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Girl with Lotus and M-16: The ambiguous lineage of Vietnamese revolutionary visual communication

Swinbank, John MichaelORCID: 0000-0002-9966-8910 (2019) Girl with Lotus and M-16: The ambiguous lineage of Vietnamese revolutionary visual communication. Masters by Research thesis, Murdoch University.

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Even before the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was proclaimed and declared independent of France in 1945, the Việt Minh, the revolutionary organisation under the charismatic leadership of Hồ Chí Minh, began recruiting French-trained Vietnamese visual artists to produce visual communication materials, comprising posters, banners, billboards, murals, and other visual emblems of government.

The political and military strategies of the Vietnam wars are the stuff of legend and subject to a vast literature and endless debate. However, the political messages produced by the DRV to mobilise popular support for independence and a prolonged ‘people’s war’ against the superior military might of two world powers, France and the United States of America (USA), remain in the shadows, undervalued as shrill ideological artefacts or amusing kitsch souvenirs of communist propaganda.

In this thesis, I argue that DRV propaganda was a communist enterprise that drew on an amalgam of communist Sino-Soviet Marxist-Leninist styles, and a melange of other cultural influences, including Vietnamese literary traditions and French visual innovations. This ‘polyglot’ combination produced a vigorous cultural hybrid that was able to rise above party rhetoric and ‘speak’ to all Vietnamese in a ‘language’ they could understand.

I contend that the efficacy of DRV propaganda was enabled, inadvertently, by colonial cultural reforms in literacy and visual arts as part of the French civilising mission, which sought to promote colonial rule to the Vietnamese and French populations. Contrary to design, these cultural reforms produced startling consequences for the Vietnamese revolutionary project, including a national writing system, and, an expert cohort of artists, trained in the aesthetics and techniques of visual communication.

This thesis explores the cultural origins of DRV propaganda by considering the effects of those cultural reforms as vectors for Vietnamese nationalism, and, the motivations of the French colonial enterprise that propelled them. That cultural reform used as propaganda had unintended and perverse consequences for France’s imperial project is an enduring dialectical irony that Karl Marx himself might have found intriguing.

Item Type: Thesis (Masters by Research)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): College of Arts, Business, Law and Social Sciences
Supervisor(s): Lee, Terence and Trees, Kathryn
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