Cultural Devastation in Post-1975 Southern Vietnam: Book Burnings, Imprisonment of Intellectuals, and Publishing Monopoly

Cultural Devastation in Post-1975 Southern Vietnam: Book Burnings, Imprisonment of Intellectuals, and Publishing Monopoly
Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine

Vietnam's recent decision to ban the Barbie movie garnered international attention, shedding light on the country's stringent censorship practices in the realm of arts and culture. While this move serves as a stark reminder of the censorship landscape, it cannot be equated with the profound cultural devastation experienced in the southern regions of Vietnam, previously known as the Republic of Vietnam (1954 - 1975), after the North took over on April 30, 1975.

The memories of older residents still bear witness to the aftermath of April 30, 1975, where the burning of books, arrests, and imprisonment of writers and poets, and the nationalization of all publication houses into state-owned entities shaped a tragic chapter in southern Vietnam's history. To truly comprehend the magnitude of the tragedy that unfolded post-1975, it is crucial to delve deeper into its intricate details.

This article was published in Luat Khoa Magazine on April 28, 2023. Lee Nguyen and Aerolyne Reed translated this into English.

Rare and costly books can be found in Ho Chi Minh City, near the Independence Palace, next to Notre Dame Cathedral, and along Nguyen Van Binh Book Street. These valuable pieces of literature demand a high price not because of their physical attributes or designs but rather due to their survival from the frenzied era of Communist book burnings in Southern Vietnam.

In 1977, an official in Ho Chi Minh City proudly announced to the international press that around 700 tons of books from the South had been confiscated and crushed after two years of "liberation.” [1]

In the same year, an official in Hue revealed that tens of thousands of "outdated" books and photographs about "shallow love" and "searching for physical pleasure" had been burned. [2]

A book published in 1976 by a foreign journalist recounted the story of a group of students and young people in Saigon who actively organized book burnings to eliminate "literature that did not reflect reality.” [3]

Father André Gelinas reported that between 1975 to 1977, many of the some 80,000 books in the Alexandre de Rhodes Education Center library in Saigon had been burned as part of the policy to eradicate "bourgeois culture.” [4]

Journalist Richard Dudman, a veteran reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, believed that the government in the North probably did not expect the victory in Southern Vietnam to come so quickly and so was unable to prepare a proper takeover plan. [5]

The large-scale, hastily carried out actions of the North had lasting consequences. Among them, the book burnings marked the beginning of a campaign to destroy the developing private publishing industry in Southern Vietnam, which had started to use modern publishing techniques. Even more painful is that the fate of the writers was intertwined with the future of the books.

Some 48 years later, the publishing industry has still not regained the momentum it had built by the end of the Vietnam War. How was the publishing industry in Southern Vietnam before April 30, 1975?

The Golden Era of Book Publishing in Southern Vietnam

The used book market on Le Loi Avenue, Saigon, in 1967. Photo Ken/ Flickr

Before 1975, the Republic of Vietnam comprised 44 provinces and municipalities, ranging from Quang Tri Province in the north to An Xuyen Province (present-day Ca Mau Province) in the south, with Saigon as the capital. The total population in 1971 was approximately 18.7 million people. [6]

In 1974, Le Ba Kong, chairman of the Vietnam Printers and Publishers Association (VPPA) of the Republic of Vietnam, stated that there were about 180 small and large publishers in the South. [7] At the time, the North had just 21 publishing houses. [8]

From 1954 to mid-1972, on average, the South published over a thousand book titles annually, with 21,279 books published within this time frame. According to several authors who cited the 1972 data from the UNESCO National Commission of Vietnam, around three thousand book titles were granted publishing permits each year. [9]

In 1963, poet Doan Them stated that from 1961 to 1963, 2,624 books were published, with the majority being novels and poetry collections. He noted that after 1954, literature and arts in the South became much more vibrant, thanks to the contributions of writers, journalists, and artists who migrated from the North. [10]

In the years 1965, 1970, and 1973, the South imported 96,392 tons of paper, which was used for printing various publications. [11]

In 1974, the South had over 700 printing locations, with 20 facilities capable of producing one million books per year. These printing houses produced over 86 million copies of books for the South, averaging around 4.5 million books published annually. [12]

In Saigon alone, around 3,000 books were sold each day. There were also 2,500 bookstores in the South, primarily concentrated in Saigon, not including rental bookshops. [13] Despite their differences, these publishing houses, printing facilities, and bookstores all shared a common fate on April 30, 1975.

Book Burnings and the Influx of Publications from the North

In 1977, the London Telegraph reported that the Vietnamese government had transferred hundreds of tons of "legitimate" books from the North to the South. [14]

State media also confirmed that "hundreds of millions of copies" of books from the North were sent to the South immediately after April 1975 to "serve as propaganda, education, and aid in the construction of new socialist ideologies and sentiments.” [15]

The irony is that Northern officials in Saigon did not have a fondness for the books from the North and preferred to read and keep banned literature from the South.

According to Literary researcher Nguyen Vy Khanh, immediately after taking over the South, the military government issued a directive to ban the circulation and possession of all books and newspapers before April 30, 1975. [16] Within a week, 482,460 books were confiscated in one district of Saigon, along with three tons of newspapers. A bookstore in Nha Trang had to surrender 35,530 books. [17]

In 1976, the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party affirmed: “The construction of a new culture is carried out in the struggle to eradicate the remnants that the US has sown in the South. It is the kind of culture that fosters enslavement, hybridization, debauchery, extreme reactions [….]” [18]

By January 1978, the Ministry of Culture and Information organized the "Conference on the Struggle to Eradicate the Remnants of the New Colonial Culture" in Ho Chi Minh City. Two months after the conference, the Ho Chi Minh City government launched a second campaign to destroy books. This time, the central Government believed that the previous destruction of books had not been thorough enough. As such, they ordered that all literature, including novels, poetry, and books on politics, economics, and law, were to be destroyed, with only books on natural sciences spared. [19]

By 1981, the Central Government had published a list of 122 authors whose entire works were banned from circulation. In a campaign in June 1981, the government announced that approximately 3 million published works had been confiscated, including about 60 tons of books from Saigon, tens of thousands of cassette tapes, paintings, photographs, and over 600 film reels. [20]

Many authors reported that the government mobilized young people, even children, to enter people's houses to search and seize various books, newspapers, magazines, and cassette tapes. There was a story of an owner of a book rental service shop next to Ba Chuong Church who detonated a grenade when children wearing red armbands stormed into his shop. [21]

Saigon students protested against "Depraved and Reactionary Culture" as part of a book-burning campaign led by the new government in South Vietnam on May 29, 1975. Photo: Bettmann/ CORBIS.

The act of burning books not only destroyed the publishing industry and private property but also undermined the foundation of knowledge that had been built over 20 years across various fields in the South.

Nguyen Van Luc believed that the Government burned all the books from the South without distinguishing their genres, content, or whether they were political or non-political, including children's books with high educational value. The government targeted the authors' political views and attitudes rather than the books' content. [22]

Even in 1985, the Government still feared old books and newspapers from the South, even though many Southern writers and poets were already held in reeducation camps across the country. [23]

The Oppression of Intellectuals from Southern Vietnam

The collapse of the private publishing industry in Southern Vietnam cast a dark and heavy shadow over artists and writers in the region. Banned from creating and publishing books, many authors were pushed into difficult and oppressive circumstances.

Scholar Nguyen Hien Le once said that after April 30, 1975, he and many other authors in the South lived and died in the face of the new Government's hostility and discriminatory treatment. Aside from the distress they felt in their creative pursuits, they anxiously feared and waited for the day when the Government would come knocking on their doors. [24]

In April 1976, just before the general election to unify the two regions of Vietnam, writers who supported the government, such as Vu Hanh and Son Nam, continuously published articles that slandered and defamed writers from the South. Related to this, the government created a list of 44 writers, poets, and journalists who were targeted for arrest. [25]

During the first two weeks of April 1976, the government arrested about 70 artists on charges of being "anti-communist artists of the old regime.” [26]

Numerous writers were arrested, including Vu Hoang Chuong (5 months imprisonment), Nguyen Manh Con (3 years), Nha Ca (2 years), Tran Da Tu (12 years), Duyen Anh (almost 6 years), Duong Nghiem Mau (1 year), Doan Quoc Si (5 years), Nguyen Si Te (11 years), and Thanh Thuong Hoang (8 years). Another famous writer, Mai Thao, quickly escaped before being arrested. [27] [28] [29] [30] [31] [32] [33] [34] [35] [36].

Other writers and poets, such as Pham Thanh Tai (8 years imprisonment), Tran Tuan Kiet (10 years), and Le Xuyen, may also have been arrested before or during this same period. One year later, the government arrested more writers, including Ho Huu Tuong (2 years in prison) and Hoang Hai Thuy (arrested twice, 8 years). [37] [38] [39] [40] [41]

Writers and poets who died under harsh conditions in reeducation jails are known to include Vu Hoang Chuong (who passed away in September 1976), Ngoc Thu Lang (1979), Nguyen Manh Con (June 1979), Ho Huu Tuong (June 1980), Duong Hung Cuong (1987), and Hieu Chan (1986). [42] [43] [44]

The Fate of Military Writers from Southern Vietnam

One month after April 30, 1975, on the order of the Saigon-Gia Dinh Military Administration Committee, more than 44,000 former soldiers, employees, and officials of the old regime presented themselves to the new government. [45]

Among these soldiers were artists from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, including some officers of the Psychological Warfare Directorate, a department under the General Political Warfare Directorate of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces.

The Republic of Vietnam military artists had created diverse works, including some considered anti-communist.

Writer Nguyen Ngoc recently commented on the literature of the soldiers of the Republic of Vietnam: "Southern literature is different; they write truthfully about the war, about the emotional state of people living in the war. Southern literature stands outside of politics.” [46]

However, after April 30, 1975, artist-soldiers often faced severe prison sentences.

Notable poets who were soldiers from the South and were arrested right after April 30, 1975, include Thanh Tam Tuyen (a captain and journalist for the Tập san Quốc phòng, sentenced to 7 years in prison), Phan Lac Phuc (a lieutenant colonel and editor for the Tập san Quốc phòng, sentenced to 10 years in jail), Cung Tram Tuong (an Air Force lieutenant Colonel, sentenced to 10 years), and Hoang Anh Tuan (sentenced to just 2 years due to French intervention). [47] [48] [49] [50]

Among that arrested, poet To Thuy Yen, a major and head of the Literature Department in the Psychological Warfare Directorate under the General Political Warfare Directorate, was imprisoned three times, totaling 13 years. [51]

Some other writers, such as Van Quang (a lieutenant colonel and director of the Military Radio Station, sentenced to 12 years), The Uyen (a lieutenant, sentenced to 3 years), Phan Nhat Nam (a captain in an airborne division, sentenced to 14 years), and Thao Truong (a major in the Political Warfare Branch under the Military Security Department, sentenced to 17 years). [52] [53] [54] [55]

Do Van Phuc, a political warfare soldier, and former reeducation jail detainee, stated that after 1975, political warfare officers were the ones who endured the longest imprisonment by the Communist government. They were followed by those in security and intelligence and others, such as Catholics, migrants from the North, and members of the Democratic Party of President Nguyen Van Thieu. [56]

After their release from prison, military and non-military writers and poets were prohibited from creating. If they wanted to live in their homeland, they had to cease all their writing activities. When faced with this dilemma, most of them sought refuge abroad.

Writers Turned Spies for the Viet Cong

After 1975, a few writers from the South were given permission by the new government to create.

Pro-Vietcong artists during a parade after the fall of Saigon on May 7, 1975. Photo: Hervé GLOAGUEN/Gamma-Rapho.

These individuals were Communist cadres who had worked as spies and had previously openly written in Saigon before 1975. Among them, writer Vu Hanh stood out as a cultural cadre of the Saigon - Gia Dinh Communist Party Regional Committee, who had written for publications such as Tin Van and Bach Khoa, Mai. [57] Another notable figure was Huynh Ba Thanh, also known as the painter Ớt, who was an intelligence officer and had written for newspapers like Dien Tin, Tin Sang, and But Than before 1975. [58]

In addition, some writers were sympathetic to the Viet Cong, such as Son Nam, Lu Phuong, Tham The Ha, To Nguyet Dinh, Cung Van, Nguy Ngu, and others. After 1975, these individuals joined the cultural and artistic agencies of the new government. [59] [60] [61] [62] [63] [64]

These writers enjoyed creative freedom before 1975, established publishing houses, and released magazines. Their work, which tended to be pro-revolutionary, criticized the Southern government and called for peace and reunification.

Before 1975, their works faced censorship by the Republic of Vietnam government. However, the censorship by the Southern government did not discriminate or target the authors themselves but focused on their works. Even artist-soldiers from the Republic of Vietnam still had art that was subject to censorship.

To a certain extent, the Republic of Vietnam's government respected the freedom of the press and the freedom to create without discrimination or bias against authors and allowed all creative tendencies. This led to favorable conditions and relative safety for the artists mentioned above to operate.

After 1975, the revolutionary government did not extend the same treatment to other writers from Southern Vietnam. On the contrary, some writers from the South faced oppression by the new government until they were forced to leave the country or until they died.

The Seizure of Printing Houses

Following April 30, 1975, the newly established regime discovered that there were approximately 932 printing houses in Saigon, including both big and small ones. As a result, the state swiftly took over these businesses and nationalized all printing houses in Southern Vietnam. [65]

The new government seized paper stocks and used printing houses to mass-produce various publications. For instance, they printed the first 300,000 copies of the Saigon Giai Phong newspaper, printed 2 million color portraits of Ho Chi Minh, and printed seven million textbooks from the North in just 45 days. [66]

Two years later, the paper supply in the South was utterly depleted, and the Government failed to import paper from foreign countries. In response, Vietnam focused on the self-production of paper. [67]

This led to many publications in the 1980s and 1990s using much lower-quality paper than before.

Many large printing houses were merged into joint venture companies. For instance, Printing Company No. 1 included printing houses that were confiscated by the state, such as Tong Ba, Nam Duong, Hue Duong Ly Ky, Luong Huu, and the Tan Dai Minh Printing House. Printing Company No. 4 consisted of confiscated printing houses, including Van Huu, Thanh Nien, Tri Thuc Moi, and Van Hoa My Thuat. Other smaller printing companies were grouped into collective printing enterprises as well. [68]

The most modern printing machines in the country, which were concentrated in Saigon at the time, were transferred by the government to Hanoi and other northern provinces and cities. [69]

After April 30, 1975, the state monopolized and fully controlled the printing industry nationwide. There was no private and independent publishing in Vietnam.

The Death of Private Publishing

Bookstores were crowded with customers on Le Loi Avenue, Saigon, in 1965. Photo: Nemorino

The people of South Vietnam before 1975 were the last to witness and experience private and independent publishing in Vietnam.

After 1975, the new government dissolved 180 publishing houses, primarily private ones in the South. By 1985, the country's total number of publishing houses was reduced to 40. [70]

According to the Su That (Truth) National Political Publishing House, private publishing existed in the North after 1954. However, it was limited and mainly consisted of printing facilities and bookstores dating back to the French colonial period. Revolutionary cultural development dominated the majority of publications. [71]

Legally, Executive Order No. 003/SLT, signed by Ho Chi Minh in 1957, still recognized private publishing, allowing individuals to publish their own works. [72]

Nevertheless, private publishing in the North gradually declined under the iron hand of the Communists. For instance, Minh Duc Publishing House published the work of the Nhân văn giai phẩm group, including that of renowned intellectuals imprisoned and suppressed for criticizing the state's control and the politicization of cultural and artistic spheres. [73]

From 1959, publishing became entirely politicized. Published content had to closely align with the Communist Party's political objectives and contribute to promoting socialism in the North and overthrowing the Southern government. [74]

Since 1993, the Vietnamese government has officially stipulated that "publishing houses are organizations under state agencies, political and social organizations." In other words, publishing houses must be part of the state system. This regulation has remained significantly unchanged in subsequent publishing law revisions over the past 30 years. [75]

By 2022, there were only 57 publishing houses nationwide. The Vietnamese government continues to use state agencies and organizations affiliated with the Vietnamese Fatherland Front to establish publishing houses. Vietnam aims to tightly control the hiring of personnel, direct their activities, and remove the heads of publishing houses if they fail to comply with the government's orders. [76]

Some current publishing houses have become mere censorship agencies and are responsible for selling publishing licenses and scrutinizing books from book companies.

Since April 30, 1975, private publishing has disappeared from Vietnam. The once-vibrant publishing scene of the Republic of Vietnam never recovered. The government's fear of the private publishing sector has created numerous barriers and prohibitions, prevented people from enjoying diverse works, confined writers' thoughts within the confines of ideological cages, and stifled the intellectual development of the entire country.


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