For the next 6 months I will be based at Hanoi, Vietnam. I will be capturing some of my experiences and reflections here in an occasional blogseries titled "An Indian in Indochina"
All modern nation-states require to construct a sense of identity and shared consciousness (of course, in a deeper sense, isn't all identity constructed?). Myth making, a historical revisionism and revivalism of a glorious past etc. are common ways that elites use to construct such a sense of national identity among the larger population.
In much of East Asia, the construction of national identity has also been animated by an impulse to resist the overwhelming and homogenizing influence of the historical hegemon of the region- China.
China looms large in the consciousness of the Vietnamese sense of identity. Nationalist myths, not only in modern Vietnam, but in their history over thousand years, involve stories of men and women standing up to Chinese imperialism. (read this fascinating story of a sisterhood of women generals defeating the Chinese http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trung_Sisters )
The Vietnamese self-perception is of a hardy and proud people, spiritedly resisting the rapacious and brutal Chinese forces, relentlessly seeking to pummel them into submission.
Much of this is based on reality. In his deeply perceptive book- "When China Rules the World", Martin Jacques wrote about how China is not a conventional nation-state, but has a character of a "tributary state". A tributary state is an imperial power, which perceives itself to be a rightful hegemon, but which is content to allow local rulers to wield administrative power as long as they acknowledge its supremacy. In ancient China, the neighbors- Korea, Japan, Vietnam etc. used to explicitly acknowledge this by paying tribute to the Chinese emperor.
In many ways, this attitude seems to shape the conduct of Chinese foreign policy towards its neighbors even today. Indeed, Chinese accounts of the latest maritime disputes is bewilderment about the pesky tributaries not willingly accepting their status as inferior appendages of China, and having the temerity to stand-up to china instead.
The fascinating thing is that though the national identity in East Asian countries is constructed in opposition to China, there is an implicit and un-self conscious acknowledgement of the centrality of China to defining their sense of self.
Look no further than nomenclature for this. The Chinese name for China- "Zhongguo" - immodestly means "Center of the world". What is fascinating is that even the Japanese name for China- "Chuka Minkoku" also means "Center of the world" ! It's almost like the Japanese acknowledge the centrality of China. Similarly the Vietnamese also define themselves in relation to China- indeed the name Vietnam itself means "the south Viet" or "the land of Viets in the south", thus defining themselves in relation to their larger and more powerful neighbor.
It is this curious dualism that is fascinating- the influence of China on culture and identity is undeniable, but its "soft power" is outweighed by its malign and arrogant "hard power".
The most pithy quote to illustrate the modern Vietnamese identity toward China: In a conversation with a Vietnamese colleague I asked him if there was any residual anti-American feeling due to the Vietnam war. He replied "Now, we see the US as a potential ally. After all, we fought the US only for 20 years, and the French for only 200 years, but we have been resisting China for over 2000 years"!