Book Thoughts: The Red Earth: A Vietnamese Memoir of Life on a Colonial Rubber Plantation

The Red Earth: A Vietnamese Memoir of Life on a Colonial Rubber Plantation was a 1985 translation of Tran Tu Binh’s 1964 memoir of his early days leading to his joining the Communist party in Vietnam. It was translated by John Spragens and edited by David G. Marr. I had to read this book for an Asian History college class. The story took place from around 1926 to 1930 in Binh’s early adulthood. It was kind of a coming of age story for him. His parents sent him to the local seminary, but he argued so much with the priest director that he was eventually expelled. He then took odd jobs teaching religion based on what he learned in the seminary; Vietnam had a large Catholic population at the time from many years of Catholic missions.

During his work he happened upon a member of the communist party. This man was very charismatic and loving. Binh felt so comfortable with him, he couldn’t help but believe everything he said. The man told him he need to “proletarianize” himself, that is, reduce himself down to the common working man. In the communist system, everyone had to be equal. No one could be above anyone else. The man had to leave before he could give any instructions, so Binh had to decide how to proletarianize himself. His conclusion was to join the poor working the rubber plantations in the south.

Binh then described the horrible conditions and treatment of the working people at the plantations and how the communist party slowly infiltrated them. He eventually became one of the leaders on the plantation and led many efforts to improve the situation for the workers. He as well as many other leaders were eventually arrested, convicted, and jailed. Much later, the communist party did win out, and Binh became a prominent leader in the party.

Even though I had to read this book for school, I actually found it to be a very interesting book. Most school books talk about the subject from such a high level, students don’t really know what the people went through, but this book told pretty much everything. Of course, I don’t agree with communism. It requires the people to believe completely and totally in communism. Absolutely loyalty and belief in their state becomes their religion. They cannot believe in any other religion or power like God. However, I could see how Tran Tu Binh came to believe in communism because of the struggles in his life.

At the seminary Binh was exposed to one of the the worst priests imaginable. I have no doubt that what Binh described was accurate. This priest lived like a king. He had a huge house, expensive clothes, and worst of all, lots of women. Binh said the priest went to bed with many different woman every night. If I was his age and saw a priest acting in these ways, I might have also abandoned the faith. This priest was a total hypocrite. It’s no surprise that Binh fought with him and got kicked out.

The problem here is that the priest may have been a grave sinner, but Catholicism itself was still good and true. It takes a long time to understand it — I still don’t fully understand it — but eventually I saw that everything taught in the Catholic faith is for the good of the people. Strong Catholics are happy people. They are able to ignore their present conditions and focus on their salvation in heaven. A strong Catholic faith brings absolute peace. But Tran Tu Binh could never get that far because of the bad influence of that priest.

In the rubber plantation, Binh was then exposed to some of the worst capitalists imaginable. Much like early United States, the French saw the Vietnamese as totally inferior. They did not consider them humans but animals. In their mind, this gave them permission to do whatever they wanted with them. They were purely property. They only made changes if the workers found a way to threaten the bottom line. Communism would have been a savior to these people. Here was a system that in theory had no corruption and no poverty. Everyone was equally entitled to the wealth of the country.

Again, Tran Tu Binh was not able to see the good side of capitalism. In a true capitalistic society, freedom rules. The people have the choice to work for others or start their own business. They also have the choice to elect who they want to represent them in government. Just like Catholicism at its core is good. Capitalism at its core is also good. It’s what the people do with it that makes it good or bad. The French colonists made it bad, but in America it’s been mostly good. In short, true wisdom is being able to separate the ideals people have from the actions they perform. The ideals may be very good while the person is doing a poor job of living them out. Communism suffers from this also.

Aside from communism’s requirement that religion be removed, the ideals really aren’t that bad. Who doesn’t want a society where everyone is equal? That’s what heaven is. God will be above us all, but all humans in heaven will be equal. All our basic needs will be met, and we won’t care about anything else. The problem is communism can only work in heaven. In this sinful world, there are too many people that will take advantage of the situation. At the top, are the party leaders that become dictators and live a rich life above the common man. At the bottom, are the slothful workers who do the absolute minimum, knowing they still get all the benefits of the hard workers. Capitalism has its fair share of problems, but it works better in the fallen world we live in. I wish Binh had been able to see this.

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