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On Vietnamese Writing

This is my response to a Quora question, which asks:

Is Vietnamese writing ugly? Compared to Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or even Thai and Khmer writing, it seems to lack any cultural link to Vietnamese culture and I also find it aesthetically displeasing

Caution: Some of this may not apply to Southern Vietnam.

In terms of visual aesthetic, I have no comment. I dont find it particularly wondrous for the eyes to behold, you certainly dont, but some may. And thats fine. However, you mention the lack of cultural link, which I feel compelled to respond to. The link between our current writing system and our modern identity as a people is one of the very few things I am intensely proud of, although not too many people share this pride.

In September 1945, right after we declared independence from the French, 90%-95%2 of our people were illiterate. Thats about 45 20 millions uneducated, illiterate farmers for you3. Most of these people had lived a pretty tough life the last Emperor was a douche not a good one and the French4 imperialists werent very nice either. They also had just gotten out of the worst famine in the countrys history; a few people I know who lived through it still speak of the tragedy with utmost terror. Chaos was imminent unless swift action was to be taken. The fledgling Communist government at that time did something that I consider their finest act till date; they declared war on stupidity. The goal was to increase literacy rate. For a fledgling government, officially 7-day young when they declared that war, to understand that you cannot fight off hunger and poverty without fighting off illiteracy, I salute them. Someone somewhere in that machine was a bloody genius.

Anyway, they had two choices in terms of writing system to spread, the Latin alphabets invented by a French Jesuit Missionary to spread Christianity here and the previous Nm which had been derived from Chinese characters. The former was specifically invented to be easily spread out and designed with Vietnameses phonetic nature in mind. The latter was rather complicated and very visually driven, which had probably contributed to the illiteracy rate. Keep in mind that Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Communist party at that time, was a polyglot, so he probably didnt have any preference. Id even go so far as to bet he was better at Nm and Han Chinese (Hanyu) than at the Latin-based system from his rich literary legacy. His father taught Nm as far as I know. That said, the decision to go with a Latin alphabets was a very nuanced one, filled with consideration for the historical, political and cultural context. And I believe it was a correct decision.

But thats not the beautiful part. The beautiful part was how it spreads in Northen Vietnam it was pointed out to me that the writing system had already been taught in school in Southern Vietnam before that (need citation). How would you teach a writing system to 45 20 millions people who were still having nothing to eat and to wear? And on top of that, you would have to do it fast because another war was just right around the corner. We only had money to pay for around 1000 teachers while we needed as many as 100,0005. So most teachers joined voluntarily, relocating to remote villages if they had to and surviving off peoples donation. There was no pen and paper, so we wrote on every surface imaginable with chalk, coal and bricks, which now has sort of become an art form

Fig. 1 | Calligraphy on ratan texture

Most of the classes were at night because during the day people had to work. There was no light so we burned through Kerosene lamps like mad.

Fig. 2 | Literacy class at night

But perhaps the most beautiful thing was the kind of verse people used to remember the characters:

i, t c mc c hai. i ngn c chm, t di c ngang; e, , l cng mt loi. i nn chp, l di thn hn; o trn nh qu trng g. th i m, thi thm ru Letter shapes mnemonics

Its a sound-based mnemonic device to help people remember how each character is visually presented in serif form. Its beautiful because it shows how much of a phonetic language ours really is and it uses images familiar with farmers to make sure the writing stick. It also sheds some light into the fact that we did care about visual aesthetic right up until computers came along. The writing was strictly, exhaustingly serif with characters in the same word required to be (mostly) connected in one stroke. I hated that so much as a kid.

Sometimes when I revisit this period in historical text, I feel an immense sense of respect to the people back then. I often close my eyes and imagine my grandfather and grandmother, against all odds, singing this verse through the darkest of nights to learn how to read and write. When I was in third grade, I gave up on the calligraphic serif writing altogether and mostly used fragmented strokes to get by. My grandfather then tried to show me how to properly write it. He is immensely proud of the fact that he could read and write despite being a farmer for all his life in a backward village torn by war, and that his handwriting is way prettier than me who was born in peace. I find that very beautiful. And now we have 99% above 90% literacy rate6, partially thanks to a pragmatic writing system. Thats also pretty cool.

In my opinion, we are, unfortunately, a people who define ourselves not by who we are but by who we are not. Thousands of years of fighting against invaders have stamped that on our DNAs. So the fact that our modern writing system was invented as a weapon in yet another war is very Vietnamese as far as Vietnamese goes.

Originally published on Quora

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