The Vietnamese value system is based on four basic tenets: allegiance to the family, yearning for a good name, love of learning, and respect for other people. These tenets are closely interrelated.
Allegiance to the family
The most important factor in the value system of the Vietnamese is, no doubt, the family. The family is the center of the Vietnamese common man’s preoccupation and the backbone of Vietnamese society. By virtue of the principle of collective and mutual responsibility, each individual strives to be the pride of his family.
Misconduct of an individual is blamed not only on himself, but also on his parents, siblings, relatives, and ancestors. Likewise, any success or fame achieved by an individual brings honor and pride to all members of his family. The Vietnamese child is taught from early childhood to readily forget himself for the sake of his family’s welfare and harmony. Central to the concept of family is the obligation of filial piety which is considered the most essential of all virtues in Vietnamese society. The child is expected to be grateful to his parents for the debt of birth, rearing and education. He is taught to think of his parents and ancestors first, even at his own expense, to make sacrifices for his parents’ sake, to love and care for them in their old age. The Vietnamese man who lacks filial piety is looked down upon and ostracized not only by his own family but also by the community.
The profound love for and attachment to the family is extended to the physical setting in which the family has located: the native village. The dearest wish of the Vietnamese common man is, as a proverb puts it, to die in his own native village and amidst his own folk “as a leaf which leaves the branch to fall down on the ground at the foot of the tree” (lá røng vŠ ci). The native village is not only the place where he was born and brought up and where his parents and family live but also a place where his ancestors are buried. Many Vietnamese, especially people in the rural areas, never move out of their native villages or provinces. This deep attachment to the native village explains the lack of horizontal mobility in Vietnamese society.
Concept of “good name”
The value that the Vietnamese placed on the concept of “good name,” or more precisely “fragrant name” (danh thom), cannot be underestimated. To the Vietnamese, a good name is better than any material possession in this world. By securing a good name for himself, a man can command respect and admiration from his fellow countrymen. A rich and powerful person with a bad reputation is looked down upon while a poor man with a good name is respected. It is believed that the best thing that a man can leave behind once he has departed from this world and by which he will be remembered is a good reputation. “After death, a tiger leaves behind his skin, a man his reputation,” says a proverb. The desire to have a good name, not only in his lifetime but also after death, betrays the deep aspiration of the Vietnamese to survive the disintegration of his corporeal frame after death in the memory of his progeny and community.
A man with a bad name will be disclaimed by his fellow countrymen and become a disgrace to his family. He will lose face, which is a terrible thing in an immobile society where almost everybody knows everybody else in the community. To acquire a good name, a man must avoid all words and actions which damage his dignity and honor. There are three ways by which he can acquire a good name: either by heroic deeds; by intellectual achievements; or by moral virtues. Leading a virtuous life is the easiest and surest path to a good name for there are few opportunities in our everyday life to be heroic and few people are endowed with exceptional intellectual qualities. The virtues most cultivated are the sense of honor, honesty, righteousness, modesty, generosity, and disdain for material gains, virtues most extolled by the Confucian doctrine. In view of the strong solidarity of the Vietnamese family, it is not surprising to know that the Vietnamese strives for a good name not only for himself but also for his parents and children.
Love of learning
The Vietnamese common man seems to have a great love for knowledge and learning. He seems to have particular respect and admiration for learned people. Like the virtuous man, the learned man enjoys great prestige in Vietnamese society. Often, they are the one and same man. The Vietnamese conceive that knowledge and virtues are but the two complementary aspects of the ideal man.
Memorial of ancient scholars in Hanoi
People associated with knowledge and learning (scholars, writers and teachers) have always been highly respected, not only by the students but also by parents and people from all walks of life.
Learning is considered more valuable than wealth and material success. Rich people who are not educated are often looked down upon by other people and they themselves feel inferior to learned people who are poor. In the traditional social system, the scholar ranked first, before the farmer, artisan, and tradesman. Even nowadays, the learned man is held in high esteem and respect. The love of learning does not spring from purely disinterested motives. The lure of prestige and the prospect of improved social status are among the strongest incentives to the pursuit of knowledge. Education represents the essential stepping stones to the social ladder and to good job opportunities. It is the prime force of vertical mobility in Vietnamese society.
Concept of respect
The Vietnamese common man is expected to show respect to people who are senior to him in age, status, or position. At home, he should show respect to his parents, older siblings, and older relatives. This is expressed by obedience in words and action. Respect is part of the concept of filial piety.
Outside the family, respect should be paid to elderly people, teachers, clergymen, supervisors and employers, and people in high positions. Learned and virtuous people enjoy special respect and admiration. But respect is not a one-way behavior. The Vietnamese common man also expects other people to show respect to him, by virtue of his age, status, or position. Special respect is gained by leading a virtuous life, by accomplishing certain heroic deeds or by achieving a high degree of intellectuality.
Respect is expressed by specific behaviors and linguistic devices inherent in the Vietnamese language. It is one of the essential factors in the value system of the Vietnamese people.