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Official Gazette

Monday, March 30, 2020

“Huong uoc” (Village code) - a distinctive method of community management by the Viet people

Updated: 11:21’ - 08/03/2011

To Dong Hai

 

In the millenary history of the nation the Viet - the majority ethnic group in Vietnam - have forged a strong sense of community which has helped the country stand the test of time and defeat all aggressive plots of the enemy. At the center of this community sense is the village with its diversified form of cohesion and solidarity designed and voluntarily observed by the villagers. One of the commonest forms of such cohesion is the “Huong uoc” (or village code). A village code is the body of conventions of the village community on the behavior toward nature, among the members of the same village and toward other communities, on the observance of rituals in worship and respect for the customs and habits of the community.

According to researchers, the “Huong uoc” (village codes) of the Viet had existed long before the appearance of the written language and had been passed on orally from one generation to another. With the passage of time these oral conventions could no longer meet the ever more intricated relations in the family and society and they gave room to the written codes.

The feudal States had long tried to establish their central rule down to the smallest administrative unit — the village — and found in the “Huong uoc” an effective tool to transform this population unit into an administrative one which was bound to the center by the administrative system and also a cultural and social unit with mutually dependent relations among its members through the family lines and neighborly relations. “Huong uoc” was actually the conventions to assure the cohesion of the villagers and also an efficient method to manage this grassroots unit.

In its strictest sense, a village is a complete economic, administrative, social and cultural unit. Relations are established among villagers through blood or professional ties, hierarchy, age groups, beliefs and religions. Each group (family, family line, guild, profession...) often has its own conventions which are effective within a given boundary or section while the village code regulates the behavior of all these groups.

Thus, “Huong uoc” was the product of a society that had developed to a rather high level of organization. In this society, a stratum of intellectuals had taken shape. Together with the dignitaries in the village (formerly called the dignitaries council) they assumed the duty to draft the village code. Some researchers believe that the earliest “Huong uoc” appeared around the 15th century and are now usually referred to as “Huong uoc co”  (ancient village codes).

Most of these codes were written in Han (Chinese) characters and printed on the old hand-made paper or engraved on wood or stone slabs. Their names differ from one region to another and were called “Huong bien” (village record of village affairs), “Huong le” (village rules), “Khoan le” (conven-tion), “Khoan” (contract), or simply rites, etc.

A “Huong uoc” is usually divided into articles, clauses and items, each item often accompanied with a form of punishment. Some “Huong uoc”, like the one of Yen Lo village, Hoai Duc district, Ha Tay province, adopted in the 3rd year of the reign of King Duy Tan (1910), comprised four major chapters: “Hinh muc” dealing with criminal offenses such as murders, fights, adultery, violations of contracts; “Ho muc” on civil affairs dealing with questions related to the families; “Chinh tri” (political affairs) dealing with administrative work such as election of the dignitaries, and “Phong tuc” dealing exclusively with the rites and customs such as wedding, funerals, worshiping, celebrations...

Though extremely diversified, the contents of “Huong uoc” can be grouped into five, six or more categories such as the administrative organization, the social relations in the village, preservation of order and security, tax and military service duty, promotion of education, protection of the ecological environment...

Rewards and punishments range from money rewards or fines and compensations, promotion of ranks in the council of dignitaries, increase or reduction of contributions. Punishment in some places include flogging, forbiddance to attend social gatherings and ultimately banishment from the village. These very diversified forms of reward or punishment actually constitute the non- conformist character of the “huong uoc” and in a broader sense, some degree of autonomy of the ancient Viet.

It can be said that over a long period of history the village code is an important and efficacious tool to institutionalize, control and regulate the intricated and interwoven relations among individuals, sections and strata of the population in the villages of the Viet. Through the force of public opinion, families and family lines and the management by the village authorities, the community sense has been forged either voluntarily or compulsorily and become the nucleus of the relations of the whole community of the nation. The old saying “Phep vua thua le lang” (the King’s rules concede to village rules) has reflected the interrelationship between the form of management of the village by the village itself and the form of administration by the State. In fact, history has showed that not a few insurrections against foreign occupationists sparked up from a village community before spreading to a whole region and even the whole country.

However, the village autonomy also had its negative side since it bred regionalism or departmentalism that stood in the way to the unity of the country and the nation. To forestall this nefarious tendency, King Le Thanh Tong in a decree promulgated in 1464 already called the attention of the villages to the following in the elaboration of their codes:

“The State already has its rules and laws; the localities and population have only to base their actions on these rules and laws. Only when the population is secure can the country prosper. Each village should not establish a code of its own independently from the laws... Once it has adopted the common rules it must submit these rules to examination by the higher authorities to see whether they are applicable or not, and such rules can be enacted only after approval by the authorities...” Through various dynasties, “Huong uoc” were amended and supplemented to suit the situation in each period of history.

The French colonialists, during their rule over the country, used the administrative apparatus in villages to serve their purposes. They conducted an administrative reform which was referred by contemporaries to as “cai luong huong chinh” (rural administration reform). “Huoi dong ky muc” (the Council of dignitaries) was replaced by “Hoi dong toc bieu” (the Council of Representatives of the family lines). It followed that the ancient codes were replaced by the reformed codes in which the chapter on customs was kept almost intact but another chapter, the Common Rules, was added to provide for the principles of organization and operation of the Council of Representatives of the family lines, for budget revenues and expenditures, for the head toll and land tax, for the trial of disputes and complaints, for the repair of roads and bridges, for the fight against gambling and alcoholism, etc.

However, due to the low effect of “Hoi dong toc bieu”, in 1927 the French reinstalled “Hoi dong ky muc” (the Council of dignitaries) beside “Hoi dong toc bieu”. In 1941 the latter council was abolished and there remained only the Council of dignitaries. With the reformed “Huong uoc”, a general regulation on all aspects of the village life existed for the first time in the quoc ngu (romanized script of the national language) although a number of villages continued to use the Han (Chinese) script and the model of the ancient codes. Such reformed “Huong uoc”, though made as part of the French ploy to make their colonial rule entrenched deeply in the structure of the Vietnamese villages bore positive elements, thus limiting the obviously harmful rites and customs which had from time immemorial kept the farmers tied to the backward habits and superstitions.

The August 1945 Revolution succeeded, breaking the structure of the feudal village, hence no grounds for “Huong uoc” to exist. The cause of “doi moi” (renewal) has gradually returned to the traditional village its position and role as a population unit characterized by its traditional values and its specific customs, habits and beliefs as well as its traditional social relations. A movement to build “cultural villages” was launched in 1991 in Ha Bac province (now separated into two provinces, Bac Ninh and Bac Giang). A convention of cultural villages was elaborated with its role as “Huong uoc” with a view to managing and regulating new relations in the village structure. The Resolutions of the 5th plenum of the 7th Party Central Committee (June 1993) encouraged the elaboration and implementation of the village codes and the regulations on “building a civilized life-style in the villages and hamlets”. In its resolution adopted in June 1995, the 8th National Congress of the Party made clear that the application of the conventions and codes in the rural areas in conformity with the State law is the substance of the exercise of the people’s right to mastery. On June 19, 1998 the Prime Minister issued Directive No. 24/CT-TTg on the elaboration and implementation of the village code at the grassroots level.

The resolutions of the Party and decrees of the State bearing on the village codes show that the Party and State have a deep perception of the role of the village code in the present stage. The village code, in its capacity as a tool for self-rule, and a “code” affective in the village, which is compiled and voluntarily observed by the village community, constitutes the basis for extending the arm of State law to each family each village, each hamlet, satisfying the social management requirements and regulating the community relation in the period of renewal, industrialization and modernization.

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A closer scrutiny shows that the village code is a precious legacy embodying the experiences in community management accumulated by successive generations of Vietnamese. However, because a village code is the cultural and spiritual product of a given village, it inevitably bears the distinctive mark of that village as well as of the group of learned persons who compiled it.

In the areas with a long tradition of education — often referred to a “land of learned men”- or with a long succession of mandarins, the village code usually has many provisions encouraging learning and taking part in the contests for the mandarinate. That is why, such codes provide many preferences for those who won the contests and were subsequently appointed to mandarinal posts. There are very specific stipulations for the reception of a man who achieved high marks in a mandarinal contest. His parents and close relatives are also treated deferentially and given the top honors at the village celebrations.

In the villages with many temples and pagodas worshiping historical or mythical personages the code gives prime importance to the observance of rituals, for example the rituals in honor of the tutelary genie and make detailed provisions for the duties of villagers, each according to their social rank, to contribute to the fund for the repair and reconditioning of the worshiping places. In the villages where security is a major concern due to frequent thefts and robberies, the codes pay more attention to securing of patrol and guard duty and the punishment of offenders. In special cases, the code deals only with a specific problem such as the protection of dikes in the riverside villages. In spite of their diversity and complexity, the contents of the codes can be summed up in the following categories:

1. The organization structure (Council of dignitaries, its election, powers and prerogatives, Council of learned men, Council of representatives of family lines, ...)

2. Assurance of security and order (patrol and guard, punishment of thiefs, gamblers and alcoholics, adultery, prostitution, arson...). Therefore, in the old days the village held the primordial role in the fight against social evils as well as in the preservation of the fine traditions and habits.

3. Conventions on the practice of religious beliefs. The communal house is not only the public meeting place of the villagers during the grand occasions but also the common place for worshiping the titulary genie. The code stipulates the time for the annual common rituals, the duties of each family and family line and also the taboos to be observed in deference to the titulary genie.

4. Stipulations on the duties of each member of the village in community affairs such as tax payment, community work, military service, patrol, guard...

5. Surprisingly enough, in the then low standard of living, many codes laid special stress on the promotion of education. In the villages with a long tradition of learning and successful mandarinal contests, the codes stipulated in detail the duties of the villagers to take part in the celebrations when a villager achieved high marks in the triennal contest organized by the feudal State to select administrators, from high to low, or material rewards for them and their exemption from community labor duty, taxes and other obligatory contributions.

6. In not a few cases, the codes also provide for the protection of the environment, the duty to promote crop production, and encourage the practice of humanitarian acts.

In the ensuing issues of “Vietnam Law and Legal Forum”, we will present in detail the different categories of village codes as well as the different regions where the codes bear a distinctive regional character, such as:

- Village codes of the Ha Tay-Son Tay region where the early groups of the Viet are believed to settle in the Red River Delta.

- Village codes of the Kinh Bac region.

- Village codes of the lower Son Nam region.

- Village codes of the Thanh - Nghe - Tinh region.

- Village codes of Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces.

- Village codes of the provinces in Central and Southern Vietnam.-

VNL_KH1 

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