Last update 6/28/2011 2:00:00 PM (GMT+7)

How to develop Vietnam’s marine culture?

VietNamNet Bridge – Culturist Tran Ngoc Them, said that the master of the sea must be the people. The army is just a part of them. If the army is capable to keep the sea but the people are incapable to explore the sea, Vietnam cannot master it.

VN condemns Chinese intrusion

The national seminar on the culture of sea and islands was held recently during the Nha Trang Sea and Islands Festival 2011 in Nha Trang City, Khanh Hoa province. Prof. Dr. Tran Ngoc Them from the HCM City-based National University talked with VietNamNet on the sideline of seminar about the marine culture and a strategy to develop it.

Vietnam used to have a marine culture

Prof. Dr. Tran Ngoc Them said:

A nation is considered to have marine culture when marine culture is an indispensable element of that nation’s traditional culture, with the four following conditions:1) the based-on-the-sea living area is large enough to be known and recognized by the community, 2) the number of inhabitants in the sea is large enough to become a significant force of the community, 3) social and economic contribution of the sea-related activities is enough to be known and recognized by the community, 4) that subject has existed in that space in a long enough time to become tradition.

Based on the above criteria, in Vietnam’s history, Vietnam used to have marine culture from the Dong Son era until the end of the period against the domination of northern invaders.

Could you tell our readers about Vietnam’s marine culture in the Dong Son era?

There are many evidences and the most obvious and most mentioned are the pictures of ships on Dong Son bronze drums. However, researchers noted a detail that these ships don’t have sails, so perhaps they only traveled on rivers, not going to the sea. Offshore ships in the Nguyen era, for examples pictures on censers, have sails while ships in the Dong Son era did not have sail, but with long bodies and oars.

But according to Chinese historical documents, Chinese people from the Han to Tuy Duong eras confirmed that Vietnamese were good at traveling in rivers and in the sea. I can say that navigation is a tradition of Bach Viet people in southern China and Vietnam. Western researchers also recognized this character. In the Oc Eo era in the early Christian era, there were trade activities from Oc Eo to northern region or to Roman, which were noted on ancient maps of Western people. In the 15th century, such activities were also recorded.

In later research works, for example the work by Chinese origin scholar Wang Gungwu on the history of foreign trade in the East Sea, says that until the end of the period of domination of northern invaders, all marine activities in the East Sea were performed mainly by Giao Chi (Vietnamese) people. Guangzhou only held a small part of them.

But a question that we don’t have enough historical data to answer is where did that marine tradition go?

The first supposition is it disappeared, but it has no way because the context does not change so there is no reason for it to disappear.

The second supposition is the group of inhabitants that belong to Nam Dao linguistic families (Cham, Raglai, Ede, Churu, etc. ethnic groups) who were coastal people but due to historical reasons they gradually moved to the mountain. For instance, Cham people used to be very good at travelling and exploring in the sea, even making punitive expeditions by the sea. After moving to mountain, they have become mainland inhabitants who do farming works. Their marine culture history now exists in remains like charnel-houses, architecture, sculpture, customs and habits, rituals, etc.

Since the 10th century, Vietnam has only had waterway culture and some factors of marine culture, not the entire marine culture as an indispensable part of the nation’s culture.

What is the difference of our marine culture in the later period?

Owing to shortage of historical documents, it is difficult to make comparison between marine culture of the old time and today. But according to remaining documents, our marine culture in the past was quite strong. It also changed with time. In the Tran era, the Van Don Port was only the stop-over, not the port to go to the world. Pho Hien, Hoi An were only the places for trade exchange with foreign merchants. For the Nguyen Dynasty, these were places for collecting taxes.

Vietnamese’s culture to conquer the sea was at a low level. The Nguyen Dynsty was well aware of sovereignty and it sent soldiers to Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands to collect marine produces. But these soldiers were afraid of going to the sea. The rituals to honor the Hoang Sa Flotilla is actually the sacrifice rituals for the living because they did not know whether soldiers would return or not. Before going to the sea, each soldier prepares two sedge mats, seven bamboo splints and seven rattan ropes to bind their bodies if they die. For Viet people, the sea was something dangerous that they could not master it.

A scholar said that Vietnam doesn’t have a strategy to develop marine culture in the modern time. What do you think?

First of all, we have to really master the sea. That must be a strategy from the top, with the maximal assistance of the state. But the master of the sea must be the people. The army is just a part of them. If the army is capable to keep the sea but the people are incapable to explore the sea, Vietnam cannot master it.

We also need education of sea culture by diverse methods, for example teaching marine culture at schools, at museums or on the media to help the people understand that we have proud tradition of marine culture and the sea is a limitless natural resource.

If we cannot master the sea, we will waste huge natural resources. If we cannot quickly master the sea, other countries may scramble for it. That would be our great sin to future generations.

We need to build a museum of marine culture, which has everything about the life of fishermen, the fishing industry, all kinds of vessels, folk culture and literature on the sea. Such a museum should be based in Khanh Hoa province.

Along Vietnam’s over 3,200km of coast, the central region has the strongest marine culture. In the region, Khanh Hoa is the pioneer, with the only Oceanography Institute of Vietnam and the museum of aquatic creatures. This province should have a research institute of marine culture and a museum of marine culture to become the center of marine culture.

Research works on the sea need to be united and concentrated, with both research works on the sea in terms of nature and in term of social and human aspects.
Dr. Tran Duc Anh Son, vice director of the Da Nang Institute for Social and Economic Research and Development, said: being fearful of the sea was a historical fact in Vietnamese’s attitude to the sea. That fearing is the hindrance for the strategy to build up Vietnam into a strong marine country in the reason.

Vietnamese can only give up this fear and change their attitude to the sea toward a positive and effective way, once the marine potential and resources are explored in a safe and effective manner; the fishery industry is respected and the marine culture is preserved and developed.

The Vietnamese state aims to build Vietnam into a marine country, but it does not have an effective policy in building the image of Vietnam as a marine country. The policies that Vietnam has implemented seem to focus on exploring the sea, not to build and preserve the marine culture.

It is not enough to preserve the marine culture in the memoirs of coastal inhabitants but we have to preserve that culture in modern museums, in cultural development policies of the state. To become a marine country, we have to preserve the current marine culture in the community which is facing the danger of oblivion.

Prof., Dr. Tran Ngoc Them