A Vietnamese Perspective on Familial Leadership

Chinese familism has had certain influences on leadership formation that are expressed in the Vietnamese context which shares the social-cultural and religious dynamics of Eastern and Southeastern Asia, particularly the Three Religions: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Since the premodern Vietnam period (from the tenth to fourteenth centuries), for instance, five different families–Ngô, Đinh, Lê, Lý and Trần–served as the Vietnamese dynasties.[1] Familial leadership in Vietnam is modeled after the Confucian familism of the North. For instance, Vietnam’s own political style, at least from the Lý epoch, formed after blending those internal and external influences, to be a replica of the Northern state.[2] By the early sixteenth century, the orthodox Neo-Confucian ideals had strongly affected the intellectual and cultural patterns of the Vietnamese elite and, through them, began to change the way of life of the population at large.[3] Vietnamese familial leadership, nevertheless, continued in society under the Nguyễn dynasty until the early twentieth century.

Familial leadership, however, has not been part of the process of the formation of Christian leaders in Vietnam. Although Christianity is in the familial leadership context of Vietnam, Christian leadership in Vietnamese institutions tends to be modeled after Western organizational structures. Group leadership, in fact, has developed and is more prominent and pervasive than familial leadership. An exceptional case, though, was the Ngô family in the modern Vietnam period. Ngô Đình Thục was the third Vietnamese bishop of the Catholic Church of Vietnam. In 1954, an exodus of the Northern Catholics to the South occurred in which Ngô Đình Thục’s brothers became the leaders of the Republic of Vietnam (Ngô Đình Diệm was president of the Republic of Vietnam, while Ngô Đình Nhu was the state’s advisor).[4] Within the Protestant Church (e.g. the Evangelical Church of Vietnam), familial leadership is not evident in its history.[5] Perhaps the church’s leadership was learned and modeled after the foreign missionary’s policy of organizational structural leadership from its early days, so that there has been no case of Chinese familism in its leadership formation. Nevertheless, group leadership tends to favor clan/familial or close relationships rather than bringing in outsiders when transferring or extending leadership power.

I appreciate Lu’s arguments which inspires us to take a Western perspective on Chinese familism that has had a deep influence on the life of East Asian people. The expression of harmony, as defined by Max De Pree in his perspective on leadership formation, is mutually edifying participation between persons who are stewarding God-given gifts. De Pree seeks the fulfillment of each person’s potential by cultivating and coordinating each person’s voice and touch; in other words, a harmony among diverse gifts. In contrast, East Asian perspectives on harmony would be among diverse statutes. As far as I know, central to the interests of Confucius, was the “human person” (“man”) with his or her natural, basic family and social relationships.[6] Moreover, the “Way” of man (Jen-dao) had to be in accordance with the “Way” [Đạo] of Heaven (T’ien-dao) or the “Heavenly Way.”[7] Confucius’ main concern was “with humans and with the fundamental principles of humanity.”[8] He believed these principles were the root of social relationships, and the foundation for the stability, peace and prosperity of the state, the family and individuals.[9] And thus, he developed his ethics around two central theses: “that goodness can be taught and learned, and that society can only be in harmony and at peace under the guidance of wisdom.”[10] There is so much for us to learn today, because our society can only be in harmony and at peace under “the guidance of wisdom,” being in accordance with the “Way” of Heaven (T’ien-dao) or the “Heavenly Way” (i.e. the Way of Jesus Christ). Only when we, as individuals, are in harmony with the Way, we then are in equal relationship with each other.


[1] The Premodern Vietnam period is that during which the Viet people struggled against Northern domination (up to the tenth century, 939 C.E.), and finally established an independent nation under five different dynasties: Ngô, Đinh, Lê, Lý and Trần from the tenth to fourteenth centuries. The second period or Early Modern Vietnam, includes the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, during which there was the expansion of the southward influence, encroaching upon existing populations of the Cham and Khmer ethnic groups under the Nguyễn dynasty. The last period or Modern Vietnam is that time in which Vietnamese literature found fresh, new ways to express itself in the vernacular Vietnamese, the quốc ngữ. For the full Chronology, see George E. Dutton, Jayne S. Werner, and John K. Whitmore, Sources of Vietnamese Tradition. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), xxi-xxxiv.

[2] The terms ‘China’ and ‘Vietnam,’ whose modern territorial and political implications are readily apparent, are much less useful when discussing pre-twentieth-century geography. Instead, the general geographical referents North (the northern Kingdom or China today) and South (the southern indigenous people which originated in the northern region of Vietnam today) are used to designate the peoples and polities of the Chinese and Vietnamese realms. See Dutton, Werner, and Whitmore, Sources of Vietnamese Tradition, 4, 11. See also Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ, “Văn Hoá Bách Việt Vùng Lĩnh Nam Trong Quan Hệ Với Văn Hoá Truyền Thống Ở Việt Nam” [Bach Viet Culture of the Linh Nam in the Relation with Traditional Culture in Vietnam] (Luận Án Tiến Sĩ Văn Hoá Học (Doctoral diss.), HoChiMinh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, 2011).

[3] See John K. Whitmore, “Social Organization and Confucian Thought in Vietnam,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 2, no. 15  (1984): 296-306.
Further understanding of Vietnamese society at this time, one may need to look at the major law code of the transitional period in the history, the Quốc Triều Hình Luật (National Penal Code) of the Lê dynasty (1428-1788).

[4] See Nguyen KimSon, “The Catholic Church in Vietnam: An Example of Contextualization,” Asia Journal of Theology 29, no. 1  (2015).

[5] See the early leadership of the church in Lê Văn Thái, Bốn mươi sáu năm chức vụ (Hồi ký) [Forty-Six Years in Ministry: Memoir]. (Sài Gòn: Nhà In Tin-Lành, 1970). See also Nguyen KimSon, “Mission History of Vietnamese Evangelicalism in the Pioneering Stage: A Vietnamese Perspective,” Journal of Asian Mission 16, no. 2  (2015).

[6] See Hans Küng and Julia Ching, Christianity and Chinese Religions. (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 109.

[7] Ching argues that the notion of a personal deity (Heaven) has survived up to the 20th century through an official cult offered to Heaven and through the popular belief in a Heavenly Ruler.

[8] See Xinzhong Yao, An Introduction to Confucianism. (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 26.

[9] The Doctrine of the Mean, XX, 8, cited in Peter C. Phan, Christianity with an Asian Face: Asian American Theology in the Making. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003), 132. The relationships and the corresponding virtures are listed more fully: “The duties of universal obligation are five, and the virtues wherewith they are practiced are three. The duties are those between sovereign and minister, between father and son, between husband and wife, between elder brother and younger, and those belonging to the intercourse of friends. Those five are the duties of universal obligation. Knowledge, magnanimity, and energy, these three, are the virtues universally binding. And the means by which they carry the duties into practice is singleness.”

[10] See Yao, An Introduction to Confucianism, 26. Later the great Neo-Confucian, Chu Hsi, achieved a philosophical synthesis of the speculative thought which blossomed forth during the tenth and eleventh centuries. He did not hesitate to borrow selectively from Buddhist ideas and vocabulary, in his reintepretation of Confucian teachings, bringing to light a transformed view of the world and of man. See, Julia Ching, Confucianism and Christianity: A Comparative Study. (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1977), 128-40.