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  • Objects of Affection: Vietnamese Discourses on Love and Emancipation
  • Harriet M. Phinney (bio)

Scholarship on the politics of love and romance and on the link between the construction of common sense and embodied behavior provide compelling reasons for looking at long-term construction of the way in which emotion, behavior, and language come to be conjoined so that they are embodied, assumed, considered rational, and spoken.1 Love, like any other emotion, need not be assumed to have an essential core. Decisions about whom and what one loves, whom and what one considers loveable, and when love is appropriate are malleable, shaped by changing rules, regulations and political economies, and are historically specific. This paper traces a genealogy of discourses on love in Vietnam from the 1920s to the present, in order to elucidate how narratives on love from the past are used and transformed by contemporary Vietnamese, enabling them to create new subjectivities and new social spaces. [End Page 329]

Throughout Vietnamese history, Vietnamese intellectuals, nationalists, and political leaders have transformed existing conceptualizations of love to produce new discourses of love for the purposes of mobilizing and governing the populace. In the 1920s and 1930s, the desire to marry whom one loves became a focus of literary endeavors in contemporary intellectual social discourse. Yet, as revolutionary fervor for ousting the French once again began to gather momentum among intellectuals in the late 1930s, debates about personal versus common responsibility began to supersede discussions of individual romantic love. By the early 1940s and into the 1950s, literary efforts to portray individual romantic love, denounced as bourgeois, had become displaced by revolutionary calls for writers to focus on love of the country.

In 1959, a concern for individual romantic love was taken up by the Lao Dong party. From the 1960s to the mid-1980s, the party promoted what I call socialist love as part of its efforts to create a modern socialist subject. This was not the same kind of romantic love advocated by 1930s intellectuals enamored with individual romantic love. Rather, socialist love was to be governed by the state. In 1986, with the advent of Doi Moi (Renovation), the Vietnamese state envisioned a new subjectivity, that of the happy, healthy, and wealthy family. This new form of governmentality necessitated that people shift their object of affection from building the nation to focusing on one’s family and oneself. This shift would be essential for producing modern subjects who, by taking responsibility for themselves, could ensure the nation’s success in the global market economy. An important component of this new governmentality was the state’s appeal to essentialist notions of maternal love to encourage women to focus on building a happy, healthy, and wealthy family.

At different points in time, Vietnamese have drawn upon strains of these discourses in order to persuade, justify, require, or deny love, marriage, and childbearing. One of the most remarkable appeals to these discourses of love has come from older single women who found themselves unmarried and childless after the Indochina wars.2 Forced to abandon their prewar dreams of finding conjugal love, the women engaged in a novel reproductive strategy to create families of their own. A small number of single women asked [End Page 330] men they would not marry to get them pregnant. They “asked for a child” (kiem con/xin con).3 The women justified their decisions to remain single based on their never having had true love or tinh cam (true understanding and sympathy).4 The women’s reproductive strategy, initially condemned, gradually gained social and governmental acceptance. That ideologies of love would play a significant role providing social acceptance of this radical reproductive strategy is due to the fact that love has been inextricably intertwined with Vietnamese revolutionary and socialist governing agendas.

The importance of single women’s ability to cite not loving as a reason for not marrying lies in their ability to speak it and be heard. After all, most of their parents were married according to different marital principles, including the custom of arranged marriages.5 This paper argues that contemporary narratives on love derive legitimacy because individuals who appeal to them draw on...