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