In introductory courses on Southeast Asia, many researchers focus on the relative strength of women as a definitive regional trait compared to neighboring South Asia and East Asia. The focus often lies on Vietnam as a regional crossroads, with a Chinese Confucian order transposed upon a Southeast Asian peasantry. Nhung Tuyet Tran’s Familial Properties: Gender, State, and Society in Early Modern Vietnam, 1463-1778 sheds new light on gender in Southeast Asia. Utilizing a wide range of primary sources, Tran provides an ambitious historical-political anthropological account of gender systems in precolonial Vietnam, citing official laws alongside sites of resistance in a highly readable study.
Chapter One lays out what Tran refers to as the gender system of historical Vietnam, a state-articulated vision of proper womanhood from childhood through death (and beyond). Subsequent chapters focus on adolescence, marriage, sexual relations, property, death, and the afterlife, charting the life course of womanhood. Tran interprets Vietnam’s gender system in economic terms, with Vietnamese society as a market and its participants as economic actors. The Vietnamese state has promoted its gender system in its quest for stability, as stable families and the continuation of elite agnatic lines were intended to produce a stable social hierarchy as well as a secure tax base. This gender system placed significant pressures on women as responsible actors, making them the key figures in Vietnamese culture and nationalism.
One of the book’s great strengths is that Tran lays out official gender systems, but always remembers that lived realities often varied significantly from state visions. Such a feat is difficult in contemporary studies, but is especially impressive in historical work. Each chapter notes different experiences over time, by ethnicity and geography (with the Cham-influenced South featuring distinctive gender systems), and class. Class is especially important, as elite women were expected to conform to stricter rules for the sake of social stability, whereas poor women were afforded more flexibility in areas such as remarriage and the workforce. However, this did not always benefit lower-class women, who were sometimes expected to fulfill sexual roles for more powerful men. All told, Tran manages to document gender systems across Vietnamese history while paying attention to the diverse experiences of women, successfully painting a general picture while not essentializing.
This nuance is made possible by impressive, meticulous research. Tran bases her discussion on a wide range of sources, including laws, textbooks, early colonial accounts, folk stories, village steles and records, and more, many of which are primary sources written in Vietnamese demotic script. Tran differentiates between prescriptive sources (the laws, textbooks, dictionaries, and guides that lay out what the state thinks should be) and descriptive sources (the legal cases, folk poetry, short stories, missionary letters, and other observations of what was). Particularly impressive is Tran’s use of village steles, slabs erected in honor of various patrons. These steles show that Vietnamese women were able to amass resources and maintain influence within a Confucian legal system and veneration in the afterlife.
By examining the application of neo-Confucian laws under the Lê Dynasty and how they affected gender systems in Vietnam, Familial Properties informs debates surrounding Southeast Asian versus East Asian influence, state capacity, urban/rural societies, northern versus southern Vietnamese societies, tradition versus modernity, and Vietnamese nationalism. If the question is whether gender in Vietnam was more Southeast Asian, featuring relative autonomy for women, or more Confucian, subordinating women in a patriarchal order, then the answer is that it was both. Vietnam saw both the successful application of Confucian laws that influenced Vietnamese society, but also resistance to these laws, which often failed to shape local communities. One source of disruption was various civil wars, which necessitated women playing public role. Another was changing markets, with the ‘Age of Commerce’ creating new areas of female power and wealth. Women were also afforded more autonomy where the state was weakest, namely in rural areas and in the south, and among poorer classes. Tran shows Southeast Asian agency within a Confucian structure, with the Lê state possessing significant, but not total power.
In terms of other topics, chapter three discusses legal discourses related to rape, sex work, chastity, and homosexuality. In both, class status mediated crimes and punishments. Homosexuality is notable by its absence in Vietnamese law, with greater attention paid to whether same-sex relations violate class lines or not. Punishments were dealt in cases where poor servants penetrated more powerful partners – where sexual orders overturned socio-economic orders, thus inviting social instability.
The book’s final chapter examines the contemporary relevance of historical gender systems in Vietnam. Tran notes that French colonizers framed Vietnamese women as oppressed by Chinese laws to help legitimize colonial power. At independence, Vietnamese leaders promoted similar tropes, noting that Chinese and French forces oppressed women, unlike traditional Vietnamese culture. With one of the great promises of communism was also to uplift women. Today, Vietnamese leaders mix communist and nationalist rhetoric about women’s equality, often aimed at denigrating China for political gain. The story told is that ancient traditions of Vietnamese matriarchy were transformed into ‘a totalizing, oppressive, misogynist Confucian society’ (p. 186), with the Vietnamese government working to restore Vietnamese traditions. Tran makes a case for greater complexity, challenging the basic trope and locating patriarchy early in Vietnamese history. As Vietnam continues to develop and tensions with China continue to mount, there is a need to question state claims of traditional equality, as if patriarchy lacks roots in Vietnam.
Familial Properties features impressive research, clear writing, and speaks to a range of important debates. Although Tran succeeds in showing that official laws often played out differently in practice, she could be clearer regarding the limitations of historical records. For the most part, state power correlates with records. Even if we move beyond official records to village steles, it is likely that we are still overlooking the rural majority. The book essentially tackles the hardest cases, showing that even in historical records and areas of state strength, women maintained autonomy and resisted official norms. It should be remembered, though, that where history was not recorded, women likely had even greater autonomy. A related point is that, by focusing on the state, we have little sense of how gender norms were enforced societally. Cases of adultery and perceived sexual indiscretions were more likely to have been punished immediately by non-state actors, with judicial records providing only an echo of social enforcement. Tran provides several accounts of judicial decisions that skirted official rules, cases framed in terms of persuasive women and judicial interpretation. They may also be explained by state weakness, with courts providing post-hoc rationalizations for their inability to act. Even today, many state efforts to enforce gender laws are mediated by strong societal norms, with states forces loathe to admit their weaknesses. State forces such as courts possess incentives to make it appear that social enforcement reflects their will, clouding our understanding of how the reach of state rules.
All told, Familiar Properties is an impressive achievement, navigating official and lived gender systems over several centuries of Vietnamese history. Tran manages to paint a broad picture while not losing sight of variation over time, status, and place. It is essential reading for those interested in women’s history, Southeast Asian history, gender in Vietnam, and Vietnamese national identity. A rare study that is both meticulous and readable, Tran is to be commended.