Vietnamese words & views for “Nature”

Thiên nhiên and Tự nhiên are two main words used for “nature” in Vietnamese .

The first one is the most widely used in Vietnamese today in the sense of nature as in the natural environment. It is etymologically rooted in a combination of Chinese characters (tiānrán 天然) composed of the character for the sky (tiān 天) and of the second character (rán 然) of the Chinese word for nature“zìrán” (自然). It includes animals, plants, soil/water/air environments where animals and plants are living in. The second one is rooted in the Chinese characters that are still used today in Chinese and Japanese (zìrán/shizen 自然) and it has two meanings: (1) it can be used as a synonym of Thiên nhiên; and (2) it can refer to the nature of something or someone; its character and personality (Dao Duy Anh 2005, 747).

The Kinh represents the ethnic majority in Vietnam, and their main worldview is characterized by three interacting worlds: Heaven, Earth and Humanity (Thien, Dia, Nhan) (Cuc 1999). The eternal world of Heaven includes natural phenomena of the sky such as rain and sun, and gods. The world of Earth encompasses forests, rivers and seas as well as gods and spirits. All things made by humans are included in the changing non-natural “human world” on Earth, as well as invisible ancestors. Spiritual entities such as gods, spirits and the ancestors exist in each of these three worlds, but usually remain invisible to people. Nature and people always go hand-in-hand in the Kinh worldview, and humans are supposed to “continually try to maintain balance and harmony while respecting nature” (Cuc 1999, 70). Another study by Duong and van den Born showed that most Vietnamese participants qualify their relation to the natural environment like “family”, in which humans and natural elements are mutually important (Duong and van den Born 2019, 7).

By Nguyen Duy Hung

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