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Vietnamese culture looks beyond the border

Update: January, 31/2014 - 03:14
Philosophical perspective: The culture expert lives his life by the Buddhist precept that nothing is permanent. — VNS Photo Thao Ly

With the Lunar New Year around the corner, Hong Thuy interviewed culture expert Huu Ngoc about the preservation of Vietnamese traditional culture.

What makes you interested in bringing Vietnamese culture to the world and vice versa?

I have a thought that many people may think is backwards; that is 70 per cent of human life, at least in mine, is predestined by an accident which happens beyond our own plans.

Accidents, which have been used in philosophy for a long time, are not about destiny. I do not believe in astrology or fortune-telling, but I believe in scientific accidents which are, to some extent, compatible with Buddhist concept known as "nhan duyen" [in Vietnamese].

This concept is seen as a predetermined principle that one cannot anticipate things because it comes and goes by itself.

Professor and astrophysician Trinh Xuan Thuan also thinks that scientific accidents play an important role in human life. The Vietnamese-American astrophycian explains very well what scientific accidents are in his newly published book Le Cosmos et le Lotus, in which he relates scientific knowledge of the cosmos with Buddhist cosmology.

How do accidents impact on your career as an "exporter" and "importer" of culture?

Many accidents have influenced my life. The first one was the outbreak of the August, 1945 Revolution in Viet Nam. Under the pressure of the revolutionary masses, the emperor Bao Dai renounced the throne. Then, a delegation [of the Government of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam] led by historian Tran Huy Lieu arrived the royal capital of Hue to attend the abdication ceremony.

The visit induced a meeting between revolutionist- poet Huy Can and me as I was in Hue working as a private teacher at that time. It was Huy Can who gave me advice to return to Ha Noi because he believed that the new government needed people who could speak different foreign languages.

He wrote me a letter of introduction, requesting any drivers with cars that I met to give me a lift to the capital of the new republic. Thus, my move from Hue to Ha Noi happened by chance.

One accident after another induced me to become an exporter of culture. I was the editor-in-chief of Le Tincelle newspaper before joining the army in 1950. In the army, I was appointed to write materials for educating European and African prisoners of war. I continued working as editor-in-chief of Le Vietnam Democratique and Vietnam Advances newspapers written in French and English languages in 1957.

However, the newspapers were suspended in 1963, because I was criticised for being in favour of revisionism. I became director of the Foreign Language Publishing House (now the World Publishing House) and editor-in-chief of Etudes Vietnamiennes journal in 1982. At present, at the age of 96, I'm still Chairman of Advisory Board of the journal Viet Nam Studies, even though I've been retired for 20 years.

The idea of importing culture stemmed from a thought I had that it would be disadvantageous for Vietnamese people if they knew only about Chinese culture that had dominated the country for many centuries. Keeping this in mind, I tried to teach my students about French, English and American cultures.

When working with the Foreign Language Publishing House, I changed its name to the World Publishing House with a desire to bring Viet Nam to the world outside its relationships with other socialist countries. I wrote books and articles about cultures in different countries to help Vietnamese gain a good understanding of them.

What is your plan for the New Year?

I do when I can. I neither have high ambition nor set any plans for doing everything.

Maintaining good health is my first priority.

Many people know about your work but they do not know how you do it. What is your key to success?

If I answer this question I'm preaching. I'm not going to answer that.

What is your own personal philosophy?

My philosophy is that of the Buddhist concept of impermanence and that many things can happen by chance. I consider one's life a performance on a stage. If one is given a role they should act it well. In other words, they must try their best to get their jobs done.

It is highly probable that one already tried their best but they are still unsuccessful. On the one hand, it is possible to think many things can happen by chance. On the other hand, one should not wait for things to fall into their lap.

It‘s a real loss for an individual when a good accident, or an opportunity, comes along but they are not well prepared to take it. When opportunities come along, one is surely joyful. But we should not be self-important and boast of what we do.

Similarly, when one is unsuccessful they should not be disheartened because they already tried their best. If anyone can be joyful in moderation when they succeed, and be upset in moderation after a defeat, their spiritual life will be balanced. That is the philosophy of my life.

Are you pleased with what you have done?

No, I'm not.

All things are impermanent so that they come and go. I'm already joyful when opportunities come. Likewise, I'm already upset when I fail. Joyfulness and sadness alternate in my life and I continue being so. I agree with a foreign scholar who defines happiness as tranquillity and occupation.

What is your advice to Vietnamese youth about preserving Vietnamese traditional culture?

I only want to recalled Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's speech in 1973 when she was speaking with Indian female students. The speech, which is selected as one of the most famous 50 speeches, is about education. In the speech, the Prime Minister said it was good when people were running after modernization, but it should be remembered that modernisation contained both good and bad things.

I remember that educational reform in India changed after that speech.

In Viet Nam, the Ministry of Education and Training recently made a decision to increase lesson hours on civil education at secondary and high schools. Making comments on the issue, an American reader queried if the decision was in response to public outcry about the decline of morality in Vietnamese society. If it was the case, the reader said it was an automatic response to the outcry.

In my opinion, the ministry is merely a part of the three axes: political system and society, family and school. The three axes share responsibility in training people and training intellectuals. Thus, it may be irrational to concentrate on schools to take on that entire responsibility.

I remember that during the anti-French war the Vietnamese people's morale was very high and everyone wanted to contribute to the country. Ordinary people were willing to tear down their houses to serve the schorched earth policy. Landlords were ready to donate money to the revolutionary authority. Peasants shared their very little meals with soldiers. Having said that, I want to emphasise that a healthy society can generate a healthy education system.

It is widely said that culture changes when living conditions change. What are the significant changes in Vietnamese culture in recent years?

Big changes started to take place after the country was reunited in 1975, especially after Viet Nam opened its door to the world in 1986. People tend to run after materialism which has more or less impacted on culture.

What is a normal day for you?

I walk every day to maintain a good health. Work occupies my life so I do not have enough time for myself. In addition to reading books, socialising with my friends not only entertains me but also helps me reflect. I am lucky because I have many friends who are recognised as elite people so that I can learn from them. I'm not special at all.

By whom you are influenced the most. Your father or your mother?

Perhaps it is my mother though she died when I was seven years old. She was very gentle and a Buddhist follower. My mother ran a traditional Vietnamese medicine shop because she was a good herbalist.

In summer she frequently put a big jar of lid eugenia tea in the front of her shop for passers-by to drink. Such things may have influenced me.

Thank you very much for the interview!

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