Vietnamese culture characterized as ‘all for the common good’

By Linh Do   June 12, 2021 | 07:00 pm GMT+7
Vietnamese culture characterized as ‘all for the common good’
A group of Vietnamese youths take a photo at a Color Me Run event in Hanoi. Photo by Shutterstock/Vietnam Stock Images.
Often faulted for its lack of intellectual depth, Vietnamese culture is nevertheless filled with practical minds who think for social good, a conference has heard.

Defining Vietnamese intellectual tradition as "communitarian pragmatism," culture researcher Ngo Tu Lap recently called for more research into local thought.

Contrary to Western tradition, Asian peoples like the Vietnamese don’t often name, define or "designate" the world, Dr. Ngo Tu Lap, director of the International Francophone Institute under Vietnam National University (VNU) in Hanoi told an e-conference, pointing out the intellectual risks inherent in such efforts.

Vietnamese culture, for instance, includes 54 different languages and customs, making any act of generalization reductive and controversial, according to Lap.

However, the leading scholar, who has published extensively in a variety of fields from fiction and poetry, translation to criticism and theory, highlights the need for naming and defining as a necessary, albeit imperfect tool.

"We should define and recognize our distinct characters, both good and bad, to know how to act accordingly," Lap told the e-conference, titled "Naming Vietnamese Thought," a well-attended event held as part of an ongoing series on philosophy by VNU’s public forum Scientist Links.

The event saw a diverse turnout that included foreign scholars, which Lap said was a delightful surprise and suggested public interest in the topic.

According to the scholar, in Vietnamese culture, big and small ethnicities have co-existed and interacted over a long course of history. Over the years, many authors have attempted to sketch this common culture’s characteristics.

In popular culture, famous journalist and translator Nguyen Van Vinh in the early 20th century listed 10 quintessential Vietnamese traits including "hard-working, but easily satisfied," "creative, but lacking in far sight," "dexterous, but not perfectionist," "practical, dislike theorizing," and "industrious, fast to learn, but seldom get to the bottom of things."

The approach of Lap and his team, which he said was only preliminary and meant to lay a foundation, focuses on characterizing Vietnamese thought itself, differentiating it from other traditions, as well as locating its origin.

Despite its lack of defining authors whose ideas were written down in texts like Plato and Descartes in the West, Vietnamese culture has its thinkers whose thought may be characterized as practical rather than idealistic, emotional rather than rational, and collectivistic rather than individualistic, Lap noted.

He said Vietnamese thought, essentially comprised of "collective wisdom," lies within the dialectical Asian framework that treats knowledge as the art of adaptation, rather than the discovery of objective truth as in the structuralist Western framework, and that to learn is to know, not to define.

While traditional Vietnamese research often identifies geo-cultural factors like natural conditions and means of production as the cause of Vietnamese thought, Lap emphasizes the easily neglected influence of language, especially grammar, a linguistic aspect that tends to remain stable over time.

For instance, different from synthetic Indo-European languages that have stringent rules about logic and word formation to indicate grammatical categories like gender, number and tense, thus to speak is to carry out a prepared plan, Vietnamese is an analytic language that more flexibly uses the order of words, which are monosyllabic and don’t change form, to convey syntactic relations.

So to Vietnamese, to speak is to respond to situations. One can always start a sentence with a word, then add one word after another almost ad infinitum to convey meanings, and along the way, simply change the grammatical functions of earlier words.

Doctor and Associate Professor Tran Thi Hanh, who teaches philosophy at the Hanoi University of Social Sciences and Humanities, also under VNU, pointed out young Vietnamese’s tendency toward individualism in contemporary culture, suggesting some change to Lap’s observation about Vietnamese community values.

According to Lap, not just in Vietnam but all over the world, human beings are increasingly becoming individualistic, attached to information technology and disjointed images, losing their distinctively human ability to think. This makes philosophy the most important subject that should be taught in Vietnamese schools, he stressed.

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