At diaCRITICS, we center a cross-ethnic and transnational approach, as fifty-four ethnicities live within present-day Vietnam and as the Vietnamese diaspora has resettled on five continents. Yet the ethnic minorities of Vietnam, and their communities abroad, are often forgotten. By featuring those in the Vietnamese diaspora whose identities and histories are less well known, we highlight the importance of de-centering Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese) assumptions about what is “Vietnamese.” Here’s an in-depth, courageous, and self-reflexive discussion about Chăm culture and history, centering a Vietnamese Muslim Chăm woman. This was originally published by the Cultural Quest Foundation and reprinted with permission.
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“I am a Chăm”
We met a young woman in San Jose, California, who wore a scarf over her head, which identified her as a person of Islamic faith. But she spoke perfect Vietnamese. A Vietnamese Muslim – Wow – what a rare site! We asked her more questions and were curious about her background. “I am a Chăm,” she said, looking keenly at us for our response. She wasn’t sure if we knew what a Chăm is.
Viet’s Twin Civilization
Probably all Vietnamese with basic formal education in Vietnam would know about “người Chăm,” the native people of Central Vietnam. The Chăm people were said to have a glorious culture built on Hindu and Islamic faiths. Tháp Chăm (Chăm temple ruins) are famous historical relics, the largest of which at Mỹ Sơn is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Chăms were brave sea-faring people. They traded with cultures all over Southeast Asia. Their language belongs to the great language family of Malayo-Polynesian, whose origin stretched from East-African Madagascar to the Pacific Islands.
In terms of cultural development, the Việts and the Chăms started out on a parallel course that mirrored each other like hands of the same person. Coming out of the stone age, the Chăms developed a sophisticated iron-based technology, called the Sa Huỳnh culture, while the Việts in north cultivated the bronze-based Đồng Sơn culture. The Chăms were a sea-faring people while the Việts, coming from the Austro-Asiatic language family (cousin to Khmer language), thrived on agriculture. The Việts imported Han-Chinese intellectualism for their societal development, while the Chăm society was built on Hindu intellectualism. The Việt’s family was patriarchal and male-centered, favored by labor-intensive agriculture, while the Chăm’s family—with the women being the community’s pillars and the men spending long months at sea—was matrilineal and women-centered.
Even the Việt’s myth of creation holds vague references to the Chăms as well. The myth talked about the angel Princess marrying a dragon Prince to create the first one hundred children who became the peoples of Southeast Asia. The angel princess, whose name was Âu Cơ, was the descendant of Thần Nông (the God of Agriculture) who supposedly lived somewhere in the Yangtze River region. The Dragon Prince, whose name was Lạc Long Quân, came from the sea. After the children were born, the couple split up, with half going with their mother back to the inland region and other half followed their father to live by the sea. The myth said that modern Việts came from the stock that went with mother Âu Cơ. That explained the Việt proclivity toward agriculture. But what modern people came from the group that lived with father Lạc Long Quân? Who else but the sea-faring Chăms, of course!
Brothers no more
Hardly anyone outside of Southeast Asia knows about the Chăms today, because the Việts had wiped their nation, Champa (“Chiêm Thành” in Vietnamese) off the world’s map since the fourteenth century. There is a deep conflict within the Vietnamese cultural consciousness about what they had done to the Chăms. On one hand, they railed against the Chinese for trying to take over their homeland, originally in the Red River delta in today North Vietnam. On other hand, they did the very same thing to the Chăm by taking away the Chăm way of life and country.
This conflict is especially strong among the South Vietnamese who lost their country to North Vietnam in 1975. The Vietnamese refugees often say among themselves that the brutal Vietnam War and the subsequent loss of South Vietnam is a karmic retribution for their ancestor’s unjust actions. It was also ironic that the Việts’ new home, America, the land of dream and opportunity, was also built upon a bloody legacy at the expense of the native peoples. Human civilization seems to be full of savagery, and the Việts contributed their own dark chapter in their relations with the Chăms.
Our first meeting with Vân Anh did not get off so great. Off the bat, Vân-Anh, she politely stopped us from calling her “Chàm,” a sound with a falling tone. “We are Chăm” she said. “Chàm is derogatory to us.” Chăm sounds a bit like ‘chum.’ For those thinking that fussing over a tiny diacritical mark is bordering on insanity, we want to remind them that in the tonal Vietnamese language tone is everything. “Má” (rising tone) means mother, but “Ma” (flat tone) means a ghost. “Tướng Không Quân” means an Air Force general, but “Tướng Không Quần” means a general without pants. Getting the wrong tone can get you into a lot of trouble.
That was how we got into trouble with Vân-Anh for calling her a “Chàm”. Honesty, we never heard of the word “Chăm” before. All historical texts we learned used the word “Chàm.” We were a bit irked by Vân-Anh’s demand for different term. We never meant any disrespect and didn’t like someone telling us to stop using a historically honored word. But when we checked the internet on the proper term to call the Chăm people, sure enough, “Chăm” was indeed the term that Chăm people call themselves. The early score: Vân-Anh 1, CQF 0.
Opening a big can of worms
The discovery of a thriving Chăm community on the internet pleased us. We were taught that the Chăm culture had been totally destroyed. So we organized a talk on January 9th, 2011, for Vân-Anh to tell us more about her family and culture. We didn’t have a great turn out, as many of our Việt friends admittedly were uncomfortable with the cross-cultural discussion that we attempted. “You are opening a very big can of worms,” professor Trương Bổn Tài, a supporter of Chăm culture, reminded the group.
Honestly, most Việts don’t want to talk about this issue. “Why stir up the past?” one friend said. But Vân Anh reminded us that the legacy of maltreatment of the Chăms is not of the past but the present. Even today, some Vietnamese still refer to the Chăms as “mọi” (savages), cow and pig worshipers, and cast them as an inferior race.
Other Việt friends are uncomfortable with the idea of speaking ill of our own forbearers. In the Confucian tradition, doing such thing amounts to being ungrateful if not a sin. But the fact of the matter is Vân-Anh is a Việt, Chăm culture is a part of Việts’ greater cultural landscape, and most if not all South Vietnamese have some trace of Chăm ancestry in their blood due to generations of intermarriages. So it is only right and necessary to hear what Vân-Anh has to say and what her Chăm community has experienced. Furthermore, as children of the same Mother Earth, we all have the power and the responsibility to ease any the historical burden and make it better for the future generations, just by understanding. So with this intent, talking about the difficult past legacy may turn out to be of much greater service for our ancestors than looking the other way.
Another worry we had was that the heavy historical topic would result in more bad feelings. Good intentions often beget disasters. Even Vân-Anh was nervous and she insisted on a low-key invitation-only crowd. Academic discussions on Chăm-Việt relations in the past have been known to end up in fiery debates or cold resentments. At the outset, we looked naive for doing this program. If scholars could not enlighten Chăm-Việt relation, how could a group of rag-tag non-experts like us do any good to a far-gone tragedy?
But we weren’t interested in scholarly truth. We were interested in Vân Anh’s personal truth. A part of our motivation to form Cultural Quest Foundation comes from the belief that every person holds an important truth about his or her own culture and history, worthy to be told and shared. The most valuable source of history is the eyewitnesses, not the books. We become truly ignorant of our history when we don’t listen to our elders and neighbors, not when we don’t get enough history units. So when Vân-Anh accepted our invite to tell her story, we were delighted to give her the center stage and used scholarly information only as backdrops. That was exactly what we did and we weren’t disappointed. At the end of the program, all attendees felt satisfied, hopeful and appreciative of her sharing.
Strategic Cultural Misunderstanding
The golden age of Champa took place in the early centuries of the modern era along side with the rise of other great Hinduist worshiping centers such as Angkor in Cambodia and Bali in Indonesia. The Chăm temples were adorn with curvaceous Apsara dancers conjuring a time of elegance, grace and transcendence. Important Chăm cities and towns were named after Hindu Gods, such as Indrapura (Đà Nẵng) and Vijaya (Quy Nhơn), as professor Arti Nigam, an Indian psychologist, pointed out during the forum.
The Khmer and Chăm Hindus had one of history’s most interesting love-hate relationships. While the Chăms worshiped God Shiva, the Khmer honored God Vishnu. Like a classic sibling rivalry, they fought each other like enemies and then helped each other like best friends. After the Việt invasion in the fourteenth century, Chăm Hinduism declined and gave way to Islamic intellectualism. Some Chăms became Buddhists much like the Khmer. Chăm society became culturally fragmented, by which some people hung on to the Hindu faith, while others followed the newer Islamic trend.
The most famous story between the Chăm and Việt during this time was that of Princess Huyền Trân, the daughter of Viet King Trần Anh Tông. After decades of conflict, King Trần Anh Tông and the Chăm King Chế Mân signed a historic land-for-peace deal. In this agreement, the Chăms would cede to the Việts two provinces and the Chăm King would marry the beautiful Việt Princess, thus joining two kingdoms into one family.
But the Việts did not keep their side of the deal. After King Chế Mân died, the Việt king ordered an attack on the Chăms to retrieve his daughter, because he feared that Princess Huyền Trân would be burned alive in the Chăm king’s funeral pyre as dictated by Chăm custom. That attack turned out to be the first shot in the Việt campaign of Nam Tiến (southward expansion) that eventually annexed all of Champa and part of Khmer Kingdom into Vietnam’s territory.
The story of Princess Huyền Trân captured Việt imagination for the ages. It has a dramatic cast of characters including a powerful Việt king also a loving father, a courageous and lovely princess, and a barbaric enemy who would sacrifice an innocent woman, not to mention the man who would lead the Princess’s rescue was rumored to be her own former lover.
But unbeknown to most Việts today, there is another side to this story. Apparently, Princess Huyền Trân was never in any danger of being sacrificed. According to Chăm custom of the time, only the Queen could choose to sacrifice herself in order to empower the throne for her descendants. To do so, she would have needed approval from a ruling council, in case she was needed to rule the country. Sacrifice one’s life for a greater cause was nothing new nor undesirable in either Việt or Chăm culture at the time. It was the queen’s choice to sacrifice herself. But Princess Huyền Trân was not the queen, but the King’s concubine, albeit an important one. There was no way she could die from Chăm custom.
Cultural Survival at Stake
The West never got to know Champa, except for what little Marco Polo had wrote about this fabled kingdom during his brief visit to the Chăm seaport Singapura (Hội An). By the time Western countries arrived in large numbers in the latter centuries, Champa was already relegated to archeological and historical curiosities. French colonization that stopped Việt expansionism came too late for the Chăms, as it could only help to save the Khmer kingdom instead. As the Việts pushed southward, the once seafaring Chăm people moved farther south and then into Cambodia with the largest number living in a land-locked community called Kampong Cham.
Once both Hindus, the Khmer (now Buddhists) and the Chăms (now Muslims) lived peacefully side by side, guided by each of their own gentle religion. But then the Vietnam War came and followed with the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. Untold number of Chăm were killed in the seventies for the crime of being non-indigenous. Ironically this time, it was the Vietnamese communists that went into Cambodia to get rid of their fellow communists, the Khmer Rouge, and saved the whole country from total annihilation.
In the twenty-first century, the threat of physical persecution has lifted, but the struggle for cultural survival is more fierce than ever. Like all indigenous cultures, the Chăm culture faces a direct assault from the pop culture which sways young people away from traditional values. Vân Anh’s generation must deal with the difficult task of redefining what it means to be a Chăm in today’s complex globalized world.
Indifference toward being different
In central Vietnam today, small Chăm villages still remained. Vân Anh grew up in one of those villages near Phan Rang (formerly Panduranga). She spoke fluent Chăm and Vietnamese. Her community was Islamic. They prayed and worshipped Allah and carried on a proud culture, personified in traditional dances, rituals and family’s heirlooms and relics. Invisibility seemed to have been a good thing for Vân Anh, until she came to America in the post 9/11 era. Islam is viewed with deep suspicion here. Yet, she could not part from her head scarf that stands for her faith and integrity. Many people wanted her to take off her scarf, including some family members, for her own good in order to blend in with the hair-obsessed culture of America. But refusing to conform to societal norm may be an easier way for Vân Anh to cope. It may give her a tough day at work, but offers her better sleep at night.
To be able to dream is a success
It does not take much to realize that Vân Anh carries a heavy burden of history on her shoulders. Yet we never heard Vân Anh talking about violence and revenge against the Việt or anyone else. On a practical level that’s a good thing because she’s got too many identities to afford to let any of them be at war with each other. She is a Chăm, a Việt, a Muslim and an American—a quad-cultural identity. Her cultural interest is in neither Chăm nor Việt or American alone, but in how much all cultures have in common and bring richness to her spirit. Her interest in Islam is very intense.
She started a non-profit group, Moonlight Humanity, to help the poor in Southeast Asia. Given that her Chăm people in Cambodia and Vietnam live in abject poverty and in much isolation from the world, she dreams of an ambitious plan to build schools, dig wells, finance new businesses, and construct mosques and community centers. So please visit her group’s website to learn or contribute.
Starting an ambitious charitable organization at a time of global economic downturn may seem unwise, but it would be a mistake to dismiss her vision. We need to be reminded of who Vân-Anh is and where she came from. She is a Chăm, the people with a glorious history and persistent sense of survival. As a Chăm, she is still here, growing and thriving, rather than succumbing to hatred and despair. For any human being who could come out of a genocidal history and still be able to dream big, not for one but for many, that is a success—a big success.
Ultimately, as human beings, each of us are only responsible for our own dreams. The reality is often created by the collective dreams of many. There is nothing wrong with Vân Anh dreaming of a better life for her people. But her dream could only come true there if other Việts, Muslims, Americans, and people in the world also share her dream for the Chăm people to get what they’ve deserved all along—dignity, security and respect.
— Cultural Quest Foundation, the author, was formed in California in late 2008 as a non-profit, public benefit organization. The board of organizers consists of Tâm M. Đặng, Thái P. Nguyễn, Tuấn M. Nguyễn, and Brandon H. Nguyễn.
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