Willow" Bows to the Past
Beth Hughes, Special to the Examiner
July 21, 1999
Vietnamese family memoir sheds light on troubled time
My family owes its good fortune to a mysterious man.
Duong Van Mai Elliott's magnificent saga, "The Sacred Willow:
Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family" (Oxford
University Press) begins with this signal that Elliott's tale will
follow twists of fate, along a road laid out by traditional practices
and beliefs but mined with the volatile facts of modern history.
The story could not be more compelling if it were fiction, as Elliott's
relations, divided by ideology, war and finally peace, demonstrate
the unyielding strength of their familial bonds, ties that still
bind despite one sister's allegiance to a communist regime that
stripped them of land and status, "re-educated" a younger
brother and propelled many into exile.
"It is a book I've wanted to write for a long time, even when
I was living in Saigon as a teenager," said Elliott, interviewed
at her home in Claremont, Los Angeles County, where she is working
on a novel. Born and raised in Vietnam, she attended the School
of Foreign Service at Georgetown University from 1960 to 1963 on
a scholarship awarded to promising Vietnamese students by the United
States under its Leadership Training Program.
"We all wanted independence, we all wanted reunification,
we just disagreed on under what kind of regime," said Elliott
of her relatives, who accepted the dominant role of family in Vietnamese
culture. "We were split along ideological lines, but my sister
is still a sister, she's still a daughter, and that helped us transcend
some very deep divisions."
Sitting at her family's cramped dining table, listening to her
father recall his father and grandfather, and the stories they told
him, Elliott could not have known then that her epic would encapsulate
the postwar history of Vietnam.
By presenting the turbulent events of the past 150 years as experienced
by her well-educated, middle-class family, Elliott offers an ideal
vehicle for the exploration of modern Vietnamese history by revealing
the options that faced each generation. Only temporarily did the
choices split her family, and thousands like them, under French,
then American domination.
"Nobody in my family, that I heard of, was mad at my sister
for joining the Viet Minh," said Elliott. "We never felt
that she should not be part of the family again." By illuminating
these stories behind the headlines, Elliott helps us understand
that America's tragic involvement in her homeland caused as great
a social upheaval there as it did here.
Thus, Elliott voices a perspective until now missing from the English-language
body of work on the Vietnam conflict — that of the educated
Vietnamese middle class that U.S. policy attempted to bolster, but
Part of that failure stemmed from America's inability to understand
Vietnam's fiery brand of chauvinism. Perhaps alone among Asian nations
colonized by the Western powers, Vietnam never needed such subjugation
to forge nationalism.
Long before Western voyages of "discovery," Vietnam was
recording its history of bloodshed, as it defended itself against
all comers. Under the leadership of the mythic Trung sisters, the
scrappy little country came out swinging to dispatch Chinese invaders
in the first century A.D. No matter that the Chinese returned. By
the 15th century, Vietnam barely acknowledged China's suzerainty
with infrequent, desultory tribute missions.
Two hundred years later, the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French
began trading with Annam (China's name for Vietnam), a country that,
when seen on a map, often is likened to a cobra readying to strike.
The French emerged as the dominant force, exploiting existing political
Finally, in 1859, after a bloody fight, Saigon fell to the French,
who took Hanoi in 1873 and consolidated their hold throughout the
three regions a decade later. Although sporadic resistance continued
until 1913, the futility of further military struggles was apparent
to most Vietnamese.
Among them was Duong Lam, Elliott's paternal great-grandfather.
He rose from poverty to become an influential mandarin, as ensured
by the "mysterious man" — a monk still venerated
by some of Elliott's relatives. To repay the dirt-poor family for
kindness to him, the monk selected an auspicious grave site for
patriarch Duc Thang, great-grandfather of Duong Lam.
A nationalist and a strict Confucian, Duong Lam passed the imperial
exams in 1878 to achieve the coveted cu nhan degree. In a country
that revered learning, his success meant instant fame. In a country
buckling before the French, his success meant a mandarin's life
plagued by unanswerable questions. Trained to serve his country,
should he collaborate with the French? Could he be loyal to the
people of Vietnam and their interests, while serving France?
Duong Lam refused to learn French, and when his colonial masters
knighted him as a "Dragon of Annam" he displayed the medal
in his pigsty. Elliott's grandfather never wavered from his traditions
as he watched the French attempt to transform Vietnam's culture
to something of their own making.
Elliot's father, Duong Thieu Chi, served as governor of the Haiphong
region under the French and Emperor Bao Dai. A nationalist who favored
independence, he reviled the Communists, though at the time they
appeared to be the political faction most likely to drive the French
from Vietnam, having launched early efforts in the 1930s.
His eldest daughter, Elliott's sister Thang, believed Marxism could
liberate Vietnam from French domination. She married an agricultural
expert and, with their 6-month-old son, melted into the jungles
to endure years of desperate deprivation as part of Ho Chi Minh's
force of dedicated Communists who eventually whipped unbelieving
French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
Most of Elliott's family then fled from the north, arriving destitute
in a corrupt and politically complicated Saigon. Her father faced
setbacks in his career, although his anti-communism never faltered.
Family members who remained in the north suffered horribly under
the land-reform movement, which penalized them for pasts as mandarins
and landlords. (Thrang, despite model performances at war and as
a worker, never will achieve membership in the Communist Party because
of her class background.)
Elliott, with an American husband, returned home to work in various
U.S.-funded, war-related programs before finally landing a position
as an interviewer for a Rand Corp. study of communist prisoners.
The U.S. Department of Defense wanted to know what drove the fiercely
dedicated, and increasingly victorious, Viet Cong.
"I thought I knew," writes Elliott, recalling preparation
for her first encounter with the enemy, "but my knowledge was
really just an amalgam of prejudices," as she immediately discovered.
Persuaded by the passion and eloquence of her first subject, a man
without much formal education, Elliott accepted the Viet Cong as
patriotic, self-sacrificing, determined and courageous people, moved
by a "just cause . . . driving out the Americans, healing the
gash that cut the fatherland in two."
The Viet Cong, who offered the poor hope for a better future, channeled
the people's sympathy into support, and thus Elliott realized ".
. . I could not blame those that fought on the other side for our
own failure to offer a more attractive alternative."
Such objectivity marks Elliott's book and makes it the best kind
of history, which we may escape repeating by reading of this remarkable
family, strengthened for future generations by its past.