A look at steadfastness, creativity, and development from the perspective of the “Outline of Vietnamese Culture”

Central Council for the Theory and Criticism of Literature and the Arts
Tuesday, May 7, 2024 08:09

Communist Review - “The Outline of Vietnamese Culture" is a historically significant document, marking a turning point in the revolutionary cause of the Communist Party of Vietnam and the Vietnamese people during the 1943-1945 period. It is also an inaugural work, laying a solid and accurate foundation for the entire process of  cultural theory development in Vietnam. After 80 years, many inherited arguments in the Outline have been adjusted, supplemented, and developed to adapt to the new context.

Comrade Truong Chinh attends a gathering marking the 20th anniversary of Vietnam’s film industry in 1973 _Photo: VNA

1. Many scholars have unanimously acknowledged that the 1943 "Outline of Vietnamese Culture" (the "Outline") created a solid foundation,  paving the way for the process of building cultural theory in Vietnam. The "Outline" served as the first platform and strategy for the country’s cultural identity in the modern era because the key points in the document have become the political and cultural principles and orientations for the building of a new culture in Vietnam. The evolution of Vietnam's cultural doctrine over the past 80 years shows that these verifiably correct theories are the result of the dialectical combination between the steadfast holding to the fundamental principles and orientations in the "Outline" in concert with creativity in perfecting these theories. At certain stages, the separation of these two elements led to a conservative, mechanical, or deviating state in the development process. This is one of the valuable theoretical and practical lessons drawn over the past 80 years and it will continue to have  significant implications for the new era with many rapid, complex developments domestically and internationally, including with regard to culture.

2. Though the "Outline" did not cover all cultural issues in Vietnam up until  1943, it did define fundamental political and cultural perspectives, laying the theoretical foundation for Vietnam to embark on a challenging and long-term path: reforming the old culture and building a new one. As a result, the Party’s directions and viewpoints on culture and the arts to date have steadfastly adhered to the core principles put forth in the "Outline."

First, the "Outline" asserted that culture is one the three fronts (alongside economics and politics) in the revolutionary cause of the Vietnamese people. This idea has been part and parcel of the Party’s core viewpoints on culture since 1943. President Ho Chi Minh emphasized that culture and the arts are a front and artists are the soldiers assigned with specific tasks aiming to serve the resistance war, the Homeland, and the people. Culture has indeed become not only a spiritual weapon and  special power during the resistance war against foreign invaders to safeguard and reunite the country, but also an urgent requirement in the present time, when cultural development has yet to be on a par with  political and economic development, and when alarming signs of cultural degradation in some areas have emerged, affecting sustainable national  development.

Second, the "Outline" said that the cultural front is what "communists must work on" (1). "Only when the Party leads the cultural movement can it influence the public and its communication become effective" (2). This is a lesson about the Party's leadership regarding culture. Persistence with this lesson demonstrates the Party's mettle and vision, especially as cultural development becomes increasingly diverse and complex, requiring the Party to elevate itself to a new level to maintain its leadership in cultural matters. The ultimate purpose of the "Outline" is to promote the strength and advantages of culture so as to improve the effectiveness of the Party's revolutionary communication, thereby rallying outstanding cultural workers to the revolution led by the Party. The Party's unwavering leadership is an objective requirement of the revolutionary cause and, at the same time, a challenge for the Party. Over the past 80 years, the Communist Party of Vietnam has fulfilled that mission.

Third, the "Outline" emphasized three principles of the new cultural movement: "nationalization, popularization, and scientifization" (3). Since the 1945 August Revolution, these principles have gradually become three characteristics and values of Vietnamese culture, creating a profound change in the new culture. During the resistance war against the French colonialists, the three principles were modified as "nation, reality, and people," but the core ideas of the "Outline" regarding the three fundamental characteristics of the Vietnamese revolutionary culture have continued to serve as the guiding light for cultural development. Along with cultural exchange, acculturation, and international cultural integration, the national character of modern Vietnamese culture has been an increasing focal point, creating an identity for national culture.

Fourth, the "Outline" puts forth a crucial viewpoint, which affirms the universal law for the entire revolutionary cause: "Social reform is incomplete until the cultural revolution is completed" (4). This strong statement teaches a profound lesson that completing the political revolution, gaining and maintaining power and national independence, or only focusing on economic growth do not ensure sustainable national development. Post-revolution social reform and economic development require a sharp mindset. Only by simultaneously completing the political, economic, and cultural revolutions, which the "Outline" calls the "three fronts," can social reform and building be accomplished. The fundamental content of the "Outline" originates from this foundational viewpoint, and its philosophy is built on the dialectical handling of the relationships between these three fronts. Any bias in treating these fronts will lead to unfavorable conditions for development or could result in social deviation, conflict, and crisis. Staying steadfast to this viewpoint has been and will continue to be a major challenge for Vietnam today and in the years to come.

3. Steadfastness does not mean rigidity, much less a mechanical, stereotyped, or dogmatic approach. Reality requires new theories to supplement and develop the "pioneering" theories. Building on the original, core principles in the "Outline", the Party has demonstrated the dialectical balance between steadfastness and creativity in cultural development over the past 80 years.

First, the scope and content of culture: 

In the “Outline”, the Party described culture as comprised of three fields: "ideology, academics, and art" (5). This definition represents only the most important components of culture. In the Resolution of the 5th plenum of the 8th Party Central Committee in 1998 on "Building and developing an advanced Vietnamese culture imbued with national identity," the definition of culture, for the first time, encompassed eight areas: ideology, morality, lifestyle, and cultural life; literature and art; the cultural environment; education-training and science-technology; mass media; preservation and promotion of cultural heritages and the culture of ethnic minorities; the expansion of international cooperation in culture; and the completion of cultural institutions. Compared to the "Outline," it is evident that there is a legacy and evolution in the Party’s theoretical thinking on culture. The three principles in the "Outline" are maintained while the content of culture has become more comprehensive and inclusive. The new approach requires the Party to improve its leadership of cultural development and enhance its ability to unleash the synergy of various cultural areas and forms and to spread the influence of culture to other areas of social life.

Second, the position and role of culture:

Stemming from the demands of the revolutionary movement and the struggle for national liberation, the "Outline" asserted that culture is a front. This ideology continued to be upheld during the 30 years of national resistance against the French colonialists and US imperialists. Culture and the arts truly became an effective spiritual weapon deployed in the struggle, contributing to the overall victory of the nation. The “artist-soldier” title became a source of pride for the cultural and artistic community. The principles and perspectives of the "Outline" have been maintained during the renewal period, proving the Party’s steadfastness and prudence in the face of multidirectional and complex impacts of "new theories" and new perspectives. However, the current perception of culture is broader and more comprehensive.

Culture is a vital necessity, reflecting the overall development of a nation and an era. It creates cultural values that enrich human life. Culture is part of the entire history of humanity. The Resolution of the 5th plenum of the 8th Party Central Committee emphasized that culture is the spiritual foundation of society and constitutes a goal and a driving force for  national sustainable development. This spirit serves as the foundation to develop the economy in order to realize cultural goals for an equal and civilized society and comprehensive human development. Since the Party embarked on the renewal process, it has placed a special emphasis on the relationship between culture and development, taking culture as the central and most important internal resource for development.

Third, renewed perception on the fundamental characteristics of the new culture

The "Outline" underlined that "Vietnamese culture is characterized by the national character as its form and new democracy as its content"(6). In terms of content, there was an emerging requirement for "new democracy," which means the feudal and colonial culture must be replaced by a new democratic culture – a growing trend in global culture during that period. In terms of form, the national character not only represents the form of culture as specified by the "Outline", but it also permeates the content of culture in its entirety.

At the 3rd National Party Congress in 1960, this viewpoint was developed into a new art and literature approach, featuring socialist content and national character to clarify the overall characteristics of Vietnamese culture, as the country chose socialist goals and ideals for its development path. The term "new democracy as its content" was replaced by "socialist content," reaffirming the new goals and ideals pursued by the new regime which was being established. The term "national character as its firm form" was replaced by "national character," meaning the national character now encompassed both the content and form of culture. This is an important and necessary adjustment in the perspective on culture.

Resolution 05-NQ/TW of the 6th Politburo, dated November 28, 1987, on "Renewing and improving leadership and management of literature, arts, and culture, and promoting creativity to elevate literature, arts, and culture to a new level of development," marked a fundamental change: building a socialist culture imbued with national identity. The term "socialist content" was replaced by a broader concept of "socialist culture," which demonstrates the overall goals and characteristics of the entire culture of Vietnam. The term "national character" was modified to "imbued with  national identity" to underscore the need for the national character in contemporary Vietnamese culture.

In the 1991 platform on national construction during the traditional period to socialism, the term "socialist culture" mentioned in Resolution 05-NQ/TW was replaced by "an advanced culture," while the term "imbued with national identity" was maintained. This indicates that the building of a rich and diverse Vietnamese culture requires not only the core foundation of national independence and socialism, but also the democratic, humane, and progressive values of national and world cultures. Thus, the "advanced" nature of culture is a supplement to enrich the socialist culture. The terms  "new democracy," "socialist content," "socialist culture," "national form," and "national character,", have been replaced after nearly 50 years by the new viewpoint of "advanced; imbued with national identity," whose content has been clarified in the resolution of the 5th plenum of the 8th Party Central Committee and subsequent resolutions. The development of Vietnamese culture since the 1943 “Outline” is closely linked to the development of the Party’s theoretical thinking on culture and is the result of a scientific and creative synthesis of practical experience. It is the scientific inheritance of the "Outline" and following documents.

Fourth, methods of art and literature creation

The "Outline" identified the task of "making the trend of socialist realism prevail" to fight against trending literature and art genres during the 1930s and 1940s such as classicalism, romanticism, nationalism and symbolism(7). Based on the perspective established in the "Outline" and other documents adopted in the subsequent years, especially during the resistance wars against the French colonialists and US imperialists, art and literature creation in Vietnam was dominated by the socialist realism method. Achievements in literature and the arts during this period affirmed the correctness of this direction. Notably, they provided a significant spiritual capacity to encourage the people to aspire to their lofty ideals. However, the complex and multidimensional evolution of society prompted a new mindset encompassing two important aspects. First, new forms of expression and new artistic styles are encouraged to meet the healthy and diverse spiritual needs of the public. Second, freedom in creation provides  conditions for creating genuine cultural and artistic values and fostering talent. The supplementation and development, as mentioned above, are specific and typical evidence of the correct and dialectical handling of the relationship between steadfastness, creativity, and development in the field of culture.

After 80 years, it can be concluded that the 1943 "Outline of Vietnamese Culture" served as the Party’s first brief platform on culture. Its historical values and implications remain relevant today, as we face numerous challenges and requirements that demand steadfastness, tradition, and creativity for development in all fields of the revolutionary cause in the new era, including culture. Correctly understanding and effectively addressing this issue will contribute to achieving the goal of building an advanced Vietnamese culture imbued with national identity and promoting sustainable national development.


(1), (2), (3) Complete Party documents, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2000, Vol. 7, pp. 316, 319
(4), (5) Ibid., Vol. 7, pp. 318, 316
(6) Ibid., Vol. 7, p. 320
(7) Ibid., Vol. 7, p. 320

This article was published in the Communist Review No. 1012 (April 2023)