A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

#FuckCommunism: Embodied Rhetoric and Vietnamese Transnational Digital Practices

Linh Dich, Miami University

(Published December 18, 2018)

We tend to think of transnationalism as marked by movement—movement of bodies, goods, ideas, and culture—and the regulatory apparatuses that attempt to discipline such movements across and between borders. As Kate Vieira and Eileen Lagman point out, literacy is a key mode of regulation that controls such movement. For example, Lagman examines how affect literacy disciplines Filipinx migrant care workers and their service in various countries. Lagman interrogates how the state associates domestic labor with heroism and nationalism to deflect social anxiety surrounding domestic labor (1-3). However, literacy also has the potential to empower, subvert, and disrupt when migrants and immigrants use their gained literacies in critical, unexpected ways. As such, Vieira and Lagman approach literacy “as a tool (though not a neutral one) that has particular potentials to be put to certain use” (Vieira 27). Vieira extends this definition by adding that literacy can be seen “as a navigational technology that opens up some paths and closes off others, that orients and disorients, that routes and often reroutes” (27). Viewing literacy as movement is helpful for studying transnationalism because this framing allows scholars to consider how the circulation of literacy informs everyday practices. Rebecca Lorimer Leonard, Kate Vieira, and Morris Young note that the “transnational is a way of looking at literacy,” but we can think about this from another angle and consider the mapping of literacy as a useful model for tracing rhetorical performances. That is, as literacy circulates, so too do rhetorical performances that are tied to the author’s body. In this way, we can see that bodies, through rhetorical performances and representations, can travel beyond their nation-states and take hold in other people’s imagination, particularly within the context of the digital in which literacy functions not only as a navigational tool but also generates the very circulation that creates transnational relationships among and between nation-states. Tracing such rhetorical performances helps us examine the ways that embodied rhetoric can emerge from a United States context and impact a country like Vietnam and vice versa.

As Lagman argues, not only does the circulation of Filipinx bodies as care workers impact how they see themselves in relation to the world, but such circulation also impacts how people in Western nations come to associate and naturalize service work with Filipinxs. Hence, Lagman’s example illustrates a clear relationship between bodies and literacy: how literacy frames (and at times controls) the body and how the body works in excess of literacy. Bodies, then, through the circulation of representation, can condition the ways people (Non-western and Western) see the world. Another way to put this: bodies compel the sight; bodies seek attention in specific ways. In reading bodies into transnational work, scholars can examine the use of bodily representations for maintaining, engaging, or resisting the very circulation of literacies and their systems of power. Here, Lorimer Leonard’s theory of moving literacies can be used to extend previous work on embodied rhetoric:

Writers move fluidly when their values agree with those of others; writers’ movement is fixed when their and others’ values are mismatched; and writers experience friction when their values simultaneously do and don’t correspond to those of others . . . literacies are revalued because they move. (4)

Lorimer Leonard’s theory can be applied to embodied rhetoric because of how such performances index a system of values that shape and inform a body’s digital and representational movement across borders. Bodies can be held, for instance, at an airport for signifying Muslim and therefore signaling a potential terrorist threat. Bodies, too, can be revalued and reread as they move between dominant spheres and marginal enclaves, depending on what or who they perform and signify.

Because bodies can create friction when their signified values “do and don’t correspond to those of others,” examining bodies can uncover the ways that bodies can be deployed as rhetoric. Furthermore, tending to the body implicates ways of seeing with ways of knowing, as mediated by digital technologies. For example, Niekrenz et al. notes that “the photographed and then virtually shared bodies take up specific postures, make use of facial expressions, and do so at a certain place to deliver a sense of shared presence and make it possible for others to witness and track where, who, and how they are” (95). Even the ordinary practice of selfies depends on a particular access to technology and global hierarchy: who can or can’t take and post selfies? Who gets to use different countries and “exotic” lands as their backdrop? For Wendy Hesford, questions of digital representation inextricably relate to human rights:

The history of human rights can be told as a history of selective and differential visibility, which has positioned certain bodies, populations, and nations as objects of recognition and granted others the power and means to look and to confer recognition. As this history suggests, struggles for recognition are also struggles for visibility. (30, my emphasis)

Digital technologies and representations afford visibility not just for emerging global youth but also for populations that may not have had previous ways of being seen within their own countries and/or on a global scale. However, one can be seen but not recognized. To be recognized, through seflie practices or public protests for basic human rights, requires employing one’s body in ways that can navigate structures of power. Thus, embodied rhetoric, as part of digital literacy, can function as an orientating technology within nation-states and for shaping transnational contexts.

In this article I unpack the relationship between circulating literacies and embodied rhetoric (the strategic deployment of the body as text), specifically tending to the ways in which the interplay between these two things helps generate transnational relationships between Vietnam and the United States. In particular, bodies can argue for new identities and social fields that exceed national boundaries, although such bodies may be physically bounded to a nation. In this way, digitally produced bodies can be seen to matter to transnational developments because bodies are fundamental dimensions of global politics—their visibility and invisibility organizes various transnational flows. The employment of visibility and invisibility is particularly significant to Asian/American transnational work because too often Asian bodies are made invisible in political contexts, unless the hypervisibility of Asian bodies are made to serve political ends. Asians and Asian Americans, for instance, are often left out of political narratives, such as the Civil Rights movement, which prevents Asian and Asian Americans from being seen as a generative force for political rhetoric and change. And yet, becoming visible to a Western audience means that the Asian body is framed in ways that are palpable, legible, and external to the dominant imagination of what and who constitutes “America.” For instance, Asian Americans are often asked if they are international students on college campuses in the United States. More so, for Vietnamese people, being seen by a Western audience means being framed by the Vietnam War in ways that typically posit the Vietnamese as enemies of Western values and ideals or, according to Yên Lê Espiritu, as victims of the war—but rarely as complex agents who are negotiating their own relationship to the war or to their own country. Therefore, any Vietnamese person’s project to be seen and recognized on their own terms and by a Western audience is one that must include the body and its relationship to the Vietnam War and the nation. 

Indeed, bodies matter, and this premise caused me to ask, what would compel a person to tattoo “#FuckCommunism” on their body? I initially asked this question after coming across these images on social media sites that were owned by Nah,[1] a twenty-something hip-hop and rap artist from Vietnam, and through digital news outlets that interviewed him. Nah’s digital literacies—self-published music, social media, and writing—were intriguing to me because Nah’s work openly criticized the Vietnamese government for stifling censorship and corruption. Throughout 2015, Nah’s Facebook page regularly posted this #FuckCommunism hashtag as a Twitter hashtag and other visual renditions such as graffiti, apparel, or tattoos. Examining Nah’s digital productions and Vietnamese embodied transnational rhetoric demonstrates how the presence of the body (digital or real) is central in creating movement and meaning both for Nah and among Vietnamese protesters. This article focuses on Nah’s digital productions and how they invite global involvement (particularly from the United States). Specifically, I am interested in how Nah’s embodied rhetoric sutures together different histories—collective memories—that subsequently leverages the transnational relationship between Vietnam and the United States and helps organize protest against the Vietnamese government. 


Nah has been public about risking prison time for publishing his song and letter, but his online fans might not share his sentiments, even if they may have participated on Nah’s social media sites. I draw on Mary Queen and Jennifer Clary-Lemon’s methodologies to help me trace the rhetorical layers constructed by Nah and the collective digital productions that are related to Nah, such as news syndicates that published Nah’s songs and experiences. Queen forwards the methodology of rhetorical genealogy as:

rhetorical analysis that examine multiple processes of structuring representations, rather than seeks to identify the original intentions of final effects of structured (and thus already stabilized) representations. A genealogy investigation works to uncover not only the meaning of meaning, but the structuring of meaning, that is, the cultural practices and theories through which particular representations and interpretations gain validity and power. (476, my emphasis)

In other words, a rhetorical genealogical approach tends to more than just the technology; it investigates the cultural beliefs, norms, and ideologies in the process of making meaning. This approach is useful for examining Nah because it allows me to follow and interrogate how particular symbols and representations are charged with meaning and gain “validity and power” that, in turn, influences others’ rhetorical practices. Yet, it is not just the digital, but the physical field/space Nah embodies that also matters to his digital productions. For example, during his stay in the United States as a college student, Nah makes sweeping contrasts between the US and Vietnamese media, comparing the structure of one country’s freedom for in opposition to another country’s freedom against. In other words, the US’s ubiquitous rhetoric championing freedom for individual rights becomes Nah’s comparative point for Vietnam’s limitations against individuals. This dichotomy, formed by his experiences as a student in the United States, continues to shapes Nah’s rhetoric and how others respond to it.

In addition to Queen, Clary-Lemon’s theory on rhetorical accretion applies a feminist material-methodological heuristic to her own examination of archival work. Such a view overlaps with Queen’s approach, in that both methodologies visualize the constitutive forces, such as literacy acts and contexts have on each other, but Clary-Lemon extends this method by arguing for the accretion process in research. This combined method allows for a more nuanced way of examining digital artifacts because it considers not only fields of influence but also how such fields are networked and cumulative. Also, a feminist research approach is concerned with excavating the absent and invisible, which is appropriate when thinking about embodied rhetoric and how such acts can make recognizable what has been hidden from the public. For me, the combination of Queen and Clary-Lemon’s methods is an approach for making known the layers of rhetorical accretion, as written and hidden on the body, that have been concealed through selection and time.

Clary-Lemon and Queen’s combined, material-approach model focuses on both structures and accretion of meaning, and it can help researchers better understand embodied rhetoric as a configuration of forces informed by multiple histories and memories that are sometimes not one’s own (Hoang 112-114). This approach aligns well with Asian American rhetoric that seeks to understand Vietnamese embodied rhetoric through memory and visual representations of the body because representations and memories, too, are selective and layered pieces of the past. To borrow from Espiritu’s methodology for examining Vietnamese refugees, this study traces the “absent presence” by “[following] the virtual trail” left by Nah so that scholars can better understand how his embodied rhetoric, acquired through his transnational experiences, informs subsequent protest in Vietnam (114-116; see also Prendergast). In fact, Espiritu’s methodology, while focused on refugee studies, parallels Clary-Lemon and Queen methodologies on transnational-digital research. Certainly, these methodologies suggest, at the very least, overlapping interests between the two fields of composition & rhetoric and refugee studies. But more so, the method of bringing together layered and seemingly disparate events allows us to interrogate “the intersection of familial, local, national, international, and transnational dynamics” (Espiritu 21).  For example, scholars may interrogate the ways that Nah’s production simultaneously taps into memories of the Civil Rights movement, but we can also consider how these memories work on Nah so that he channels this history for a new, Vietnamese audience. That is, aspects of the past may find ways to speak through a person regardless of the person’s intentions with authoring a selective history. However, such expressions also carry with them suppressed memories and histories that can inform future rhetorical situations.

Treating the body as the site of layered and interconnected memories also extends on the argument that the body can act as an accreted structure of meaning and representation. Following the body would, then, allow us to examine the attached rhetorical and literacy practices to bodies that move across various borders. This approach is particularly significant for Vietnamese American rhetoric due to Vietnam and America’s historical entanglements. Espiritu writes:

The common reference to the U.S. war in Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War, and the privileging of the “Fall of Saigon” as the official war’s end, semantically locates the war—and all that it connotes—geographically in Vietnam. By confining the war there, the intertwined yet differing political histories and historical trauma of Cambodia and Laos has often disappeared. (187)

By analyzing the body-as-text, the Vietnamese diaspora—the Vietnamese bodies that are dispersed across the globe—challenge the image of Vietnam (or other Southeast Asian countries) as anything but bounded or confined. Embodied Vietnamese rhetoric can make the Vietnamese American transnational history and entanglements porous and subject to alternative interpretations and imaginations.

Digital Circulation of Memory  

Image of Nah with the Zombie figured background courtesy of Sahara Vang Nguyen.

One of the main mediations of cultural productions is the advent of Internet technologies. As Valverde and Appadurai argue, the Internet has changed, magnified, and even created different forms of transnational relationships by affording new ways of communicating. Valverde explores how the introduction of Internet technologies to Vietnam has engendered both possibilities and limitations for its people. She notes, “Fearing open access to information by its citizens, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) initially tried to stifle ICT [Internet Communication Technology] development and then tried to control its rise” (68). In fact, Vietnam is ranked as one of the worst countries in terms of press freedom: 113 out of 176 during 2016 (Transparency International). [2] Although the government sought to use the Internet for entering the global economy and for economic gain, it can be risky business to control the Vietnamese people’s inevitable desire for information and relationships afforded by such technology. The Vietnam War effectively dispersed around two million refugees across the globe. This particular movement continued to shape Vietnamese people’s technology use as they attempted to reconnect with family and community or control and contest narratives about the past after the Vietnam War. Such practices create what Basch et al. observe as transnational social fields: “Immigrants who develop and maintain multiple relationships—familial, economic, social, organizational, religious, and political” (263).

Besides its role in shaping communication practices around key issues regarding global commerce and censorship, the Internet is integral to facilitating a particular transnational relationship between Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora. Vietnamese refugees who settled in places like the United States, Australia, and Canada continue to use the internet to participate in diasporic online forums and to forge digital communities that include the Vietnamese diaspora and citizens. These transnational relationships resulted in significant remittances sent back to Vietnam, as well as create new financial opportunities for the Vietnamese who are situated domestically or abroad. The tension between economic gains and representational control continues to inform Vietnam’s relationship to global and digital technologies. Indeed, the circulation of multiple and conflicting narratives of Vietnam’s history shaped Nah’s understanding of the country, leading him to become a critic of Vietnamese authority. Such circulation also happens outside of Vietnam and is illegally accessed by people within Vietnam’s borders. This extra-national circulation among diasporic Vietnam creates the very conditions that move transnational literacies and, thus, models of embodied rhetoric across borders, allowing someone like Nah to circulate his digital productions within and through these extra-national channels.

Born Son Van Nguyen, Nah attributed the start of his social consciousness to the internet, hip-hop, and rap.[3] On one of his teen birthdays, Nah’s uncle gave Nah his first rap album: a bootleg of a Tupac’s CD. This moment also coincided with Nah’s friend, Pinky, showing him how to bypass government-censored websites, thus exposing Nah to differing perspectives of Vietnam’s history and politics. As Nah noted in his interview with Jackfroot, being involved on Vietnam’s censored forums led Nah to conclude that “[my generation] is all brainwashed [ . . . ] The communist society build you up in this way they want you to be, [sic] they don’t want you to question things at all” (Nguyen). Such introductions to alternative perspectives are particularly important for people who may not have the sanctioned infrastructure or means to be exposed to alternative ways of being.[4] To be pointed, Nah’s illegal actions purchased him access to censored entertainment and information that, in turn, shaped his embodied rhetoric.

Nah eventually moved to The United States where he studied at The University of Oklahoma on a student visa. His college experiences, and especially his political courses, deeply impacted Nah and shaped his libertarian political leanings. During this time, Nah decided he wanted to speak out against Vietnam’s authoritarianism, and on January 13, 2015, while still a college student, Nah released to YouTube his incendiary rap song, “Địt Mẹ Cộng Sản.” This song quickly became a global sensation when multiple news syndicates from different countries interviewed and posted about Nah for his bold and dangerous actions against the Vietnamese government. Prior to the release of this song, Nah was already a popular rap figure in Vietnam and among the Vietnamese diaspora. According to Nah, his music was always critical of authority, but Nah was careful to code his music—a typical convention of rap music—so that he could not be accused of undermining the government. “DMCS” left little room for interpretation, as it clearly condemns government corruption and censorship.

Along with “DMCS,” Nah released a letter-manifesto addressed to the Vietnamese government and people, particularly to the youth of Vietnam, that encouraged them to protest and reform their government and politics. While economic and political contexts have improved within Vietnam since the war (1975), such criticism against the government can still result in police intimidation and prison time for critics and their family in Vietnam. Nah knew that publishing his song and manifesto would place his family and his own return to Vietnam in danger. Despite such risk, Nah provided over a dozen online interviews, posted and reposted images of #FuckCommunism on his social media sites, and encouraged his fans and followers to “speak out” against censorship and corruption.

In his manifesto, Nah writes:

Thanks to rap music, hip-hop, and authentic rappers that have always been a mirror for me to follow. I used to feel too ‘street’ and clumsy, covered in tattoos, that no one has taken my voice seriously, until I realized the true power of rap music. If black people use rap music to claim racial equality, I would like to borrow their rap music tactics for non-violent struggle for human rights for the people of Vietnam. (Nguyen)

In this passage, Nah shows how rap music provided him the symbolic means to identify with African-American experiences in problematic and promising ways. To suggest that the “human rights” struggle in Vietnam is similar to African Americans in the United States glosses over America’s history with racism and slavery, but it also underscores how hip-hop/rap remains a powerful form of counter-discourse in places like Vietnam. As Deborah Wong contends, “Identifying African American musics as a source for Asian American expression becomes a way for Asian American musicians to rescue certain possibilities made so difficult by racializations that muffle and silence them” (179). Although Wong is speaking about a US context, this insight is valuable for understanding the appeal that hip-hop and rap has for oppressed figures and populations elsewhere. More so, digital technologies allowed Nah to pursue rap and hip-hop in ways that are censored in Vietnam.

Nah’s manifesto also highlights tattoos as a clear referent that aligns him with rappers, but one that also makes him feel “street” and “clumsy” in the context of Vietnam. [5] Nah, thus, connects his bodily performance of rap and hip-hop to a particular identity formation that also aligns “rap music tactics for non-violent struggle” beyond the nation-state. Read this way, Nah’s embodied rhetoric can be viewed as resistance against the nation-state and as one that attempts to incorporate the political potential of hip-hop literacy (Richardson).

To appreciate why Nah’s digital acts are so significant, I turn to Valverde’s extensive study of Vietnamese transnationalism. In speaking about a Vietnamese diaspora blog, she writes, “Administrators actively promote English because as Hoanh [a blog administrator] explains ‘Viet Nam lacks a vocabulary for discussing issues that counter their government’s beliefs. It would limit types of conversations and the flow of postings if only Vietnamese text could be posted.’” Valverde goes on to state that “Hoanh hopes the Vietnamese government will listen to the group’s comments [regarding recommendations to political and cultural policies]” with “its use of English” (85). Embedded in Vietnamese language and culture, then, is a limitation for direct criticism against authority. Rather, Vietnamese culture dictates politeness in public engagement. Such mores align with the government censorship that prevents any negative criticism against the government. For instance, news companies are state-sponsored, and news stories must be approved by the government for public dissemination. Therefore, Nah’s digital productions that narrate urinating on corrupt police officers and overthrowing the establishment are not only shocking to the Vietnamese, to say the least, but provide potential inroads into alternative articulations, identities, and positionings against authority figures. To rephrase Vieira, literacy can orientate the Vietnamese to a different path, one that can allow them to make sense of both their individual and collective relationship to the state. According to Arjun Appadurai, the combination of mass migration and electronic mass media has:

broken the monopoly of autonomous nation-states over the project of modernization. The transformation of everyday subjectivities through electronic mediation and the work of the imagination is not only a cultural fact. It is deeply connected to politics, through the new ways in which individual attachments, interests, and aspirations increasingly crosscut those of the nation-state. (10)

To follow Appadurai’s logic, then, the “image” leads us to treat “the imagination as social practice” (31). The significance of this should not be understated because now, more than ever, the production and consumption of images, in the sense that images are composed (organized) social and cultural forces, are normalized media practices of everyday people. Granted, digital access and support remain uneven across the globe (Berry et al.). As such, examining digital literacy’s impact on transnationalism is also a study in power relations and how power is constituted and reorganized as people migrate, forge new bonds, and sustain previous ones.

The image of the body plays a key role in constituting and organizing such transnational lines of power. For example, Roland B. Tolentino theorizes the Filipina as mail-order bride and writes that the “Filipina’s body signifies both the temporal loss of her material body and the massive reproduction of her virtual body. She is commandeered to the first-world sites through telecommunications technology, much like capital and information are transferred at present” (57). Such work highlights the power of the body and gaze that helps constitute and inform digital and transnational relationships where Filipina mail-order brides function as/for a Western imaginary, propelling massive economic exchanges and a gendered migration pattern constituted by domestic and sexualized labor.

The virtual body, then, can compel and persuade in ways that serve corporate interests, as Tolentino demonstrates, but images of bodies can also be deployed to mystify, subvert, and bring attention to the very organizational powers that maintain bodies in oppressive, objective states. Circulating hip-hop literacies helped Nah see himself in an alternative way, as someone who can potentially be taken seriously. To return to Nah’s passage, he recalls seeing himself in other rappers—they acted as a mirror for Nah’s own body-identity—and this motivated him to use digital technologies to circulate images that not only invited people to gaze on his body but also promoted his “DMCS” song and discussion around his anti-government message, subsequently generating additional movement and circulation for his digital productions.

Tattoos and Protest: The Return of the Body

One reason why circulating bodies can be rhetorically effective is because bodies can index memories that have been suppressed or forgotten. Just as memories of the Vietnam War circulated among global websites, so too can charged symbols circulate, accumulate meaning, and help to organize and sustain literacies. In tracing Nah’s digital publications, it becomes clear that Nah has been able to create what Kristie Fleckenstein would describe as “imagewords”: images and texts that implicate each other and that can transcend the moment. In effect, “DMCS”/letter engendered the hash tag “#FuckCommunism” and the following Zombie image:

Nah and his tattoos of “#DMCS” and “#FuckCommunism” on his neck. Courtesy of GlobalPost.com

The “DMCS” Zombie. Courtesy of Save Marinwood-Lucas Valley

The first mention of “Fuck Communism” and “zombie” appears in the song “DMCS” when Nah raps, “The whole generation has been brainwashed. What a misfortune! / They’re like zombies that will only waste our bullets / Hate the Communist Party but won’t fucking dare speak up—you’re as good as mute.” Hence, this “image” first appears not as an image, but as an aural-textual manifestation delivered by Nah’s digital productions. However, this visuality quickly becomes an image-image when Nah showcases his #FuckCommunism tattoo on the news blog GlobalPost and as a zombie image on his neck, as shown in the above image. The zombie, then, functions as a metaphor throughout “DMCS”/letter that Nah uses to critique the Vietnamese people’s passiveness in the face of state-sanctioned regulation and control. In his manifesto, for instance, Nah writes, “I cannot lead a contented life and enrich the knowledge for my own good while witnessing Vietnamese people my age suffer from the lack of basic living need[s]—who have to work to support themselves every single day, and are being brainwashed daily.” Shortly after “DMCS” was released, the zombie-image was created—by whom, I’m unsure—and became viral both on and offline. [6] Patrick Winn, a writer for GlobalPost, argues:

[Nah’s digital productions] urged a simple act of rebellion: posting its logo, a cartoon zombie, on social media. “It’s the same way that, in the US, you see people changing their avatar to promote gay pride or immigration issues,” according to an interviewee.

While avatars are not equivalent to acts of rebellion, Winn does provide insights into how a news blog conceives of Nah’s productions as promoting a particular identity and issue. What is most striking about the zombie imageword is in its rhetorical complexity to both critique against passivity and to agitate for awareness. In this quote, Nah relates “brainwashing” to the people’s living conditions that maintain their zombie-like complacency. Yet, to become aware is also to recognize one’s culpability in contributing to the collective’s acquiescence of what Nah sees as authoritarian rule; awareness is a move to become responsible for one’s apathy that has helped create the current situation. Thus, there is a complex accretion of meanings that is brought together by the zombie-image, particularly when accompanied by the “#FuckCommunism” statement that Nah has tattooed on his neck. The hash tag, in this case, functions to index Nah’s body for digital use. But more so, this tattoo makes (more) obvious that the body is the technology for protest. When images of “#FuckCommunism” are circulated online, such images become an organizing tool that connects people in and outside of Vietnam.

The intertwining nature of text and image allows us to comprehend the zombie-image as artifact and as a concept that exceeds the digital or material context because images, as Laurie E. Gries argues, exists due to its relationship to its contexts; it lives beyond the page or screen, as a collective idea, concept, desire, and/or identity (9). Whereas the context can change the imageword’s manifestation, the “image” maintains its integrity: “In this sense, an image, while highly abstract, can be evoked in word as long as recognition takes place. It is recognized because it resembles something familiar to us” (9, my emphasis). Nah’s song and letter established an image recognizable among his audience because it reflects a collective’s complex feelings, desires, and historical aggregation regarding everyday living, politics, and the nation-state that, in turn, functions as an organizing technology for identity formation implicated by and implicating the transnational. In other words, the circulation of the image outside of Vietnam allows for criticism against the Vietnamese government to exist and develop in a way that may not have been possible intra-nationally. Hence, we can say that particular embodied rhetorics may need transnational spaces in order to exist, develop, and circulate so that they may have the chance to accrue movement, meaning, and force that can create change in local spaces.     

One particular event illustrates how the zombie-image is taken up as an identity performance for protest while simultaneously changing digital and physical spaces. On July 10, 2015, Nguyễn Thanh Phước helped organize a group protest in District 1 of Saigon.[7] The group marched to their destination with matching zombie symbols emblazoned on their T-shirts. [8] The group, however, was arrested by the police before they were able to stage their protest. The Daily Dot reported that police raided Phước’s house for “propaganda” soon after the arrests; since this incident, Phước remains in custody without being charged with a crime (Tran). This event demonstrates how others take up Nah’s embodied rhetoric into their own performance. The bodies take up and circulate the zombie cause and symbol on the streets, while mobile technology captured this event and further moved the rhetoric beyond the nation’s boundaries. Compared with typical news coming out of Viet Nam, it was difficult for me to find any additional information about this protest (e.g., how many people were in attendance), and this suggests that the circulating zombie image among online sites is, indeed, significant in its ability to move within Vietnam and between nation-states.

The performance of the zombie body is a potent metaphor for the Saigon protestors because of what it signifies in relation to Vietnam’s conflicted past. As Espiritu and Valverde note, there is still an eerie silence around the reeducation camps in which South Vietnamese were tortured and forced into hard labor after the war ended. It is not or cannot be publicly acknowledged as a historical travesty or a human-rights issue by current Vietnamese citizens. Within this context, the zombie body functions as an indictment against post-war oppression and the imposed silence that attempts to erase this history. Thus, the zombie body can be read as a result of this history, but it can also be seen as a threat or warning: zombies infect other people, assemble, and march towards the living. This embodied rhetoric and performance effectively makes visible aspects of the past that can disrupt current narratives of a seemingly united country.

By thinking about the zombie-image and #FuckCommunism as embodied rhetoric and rhetorical resource for an alternative political identity, the zombie protest can be read as an enactment for more than just change, but an event that constitutes the body as both a site of protest and a synecdoche for the nation-state. That is, the zombie body performs the state-control of the mind and body. But, since bodies can also be seen as constituting the state, this performance is also articulating the state’s self-harm. Thus, re-imaging the body, through tattoos, is symbolic and embodied work that attempts to reconfigure and reorder the state. When people agree to put on a zombie shirt and protest in the streets, they are aligning their bodies with an identity that argues for a different political reality and future, and such alternative articulations can be radical in the face of censorship or totalitarianism. Put another way, the zombie-image acts as a rhetorical resource for disrupting the body-narrative as a body circumscribed by state power. Judith Butler speaks to this very reimagined embodiment when she theorizes public demonstrations:

I am suggesting that political claims are made by bodies as they appear and act, as they refuse and as they persist under conditions in which that fact alone is taken to be an act of delegitimation of the state. It is not that bodies are simply mute life-forces that counter existing modalities of power. Rather, they in themselves are modalities of power, embodied interpretations, engaging in allied action.

The Saigon protest required individuals to be unified under an alternative mode of being that challenged existing power relations between citizens and the state, where possibilities became reality in the collective agreement and performance of a shared identity. By redefining their bodies and identities, both protesters and the act of protesting, called into question the state’s legitimacy. In light of this, the zombie protest can be read as the body’s refusal to be claimed and circumscribed under the conditions of another; it is an articulation of a body politic that confronts the existing order by calling attention to itself as such and by drawing on past grievances that become salient for the present.

Although the zombie protest did not gain traction in Saigon, it continues as an online movement, making its mark on the digital and global stage through sites like as The Daily Dot and GlobalPost.com and actualizing the very words Nah uses in his letter. In addressing the “Vietnamese people” in his letter, Nah encourages everyone to speak up and challenge the police:

Your cell phone is your weapon of choice. Record the scenarios in which the police take bribes. If they assault you for doing this, footage will be captured. We must unite against the actions in which police arrest and beat people unjustly by speaking out and recording everything. Only this can cause disorder to that regime […] Voice your opinions loudly to attract the world’s attention because the communist DO NOT DARE MAKE PUBLIC VIOLATIONS at this time. The entire world is looking at Vietnam. (Nguyen)

Whether people heeded Nah’s words during the Saigon protest is unknown, but bystanders did capture footage of the protestors’ arrests, resulting in the video’s circulation among different media sites outside of Vietnam. The video is below:

Courtesy of Hoàng Dũng

Regardless of whether the bystanders were taking note of Nah’s letter, the video of the arrest added to the layers of meaning surrounding the zombie movement, especially around the ways that power is directed within transnational channels of flow. Nah’s warning, “The entire world is looking at Vietnam,” is meant to make officials aware that they too are being watched by people who frequent these transnational channels: the Vietnamese diaspora, the digital news sites that make local concerns a global issue, and the social media platforms that circulate and grow the zombie movement. In this way, Nah leverages transnational relationships in order to support his protest rhetoric. This is to say, Nah attempts to shift the power dynamic between the government and the Vietnamese people by reframing the gaze to include global players and by calling attention to the many ways that the watchers are now being watched.

Shifting this power dynamic, as I have shown, can be traced back to Nah’s circulating and layered literacies that, through their various instantiations as productions, become potent resources and organizing tools for others. To put this another way, Nah aided in shaping the Saigon protest by providing the symbolic resources for protesters to articulate a different social imaginary. Although the protesters may have been unsuccessful in staging a full protest, they may have created occasions—memories and motivations—for others.


This article underscores how Nah’s embodied rhetoric draws on memories of the Vietnam War and repositions his cause among global forces and issues. In this way, Nah’s rhetorical productions add to the already circulating body of Vietnamese diasporic literacy and rhetoric that attempts to recollect the past for current political formations. However, Nah’s case highlights how the body and embodied rhetoric should be treated as integral to collective and political recollections for the Vietnamese and Asian Americans. In this complex transnational context, Appadurai’s “prisms of possible lives”—ostensibly critical of how Western images impact other global populations—is a helpful concept for understanding emerging transnational relationships in relation to the image, body, and embodied rhetoric. As Nah’s case shows, “prisms of possibilities” can be made salient by returning to the past and excavating different, alternative, or even lost memories that, as Hoang states, “[are] only sometimes our own” (112). Hoang, here, argues that memory itself is a contested, rhetorical practice. Public memory, then, about events like war is shaped by people with the means to be heard and seen. Nah has shown that his digital productions—drawn from his own encounter with circulating hip-hop/rap literacies--can unhinge the normative rules of being seen and heard, so much so that Nah’s digital productions helped organize a protest and compelled people to tattoo #FuckCommunism on their bodies. Such bodies, in turn, move the protest back to a digital context, thus continuing the cycle of representation and potential protest.

Appadurai’s phrase is particularly striking because the possibility of different lives also suggests the possibility of alternative social imaginaries. One’s identity reflects the limitations and potential of one’s environment:  If I am free to speak my mind as an individual, which type of society must exist for me to do so? If I am a person of color who can pursue equal access to rights and opportunities, which systems and institutions must exist or be rectified to support my pursuit? For Nah-as-rap-artist to exist in Vietnam, which political changes must be made for Nah to be able to freely express himself? These questions point to the inextricable connections between self and the social, underscoring how important symbolic resources and embodied rhetoric can be for organizing the collective for social change.

Nah’s case reminds scholars that bodies are primary to transnational protest movements and rhetoric, in that bodies take with them the various acquired literacies to different places and even times. Also, bodies can become the site of a material-symbolic struggle, particularly for the individuals who have marked their bodies with #FuckCommunism tattoos and display this online. Bodies are being imprisoned and imposed upon so as to maintain order. And at the risk of being imprisoned, Vietnamese citizens have made their bodies visible to each other through the organizing technology of hash tags and social media. Here, Western technology (Twitter) and its tool (the hash tag) is being used in the struggle for symbolic and political territories in a Vietnamese context. Such organized bodies argue for participation beyond the nation-state, for viewers who can bear witness to Vietnamese protestors and to what the government may be doing to dampen such protest. More specifically, such witnessing gives validity to the pain reflected by these tattoos: the initial pain of puncturing one’s body with a needle, the pain from the memories of war and its aftermath, and the pain of being silenced. Nah’s digital productions, then, tap into this pain by allowing it a way to be visible to others; however, because the nation may not be able to recognize such pain from its own people, protestors have to seek other ways of being heard and recognized. In effect, Nah’s embodied rhetoric leverages transnational relationships that call upon acts of witnessing and recognition and provides protestors the rhetorical means to be heard and seen as agents in their own political context. Understanding embodied Vietnamese rhetoric can help us consider alternative ways of becoming visible and influential in other political contexts, particularly for contexts that aim to silence dissenting voices and write over the body/state/history.  

[1] Nah is pronounced like “Noh.”

[2] This score is a comparative of Vietnam to other countries. A higher score for a country means less media transparency and more government control.

[3] I use Murray Forman’s distinctions between hip-hop and rap: hip-hop signifies the cultural dimensions of Black culture, whereas rap describes the music form.

[4] This is not a critique of freedom’s degrees, but rather this article is concerned with the ways transnational forces impact rhetorical practices and vice versa.  

[5] Clearly, tattoos can be one of the more visible embodied rhetorical performances, but embodied rhetoric can include a spectrum of bodily performances such as attire and movement. However, I focus on tattoos in this article.

[6] In my research of Nah, there was never any mention of who created the visual depiction of the zombie, although multiple articles mentioned “DMCS” as the source of the textual version of the zombie figure.

[7] I use “Saigon” from The Daily Dot article, although the current name is Ho Chi Minh City.

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