Imagined Ancestries of Vietnamese Communism: Ton Duc Thang and the Politics of History and Memory.
After the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969, Ton Duc Thang became president of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (DRVN), and later the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam, until his own death in 1980. In this book, Christoph Giebel critically examines representations in communist Viet Nam of Ton Duc Thang's life. It successfully shows that 'the process in which Vietnamese communism defined itself, imagined where it had come from, and envisioned where it was going was a complex one' (p. 195).
The book is divided into three parts and seven chapters. Each chapter examines representations of Ton's life within particular 'moments' which 'highlight the temporal and local specificities that determined the ways in which ideas were received and discussed and people made their choices' (p. xxi). Part One, with three chapters on 'constructions', examines representations of Ton's alleged participation in the Russian Black Sea Mutiny of 1919. Chapter One discusses the mutiny in the late colonial moment, before and during Ton's early Party career, and before the August Revolution of 1945. On the basis of naval records and other documents, the author argues that Ton probably did not take part in the mutiny, speculating that Ton manufactured his involvement in the mutiny in order to establish his credentials among radical youths in Sai Gon in the late 1920s. Chapters Two and Three consider subsequent DRVN representations of Ton's involvement in the mutiny in the revolutionary and post-recognition moments respectively. For the DRVN, Ton's participation in the mutiny linked the Vietnamese Revolution to the Russian October Revolution and was a symbol of revolutionary internationalism at a time when the DRVN was seeking international recognition and support. That achieved, the later additional claim that Ton hoisted a red flag during the mutiny became a symbol of DRVN proletarian internationalism and its membership of the community of socialist countries.
Part Two, with two chapters on 'contestations', describes the ways in which representations of Ton's life were appropriated and challenged by different regional factions in the DRVN. Chapter Four discusses Ton's participation in a strike at the Sai Gon navy shipyard in 1925 in the context of the post-partition moment, after the division of Viet Nam following the Geneva Conference of 1954 and the exile of a number of Southern revolutionaries to the North. In a 1957 account of the strike by Tran Van Giau, a DRVN historian of Southern origin, its purpose was to stall the French ship Jules Michelet on its way to Canton at the time of the anti-imperialist protests there that came to be known as the May Thirtieth Movement. The strike was a symbol of proletarian internationalism and indicated, despite the elisions of Northern historians, the important role of the Southern working class in Vietnamese anti-colonialism in the 1920s. Chapter Four demonstrates, however, on the basis of contemporary French and Vietnamese periodicals, that the strike was instead a response to a decline in working conditions at the shipyard, that it was defeated by a lockout without achieving any improvement in those conditions, and that it had no effect on the passage of the Jules Michelet. Chapter Five describes the historiographical debate in the 1970s and 1980s over the 'secret labour union' founded and led by Ton that was allegedly behind the strike, within the context of the post-unification moment when, after 1975, Viet Nam became a single political entity. While Northern historians conceded that Ton's 'secret labour union' was the first such union in Viet Nam, they asserted that since it had not been lead by the Party, it was not worthy of national commemoration on Labour Union Day. This position was vigorously contested by Southern historians, who sought recognition of the important role of the South in Viet Nam's revolutionary history.
Part Three, with two chapters on 'commemorations', explores two different approaches to the commemoration of Ton Duc Thang. Chapter Six examines his official biography, commissioned in the early 1980s after his death, in the immediate posthumous moment. That biography, Dong chi Ton Duc Thang, nguoi chien si cang san kien cuong mau muc (Comrade Ton Duc Thang, an exemplary, staunch Communist fighter), created a unifying national image of Ton. It emphasised his participation in the Black Sea Mutiny and his raising of the red flag, his long imprisonment under colonial rule and his career in the DRVN after 1945, while it downplayed his role in the strike at Ba Son and his leadership of the 'secret labour union', more contentious issues. Chapter Seven views Southern commemorative efforts during the post-socialist moment in the mid- to late 1980s, at a museum and shrine at Ton's birthplace near Long Xuyen. It suggests that at his birthplace the virtuous Ton is enshrined as a guardian spirit of the Vietnamese revolution while the museum serves as 'a modern temple inscription, announcing the spirit's merit, achievements, and outstanding character' (p. 185). Ton is held up as a model to follow and as an implicit critique of the widespread deviance in modern Viet Nam from the ideals of the revolution.
Though often speculative, this book uses the life of Ton Duc Thang as a lens to reveal the ways in which representations of both his and the Communist past were jointly conceived, understood, accepted or contested in Viet Nam. It is a further addition to the growing literature on perceptions of the past in Southeast Asia. Organised around a number of 'moments', the presentation is inevitably dislocated, as is the image produced of Ton the man. While this book does not intend to be 'a biography in the narrow sense' (p. xviii), its subordination of Ton's life to an analysis of representations of the past means that little is said about Ton the man and the father, about his hopes and dreams, his wants and desires, his fears and motivations. In this book, Ton is merely a tool, as he was for others seeking to represent the past in Viet Nam.
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|Publication:||Journal of Southeast Asian Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2006|
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