Kathryn Ngo

History 176B

Research Paper


French colonialism in Vietnam lasted more than six decades. The French justified their colonial rule of Vietnam as a civilizing mission. They took upon the “white man’s burden” and claimed it was their responsibility to introduce modern political ideas, social reforms, industrial methods and new technologies to these undeveloped countries. This civilizing mission, however, was to hide their true intentions of profit and economic exploitation. French colonial officials focused on their own interests and sought to benefit from their rule in any way they could. Vietnam’s thriving subsistence economy soon transformed into proto-capitalist, focused primarily on land ownership, increased production, exports, and low wages. Under French colonial rule, the Vietnamese no longer worked to provide for themselves, but rather for the benefit of their French overlords. Despite Vietnam’s exploitation of all their resources however, Vietnam experienced both cultural and social modernization all in the same.

Research Methodology:

This research paper will focus on the results of French colonial rule and its effects on Vietnamese society in terms of traditional thought and Confucian ideals. I wish to research whether or not traditional Confucian values are still upheld in modern Vietnamese society and how it is changing over the years. To aide my research, I will be referring to primary resources including published articles and interviews with multiple Vietnamese residents in both Vietnam and California. These interviews will be conducted over Skype and phone calls with Vietnamese residents in Ho Chi Minh City, and both Southern and Northern California Vietnamese residents.

confucius2Background on Confucianism:

To begin with, I want to explain what Confucianism is and emphasize its influence and importance in Vietnamese society. Confucianism is prevalent in many East Asian countries and communities around the world with East Asian roots. It is not to be confused for a religion, for there is no God of any kind to worship (“Confucianism 101”). Confucianism is a moral guide to the way of life and “is a complex of social and political ethics based on filial piety, kinship, loyalty and righteousness” (“Confucius 101”). It is based on the teachings of Confucius; a well-respected scholar who helped set the foundation for the mode of life, thought, and culture in many East Asian societies. Confucianism emphasizes a life of solitude, self-cultivation of one’s mind, as well as the importance of family. It focuses on three main ideas, two of which I will mainly be discussing, status and hierarchy, collectivism and group orientation, and the importance of education. However, as many societies such as Vietnam, transition from traditionalism to modernism, the difficulties of remaining true to Confucianism is apparent. To analyze the existence of Confucianism in modern society and how it has changed over the years, I will be examining these three main ideas in regards to the effects of French colonialism.


Arguably the most important aspect of Confucianism is the concept of social status and hierarchy. According to Confucianism, the five hierarchical relationship and how things should be is as follows: father and son should be loving and reverential, elder brother and younger brother should be gentle and respectful, husband and wife should be good and obedient, older friend and younger friend should be considerate and deferential, and ruler and subject should be benevolent and loyal (“Main Concepts of Confucianism”). In addition, an emphasis is also placed on filial piety and respect for elders. In Confucian society, parents are revered because they are the source of one’s life (“Main Concepts of Confucianism”). They are the core essence of one’s self and have sacrificed everything for one’s existence and being. Consequently, one must do well to be able to bring honor and face for one’s family. One must provide for one’s parents and care for them wholeheartedly. Similarly, elders are thought to be full of wisdom and should be treated with respect and grace. They should be addressed properly and should always be cared for and looked after.

Confucianism in Postcolonial Vietnam:

According to two male interviewees living in Ho Chi Minh City both in their mid forties, the balance between all of these elements of relationships is crucial. The discrepancy of one or more elements of these relationships could result in disharmony and unhappiness. If their child disrespects them in any way, they would be reprimanded harshly and sometimes even beaten. They believe that if a child talks back to an elder, it is a sign of disrespect and a foreshadowing of impending chaos. Wives were expected to stay at home and care for the children and attend to house chores. These expectations are still instilled within younger generations today. A woman named Phuong in her mid thirties living in Vietnam stated that she grew up respecting these Confucian values and felt that it was her duty to care for elders and her parents. The majority of her earnings are spent on her family and paying for bills and necessities. In contrast, a young woman in her mid twenties living in Westminster, California, home of “Little Saigon” named Nhi was not expected to spend her earnings on her family. Her parents did not expect any monetary compensation for living expenses provided to her. However, Nhi still spends the majority of her paycheck on her family simply because she felt like it is the right thing to do. She felt that since she worked and had a decent paycheck, she should fulfill her filial duties and help out wherever she can.

This regard for social status, hierarchy, filial piety, and respect for elders has been, and still is, very dominant in Vietnamese society despite social changes caused by French colonialism. As a result of French colonialism, the Confucian social pressures and expectations for women increased exponentially. Women’s increasing participation in the workforce resulted in their changing roles in familial and societal settings. Labor workers, especially women, were “aware of oppression” and their exploitation (Ong, 79). They knew that could not negotiate their working conditions, but they also lacked the power to rebel. Stuck with filial obligations and making a living, women were often less inclined to “stay and challenge the industrial system, but…use factory jobs as a stepping stone to a more lucrative employment elsewhere” (Ong, 80). Many women industrial workers felt overwhelmed and obligated to satisfying the “needs of their families (Ong, 78). They felt it was their duty to provide for their families to be considered a good wife and mother by Confucian standards. The rising numbers of women labor workers in French-established manufacturing companies was largely due in part to the Confucian social pressures of filial piety and providing for one’s family.

In addition, the rising number of women involved in the sex trade portrays the sacrifices they make for their families. During times of financial hardship, “the frequent indebtedness of Vietnamese households is an important reason why girls sell their virginity or enter into prostitution” (Lainez, 23). Many prostitutes call upon Confucian influences of wishing to provide for their families. They bring forth their morals of filial piety and obligations to their families to repay their debts to justify their or their parents’ decision to sell their virginity and enter prostitution.  In these terms, the young women’s “sacrificial” filial behavior softens the controversial thought of losing one’s purity. Even the sex workers themselves did not necessarily wish to work in their line of work. This being said, prostitution gave women the opportunity to rise in social status and afford the luxuries that other more educated women working in companies, could not. It gave them a chance to express themselves through consumption of foreign goods and made them to see themselves as independent. This, along with a woman’s self subjection to labor exploitation, shows the extent of how important maintaining filial piety is in a Confucian society such as Vietnam.


What also contribute to the changing roles of women in Confucian society are gender expectations. The invisible yet prevalent concept of masculinity and gender expectations formed within the labor force plays a huge role in the labeling of male and female work. While male workers were often construed as capable of handling “high-skilled jobs” that required “responsibility, strength to handle heavy machinery, self-confidence when cutting fabrics strong will, quick eyesight”, females were seen to be weaker and unable to stand up for a long time (Tran, 215). Females were thought to have “nimble fingers, docility, manual deterity, passivity, flexibility, and conscientiousness (Tran, 215). As a result, males often had higher positions with better pay that required less physical labor, such as line leaders, managers or head of technical departments (Tran, 215). These gender expectations gave way for male workers to have an upper hand and “greater opportunities to negotiate for upward mobility” (Tran, 226). In Angie Tran’s article about gender roles in the garment industry, she asserts the concept of the “glass ceiling effect” in which “male workers are channeled into certain career path(s) for upward mobility while women have less room for career advancement” (Tran, 213). Additionally, she also mentions the term “the glass escalator effect”. This term refers to how “men’s careers are enhanced or channeled towards higher positions (sometimes despite their individual motivations)” (Tran, 213). These two terms portray the inequality of women in the workforce despite the upsurge of women appearing in the workforce. Males often joined a “women’s” line of work for survival, but were still “privileged and had greater opportunities to negotiate for upward mobility” (Tran, 226). Meanwhile, female workers were more “physically exhausted after work to even contemplate taking night classes for career advancement” (Tran, 226). This portrays not only the lack of advancement opportunities and the upward movement of female gender expectations, but rather illustrates further societal pressures placed on them to provide for their families.


These labels of gendered labor also refers to Confucian rooted ideals. Similar to many Confucian influenced countries, “An ideal man in Vietnam is expected to have strength and ability to support his family…and to provide leadership in society” (Tran, 214). In addition, women were expected to devout their lives to their family and many women “perceive no choice or feel forced” to work in multiple jobs and/or for long hours (Korinek, 805). Post-fordism however, brought about a new meaning of care and the notion of a “good mother”. Rather than the focus is on the time spent with their children and their care for them, a new emphasis was now placed on their providence for them. According to the surveys conducted by Korinek, the definition of “being a good mother to one’s children” relies heavily on their involvement in “income-generating work” (Korinek, 818). Although building upon the traditional Confucian ideals of doing everything for the good of their family, the long hours spent providing for them resulted in their inability to even lift their own children (Thomas, 240). The physically exhausting current mode of production in the global post-fordist economy molded women into becoming empty shells producing numbers for manufacturing companies. The physical labor took such a huge toll on women that they could not even provide basic mother-nurturing care for their children as expected in a Confucian society.

Transformation of Confucianism:

All of this not only shows the transformation traditional and Confucian values, but also the increase expectations for women’s roles in their families. These articles capture the work intensity of women and the surrounding social and economic pressures within their households. Due to French colonialism, women’s stress and responsibilities from Confucian roots grew. With the rise of the global economy and cost of living, women took upon more jobs. In addition, “the interrelationship in women’s lives between the demands of raising children and participating in the workforce” has restructured family values (Korniek, 791). It also brings to light the “transnational interchanges” and “disjunctures in the social transformations brought about by the effects of global capital” especially for women (Tran, 237). Their status in society became cemented by the labor force’s preference for men and made it seemingly impossible for them to break through the ever-thickening glass ceiling between the privileged men and undermined women.

Femininity once capped by Confucian patriarchal society and the consumption of Western goods also influenced the modernization of Vietnamese society. Their consumption became a symbol of their social status and class. Women’s consumption of these body products allowed them to express themselves as individuals. By consuming what they pleased with their own money, it broke the Confucian patriarchal ceiling and allowed them to see themselves as individuals. With the constant rise of women in predominantly male careers such as Nhu, a successful businesswoman, the break away from Confucian patriarchal mold is evident (Taylor, 260). These women became a symbol of “vitality, longevity” and “physical indestructibility, grace, social success, and transcendence of history” (Taylor, 261). Through modernization, women were able to gain a sense of individualism and independence. They were no longer seen as vulnerable and a target of exploitation, but rather strong independent women who could fend for themselves.

Due to French colonialism, Vietnam also saw the decline of collectivism, and consequently, the rise of the individual. In Ben Tran’s article, he brings to light the concept of the “I” and the individual perspective. He draws upon his observation of the lack of individualism in the history of Vietnamese society and its emphasis on collectivism. In Vietnamese collectivism, the large one is the country while the small one is the family (Tran, 579). The individual itself resided and coexisted with family and did not exist in its own separate entity. Heavily influenced by Confucian ideals of collectivism, Vietnamese society is often wary about the concept of individualism and speaking in the first-person singular pronoun tôi, or I. Ben Tran goes on to portray the practice of the Confucian kinship relations by giving a short snippet of an introduction of Khái Hưng’s 1934 novel In the Midst of Spring. In the expository of the novel, the protagonist, Dương Thị Mai is stopped multiple times before being able to pay a visit to her brother because of her self association of using the first person pronoun of I. Simply because “she does not identify herself through a familial association” and employs herself as an individual, she becomes the subjectivity of suspicion (Tran, 580). The concept of tôi first surfaced as an expression of individualism from the influence of European ideas and the example of Mai exemplified the delicate balance of Western ideas and Eastern Confucian traditional values.

David Marr also mentions the weight and importance that the term tôi may have in Vietnamese society. He argues that the term itself criticizes and goes against “the familial structures at the foundation of Vietnamese society” (Marr, 584). This “foundation of Vietnamese society” in which he refers to is Confucianism and its core essence of collectivism. In Vietnamese society, “individualism was too foreign” and threatened the roots of Confucianism (Marr, 584). These ideas portrays why the first-person pronoun was often avoided and so controversial in Vietnamese society. It not only went against ideas of collectivism, but tôi also became a kinship term. In a Confucian society such as Vietnam, when speaking, one must be mindful of “age and gender disparities” and when using tôi it often infers that the speaker is of higher respect than the other party (Marr, 589). Many interviewees, especially those in Vietnam and of older age, even mentioned that they often avoid the pronoun tôi altogether. To them, it inferred a negative sense of “I am all that” and becomes an insulting term for the listening party. They instead, often refer to themselves using their own name to avoid any possibility of coming off as rude. Therefore the term tôi challenges many levels and aspects of Vietnamese Confucian society and therefore gives way to understanding why it is such a controversial issue in Vietnam’s modern society.

When analyzed closely, narratives, such as In the Streets, about “a society in a downward spiral” and Two Aspects of Beauty, about an educated young man who comes to the realization that his “comfortable life was gained through the exploitation of poor peasants,” mentioned in Van-Marshall’s article, can clearly illustrate the Confucian roots of those in poverty and how it relates to their reaction towards French colonialism (Van-Marshall, 220-221). For example, Mrs. Hien in Nhat Linh’s story In the Streets, sacrifices her appearance and time to fulfill her Confucian duty of remaining loyal and obedient to her husband (Van-Marshall, 221). She embodies traditional values and similarly portrays how Vietnam was “caught in its own traditions and [was] unable to free itself from its colonial master” (Van-Marshall, 221). With over fifty years of French colonization, it became a large part of Vietnamese history and became rooted within their society. It became normalized over the years and in a sense, tradition.  To break this recently formed tradition, would be like trying to break away from Confucian tradition. The idea of becoming their own country free from colonial rule arises fear and uncertainty as would any new idea or form of change.

These works also illustrated the devastating results of the French’s “civilizing” mission in Vietnam. The French colonial rule “which promised progress and modernization” brought about the abundance of alcohol and opium and impoverished “the Vietnamese with heavy taxes, increasing landlessness and unemployment” (Van-Marshall, 225). The French’s presence in Vietnam not only caused the “destruction of Confucian moral order” but also failed to provide the Vietnamese with a “replacement to guide people’s behavior” (Van-Marshall, 235). Without any new moral order for the Vietnamese to follow, it sets up a scene of social destruction as confusion takes place of their previously known way of life.


French colonialism did, however, provide some benefits for Vietnamese society, one of which was education. Many Vietnamese students in the early 1900s attended schools established by the French. French missionaries, officials and their families opened primary schools, conducting lessons in both the French and Vietnamese languages (J. Llewellyn). However, children of peasant farmers were not given the opportunity to go to school and benefit from the schools established (J. Llewellyn). When all my interviewees were asked whether or not education was important to them and or their families, all of them answered a resounding yes. All ten of my interviewees saw education as the primary method of moving forward in life and rising in social status. According to three college students, one living in Vietnam and the other two in California, north and south, education was crucial in the betterment of their lives. They all study rigorously everyday and always sought for perfect scores. To them and their families, simply passing was not acceptable. They all apply themselves to their studies and all wished to pursue demanding and successful careers as a doctor, nurse, or lawyer. All six of my interviewees who received or are receiving a college education shared that their parents have always pressured them to become a doctor or a lawyer. These careers not only pay very well, but also are a sign of a highly educated person. Many college students interviewed felt pressured to live up to their families’ expectation and were majoring in the science field or political science field. When asked what they wished to pursue, many did not have an answer of their own. It was as if societal pressures and pressure from their families had brainwashed them of any of their own personal desires. Although many of them pursuing a career as a doctor or lawyer were not happy, they simply fully applied themselves to achieve the highest marks expected of them. If anything, over the years, as more and more Vietnamese people become educated, and the competition for demanding and rewarding careers increase, the emphasis and importance of education has exponentiated.


Even though there was modernization in terms of technology and culture, Vietnamese society’s norms saw little change. Other cultures play a huge role in influencing and changing a society’s way of thought and belief, but in terms of the implementation and taking place of change itself, it is not so simple. Change in society as exemplified by Vietnamese society, is a very gradual process and cannot take place within a matter of years or a specific time span. Changing a society’s way of thinking is immeasurable and can be near impossible when one grows up in a traditional family and is brought up to think differently. Although times are changing, Confucian values revolving around family is still very apparent in Vietnamese society. Their emphasis on respect for status and hierarchy, collectivism and group orientation, and the importance of education will perhaps never disappear altogether as it courses through the blood of every Vietnamese in one form or another.

Works Cited

“Confucius 101: A Key to Understanding the Chinese Mind.” China Mike RSS. China Mike, n.d.

Web. 17 May 2015. <http://www.china-mike.com/chinese-culture/understanding-chinese-mind/confucius/&gt;.

Llewellyn et al. “French colonialism in Vietnam”. Alpha History, n.d. Web. 17 May 2015.


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Ong, Aihwa. “The Gender and Labor Politics of Postmodernity”

“The Main Concepts of Confucianism.” Oriental Philosophy. Philosophy Lander, n.d. Web. 18 May 2015. <http://philosophy.lander.edu/oriental/main.html&gt;. Thomas, Mandy “Vietnamese Women, the Garment Industry and transnational Space”

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