Family relationships
By Huynh Dinh Te

Family structure

The family is the basic instituation in society; it perpetuates society and protects the individual. Generally speaking, Vietnamese family structure is more complex than that of the American family, which is essentially nuclear in nature and which excludes relatives and in-laws. In the Vietnamese family roles are more numerous and more fined than in its American counterpart.

Vietnamese people distinguish between the immediate family (tiu gia-nh) and the extended family (i gia-nh). The Vietnamese immediate family includes not only the husband, wife, and their unmarried children, but but also the husband's parents and the sons' wives and children, The extended family consists of the immediate family and close relatiVes who share the same family name and ancestors and who live in the same community.

The complexity of the Vietnamese concept oF family is reflected in the rather complex terminology designating kinship. Each member of the extended family has a particular designation according to his/her relative position and his/her role in the family structure. People are often referred to by the kinship term rather than by given name.

In Vietnamese society, the father is the head of the family. However, unlike the father in traditional Chinese society, who is empowered, at least theoretically, with absolute rights over his children and wife, the Vietnamese father shares with his wife and children collective and bilateral responsibility, legally, morally, and spiritually.

In the relationship between parents and chilren, as well as between husband and wife, the Vietnamese people retain much of their own custom and tradition, despite the great influence of Chinese culture and Confucian doctrine. In the eyes of the children, the Vietnamese mother has the same status as the father. She is also the embodiment of love and the spirit of self-denial and sacrifice.

Parent-child relationship

Vietnamese parents consider it a most important responsibility to train their children. By virtue of the principle of collective responsibility, the parents will bear the disgrace brought about by the activities of children who dishonor themselves just as they share the honor and fame of their virtuous and talented children.


Mother and child, silk painting

At an early age, children are taught by their parents to behave according to the principle of filial piety. The family is the school in which the child learns the respect rules in both behavior and linguistic response. Filial piety consists of loving, respecting, and obeying one's parents. Talking back or acting contrary to the wishes of one's parents is evidence of lack of filial piety. For the Vietnamese, the obligation to obey his parents does not end with coming of age or marriage. Filial piety also means solicitude and support to one's parents, chiefly in their old age. Vietnamese elderly people never live by themselves or in nursing homes but with one of their children, usually their eldest son. This obligation is not discontinued by the parents' death. It survives in the form of ancestral cult and the maintenance of ancestral tombs. Ancestor worship is practised in most, if not all, Vietnamese homes even in the homes of Viettnamese people living overseas.

The child who lacks filial piety is rejected and ostracized by other members of the family and comnlunity. The worst insult which a Vietnamese can receive and by which he is deeply wounded is the ex- pression "lack filial piety" (con bat hieu).

Sibling relationships

In Vietnamese culture, the relationship between siblings is determined by the principle of seniority, which requires younger siblings to respect and obey older ones. The eldest brother is entrusted with a heavy responsibility that of substituting for the parents in case of emergency. He is considered by his siblings as their leader. Concord and love among siblings is a token of happy and virtuous family.

Attitude towards relatives

As with members of the immediate family, members of the extended family are boud together by a strong sense of collective responsibility and mutual obligation. The notion of blood relalionship is always present in the mind of the Vietnamese. In honor or in disgrace, members of the extended family will share the same fate as if they were members of the immediate family. They are expected to give one another moral and material assistance, especially in time of stress. On the social and political planes, this strong sense of loyalty to the extended family tends to encourage the spirit of sectarianism and nepotism.

The notion of family ties is imprinted in the mind of the Vietnamese because of the importance of filial piety. Respect and love are demanded of young people to members of the parental generation and above. Uncles and aunts must be treated with respect as if they were one's own parents. In addition to the consciousness of blood relationships and the linguistic ties that reinforce kinship relationships and age seniority, members of the Vietnamese extended family are closely bound by the common veneration of the dead. Ancestor worship is a hyphen between the dead and the living and a strong tie between members sharing the same ancestry. Through such rites as the cleaning of the ancestral tombs (to-m) and celebration of ancestral death anniversaries (ngy gi), which all members of the extended family are expected to attend, the ties which bind the Vietnamese to other members of his family are reinforced.

In the last decades the Vietnamese family insitution has been attacked on all fronts. The Western doctrine of individualism advocated the liberation of the individual from the encroachment of the family upon his personal freedom. Under the communist regime, the state replaced parents in the filial piety relationship, and children were taught to spy on their own parents and report to the Party any subversive talk or behavior. The war devastated the countryside and brought people to the cities where narrow spaces were not suitable to the pattern of the extended family. Since 1975, with the communist takeover of the whole country and the tragic exodus of the Vietnamese people throughout the world to search for freedom, the Vietnamese family has become increasingly broken and separated by distance. Husbands and wives, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters live thousands and thousands of miles apart. But despite of all this, deep family feelings and ties are still strong and the Vietnamese family concept still survives through time and change.