Confucianism in Vietnam

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The Chinese Emperor Han Wu-Ti placed Vietnam under a military governor in 111 B.C., and for the next 900 years events in Vietnam were part of Chinese history.

In this period Chinese technology and culture came to Vietnam and were accepted under a rule of moderation and semi-independence.

The influence of Confucianism on early art was important, with the painters following his Doctrine of the Mean: neither too much nor too little; no overcrowding of details: not too many nor too bright colors, just enough to obtain the desired effect.

During the period of national independence (939-1404 A.D.) most of the Vietnamese people accepted Confucianism. Vietnamese writers were dominated by Confucianism and rarely veered from moralistic tales until 1925 when the author Hoang Ngoc Phach published the novel To Tam that marked a departure from Confucianist tradition.

In 1404 the Chinese reconquered the country and held it for 23 years. In 1427 the Vietnamese patriot Le Loi defeated the Chinese and, ruling under the name of Le Thai To, adopted a Confucian model of government which lasted for 360 years.

The influence of Confucianism on Vietnam was tenacious because it was rooted in the country's educational system until the 20th century. (Education consisted of a study of the Confucian classics and ethics.)

At first the schools taught only sons of royalty and other high officials, but in 1252 they were opened to students of varied backgrounds. By the beginning of the 15th century Confucian-type schools were operating in leading centers and education became the most cherished of ideals.

Confucian classics and ethics also were taught at elementary level in villages throughout the country.

Because of the scarcity of schools, the theater became a way to perpetuate Confucianism. The social relations of imperial Vietnam (emperor and subject, father and son, etc.) made the basis of stage plays. The five cardinal virtues of Confucianism (humanity, loyalty, civility, wisdom and justice) were promoted.

The Hat Boi, one of Vietnam's five major types of plays, is still influenced by Confucianism.

When Gia Long became emperor in 1802, centralized administration was strengthened. He and his successors zealously promoted Confucianism and their own image as Confucian father-figures of a harmonious and submissive Vietnamese national family.

In the 19th century, to be "educated" meant to be learned in the Confucian classics.

Schooled for centuries in Confucian principles, the rulers of Vietnam were unable to conceive of another kind of civilization and sought to isolate the country from alien religious ideas and from the modern world. In the 19th century this was no longer possible.

Under French rule, Confucianism declined. It encountered new ideas and forces, and long before the end of the colonial period it had lost its dominant position. The final blow to Confucian education was the French reform of civil service examinations which required training in the European education system rather than Confucian learning.

Its basic precepts, however, remained deeply imbedded in the morals and values of the people.