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The Machinery of Vietnamese Art and Literature in the Post-Renovation, Post-Communist, and Post-Modern Period

The Machinery of Vietnamese Art and Literature in the Post-Renovation, Post-Communist, and Post-Modern Period

Pham Thi Hoài, one of contemporary Vietnam's most influential writers, analyzes literature in Vietnam today

Richard Gunde Email RichardGunde

In a talk on February 4, presented for the International Institute’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Pham Thi Hoài discussed the place of literature in Vietnam today. Ms. Pham, the center's Distinguished Visitor for 2004, was brought to California as part of a joint project with the Center for Southeast Asia Studies at UC Berkeley.

Pham’s talk was not just about literature, it was literature. Time after time, as the audience sat in respectful silence, and as perhaps minds began to wander -- which is common in academic colloquia -- as if she clapped her hands Pham interjected a phrase or sentence or metaphor that was completely unexpected, novel, and even startling, but at the same time was completely apposite and apprehensible and so perfect that it elicited smiles of delight. This is what is called artistry.

Pham’s artistry was deployed immediately, right at the start of her talk, where, instead of merely stating the theme, she led the listener to it, through a quick recitation of the bloody horror that was quotidian life for children during the Vietnam War:

In Quang Tri, our army and people were winning big battles. On the loudspeaker, our army and people won as regularly as the sun rises. At school, a student who earned high marks was compared to a brave soldier who killed Americans and their South Vietnamese lackeys. A high mark in math equaled one dead American. A high mark in woodshop equaled one dead South Vietnamese lackey. The enemy’s blood formed a river in my report card, the enemy’s bones, a mountain. In a neighboring town, the prodigy poet Tran Dang Khoa -- who is a year older than I -- was writing verse that inspired the nation, a nation in which every person -- young or old -- knew who they were and the reasons why they should smile if they were to die the following day. During this time, it seemed that all progressive members of humanity wished to become Vietnamese.

It is against this background that one must understand Pham’s observation that "in the thirty years since then, the world order has undergone many changes -- changes profound enough to have transformed even the most conservative people." But these changes, Pham emphasized, have not freed us from history: "Even those things that seem to belong completely to oneself, to have been nurtured from within and that appear to be self-generated are the product of changing external circumstances."

Renovation and Post-Renovation

The most profound "changing external circumstances" that affected Vietnamese literature in the past two decades are the so-called literary Renovation movement, which began in 1986 and "reached its peak in 1988-89 and had no official ending," and the post-Renovation period, from the mid-1990s to today.

The Renovation has often been described as an "untying" of art and literature. But in Pham’s analysis, the untying was not total -- the knots were loosened, not undone. Literature and art were allowed a certain "space of freedom," but this space was "marked by invisible flags which Vietnamese writers had been well-trained to perceive." The "task for the post-Renovation era is to determine precisely the parameters of this space for freedom for literature and to determine the circumstances in which the government maintains a right to interfere with literature."

Broadly, the parameters today are clear, according to Pham. "You can do whatever you want as long as you avoid politics." As Pham put it, "In Vietnam, the practice of segregating literature from politics has a stature akin to the separation of church and state." Since mixing literature and politics remains taboo, the writer’s horizon is still constrained. But, as Pham pointed out, as narrow as the post-Renovation may be, it still "represents a new and fresh horizon that no one had seen before."

A Literary Crisis

If this is so, then one might have expected an explosion of creative writing. But that did not happen, "or it happened only to a disappointing degree. Or when it happened, the outcome was very odd."

To illustrate what she meant, Pham offered an example. In the small town where, as a child, she spent the war years, there was a tiny library, containing less than a thousand volumes.

The librarian . . . was a voracious reader, just like me, a child without any toys. Together we read that entire library from top to bottom and then over again from the bottom to the top. Over and over again we read the words of Hans Christian Andersen, Shakespeare, Thackary, Pushkin, Tolstoi, Gogal, Sholokhov, Mayakovski, Gorki, Balzac, Hugo, Stendhal, Maupassant, Molière, Aragon, Romain Roland, Robert L. Stevenson, and Cervantes. We read Heine through a translation done by Te Hanh, Schiller through a translation done by The Lu, as well as Ibsen, Pablo Neruda, Hemingway, Jack London, and of course, classical Chinese writers.

During the "years of the march toward socialism," what was translated was "carefully filtered and wrenched from their original contexts." Nonetheless, it was "was not such poor spiritual food for Vietnamese readers. Mayakovski, Gorki, Ehrenburg, and Fadaev are far from mediocre authors."

But, ironically, the years of peace and greater openness and greater material abundance "have provoked a crisis in the field of literary translation." Pham quoted the writer Nguyen Ngoc who has claimed that "the foundation for serious literary translation has been shattered by pressure from a new translation market that follows a brutal commercial tendency which the state has enthusiastically unleashed." The solution, according Nguyen, is a "a national strategic plan for translation," which the state must organize and lead.

Pham disagrees: "I do not think that the market in Vietnam is responsible for the recent impoverishment of the field of translation. And it is hard to imagine the current Vietnamese government taking the lead in this work of spiritual development." If commercialization were running rampant, then the market would be flooded with such things as Lolita and the Vietnamese Women’s News would have been replaced with a Vietnamese version of Playboy. Instead, "the un-marketable collected works of Le Duan [1908-1986, a founding member of the Indochinese Communist Party] and Truong Chinh [1907-1988, a leading Vietnamese communist intellectual] continue to be published while the work of global thinkers -- not only Western ones -- are not." "In terms of contemporary relevance for Vietnam," Pham noted, "[the work of Le Duan and Truong Chinh] is on par with that of Marcus Aurelius."

The problem, in Pham’s eyes, is that "the beast of material interest" has not really been unleashed. "It is tied up with a chain long enough to dominate a limited domain, but beyond the length of the chain lies another domain -- a domain that is larger, more experienced, and more barbarous than even the domain of the market: the domain of contemporary politics." Thus, "the principle of literary freedom which states that 'One can do whatever one wants as long as it is not political,' when applied to the field of translation inevitably means that one has the freedom to translate Jin Yong (Kim Dung)*, but not George Orwell."

Indeed, the flood of translations of Jin Yong have "crushed numerous writers and translators. . . . The Vietnamese environment has a strange tendency to merge the agent of positive change and the executioner into a single person – the greater the contribution, the more serious the crime."

A Cultural Void

The problem of Vietnamese literature in the post-Renovation period is not simply a problem of the market running unchecked, nor is it simply a problem of political repression. In fact, it also is not simply a problem of liberation from repression, in the sense of the state ending its subsidies to publication.
Where the Vietnamese state has turned off the financial tap and let privatization take over, the market has boomed. But not the market for literature: "Privatization in the field of culture and communication has not advanced as radically as the privatization of toilet paper, dish washing detergent, liquid soap, shampoo, bath soap, toothpaste and tampons. Obviously this is not because the national demand for clean laundry, bathing, shampooing, and douching is more urgent, although the unbelievable density of advertisements for such products may make one think this way."

In Pham’s opinion, what keeps literature from booming along with toilet paper is the cultural void enforced by the state. "Despite the absence [of the state], it refuses to allow anyone else to replace it or to carry out the work at all. The post-Renovation period is indeed one of strange empty spaces, of absent authority, of a train without an engine or an engineer. . . The old prestige of ideology, of systems of thought and of certain spiritual values, have been abandoned, but the empty spaces have been sealed shut, leaving no opportunity for new sources of prestige or value to take their place."

The sealing of these "empty spaces" is accomplished by a measure of repression – works can be, and in fact are, banned; writers can be jailed; and so on – although the repression is immeasurably lighter and less terrifying than before the Renovation, plus a measure of self-censorship. Even self-censorship is problematic, in large part because limits to what is possible and what is not are unclear. "There are no longer progressive and conservative sides, or leftists and rightists -- different positions merge, everything is permitted and not permitted simultaneously. Vietnamese literature today may be seen as both open and peaceful, and closed and violent."

Freedom of Expresson?

Are Vietnamese writers today free to write what they think? This question, Pham said, is often asked by foreigners. But the question itself is wrong. What should be asked, Pham believes, is: Are Vietnamese writers today free to think?

The freest brain in Vietnam does not belong to a writer, but to the World Security Newspaper (An ninh the gioi). In a Kafkaesque irony, World Security is published by the Ministry of Public Security (in other words, the police), but is the most sensationalistic publication in Vietnam. It is both the most popular, and the most orthodox. Its writers have "a freedom unmatched by any other periodical." But this freedom is "precisely because the police set the limits on what is permissible, appropriate, and orthodox. The police are the ones who blow the horns. Even if they blow them at the wrong time, it does not matter since there are no other horn blowers." Thus, writers are attracted to World Security Newspaper. As long as they observe the limits, they are free to say what they wish. Moreover, they know that what they write will reach an audience -- World Security Newspaper "has the most readers and pays writers as well as the New York Times."

In this strange world of "freedom," writers almost become the playthings of the police. Pham recounted that the novel The Time of the False Profit of Nguyen Vien was rejected by almost every publishing house before it was finally accepted -- by the Police Publishing House. Later, it was also the police who issued the order banning the book.

Work to be Done

Pham ended her talk as she began it, with a personal note about the town in which she lived more than thirty years ago. In December 2003, Pham revisited the town. The tiny library was gone. In fact, Pham said, "there is not a book store in the entire town, no newspaper stand, no internet cafes . . . . In every house I visited, there was no sign of printed work except for textbooks in children’s school bags and calendars on the walls. The only exceptions were the houses owned by members of the provincial association of art and literature and the head of the local poetry club."

As depressing as this scene must have been for a writer, it hardly crushed Pham. She mentioned that she was accompanied on that trip by a French friend. The friend asked her whether she was happy to be a Vietnamese writer nowadays. Pham replied, "No matter what, it is not as unfortunate as being a French writer. There is not yet the obstacle of a Proust or a Céline in Vietnamese literature. There is still much work to do."

* * *

*Jin Yong (aka Louis Cha) (b. 1924), who has been described as China’s most popular contemporary author, has written fourteen martial arts novels and around 20,000 newspaper articles (editorials, reviews, etc.). His novels have been translated into Korean, Bahasa Indonesia, Vietnamese, Japanese, and English, and have been adapted in countless movies and TV programs.


Pham Thi Hoài is a contemporary Vietnamese author, best known for her first novel Thien Su, or The Crystal Messenger, which was first published in Hanoi in 1988, and subsequently banned by the Vietnamese government. This book has since been translated into seven languages, and was awarded the Frankfurt Literaturpreis in 1993 as the best novel by a woman writer from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Since 1988, Pham Thi Hoai has published two other novels and three collections of short stories, all in Vietnamese. Her short stories and essays have appeared in journals in the United States, Australia, Switzerland ,and Germany, and in several anthologies of Vietnamese fiction. She is also a noted translator of German literature and has translated works by Kafka, Brecht, and Durrenmat into Vietnamese. She currently divides her time between Berlin and Hanoi.

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