Oscar Salemink, ed.

Viet Nam's Cultural Diversity:
Approaches to Preservation

Memory of Peoples, UNESCO Publishing, France, 2001
ISBN 92-3-103800-1

reviewed by Jocelyn Grace

The seeds of this book were sown in Hanoi in 1994 with the International Expert Meeting on the Preservation and Revitalisation of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Ethnic Minorities in Viet Nam.[1] The editor forewarns in the preface, that its contributors demonstrate a diversity of perspectives comparable to that of the myriad of ethnic peoples spanning the length and breadth of Viet Nam.[2] However it is this reader's opinion that most of the twenty-six authors fall into one of two camps—those who take a compartmentalised, 'museum-mentality' view of preservation, and those with a more holistic, 'living culture' perspective. Underlying this divide are two very different understandings of what constitutes 'culture', and therefore the politics and practices of preservation and revitalisation.

Rich in description, and beautifully illustrated with numerous photographs and a detailed linguistic map, this book brings together a wealth of information about the intangible culture of the ethnic minorities of Viet Nam. In the introduction, Georges Condominas summarises the prehistory and linguistic landscape of the region, setting the scene for the chapters that follow. He then goes on to make some extremely pertinent points about the position of ethnic minorities in the context of nation states in general, and in particular within the state of Viet Nam.

    As minority groups frequently lag behind technically and economically and have little political influence, the population of the majority groups tend to regard them condescendingly as 'backward' or 'primitive', a tendency which many states combat within the framework of administrative action.... Viet Nam is a representative example of this problem as it arises in this part of the world.[3]
Those belonging to ethnic minority groups living in Viet Nam number about fifteen million, while the majority of the population of approximately eighty million belong to the Kinh ethnic group. The Kinh have historically occupied the lowlands, along with some, much smaller, ethnic groups (e.g. Cham and Khmer along the Mekong). The majority of the minorities live in the forest-covered mountains and high plateaux (hence the encompassing term 'Montagnards' coined by the French), these locations having in the past afforded them a high degree of autonomy. However the ravages of the American war,[4] the development of a strong centralised post-war government with policies and process that extend to the remotest provinces, and the large numbers of Kinh increasingly moving into the plateau regions has greatly diminished their ability to control their own affairs. Oscar Salemink describes how government policies have forced minorities to abandon shifting cultivation and become sedentary, and how traditional practices, such as the slaughter of buffalo necessary for the fulfilment of ritual obligations, have been banned.[5] As he says, '[T]he Vietnamese state has adopted a policy of direct intervention in the cultural practices of minorities know as 'Selective Preservation'... . Folklore, dance, music and handicrafts are valuable, and these are renovated for presentation to the 'masses' [or tourists].'[6]

Of the twenty-six contributions to this volume, ten were written by Vietnamese scholars most of whom are based in the Institutes of Ethnology, Linguists and Folk Studies. There are three chapters written by Japanese scholars from the University of Osaka, and the Institute of Ethno-Forms and Culture in Tokyo, who have been involved in an Asia-wide project to record Asian Traditional Performing Arts (ATPA). There is one by an ethnomusicologist at the University of the Philippines who has spent his life recording and archiving traditional music from around the world, and in particular the Philippines. Five chapters were written by scholars of, or based in France, and there are a further seven chapters by researchers based in a variety of countries – Hungary, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Brunei and Thailand.[7]

Many of the contributions to this volume document in great detail the languages, visual arts, epics and music of ethnic minorities in Viet Nam. Others present an analysis of the changing political, social, economic and environmental context in which particular minority groups go on living and practicing their culture, albeit in ways that have changed over the years. A number of authors make the point that culture is not static—not the mere preservation of intangible (and tangible) artefacts. There are chapters giving examples from other countries, and there are many prescriptions from those working in Viet Nam about how best to ensure the preservation and revitalisation of Viet Nam's cultural diversity. However all the wish-lists in the world will achieve nothing without the political will and financial means to implement their content. It is also clear that exactly what interventions should be undertaken is not a matter of consensus among the contributors, as the tension mentioned above with respect to the politics of culture and representation, and perhaps more fundamentally the politics of access to and management of resources[8] (tangible and intangible), manifests in very different views about what aspects of culture are worthy of preservation, what form restoration should take, and what uses they should be put to for who's benefit.


[1] The meeting was organized by UNESCO's Unit of Intangible Heritage, the Viet Nam National Commission for UNESCO and the Viet Nam Ministry of Culture and Information. See Oscar Salemink, 'Preface', Viet Nam's Cultural Diversity: Approaches to Preservation, ed. Oscar Salemink, Memory of Peoples, UNESCO Publishing, France, 2001.

[2] Salemink, 'Preface', Viet Nam's Cultural Diversity: Approaches to Preservation.

[3] Georges Condominas, 'Introduction', in Viet Nam's Cultural Diversity: Approaches to Preservation, pp. 20-21.

[4] The impact of US bombing on the physical environment of the many areas where minority groups lived/live was devastating, and may never recover. For a chilling and moving insight into aspects an ethnic minority group's culture, and the result of their involvement with US forces in the early years of the war, see Jonathan Rubin's novel The Barking Deer, George Braziller, New York, 1974.

[5] Salemink, 'Who decides who preserves what? Cultural preservation and cultural representation', in Viet Nam's Cultural Diversity: Approaches to Preservation.

[6] Salemink, 'Who decides who preserves what? Cultural preservation and cultural representation', in Viet Nam's Cultural Diversity: Approaches to Preservation, pp. 208 and 211.

[7] One contributor was an anthropologist who had no institutional affiliation listed.

[8] It is relevant to note that in February 2001 in three provinces of the Central Highlands of Viet Nam there was a popular protest by Montagnards over land rights and religious freedom. The official response was to ban gatherings of more than four people, and to try and imprison at least twenty-four protest leaders (Human Rights Watch World Report 2002. A thousand Mantagnards fled over the border into Cambodia seeking political asylum, but were later forced to return after discussions between the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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