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History Of Viet Nam

Democracy In Traditional Vietnamese Society

1, 2, 3

Prof. Dang Thuc Nguyen


The first notable of the village was the Chairman of the Commune Council. He was generally an honourable old scholar, in charge of the ritual ceremonies. He was the referee, the Justice of Peace and had charge of the private budget of the commune. This budget showing the distribution of expenditures and privileges among all the inhabitants of the commune was carefully kept away from the central authorities. Taxes levied by the central administration were divided among all the inhabitants. The properties of the commune which consisted of the inalienable common land were also divided among all. In addition to general expenditures due to the central administration there were expenses entailed by works for the community, individual contributions to the village ceremonies, the share deducted from agricultural produce for the executive agent of the commune. There were also the lots of common lands granted to families having members serving in the army and the share reserved for all people who could no longer work and for needy families. One can then say that unemployment and begging did not exist in old Vietnam since each village had to provide for all its inhabitants. All the members of the commune were placed under the supervision of the Council of Notables which was not only responsible for the good management of the public affairs, but also exercised a kind of general tutelage over the young people, the windows and the crippled, and by doing so, preserved order and morality behind the bamboo curtain. Relations with the central administration were carried on by the Village Chief (Lý-Trưởng) who was, in fact, only a minor notable in the commune. He was the official agent between the central administration and the autonomous community. He was elected by the Council of Notables and his election was submitted to the approval of the mandarin. He was charged with transmitting all the requests from the commune to the central authorities and transmitting orders from the central authorities to the commune. He was held responsible if these orders were not carried out. He was in charge of the police and had to inform the higher authorities of the offences perpetrated in his village. He was also responsible for collecting and paying the taxes owed by the village community.

Several communes joined to form a canton. Each canton was headed by a Canton chief elected by the notables of the communes and approved by the provincial representative of the central power. The canton chief, representing the population had, like the village chief, the charge of defending the interests of the canton before the central administration and of ensuring that the administrative orders were carried out. He was also the natural referee in those affairs of common law which the family chiefs or village chiefs could not solve. He was the referee who judged according to the local customs to which as the saying goes, the royal decrees must yield.

The political freedom of the people did not go beyond the canton in the old Vietnamese society.

The village or commune was thus the real political, economic and social cell of the society. This was also a religious cell. As each family had its altars devoted to the cult of ancestors, each village had its Đình or temple for the worship of a titular God which was the very impersonation of Earth as shown in the Chinese name of “Village” (composed of God and Earth).

This cult constituted the official religion of the villagers. A proverb says:

“Each village had its own titular god as each river has its own.”

This cult of personified natural forces created among the inhabitants of the same village a powerful solidarity which was yet strengthened by the cult of ancestors in the family. In all times, the Vietnamese peasants have been attached to their native land by a magic power.

A Western observer has noted rightly that “the commune present a particularly interesting mechanism and one can understand that such a complex and democratic organization, having been in existence since time immemorial and in which a notable can never act alone, must not be changed, otherwise the country might fall into confusion. The instrument is old but it is good; it suits the people.”

At the present time when throughout the world, the individualistic democracy born of free industrial competition is regressing it is interesting to study this democratic communal organization based essentially on the peasant community, which has drawn its vitality from a spiritualist socialism.

1, 2, 3

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