The Vietnamese Monarchist Culture:
Uniting Temporal Government with Spiritual Values
       Vietnam has always been a nation of great mixture and cooperation, a country, which harmoniously blends the sacred, and the mundane, respect for education and honor for hard work and of practicality with spiritual values. Vietnamese culture combines in a unique way, man and nature, the seen and the unseen, the physical and the religious and the idea of a pragmatic government, which also includes an honored appreciation for upright morality and virtue. Today, a cornerstone of the activities and goals of the Nguyen Imperial Dynasty is the restoration and preservation of traditional Vietnamese culture and ideals. It is of the utmost importance for all Vietnamese, and other people around the world, especially those Vietnamese forced to live in exile surrounded by foreign cultures and traditions, to have a complete understanding of the beliefs and traditions of ancient Vietnam.
       Foremost in any discussion of Vietnamese culture is the image of the dragon, which itself symbolizes the combination of universal spiritual ideals and the values of virtuous temporal government. The dragon is an ancient symbol of the Vietnamese Emperor, particularly so during the Nguyen Dynasty, which more closely associated itself with the dragon than any other preceding dynasties. Since the earliest days of Vietnam, the dragon has represented the deity of the clouds, the rain, thunder and lightning. The dragon constellation is identified by the stars of the mind and the divine (Tam and Than). The dragon has also, since time immemorial, been the most recognized symbol of monarchy and kingship in East Asia. In the ancient mythology of Vietnam, it was the King Dragon of the Lac Bird clan and his wife, the fairy child Au Co, who gave birth to the founding dynasty of the Hung kings. Because of this, the Vietnamese have always regarded themselves as the children of the dragon, the symbol of great and benevolent spiritual power.
       In the old days, every Vietnamese knew the legend of the king who saw a great gold dragon ascending into the clouds from Dai La, who then founded his capital city there, naming it Thanh Long (City of the Soaring Dragon), over which site was later built the modern city of Hanoi. The kings and emperors of Vietnam adopted the dragon as their personal symbol and patron, surrounding themselves with images and allegories of the dragon. It would be impossible for there to ever be a separation of the Vietnamese royalty from the symbol of the dragon. The robes of the Emperor were named for the dragon (long con), as was the imperial barge (long chau), the person of the Emperor (long thi) and the face of the Emperor (long dien) since the time of the Ly dynasty. The Nguyen Dynasty decorated all palaces, temples and tombs with the image of the dragon, and the people looked upon the dragon as the bearer of rain, which was essential for an agricultural nation. All over Vietnam, the name of the dragon is present, such as the beautifully scenic Ha Long bay (where the dragon descended) and the Cuu Long River (nine dragons), which was also symbolic of the imperial number of nine. Since ten was symbolic of Heaven, the number nine was symbolic of the emperors and everything associated with the Emperor of Vietnam was done in sets of nine, from the number of knobs on a gate to the number of dragons on the imperial headdress.
       The dragon represented the ideal of sacred kingship and virtuous government taught by Khong Tu (Confucius) and aspired to by the Nguyen Dynasty. The teachings of this great sage were enshrined as the standard of leadership under the Vietnamese monarchy. In his Analects, the Great Teacher said, "If you would govern a state of a thousand chariots (a size comparable to Vietnam), you must pay strict attention to business, be true to your word, be economical in expenditure and love the people. You should use them according to the seasons". The later phrase refers to peasants being taken from their farms at crucial harvesting times and implies that the wise Emperor will allow the people to care for their own needs before his own. Under this form of government, the Emperor did not rule as a tyrant over his people, but inspired them through setting a moral example. Again, to quote the Teacher, "If you govern the people legalistically and control them by punishment, they will avoid crime, but have no personal sense of shame. If you govern them by means of virtue and control them with propriety, they will gain their own sense of shame, and thus correct themselves."
       The Emperor, far from exercising the political oppression seen in Vietnam today, was to be a guard against corruption, encouraging the loyalty of good people by granting honors only to the honest and humane. In dealing with the people he was told to, "Approach them with dignity, and they will be reverent. Be filial and compassionate and they will be loyal. Promote the able and teach the incompetent, and they will work positively for you." This is a far cry from the Communist dictatorship in Vietnam today, which rules through oppression and fear of imprisonment or death.
       These traditional and noble ideals are to be the basis of the restored constitutional monarchy sought by the Nguyen dynasty and all loyal Vietnamese. Almost all of the Nguyen Emperors were renowned Confucian scholars, who understood and appreciated the high ideals they were called to. A restoration of the monarchy means an end to the favoritism and intolerance of the Communist Party, keeping in mind the advice that, "When the Superior Man deals with the world he is not prejudiced for or against anything. He does what is Right." Of particular concern is the oppression and exploitation of the people, who should be regarded, as the Emperor Bao Dai believed, as "the most precious thing" in the heart of the leader; as well as the persecution of the religious sects.
       The Great Teacher said that, "There are three things that a gentleman fears: he fears the will of Heaven, he fears great men, he fears the words of the Divine Sages. The small man does not know the will of Heaven and so does not fear it. He treats great men with contempt, and he scoffs at the words of the Divine Sages". Today, Vietnam is ruled by an elite group of such "small men", who care for themselves and their political power before the people and allow them to be exploited for their own gain. They hold nothing sacred and dishonor the ancient traditions of Vietnam by holding mock ceremonies to cheat tourists out of their money. The principles of character and virtue that stood at the heart of all the ancient dynasties has been cast aside and corruption and social repression are the effects of these Communist policies. In denouncing all religions and ancient beliefs, the Communist government has insulted everything that the Vietnamese people have held sacred for centuries. They are concerned with power and prestige, not with uplifting their people.
       The true, traditional monarchy of Vietnam has always been based on working to achieve perfect loyalty and virtue, from the individual and throughout the entire nation. It was accepted that, "Now filial piety is the root of all virtue, and the stem out of which grows all moral teaching...Our bodies, to every hair and bit of skin, are received by us from our parents, and we must not presume to injure or wound them: this is the beginning of filial piety. When we have established our character by the practice of the filial course, so as to make our name famous in future ages, and thereby glorify our parents: this is the end of filial piety. It commences with the service of parents; it proceeds to the service of the Emperor; it is completed by the establishment of character." This is, perhaps, the most obvious difference between the traditional Vietnamese style monarchy and the modern socialist republic: the nation was viewed as one great family, together working to achieve, not only physical fulfillment, but perfect morality in the time of the empire, whereas today, the state views the people as nothing but a mob to be controlled and manipulated, no more real to the party officials than names on a page, the people are regarded as a set of statistics.
       The Nguyen Dynasty has passed into the pages of history, but it remains a worthy goal to support the ideals the Imperial system once stood for. These include, not only repairing monuments and rebuilding temples, but to restore in Vietnam the ancient principles of national leadership, which cares for the people, works for their benefit and strives to be a moral example for good character. The principles of the monarchy are the principles Vietnamese emperors have strove to achieve since the teachings of the Great Sage were first put into practice, teachings which made it clear that leadership should be exercised by upright people, who gain position through merit rather than special favor, where the will of the people is paramount and the state, personified by the Emperor, serves the people. The Emperor who accepts that, "Heaven sees as my people see: Heaven hears as my people hear" and that, "The commander of the forces of a large state may be carried off, but the will of even the humblest of its subjects cannot be taken from him."
Joseph A. Crisp II
1