A few years ago, while browsing through the shelves of a second-hand bookstore, I heard a customer ask about a certain book.
“Do you have Gac Ma - The Immortal Circle?” he inquired.
“The Bodhidarma Circle?” asked the shop owner.
“No, I’m looking for a book about Gac Ma,” the customer replied.
“I’ve never heard of it,” said the owner. “We only have books about Bodhidarma.”
The shop owner pointed to the religion section of the store and then asked the customer, "Can you tell me anything more about the book you’re looking for?”
The customer seemed startled, but I was not because I too shared the same confused expression of the shop owner about this exchange.
In all my life, I had never known about Gac Ma.
The above exchange occurred when the book Gac Ma - Immortal Circle first appeared in Vietnam.
According to the authors and publisher, they "had made hundreds of amendments, 48 edits, and went through 14 publishers during four years of trying to get licensing" to publish the book. Their efforts would be for naught, however, because less than two months after publication, the authorities ordered the book withdrawn from book stores.
The book appeared in a blink of an eye and was gone just as fast.
The fate of the book, to me, was similar to what had happened to the soldiers on Gac Ma Island, also known as the Battle of Johnson Reef, in the early morning hours of March 14, 1988. As soon as the Vietnamese sailors set foot on the island, they became easy targets for Chinese soldiers.
I only came to know about the story of Gac Ma after I have turned 30 years old by combing through scarce and trifling information about it, instead of studying it in detail through the pages of books.
Of course, the owner of the bookstore mentioned above should not be an illiterate person, nor did the customer refuse to receive knowledge with a close mindset. And for me, I have graduated college and I would not call myself uneducated.
And yet for the three of us, we are the same because we all lack the same memory.
To be more precise, we all belong to the amnesia generation.
Collective amnesia is not a new phenomenon, nor is it unique to Vietnam.
Much has been said about generational amnesia in China. Those born after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 do not know anything about the massacre that occurred that year. They know nothing about those days in modern Chinese history, when a democratic movement could have changed the future of humanity.
This phenomenon is not just unique to them; all Chinese, young and old, who live under the dictatorship in China, are required to share the same "correct views on history."
The collective amnesia of those born after the unfortunate incident at Tiananmen Square has spread to the entire nation.
Communist propaganda, censorship, and violent suppression work together to erase unflattering historical realities while at the same time establishing and institutionalizing new truths.
The Chinese state is also aided by other groups in society, such as the intelligentsia, who benefit from this skewed narrative.
Yan Lianke, a Chinese writer, likens this to a "state-sponsored sport" where whoever forgets the longest and is able to delude the most people in thinking the same, is the winner.
Of course, this occurrence is not unique to Vietnam and China, nor is it a product of the current generation.
For thousands of years, power-hungry tyrants have always burned books and brainwashed the people under their rule in order to mold them into blind, unthinking, and disciplined followers.
But in this day and age, when most of humanity has free access to information, it is unacceptable that regimes such as Vietnam and China, which blatantly conceal and rewrite history, still exist.
Aside from the Gac Ma incident, we also have the 1979 Border War, which is still considered a “sensitive” topic by the Vietnamese government. There are also hidden truths about "land reform in North Vietnam" and there is also the Vietnam War, which continues to be taught solely from the perspective of "the winning side".
Our collective history is not only being constantly rewritten but the real picture of Vietnamese society is also being cut and distorted every single day.
Several websites, such as Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese magazines, are blocked by the government. Some books are also heavily censored or barred from being published.
Likewise, various songs are banned from circulation and performance. And those who often watch foreign news channels on television will be very familiar with the sign that carries the words "inappropriate content" that may appear on the screen at any moment.
Remembering and accurately recalling events like The Battle of Gac Ma is more than just an occasion to preserve history; it also serves as an opportunity to cure a deadly societal disease: collective amnesia.
According to Yan Lianke, people who know nothing of the past will not be able to understand what is happening in the present and will gradually lose all consciousness of everything around them.
They will only act like commanded robots. They sit when they are told to sit and they stand when they are asked to stand; they are excited to speak when they are permitted to talk and obediently shut up when asked to be quiet.
A nation without a past is a nation without a present. It will also lose its future and be a collection of mindless walking zombies.
1. Hòa Ái. (2018, July 23). “Gạc Ma-Vòng tròn bất tử”: Số phận cuốn sách về đâu? Radio Free Asia. https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/in_depth/gama-immortal-circle-faces-difficulty-publishing-in-vietnam-07232018171616.html
2. RFA. (2018, September 11). Việt Nam thu hồi sách Gạc Ma- Vòng tròn bất tử. Radio Free Asia. https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/news/vietnamnews/book-about-johnson-reef-recalled-09112018141317.html
3. Xiao Yu. (2020, June 3). Generation Amnesia: Why China’s Youth Has Forgotten June 4th. VOA. https://www.voanews.com/a/east-asia-pacific_voa-news-china_generation-amnesia-why-chinas-youth-has-forgotten-june-4th/6190405.html
4. Lim, L. (2018, May 28). Rewriting history in the People’s Republic of Amnesia and beyond. The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/rewriting-history-in-the-peoples-republic-of-amnesia-and-beyond-90014
5. Yan Lianke. (2013, April 1). On China’s State-Sponsored Amnesia. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/02/opinion/on-chinas-state-sponsored-amnesia.html
6. Lorraine Boissoneault. (2017, August 31). A Brief History of Book Burning, From the Printing Press to Internet Archives. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/brief-history-book-burning-printing-press-internet-archives-180964697/
7. Trà Mi. (2014, September 22). Trò chuyện với một nhân chứng sống của Cải cách Ruộng đất. VOA. https://www.voatiengviet.com/a/tro-chuyen-voi-mot-nhan-chung-song-cua-cai-cach-ruong-dat/2457370.html
This article was written in Vietnamese by Y Chan and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on March 14, 2021. The English translation was done by Lee Nguyen.