Traditionally, Vietnamese society was based upon extended families and agricultural communities. Far from being a mere topographical unit, a Vietnamese community was a viable social cell, a sort of micro-society with distinct economic, administrative, cultural and religious life sui generis. Therefore, Vietnamese society has been described as a federation of rural communities. For the Vietnamese people, any community represented a microcosm, a nexus around which all social and religious life evolved.
Inside every rural community in traditional Vietnam, land was distributed more or less equally among peasant households. The arrival of the French deeply affected and changed these previously balanced social structures. Correspondingly, the economic, social and cultural life of Vietnam underwent dramatic changes in the aftermath of the French conquest.
Pre-colonial Vietnam was a predominantly traditional and egalitarian rural society. Although there surely was no absolute equalization in terms of property distribution, any unreasonable concentration of property was equally rare in traditional Vietnamese society.
Prior to its initial contacts with the West, Vietnamese society was predominantly isolationist and subsistence-oriented. Due to the isolationist policies of the ruling dynasties, external economic ties were virtually non-existent. In the meantime, the rural population remained a corner stone of traditional Vietnamese society. Peasants constituted some 95 percent of the countrys total population. According to Đào Duy Anh, “the rural population was a backbone of the Vietnamese nation, while agriculture was a basis of the national culture.” Đào Duy Anh, 1951, p.321.
The predominantly agricultural society of Vietnam generated a natural and uncomplicated way of life as peoples basic needs were satisfied within rural communities. Moreover, Vietnams traditional way of life was deeply affected by the religious system of Three Teachings, or Tam Giáo, namely Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Both Buddhism and Taoism stressed a need to attain liberation from the chains of the material world and give up all this-worldly ties. Although Confucianism sounded more pragmatic, it still emphasized the preeminence of moral values over economic needs. As Western rationalism saw it, the Eastern religious system of Three Teachings was anti-economic as it arguably impeded social and economic development.
According to the traditional social consensus, people of high morality were not supposed to look for fame or profit while greedy profit-seekers were subject to public contempt. Indeed, this traditional viewpoint impeded Vietnams economic development and was instrumental in sustaining subsistence-oriented agricultural economic model. The arrival of the French provoked drastic changes of the previously balanced status quo.
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