26 JULY 1968, Page 21

Vietnam, China and the west


Viet-Nam and the West Ralph Smith (Heine- mann 35s)

'Geographical proximity to China,' says Mr Honey, 'was always the cause of most of Viet- nam's troubles, and still is today.' The fact is that America committed herself to the defence of South Vietnam (though the idea is no longer so potent) because she saw the place as a bastion from which Chinese imperialism in communist dress could be checked in its ad- vance to swallow up the countries of South- East Asia. If we go back a century, we find that the French conquest of Vietnam was begun as an episode of an Anglo-French war against China herself, in the course of which the invaders fought their way to Peking. The purpose of the conquest was twofold, to ex- ploit the resources of the country, and, what was at least of equal importance, to use Viet- nam as a base for the commercial and political penetration of southern and western China. In a word, the main events in the modern history of Vietnam are inseparably linked to the general problem of China's relations with the world, and can be understood only as form- ing part of that problem. Indeed, it was as an integral part of China that Vietnam entered the pages of history two thousand years ago: without China, Vietnam would not have come into existence.

Contrary to the belief generally entertained in the west, Chinese civilisation is not older than that of Europe. A united China did not make its appearance until 221 sc. The expan- sion towards the south resulted in the inclusion within the empire of peoples differing in speech and habits from the original Chinese communities along the Yellow River, and in 111 sc what is .now North Vietnam passed under the control of the Han Dynasty. Even before the conquest, the Vietnamese had been touched to some extent by Chinese culture, but now, of course, there was a flood of sinicisa- lion. Chinese agricultural techniques, political and social institutions, and, with the adoption of the Chinese written language, every current of Chinese intellectual life duly made their way to this southernmost part of the empire.

During its long history, the unity of imperial China frequently broke down. The Han Dynasty fell in AD 220 and was succeeded, after nearly four hundred years of chaos, by the famous house of T'ang. When in 960 another great dynasty, the Sung, emerged to claim men's obedience the Vietnamese not only ignored the summons, but actually routed an expedition sent to reduce them to subjection. The Sung emperor thereupon consented to make peace and grant the status of tributary

to the commander who had emerged as the king of the Vietnamese people.

We should not exaggerate the role of nationalist sentiment in bringing about this result. It was normal for unity to be imposed on China by military force, and a local regime would resist as long as it could. The readiness of the Sung to let Vietnam go may partly be explained by the necessity of having at the same time to face a threat from the northern nomads, but probably the chief reason was that alleged in the official histories: namely, the prostration of the Chinese soldiers by the per- petual heat and malaria. By and large the in- habitants of metropolitan China, accustomed to a marked variety of seasons, cannot abide the tropics: the immigrants to Singapore and elsewhere come from Kwangtung and Fukien, at the subtropical extremity of the country, and are totally untypical. Other dynasties at their accession tried to reassert Chinese rule, but on the collapse of the last attempt early in the fifteenth century, Vietnam, while acknowledging Chinese suzerainty, was left to manage its own affairs for more than four hundred years, until the French conquest.

It did not do so in peace. As a Chinese province, Vietnam was confined to what is now the communist north, but the new state launched upon a drive to the south against its indianised neighbours. It was a slow process. Saigon was not taken from the Cambodians till 1691, and the complete occupation of the delta had to wait till the nineteenth century. The acquisition of these territories no doubt contributed to a certain dilution of the Chinese quality of Vietnam, although the country con- tinued to be run on purely Chinese lines by mandarins recruited to serve the king by com- petitive examination in the Confucian classics, and the ruling houses—for Vietnam, like China, had a succession of dynasties—boasted of their pure Chinese bldbd. Under the French, every effort was made to stress the differences be- tween Vietnam and China, with the result that Ho Chi Minh has been known to describe himself as a member of 'an ancient Indonesian race'; but the phrase would have meant little to his ancestors, One specifically Vietnamese phenomenon which appeared in the sixteenth century was the division of the country—curiously enough almost on the present line be- tween north and south—into two satrapies, practically independent and for many years bitterly at war. In 1802, the southern forces united the country under its last native dynasty and, to signalise his triumph, the victor, on sending his humble duty to Peking, asked that he be allowed to style himself King of Nam- viet. (In the course of history the country has borne various names.) For reasons too compli- cated to go into here, the emperor found this unsuitable and insisted that it should be altered to Vietnam. So the very name is a Chinese invention!

The story of the French conquest is inti- mately connected with the rival ambitions of Britain and France, but the role of the mis- sionaries is particularly noteworthy, for com- mercial ventures beginning in the seventeenth century proved a failure and it was French priests who were left to represent their coun- try and to upbraid the pusillanimity of their home government in not striking a blow for Christ. The churchmen had the ear of Napoleon Ill and in 1858 the French forces, engaged in the Second Opium War against China, took time off to begin the conquest of Vietnam. As if to refute the French claim to be protecting Christians, the Spanish mis- sionaries in the north of the country, although Spain had at first joined the venture, forbade their converts to rally to the invaders.

The conquest was not easy, and in the course of it China bequeathed an invaluable lesson to General Giap in our own day. Li Hung-chang, the most powerful influence in the Chinese government, was anxious to avoid a clash with France, but almost by accident a band of Chinese freebooters in Vietnamese service put up such a brilliant resistance to the French that one thing led to another and in 1884 China went to war to defend her satellite. At first there was a long catalogue of French vic- tories, but the leader of the war party, the Chinese minister in London, advised Peking that if the fighting dragged on the French would be unwilling to pay the price. His prophecy came true. In March 1885, while Paris music-halls echoed with ballads in cele- bration of still further triumphs, the thunder- bolt fell. A telegram from the French Com- mander-in-Chief announced a disaster of un- paralleled magnitude. The Prime Minister, Jules Ferry, denounced in the Chamber of Deputies for having dragged the country into war with China, was compelled to resign, while the mob shouted for his blood. At that moment— something which the Chinese communists can never forgive—Li Hung-chang and his asso- ciates carried the day and abandoned Vietnam to its fate.

The conclusion to be drawn from this is that a protracted guerrilla war, of which Mao supplies the theory, cannot fail to wear down a foreign invader. It is not the only lesson Chinese experience has given to Hanoi. As in China, so in Vietnam, the success of the nationalist revolution could not have been achieved without the communists.

These two books are admirably devised to introduce this complicated story to the western public. Mr Honey's is a lucid account for the general reader. He is known on both sides of the Atlantic for his strong views on the present situation. He sees the communist regime as an odious tyranny, ruling by fear, which the vast majority of the Vietnamese would repudiate if they had the choice, and which in spite of its much-advertised exploits is steadily being undermined by the war, so that it is hoping desperately that America will grow weary and withdraw. Many people will demur, but Mr Honey's deep personal knowledge of Vietnam makes him a formidable man to argue with.

Dr Smith's book is addressed especially to the academic reader who has already a fair knowledge of the background. Its great merit is its thoroughness in tracing the intellectual cross-currents between China and Vietnam in face of the western impact, and it is clearly the fruit of very wide and careful research.