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The Family Unit

Throughout his life the individual was caught up with the activities of a multitude of relatives. Members of the same household lived together, worked together and, on frequent occasions, met together with a wider circle of kinsmen for marriages, funerals, lunar New Year celebrations and rituals marking the anniversaries of an ancestor's death. A man looked first to his kinsman for help and counsel in times of personal crisis and to the interests of these same kinsmen in making decisions for himself or members of his household. To varying degrees in different sectors of the country and among different social classes, the lineage - a group of people tracing descent from a common ancestor -- still represented the chief source of social identity for the individual. Nearly all South Vietnamese still felt that the family had first claim on their loyalties and that the interests of each individual were subordinate to those of his common descent group.

Central to the entire Vietnamese tamily system is the Cult of the Ancestors, the observance of which is a major preoccupation in life. The individual marries to have children" and has children in order to assure his own immortality. Special reverence accorded to ancestral spirits derived from the notion that, after death, the spirits of the departed retained their influence in the world of the living. Honoring one's forebears and ensuring one's own immortality by maintaining the lineage were all-important. Members of the common descent group, who remain together and venerate their forebears with strict adherence to prescribed ritual, rest serene in the belief that the souls of their ancestors in the other world are receiving proper spiritual nourishment and that after death they in turn will not lli.ck such nourishment. To allow one's ancestors to have to beg nO,urishment from souls properly cared for by their descendants is not only shameful but dangerous, for, unless venerated in the expected manner, the soul becomes restless UJld is likely to exert au unfavorable influence on the world of the living.

The typical Vietnamese family household of seven individuals includes parents, brothers, sisters, often grandparents, and of course the individual's own wife and children. The broad composition of this basic family unit added two unique ingredients to the family economic structure. First, all members who are able normally generate income and contribute to the group survival. Secondly, because of the Asian cultural tradition of close family ties, PCS [Permanent Change of Station] movement of the military member often results in a move for the entire family. The consequence of this uprooting is severe economic hardship through loss of family non-military income until new means of income are established. Although many RVNAF families are separated by PCS of the military member, it is an unacceptable penalty to Vietnamese family integrity and a morale factor of great significance.

By 1965 the Vietnamese family had experienced more than two decades of severe stress and hardship as a result of the Japanese occupation, the Indochina War and its aftsrmath, and the expanding military operations of the 1960's. After partition of the country in 1954, more than 900,000 refugees fled into South Vietnam from Communist-ruled North Vietnam. This number was more than equaled during 1964 and 1965 by South Vietnamese peasants fleeing from Viet Cong strongholds or from areas subjected to bombings by Vietnamese or United States aircraft in their anti-Communist operations. As a result, the population includes millions who have been uprooted from places where they had family ties dating back hundreds; in some cases, thousands of years. In the process individual members sometimes had been separated and resettled at places so far apart that they could not convene for the rites and celebrations which traditionally reinforced family solidarity. The network of family ties had been further disrupted by deaths and separation arising directly out of military action and by the fact, that in some instances political loyalties set one kinsman against another.

Despite these occurrences much of the traditional family system persisted. Basically similar principles appear in the traditional family system throughout the country, developed as the consequence of a common cultural heritage which evolved centuries ago in the Red River Delta region. Extensive differences in details of actual practice, however, distinguished the indigenous family of southern South Vietnam (formerly known as Cochin China) from that found in the coastal villages of the Central Lowlands (formerly part of Annam).

The, truest image, perhaps, could be found among families living in the villages of the Coastal Lowlands region, since this was an area that had once been a part of Annam, where the Vietnamese cultural heritage was homogenous and deeply rooted. The most siguificant departure from the pattern, on the other hand, was doubtless to be found in Saigon, a cosmopo]itan city, where the intermingling of peoples with differing ideas and values had been greatest.

The patrilineal common descent group (too) consisted of all the descendants in the male line of a common male ancestor. South Vietnamese of the Centml Lowlands and refugees from North Vietnam reckoned descent from the fifth, or infrequently the seventh, ascending generaotion. On the other hand, South Vietnamese of the Mekong Delta region, where the patrilineage was less strong, ordinarily counted only through the third ascending generation. Traditionally, either the eldest male of the senior branch, or the eldest male in the patrilineage, acts as the truong toc, or lineage head. In the southern part of the country, however, a family council composed of all adult members, male and female, may elect as truong toc the man whom it considered most competent.

The traditional and still widely preferred family type was the extended family, three generations in depth, consisting of a senior couple, a married son with his wife and children, and the senior couple's unmarried children, all living under the same roof. Sometimes two married brothers lived with their parents, but this often led to such tension that it was generally held preferable for a second married son to move into separate quarters. In the southern part of the country it was often the youngest son (rather than the eldest), or even a married daughter, who lived with the senior couple. All members of the household lived under the nominal authority of the oldest male, and all contributed to the income of the family. While this extended type of family was most characteristic of rural areas, where it operated as a unit of production, a substantial number of households in Saigon and smaller urban areas sheltered extended family groups. Among the educated, urbanized group, however, the nuclear family, consisting of parents and their children, was more common than the extended family. Sometimes a household included, besides the so-called wife of the first rank,a second or third wife as well as her children. More often, however, additional wives were established by their husbands in separate households or continued to live as they had before the marriage, in a house of their own or with their parents. Polygamy, widespread in Tonkin and Annam and fairly common in Gochin China during the French colonial period, has been legally outlawed in South Vietnam since 1959. Marriages contracted before this date, however, retained legal recognition, and wives and children enjoyed the same rights as the first family. Moreover, the effects of the law are seen mainly in Saigon and other urban centers; in rural areaS customary practices were continued.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:37:19 ZULU