I wrote a piece earlier (here) about how the term “bản sắc” is often translated as “identity” but that the way the term is used by Vietnamese has the opposite meaning, in many respects, of the term “identity” in English.

Today I came across an article on the web page for Báo mới on “bản sắc văn hóa Việt Nam” or “Vietnamese cultural identity.” In this post here, rather than talk more about the term “bản sắc,” I want to compare how “cultural identity” is discussed in this article with the way in which it is discussed in the West today.

The article [“Bản sắc văn hóa Việt Nam trong tình hình mới”] begins as follows:

Cultural identity is not born by accident, but is formed, affirmed and developed as a product of the economic and geographical environment, of the process of establishing and preserving the country, and of the process of creating “internal” cultural values that are combined with the selective reception of “external” cultural essences.

Cultural identity is closely connected to the fundamental and core values of a people (dân tộc) and is expressed in daily life. In order to possess the sacred values to create a cultural identity, the people (dân tộc) must shed their sweat and blood in order to do so.

Building and protecting cultural identity is an objective requirement of every people (dân tộc) when they enter the community of human culture.

Bản sắc văn hóa không ra đời một cách ngẫu nhiên mà hình thành, khẳng định và phát triển như sản phẩm của hoàn cảnh kinh tế, địa lý, của quá trình dựng nước và giữ nước, của quá trình sáng tạo những giá trị văn hóa “nội sinh” kết hợp với tiếp thu có chọn lọc những tinh hoa văn hóa “ngoại sinh”. Bản sắc văn hóa vừa gắn với các giá trị cơ bản, cốt lõi của một dân tộc, vừa biểu thị trong sinh hoạt hằng ngày. Để có những giá trị thiêng liêng tạo nên bản sắc văn hóa, dân tộc phải đổ mồ hôi và đổ cả máu mới có được.

Xây dựng, bảo vệ bản sắc văn hóa là yêu cầu khách quan của mọi dân tộc khi gia nhập vào cộng đồng văn hóa nhân loại.

OK, now let’s take a look at what British professors Neil C. Campbell and Alasdair Kean wrote in their 1997 book, American Cultural Studies: An Introduction to American Culture (London: Routledge, 1997, paperback ed., 1998).

The first chapter of the book is on “American Culture and Identity” (note that it does not say “American cultural identity”). This is how it begins:

Stuart Hall has written that cultural identity is not a “fixed essence. . . lying unchanged outside history and culture,” and is “not [a] once-and-for-all. . . to which we can make some final and absolute Return.” It is “constructed through memory, fantasy, narrative and myth. . . made within the discourse of history and culture” and hence cannot be simply defined or “recovered” like some lost, true being.

To grapple with the idea of cultural identity, therefore, is to examine the lines and discourses of its construction and to recognize the existence within it of many meanings.

. . . America is a place where different identities mix and collide, an assemblage, a multiplicity, constantly producing and reproducing new selves and transforming old ones and, therefore, cannot claim to possess a single, closed identity with a single set of values.

Some Americans, however, prefer the notion of identity to be hegemonic, fixed and clearly surrounded by distinct boundaries and definitions. For example, some would care to think of white, male and heterosexual as the stand measure of “American-ness,” with a deep respect for the flag and strong sense of regional identity, say, to the South or to Louisiana or Boston.

However, these are ideological positions that are not shared or representative of the nation as a whole; indeed, no set of beliefs or values can be, and this is precisely the point.

Instead, America has to interpreted or “read” as a complex, multifaceted text, like a novel or film with a rich array of different characters and events, within which exist many voices telling various and different stories.

And as with any such text, there are internal tensions, dramas and contradictions which contribute, indeed constitute what might be called its identity.

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These two writings could not be more different. The Báo mới article is talking about precisely what Campbell and Kean say cultural identity is NOT.

Campbell and Kean say that no set of beliefs or values can be representative of the nation as a whole. The Báo mới article states that the people of a nation (dân tộc) have to “shed their sweat and blood” in order “to possess the sacred values to create a cultural identity.”

Campbell and Kean say that a cultural identity consists of “internal tensions, dramas and contradictions.” The Báo mới article does not mention any such things.

In other words, the Báo mới article is not talking about what in the West is thought of as “cultural identity,” but about what Campbell and Kean call an “ideological position,” that is, “a single, closed identity with a single set of values” that is promoted by a certain group within a given society.