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Gender in War: The Case of the Vietnam

War and ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’


Mahoko Kyouraku
This article reviews some aspects of the author’s research conducted as a member of an
inter-university team under a Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research. It presents the Vietnamese
government’s title and position of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ and discusses the origins and
some social implications of this politically- constructed identity in Vietnam.

Introduction Mr. Phan Quang Hong was born in 1926 in Quang Nam
Province. He joined the Patriotic movement in 1945. He
T he issue of gender in war is a very important topic was arrested by the French Army in 1949, the year when
his daughter was born, and was put into the prison of Con
in peace studies. Until now studies have focused on the
subject of women soldiers1. However, gender experience Dao until 1954. After release, he continued to participate
in the post-conflict society is also very important. In this in the Revolutionary movement and, as a result, was
article I will present the problem associated with the arrested again by the South Vietnam Government. He
notion of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’, through which I returned to the prison of Con Dao from 1959 to 1973. He
shall analyse some important aspects of gender in a post- also heard about the death of his daughter in the prison.
conflict society. ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ is an honorary In 1975 he was reunited with his wife, Ms. Nguyen Thi
title given in Vietnam to mothers whose children were Que, with whom he since has been living in Ho Chi Minh
martyrs in the Vietnam War2. It also entitles them to have City.
social security. There are 46,398 women with the title of
‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ in Vietnam3. Specifically my Ms. Bui Thi Me was born in 1921 in Vinh Long Province
study indicates that the system of ‘Vietnamese Heroic in the southern part of Vietnam. She married in 1940 and
Mother’ is giving rise to new social effects, including a gave birth to four sons and two daughters. From 1955 she
new type of postwar conflict in Vietnam. The following took part in the Revolutionary movement. Her four sons
discussion is an account of research conducted in Vietnam were enlisted as patriotic soldiers in 1967. But in 1968,
from 2007 to 2009 and the issues that emerged. three sons became martyrs and one son received a serious
wound. She was so shocked that she was hospitalised for
As it is well known, there are many difficulties with one week. She received the title of ‘Vietnamese Heroic
interviewing people in Vietnam, because the Vietnamese Mother’ in 1995.
government practically restricts free research activities.
So, I asked for help from official organisations. The War I interviewed Ms. Nguyen on 12 September, 2008, Mr.
Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City agreed to help me Phan on 19 September, 2009, and Ms. Bui on 20 and
and introduced several persons whom I could interview 21 September, 2009. I interviewed them either in a room
as part of my research. I interviewed several people of the Museum or at their house with the interpreter of
concerning the Vietnam War in Ho Chi Minh City. Two Japanese and Vietnamese. In the following section I will
of them are ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mothers’ and one is the examine some prominent issues raised through these
husband of one of them. interviews.

I would like to introduce my three interviewees4. What is a ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’?


Ms. Nguyen Thi Que was born in 1928 in Quang Nam In 1994 the Vietnamese government, in its political move
Province in the southern part of Vietnam. She joined the to recognise the important role played by the ‘Vietnam’
Revolutionary movement in 1945. She married Mr Phan War (or American War, as it is called in Vietnam), created
Quang Hong and gave birth to a daughter in 1949. She was the system of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’. This is a social
arrested by the South Vietnam Government and interned security system to support old women who lost their
in the prison of Con Dao5 from 1959 to 1975. During her children in the revolutionary war.
absence, her daughter also joined the Revolutionary
movement and died in a street fight in 1968. Ms. Nguyen The regulation on ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ was issued
heard about the death of her daughter while in prison in on 29 April, 1994. It is called ‘Regulation about conferring
1970. She received the title of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ honourable “Vietnamese Heroic Mother’s title”’6. At the
in 1995. beginning of the text, three goals of this regulation are
mentioned. These are:

Social Alternatives Vol 29 No.1, 2010 11


a. To remember that mothers of Vietnam contributed to In Japan, by comparison, the issue of supporting wives
the State and, in doing so, made huge sacrifices. who lost their husbands in war has been the main
b. To teach people about the revolutionary tradition of consideration9. In Vietnam, the government focused on
the nation and encourage patriotism, and the parents of martyrs. In Vietnamese culture, children are
c. To requite the mothers. expected to support their parents, since patriarchy remains
deeply rooted in the society, even under socialism10. If the
There were four criteria applied in order to be selected to parents lost their children in war, the government must
this title, as follows: support these parents. Mothers who lost their children,
a. To have one child7 who was a revolutionary martyr, or, who should have supported her, have grown old. This
have two children, both of whom were martyrs. system of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ was decreed in
b. To have three or more children who were all martyrs. 1994, twenty years after the end of the War.
c. To have one child who was a martyr, and both her
husband and herself were martyrs8. Why is it ‘Mother’, and not ‘Father’?
d. To have two children who were, as well as either her When I interviewed Ms. Nguyen, she said that her
husband or herself, martyrs. husband, Mr. Phan, was unhappy that he could not get
the title of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Father’. Ms. Huynh Ngoc
Ms. Nguyen corresponds to the first case, while Ms Bui Van, the vice-head of The War Crimes Museum in Ho
corresponds to the second. Chi Minh City and who was present at my interview with
Ms Nguyen, agreed. They proposed that there should
According to the regulation, applicants to the title of be equality between genders. While the government
‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ should submit an application is not likely to establish the title of ‘Vietnamese Heroic
form, but my two interviewees did not apply for the title Father’, in 1994−the same year as when the regulation
by themselves. Ms. Nguyen said that she did not know on ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ was issued−another
how to apply, and she learned that she had been awarded more inclusive law was enacted. Under this decree, the
the title when she was telephoned by the Department of families of martyrs were given many distinctions, for
Labor, Invalid and Social Affairs in 1995. Ms. Bui learned example condolence money and regular allowances. Not
about her acquisition of the title from newspaper. Ms only mothers but also fathers, sons, daughters, brothers,
Nguyen said that she was glad to get the honorary title of sisters, nephews and nieces came to be supported by the
‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’, although she is not comforted government. Mr. Phan consequently receives 794,000
by it. The death of her daughter was the most tragic thing Dong (AUS$47) per month as the family of a martyr.
in her life. The two women were both thankful to the State
officially, but expressed mixed feelings in private. However, in Vietnamese society, mothers are special.
The old proverb in Vietnam says, ‘When you drink water,
The ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mothers’ receive a monthly remember its source’. By these words, we can understand
allowance and are supported in various ways for the clearly the gender system of Vietnam, where mothers
duration of their lives. For example, Ms. Nguyen receives are honoured. In a patriarchal society, the State values
1,191,000 Dong per month as a ‘Vietnamese Heroic women as mothers, not necessarily in their own right.
Mother’. She also receives 1,408,100 Dong annuity per
month and 619,000 Dong per month of war disablement The number of women who do not marry is increasing
pension. The monthly allowance of ‘Vietnamese Heroic in Vietnam after Doi Moi11, with some women choosing
Mother’ is a decent sum to live on in Vietnam. to follow their own independent futures without having
children. Moreover, those aging women who hold the title
Since this title is given by the government, the recipient of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ will pass away, leaving only
must pledge loyalty to the State. In Vietnam, people the title behind. However, it is likely that this politically-
associated with the former South Vietnam government are constructed social system, which honours only mothers
excluded from this title. Thus, not all mothers who lost their as the priority women’s role in society, will give rise to a
children during the war receive this title. Moreover, from new conflict between women who are mothers and women
among all mothers who lost their children during the war, who are not.
the government selected those who suit the government
causes best. Their intention is clear from the fact that the Why Does the Government Select Among Mothers?
political position of each mother receives careful scrutiny. In the application form for ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’,
there is a question concerning the applicant’s political
Some Key Questions that Emerge from the stance: ‘Which party did you support, north or south, at
‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ Concept the time of the liberation of Saigon, 30 April 1975?’ Only
Why does the state honour parents who lost their mothers who supported the Communist Party at the end of
children? the war can become a ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’. Even

12 Social Alternatives Vol. 29 No.1, 2010


those who began to support the Communist Party after monument to honor ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’. The
the war cannot become a ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’. construction began in Tam Ky City in central Quang Nam
Province12 on 27 July, 2009, which is War Invalids and
When I asked my interviewees what they thought about Fallen Soldiers Day. The monument will be completed in
distinguishing mothers by their political stances, Ms 201113.
.Nguyen answered, ‘Nothing can be done about it, because
it was war’. She also added, ‘That is what it means to be The status of the ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ will be
in war’. Ms. Bui said that a mother’s pain at losing her officially honoured into the future not only by the creation
children is the same for all mothers but in this society only of the title but also by such monuments. The new
those whose children died for the Revolution are honored. gender policy created by the Vietnamese government,
‘But now’, she continued, ‘We don’t distinguish mothers. commending mothers faithful to the state, will be
We hope to respect the feelings of all mothers who lost consolidated.
their children, their causes notwithstanding’. They seemed
to feel awkward in discussing this issue. In the past, Ho Chi Minh set forth his plan to use female
power, which had been oppressed in patriarchal society, in
Many mothers lost their children in the war, but the the revolutionary movement and gained women’s support.
government made a selection that demonstrates that Women took arms themselves, participated in production
desirable mothers for the state are the supporters of activity and acquired their rights in the process. The ideal
the Communist Party, who sent their children to the of the socialist state of Vietnam was one where women
‘revolutionary’ war. In Vietnam, the State requires built the state together with men. However, the notion of
patriotism to a great extent from its people, especially ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ re-introduced perspectives of
from mothers. the conventional patriarchal system into the society. How
will Vietnam overcome this contradiction?
Conclusion
There have been some interesting developments in recent Finally, I would like to present a bestseller novel of Vietnam
times concerning ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ and I will of 1989. It is The Swallows Fly (original title: Chim en bay)
conclude by briefly discussing these. written by Nguyen Tri Huan. It won the Vietnam Writers’
Association Award for the fiscal year 1990.
The first of these was a new exhibition room in the
Vietnam Military History Museum, Hanoi, focusing on the There are two women in this novel, who reached an
‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’. The Regulation concerning understanding after the Vietnam War. One of them was
‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’, a model application form for a woman soldier of the Communist Party (North party),
the title and many pictures of the Mothers were on display. who killed a man who supported the South government.
Through this exhibition, the Vietnamese government After the war, she says to the man’s wife, ‘We can talk
seems to be giving ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ an to each other in equal terms as women who were both
important place in the national history. fated to unhappy destinies during the war, although we
were then in the opposite camps’. Mutual understanding
The second instance is in the renewal of the exhibition was reached in the novel. But is it possible to reach such
in the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. The Vietnamese consensus in reality when the state is promoting bias for
Women’s Museum in Hanoi was established on 20 its own purposes?
October, 1995 and is the primary research center on
Vietnamese women. It is currently undergoing renewal Acknowledgment
work and will reopen in 2010, on the occasion of the This work was supported by Grant-in-Aid for Scientific
one-thousand-year anniversary of the founding of the old Research (B) (KAKENHI 19402005).
capital Thang Long, present day Hanoi. Currently, there is
a temporary exhibition. I would also like to give special thanks to Ms. Bui Thi Me,
Ms. Nguyen Thi Que , Mr. Phan Quang Hong and Ms.
In the old exhibition, the focus of the display was on Huynh Ngoc Van.
women’s activities during the Vietnam War. In 2007, a
new display focused on the ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ Notes
indicating that the museum is trying to place ‘Vietnamese 1. For example, Gottschang-Turner 1998; Sasaki 2001.
Heroic Mother’ in the context of women’s history of Vietnam 2. The war fought between Vietnam and U.S. from 1954 to
as it sets out to renew the national vision of the past. 1975 is called ‘the American War’ or ‘the Anti-America War’ in
Vietnam. In this article, I will call it ‘the Vietnam War’ following
The third indication of promotion of the concept of established practice of academic field in Japan.
‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ is the construction of a 3. This number is shown on the exhibition panel of the Vietnam

Social Alternatives Vol 29 No.1, 2010 13


Military History Museum in Hanoi. I saw it on 3 September Nguyen Tri Huan 2002. Tsubame Tobu (The Swallows
2008. This number is dated to December 2003 and the moth- Fly), Translation by S. Kato. Tokyo: Terainku.
ers who received the title after death are included. Sasaki, Y. 2001. Souryokusen to Josei Heisi (The Total
4. My three interviewees agreed to have their names and War and Women Soldiers). Tokyo: Seikyuusha.
speech revealed. Yoshizawa, M. 1999. Betonamu Sensou: Minsyuu ni
5. Con Dao was a ‘political prison’ established by French Army Totteno Senjou (The Vietnam War: the War Field for
and used by the South Government. It was notorious for inhu- the Peoples). Tokyo: Yoshikawa Koubunkan.
mane tortures.
6. Papers on the regulation concerning ‘Vietnamese Heroic Author
Mother’ can be seen in the Vietnam Military History Museum in Mahoko Kyoraku is a Professor in Gender History at
Hanoi. University of Shiga Prefecture, Japan.
7. Sex of the martyrs was not relevant.
8. The title of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ was also given to
mothers who were already dead.
9. Kawaguchi 2003.
Brown Thongs
10. Iwai 1995.
11. Le 2006. The man with warm skin, bald head, round glasses
12. Quang Nam Province was where fiercest battles were
fought, so there are many ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mothers’. walks over, hangs the newspaper on its rack
13. ‘The Communist Party of Vietnam Online Newspaper’ 28 saunters back, looks down at his feet
July 2009. announces to a table full of people

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