to buon ban women that they are first wives and mothers, and then businesswomen. The majority of women understand this. But the few that don’t, we must try to teach, not only through Union activities, but also through the newspapers and magazines. As in Phuong Lien, the local Women Union President insisted on choosing the women I would interview and required that at least one Union cadre and one market official attend the sessions. For “convenience,” interviews were conducted in an official space—either in a given market’s administrative office or the local People’s Committee meeting room. Predictably, all of the selected respondents clearly articulated the official rules defining the relationship between Vietnamese femininity and the market. Yet, the ways in which individual women integrated these ethical tenets into their personal narratives varied significantly by age, and, to a lesser extent, by social and family background. Interview subjects over fifty-five consistently embraced those cultural principles that minimized the status of female trade in both the family and society. Many of these women had turned to the market in order to augment meager retirement pensions or to find social diversion in their old age. Others had resurrected preIndependence family enterprises in the Old Quarter. Regardless of their degree of business success, they emphasized the small and supplemental nature of their economic contributions. In contrast, ‘transition’ age merchants (those in their thirties and forties) struggled to reconcile contradictory strains of feminine prescription. Their personal stories revealed the tensions between patriarchal family traditions, socialist ideals of “progress” and the daily pressures of sustaining middle-class households with school-age children. They presented the virtues of domestic selflessness, endurance and hard work, not as unquestioned aspects of national feminine character, but rather as personal constraints, limiting their attainment of family happiness.


“AUTHENTIC MERCHANTS” VS. “PROFIT-SEEKERS” The resurgence of buon ban as the predominant female occupation in Hoan Kiem has given rise, in the wake of market reforms, to a complex web of normative categories through which female merchants seek to differentiate themselves from each other and to articulate their relationship to the contradictory codes of Vietnamese womanhood. As questions of female agency, independence and desire have become central to the construction of a post-socialist national identity, women themselves have become participants in and producers of new distinctions within the retail trade. The tensions in merchant women’s practices of self-representation highlighted the increasingly contested place of female business activities both within the structure of the patriarchal family and within the moral and social landscape of the new market era. Many of the older buon ban women I interviewed—those between their late fifties and early seventies—reinforced the notion of women’s selling activities as less significant than official, inherently masculine, forms of work. Retired state cadres as well as Old Quarter shop owners sought to minimize the economic importance of their business efforts by emphasizing their primary roles as caring grandmothers, supportive mothers-in-law, devoted wives and accomodating household mediators. They drew on both Confucian traditions and socialist principles to invoke the inherent triviality of feminine buon ban practices. By presenting their trading activities as a natural extension of their domestic responsibilities, they distanced themselves from the money-driven culture of the market economy. A 60-year-old dried goods seller from Dong Xuan market, for instance, explained in an interview that she had been the main earner in her family since her husband, a former river boat operator, retired ten years ago. Born into a family of small sellers in Ninh Binh province just south of Hanoi, she worked in a state department store following Independence. When her health declined, she received official “permission” to sell privately in Dong Xuan market and she continued to do so throughout the reform period. She opens her market stall at 5:30 each morning and returns home at 6:30 in the evening. She explained that her earnings had afforded her family a Honda motorbike and a small color television. Yet, while she described her life and her marriage as “easier” and “less feudal” than her mother’s had been, she maintained that the key to “family happiness” lay in “respecting” and “enduring” her husband, especially when he became “hot-tempered” (nong nay). She insisted that a woman’s business success should not alter her subordinate family position. She quoted a line from a traditional Vietnamese folk song to emphasize her point: “Even though you trade from East to West, this is not equal to the breath your husband breathes out.”10


In a similar vein, a fabric seller in Dong Xuon market, who formerly worked in a textile factory, characterized selling as a necessary dimension of a woman’s domestic responsibilities. This 58-year-old merchant, who supported a retired husband and two unmarried daughters on her market earnings, explained that she had been “educated by the Party” to overcome the “backward” and “feudal habits” of her rural parents. In her youth, she had attended a “common people’s” complementary school, married a fellow Youth union member, and practiced family planning to avoid the “miserable poverty” endured by her mother. Yet, she conveyed a more traditional gender coding in her references to the appropriate distribution of qualities and duties between a husband and wife. Although her market earnings provided the bulk of her family’s income and enabled her younger daughter to attend university, she described her commercial efforts as an aspect of household maintenance comparable to cooking, cleaning, and tending children. “I worry about the housework and take care of selling. Also I make sure we economize on our expenses. But my husband makes the important decisions about our family situation.” She regularly advised her older daughter, who had just entered the market, to be “dam dang”— to fulfill all of her responsibilities skillfully—because soon she will “have to look after her husband’s home.” “Husbands,” she continued, “must look after the big jobs, while wives take care of selling.”11 The conception of buon ban as a feminine domestic activity, subordinate and peripheral to formal categories of “work,” shaped the way older merchants’ viewed their younger competitors. Many respondents spoke admiringly and even enviously of a “progressive” younger generation of women who had managed to throw off the “feudal” constraints of the past. A 64-year-old toy merchant on the Old Quarter’s Hang Dao street, for instance, explained that she handled all of the household responsibilities—child care, shopping, cleaning and cooking—so that her daughter-inlaw, a teacher at a foreign language college, could “go to work without worry.” “Her life is happier and less strenuous than mine,” this grandmother maintained. “She can go to work in society without having to think about the housework when she gets home.” Older merchants also associated younger women’s more liberated lifestyle and attitudes—their “ability to think freely and to choose their own mates,” as one 71-year-old shop owner put it—with a more “intelligent” and “daring” approach to business. “In Hoan Kiem,” a 73-year-old shopkeeper on Hang Dao Street told me, nearly all women engage in selling. But many younger women, who have resources, both go to work and sell from home. Some even conduct large businesses from their homes. They have the means to move around [the city] quickly. They are more dynamic than my generation…because, we


did not have much schooling. We just had to follow what our parents told us and then what our husband’s parents told us… Yet older merchants frequently followed such praise of the younger generation with sharp criticism. Both retired cadres with small market stalls and successful elderly shop owners in the Old Quarter eschewed profit as a motive for trade. Regardless of their income level or business size, these older buon ban women stressed that they did not sell in order “to get rich” but only to “have enough to eat” or to “escape loneliness.” “Younger sellers are clever. They know how to keep up with the market, by following the new styles,” the 73-year-old Hang Dao street shopkeeper insisted. “But they often use tricks to get rich quickly. They buy cheap and sell expensive, without thinking about earning the trust of the customer.” Youthful business success, according to the older generation, often came at the expense of moral integrity. In her quest for wealth, the young and ambitious seller risked cutting herself off from the “tradition of the Vietnamese woman.” Absorbed by the profit motive, she began to neglect her children and look down on her husband. “A moral woman is not greedy,” a 71year-old clothing shop owner explained. She does not scramble after a sale. She always lives industriously and she never cheats her customers. In the past, [state] sellers took a lot of profit, but now one only needs 1% or 2%. This is very little, but you will always have customers. You will always have enough to live. In describing their business approach, the Revolutionary generation of merchants distanced themselves from the morally ambiguous space of the market by constructing a merchant identity seamlessly linked to national feminine traditions. They praised the younger generation’s “social progress,” but condemned their profit motive—that is, their commitment to business as an economic pursuit beyond the minimal requirements of domestic maintenance. Older sellers distinguished their commercial activities from new paths to wealth by invoking notions of cultural purity that, like the Phuong Lien “workers’” founding credo, defined them as nationally authentic. These ethical-cultural claims bore little relation to merchants’ particular personal histories. A 70-yearold dried goods seller in Hang Da market, for instance, who had formerly sold meat for the state (a notoriously profitable post), described her age cohort of merchants as “slower” and “purer” (thuan tuy) than younger women, who have a greater “passion” and “acumen” for business. “The older people, like me, just sell to have enough,” she said. “Even though we are retired, we still strive to contribute to our families, sacrifice for our husbands, our children and now our grandchildren. We don’t think about getting rich…” Similarly, a 61-year-old


clothing merchant from a family of Resistance fighters, who had married into an Old Quarter business family, differentiated between small shopkeepers like herself and the “daring youth” and “countryside people” who became sudden “millionaires” through property sales or other ‘impure’ means. “Here on Hang Dao Street, we just maintain authentic forms of trade,” she explained. “Genuine buon ban does not make you rich but only requires hard work, industriousness and sacrifice, as has been the case in my family.” The Revolutionary generation of Hoan Kiem merchants provided the Women’s Union with a culturally reliable group of buon ban women to represent the district’s harmonious blending of traditional values and commercial progress. Younger sellers were more difficult to recruit for interviews, I was told, because they were “too busy” to leave their shops or market stalls. It also became clear that younger merchants presented a less predictable and homogenous body of informants. Women between 30 and 50 years of age made up just under half of the 52 merchants that the Women’s Union selected for interviews. I was later able to supplement these numbers through informal research in Hang Da market. In contrast to the older merchants, women in the ‘transition’ generation did not consistently proclaim the insignificance of their business activities in relation to official categories of “work” or to the structures of family authority. Instead, they struggled to balance the terms of marital, maternal and filial duty with the increased burden they experienced as primary breadwinners. While they did not reject the national patriarchal values of feminine endurance, sacrifice, and hard work, they invoked them in different ways and in different contexts to accommodate the frustrated expectations and competing demands of their lives. The cultural definition of buon ban as a form of feminine domestic service surfaced as a contested element rather than a fixed credo in their efforts to define their identity as merchants. STORIES OF TRANSITION: THE DAUGHTER-IN-LAW AND THE DIVORCÉE In formal interviews, women merchants in their thirties and forties expressed a keen awareness of the disciplinary norms circumscribing the ‘good’ Vietnamese woman’s relationship to the market. They claimed to be avid readers of the women’s papers, which they said helped them “better understand” their roles as mothers, wives and daughters-in-law. Some women said the newspapers helped them “correct” certain “feudal” habits that they retained despite their years of socialist schooling. Others welcomed advice on how to “avoid the mistakes” of a new generation of money-driven youth who “misunderstood equality” and neglected the “moral virtues of the Vietnamese woman.” Conscious of official censors, the ‘transition’ generation sellers sought to navigate a proper course


between feminine “tradition” and national “progress” and to downplay any conflict between the supposedly coextensive demands of the household and the market. Yet, these former teachers and socialist workers unavoidably revealed the tensions between economic responsibility and domestic constraint that have dominated their movement into buon ban. The narratives of two merchant women in their forties bore out the contradictory terms of the transition from the public realm of socialist “work” into the private retail economy. The first woman, a former industrial port worker, and the second, a former university teacher, presented distinct accounts of the personal costs and gains of their new lives in the market. Their stories challenged the normative definition of female business practice as either an appropriate extension of an industrious housewife’s responsibilities or, alternatively, as a culturally destructive expression of feminine greed and ambition. Hanh, a 44-year-old lacquer merchant on Hang Hom Street in the Old Quarter, was born into a family of handicraft workers.12 She left school after the eighth grade because of the wartime bombings, and stayed home to care for her siblings in the rural evacuation area. After the war, she became a worker on one of the wharves of Hanoi’s Red River port. She met her husband on the work site and, after marrying, moved into his parent’s small house in the Old Quarter. Hanh described the early years of her marriage as “strenuous” but “happy.” Back then, the economy was very bad. Our conditions were poor. No one had meat. But, we were lucky that my husband’s parents could watch our children while we were at work. Generally speaking, we were happy. My husband comes from an intellectual family. Though he is only a worker, his manner is subtle and kind. He treats his wife as an equal. When we were workers together [in the port], we shared many difficulties, so we really understood each other. When the reforms began, Hanh ‘retired’ from her state job. Her father-in-law requested that she “return home” to take charge of a lacquer shop that he had opened on the first floor of the family house. Her husband’s two sisters, who also lived at home, were not expected to take up buon ban because, according to Hanh, they had studied at university and [now] held “intellectual jobs”; one worked as a teacher and the other as an engineer. Hanh explained: “A daughterin-law always must sacrifice first, so I returned home to look after the store.” She added: “I had just had my third child, so it was convenient for me to be at home.” Hanh succeeded in establishing the family shop as a retail agent for a number of state lacquer companies. Over time, she built up a steady clientele. “I kept the trust of my customers by always speaking truthfully about which


factories my products came from,” she explained. With her sisters-in-law earning only small state salaries and her husband eventually out of work, Hanh became the primary household earner. The family’s economic conditions improved significantly. They were able to purchase two Honda motorbikes and pay for three of the grandchildren to attend college. Hanh portrayed her movement into the family business as a ‘natural’ consequence of her filial and marital roles. Yet, she could not wholly conceal the emotional strain brought on by her changed domestic circumstances. Her new status as the main earner in her in-laws’ household had increased the constraints on her personal behavior and altered the quality of her marriage. She spoke tactfully about the need to sublimate her economic know-how to the patriarchal requirements of the family order. Today, I am the main earner in the family, but I must always be sure to respect my husband’s father and mother and his sisters. They are cultured, intellectual people, and it is not good if I appear better than or above them. Besides, it is because of my husband’s father that we have this shop…. Although my husband doesn’t know much about business, I must be sure to consult with him about important [business] decisions. It is not good if I appear wiser (khon ngoan hon) than he is. If I want my husband’s parents and sisters to love me, I must never act in a bullying way. I must remember that I am first a daughter-in-law… While her family’s material conditions had greatly improved, Hanh indicated that life with her in-laws was not as “relaxed” (thoai mai) as it had been in the past, when she and her husband and his brothers and sisters “all went to work.” She no longer had time to “meet friends,” to visit her own mother and father, or to “go out for pleasure” with her husband and children. The demands of the family business kept her home all day. In the evenings she took care of most of the housework and cooking, because her mother-in-law had grown “too weak” and her sisters-in-law “often worked late.” She spoke modestly, but candidly, of her frustration. …My husband and I must be grateful for his parents, because they have given us help with the children and now they provide the space for our business. But, for me, nothing is perfect. To live in my husband’s family’s house, I lose freedom. If I want to invite my mother or my friends to have dinner, I am not free to do this. Sometimes, I think I would like to have a house independently with my husband. But he is the oldest son, so we must take responsibility for the family. I must sacrifice to create a stable life for my husband’s parents and also for my children…


In recounting her transition from worker to merchant, Hanh shifted from the language of gender progress—exemplified by the values of marital “equality” and “harmony”—to the terms of traditional feminine obligation. Her transition into the retail trade entailed a “return home,” a process of re-domestication that defined her primary role as that of daughter-in-law. Significantly, she referred to this initial movement as a “sacrifice.” While her business efforts had increased the family’s income, Hanh’s choice of words implied that she had given something up. She upheld the definition of buon ban as a proper extension of her filial household duty; yet her tone of resignation revealed her nostalgia for the marital camaraderie and independence of her “worker” days. Her efforts to reconcile her business responsibilities with the appropriately subordinate status of the ‘good’ daughter-in-law had incurred a steep toll: a loss of personal autonomy and identity outside her husband’s family. For women in the ‘transition’ generation, the movement into private trade has required a variety of sacrifices that are hard to quantify in the shadow of the market’s new comforts and freedoms. In Hanh’s case, the social divide between herself—a semi-educated worker—and her “intellectual” in-laws was exacerbated after she took charge of the family store. The parity she shared with her husband and his siblings in the socialist setting of “work” dissolved when she emerged as the ‘natural’ candidate to fulfill the domestic obligations to the family business. For a 46-year-old fabric seller in Dong Xuan market, whom I shall call Nguyet, the path to private selling was, in contrast, not a reflection of increased family demands, but rather a result of family dissolution. Nguyet had formerly worked as a foreign language teacher at Hanoi’s Pedagogical University. A self-proclaimed “intellectual,” she had had aspirations to become a full professor. When she was 40, she received a scholarship to study in Russia. Her husband, however, objected. “He did not want me to advance myself,” she explained. “He believed that only a husband, not a wife, should go abroad.” The couple eventually divorced. Nguyet turned to the market as the only way to support herself and her two college-age sons. Introducing herself in the interview, she declared: “I am different from the other women here, because I have lost my family happiness.” Nguyet described her entry into the market as a painful social descent. She had to borrow money from a friend in order to get started. Because she had no business experience and no family members to guide her, she learned the rules of buon ban slowly on her own. She felt out-of-place in the market setting and was unwilling to associate with fellow sellers. “Because I am an intellectual, I was ashamed at first to sell here. Most of my friends work in the university or in state institutes. I have no friends at the market. I must rely on myself….” Nguyet’s sense of isolation and lost status was compounded by the incessant stress of fabric selling. Relative to lacquer merchants in the Old Quarter, fabric sellers in Hoan


Kiem’s major markets face fierce competition under the liberalized economy. The new flow of imports from China and Japan (after decades of tight rationing of Vietnamese-made cloth) and the growing consumer desire for cosmopolitan styles have drawn hundreds of Hanoi women into the fabric business. With no government controls on the quality or price of their goods, cloth merchants— locked side-by-side in long lines of market stalls—must rely on their “art of selling” to win customers and earn profit. “In this market,” Nguyet declared— avoiding the usual discourse on the importance of honesty and trustworthiness —”it is very difficult to do business if you are too truthful.” Faced with constant worry about the repayment of her debts (compounded by the 1994 Dong Xuan market fire) and the future of her two sons, Nguyet experienced the doi moi era as “the most difficult time in my life.” Yet, she also identified a new “peacefulness” (su thanh than) in her life. To the apparent surprise of the Women’s Union and market officials who attended the interview, she expressed relief over the break-up of her marriage. Now my days are very difficult, because I must always worry about building a stable life for my children. But, on the other side, my spiritual life is extremely relaxed, because I am alone. There is no longer anyone who can obstruct me from doing what I want to do. Nguyet’s new sense of freedom was reflected in her appearance. She had cast off the modest dress of an “intellectual” cadre for a provocatively “Western” style, popular among newly-moneyed urban women. Her voluminous hair, heavy make-up, tight black leggings and red sequined blouse stood out in the market’s somber meeting hall. In her words and attire, Nguyet conveyed a sense of autonomy from both the patriarchal constraints of family and the moral dictates of official culture. Unhinged from both the supports and the demands of a husband and in-laws, Nguyet pursued business as a path to a new life for herself and her children. Her efforts had incurred personal losses as well as gains. Forced by circumstances to give up her ‘progressive’ status in official society and enter the culturally low-brow world of buon ban—or, as she disdainfully termed it, “the work reserved for women”—Nguyet had nevertheless found greater independence along with increased financial burden. Her sacrifice for her children did not exclude the possibility of personal fulfillment. “In the past,” she concluded, “I had a stable life, but I always had to follow the authority and interests (quyen lot) of others. Now I can follow my own interests. I decide things for myself.” Hanh and Nguyet’s distinct stories conveyed the contradictory nature of the merchant woman’s journey from “work” to business, from socialist “progress” to family obligation, and from security and predictability to uncertainty and


possibility. While official and popular media have continued to confine women’s business practices to the alternative categories of domestic obligation or dangerous feminine greed, the personal accounts of transition-age women portrayed the market as both a constraining and a potentially liberating space in which sacrifice and desire converged. As my interview respondents struggled to link their personal experience to the dominant cultural meanings of buon ban, they signaled their deeply ambivalent relationship to a model of femininity that has failed to account for the pressures, disappointments and thwarted aspirations of their lives. This normative lack of fit emerged more dramatically in the less censored venue of Hang Da market, where I spent many afternoons in late 1995 and early 1996. Here, a group of fabric merchants played out their frustrations with family and state demands by critiquing and reinterpreting the tenets of feminine virtue for a foreign audience. They took advantage of my presence as a cultural outsider to reflect on and contest the gendered terms of national identity, which simultaneously demanded and devalued their economic contributions, while restricting their expressions of agency and desire. Through complaint, humor and subversive fantasy these market sellers sought relief from the inescapable bind of modern Vietnamese womanhood. CONTESTING NATIONAL FEMININITIES IN HANG DA MARKET Hang Da is one of the smaller of Hoan Kiem’s major marketplaces, though it has a large fabric section on the second floor. In 1995 and 1996, the majority of the fabric sellers were beteween 30 and 50 years-old and came from a wide crosssection of social backgrounds. They included former factory workers, state sellers, college students, teachers, and Youth Union activists. Some had been “guest workers” in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Many of the sellers’ husbands were unemployed state workers or underemployed civil servants; some husbands ran small business enterprises (such as auto parts and repair shops) in other parts of the city, while others assisted their wives by transporting fabric from the wholesaler to the market stall. A number of women had husbands who had remained illegally in East Germany or Russia, after the collapse of communism, and were now assumed to have found new wives or girlfriends. As a group, the fabric sellers presented a heterogeneous picture of urban middle class women. Nearly all of them drove mopeds to work, enjoyed modern appliances in their homes and hoped to send their children to university. Yet their appearance reflected their diverse transition stories. Many wore the flamboyantly “Western” styles associated with time spent in East Germany or Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s: tight-fitting jeans, shimmering blouses, spiky


heels and permed hair. Others retained the ascetic look of the War and subsidy years, favoring drab colored trousers, straight, pulled-back hair, and no makeup. A few of the youngest sellers had adopted the cosmopolitan styles of Hanoi’s fashionable and affluent youth, which included platform sandals, low-slung jeans and bobbed hair. The everyday stresses of the marketplace, however, had a leveling effect on class and social differences. Crowded side-by-side in tight market stalls, the sellers tempered the climate of economic competition with a sense of shared struggle against the weight of their responsibilities. They passed the long, often tedious hours of the business day discussing the details of their common predicaments: the news of a tax hike, the inflated costs of consumer products, their children’s misbehavior, or rumors of a fellow merchant’s unfaithful husband. During my visits, these commonplace conversations could take on an explosive tone, as women sought to give shape to their collective frustrations through the medium of cultural comparison. They utilized the contradictory codes of feminine tradition and national progress as tools for refuting and reworking the terms of merchant identity. ON TAX COLLECTORS AND HUSBANDS The Women’s Union had selected only one of Hang Da’s fabric sellers to be formally interviewed. 34-year-old Thuy was a former guest worker in the Czech Republic and the daughter of civil servants. When I met Thuy again on my own, she was quick to enlighten me about the Hang Da sellers’ attitude toward their official overseers. “The Women’s Union, they have nothing for us,” she said. “No one here wants to participate in their activities, because they are just political. They only want to make sure we pay our dues.” For Thuy and her colleagues, the ‘freedoms’ of private selling have brought new forms of exploitation, within both the family and the public realm of the state. While rich business owners have been able to avoid paying taxes in Vietnam, by concealing their profits or paying off corrupt official middlemen, market stall owners have been trapped, by their high visibility and limited resources, into paying a disproportionate share of their income to the chronically bankrupt state. In 1995 and 1996, the Hang Da fabric sellers estimated that they earned an average of 1,000,000 dong a month (or approximately $100). This figure reflected a rough averaging out of “good selling” (ban chay) months, when a seller might earn as much as $250, and “left on the shelf” (e hang) months, when she might earn less than $20. Monthly taxes on fabric sellers in early 1996 were 400,000 VN dong (or about $40); they were collected by market officials, regardless of a merchant’s earnings. The tax burden was a steady theme in the Hang Da sellers’ efforts to identity themselves as victims rather than ambitious profit-seekers. They viewed the


state’s tax policies as evidence of official prejudice against buon ban women— that is, as the unjust singling out of a conveniently accessible and powerless group. In order to challenge the government’s mischaracterization of them as prosperous merchants, they invoked the traditional notions of female trade as inconsequential “women’s work.” They appealed to “feudal” definitions of buon ban as domestic duty in an effort to assert their status as sacrificing mothers and wives against the corrupt and more prosperous segments of society. “The government thinks that because we do business, we are getting rich,” Thuy remarked, during a typical outpouring of frustration over taxes. “But in fact we are quite poor. We only earn enough to feed our families…and many months we must go into debt in order to pay our taxes and stall fees.” A fellow fabric merchant in her early forties grew increasingly adamant as she explained: The truly rich people are too smart to pay taxes! So, the state depends on us. But, we are only small sellers. We don’t come here to get rich. We have a responsibility to provide for our children, to support our husbands and to care for our elderly parents. We must worry all the time about the family economy (kinh te gia dinh)…. But [the government] is not interested in our situation. By declaring their simplicity and powerlessness in the face of government exploitation, the fabric sellers also sought to reconnect to an earlier and more morally secure identity as “workers.” Binh, a 38-year-old former textile worker, addressed the state’s tax policies as an extension of milder forms of official abuse that had prevailed during the subsidy period. She vividly recalled her patriotic years as a Youth Union activist when, as part of a factory arts troupe, she had parodied the evil ways of state sellers, never imagining that one day she would become a seller herself. Her Youth Union activities had ended abruptly, however, after she presented workers’ grievances to the factory management. “They did not want people to speak the truth,” she explained. Her superiors charged her with violating the factory dress code as an excuse for expelling her from the Union. Binh had carried her ire against the authorities into the market. Twice, between 1995 and 1996, she complained to Hang Da officials about sudden tax hikes, only to be told each time that “the government had made its resolution.” Binh continued to dress in the ascetic style of the socialist years; she wore simple drab colored trousers and kept her hair pulled back off her unadorned face. She portrayed the merchant’s plight as that of a defenseless worker, stripped of all public protections. These cadres are becoming very rich while people like us are still quite poor. In the past there was at least some security for us. There were laws


to defend workers’ interests. But today the people in charge are only interested in money for their own pockets, and we have no guarantees. We must pay what they demand, even when our goods are left on the shelf. The Hang Da sellers protested the state’s excessive demands by attempting to distance themselves from the forces of economic ambition and self-interest that have driven the market economy. They refuted the government’s treatment of them as successful capitalists (and thus as a legitimate target of taxation), asserting an alternative, culturally unassailable class and gender status. They were ‘just mothers and wives’ trying to fulfill their domestic obligations; and they were merely ‘common people’ (nguoi binh dan) struggling against the corrupt ranks of cadre “million-aires” (nha can bo ty phu). They affirmed their compliance with the codes of national femininity by belittling their economic role and emphasizing their position as selfless victims against the skepticism of the official authorities. Yet, when discussing domestic relations—and particularly the prescribed roles of husbands and wives—the sellers employed the terms of feminine tradition and national morality quite differently. They contested the patriarchal conditions of the household by describing their obligatory service to the family, not as a mark of their lack of economic ambition, but rather as a form of personal constraint. They explained their role as primary breadwinner both as a reflection of an inherent feminine strength and as a source of domestic exploitation. On my visits to Hang Da market, I frequently heard the refrain: “In Vietnam, it is different than in the West. Here the women must earn the money, because men have no talent this way.” In such statements, the fabric sellers invoked ideas about gender and self-control similar to those identified by Suzanne Brenner (1995) among female merchants in Solo, Java. Solonese people, Brenner explains, view the market as “a woman’s world” because Javanese men are seen to “lack the self-discipline needed to bring money home at the end of the day instead of squandering it.”13 In Hang Da, statements about women’s superior capacity for economic self-control served both to affirm nationalist assumptions about the Vietnamese woman’s character and to set the stage for protesting those assumptions. “Even when Vietnamese men do earn a lot of money,” Ha— a 39-year-old seller, whose unemployed husband had recently returned from Germany— explained, “they waste the money on beer and cigarettes and on ‘going out’(di choi). Women know how to save, because we know how to ‘live for our husbands and children’”. Mention of newspaper stories depicting women who had succumbed to “money fever” and destroyed their families often sparked diatribes on the Vietnamese man’s weakness in the face of money. The Hang Da sellers dismissed the media’s frequent coverage of “bad women” as


“exaggerations.” Most Vietnamese women, they insisted, “earn money and still respect their husbands and care for their children.” As a 42-year-old fabric seller named Khanh told me adamantly: “A bigger problem is that many husbands can not respect what a wife has done. They don’t appreciate the hard work she must do to earn money in the market every day. So, they just throw the money away.” Talk of the problems of husbands and money led the Hang Da merchants to abandon their affirmations of Vietnamese women’s sacrificing nature in favor of counter discourses of discontent and desire. The definition of women’s selling as a supplemental domestic task—an ideal the fabric sellers persistently invoked against the unjust claims of the tax collector—now became a source of bitter frustration and contestation. Khanh asked me eagerly one day: In America, is it true that a woman can have her own bank account? You are very lucky! In Vietnam, a husband and wife can have only one account, so the man can do what he wants and the wife must just bear it (phai chiu). Khanh was one of the few fabric sellers I knew whose husband had retained a state office job. Yet Khanh complained that his position was no more than a title; his nominal salary made little dent in their household expenses. He is a management cadre and I am just a seller, but his position only brings a small salary. I must sell all day and also take care of housework. But he can take the earnings I bring home and go out to eat in restaurants with his coworkers. Market selling’s cultural devaluation in relation to official (masculine) forms of work belied the domestic reality of the merchant woman’s predominant economic role in the family. Far from insignificant, Khanh asserted, the market seller’s earning power was a substantial strength, all too readily exploited by male demands. The Hang Da women expressed their longing for greater economic autonomy not only through the fantasy of an independent bank account, but also through jokes about divorce. As in Phuong Lien, women’s teasing declarations that one of their cohort had “bo chong” literally “thrown away her husband,” played on the tensions between the burdens and disappointments of married life, on the one hand, and the morally ambiguous status of the economically dominant wife, on the other. Phuong Lien’s climate of economic desperation and its ubiquitous “social evils” endowed women’s economic striving with a potentially illicit quality that put divorce a step away from prostitution. In Hang


Da market, by contrast, the humor in divorce jokes was at once less derogatory and darker. Javanese ideas about gender and self-control, Suzanne Brenner (1995) tells us, contribute to a seemingly contradictory belief that market women are better than men at controlling their physical wants and yet, at the same time, especially prone to sexual promiscuity. These notions are not in fact inconsistent, Brenner explains, because while the female trader is able to rein in her passions in order to accumulate profit, she is also especially adept at inciting the passions of others for her own personal gain. Javanese popular culture casts widows and divorcees, in particular, as potential seductresses; their lack of marital constraints makes their economic selfsufficiency doubly dangerous. In Vietnam, a proclivity for pragmatic promiscuity is not singularly associated with market women but rather with any Vietnamese woman who allows her economic ambitions to extend beyond the proper bounds of household maintenance. The Hang Da sellers used jokes about divorce to draw attention to one another’s marital frustrations and to transgress, safely, the codes that confined their economic efforts to the domain of domestic service and sacrifice. “Chi Ha left her husband!” Binh declared one day, singling out a 36-year-old fabric seller with a trendy bob, heavy make-up and a sad face. “She is dangerous! She likes to ‘go out’ with (di choi) that guy there!” Binh pointed to the brother of the stall owner across the way. “You see how she always dresses up when she comes to the market? That’s because she hopes she will meet him!” Ha never outwardly denied these allegations, though I learned later that her marriage of fifteen years had soured. Binh explained that Ha’s husband, a former soldier, “didn’t love Ha anymore,” that he often verbally abused her, and accused her of keeping money from him. When Binh knew him in his Youth Union days, he was “a good person”; but now, frustrated by unemployment, he had developed “a complex” (phuc cam) and was often drunk “He flies into a rage when he sees that she has purchased something for herself or her children” Binh explained. “Ha does not dare leave him, because she wants to protect her children.”14 Jokes about divorce were often directed toward women like Ha, whose marriages were known to be unhappy. The humor, I was told, was a way of releasing frustration. “We make jokes because we are very angry,” Khanh said, “because our lives are wretched, and there is nothing we can do about it.” Khanh and her friends noticeably excluded genuine divorcees from these teasing sessions. A divorced woman’s predicament—far from being humorous— provoked sympathetic whisperings, such as, “Her husband left her for a mistress,” “She lost her children to her husband’s parents,” and “No Vietnamese man wants her now.” For women trapped in unsatisfying marriages, playful accusations that they had ‘discarded’ their husbands acknowledged the persistence of unrealizable desires and opened up a momentary space in which


to imagine an alternative condition of autonomy and freedom. Those targeted for such teasing rarely protested their innocence; they simply redirected the charge toward another friend. ON AMERICAN MEN AND SAIGON HOUSEWIVES In protesting the inequalities of married life, the Hang Da sellers proclaimed their ‘natural’ economic talents and envisioned a more just domestic order in which they possessed greater economic independence and control. This desire for personal autonomy seemed to contradict a concurrently expressed longing for a life defined by financial reliance on men. As it turned out, these apparently opposing visions formed distinct but consistent elements in the Hang Da women’s response to the demands of national femininity. On many of my visits to the market, I was inundated with demands for introductions to eligible American men. The women delivered these appeals in tones of deadpan irreverence, which defied the wider culture’s condemnation of female “pragmatism.” “Chi Ly, can you find an American man for my daughter?” Khanh beseeched me. “He doesn’t need to be handsome, as long as he’s kind…and will take care of her in America. She is very pretty and intelligent. I am sure an American man would want her.” Khanh didn’t want her daughter to marry a Vietnamese man, she explained, because she wanted her to have “an easy life” in which she wouldn’t have to “sell in the market all day.” Khanh’s requests provoked similar entreaties from others. Ha, though otherwise withdrawn, declared. I want an old American man. Older men are better, because they don’t go looking for mistresses. I don’t care if he can no longer ‘play’ (choi). I could cook Vietnamese dishes for him. And he could take me traveling around the world. It would be very comfortable! The women made regular appeals on behalf of a 28-year-old divorcee named Hang. “No Vietnamese man wants her, even though she is still young and beautiful” Thuy insisted. “Perhaps you know an American man who would like her?” The image of American men as lavish providers and potential saviors of poor Third World women carries particularly negative connotations in the moral and ideological framework of Vietnamese nationalism. As in many non-Western countries, women seen dating Western men in Vietnam are often subject to informal public rebuke—to derogatory glances, slurs or outright accusations of prostitution. The influx of Western investors, aid workers, and prospectors (alongside larger numbers of Asian businessmen) in the wake of market


reforms, has inevitably rekindled official anxieties about the capitalist exploitation of Vietnamese women and the corruption of national femininity. The print media has used tragic tabloid tales to warn young women of the dangers of American suitors, who misrepresent their intentions and leave impressionable Vietnamese girls compromised and alone. The Hang Da sellers cynically dismissed these public messages as “irrelevant” to their personal lives. As Khanh explained: “The newspapers criticize women who marry American men, but that is only society’s view. I am an individual. These are two different things. In my family, we like the idea very much.” In announcing their desire for rich American husbands, the fabric sellers not only rejected the nationalist suspicion of exploitative Western men but, more importantly, challenged the disciplinary tenets at the center of Vietnamese womanhood. The fantasy of a leisured life of dependence on an elderly and generous American man defied the ‘all-capable, all-responsible’ ideal at the core of socialist and post-socialist models of national femininity. The “Three Responsibilities” (or Ba Dam Dang) campaign of the 1960s pressed women to realize their multiple strengths as producers, household caregivers and national defenders. When in the late 1970s and early 1980s, economic hardship strained women’s patriotic convictions, the official press condemned those women who sought to marry wealthy “playboys” instead of poor and honest soldiers; a truly virtuous, dam dang woman should welcome a life defined by selfless commitment to nation, society and family. In the 1990s, as we saw in chapter 2, the Women’s Union promoted the ‘all-capable, all-responsible’ feminine ideal in the form of the “civilized” middle-class housewife, who adeptly readies her family for the demands of national development, while protecting them against the market’s immoralities. Television, meanwhile, offered up a more human example of feminine industriousness, virtue and skill in the figure of Oshin—a Japanese icon who compellingly combines economic success with traditional “Asian values.” The Hang Da sellers could not avoid referring to Oshin in their subversive calls for a more comfortable life as the wife of an American man. As Thuy explained: We like the idea of an American husband, because we want to live more freely. We are very tired of always having to work and to worry about earning money and taking care of housework. Do you know why the papers always talk about the morality of women? Because we are supposed to be responsible for everything, always ‘ba dam dang’, like Oshin. But Oshin was a slave! When she was young and poor, she had to work in a rich man’s house and do everything that his wife told her. She wasn’t free at all…. We are also like slaves!


In refuting Oshin and the ba dam dang ideal, Thuy easily conflated feudal and socialist constraints in favor of a notion of freedom based on liberation from the double burden of work and household responsibility. She irreverently dismissed the “progressive” wartime model of the Three Responsibilities woman as akin to pre-Revolutionary forms of female exploitation. Rather than defining the virtues of self-sacrifice, endurance and hard work as signs of the market seller’s inherent strength, she extended the language of victimization and suffering to encompass the very terms of women’s supposed emancipation in the new society. Along these same lines, the Hang Da sellers spoke enviously of Saigon women, who they believed lived a “happier” and “easier” existence than women in Hanoi. “Saigon women are very different from us,” Binh explained. They are mostly housewives. They don’t have to work outside the home the way we do. Their husbands make a lot of money, and then it is the custom for the wives to stay home whenever possible. We have much harder lives here. We must come to work in the market every day, because we must support our husbands and children (phai nuoi con nuoi chong)… The idealized picture of the lifestyle of a Saigon housewife highlighted the historical contradictions plaguing contemporary models of Vietnamese femininity and expressed the complex reorientation of North-South gender values in the wake of market reforms. During the decades of socialist construction and civil war, North Vietnam’s communist leaders found in Saigon’s women useful symbols of the moral depravity of a neo-colonial, capitalist society. The Southern capital’s concentration of ‘absentee’ landowners, moneyed civil servants and prosperous businessmen contributed to a politically privileged upper class, whose women identified more with bourgeois French mores than with the national feminine traditions valorized by the Hanoi regime. In the city’s lower echelons, meanwhile, a chaotic mercantile culture, fueled by the American military presence, drew displaced women from the countryside into an illicit informal economy. The party relied on images of “exploited” prostitutes and “selfindulgent” bourgeois housewives to portray Saigon during the war years as a center of “backwardness,” and decadent evil. After Unification in 1975, Saigon women provided a focus for party pedagogy on the morally redemptive effects of collective work. The dismal failure of socialist economic policies in the South strongly contributed to the government’s decision to introduce market reforms in the late 1980s. Doi moi enabled Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon) to rejuvenate its once thriving commercial culture and to become the engine and the apex of


the country’s economic growth.15 In the post-subsidy economy, men in Saigon have moved more readily into entrepreneurial pursuits than have men in Hanoi, where the the legacy of anti-mercantile prejudice—both Confucian and socialist —remains strong. The South’s recent experience with capitalism has further encouraged middle class men to pursuc business rather than civil service as a path to success. Saigon’s middle class wives, meanwhile, have not experienced the same cultural and economic pressures to earn for their families that Hanoi’s women have faced. In the current era of household enrichment, the former ideological weaknesses of Saigon women have acquired a new cultural value. As popular desire for domestic prosperity has eclipsed the ideological/regional distinctions of the recent socialist past, the once denigrated qualities of a Southern bourgeois housewife have become the coveted signs of a ‘traditional’ femininity, specifically associated with the conditions of capitalist modernity. As a Vietnamese social scientist friend in Hanoi explained to me: In Saigon, the women are skilled housekeepers. Even younger women still know how to cook well, to keep their homes clean and to please their husbands. Because Saigon women were not deeply influenced by the Revolution, they maintained many aspects of traditional morality that were discouraged in the North by the party’s socialist policies. If you want to find an example of the traditional Vietnamese woman, you need to go to Saigon. The Hang Da sellers appealed to this ‘unheroic’ version of feminine tradition as a subtly subversive fantasy—a means of negating the ‘progressive’ national ideals that had enslaved them. Thuy—who, at 34, frequently lamented that constant financial worry was making her “old” and “ugly”—wished for the feminine preoccupations of a Saigon housewife. Saigon women are much happier than we are. They weren’t educated by the party the way we were. So they don’t have to work [both] in society and in the home…. They pay more attention to how they look. They wear beautiful clothes. They follow the modern fashions. And they always wear make-up, even when they sleep! They really know how to please their husbands. In expressing their envy of Saigon housewives, the fabric sellers depicted their continued subjection to the ba dam dang code as a bitter ruse in a peacetime era of growing prosperity. They irreverently invoked a model of middle-class femininity that was viewed as “backward,” “indulgent,” and “bourgeois” only a decade ago, but which now represented liberation from the multiple burdens of


national womanhood. As the goals of “development” have become synonymous with capitalism’s domestic comforts, Hanoi’s legacies of socialist “progress” and heroic feminine strength have served as painful markers of economic disadvantage and provinciality The Hang Da women used humor and fantasy to protest their confinement within the public and private rules of national feminine virtue. My presence provided them with a venue for reflecting on and imagining alternatives to the moral codes and economic demands that defined their predicament as merchants. Yet their expressions of desire and complaint— while intentionally rebellious—nevertheless contributed to an overarching narrative of victimization. Their animated discussions had a circular quality; anger and frustration gave rise to audacious outbursts of envy, longing and complaint, which in turn led back to reiterations of powerlessness and misfortune. The Hang Da women insistently presented themselves as women without options— a stance that served to distance them from the implications of their own desires by locating them in the hallowed national space of the disadvantaged and the exploited. Their characterization of the Saigon woman’s lifestyle and preoccupations served to reinforce their own moral identity as selfless and hardworking servants, rather than as aspiring agents. “We are much more miserable (kho hon nhieu) than Saigon women,” Binh concluded, at the end of a lengthy discussion. “We must do everything for others, never thinking of ourselves. We must come to the market to sell. And when our goods are ‘left on the shelf,’ we must simply endure.” ON PRAYING AND CHEATING This discourse of victimization did not, however, extend to all areas of the Hang Da merchants’ experience; it conspicuously excluded those ritual practices and beliefs through which women regularly strove to control the outcome of their business efforts. In rationalizing the practical uses of prayer, the Hang Da women embraced a normative code of the marketplace that was largely independent of and incompatible with the national precepts of feminine virtue. They engaged in “superstitious” activities as an indispensable strategy for survival and success in an unpredictable economy. In the interviews I conducted under the Women’s Union’s watch, Hoan Kiem merchants either denied visiting the pagoda or claimed to pray only on the days required by Buddhist custom—that is, the 1st and 15th of the lunar month. All of the interviewees rejected the practice of “praying for money.” Yet when I began making regular visits to Hang Da market, the fabric sellers soon abandoned this official line. Though they never initiated discussion of “superstitious” activities, they acknowledged their par ticipation in a myriad of


“market customs” aimed at increasing their business profits and alleviating the stress of their lives. Many days when I came to the market, the second floor suddenly became inundated with smoke from a small paper fire that a merchant had lit in front of her stall. The fabric sellers engaged in a practice referred to as “dot via” (literally “the burning of life principles”) as a means of “cleansing away” the energy of a “bad” or “incompatible” customer. A merchant would often decide to burn via if her first customer of the day failed to make a purchase. Since the first customer was believed to be a predictor of how the rest of the day would develop, a seller frequently needed to purge the via of that individual from her stall. A seller might also set a fire after a particularly lengthy haggling session that failed to result in a sale. In such cases, the customer’s via was seen to conflict with the seller’s via, polluting her stall and ruining her chances with subsequent shoppers. While the Hang Da women attributed success or failure in the market to a number of factors—the most important of which included “finding enough capital” and “keeping up with trends”—they also believed that “luck” (van may) played a critical role in their day-to-day fate. Controlling and directing the flow of “luck” was thus a central focus of their business day. The recent resurgence of spiritual practices throughout Vietnam has not signified a formal religious movement, but rather a selective revival of various cultural traditions that are rooted in a syncretic mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism and indigenous Vietnamese spirit beliefs. The Vietnamese anthropologist, Hy Van Luong (1993), attributes the recovery and transformation of pre-1945 village rituals in the northern countryside—such as “reciprocal feasting,” elaborate life cycle ceremonies,and the renovation of pagodas and communal houses—to both the population’s improved economic conditions and the growing importance of local kinship ties in the absence of agricultural cooperatives and other official subsistence guarantees. In urban areas like Hanoi, the new popularity of pagodas does not reflect a return to traditional communal institutions as much as a search, among largely disconnected individuals, for alternative sources of psychological security and spiritual solace in the wake of socialism’s demise.16 Many Hanoians, particularly those in their twenties, thirties and forties, choose pagodas based on convenience (to home or work) or on touristic appeal, rather than on traditional village or kin ties. The rise in pagoda worship in Hanoi can be seen as part of a more general rediscovery of a body of traditional popular beliefs— involving fortunetellers, spirit mediums and other religious experts—that deals with the interpretation, control and manipulation of an unseen spirit world.17 These revitalized customs have provided a morally ungrounded urban population with tools for contending with the vagaries of fate in the market economy.


The Hang Da sellers actively sought to acquire traditional spiritual knowledge for the sake of business success. During off-peak hours, they read books outlining the relationship between important lunar calendar dates and the worship of particular Vietnamese deities, saints and spirits. They attended pagodas regularly—not only on the 1st and 15th of the month when regular prayer sessions are held, but also whenever they felt the need to ward off bad luck. 34-year-old Thuy had become an expert on astrological knowledge. During the year of her “star,” Venus, she prayed more often and with particular fervor in order to avoid misfortune. Thuy explained that she had not been “superstitious” (me tin) in the past. As a student at the Pedagogical University and later as a guest worker in Czechoslovakia, she had “never thought about praying”; her parents were civil servants and “thus not interested in the pagoda.” “In those days,” she explained, “we weren’t superstitious because we didn’t need to worry so much about money.” Today, she explained, life is more uncertain. People go to the pagoda more often now because they have fewer assurances. Their lives are more uncertain than they were in the past, when everyone had a fixed salary. I am more superstitious today because I am always worrying about my business. If I go to the pagoda, I can feel more relaxed because my fate is out of my hands. Once I have prayed for help and good luck from the Buddha, that is all I can do. So my mind feels lighter. State workers go less often to the pagoda because they don’t have to worry about their incomes. But the higher up cadre (can bo cao cap), they are going often these days because they are guilty of corruption (tham nhung). They need to protect themselves. The logic of spiritual conversion in the doi moi era has paradoxically placed merchants in the same category as their perceived official exploiters. The Hang Da women were unabashed in admitting that, like the rich can bo (cadre), they too utilize prayer as a form of moral compensation. As Binh, the former Youth Union activist explained: “Buon ban people want to have good luck, so we pray for the success of our businesses. If we feel we have done something wrong, we must make up for it (phai den bu) by going to the pagoda.” Binh’s rationalization of her “superstitious” practices contradicted her earlier representation of herself as a crusader for “truth” against unjust factory managers and tax collectors. In adapting to her new identity as a merchant, she had come to accept the market seller’s routine dishonesty as an indispensable tool of the trade. “Here, you can not tell the truth if you want to make money,” she explained to me one afternoon. “If you were not my friend, chi Ly, I would sell you Chinese cloth and tell you that it was Japanese. That is the market custom in Vietnam.” I often


observed Binh and Thuy applying this rule. They would insist to a customer that a low-grade Chinese fabric was a high-quality Japanese import. If the customer bought it, they appeared relieved and remorseless; if the customer balked, they became irritable and sometimes even indignant. In either case, they had reason to go to the pagoda. Good fortune required spiritual absolution; bad luck necessitated more prayer. The Hang Da sellers’ acceptance of cheating as a market tradition belied the formal statements of interviewees who declared “honesty” and “trustworthiness” to be the essential traits of “authentic” buon ban women. I once overheard Binh shamelessly appeal to a customer’s knowledge of the “superstitious” customs of the market. “Today is the fifteenth of the month,” she said. “I want to get luck, so I would not cheat you.” While market women’s spiritual practices warrant consideration far deeper than this discussion has allowed, I have introduced the subject at the end of this final chapter to highlight one of the few spaces of feminine agency I found that existed outside of, and largely in opposition to, the terms of national womanhood. The Hang Da sellers actively assimilated the knowledge and techniques of “superstition” as a means of coping with the personal strains and moral predicaments of their occupation. The rituals of the market offered women a means of maximizing their control over both the economy’s unpredictable forces and the dictates of conscience. “Burning via” and praying at the pagoda are two examples of revived merchant customs that at once lightened the mental toll of women’s economic burden (by taking ultimate responsibility for their gains and losses out of their hands) and provided a way of accommodating the necessary immoralities of the trade. When women participated in these practices, they acted outside the norms of official culture and independently of their families; they usually went to the pagoda alone or with a fellow merchant. Their everyday uses of “superstition” constituted a singular, and distinctly amoral, domain in which they placed their interests as merchants before their identities as dutiful daughters, enduring wives, and sacrificing mothers. *** In the post-socialist era of economic enrichment, the social and moral status of the middle-class merchant woman continues to be plagued by contradiction. The growing dependence of urban households on the commercial efforts of women has not brought a commensurate recognition of women’s increased economic contribution to the family and society. As Hoan Kiem women have left their public roles as intellectuals, students, and factory workers to pursue the opportunities of the market, they have experienced a process of redomestication that has ensured their invisibility as a distinct and legitimate occupational class in the new economy. The legacies of Confucian and socialist conceptions of private trade—as an inherently feminine, non-productive and


supplemental form of employment—have contributed to the persistent cultural view of buon ban as a natural extension of housework. In the context of a reconstructed patriarchal family tradition that designates woman as the nurturing and all-sacrificing center of the household, the urban shopkeeper or market stall owner has had to reconcile her enhanced economic role with the constraining terms of feminine domestic service. For an older generation of Hoan Kiem merchants, the conception of buon ban as a corollary of a woman’s household obligations resonates with the “feudal” family values of a 1930s, 1940s or 1950s upbringing. Women respondents, in their late fifties and older, consistently emphasized the smallness of their business activities relative to men’s work and responsibilities. After years as state employees, they viewed their retirement into the retail trade as a natural development in their post-“working” lives. They “returned home” to care for aging husbands, look after grandchildren and, at the same time, supplement the household income through market selling. They marveled at the “daring” and “intelligence” of younger women, yet criticized their unprincipled pursuit of wealth. In eschewing profit as a motive for selling, these older merchants invoked the Revolutionary ideals of their youth and cast themselves as bearers of a nationally authentic buon ban ethic. Women in the ‘transition’ generation, by contrast, did not present their movement into the market as a fluid progression of feminine roles and obligations. The market reforms of the late 1980s caught them in the early years of marriage and motherhood—between their late twenties and early thirties— after they had settled into socialist factory jobs, university careers or teaching posts. They avidly pursued the new possibilities for private household enrichment; yet their transformation into merchants entailed personal losses and sacrifices that have largely been obscured—within popular media and official discourse—by the material gains of a middle class income. For some, the transition to buon ban has involved a literal ‘return home,’ from the public space of “work” to a family business in which day-to-day management falls to the available daughter-in-law. Improved living standards have come at the cost of increased personal confinement within the patriarchal domestic order. For women coming from the intellectual cadre ranks, the market has often been a space of last resort—a solution to a family economic crisis rather than a clear strategy for upward mobility. The increased mental stress of the retail trade may be compounded by a loss of social status. Yet, for an “intellectual” divorcee, the social isolation and constant financial worry of the buon ban life has been balanced by a new sense of personal autonomy. Freed from the confines of marriage, she welcomed the independence to define and pursue her own destiny.


The economic pressures and moral constraints faced by merchant women gave rise to subtly subversive forms of protest in the informal setting of Hang Da market. The Hang Da fabric sellers utilized the presence of a cultural outsider to articulate their otherwise unacknowledged frustrations and to fantasize about culturally proscribed forms of personal freedom. Through complaint, humor and fantasy, they contested the norms of feminine obligation that at once demanded and devalued their economic contributions. Their regular outpourings of discontent, however, never wholly transgressed the hegemonic terms of national femininity. In decrying the exploitative practices of the state, or idealizing the lot of a privileged middle-class housewife, they invoked their status as over-burdened victims—a moral identity that defended them against accusations of capitalist greed and excessive feminine ambition. They envisioned an easier and happier life with an American man who would free them from the ba dam dang bind. Yet they always ended these fantasy sessions by reiterating the terms of misfortune and hardship that define the national feminine condition. As discursive agents, these women could not transcend what Judith Butler (1990) terms the “conflicted cultural field” of gender injunctions that circumscribe the limits and possibilities of contestation. They could only negotiate the contradictory terrain of feminine identity by utilizing the tools at hand.



THIS BOOK HAS EXPLORED THE VARIOUS WAYS IN WHICH WOMEN AND THE family have become the critical site for resolving and articulating the relationship between the state, the market and society in Vietnam’s transition from socialism to capitalism. I have examined the specific governmental channels—both official and popular—through which the goals, dilemmas, and anxieties of market liberalization and global integration have worked to produce the modern middle class family as the cultural standard and the disciplinary core of society. I have argued that the dual priorities of national economic development and cultural strengthening in the current transition era have placed the Vietnamese woman—and the middle-class aspirant in particular—at the intersection of conflicting moral injunctions, which compound the terms of feminine domestic service as they limit the parameters of acceptable female agency. Since the early years of Independence, the Vietnam Women’s Union has played a central role in mediating women’s relationship to the shifting governmental interests of the state. During the 1950s and early 1960s, the Union served as a key vehicle for the transmission of party initiatives and socialist ideology to the female ‘masses’—recruiting peasants and small landholders to join the cooperatives and ‘reeducating’ petit-bourgeois and other “old society” women to take part in socialist production. Through its national publication, Phu Nu Viet Nam, the Women’s Union sought to inculcate the proper subjectivity of the new socialist woman by presenting the private dilemmas of readers’ lives as questions of political commitment and ideological correctness. The propaganda role of the Union intensified during the American war years, when the need to mobilize women to “serve the front” promoted a new formulation of national womanhood, combining feminine ‘progress’ in the public economic realm with a gendered ideal of patriotic sacrifice that dictated the primacy of the national over the personal and the domestic. The model of the ‘all-capable, all-responsible’ woman, ready and willing to give her husband, brothers and sons to the cause, helped to construct the socialist nation-space as a


collective family, grounded in a feminized home front that was fully liberated from the “feudal” “backwardness” of the past. As the climate of patriotic communal struggle gave way to ideological disillusionment and economic desperation in the post-war years, the Women’s Union, and the official print media in general, endeavored to govern women’s behavior—their appearance, loyalties and desires—according to increasingly diffuse and contradictory criteria of Vietnamese femininity. Disciplinary practices of critique and condemnation eclipsed earlier techniques of patriotic mobilization as the party/ state struggled to recast the terms of national progress and tradition in the face of failing socialist policies. The introduction of market reforms in the late 1980s shifted the responsibilities of the Women’s Union from the explicit concerns of political education, recruitment and control to issues of women and children’s welfare. The absence of war and the improvement of economic conditions enabled the Union, in its terms, to “address women’s health, nutrition, family situation and income opportunities” for the first time. Yet, as I have argued, this new advocacy for women formed part of a broader shift in the governmental practices and priorities of the state in the wake of decollectivization and market liberalization. The new path toward national development—defined by increased privatization and market ‘openness’ under continued party rule—has given rise to the need for a national middle class that is at once globally fit, politically compliant and appropriately Vietnamese. The economic conditioning and moral regulation of a productive and prosperous national citizenry has required a form of ‘caring’ intervention into the private domestic realm. This new governmental focus has been characterized by attention to the pastoral concerns of the family—its health, harmony and happiness—under the competent guidance and care of the modern middle-class woman. Official pedagogical venues, primarily aimed at advancing family planning, have become cultural forums for the promotion and celebration of “civility”—a concept which combines cosmopolitan knowledge of domestic norms, such as modern hygiene, child nutrition, contraception, parenting techniques, and marital ‘democracy,’ with the selective revitalization of traditional family values and feminine virtues. The Hanoi Women’s Union has sought to project an official vision of national modernity onto Hanoi’s increasingly differentiated and culturally chaotic social space, by targeting specific populations of urban (and suburban) women as differently in need of “civility” training. While promoting its disciplinary agenda as a means of helping women contend with the challenges of market reform, the Union has worked to advance a specifically domestic model of middle class femininity that excludes the realities of women’s economic striving in the post-subsidy era. The official ideal of a traditionally virtuous and scientifically Vietnamese housewife remains an implausible


standard for the large majority of Vietnamese women—within and on the margins of Hanoi’s emergent middle class—whose domestic obligations demand their increasing involvement with the morally suspect practices of the market. The popular media, meanwhile, has contributed to the regulation and restriction of norms of middle class femininity by inscribing the more open ‘public’ space of post-socialist society with alternative discourses of national identity. While serving consumer desires for cultural entertainment outside the conventional parameters of state propaganda, the liberalized newspapers and magazines under doi moi have sought to address a non-‘political’ terrain of “social reality” through coverage of the market’s disruptive effects on the private lives of individuals and families. For some journalists and editors, the effort to escape the confines of state discourses of modernity, without transgressing the political limits of ‘free’ expression, has led to a nostalgic search for human virtues and spiritual traditions associated with a simpler and purer time. These perspectives offer a critique of contemporary values and class relations through stories of society’s weakest and most neglected members and through accounts of endangered, pre-socialist customs and beliefs. Yet such discourses of cultural authenticity often rely on a romanticized and essentialized view of national feminine virtue, which promotes rather than challenges the retraditionalization of women as an antidote to the moral costs of market modernity. Appearing alongside more explicitly condemnatory depictions of excessively independent and ambitious middle class women, the potentially ‘resistant’ voices in the press reinforce the governmental ties between a ‘natural’ feminine domesticity and the health and integrity of the nation. At the same time, a journalistic genre of “real life” soap opera works to police the limits of female agency and desire within the commonplace settings of provincial economic striving. Tales of ordinary couples destroyed by a wife’s determined pursuit of middle class prosperity update earlier socialist messages about female “pragmatism” and “moneymindedness” and advise female readers to contain their market aspirations within the bounds of patriarchal family norms. The distinct, but overlapping, practices of the Women’s Union and the liberalized press reveal the centrality of the family—as a complex disciplinary site—to the hegemonic process of post-socialist national imagining. While the official ideal of the “civilized” middle class family defines the domestic standard required for the production of fit national subjects in an age of global economic integration, the media’s persistent invocation of tra ditional family relations and feelings addresses the anxieties of market modernization through the recuperation of a national cultural ‘essence.’ Together, these processes of cultural governance work to situate the private domestic realm at the center of an increasingly differentiated public discursive space that circumscribes the terms


of allowable gender identities, as it produces new categories of national belonging and deviance. In defining and prescribing the Vietnamese woman’s primary obligations to the family as essential to the material and spiritual health of the nation, the prevailing discourses of national femininity fail to account for the realities of women’s economic responsibilities in the post-subsidy era. The practices of popular and official media problematize women’s relationship to the market in ways that allow most Vietnamese women little hope of realizing the contradictory elements of the national feminine ideal. In studying the politics and practices of gender identity in Vietnam, I have paid particular attention to the complex moral consequences of market transition for a generation of Vietnamese women caught in the interstices of shifting ideological and economic regimes. My examination of women’s discursive engagement with the dominant codes of national femininity has borne out the contested nature of the Vietnamese woman’s continued subjugation to the modern national idea in an era of post-socialist economic striving. As women in the distinct urban settings of Phuong Lien and Hoan Kiem discussed the conditions and aspirations of their lives, they conveyed their uneasy confinement in a field of irreconcilable gender demands that problematically linked their domestic obligations to the terms of national progress and tradition. My ethnographic investigation was necessarily limited to discrete contexts of spoken discourse. Pervasive government restrictions—combined with the persistent novelty of my presence as an American female researcher and my attendant lack of cultural fluency—hindered my access to the less mediated settings of ‘private’ social and family life. In a climate of heightened political and popular anxiety over the national image, I could not escape the conspicuous status of a cultural Other, whose interventions into the ‘normal’ flow of everyday life inevitably produced the conditions for specific patterns of speech and reflection. Yet such disruptions and distortions of the ordinary, I maintain, provided a source of illumination that was vital to the particular nature of this cultural inquiry. The sense of moral dislocation and conflict, expressed by Phuong lien and Hoan Kiem women through their personal narratives, discussions and parodic play was not likely to be articulated in the routine contexts of domestic life, where the proximity of husbands, sons and in-laws, along with the immediate pressures of household management, necessarily inhibit women’s opportunities for self-conscious engagement with the normative constraints on their lives. The presence of a cultural outsider clearly encouraged these women’s impulse to identify and reiterate the increasingly uncertain terms of Vietnamese femininity and national values. At the same time, individuals’ awareness of my interest in “women’s issues” opened up a rare venue for expressions of desire and discontent and for the imagining of cultural alternatives in a safely de-contextualized female space.


A prominent editor of a women’s publication in Hanoi, who also became a friend, portrayed the constraints on women’s personal selfexpression as a social and cultural condition—as well as a political reality—of contemporary Vietnamese society. She described the individual’s confinement in a web of obligatory roles and behavioral codes as a form of ‘spiritual’ (tam linh) repression —the subjugation of the ‘inner part’ of a person that is wholly distinct from his or her social identity. “My social self, that is not me,” she confided. “I am separate. I can not show my real self.” Doi moi has done little to liberate this internal ‘spirit.’ “Even though we no longer have to follow the policies of socialism, we are no more free in our private family lives (cuoc song gai dinh tu nhan) than we are in society (ngoai xa hoi)”. The hidden part of the individual, she assured me, can not be expressed through romantic love or through marriage. “In marriage we are simply acting out another kind of role,” she explained. “We must be wives and daughters-in-law and then mothers. We can not be ourselves. In the family, we are never free.” The supplanting of socialism by the priorities of national development and the freedoms of the market has extended the private domestic constraints on individual self-expression into the realm of public national discourse. As the sanctity of the family system—in an enlightened, modernized form—has itself become the informal official ideology of postsocialist national modernity, the labyrinth of checks and demands on female subjectivity has expanded and grown more complex. The extent to which the family, as a normative ideal, continues to serve the competing requirements of economic development and national cultural strengthening will largely determine the moral confines in which Vietnamese women will be able to imagine their futures and aspire to improve their lives. As long as national discourses of “civility” exclude the realities (and the required subjectivity) of the middle class aspirant’s struggle to escape poverty, women in economically marginal urban settings like Phuong Lien will remain consigned to a moral and material state of ‘lack’—trapped between their desires for prosperity and the restraining codes of feminine tradition. Their “sacrifices” for their families in the current era of market competition will continue to constitute an unacknowledged form of domestic obligation that denies them the ‘heroic’ status of an earlier generation, while situating them in the potentially immoral space of feminine economic striving. Meanwhile, in the more prosperous setting of Hoan Kiem, the merchant woman’s enhanced responsibility as the primary middle-class earner will not improve her household status or increase her personal autonomy as long as the post-socialist terms of national femininity continue to be defined by a revitalization of patriarchal family norms. The ways in which the Vietnamese state resolves its relationship to the market economy in the coming years—in political, ideological and cultural terms—


will shape the future contours of national discourses of femininity. Over the past few years, the government has been internally divided over the pace at which market reforms should continue. ‘Conservative’ party factions have continued to lobby for the preservation of the state’s Revolutionary achievements and socialist policies. As the old communist guard gradually recedes, however, liberal economic policies are likely to prevail, enabling Vietnam to open its doors fully to the interests and opportunities of global capitalism. The demise of older political/ideological priorities will not likely diminish nationalism’s role of as a discourse of political legitimization and social and cultural control. Rather, the need to mediate the effects of increasing cultural commercialization and globalization will require new formulations of national identity that rely less on Vietnam’s war-torn heroic past than on these cultural traditions that clearly serve the governmental interests of economic development. As the last generation of Vietnamese women schooled under war and socialist ideology grows old, discourses of national femininity will increasingly be needed to construct a capitalist modernity ‘on Vietnamese terms’ that can compete with and entice the West. If Vietnam looks to its Confucian neighbors for guidance, the advancement of ‘family values’ as an idiom of national tradition and a foundation of middle class morality will continue to define and restrict the terms of Vietnamese feminine identity.


NOTES TO THE INTRODUCTION 1 The expression ‘slaves of slaves’ is quoted in David Marr, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial: 1920–945, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981, 236). 2 See Cuu Kim Son and Van Hue, Doi Chi Em (Hanoi: Dan Chung, 1938), also cited in David Marr, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial: 1920–1945, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981, 239). 3 See Kay Ann Johnson, Women, the Family and Peasant Revolution in China Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), Judith Stacey, Patriarchy and Socialist Revolution in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), and Margery Wolf, Revolution Postponed: Women in Contemporary China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985) for three different feminist interpretations of why and how the Maoist state failed to liberate Chinese women in the family and society. 4 See Lisa Rofel “Liberation Nostalgia and a Yearning for Modernity,” in Engendering China: Women, Culture and the State, ed. Christina Gilmartin, et al. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994). Also see Meng Yue (1993), who explained how official literature similarly subverted traditional gender identities— along with, the whole ‘private’ realm of sexual desire, human relations and subjectivity—beneath the political ‘public’ realm, using each private event to communicate a ‘public’ meaning about class. Meng Yue, “Female Images and National Myth,” in Gender Politics in Modern China, ed. Tani E.Barlow (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993). 5 See Eva Huseby-Darvas, “Feminism, the ‘Murderer of Mothers’: the Rise and Fall of Neo-Nationalist Reconstruction of Gender in Hungary,” in Women out of Place, ed. Brackette Williams (New York: Routledge, 1996) and Katharine Verdery, What was Socialism, and What Comes Next? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996). While Romania did not experience a strong antiabortion movement in the wake of the Ceausescus’ fall, thanks to the catastrophic effects of the former regime’s pro-natalist policies, the society has undergone a similar pattern of re-traditionalization based on a restoration of religion, family values and women’s domestic roles. See Gail Kligman “The Politics of









Reproduction in Ceausescu’s Romania: a Case Study in Political Culture,” in East European Politics and Societies 6 (1992): 364–418. A collection of essays on postsocialist gender politics in Eastern Europe can also be found in Gender Politics and Post-Communism, ed. Nanette Funk and Magda Mueller (New York: Routledge, 1993). Tani Barlow has discussed how the public de-feminizing of Chinese women during the Mao years has contributed to a reactive explosion of sexualizing images of women in China’s post-socialist transnational era, as market-savvy media producers have celebrated a new consumer society’s freedom from the cultural orthodoxies and physical discomforts of the past. See “Women at the Close of the Maoist Era in the Polemics of Li Xiaogiang and Her Associates” in The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, ed. Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997). David Marr provides lots of detail on the national reformist debates of the 1920s in Vietnamese Tradition on Trial: 1920–1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981, 206–214). Judith Butler refers to ‘tools’ in her discussion of the practices of gender signification. She writes: “There is no self that is prior to the convergence or who maintains ‘integrity’ prior to its entrance into this conflicted cultural field. There is only a taking up of the tools where they lie, where the very ‘taking up’ is enabled by the tool lying there.” See, among others, Gendered Nations: Nationalism and Gender Order in the Long Nineteenth Century, ed. Ida Blom, et al. (Oxford: Berg, 2000); George Mosse, Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Secuality in Modern Europe (New York: Howard Fertig, 1985); Nationalisms and Sexualities, ed. Andrew Parker, et al. (New York: Routledge, 1992); Dangerous Liasons: Gender, Nation, and Post-Colonial Perspectives, ed. Anne McClintock, et al. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East, ed. Lila Abu-Lughod (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). Before an issue of Cuu Quoc went to press, David Marr notes, one of Ho Chi Minh’s literacy graduates was employed to read copy. “If this man was unable to explain the content of a prospective article to Ho Chi Minh, it was sent back for revision.” David Marr, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 183. See Michel Foucault’s discussion of the distinction between ‘government’ and ‘sovereignty’ in his essay “Governmentality,” found in The Foucault Effect ed. Graham Burchell, et al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) “In contrast to sovereignty, government has as its purpose not the act of government itself, but the welfare of the population, the improvement of its condition, the increase of its wealth, longevity, health, etc.” (100). For an excellent example of an ethnographic study of popular media reception see Lisa Rofel’s account of audience interaction with the popular Chinese soap opera, “Yearnings,” in “‘Yearnings’: Televisual Love and Melodramatic Politics in Contemporary China.” American Ethnologist 21 (1994).


13 The term “peaceful evolution” appeared frequently in official speeches, communist journals and newspaper articles in the early and mid-1990s.

NOTES TO CHAPTER ONE 1 Cited in Mai Thi Tu and Le Thi Nham Thuyet, Women in Vietnam. (Hanoi: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1978, 138). 2 Nancy Wiegersma, Vietnam: Peasant Land, Peasant Revolution (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988). 3 The land reform movement unleashed a three-year wave of terror across the countryside. Incited by over-zealous cadres, villagers publicly humiliated, beat, imprisoned and, in many cases, executed accused landlords. They ostracized and impoverished the victims’ family members. Applying class categories as weapons of retribution, villagers often failed to distinguish between patriotic landlords (many of whom were party members) and colonial sympathizers, between landlords and their children, or between ‘middle peasants’ and rich peasants. Following the government’s “Rectification of Errors” campaign, many members of the Resistance, who had been wrongly classified as rich peasants and landlords, were reclassified as middle peasants and restored to their former positions in party and village administration. 4 Nancy Wiegersma, Peasant Land, Peasant Revolution (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), 147–148. 5 For a discussion of the 1959 Law on Marriage and the Family, see Mai Thi Thu and Le Thi Nham Thuyet, Women in Vietnam (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1978), 219–222. 6 Jayne Werner, “Cooperativization, the Family Economy and the New Family in Wartime Vietnam, 1960–1975” in The American War in Vietnam, ed. J.Werner and D.Hunt, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993). Also see Werner’s discussion in “Women, Socialism and the Economy of Wartime North Vietnam, 1960–1975” in Studies in Comparative Communism, 14, Nos. 2–3, (1981): 165–190. 7 Jayne Werner, “Cooperativization, the Family Economy and the New Family in Wartime Vietnam,” 10. 8 “Tarn Su,” PNVN, 68, 1959 9 “Tarn Su,” PNVN, 72, 1959 10 “Gat Lua Som,” VN, 71, 1959. 11 “Hanh Phuc,” VN, 60, 1959. 12 “Nguoi Ban Cu,” VN, 42, 1961. 13 The reluctance of the DRV government to use police force against small private sellers in the 1950s and 1960s has been cited by Adam Fforde (1996) as an example of the “weak” nature of the Vietnamese state relative to the Soviet Stalinist model from which it derived many of its economic policies. As I discuss further on, the tendency to make silent concessions to the survival strategies of the population during the early decades of socialist nation building helps to explain the ambiguous legal status of market activities in the pre-doi moi “transition period” of


14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21


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the late 1970s and early 1980s. See Adam Fforde, From Plan to Market: the EconomicTransition in Vietnam (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996). “Co Hang Xen Da Thanh Chu Nhiem,” PNVN, 107, 1962). “Tarn Su,” PNVN, 97, 1961. Quoted from interview conducted in Phuong Lien precinct, Dong Da, Hanoi, September 5, 1995. “Thao Luan,” PNVN, 102, 1962. Nguyen Thi Thap, Lich Su Phong Trao Phu Nu Viet Nam (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Phu Nu, 1981), 63 Excerpt from an interview conducted in Hang Da Market, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi, March 18, 1996. “Tarn Su,” PNVN, 127, 1964. Another reason for the plague of dissatisfied husbands in the 1960s has been suggested by Bui Tin, the now exiled former editor of the People’s daily paper, Nhan Dan. Bui Tin recalls how many of his Viet Minh officer friends were so taken up by the “spirit of the times” during the land reform campaign that “They felt moved from the bottom of their hearts to admire the ‘marvelous and purified spirit’ of the poor peasants and sow deep roots by finding an ‘ideal’ wife among them. After the mistakes of land reform were corrected, these gentlemen were stuck. No rectification was possible, and for the rest of their lives they have had to swallow the bitter pill with happy faces because there was no way they could harmonize their feelings and intelligence with those they had chosen as lifetime companions.” It would seem that many of the men caught in this predicament were far less gentlemanly and stalwart than Bui Tin’s unfortunate comrades were. Bui Tin, From Cadre to Exile: the memoirs of a North Vietnamese Journalist. (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1995), 25. Phu Nu Viet Nam summarized women’s new rights in marriage and the family as follows: “Forced marriages and child betrothal are prohibited” (point 3); “Parents are prohibited from mistreating their children and daughters-in-law” (point 18); “In marriage, husband and wife are equal in all aspects” (point 12); and “Husbands and wives have a duty to love and respect one another, to help each other progress, and to build a happy and harmonious family” (point 13). Cited in “Phai That Su Bao Dam Loi Quyen Cua Phu Nu,” PNVN, 112, 1963. “Tam Su,” PNVN, 113, 1963. Frances Fitzgerald, A Fire in the Lake (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 183n. Quoted from an interview conducted in Phuong Lien precinct, in Dong Da district, Hanoi, March 20, 1995. Cited in Mai Thi Tu and Le Thi Nham Tuyet, Women in Vietnam (Foreign Language Publishing House: Hanoi, 1978), 259, and in Lich Su Phong Trao Phu Nu Viet Nam, Tap 2, edited by Nguyen Thi Thap (Nha Xuat Ban Phu Nu: Hanoi, 1981), 109. Lich Su Phong Trao Phu Nu Viet Nam, Tap 2, edited by Nguyen Thi Thap (Nha Xuat Ban Phu Nu: Hanoi, 1981), 113.


28 Mai Thi Tu and Le Thi Nham Tuyet, Women in Vietnam (Hanoi: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1978), 262. The authors cite the example of “labour heroine” Cu Thi Hau. “She had to bring up her two little children, as her husband was at the front. For eight years, she held the factory record in the number of days worked and surpassed the norm of 80,000 meters of fabric per year.” 29 “Lai Ve Cho Moi,” VN, 149, 1966. 30 “Chuyen Co Duyen” VN, 172, 1966. 31 “Co Thao,” VN 164, 1966. 32 From an interview conducted in Phuong Lien precinct, Dong Da, Hanoi, April 3, 1995. 33 “Quan Niem Cua Chung Toi Ve Hanh Phuc Da Thay Doi,” PNVN, 138, 1965. 34 See note 1 for chapter 1 35 “Dong Tinh Cam,” PNVN, 165, 1966. 36 An official report on the “conditions and duties of Hanoi women during the two years 1964–1965” spells out some of the achievements and limitations of the reform efforts aimed at small traders in the capital. After organizing sellers into producer cooperatives of various kinds, the report states, “up to 3000 women have completely moved to productive work, while 400 women have set up groups to do housework for workers and officials and do not have to sell anymore” (7). Among the criticisms made of existing propaganda work is the “continued lack of awareness of the conflict between the two roads of socialism and capitalism, and the lack of a socialist spirit among petty-traders and artisans’ (14). The report concludes that reeducation work aimed at small traders should primarily involve teaching them socialist principles. Prosecution should only be used when “public safety” is threatened (25). Bao Cao cua Ban Chup Hanh Phu nu Thanh Pho Ha Noi tai Dai Hoi Phu nu Thu do Ian I. (Hanoi: HLHPN, 1964), 7–26. 37 “Hop Cho,” PNVN, 148, 1965. 38 “Dau La Loi Hai?”, PNVN, 172, 1966. 39 “Cho Nen Ham Dong Tien De Klein,” PNVN, 24, 1967. 40 Benedict J.Tria Kerkvliet, “Rural Society and State Relations” in Vietnam’s Rural Transformation, ed. B.Kerkvliet and G.Porter (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), pp. 68–69. 41 Benedict Kerkvliet, “Rural Society and State Relations,” 69. 42 Benedict Kerkvliet, “Rural Society and State Relations,” 70. 43 Quoted from an interview conducted in Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi, on February 16, 1996 44 “Mot Kieu Thao Vat Nhanh Tay Khong Dung,” PNVN, 249, 1969. 45 “3 Bai Chinh Tri Co Ban Va Dao Due Nguoi Phu Nu Moi,” Ban Tuyen Giao Tong Cong Doan Vietnam, 6, 1969. 46 “Tuoi Tre va Lao Dong,” PNVN, 268, 1969. 47 “Mot So Y Kien Ve Phong Cach Nu Thanh Nien,” PNVN, 275, 1971. 48 Quoted from interview conducted in Hanoi’s Hang Da market, on March 2, 1996. 49 “Noi Chuyen Ve Phong Cach,” PNVN, 293, 1972.


50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81

“Nen Mac Sao Cho Lich Su?” PNVN, 336, 1973. “Nen Khuyen Khich Cac Em Gai Mac Vay,” PNVN, 329, 1973. “Nen Thay The Dan Chiec Quan LUa Den,” PNVN, 24, 1975. “Binh Dang,” PNVN, 298, 1973. “Kho Ma Lam Ban Voi Cac Ba Ay…”, PNVN, 314, 1973. “Tu Nhien,” PNVN, 369, 1974. “Vao Bua An,” PNVN, 361, 1974. “Co Ban Thieu Due Tinh Gi?”, PNVN, 40, 1975. “Khi Ban Gai Den Nha,” PNVN, 328, 1973. “Thoi Gio Tham Thoat Thoi Dua,” PNVN, 406, 1975. “Doi Nga,” PNVN, 251, 1970. “Noi Chuyen Phong Cach,’ PNVN, 390, 1974. “Mot Kieu Khoe,” PNVN, 396, 1974. Quoted from an interview conducted at the Education Service office (phong Giao Due) in Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi, on March 6, 1996. “Ky Niem Long Tin,” Van Nghe, 503, 1973.. Melanie Beresford, National Unification and Economic Development in Vietnam (New York: St.Martin’s Press, 1989), 104. Melanie Beresford, National Unification, 114. Melanie Beresford, National Unification, 115. Adam Fforde, From Plan to Market (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), 138–141. Melanie Beresford, National Unification. See tables on 118, 190, and 199. Gareth Porter, The Politics of Bureaucratic Socialism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 61. Gareth Porter, The Politics of Bureaucratic Socialism, 61–62. “Con Dau Den Nguoi Tieu dung,” PNVN, 31, 1981. “Chi Vi Mot Bo Rau!” PNVN, 26, 1981. “Co Chuyen Gi Dau!” PNVN, 1, 1980. “Vai Suy Nghi Ve Loi Song Thuc Dung,” PNVN, 11, 1981. “Mau Thuan Ve Loi Song—Mot Nguy Co Dan Den Tan Vo Hanh Phuc,” PNVN, 17. “Hon…Thiet.” PNVN, 11, 1981. Melanie Beresford, National Unification, 192–193. “Hoc Sinh Gai, Va Khoa Hoc Tu Nhien,” PNVN, 19, 1977. “Mot Moi,” PNVN, 7, 1979. “Tarn Su,” PNVN, 95, 1984.

NOTES TO CHAPTER TWO 1 In The Policing of Families, Jacques Donzelot traces the formation of new practices and relations of governmentality that contributed to the rise of the ‘the social’ in nineteenth century France. He describes a diverse series of public interventions into the regulation of family affairs, which over the course of two centuries worked to transform older relationships and divisions between the state and the




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family, the public and the private. These historical developments and “mutations” produced a new hybrid disciplinary space—”in which norms replaced the law, regulatory and corrective mechanisms replaced the standard” (xvi). New kinds of ‘philanthropic’ practice emerged—in the form of the social worker, the psychoanalyst, the juvenile court, the household medical text—which served, in various ways, to shape the family as an agent of normalization in the interests of ‘social economy’ and political order. Anagnost wants to extend and modify Partha Chaterjee’s argument on the nationalists’ spiritual/material divide, by recognizing a more complex field of aspirations, motives and development models within the non-Western world itself. She explains:.” …This split between the material and the spiritual does not derive entirely from the confrontation of ‘East’ and ‘West,’ but circulates among the newly emerging nationalisms and the anticolonial struggles of Asia and Africa. Japan is exemplary here as a successful model of how to modernize the nation without sacrificing its cultural identity, an identity, moreover, that becomes created and solidified out of the process of defining national spirit.” Ann Anagnost National Past-Times: Narrative, Representation and Power in Modern China. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 80. The Fatherland Front was established by the DRV government in 1955 as the primary organization responsible for mediating between the party and the masses. Personal communication, Peoples Committee building, Dong Da District, Hanoi. February, 8, 1995. A telling indicator of the low official priority given to women’s welfare under the DRV appears in a 1970 account of national health achievements between 1955 and 1970. The chapter on “Women and Children’s Health” is less than four pages and the author admits that, because of war and the slow process of industrialization, concrete achievements have been limited. See “Mother and Child Welfare,” by Dinh Thi Can, in “25 Years of Health Work,” Vietnamese Sudies, 25, 1970:41–45. An official history of the Hanoi Women’s Union describes the early 1980s as a period of exuberant production and skillful economizing by women. The account recognizes numerous women as “heroic laborers” (anh hung lao dong) for their hard work and “technological improvements” in weaving factories, shoe factories and tea factories. Women in handicraft industries and in agriculture are also cited for “improving the management of cooperatives” and developing successful household gardens, while teachers and medical women are hailed for serving the nation by making “technological advances” in their fields and caring for society’s neediest members. See the Hanoi Women’s Union’s Lich Su Phong Trao Phu Nu Ha Noi (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Hanoi, 1989), 119–153. Quoted from Nguyen Thi Ky, administrator and teacher at Truong Can Bo Phu Nu, Hanoi, personal interview, July 14, 1994. “Hoi” by Le Thi Anh Ninh, President of the Women’s Union of Minh Phu, Soc Son district, Hanoi: “Co phai ong bat vo/Khong duoc dat vong/De chuyen long thong/





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Kho ma kiem soat/Co phai ong co nat/Chua de con trai/Thach ai dam dat vong bu no/ Co phai ong gan co/Do loi de day/Vo ke hoach by nay/Deu do ba ay/Co phai ong noi/ Bao nhieu cau hoi/Ong deu choi khong/Bat nat vo bay gio kho lam/Xin nhac ong!” “Tho Ve Ke Hoach Hoa Gia Dinh,” by Hoa Na, Quan Than precinct, Ba Dinh, Hanoi: “Nay hay lang nghe ho bao nhau/Muc tieu dan so nho ghe sau/Mot den hai con cho moi ho/Hang phuc gia dinh moi ben lau/De nheiu kho lam chi em oi/Sac dep tan phai kem thua nguoi/Lo an lo thuoc nuoi con nho/Con dau suc khoe de vuichoi/Che em chung minh nhac nho nhau/Chi de it con suong dai lau/Nuoi con mau Ion, cham ngoan, gioi/Chong vo song chung toi bac dau.” Sean Malarney (1996), for instance, has described how the legacy of “state functionalism” (the utilization of ritual practices for official ends) has continued to inform the meanings and values of funeral ceremonies in rural North Vietnam. Peter Zinoman has emphasized the link between growing middle-class consumerism and elaborate ritual display in his analysis of Nguyen Huy Thiep’s fictional work. “Although the rituals [Thiep] depicts may be traced to some precommunist Vietnamese tradition,” Zinoman explains, “their contemporary manifestations are revealed to be tawdry, tasteless, hopelessly commodified, and emptied of spiritual or emotional content” Peter Zinoman, “Declassifying Nguyen Huy Thiep,” Positions 2, no. 2 (1994): 294–317. See “Thu ban ve Tu Due Moi’ Trong Xa Hoi Hien Dai,” PNVN, 32, 1994. From an interview on May 20, 1994, at the Vietnam Women’s Union, Hanoi. Personal communication, April 5, 1995, Truong Can Bo Phu Nu, Hanoi. See Partha Chaterjee’s analysis of material/spiritual, external/internal, divide in colonial India’s nationalist struggle. The Nation and Its Fragments (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993). Interview with To Thi Phuc, July 1, 1994, Hanoi Women’s Union, Hanoi. A detailed account of Women’s Union activities and responsibilities relating to the International Year of the Family is found in the proceedings from the Hanoi Women’s Union club meeting on “Women and the problem of building the ‘prosperous, egalitarian, progressive and happy family’,” June, 1994. Personal communication from Hoa Na, Women’s Union cadre, Ba Dinh district, Hanoi, July 1994. Anagnost explains: . ”…the differences between Jiangdong and the immediate hinterland of Shanghai, in terms of economic growth and, presumably, in graduated degrees of ‘civility,’ are minor compared with the dramatic gap opening up between the prosperous Jiangnan region (and other coastal areas) and the poorer provinces of the interior, a territorialization that figures largely in the political imaginary of the 1990s, in which the underdeveloped periphery becomes the defining other of ‘civility’ within the nation-space itself.” Ann Anagnost, National Past-Times: Narrative, Representation and Power in Modern China. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 77. Personal Communication, during a contest on “Building a Happy and Civilized Family” for the whole of Dong Da district, Hanoi, November 24, 1994.


21 Personal communication from To Thi Phuc, vice-president of the Hanoi Women’s Union, October 6, 1994. 22 Women’s Union Club contest on “Building the Cultured and Civilized Family,” Hoa Duoc precinct, Dong Da, Hanoi,” October 6, 1994. 23 This contest was held on October 6, 1994, in the People’s Committee meeting room, Dai Kim village, Thinh Tre district, Hanoi. 24 This event was held on August 19, 1995 at the Viet-Soviet Friendship building, under the auspices of the Hoan Kiem district Women’s Union. 25 Personal communication, August 25, 1994, Soc Son district, Women’s Union club celebration.

NOTES TO CHAPTER THREE 1 “180 Loi Giai Dap Danh Cho Tuoi Chom Yeu” (Nha Xuat Ban Phu Nu, 1994); “So Tay Noi Tro va Trang Diem” (Nha Xuat Ban Phu Nu; 1994), “Nghe Thuat Lam Vo” (Nha Xuat Ban T.H. Dong Thap, 1993). 2 See the special 1993 issue of Modern China 19 (2), in which a collection of historians address the civil society question in different historical periods. Also see Civil Society in a Chinese Context, ed. Wang Miaoyang, et al. (Cultural Heritage and Contemporary Change Series III, Asia, Vol. 15, 1997). 3 Huang gives an example of the third realm in the economic sphere: . ”…the township and village communities cannot be understood simply in terms of the planned state economy or the unplanned market economy. They represent an amalgamation of the two, shaped at once by guidance planning from the state and semiautonomous profit seeking in the market. They belong neither to the ‘first economy’ of the state sector, nor the ‘second economy’ (or ‘informal economy’ of the private sector, but to a third economy distinct from both. Their enterprises are subject at once to state-imposed controls…and to market stimuli” (1993: 235). 4 The speech by Pham Thinh was printed in IPI Report, July/Aug. 1995, 37. 5 Mark Sidel provides a detailed discussion of this case in an unpublished paper, titled, “Law, the Press and Police Murder in Vietnam: The Vietnamese Press and the Trial of Nguyen Tung Duong” (presented at a workshop on “Gender and Law in Vietnam,” East Asian Legal Studies Center, Harvard University, November 21, 1997). 6 See “Phan quyet cua toa an knong vi du luan ma phai theo luat phap,” Dai Doan Ket, 2–9 November, 1994:1–5, cited in Mark Sidel (1997). 7 Hanoi, dpa, October 21, 1998, “Vietnam news editor convicted for corruption articles, but recants.” 8 Personal Communication, sub-editor, Dai Doan Ket newspaper, Hanoi, June 14, 1994. 9 Private interview with Mai Thuc, chief editor of Phu Nu Thu Do, Hanoi, October 9, 1994. 10 See, for example, monthly editions of PNTD, Nos. 38 and 39, 1994.


11 A 1995 story, for instance, described a lesbian passion killing. My research assistant brought the article to me with a note explaining: “This kind of story is rarely mentioned in the newspapers, but it is much talked about by the public.” See “Ket cue mot moi tinh…dong gioi,” PNTD, supplemental edition, Quarter III, July-Sept. 1995. 12 The government’s intolerance of “pessimistic” portrayals of reality was expressed dramatically in the 1988 firing of Nguyen Ngoc, the editor of the Literature and Art Journal, Van Nghe, and in the censorship of various ‘controversial’ works of journalism and fiction. 13 Lockhart’s discussion appears in the introduction to the translation of three modern Vietnamese classics of urban reportage: “I Pulled a Rickshaw” (Tam Lang, 1935), “Household Servants” (Vu Trong Phung, 1936), and “Days of Childhood” (Nguyen Hong, 1938). These works, as well as another volume of 1930s reportage, have recently been republished in Vietnam. Their reappearance can be seen as a response to the rapid and chaotic urban change that has followed the 1986 reforms but which has not been effectively represented in the press in recent years. 14 See specifically 1987 and 1988 issues of Van Nghe. A collection of pieces from this period was published in an anthology titled Nguoi Dan Ba Quy (Bao Van Nghe, Hanoi, 1988). 15 A recent Vietnamese text, titled Ky Bao Chi, on the past and present characteristics of first-person narrative journalism, describes the important position of the narrative “I” as an “objective witness,” who persuades his audiences based on “logic” and “fact” rather than “subjective commentary” or “ethical admonishment. Yet in explaining the development of this journalistic form in the context of Vietnamese society, the author is careful to point out that: “the development of this genre is closely tied to the life and propaganda concept of our Party. Proficient understanding and use of the ‘narrative journalism’ genre helps newspaper writers create works of a quality that meets the need to truthfully reflect reality under the light of Party and State leadership” (Due Dung: 1992:174). 16 PNTD, No. 42, 1994:2, 9. 17 Mai Thuc, Hanoi Sac Huong (Nha Hoi Van, 1994). 18 Mai Thuc, “Nhung Nguoi Phu Nu Tham Lang,” in Hanoi Sac Huong (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Nha Van, 1994), 97. The article was originally published in PNTD, No. 10, 1992. And can also be found in Due Dung ‘s Ky Bao Chi (1992) as an example of the narrative portrait genre. 19 Mai Thuc, “Nhung Nguoi Phu Nu Tham Lang,” 98 20 “Me Toi-Vo Toi,” PNVN, 46, 1994. 21 It is interesting to note that even an article that acknowledges the Vietnamese mother’s unjust suffering resorts to the nostalgic admiration of old-style maternal sacrifice. A story in Phu Nu Thu Do recounts the author’s encounter with a “haggard,” “sobbing” woman in her forties, who “stumbles” along the road, weighted down with food from the market. The woman explains to the journalist


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that her son has just been killed in a motorcycle accident and that the rest of her family has gone to the hospital. She stayed behind in order to shop for the evening’s meal. “I am the mother,” she explains. “Who else is going to look after the needs of the children?” The woman’s story reminds the author of another mother whose son was “sacrificed” in the Resistance. When the military brought back his body, the bereaved mother asked immediately if she could replace him at the front. The author marvels at the strength of such mothers: “The Vietnamese mother carries so many responsibilities on her shoulders, she never has a moment to think of herself completely, to enjoy herself completely or even her right to suffer and grieve. She is always striving, striving, Worrying about her family, her husband, her children. Does anyone fully understand these women?”. The journalist’s sense of injustice gives way to reverence and awe at the “strength” of the traditional Vietnamese mother. “Nguoi Me Mua Bi,” PNTD, 43, 1995. “Su Hoi Han cua mot Nang Dau,” PNVN, 33, 1995. “Suyt Mat Tet vi Nang Dau Dao De,” PNTD, Supplementary Edition, Quarter III, July-Sept. 1995. Published in Nguoi Hanoi, 31, 1994. Another story published in the same year in Van Nghe (26, 1994) presents a similarly tragic ending to a tale of filial neglect and the moral costs of rural-urban transition. In “Tieng Chim,” an old man is kept by his son and daughter-in-law in a small apartment in Ho Chi Minh City after the couple sold his tiny countryside home for a profit. Worrying that their father might grow homesick, the son and daughter-in-law install a tape recording of a bird song that plays all day in the apartment. They buy him canned food which he is unable to eat. In the end, the neighbors discover that he has died of starvation. “Nguoi Vo Quyen The,” by Ha Minh Due, published in Van Nghe, 8, 1995. The Revolutionary period was the high point of women’s representation on central committees in Vietnam. Since reunification in 1975, women’s National Assembly posts have declined, as a result, some believe, of a heavier residue of “feudal” gender beliefs in the South (see Eisen 1984, 246). Also, Mary Ann Tetreault (1996) points out that the gradual disappearance from public life of ‘the grand old women of the Revolution’ has contributed to a deterioration in women’s electoral gains in recent decades. “Gia Dinh Thoi Mo Cua, Niem Vui va Noi Lo,” PNVN, 38, 1994. Another article from the same year, for instance, describes a once happy family in which the wife began to lead a “pragmatic” lifestyle and “sold her conscience for profit.” She became involved in business activities, which led her to look down on her husband, a teacher. She becomes unfaithful and eventually leaves her husband and child for money and “passion.” “Nat Tan Gia Dinh vi Loi Song,” PNVN, 20, 1994. Also See “Cay Nhang,” a story that appeared in a 1994 collection of short stories that had originally been published in the press. In this story, a widow with two children has become so caught up in the perks of her company job that she has lost all maternal feeling. As her children sit hungry at home on the night of their father’s death anniversary, the woman is out with her boss in an air conditioned bar, drinking beer. When she returns, after 10:00, the children have


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fallen asleep, and rats have eaten the sticky rice she left them. The children had waited for the incense to burn out before eating the rice. Their mother had neglected to tell them that she used “electrical incense.” 40 Chuyen Ngan Hay (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Van Hoa, 1994). “Nguoi Cham Di Le Chua,” PNVN, 36, 1994. “Mot Thoang Chan Que,” Tien Phong, 45, 1991. Other examples from the press which present the young rural woman as the embodiment of a simpler, more ‘feeling,’ place and time, include “Tinh Que,” a short story in Nguoi Hanoi, No. 44, 1994 and “Hoa Gao,” a competition short story in Van Nghe, 48, 1995. “Nhan Chung,” Tien Phong Chu Nhat, 53, 1993. “Tieng Gio That…” Tien Phong, 10, 1995. The notion that women are largely to blame for their husbands’ infidelity in the new market era was clearly expressed in an article in a 1995 advice column of Phu Nu Thu Do, titled “Why is Your Husband Unfaithful?” The author gives three reallife examples of ways in which women have driven their husbands to cheat. The first story describes a woman who was “hardworking” but “harshly talkative.” She was rude to her husband and often treated him “like an inferior” (nhu anh bi lep ve). The second case features a wife who destroyed her marriage through irrational jealousy. The third example describes a woman so driven to make money that she neglected her husband and children. Despite her husband’s efforts to make her happy by doing the housework, she only grew to despise him. “Tai Sao Chong Chi Ngoai Tinh?” PNTD, Supplemental Edition, Quarter III, JulySept. 1995. “Ngheo Von, Nhung Tri Khong Ngheo,” Nguoi Hanoi, Tet Issue, 2–4, 1996.

NOTES TO CHAPTER 4 1 See essays by a number of Vietnamese social scientists in Vietnam’s Women in Tranistion. Edited by Kathleen Barry. (New York: St.Martin’s Press, 1996) and in Vietnam Social Sciences 2, no.52 (1996). 2 See Essays by Le Thi, Le Thi Quy and Hoang Thi Khanh in Vietnam’s Women in Tranistion, ed. Kathleen Barry. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), and by Bui Thi Kim Quy in Vietnam Social Sciences 2, no.52 (1996). 3 Le Thi notes that, according to surveys conducted in a number of state industrial enterprises in Hanoi, Ha Dong and Nam Ha provinces in September, 1993, 70% of the female workers had been employed there for more than 10 years and only 9.3% of female workers had been newly recruited. (These recent hires were found mainly in newly-established enterprises that were making profits). She also points out that women’s professional training has dramatically declined since the removal of state subsidies. Private enterprises, it seems, are rarely willing to invest in educational programs for women that would enhance female workers’ technical skills and know-how. See Le Thi.”Female Workers in the Economy’s



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9 10

11 12



Transition and the Application of New Technology, and Gender Responsive Policy,” Vietnam Social Sciences 2, no. 52 (1996): 9–23. See Le Thi Quy “Homeless and Street Women in Poverty in the Informal Economic Sector in Hanoi,” Vietnam’s Women in Transition; see also Le Thin 1996; Le Thi 1996 See Le Thi Quy’s essay above and Thai Thi Ngoc Du’s essay in Vietnam Social Sciences 2, no. 52 (1996) See Bui Thi Kim Quy, “The Vietnamese Woman in Vietnam’s Process of Change,” in Vietnam’s Women in Transition and Le Thi, “Female Workers in the Economy’s Transition and the Application of New Technology, and Gender Responsive Policy,” Vietnam Social Sciences 2, (1996a). Interview conducted with the President of the Phuong Lien People’s Committee on November 9, 1994. “While their parents are working,” a local representative from the Fatherland Front, explained, “these youth stay home and play around. They sit in kiosks drinking and smoking, gambling away their parents’ money on fan tan.” The opium trade in Vietnam has grown dramatically in recent years. A few local young men have solved their employment problems by becoming drug runners and dealers, moving between the central highlands, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Others have turned to opium use out of boredom and frustration. As of early 1996, a new tourist hotel, a highway to the outer suburbs and a network of foreign representative offices were planned for the area. During my stay in the area, the loudspeaker system frequently advertised $20$30/month jobs in a local wooden clock factory and a sandal-cutting factory. According to the precinct president, this recruitment scheme met with limited success. I use pseudonyms for formal interview subjects, since anonymity was a condition of their participation. For an elite segment of the population, however, satellite access to the Star TV network offered an alternative to the limited offerings of state controlled television. Another highly popular drama that played on Vietnamese television in the early 1990s was the Chinese serial “Yearnings,” which Lisa Rofel discusses at length as a site of cultural engagement and contestation, in the ongoing transformation of China’s national political culture. See Lisa Rofel “‘Yearnings’: Televisual Love and Melodramatic Politics in Contemporary China,” American Ethnologist 21 (1994). Customers “purchased numbers” from Tuyet—usually based on birthdays, important death anniversaries or significant dates on the lunar calendar—which would then be played against the outcome of the weekly state lottery. Although nominally illegal, this widespread practice offered people a cheap way of gambling on the lottery without having to buy official tickets.


NOTES TO CHAPTER 5 1 See for instance a collection of articles in Vietnamese Women in Transition, edited by Kathleen Barry, London: Macmillan Press, 1996), in which Vietnamese feminists address the problems of rural women in agricultural development, female workers in urban industry, Vietnamese women in “scientific creation,” and “street women” in the informal economy. Although statistics cited by Le Thi (1996) show women making up more than 50% of the total population engaged in commerce, the problems of female merchants do not appear in any of these discussions. 2 For an interesting description of Hanoi at the time of French conquest see, Andre Masson, The Transformation of Hanoi, 1873–1888. (Madison: Wisconsin Papers on Southeast Asia, no. 8. 1983) 3 Max Clos’ account is undated. It is likely that he was writing in the months following the August Revolution of 1945, when the Viet Minh took control of the capital, setting off a nine year war with French colonial forces. 4 According to the Women’s Union’s historical account, within the 273 industrial factories targeted for restructuring by the new government, there were 884 bourgeoisie of which 385 were women, while in the 98 “commercial bases” targeted there were 178 bourgeoisie of which 108 were women. See Lich Su Phong Trao Phu Nu Viet Nam (Hanoi: Hoi Lien Hiep PhuNuHaNoi, 1989), 31. 5 Lich Su Phong Trao Phu Nu Viet Nam, 31. 6 Lich Su Phong Trao Phu Nu Viet Nam, 32. 7 Gareth Porter underscores the significance of ‘corrupt’ trade practices within the ‘transition’ economy of the early 1980s. Although, as I discussed in chapter 1, official condemnation of these practices in the press tended to focus on ‘evil’ state sellers and other deviant women who “could not stand the sacrifices of an honest worker’s life,” participation in private trade extended throughout the bureaucratic apparatus of the dysfunctional socialist economy. Porter explains: “The primary beneficiaries of this practice were middle- and high-ranking bureaucrats who obtained far more than their fair shares of goods and even managed to have goods and supplies distributed to friends and relatives. Bureaucrats dealing with economic management or having authority in production or trade units could also convert control over goods into substantial profits either by purchasing goods at subsidized prices for resale or simply stealing them and selling them on the free market” The Politics of Bureaucratic Socialism (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993), 61–62. 8 The possibility of having a family member work or study overseas usually depended on Party membership or other official affiliation. Gareth Porter cites an August 1989 report in Thanh Nien newspaper that showed that 89% of youth who went abroad under the labor cooperation agreements, which was considered a privilege, were members of the Communist Youth Union. Gareth Porter, The Politics of Bureaucratic Socialism, 91, n117. 9 From an interview with the leaders of the Hoan Kiem women’s Union and the female representatives from the district People’s Committee, on February 9, 1995, Hanoi.


10 “Du em buon dong ban tayl khong bang hoi tho cua chong em ra.” 11 “Chong phai lo viec Ion, con vo phai lo vice buon ban.” 12 Again, I use pseudonyms for interview respondents, since anonymity was a condition of their participation. 13 See Suzanne Brenner, “Why Women Rule the Roost,” in Bewitching Women Pious Men, ed. Aihwa Ong and Michael Peletz (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 37. 14 Children of divorced parents in Vietnam risk losing their place (their name and inheritance) in the patrilineal family order if they remain with their mother. A woman considering divorce form an abusive husband must carefully weigh the risks of losing custody of her children to the father’s family or, alternatively, cutting her children off from their patrilineal birthright, against the cost of remaining in a miserable marriage. 15 In 1995, average per capita income in Saigon was nearly 30% higher than that in Hanoi, which in turn outstripped that of the rest of the country by nearly 400%. 16 I should note that although Hy Van Luong focuses primarily on the economic and communal dimensions of ritual revitalization in the two northern villages, he does briefly note a Communist Party official’s observation in Hoai Thi village that “as villagers took part in riskier trading activities, they also began to rely more on religious rituals…in an effort to gain psychological security.” Hy Van Luong “Economic Reform and the Intensification of Rituals in Two North Vietnamese Villages, 1980–90,” in The Challenge of Reform in Indochina, ed. Borje Ljunggren (Cambridge: Harvard Institute for International Development, Harvard University Press, 1993), 289. 17 In Hanoi, at least, the cultural suppression of the past decades (combined with the historically weak position of Buddhist institutions under Vietnam’s SinoConfucian political order) has limited the younger generations’ knowledge of the rituals, santras and statues associated with the pagoda. In the South, the strong influence of Theravada Buddhism (coming from Thailand and Cambodia) on a more recently settled and loosely organized Vietnamese population has produced different patterns of Buddhist practice and adherence. The enormously significant political role of Buddhist associations and sects in South Vietnam throughout much of this century prior to 1975 testifies to the very dissimilar patterns of religious development between North and South. See Hue Tarn Ho Tai (1992) and Frances Fitzgerald (1972) for good historical accounts of Buddhism and politics in the South.


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VIETNAMESE LANGUAGE PERIODICALS Dai Doan Ket (Great Unity) Hanoi: Central Committee of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front. Hanh Phuc Gia Dinh (Happy family) (A monthly magazine supplement to Phu Nu Vietnam) Hanoi: The Vietnam Women’s Union. Hanoi Moi (TSIew Hanoi,) Hanoi: Municipal Office of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Hanoi City.


Khoa Hoc & Phu Nu (Women and Science) Hanoi: The Center for Research on Women and Science, Institute of Vietnamese Social Sciences. Lao Dong (Labor) Hanoi: Central Committee of the General Confederation of Labor. Lao Dong Ha Noi (Hanoi Labor) Hanoi Municipal Office of the General Confederation of Labor, Hanoi City Nguoi Hanoi (The Hanoian) Hanoi: Forum for Culture and Literature of the Capital. Nhan Dan (The People) Hanoi: Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Phu Nu Thu Do (Woman of the Capital) Hanoi: The Hanoi Women’s Union. Phu Nu Viet Nam (Vietnamese Woman) Hanoi: The Vietnam Women’s Union. Tien Phong (Vanguard) Ho Chi Minh City: Central Committee of the Communist Youth League. Tien Phong Chu Nhat (Vanguard—Sunday) Ho Chi Minh City: Central Committee of the Communist Youth League. Thong Tin Phu Nu (Women’s Information) (A family planning magazine) Hanoi: Hoi Lien Hiep Phu Nu Viet Nam. Van Nghe (Literature) Hanoi: Writers’ Union of Vietnam.



Agricultural cooperatives, 10, 30–34, 52, 68 American men, 199–200 American War years, air bombings, 41–42, 52, 59, 149 early years (1965–1968), 41–44 family separations/sacrifice, 47–48, 155 later war years (1969–1975), 52–54 Anagnost, Ann, 81–82, 95, 127 Army Museum (Hanoi), 1, 104–105 “Art for the masses,” 107, 110 August Revolution, 79, 105–107

Collective family, 32–36 moral conversion and, 34 Collectivization movement (1950s/ 1960s), 31, 40 postwar failures of, 68 Communist Party, 111 Confucian traditions, 6, 8, 15–16, 29, 69, 87, 90, 146, 153, 179 Consumerism, 120, 126 “Contract, 102,” 68, 74 Cultural politics, 1, 13 Cultural traditions, 89 Cuu Quoc (National Salvation, 16

Ba Dam Dang movement (Three Responsibilities), 42–43, 46, 52 Bao Ninh, 104 Beresford, Melanie, 67 Black market merchants, 182 Brenner, Suzanne, 196, 198 Buon Ban women, 183–184, 189, 191, 193, 195 “Businesswomen in the center,” 179 Butler, Judith, 13, 147, 174, 208

Dai Kim, as model village, 101–102 “Daughter-in-law’s Regret, A,” 123 Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), 27–27 collective family and, 32–36 early American War years (1965– 1968), 41–44 Five Goods campaign, 38–41, 76 later war years (1969–1975), 52–67 merchant as national deviant, 49–52 modern moral authority of, 36–38 personal lives and political lessons, 36–38 postwar economy (1975–1985), 67– 77 socialist image, 54–58 women and socialist transformation (1954–1964), 29–41

CARE, 84 Chaterjee, Partha, 7, 121 Civil society vs. public sphere, 111–112 Civility, China’s wenming campaign, 81–82, 95, 127 as modern national morality, 81–84 241


Dien Bien Phu victory, 105 Doi moi (“renovations”), 1–3, 10–12, 16– 17, 21 77, 84, 110, 169, 202 Donzelot, Jacques, 81, 103 Duong Thu Huong, 104 Dyer, Richard, 113 “Early Rice Harvest,” 33 Education individual status and, 63–66 women’s scientific advancement, 75 Ethnic Chinese, 68 Family planning campaign, 86, 109 Family values, 4–5, 12 Female employment, 177–179 Female morality, 8, 125 Femininity Buon Ban women and cultural standard, 183–188 heroic femininity, 44–46, 49 modern national identity and, 15 nationalist discourses on, 4–5 national femininity, 10, 17, 36, 44, 148, 171, 174, 199 old-young divide, 122–123 rural-urban conflict, 122–123 sovereign modernity and, 6–10 Five Goods movement, 38–41, 76 Folk heroes, 6 Foreign investment/investors, 3, 10 Foucault, Michel, 137, 143 “Four virtues” of Confucian morality, 29, 61, 90, 172 “Fulfill One’s Filial Duty” (“BaoHieu”), 127–127 Gender equality, 9, 13, 22, 58–59, 74, 86, 148, 176, 179, 181 Gender identity, 147, 213 national hegemony and, 13–14 in nationalist movements, 7, 9, 17– 18 General Retires, The (Thiep), 126–127

Geneva agreement (1954), 27 Guest workers, 18, 145, 193 Haberman, Jurgen, 111–112 Hanoi Women’s Union, 3, 17, 19, 21, 31, 83, 118, 211 “Happiness,” 34 Happy Family campaign, 91–104 Ba Dinh district contest, 93–95 Dai Kim contest, 101–102 Dong Da district, 96–100 Soc Son district, 106–108 Heroic femininity, 44–46, 49 “Heroic Mothers” exhibit, 1–3, 104–105 Ho Chi Minh, 6, 8, 27, 30, 79, 107–108 Hoan Kiem women merchants, 177–179 American men/leisure fantasies, 199– 200 Buon Ban women and cultural standard, 183–184, 189, 191, 193, 195, 207 contesting national femininities, 193– 207 doi moi era, 182 envy of Saigon housewives, 202–203 generational factors/conflicts of, 179 new merchant class, 180–183 official (masculine) work and marital discord, 197–199 on praying and cheating, 203–205 profit-seekers vs., 185–188 recent history of, 180–183 tax collectors, 194–199 women’s changing roles, 188–193 Hoang Dao, 119 Huang, Philip, 112 Hy Van Luong, 89, 204 Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), 6–7 Industrialization-first policies (1970s), 74– 75 “Influential and Powerful Wife, An,”127 Joint enterprises, 31


Labor heroines, 43, 83 Land reform, 30 Le Duan (Party General Secretary), 27, 48 Le Thi, 144–145 Lockhart, Greg, 119 MaiThuc, 118–121 Market reforms cultural dilemmas and, 1–3, 11, 169 female desire and “disease of money,” 128–133 middle-class woman, 128, 132–137 moral/social problems of, 3, 22 postwar years, 68 progress vs. domesticity, 74 women and politics of, 10–14, 84 women’s economic ambitions and, 130–134, 169, 211 Marr, David, 89 Materialism, 5, 177 Mati Thuc, 121 “Memory of Trust, A,” 65 Moral training, 125 “Morality of the New Vietnamese Woman,” 52 Mosse, George, 7 National Committee on Population Control and Family Planning, 86 National Confederation of Trade Unions, 52 National femininity, 10, 14–15, 17, 36, 44, 123, 148, 171, 174, 199 National hegemony, gender identity, and 13–14 National identity, 15, 146 National interest, 112 National Liberation Front (NLF), 41, 67 National modernity,5, 76 National morality, 164–168 National Resistance, 149 Nationalism, 4–5, 7, 11

New Vietnamese woman, 27, 38, 41, 69, 76, 136 doi moi period, 78 Five Goods movement, 38–41, 76 heroic femininity, 44–46 love and sacrifice, 46–49 socialist image, 54–58 Three Responsibilities movement, 42–43, 46, 52, 76 young urban females, 54 Newspapers, 115–117; see also Print media as propaganda, 16, 28 Nguoi Hanoi, 127 Nguyen Huy Thiep, 126–127 Nguyen Kim Cue, 84–85, 90 Nguyen Thi Ky, 86 Novel Without a Name (Duong ThuHuong), 104 “Old Friend, An,” 35 Oshin (Japanese) serial, 168–171 Patriarchy, 7, 190 socialist state and, 9–10, 60, 62 People’s Armed Forces, 1 Per capita income, 3 Phu Nu Thu Do (Capital Woman), 17, 113, 117–120 Phu Nu Viet Nam (Vietnamese Woman), 16, 20, 75, 122, 209 American war and personal sacrifice, 47–49 collective family and, 32–33 on “disease of money,” 130–130 on equality and personal freedoms, 58–59 Five Goods campaign, 38–41 merchant as national deviant, 49–50, 132–132 mothers new role, 61–63 “new woman” and, 27–38 private selling, 36


socialist image and Western dress, 54, 57–58, 66 state saleswoman and corruption, 70– 72 Phuong Lien precinct doi moi changes and moral challenges, 150, 159–164 employment in, 151–152 national ideals vs. domestic realities, 163 national morality, 164–168 national partisans, 153–158 overview of, 148–149 Resistance generation, 157–158, 163 social evils of, 148 tradition and aspiration, “Oshin” serial, 168–171 as “uncivilized neighborhood,”148– 153 women on the margins, 171–175 women’s role in, 153–158 Polygamy, 31 Population control, 86–89 Porter, Gareth, 69 Postwar economy, 67–76 Print media civil society vs. public sphere, 111– 112 editorial freedom of, 111 evolution of, 15–17 female desire and “disease of money,” 128–133 idealized mothers, daughters/ daughter-in-laws, 121–126 instructional messages, 16–17, 28–29 “liberated” middle class woman, 126– 128 market forces transformation of, 110– 111, 144 middle-class aspirants, 133–137 newspapers, 16, 28, 115–117 nostalgia as social critique, 120–121 propaganda to public opinion, 115– 117

“social reality” investigations, 117– 120, 137–138 social/economic divisions, 115 women and governmental entertainment, 113, 144 Private enterprises,1–3, 10 Private merchants/selling, 34–36, 132, 177, 181 as national deviant, 49–52 state saleswoman/pragmatic woman, 70–73 Propaganda, 16, 28, 88, 115–117 traditional cultural forms for, 89–91 Public sphere, 111–112 “Rectification of Errors,” 30 Resistance War (1945–1954), 8, 30 “Returning to a New Place,” 44–45 Rofel, Lisa, 9, 137, 174 Saigon women, 201–202 Save the Children, 84 Scott, Joan, 15, 17 Second Five Year Plan, 75 “Silent Wives,” 120 Sino-Confucian state system, 6 Sixth Party Congress (of 1986), 10 “Sneaky contracts” (khoan chui), 52 Social egalitarianism ideal, 64 Social evils, 3, 22, 34, 84–85, 89, 96, 103, 117–118, 135, 146, 148, 174, 198 “Social reality” investigations, 117–120 Social responsibility, 121 Socialist state, 4–5, 10–11 collective family, 32–36 early American War years (1965– 1968), 41–44 merchant as national deviant, 49–52 patriarchy and, 9–10 personal lives and political lessons, 36–38 postwar economy (1975–1985), 67– 76


progress vs. domesticity, 74–76 socialist image, 54–58 women in early DRV (1954–1964), 29–41 working class consciousness, 54 Sorrows of War (Bao Ninh), 104 State saleswoman, 70–71 “Story of Miss Duyen,” 45 Subsidy era, 120, 159, 172

United Nations, International Year of the Family, 91

feminine folk heroes, 6 Five Goods movement, 38–41 idealized mother, 122–123 ideological reform (1950s) and, 27 modernization/Westernization of dress code, 57–58 mother-daughter relationship, 33 mothers new role, 61–63 nationalist cause and, 7–8 “new Vietnamese woman,” 27, 155 personal lives and political lessons, 36–38 politics of market transition, 10–14 pre-Revolutionary society, 29 in revolutionary struggles, 6–7, 104– 105 socialist transformations (1954– 1964), 29–41 traditional roles of, 4, 8, 11, 22, 27, 29, 33, 155–156 wayward generation of later Waryears, 52, 77 young urban females, 54–58, 66 Vu Trong Hung, 119 Vuong Thi Hanh, 90

Van minh (“being civilized”), 81 Van Nghe (Literature and Arts), 16, 20, 27–28, 33–35, 40, 127 on educated women, 65–66 heroic femininity, 44–45 Verdery, Katherine, 9 Vietnam Courier, 115–116 Vietnamese women; see also Hoan Kiem women merchants; Phuong Lien precinct collective family and, 32–36 early American War years (1965– 1968), 41–44 as emancipatory subjects, 8 female business activity, 185–188, 198 female desire and “disease of money,” 128–133

Western capitalism, 82, 199–200 Western dress, 54, 57–58, 66, 194 William, Raymond, 14 Women’s rights, 7, 9 revolutionary agenda and, 27–27 Women’s Union, 16–17, 27–28, 32–33, 49, 120, 209–211 civility as modern national morality, 81–84, 113, 127, 135, 145,211–212 defining national feminine style,57– 61 family education and improvement, 85 “Five Goods” campaign, 38 on “good mother” and sacrifice, 48 as grassroots organization, 109 Happy Family campaign, 91–104 later War years, 54, 58–59

Tarn Lam, 119 Tax collectors, 194–199 Three Responsibilities (Ba Dam Dang) movement, 42–43, 46, 52, 200–201 “Three submissions” of Confucianism, 8, 29 Tiger economy, 169 To Thi Phuc, 91–92, 101 Tran Xuan, 127–127 Trong Lang, 119 Trung sisters, 6 Tsing, Anna, 174


population control and family planning, 86–89 on “pragmatic” woman, 71–74, 77 renovations in, 84–86 “restructuring” process, 181 social agenda of, 79–81 Three Responsibilities (Ba Dam Dang) movement, 42–43, 46, 52 traditional culture, use of,89–90 wayward generation/young urban females, 52, 54–58, 66, 77 on women’s education, 66, 75 women’s income earning practices, 130 Yang, Mayfair, 112