This is the fifth in a series of six student essays being posted to this blog. As usual, I have not included the student’s name for reasons of privacy. Her insight into the historical aspects of the status of Vietnamese women is interesting, and she illustrates the changes taking place in today’s Việt Nam.
The aesthetic beauty’s standards of a woman are the tempered result of blending many different streams of culture and different concepts. Following the changes of the history, these standards have also change gradually. It is considered as the traditional modernization. Also, to have such a good status in society as today is not easy to any Vietnamese women. Actually, they have had struggled non-stop throughout the development of history. What are the great changes in Vietnamese women’s status as well as their character? My following essay, even though is not perfect, will give you some general information about them.
With the dominance of Confucius, the concept “three obedience’s, four virtues” has become the dominant ideology. It has become a kind of “basic standard of manner,” a string tightening and limiting of women in both bodies and souls. This spiritual cangue has affected directly the manner as well as the status of a woman in society until today. To make sure that you can understand more clearly about Vietnamese traditional women’s fates, I will analyze the concept “three obediences, four virtues.”
Firstly, what are the “three obediences?” The three obediences are: obedience to father before marriage, obedience to husband after marriage, obedience to the eldest son after the death of the husband. Historically, in Vietnam, women enjoyed few rights. Their traditional roles were just to stay within the confines of the home for the purpose of caring for the family. Women were raised and taught how to become good daughters, wives, and mothers. They were taught to obey their husbands, respect their parents as well as their parents-in-law, and try their best to work hard to care for the families. Whatever their parents or their husbands asked them to do, they had to finish it even it was extremely difficult or unreasonable. They had no right to choose or complain about it. Thus, the fate of a woman at that time often described as a fish in bowl, a bird in cage, behind prison bars. Thus, among many Vietnamese folk songs, there is a song curing this pitiful fate of women:
-Ho o , em di lay chong
(Alas, I must get married)
Em lay chong, nhu ca can cau
(After I get married, I would be like a fish in bowl)
ca can cau, biet dau ma go?
(The fish in bowl do not know how to free it)
Chim vao long, biet thuo nao ra?
(A bird in cage do not know when it is free)
The fact that people thought that having one son was always better than having ten daughters became traditional. They thought that daughters were other’s children and just sons were actually their own children. Why did they think that? According to them, after being married, their daughters would become a member of her husband’s family, and she had to take care of her husband family. However, the son would not only stay at home and would bring a new member to care for his family, but he also had children to continue the ancestral lines. Thus, if a wife could not give birth to at least one son, she would be looked down on and be regarded as an undutiful daughter-in-law. Confucius had a lesson about the duty of a son and it insisted that: “bat hieu huu tam, vi hau vo dai” (there are three things to remark on an undutiful child, and among them, not having children to carry on the lines is the worst thing.)
Historically, women were not allowed to go to school or have any position in society. Even though they were better than men, they were always looked down on. They were confined to the house, and learned how to do housework well. They could not have any chance to contact to everybody, especially strange men. A woman had no right to choose her future husband. They had to obey the pre-arranged marriages of their parents; they did not even know anything about their future husband. Because of these terrible constraints, there were lot of pitiful stories, which were full of tears about women’s fates in the old time.
“Lay chong chang biet ant chong
(I get married, but I do not know his face)
Dem nam mo tuong edn anh lang gieng”
(Every night, I dream of the neighbor’s face)
“Lay chong tu thuo muoi ba
(I got married when I was thirteen)
Den nam muoi tam thiep da nam con
(When I was 18 years old, I had 5 children)
Ra duong thiep hay con son
(When going out, people believed that I was still an innocent girl)
Ve nha thiep da nam con cung chang”
(But, actually, I had 5 children with my husband)
Vietnamese folk songs
On the other hand, there were many marriages between seventeen-year-old girls and five-year-old boys. When these small husbands grew up, they realized that their wives were too old for them, and they certainly took other younger girls as their second, third or fourth wives. At that time these women were abandoned and lived alone until they died. Thus, in oral literature, Vietnamese often sing ironic songs about this terrible custom:
“Bong bong cong chong di choi
(I carried my husband pick-aback and went for a walk)
Di den cho loi em danh roi mat chong”
(However, when going to the slushy road, I lose my husband by dropping somewhere)
Vietnamese folk songs
Another pitiful circumstance is that, many girls had to marry to men who were too old, even older than their parents, and the day they came to their old husbands’ house was also the death day of their husbands. At that time, these young girls became widows. In addition, they were also hated and abandoned by their husbands’ family, because they were regarded as “comets” which brought unlucky things to all the members in family. And, they, these young widows, had to live with loneliness and agony till her death.
In the old time, a man could have many wives, so it made women feel sad and isolated. Complaining about this unfair rule, Ho Xuan Huong, a famous women poet had a poem:
“To share a husband with another…what a life!
The one sleeps under the covers, well snuggled in the other freezes.
By chance he comes across you in the dark, once or twice a month…nothing!
You hang on hoping to get your share, but the rice is poor and underdone.
You work like a drudge, save that you get no pay.
Ah, had I known it would be like this
Willingly would I have stayed alone just as I was before.”
(To share a husband)
According to strict moral rules at that time, a woman could not remarry even though her husband had died many years ago. She had to live alone for her rest life to worship her husband until her death. Thus, the widow who fell in love with another man would be punished strictly: she would be burned alive or be put in a pig cage and be thrown into the river, or more terribly, she would be nailed up on a board and be thrown into the river.
However, ironically, at that time, a woman who had wonderful beauty would be considered as “a toy” of society, their fate was not in their hand, they were like “raindrops do not know where they would reach.” Ngoc Han princess is an example, she was even a queen but she had no right to decide her life. After beloved her husband, Quang Trung King’s death, she was forced to remarry Gia Long King, who was her husband’s enemy. She could not do anything to struggle against but crying and cursing herself:
[…] Alone, I weep over my fate.
Heaven, why did you shatter our union?
How tell my misery, my pain
Deep as ocean, boundless as sky
[…]I see the moon through sorrow, its brilliance tarnished,
A fine dust veils its silvered glow.
I am ashamed to look myself in a mirror,
My love shattered, alone I wander on the deserted shore.
The flowers I look at return my grief.
Camellias cry tears of dew.
Watching th flitting birds, my heart is torn,
A turtledove flies solidarity, seeking its companion.
Each landscape wears its own desolation,
Where are the joys of former days?
One moment only and the world collapsed,
So life goes, to whom can I complain?
Love, fidelity, as immense as heaven and earth,
My grief grows as my days endure.
To whom may I confide my torment and my pain?
Let sun and moon bear witness to me.”
(Tears and regrets)
These exaggerated concepts have oppressed Vietnamese women for hundreds of years. A lot of women have struggled against those out-date customs and tried to prove themselves to society. For examples, they disguised themselves as men to go to school. Some women studied very well and became women of great learning. Some women also commanded troops to fight against foreign enemy bringing peaceful life to everybody, such as, the Trung sisters, Mrs. Trieu, etc. Vietnamese women have tried their best to show that whatever a man can do, a woman also can do and she even can do it better, as Ho Xuan Huong, a poet, said:
“Vi day doi phan lam trai duoc
(If only I could change my destiny and is a man)
Thi su anh hung ha bay nhieu”
(I would not content myself with such feats of valor)
these things show clearly that even though the society had treated women terribly. They still tried their best to perfect themselves as well as improve their status in society.
Now, we will move to another concept that is “the four virtues.” The four virtues are: Công, Dung, Ngôn, Hanh. Traditionally, they are four standards to remark the manner as well as the beauty of a woman. They have been considered as basic lessons for girls before they get married. What do they mean? And, how do they affect to Vietnamese women’s character?
The first one is Công. Công means Work. It implies that a woman must be good at housework and hardworking. She has to be skilled in cooking, doing needlework and embroidery. She has to take care of the family carefully and work hard to support her family. She has to throw her body and should into helping her husband solve some problems in family, teach children and provide adequately for her parents-in-law. These things can help her husband feel assured so that he can concentrate on working hard. Thus, it is considered as a good character of a woman, which all Vietnamese women should know and follow.
The second one is Dung, actually, Dung means Appearance. It implies that a woman should take care of her appearance. It does not mean that women have to be always beautiful. It means that a woman should always keep her body clean and tidy. Do not dress too casually when going out. Keep her soul, her face gentle and cheerful so that she can make everybody like and respect her. Vietnamese people often remark about a man through his wife. If she dresses too casually, they will think that he does not earn enough money to support his family or he is too mean to buying nice clothes for his wife. Thus, in this case, the appearance of a wife is rather important. However, it does not mean that a woman should take much time to take care of her beauty and ignore her duty.
The third one is also consider as one of the most important feature in making Vietnamese traditional character, is Ngôn. In English, Ngôn means Words. As a woman, she has to usually pay attention to her words as well as her speaking way. Do not speak too much or too loudly. When walking, she should not make any sound. Her behaviors have to be gentle and have to suitable with a moral outlook. With the elders, her words have to be formal and respectful. She could not speak nonsense or harsh words. She must think carefully before speaking. People usually remark her manner through her words.
Also, this following poem will help you understand more about an ideal traditional girl:
RÂT HUE (VERY HUE)
Giu chut gi rat Hue di em
(Please, keep something very Hue)
Net duyen la troi dat giao hoa
(The grace is the harmony of the earth and sky)
Dau xa mot thoi anh gap lai
(Although I have to go far from you, but when I meet you)
Van duoc nhin em say la hoa
(I am still admired your beauty)
Giu chut gi rat Hue hien nhoan
(Keep something very Hue, gentle and good-mannered)
Xin em cho cat mai toc dai
(Please, do not cut your long hair)
De cho giothoi bay mai toc
(Let the easy wind play with your beautiful hair)
Va mua dong am doi vai gay
(And in the winter, it can worm your thin shoulders)
Giu chut gi rat Hue man ma
(Keep something ver Hue, warmly)
Da thua ngot lim ai me say
(Please, say sweetly the words “yes,” please” to make others to be captivated)
Em di got nhe say hon co
(When you walk, your graceful feet also make the spirit of the grass to be captivated)
Va hoi though mem suong khoi bay
(And your breath is as soft as the rising smoke)
Giu chut gi rat Hue trang dai
(Keep something very Hue, boudoir)
Non nghieng bong nang dang though ngay
(An inclining conical palm hat in sunlight and innocent appearance)
Gap anh non hoi dung nghieng xuong
(When meeting me, please, the palm hat, do not incline)
Cho anh trong mat ngoc may ngai
(Let me see your “bright pearl” eyes and your graceful brow)
Giu chut gi rat Hue diu dang
(Keep something very Hue, gentle)
Ao trang hai ta chap canh though
(The white Ao Dai with two flaps patch up the poetical wings)
Em nhu lua mong bay trong pho
(You are like the thin and slight a length of silk flying in the city)
Mot chieu suong trang ngo nhu mo
(And make a white foggy afternoon as a dream)
Dau em rat Hue tu bao gio
(Even though you have been very Hue)
Dung de long nhu cung dien xua
(Do not keep your soul like the ancient palace)
Dung sho anh suot doi dung doi
(Please do not let me wait in all of my life)
Truoc clam thanh goi chang ai thua.
(In front of the forbidden gate, even I call a lot, none answers me.)
(Huỳnh Văn Dung)
Inheriting these good characters, “the three responsibilities” launched during the anti-aggression war. The three responsibilities of Vietnamese women at that time were: household, production, and fighting the enemies. During the war, most of men took part in army. There were only women, children and the old stayed at home. Thus, at that time, Vietnamese women took a very important role in family, society as well as in the success of Vietnam. They had to care and protect their families and they too men’s places in work. They also joined the army to struggle against their nation’s enemies. Many longhaired warriors and many women’s guerillas units were established. They struggled nonstop to protect their lands, their families and their life. Thus, during this period, a lot of women with their talents and their great devotion became good examples for everybody to follow. A lot of songs, poems as well as stories about this strong spirit of Vietnamese women aw well as their great contributions to our country such as “Co gai mien que ra di cuu nuoc, mai toc sanh, sanh tuoi trang tron, ban tay em pha da mo duong, gian kho phai lui nhuong em tien buoc” (the countryside’s girls went to save their country, their hair were blue, the color of the full moon ages. However, their hands had broke stones to pave the ways for the army, any difficulties had to give way for her to continue going.)
Now, the war has passed. However, the spirits as well as the status of Vietnamese women have not been reduced. Step by step, Vietnamese women have affirmed their important positions in society. They do not only play an important role in family but they can also devote a lot to society. They have more chance to study, research to perfect them. With modern thoughts, they have become more active, braver, and more self-confident. They have more freedom and rights. However, to some extent, women are gradually losing their valuable traditional character. They have become too free to forget their duties. They do not pay much time to take care for their families anymore. It is rather dangerous. However, Vietnamese women in general still know the way to combine their good traditional character with the modern thoughts. They try their best to become perfect women as well as good citizens.
In short, to have good status like nowadays, Vietnamese women with their braveness have had to struggle continuously against the cultural constraints placed on their life. However, it does not mean that they have to deny the past as well as the tradition. They should try their best to reserve and improve good traditions; besides, they should open their mind to access to the modern ideology of society.
1. Vietnamese literature, 1989.
2. Nhung bai though tru tinh chon loc xu Hue. NXB Kim Dong. 1999.