Fishers, Monks and Cadres

Navigating State, Religion and the South China Sea in Central Vietnam

Edyta Roszko

  • Published: 2020
  • Pages: 288 pp.
  • 5 maps and 6 illustrations (all B&W)
  • Series: NIAS Monographs
  • Series number: 151
Hardback available worldwide in Fall 2020. Paperback available in February 2021.
ISBN Hardback: 978-87-7694-286-1, £65.00 (October 2020)
ISBN Paperback: 978-87-7694-287-8, £22.50 (March 2021)
ISBN EBook: Ebook, £18 (March 2022)

About the book

Fishers, Monks and Cadres is a significant new work. Its vivid portrait of local beliefs and practices makes a powerful argument for looking beyond monolithic religious traditions. Its triadic analysis and subtle use of binaries offer startlingly fresh ways to view Vietnamese society and local political power. The book demonstrates Vietnam is more than urban and agrarian society in the Red River Basin and Mekong Delta. Finally, the author builds on intensive, long-term research to portray a region at the forefront of geopolitical struggle, offering insights that will be fascinating and revealing to a much broader readership. 

About the author

Edyta Roszko holding a copy of her book

Edyta Roszko is a social anthropologist and senior researcher at Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI) in Norway. For over fifteenth years, she has undertaken ethnographic research on Chinese and Vietnamese fisheries and militia in the common maritime space of the South China Sea. Connectivity of fishers compelled her to historicize fishing communities and to work beyond the nation-state and area studies framework. Her newly awarded European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant project TransOcean at CMI expands her geographic field beyond Vietnam and China to include other global regions in Oceania and in West and East Africa. 

Go to author page


by Ken MacLean, Clark University
From journal: Journal of Vietnamese Studies,
Winds, currents, and reefs make it impossible to navigate the seas in a straight line. Vessels must instead tack back and forth, taking these forces and obstacles into account to reach their destinations. Edyta Roszko, in her engaging book, details how fishers, monks, and cadres do the same along the western edges of the Eastern Sea—an area more commonly known as the South China Sea to non-Vietnamese speakers. The study, the product of multi-sited research based on years of fieldwork, is notable for many reasons. But perhaps most broadly, Roszko success- fully decenters the academic literature on Vietnam, which is heavily tilted toward either its northern or southern regions due to the research ques- tions historically posed. In doing so, Roszko rightly points to the impor- tance of the maritime in the making and remaking of the country over time. To ground her analysis, Roszko interweaves historical materials with ethnographic ones, with a focus on one coastal village (Sa Huỳnh) and another village on nearby Lý Sơn Island. Despite their proximity, Roszko illustrates how each locale is, to varying degrees, both connected and dis- connected from state power. These dynamics, Roszko argues, are most clearly evident when conceptualized in triadic terms, which she defines as the shifting relationship between three domains: village life, religious belief and practice, and the administrative power of state authority. These shifting relationships, as each of the chapters demonstrates, generates “pluralities” rather than binaries, as the multiple agendas in play defy reduction to either-or outcomes. To support her argument, Roszko employs three concepts: “semiotic ideology,” “purification,” and “indiscipline.” The first concept refers to symbolic meanings as mobilized by different actors both within and across different semiotic systems. The second concept concerns the tensions between orthodoxy, on the one hand, and heterodoxy, on the other hand. The tensions are most apparent in the religious sphere, though efforts to promote “purity” and resistance to it are also present in other contexts. The final concept, “indiscipline,” encapsulates the ways in which state and non- state actors, typically ones who hold subordinate positions in relation to those wielding power, strategically appropriate concepts and practices to create spaces to achieve their goals. In terms of overall structure, the first chapter describes how the inha- bitants of her two field sites narrate their histories, geographies, and mo- bilities. The next three chapters, summarized below, are thematically organized in ways that highlight the triadic relationship of collaboration and confrontation that Roszko employs as her analytical frame. The final case study foregrounds an issue that runs through each of the chapters, but warrants focused discussion of its own—namely, women and how they differently engage with political, economic, and symbolic shifts in the gen- dered relations among fishers, monks, and cadres. More specifically, chapter 2, which concerns itself with religion, provides a summary of the socialist state’s efforts to eradicate “superstition”—to “purify” practice in a manner that placed “official” Buddhism under gov- ernment control—and the state’s later rehabilitation of some village-level spiritual traditions. The historical arc of the chapter highlights how suc- cessive efforts to cleanly delineate politics from religion, science from superstition, and orthodoxy from heterodoxy have never been fully suc- cessful. Instead, “fuzziness,” as Roszko describes it, has been a defining feature of these contestations, a point that challenges the longstanding academic tradition of either top-down or bottom-up analyses of power in Vietnam. Chapter 3 continues this exploration of “fuzziness” by examining how fishers and farmers are linked in ways that again upend hierarchical arguments that subordinate life on “the sea” to life on “the land,” with the latter traditionally representing what it means to be authentically Vietnamese. Central to her discussion are the multifaceted ways in which identity and territoriality combine and recombine over time due to the interdependencies between mainlanders (farmers and craftsmen) and seafarers (fishers). Chapter 4 again returns the discussion to religion, but this time through the concept of “indiscipline.” As was the case in the previous chapters, Roszko emphasizes the ways people strategically mobilize elements of the binaries rendered “fuzzy” in chapter  so as to enlarge the space for them to pursue their interests both in and around existing constraints. Commemorative politics are the focus of chapter , with an analysis of the ways the disputes over ownership of the Paracel and Spratly Archipel- agoes have reconfigured Vietnam’s geo-body to more centrally include its maritime territory. While popular protests and diplomatic wrangling between Vietnam and China have dominated the press, Roszko directs attention to the ways that local beliefs about the nation and lineage, as well as ancestors and ghosts, are harnessed by the government to advance its interests, as the residents of her two field sites simultaneously seek to do the same. The resulting reconstructions of the past, and thus the terms of the present, once again illustrate the agency of local actors. The final case study on gender similarly provides a historical overview of women’s “identity” as refracted through patriarchal practices and state symbols. Roszko’s key insight here concerns the multiple ways in which some women have crafted ritual practices in a manner that permits them to become “authentic” bearers of religious authority. The author convincingly demonstrates how the triadic relationships disrupt the binaries that structure relationships among fishers and farmers, laypeople and monks, people and cadres, as well as men and women. Less clear is how these binaries powerfully reassert themselves in the face of such continual disruption. Both Carolyn Nordstrom’s “Shadows and Sovereigns” (Theory, Culture, & Society, : –) and Timothy Mitchell’s “Every- day Metaphors of Power” (Theory and Society, : –) offer useful ways to rethink the process of reconstitution against which fishers, monks, and cadres “navigate” their lives. This minor criticism aside, Roszko provides us with a valuable contribution to the history and ethnography of one small part of Vietnam. In doing so, she opens up the space for future comparative studies, not just of Vietnamese coastal communities elsewhere, but of the Southeast Asian littoral more generally.
by Seb Rumsby
From journal: South East Asia Research
The book’s greatest strength is its detailed, sensitive empirical recording of everyday politics and contours of religious change, demonstrating Roszko’s fluency in Vietnamese and depth of fieldwork immersion.
From journal: The Journal of Asian Studies
Roszko’s adroit weaving of these stories makes Fishers, Monks and Cadres a vibrant new work of Vietnamese anthropology as well as an eminently readable maritime ethnography. As the South China Sea becomes even more important geopolitically, works like Roszko’s Fishers, Monks and Cadres will help scholars understand the roles of local fisherfolk communities in determining their own lifestyles.
by Nguyen Khac Giang
From journal: Contemporary Southeast Asia
The book will be an important reference for future research on the relationship between the state, religion and society in Vietnam – and, hopefully, a starting point for more human-centred studies on the South China Sea dispute.
by Bill Hayton, author of 'The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Modern Asia'
From journal: NA
‘Roszko’s excellent analysis of state-society dynamics in contemporary Vietnam reflects her many years of living in, and studying, these communities’
by Erik Harms, Yale University
From journal: NA
‘A detailed and painstakingly researched ethnography from coastal central Vietnam’
by Minh Chau Lam
From journal: Journal of Contemporary Asia
Edyta Roszko’s book is perhaps the first that examines such complex and tension-laden relation as experienced, mediated, challenged and tactically manoeuvred around by a rarely documented protagonist: fishers. This book is a rich and engaging ethnography of two fishing communities in central Vietnam, who have been steering a challenging but creative course in a triadic relationship with the state and religious authorities.