South Vietnam was predominantly agricultural. About 75 percent of the estimated total population of 16.1 million consisted of farmers and their families, most of them engaged in the cultivation of rice. In normal years production was sufficient not only to feed the populaltion but to make rice exports the major foreign exchange earner. The principal farming areas were the alluvial Mekong River plain and the small deltas along the narrow coast of the Central Lowlands. In contrast, the Central Highlands area was sparsely settled and contained large area of uncultivated fertile land, much of which was forested. There had been no cadastral survey, and most titles to land depended on oral tradition in the village or in the tribal group.
In the first century AD, the Viets, the forebears of the Vietnamese people, were already wet rice farmers as well as fishermen. They lived in compact villages in their homeland in the Red River Delta, and each village was governed by a council selected by the resident families. The wet ricefields were held in common by all the families in the village, a situation arising presumably from eqllal participation by all in building the bundsand dikes which made the paddy. fields. Individual families held usufruct rights to particular plots which were reallocated every few years by the village council. Throughout subsequent centuries, as, behind their conquering armies, the descendants of the Viets colonized the eastern rim of the Indochina peninsula, they clung tenaciously to the way of life and beliefs of their ancestors. They were interested solely in wet ricefields and, ignoring the highlands, they estsblished their villages in the alluvial deltas along the coast. As in their homeland, the villages were governed by a village council, a custom honored by the emperors and continued with modifications into the 20th Century.
As colonization spread farther south, however, in order to entice settlers, permanent and inheritable usufruct rights in specific fields were conferred on individual families. The Vietnamese peasautry still held the conviction that every family had a right to a share of land and that communal lands should be reserved for the use of the poor, needy and landless. In 1954, at the end of the Indochina War, the couutryside was devastated. Nearly 2.5 million acres of the most valuable riceland had been abandoned and was overgrown with brush and weeds. About 2.5 percent of the landowners held roughly half of the cultivated land, and more than 80 percent of the land was cultivated by peasants owning no land at all. Most of the large landholdings were divided into small tenanted plots of 5 to 12 acres.
The sociopolitical elite of village society consisted of the wealthiest landowners, who derived their wealth primarily by leasing or subleasing the lands which they own or rent. If they work any land themselves, the labor was done by hired hands who plant, irrigate and harvest under their supervision. In the slack season they may engage in entrepreneurial activities, investing their surplus wealth in moneylending, rice merchandising, rice milling and similar ventures.
In the past many persons in this group were the most politically active in the village. Members of the village council were drawn from its ranks as were the chief officials of the Cult committees. By the mid-1960's, however, the interest of qualiefied villagers in seeking such positions had greatly declined. These families differed from their urban counterparts mainly in their patterns of living and their outlook. Men of this class wore Western-style clothes when serving as members of the village council; they donned white shirts, light trousers and, perhaps, shoes while on routine duty and wear suits and ties when receiving a government official from outside the village. At other times, however, they much prefered to wear Vietnamese dress-loose-fitting trousers, long-sleeved collarless shirts of white cotton or silk, and wooden clogs. Many older men of these frunilies had not taken to Western-style haircuts and continued to wear their hair long and tied in a bun at the back.
Wealthy villagers lived in solidly built houses of wood-tile or masonry-tile. Although most well-to-do homes had some Western furnishings, traditional furniture - including expensive, highly polished hardwood slabs which served as beds - was predominant. The most important room in the house was that containing the altar of the ancestors; anniversaries of their death were observed with elaborate ritua1 and feasting. Weddings and funerals were also elaborate affairs; the more prosperous families hired a professional funeral service to provide trappings, coffin bearers and musicians. Long before the death of an elderly member of a prosperous family, tombs were constructed and coffins purchased and placed on display in the main room of the house. Status demands that their family burial grounds have tombs of concrete or cement. The rich also supported financially the rituals associeted with the village cults, like the Cult of the Guardian Spirit, and they are the major contributors to the construction of village pagodas. Of all the villagers, the well-to-do were the most mobile. A few relied on motorscooters, motorbicycles and motorcycles, but most depended on bicycles.
The less prosperous families differed from the elite in being less of an entrepreneurial group. They owned or rented enough land to maintain themselves on a level well above subsistance, but did not acquire a surplus large enough to invest in other economic endeavors. They did most of the work in their own fields, hiring some laborers, if needed, at planting or harvesting. A few supplemented their income as artisans, hut they never hire themselves out as laborers except under the direst of circumstances. Because of the pressure of work in their own fields and their more modest economic circumstances, members of this group did not assume as many official and Cult responsibilities as do the wealthy villagers. They participated in rituals and feasts on a moderate scale, and in the village organizations they held positions which were honorific in character, demanding little time or outlay of money. As a result of their peripheral position in the official life of a village, they hadno need for Western dress and contented themselves with traditional, loose-fitting clothes and wooden clogs for special occasions. Only the young men were likely to have a pair of Western trousers and a shirt and perhaps a pair of shoes. When in the fields, old and young alike wore the traditional dress of the peasant: black cotton shorts and shirt and a conica1 hat. Members of this group usually lived in houses of wood-thatch or wood-tile construction. Like the rich villagers, they customarily had hardwood slabs for beds, but seldom Western furnishings. Radios were rarely found in their homes. Few owned any motorized forms of transportation and depended upon bicycles, which together with lack of leisure and money, limited their physical mobility.
The lowest level of village society consisted of a vast number of small peasant proprietors and tenant farmers. Forced to spend all of their time earning a living, they generally participate little in village affairs though it was possible for some to achieve the status of hamlet chief or receive one of the honorific titles in the lower echelons of the Cult committee. Because they did nat cultivate enough land to support their families, most of them must work as part-time laborers, and their wives and children did much of the fieldwork. Their children frequently went to school long enough to learn the rudiments of reading and writing and then had to leave to help support the family. This group also included a wide range of supplemental service occupations: artisans, practitioners of oriental medicine, small tradesmen and others.
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