“Communist Iconography and Vietnamese Elitelore:
Evidence of Collusion in Visual Culture,”
By Lindy Leong,
UCLA Information Science, 2000.
Throughout Vietnamese political history as in the histories of many nation states, the collusion of politicized iconography and cultural mythology has served to disseminate a set mode of propaganda fabricated by the powers that be to the masses. By invoking and incorporating well-known culturally specific imagery into political iconography, the political pundits were able to legitimize their rule and dominance. For instance, the lore surrounding Ho Chi Minh was and is being continually perpetuated in Vietnam via the commodification of his image in consumerist culture. From the grandeur of his mausoleum in Hanoi to the imprinting of his image on something as seemingly innocuous as a T-shirt (shown above), Ho Chi Minh becomes a symbol of Vietnam herself. Again, this sort of mythologizing of "great men and women" is not an isolated incident. This attempt at the creation of an Elitelore via the manipulation of the "cult of personality" permeates most if not all nation states. From political leaders, kings, queens, heads of state, activists, movie stars, rock stars, to emblems of corporations (i.e. logos, trademark, symbol), the list of candidates for sanctification can go on.
In the case of Ho Chi Minh and many leaders of nations, the elevation of his personage as symbol to a dimension of sainthood is essential to ensure social, political, and economic cohesion. In times of hardship and turmoil, the notion of an omniscient authority to look to provides the masses with a sense of security while in a precarious state. Thus, the longevity (and the projection of presence) of such an iconic figure is absolutely essential in extending the aura of stability and safety within a nation state. Consumerist culture deserves the credit for mass (as in global) dissemination of communist/socialist iconography. This is an ironic and paradoxical bind that appears irreconcilable. One hypothesis can be that consumers (especially westerners who thrive under democratic rule) who purchase these symbols of communist/socialist philosophy desire to align themselves with revolutionary forces and thought (i.e. the notion of change as progress) so prevalent elsewhere in the world while nearly absent in their own political systems.
The effects of Vietnamese governmental dissemination of politicized iconography is well-represented by Howard's postcards. The manufacturers and publishers of these cards (most likely, a government-subsidized entity in a Communist nation state) select specific images over others in order to convey specific information about a particular subject.
Picture 1: Vietnamese youth standing in unity before beautiful pagoda facade=the new and old juxtaposed; adheres to notion of cultural longevity; Picture 2: Ho Chi Minh mixing with the masses=the human side of a great leader revealed; renders government as benign force; Picture 3: A picturesque Vietnamese landscape with fishermen working their trade=physical/external beauty and tranquility as connotation of psychological/internal stability and peace within.
A brief look into Vietnamese political culture is warranted in any discussion of the role of iconography as propaganda:
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The signing of the Paris Peace Accord in 1973 marked an upswing in the fragile realm of Vietnamese politics and served to confer international prestige and goodwill toward Vietnam. This occasion signified the colonized Vietnam's cutting of the umbilical cord to France, its colonizer and master for so many years. Subsequent to this in 1975, the fall of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Vietnamese triumph against American forces catapulted Vietnam to the position of Third World darling.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Vietnam's star has fallen due to internal strife long dormant within its political infrastructure. In 1986, the state of "crisis," especially aggravated by Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia, led government officials to do some genuine, soul-searching in their campaign of doi moi ("renewal" or "renovation"). The official line for the "crisis" revolved around external conditions of bad weather (i.e. the devastating flood of 1978 that left 6 million people homeless and hundreds of thousands of rice land ruined); pests and lack of fertilizer caused widespread crop failure; "sabotage" by the Hoa (Vietnamese citizens of Chinese origin) that supposedly played a prime role in the decline of economic life; and the "demoniac alliance" ("lien menh ma quy") of the ASEAN, Chinese and the U.S. governments.
Recent Vietnamese leaders blame past generation's "voluntarist subjectivism" or the tendency to let one's own will dictate policies, while disregarding existing conditions for the "illness of bureaucracy" today. The loss of ideological certainty due to the elimination of a clearly defined enemy for the first time in a half-century period has left the Vietnamese Communist regime without a rationale for its existence. This notion of the "enemy" was reinforced during the height of the Cold War as Vietnam underwent its own Thirty-Year War. The sanctification of Ho Chi Minh is justifiable in the sense that he is an emblem of an idealized, glorious past in Vietnamese history. Historians support this need for Elitelore surrounding Ho Chi Minh by noting that because Minh's generation of leaders neglected to entrust younger government officials with political and managerial responsibility during wartime, a leadership crisis in Vietnam has manifested in today's government.
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In light of "deradicalization" or what occurs when fervor in a movement has subsided accommodating itself to the reality of the world at hand and when the temptation of power and privilege eclipses revolutionary zeal & idealistic commitment, the galvanization of a new dialogue in the form of propagandistic imagery infuses it with a renewed sense of importance. The symbolic death of communism and end of the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991 necessitates the embrace of any remnants of what was once a way of life by those remaining stalwart communist regimes.
Examples of communist iconography in Vietnamese culture follow:
Picture 4: Toy tank sold by Vietnamese street vendors=symbol of Vietnamese military might; allusion to Vietnamese triumph over American forces in war; Picture 5: Tank and aircraft from the war period=actual historical evidence of Vietnamese triumph over American forces in war; you can touch a piece of history and be part of it.
Picture 6-14: Billboards in Saigon colored in traditional Communist hues=The equation of advertisers+government equals buying/consuming the official line of the day; consumerist culture as vehicle for political indoctrination.
Picture 15-19: Billboards in Hanoi also amalgamating communist iconography and Vietnamese cultural life.
Picture 20-21: Billboard in Saigon ironically brandishes the terms, "OK" and "Trust."
Picture 22-30: Postcard Impressions of Vietnamese culture; No. 22 shows a farm girl carrying her crop bag and smiling; No. 23 depicts a family working the land together in seeming harmony; No. 24 illustrates a young farm woman balancing her goods in a pose; No. 25 shows the humanity of a diminutive elderly Vietnamese country woman in traditional dress; No. 26 portrays young girls in traditional ao dai dresses; No. 27 portrays a young Vietnamese lady carrying a basket full of bread loaves; No. 28 illustrates picture-perfect landscape dominated by a lovely bridge and vibrant cherry blossoms; No. 29 & 30 appear like paintings in their aestheticization of peasant life and culture.
The previous images all serve to subsume the reality of Vietnam's "depressing poverty, overbearing democracy, and crumbling discipline" beneath a facade of reverence, beauty, and solidarity across the social milieu.
While this is an all too brief look at print media and consumer culture's influence in shaping the reception of Vietnamese culture, more in-depth research into multimedia's role in fashioning the perception of modern Vietnamese culture and history will proved to be ever more fascinating.
Stubbs, Richard. Vietnam: Facing the 1990s. Toronto, Canada: Joint Centre for Asia Pacific Studies, 1989.
Assignment #2 for UCLA IS287/Howard Besser
Student Project by Lindy Leong--Winter 2000
Copyright © 1996 and 2012 by Elitelore World and UCLA