The Role of Women in Vietnamese Society
The role of women in society is a controversial issue that is dependent on certain historical and social context of each nation. Gender inequality exists in every society to a certain extent. In Vietnamese culture, the role of women was always considered equal to the men’s one. However, due to some historical circumstances, this status was influenced by a definite social and cultural context. One of the main sources that help to obtain the information about the role of women in Vietnamese society is its national literature. The evidence of the role of women in the development of the Vietnamese nation mindset is depicted in such works as The Tale of Kieu by Nguyen Du, the story about Trung Sisters and the film The Scent of Green Papaya directed by Tran Anh Hung.
The question of the role and status of women in family life and society was a significant issue in terms of social integration of Vietnamese society. It is worth noting that Vietnamese women occupied a special position in the development processes of Vietnamese society. In Vietnamese families, women had responsibilities equally with their husbands and sons. However, these facts do not negate the existence of inequality between men and women in the period of the feudal regime, which was based on Confucianism. The Confucian principle that stated the inferior position of women toward man establishes the dependence of women on fathers, husbands, and sons. Nevertheless, this ideology was not preserved in Vietnam. In Vietnamese families, wives and mothers were called “household generals” that stored the keys in the chests and helped the head of the family, namely father or husband, to manage family affairs. However, the influence of Chinese ideology reinforced the issue of gender inequality that remains undefined till today.
The Tale of Kieu by Nguyen Du is an epic poem that introduces the controversial image of women in terms of Confucian philosophy. The author represents the story about a young and talented girl Kieu who had to engage in prostitution and experience other hardships in order to help her father and brother to avoid the jail. On the one hand, with the help of Kieu’s character, the author depicts the cruelty and unfaithfulness of the Confucian system of values. The extreme sense of obligation made the young girl suffer and sell herself as her responsibility in relation to her family. The line “She proved her loyal heart,…She paid all debts” represents Kieu’s role in her family, where she had to prove her love by devoting life to expiate family’s sins (Du 2910). Another woman’s function in the story is represented through the line “True daughter, you upheld the women’s role” (Du 3118). Hereby, the author adopts the stated Confucian attitude to women whose main aim is to serve her family in order to provide its welfare. However, such interpretation of women’s role cannot be considered as the author’s praise for Confucian philosophy as it contradicts the initial aim of Confucian literature, namely the morality. On the contrary, Nguyen Du depicts a strong and fearless woman who managed to sacrifice her own dignity to help her family having the faith and strong spirit. With the help of Kieu character, the author wants to represent women’s place in society that made her vulnerable to all life circumstances due to gender inequality. The author represents such aspects of female status as victimization and power depravation in the male society. However, all these circumstances were introduced in order to reveal the concealed inner strength of the women’s potential that is underestimated and oppressed by certain patriarchal beliefs and values.
A strong and dominant image of Vietnamese women is maintained by the story about Trung Sisters. They staged a successful revolt against the colonial authorities of China, created the state and ruled it for more than three years, until they were defeated by the Chinese empire completely subordinate to their country. One of the main reasons of rebellion was the same controversial gender concept that distinguished Vietnamese society from the Chinese one. Chinese society tended to follow the Confucian system of values that propagated the subordinate position of women. On the contrary, the Vietnamese society was characterized by the leading role of women in the public and family areas, when they could even inherit the property. Such dissonance of social hierarchy deeply bewildered Chinese authorities when they faced the rebellion headed by two women. Trung Trac and her sister Trung Nhi were the daughters of the noble general. After execution of Trac’s husband by Chinese authorities caused by his rebellion against high taxes, his wife staged the rebellion of 80,000 people, mainly women, and defeated Chinese army (Szczepanski). Although later the sisters’ state was defeated by Chinese army, they made a great contribution to the creation of the historical image of Vietnamese woman identity. They positioned women as the fighters and those who were not dependent on the males’ power. In fact, sisters were not fighting for some feministic issues, but they were struggling for their state. Thus, such purpose of their rebellion represents Vietnamese women as self-sufficient personalities who are able to equally support their state in terms of political, social or other significant kinds of struggles.
Tran Anh Hung reveals another meaning of women’s social status in Vietnam. In the movie The Scent of Green Papaya, the author represents the life of a girl Mui. At the age of 10, she had to leave her mother and find the work in the family somewhere in the town. She is pictured as calm, modest and hardworking girl who was carefully fulfilling all responsibilities without any sense of inferiority. Hereby, she perceived each task as the ordinary state of things. Apparently, her obedience and silent behavior created the image of the totally subordinate woman who reconciled with her status that corresponded to the Confucian philosophy. However, the main idea is implemented in the supportive episodes. For instance, the episode when a pianist was teaching the girl literacy represents the director’s belief in the male-female equality and the right of a woman to be as sophisticated as a man. The last phrase in the movie when Mui was reading about the water and expressing her interest in the ability of a cherry tree to obtain the initial shape after each time it is bent reveals the deep sense of women’s identity (The Scent of Green Papaya). The author believes in women’s inner courage that helps her to overcome all difficulties and preserve her initial beauty. Moreover, Mui described the process when buds of cherry tree flower in the shadow (The Scent of Green Papaya). Here, the shadow can be corresponded to the secondary role of women that to author’s mind does not violate her ability to be the bright personality and make her contribution (i.e. buds) to society.
In general, it is possible to see the influence of all the three discussed works on the Vietnamese identity and its attitude to the women’s role in society. The Tale of Kieu represented the consequences of the extreme obedience that was supported by Confucian philosophy. Due to this, contemporary Vietnamese identity is more influenced by the Western philosophy with its gender equality as current Vietnamese society does not tend to oppress women’s identity and make her pay the debts of her family as Confucian philosophy required. The story about Trung Sisters influenced Vietnamese perception of the women-military service relationships. Women tended to take part in both Vietnam War and war against French colonists in 20th century, when a great number of female soldiers joined the army (Szczepanski). Hence, Women's Armed Force Corps (WAFC) was created and is existing nowadays, giving Vietnamese women the possibility to represent themselves as soldiers. Thus, it can be said that Sisters’ image shaped the pro-image of woman-warrior capable of protecting her property on a par with males, and it gave the opportunity for contemporary women to engage in the political and military fields. However, Trung Sisters’ image provided a double standard for the modern Vietnamese society; thus, although some women can take part in military service, they have to match this image with the existing treatment of women as the subordinate individuals. As for the picture The Scent of Green Papaya, it introduces a new concept of marriage that began to be considered not as a deal between the parents of the bride and groom but as a free will of two people. Moreover, it emphasizes and therefore maintains the modern Vietnamese values relating to the importance of learning. Furthermore, it provides the secondary role of women’s identity that influenced contemporary society to some extent.
The reason why women’s characters took the primary place in Vietnamese literature can be explained by the controversial interpretation of women’s role in society that is caused by the lasting effect of the Chinese culture on the Vietnamese beliefs. In a country where the war for national survival lasted for a long time and took the men to the fields of 146 battles, the role of women as a keeper of domestic comfort and the one who protects and runs the household obtained the great respect. In addition, the determination of the role of women in the society remained an unsolved issue due to the struggle between the long-term Chinese influence and initial Vietnamese values. In fact, it caused the permanent usage of women’s characters as protagonists as an attempt to define her deserved social status as it was done in The Tale of Kieu and The Scent of Green Papaya. On the other hand, it can be suggested that the character of a strong but underestimated woman is a symbol of Vietnam that was also oppressed for a long time, regardless of its national courage. The issue is depicted in the Trung Sisters’ struggle with Chinese authorities’ policy who managed to show the women’s courage on the battlefield.
To conclude, the image of women in Vietnamese literature occupies the significant place. The main reason is that women’s identity status in Vietnamese society is considered controversial due to the historical context of the nation. Therefore, the authors of the national literature and the discussed works in particular tended to use the women’s image to represent the independence and courage of Vietnamese women in any social context, while implying the image of the Vietnam’s political and cultural struggle.