Socialist Realism in Vietnamese Literature: An Analysis of the Relationship Between Literature and Politics

Nguyen, Tuan Ngoc (2004) Socialist Realism in Vietnamese Literature: An Analysis of the Relationship Between Literature and Politics. PhD thesis, Victoria University.


In this thesis, I argue that socialist realism is by nature more political than literary; in the domain of politics, it is more nationalistic than socialistic; and in the domain of literature, it is more neo-classical or romantic than realist. Over many decades, writers were advised to represent reality as it ought to be; and in many cases, in so doing, they had to sacrifice not only the truth but also their intellectual and artistic status: their writing did not reflect what they really believed, felt or thought. As a result, ideologically, socialist realism became doctrinaire-ism, and artistically, it became an illustration of the Communist Party's policies. While other 'isms' in Western literature such as realism, romanticism and symbolism took at least half a century to take hold in Vietnam, socialist realism did so with record speed - in just one year. Promulgated at the first Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934, the doctrine of socialist realism was appearing in Vietnamese newspapers just one year later. However, it had been imported by revolutionaries whose interest was mainly political, not literary: in their view, socialist realism was the best way to transform literature into a political weapon. For writers who had not divorced themselves from the Confucian aesthetics, which placed its particular emphasis on the social and educational function of literature, socialist realism became more acceptable because of the development of nationalism, especially during the Second World War, when Vietnam was dominated simultaneously by two empires: France and Japan. Despite having been imported from France, the socialist realism which was officially adopted in Vietnam was mainly that interpreted by China's Maoists. The profound impact of Mao Zedong's theory of socialist realism in Vietnamese literary thought and activity after the August 1945 Revolution can be explained by several factors, geographical, political and cultural. But it is here argued the most important factor was probably the war. Over three decades, from 1945 to 1975, Vietnam was continually at war, first with the French and later with the Americans. It can be argued that it is the very culture of war that helped to create the type of intellectual and emotional environment necessary for the easy reception of Maoism, an ideology which was originally born in wartime and aimed to serve the war. It can also be argued that, together with Maoism, the war culture itself became one of the crucial factors in shaping socialist realism in the anti-French resistance areas during 1945-54 and in North Vietnam during 1954-1975. The dominance of Maoism and the culture of war transformed socialist realism into something like a para-religion in which the leaders of the Party all became theorists of literature. These people had neither the time nor the knowledge to discuss issues of literature in depth; and consequently, the so-called canonical texts of Vietnamese socialist realism consisted only of several simple pronouncements on literature by the leaders in various forms, including letters, speeches and resolutions. As a result, Vietnamese socialist realism became a dogmatism and, in Vietnamese writers' words, a 'doctrinaire realism'. This 'doctrinaire realism', which was consolidated during the wars against the French and the Americans, was strongly challenged in peacetime - after the 1954 Geneva Agreements and after the 1975 victory by the two best known dissident movements: the Nhan Van - Giai Pham affair and the perestroika-styled doi moi campaign. Both were finally suppressed by the government; but while the former movement was harshly penalized, the latter is still fortunate to be witnessing the death of socialist realism. Although Vietnam is still a one-party ruled state, and the Vietnamese government still holds a monopoly on publishing, forbidding independent presses and journals, and trying to keep its strict control over literary life, socialist realism, both as a doctrine and as a movement, has died. This death resulted not from the activities of the dissidents but from two non-literary elements: globalization and the market-oriented economy which has been adopted by the Vietnamese Communist Party and government since the late 1980s. Now that publishers earned money solely from the number of books sold or in circulation and writers lived solely by their royalties, literary consumers played a decisive role in literary life, and writers were able to make easy contact with the world, the partiinost principle became nonsense and as a result socialist realism became a thing of the past. In short, socialist realism was born of communism, nurtured by nationalism, developed at war, challenged in peacetime, and killed by the force of a free economy and globalization.

Item type Thesis (PhD thesis)
Subjects Historical > Faculty/School/Research Centre/Department > School of Communication and the Arts
Historical > RFCD Classification > 220000 Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts-General
Keywords socialist realism; Vietnamese literature; literature; politics
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