Monday, October 1, 2012

Vietnam, Restore It Already


Recently, I was checking in on one of my favorite cities in the world; Hue, Vietnam. This was the capital city during the reign of the Nguyen Dynasty and is famous for being the home of the Holy Citadel, inside which is the Imperial (Yellow) City, inside which is the Forbidden (Purple) City where the emperors resided. Unfortunately, the actual main palace was destroyed during the Tet Offensive of 1968 but a great deal remains. Float down the Perfume River outside of town and you have the magnificent tombs of the Nguyen emperors (most of them anyway) and these relics of the imperial past are still what makes the city of Hue famous. Hanoi may be the seat of power, and Saigon may be the biggest city but Hue is where the history is. When the communists first took control of South Vietnam, they were still in that phase where they wanted to be Marxist purists and the imperial monuments of Hue were neglected. Building materials deteriorated, became overgrown but there always remained a quiet majesty about them. Eventually, it became clear that Marxism was not working and the Vietnamese authorities began to open up a little more, especially after the fall of the USSR which had been their primary source of support. The remnants of the monarchial past, which the communists scorned, were then found to be of value because the same communist government that poured scorn on the imperial era discovered that the imperial-era buildings with their exquisite artwork and architecture brought in money as tourist attractions.

The faithful few honor the emperors
How things began to change. UNESCO was called it, funding was obtained for restoration projects and more of the tombs and more of the Forbidden City began to be opened to the public. Another curiosity intrigued the communist officials. For many years a small group of people would come to the tombs and the palaces to carry out traditional rituals, honoring the old emperors. Usually these were distant relatives and the communists never tried to be so radical as to totally forbid what westerners call “ancestor worship” and so never acted against them. So, these few but faithful would show up regularly to set out food on the altars, burn incense and say their prayers and, in time, it was noticed that tourists enjoyed watching these (generally) elderly people kowtowing before portraits of the Nguyen emperors. In time, tourists made a point of visiting when these little ceremonies would be held. The communist authorities again saw dollar signs and decided it would not go against their principles to start holding bigger, more official traditional ceremonies as had been done in all the centuries past. Everything that could be done, would be done to cater to the wants of tourists. Some of this was done with as much respect for tradition as possible but others would have been seen as downright blasphemous back in the old days, such as having smiling French or American tourists dress in imperial robes to be photographed on a mock-throne or treated to an imperial style banquet with everyone in rented, imitation court costumes.

Changing of the guard ceremony
Now, I find out that this sort of thing is happening with official sanction with ever increasing regularity. It would come as no surprise to monarchists that people really love seeing the colorful pomp and ceremony of the old imperial traditions. It seems that now, such events are happening on a regular basis, weekly and at times even daily as authorities have discovered how much increased tourism funds these events bring in. Actors are now hired to portray a generic Emperor and Empress for festival ceremonies and a small army of actors are now constantly on the payroll, dressing up as mandarins and soldiers to reenact such ceremonies as the changing of the guard and “Following the Husband of the Princess”. I must confess that I cannot help but have some mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it is gratifying to see so many people taking an interest in traditional Vietnamese customs and the rituals of the monarchy but, on the other hand, it does seem to have, to me at least, a slightly sacrilegious feel about it. However, above all it begs the question; why not just restore the monarchy and be done with it?

The "Emperor" attracts a crowd
After all, considering that most monarchs in the world no longer hold actual political power or play any real role in government, if the Vietnamese government is going to go to the expense of hiring actors to portray royals, mandarins and guards, if they are going to stage court music recitals, imperial banquets and plays, hire people to perform traditional ceremonies; why not just restore the actual royals themselves to carry out all of these functions? I can think of no legitimate reason not to. Yet, even if they did not restore the monarchy officially, they could still follow the example of South Korea and just have a member of the old Nguyen Dynasty show up to preside over traditional ceremonies formerly done by the emperor. They would probably not wish to import the actual heir to the last emperor (and in all likelihood he would not wish to return) but there are plenty of relatives and descendants of the emperors still in Vietnam. Considering that Emperor Minh Mang alone had 142 children, there is no shortage of people who would at least have a greater legitimacy to perform such rites than a hired actor. The only reason I can think of for why the government would refuse to do such things (beyond Marxist ideology which they have mostly dropped already anyway) is the fear that the people might come to have more respect for the would-be Emperor than for the ruling communist dictator and if then that would-be Emperor might decide to speak up on some issue or another of moral concern to the people, there could be the impetus for real change.

In any event, I just thought this was interesting and one of the first things that occurred to me was how much I would like to make the republicans in Britain and on the continent of Europe familiar with this story. Get rid of your already mostly ceremonial monarchies now and within a few years you will just be paying actors to dress up and play “let’s pretend” and going through all the motions of having a monarchy anyway. What a waste that would be.

2 comments:

  1. Hué, located right in the middle part of Vietnam, is more suitable than Hanoi and Saigon to be the capital of Vietnam especially since the Imperial City is also located there. I wonder if the Vietnamese monarchy is restored, is it possible to modernize the Purple Forbidden City into an imperial palace while keeping its original size and architecture?

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    Replies
    1. That was the original point. The Le Dynasty had ruled from Hanoi (Thanh Long) which was the traditional seat of power but there was a long period of civil war between the Trinh family in the north and the Nguyen family from the south. When the Nguyen were victorious they (or "he" as there was only one left) chosen Hue for its central location so that instead of one region ruling over another it would symbolize north and south coming together.

      Actually, with some care, it would be very possible I think to restore the Forbidden City to live-in condition. The main palace where the emperor resided was totally destroyed, there's just a few foundation stones left now, so it could be rebuilt as before just with modern conveniences provided. And, in the meantime, the summer palace at Dalat (which was built modern to begin-with) would serve I think.

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