Behind the Veil of Confucianism
Nghia M. Vo
         For the last two millennia, Vietnamese women in Vietnam lived in a society regulated by strict Confucian rules. To understand these women, one has to understand marriage as a Confucian institution and the women's reactions to it.

         Marital life in a Confucian society

         Marriage in a Confucian society resulted less from a relationship between two adult lovers than from parental arrangement. The process could be simple or elaborate: the higher the status of the families involved, the more elaborate it became. Villagers were ordered to follow the Chinese "six-rites," although the rituals were not always faithfully followed because of the costs involved. First there was the sending of presents to a prospective bride's home. Then came the asking of names, the sending of presents after the names were matched, the request of a time for the wedding, and the sending of betrothal presents to complete the arrangement. Finally the groom had to go in person to fetch his bride.

         In most cases, once a household head had made up his mind to look for a wife for his teenage son, he would ask a matchmaker-usually a lady-to initiate the search. She used her connections and scoured one village after another for an appropriate candidate who would fit the economic and social requirements of the groom's family. The horoscopes of the future groom and bride were carefully matched and details of the marriage were discussed. If both sides were in agreement, gift exchanges ensued and the marriage would proceed without the knowledge of the individuals concerned.

         The groom thus had never laid eyes on the bride and vice versa, until the day of the ceremony. In this arranged relationship, these two strangers could only pray and hope their parents had chosen the right partner for them. As often was the case, parental choice rarely matched their personal wishes. But in a Confucian world, they simply had to accept and bow to the inevitable decision of the elders. As a consequence they would feel lucky if they found themselves compatible, otherwise they would have to spend a rough life together.

         Pre-arranged marriage in the Confucian world was thus based less on tinh (love) than on nghia (duty and obligation). Without prenuptial relationship, love could only come after the wedding bells had tolled and after they had lived together for some time. Couples got married mainly because their parents dictated it. Even after love had arrived and exited out of the relationship, duty and obligation still bound the two together. That is the reason why the Vietnamese use tinh-nghia as a compound name meaning that once the knot had been tied, it stayed tied. Tinh depends on nghia to survive in this long-term relationship for without nghia, tinh would not survive a long time.

         Marriage being indissoluble under the Confucian society, women would devote their full attention to their children's upbringing. As one woman put it: "For an Asian woman, her highest value in life is not a man, it is a child, or responsibility for family and society." Her role was that of a nurturer: raising her children and making sure they would later be married. For both husband and wife, prearranged marriage, was not about themselves but about the children and society. Self-gratification is not a known Asian virtue, but a product of western culture.

        Please read the rest of the story in THE WOMEN OF VIETNAM.