The rice patty civilization of the plains and deltas, which we shall examine in greater detail in the first chapter, is founded on the unchanging progression of the seasons: plowing, sowing, and extraction, followed by the transplantation of the young rice plants, weeding, irrigation, and finally harvest. The Vietnamese peasant, it is said, offers “his back to the sun and his face to the earth”. This way of life, shared by millions of peasants across Southeast Asia and Indonesia, is poetically captured by the image of the child who sits or lies upon the back of the water buffalo after whom he looks as it grazes. An indispensable and much respected partner, the buffalo is the peasant’s assistant in the rice patties. As the popular song goes:
“Oh buffalo, listen to what I tell you, my buffalo.
Come to the rice patty and work with me;
Work and replanting are the duties of the farmer.
Me on this side, you on the other,
which of us supports the other?”(Translated by Lê Thanh Khôi. Quoted from Aigrettes sur la rizière. Classic songs and poems of Vietnam, Paris,Gallimard, 1995, Connaissance de l’Orient)
The child – like the buffalo, an essential part of the Family’s wealth – is typically pictured sheltering under a large round lotus leaf as one might in the shade of a parasol or lightly tossing his large straw hat into the air while picking off a few notes on his bamboo flute. Popular prints often illustrate this theme of the child and the buffalo, an image associated with the idea of peace and prosperity, something that has long been little more than a dream for the people of Vietnam.
In yet another domain of popular art, marionette performances on water (mua rôi nu’o’c) similarly illustrate the civilization of the rice patty. While shadow theaters, marionettes, and puppet shows are often encountered across Asia, marionette performances on water are an exclusively Vietnamese genre. Their origin likely extends back as far as the twelfth century.
History has it that these shows were first conceived by Tu Dao Hanh, a well-known monk, botanist, herbalist, and state servant, to celebrate the New Year and the end of agricultural labors in the village communities of the north. The performance, to which the entire community was freely invited, would take place in the village pond where a Temple of Water (Thuy Dinh) – a bamboo edifice covered by silk or cotton fabric imitating the tiled roofs and walls of an actual building – was constructed.
An orchestra composed of gongs, drums, two string violins and bamboo flutes stands in this structure, half submerged in the muddy waters that hid the long poles and complex systems of strings that permitted the marionettes to remain above water as they moved about. Lacquered and sculpted in jaquier wood, the heaviest marionettes, sometimes as high as sixty centimeters, were provided with floats. In scenes at once humorous and immensely poetic, the world of peasant life was evoked: pole fishing, frog trapping, duck fattening, rice planting and replanting, and harvest.
Swimming competitions and boat races also accompanied these popular celebrations. Other scenes, evoking both myth and history, were included in the spectacles. Sadly, these celebrations, once crucial sites for the reaffirmation of cultural identity, are today performed mainly for the benefit of tourists.
While rice patty irrigation can be practiced in regions of medium altitude, slash and burn rice farming is the only possibility for those who inhabit the highest altitudes. Harvests, however, are meager and the forest thus remains an indispensable resource. For this reason, a number of researchers contrast the civilization of the plains and deltas with the civilization of the highlands and forests, or “plant civilization”. In recent years, this latter region has suffered brutal deforestation at the hands of traders in precious woods, Viet rice farmers who have begun to move into the highlands, and road builders, imperiling both the forests on which a large number of ethnic groups depend for their livelihood and the way of life and culture that has been inspired by these forests. This sad situation holds true not only for the primitive forests of Vietnam and Southeast Asia but also for forests the world over.
The history of Vietnam is also that of a necessary interdependence between the low country populations and the highland tribes. These latter have also played a constitutive role in the creation of “classical” Vietnamese culture and should not be neglected, whether at the level of poetry, music, or the plastic arts. Certain ethnic groups, such as the Thai, are characterized by a rigorous social structure and an original and highly refined culture; others, much weaker numerically, remain at an inferior stage of development and frequently find themselves in a relation of subordination with the others.
Since the eleventh century, the Dai Viet and Champa, who when at war sought the allegiance of minority groups as well as their active participation in forming an army, have exchanged their natural resources with the mountain dwellers. In exchange for precious woods and such animals as the central highland elephant, a guarantee of military force and symbol of power, low country people have provided the highland groups with the rice and ceramics not produced locally. The history of the relations between these two worlds is complex and much remains to be written…
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