2. A Brief History of Local Government in Vietnam

From: Beyond Hanoi

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28 David G. Marr© 2004 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore 2 A Brief History of Local Government in Vietnam David G. Marr Vietnam’s political culture has long combined firm ideological dispositions towards centralization of power with practical recognition of local particularities and responsibilities. In this chapter I offer a preliminary view of governmental relations from the village level upward, beginning in the 15th century AD, proceeding through the French colonial period (1885–1945), and concluding with early developments under the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (1945–1976). The story could begin much earlier, but the historical traces are less plentiful, and the Viet (Kinh) people had yet to move down the coast beyond Nghe An.1 I also say little about government at the centre (trung uong), as that story is better known, and in any event would take us away from the focus of this book. Pre-colonial local government During almost a thousand years of independent monarchism (939–1885 AD), the emperor sat at the apex of a pyramid of princes, courtiers, military commanders and civil officials — all of whom demanded Reproduced from Beyond Hanoi: Local Government in Vietnam, edited by Benedict J Tria Kerkvliet and David G Marr (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2004). This version was obtained electronically direct from the publisher on condition that copyright is not infringed. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the prior permission of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Individual articles are available at A Brief History of Local Government in Vietnam 29© 2004 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore obedience from common subjects. For at least half that time, local government was intertwined with the operation of large estates controlled by the royal family, aristocrats, and Buddhist temples. Gradually, however, the state administrative hierarchy took on more tasks. In 1490, Emperor Le Thanh Ton restructured his realm into thirteen regions (xu), 52 prefectures (phu), 50 sub-prefectures (chau; usually inhabited by nonKinh people), 178 districts (huyen), 6851 communes (xa) and 1155 other units of diverse designation.2 Although this administrative terminology was borrowed entirely from China, Vietnamese usage often proved different. Another major reorganization occurred in 1831, when Emperor Minh Mang delineated 31 provinces (tinh), 75 prefectures, 249 districts, several thousand cantons (tong) and more than 12,000 communes, villages or village-type settlements (xa, thon, dong, sach).3 By this time, Vietnam had more than doubled in territory and quadrupled in population, imposing additional governmental challenges.4 The tyranny of Vietnam’s geography determined that officials posted more than a hundred kilometres or so from the royal capital possessed considerable administrative discretion. If the actions of district mandarins pleased the court, promotion to prefecture, province and then hopefully central level was their reward. If they encountered trouble, then demotion, dismissal or arrest was almost certain. To reduce the risks of perturbation, mandarins formed discreet alliances with local influential families. In periods of dynastic vitality, the imperial authorities worked hard to eliminate or circumscribe the power of clans or lineages. At other times there was no choice but to accept the existence of substantial political alignments beyond imperial control. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Vietnamese grew up in villages surrounded by rice fields and waterways, learned their politics in the extended family, grappled with the elements, and participated in a variety of community groups or associations. For them, the principal level of extra-family authority was the village council of notables (hoi dong ky muc, hoi dong ky dich and other titles), composed of male elders who supervised internal affairs according to customary rules (tuc le) and were expected to safeguard village interests vis-à-vis the world outside. Rules varied widely from one village to another about how to select council members and village officers (ly dich), make decisions, allocate tasks and be rewarded for services. Imperial edicts designed to enforce a single village standard appeared on many occasions. If faced with raw power 30 David G. Marr© 2004 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore from above, village leaders humbly made the necessary concessions, then usually managed within a couple of decades to resume favoured practices. Ironically, it was the growing influence of neo-Confucian ideology, not direct state interference, which led village elites to compile genealogies, study for the civil examinations, reserve highest honours for retired mandarins, seek court recognition of their village statutes (huong uoc) and tutelary spirits (thanh hoang), and consolidate activities at the community house (dinh).5 The notables and...



Subject Headings

  • Local government -- Vietnam.
  • Vietnam -- Politics and government -- 20th century.
  • Decentralization in government -- Vietnam.
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