In November 2016, I returned from my country of residence (Sweden) to visit my country of birth (Vietnam), where I had studied traditional Vietnamese music for many years before entering the music Ph.D. program at Lund University. This particular research trip was to visit Hà Nội—during the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Vietnam National Academy of Music (VNAM)—to record a short documentary film that was eventually titled The Culture Soldiers.1 The Academy has played a central role in the development of traditional Vietnamese music, defining how it is perceived in recent memory, and for me this was a chance to rethink much of what I had experienced there as a student, as well as how the music is changing across time. During the aforementioned visit, I interviewed many musicians who were among the very first teachers and students at VNAM. Additionally, I met Lê Mai, a younger đàn tranh2 teacher and performer. She was born in the 1970s and is therefore about my age, graduating from VNAM in 2001, just a few years after me (1998). I spent an entire day with her, from morning to evening. I followed Lê Mai through all sorts of tasks, from seven in the morning when she took her son to school, and on through the day, as she would cross the city centre on her motorbike between rehearsals and teaching, ending the day with a recording session for a late-night TV show. I recorded conversations with Lê Mai over lunch and dinner, as well as sometimes in breaks between rehearsals. At other times, I followed her from a distance, carefully observing and filming her busy day. I was struck by the similarities between her present-day situation and my life in Hà Nội back when I had lived there ten years ago. Just like me, Lê Mai was a divorced mother, busy with a successful career as a performer and teacher but at the same time living a lonely life full of multiple obligations, to the family, to her employers and to society.





Over the past sixty years, women have not only entered the scene of traditional music and theatre in Vietnam but today, most concert performances are entirely dominated by women.3 This movement from private settings—in which male performers would perform to an aristocratic audience—to public concerts, has been accompanied by a shift from male to female musicians. The "public persona" of a female Vietnamese performer is drawn very much from a collective identity as a Vietnamese woman, which has strong foundations in the blend between communism and nationalism which constitutes the ideology of the country.



In order to create a comprehensive understanding of the development of the present day concert culture for traditional music in Vietnam, I had to undertake an ethnological study, in the form of a documentary, eventually entitled The Culture Soldiers, and premiered in 2017 at Panora in Malmö. The first chapter of the thesis builds on this piece of research. But also, in order to access the embodied layers of signification in the artistic approaches to gender and gesture, the use of documentary as a form for further developing an analysis of the documentation has become part of my methods.