I was reading a book that contains essays that the late Vietnamese scholar, Trần Quốc Vượng, wrote in the 1980s and 1990s. One of the essays is on the Vietnamese historical tradition in the context of Southeast and East Asia (Truyền thống văn hóa Việt Nam nam trong bối cảnh Đông Nam Á và Đông Á).

In this essay, Trần Quốc Vượng addresses a question that many scholars in the West also asked at that time – Does it make more sense to view Vietnam as part of East Asia or Southeast Asia?

Southeast Asia

As Trần Quốc Vượng points out, the concept of Southeast Asia has only existed since the time of World War II.

During World War II, the Allies divided the world into different “theaters” (or “regions”) and created military strategies for each theater. The area between India and China was called the “Southeast Asian” theater.

That name stuck, and starting in the 1950s, a lot of money started to get spent (particularly in the US) to encourage research on this region. It was in this context that the question of where Vietnam “belongs” emerged. Prior to that time there had been little question but that Vietnam was a “little dragon” that belonged to the East Asian world. However, the emergence of Southeast Asian studies (and the politics of the Vietnam War) led some scholars to claim a place for Vietnam in Southeast Asia.


This is also what Trần Quốc Vượng attempts to do in this essay. We can see this in his conclusion where he says that over the course of history, while the Vietnamese have been influenced culturally and politically by China/East Asia, they have always maintained their Southeast Asian cultural foundation and geographical context (Tóm một câu, trên diễn trình lịch sử, nước Việt, dân Việt nhân nhiều ảnh hưởng văn hóa – chính trị Trung Hoa Đông Á song vẫn luôn luôn duy trì nền tảng văn hóa, môi cảnh địa – nhân văn Đông Nam Á của chính mình).

Ok, but what exactly is Vietnam’s Southeast Asian cultural foundation? Trần Quốc Vượng never explains this. Instead, he argues that Vietnam is a peninsular (bán đảo) world that integrates the land and sea.

This integration, Trần Quốc Vượng contends, can be seen in legends where we see a pairing of women from the land who marry men from the sea, such as the Vietnamese story of Âư Cơ & Lạc Long Quân and the Khmer story of Liễu Diệp (Liu Yi) & Kaundinya.

Beyond that, Trần Quốc Vượng does not provide any more information about “what is Southeast Asia.” Instead, he spends the rest of the essay talking about how Korea is also a peninsular country (although he doesn’t demonstrate that there are similar legends there about women from the land marrying men from the sea), and how Korea and Vietnam were both deeply influenced by China.


I find this essay to be very representative, as I’ve read many other articles like this, and I have heard many Vietnamese make the same points. The essay makes a claim that many people today want to hear (that is, many Vietnamese want to be told that they are fundamentally different from Chinese), but it does not provide evidence to support its claim. Instead, it is based on superficial evidence and outdated theories.

Trần Quốc Vượng claims in this article to follow the ideas of Géo-Culture (Địa –Văn hóa) and Géo Histoire (Địa – Lịch sử). I’m not sure what he is referring to here as he does not cite any sources. However, his thinking appears to reflect the ideas of the long-discredited idea of “environmental determinism,” that is, the idea that geographical environments shape ideas and culture.

That said, even if we were to believe in environmental determinism, the examples that Trần Quốc Vượng gives to demonstrate the “peninsular” world of Vietnam are examples that only emerged after indigenous people in this region came in contact with non-indigenous cultural worlds (Chinese and Indian), and are stories that were recorded in foreign scripts (classical Chinese and Sanskrit).

Therefore, it is difficult to see how such stories represent some kind of “cultural foundation” (nền tảng văn hóa).


On the other hand, it interesting to see how easily Trần Quốc Vượng switches from talking about “Southeast Asia” to talking about Korea, a land that is, like Vietnam, very much a part of the East Asian cultural world. It is clear in this essay that he feels much more comfortable talking about Korea than he would be talking about say Java or Borneo or Sulawesi or Mindanao or Sumatra.

Why is this? It’s because geography does not determine culture, and it is therefore easier for a Vietnamese to understand and talk about Korea, a place that is geographically different but culturally similar, than it is to talk about Laos, a place that is geographically similar but culturally different.

As I’ve argued many times before, the thing that we today call “Vietnamese” culture was created in opposition to the thing that we today call “Southeast Asian” culture, and that this was done through the use of cultural ideas and practices that came from outside of the region (i.e., “China”).

This, of course, is not something unique to Vietnam. Many of the countries in Europe, for instance, were created through a process of “Latinization/Christianization” that was brought about in opposition to indigenous ways.

This point actually view fits nicely with a larger argument that Trần Quốc Vượng puts forth in this essay about the importance of viewing Vietnam in a larger context. In this essay Trần Quốc Vượng sought to view Vietnam in a regional context, but if we expand our view to a global context, then we can come to a very different conclusion than he did.

For anyone interested, here is the essay that I am referring to: Truyen thong van hoa VN. . ..

After World War II came to an end in Southeast Asia, the Allies tried to bring to trial Japanese who had committed war crimes there. They were particularly concerned with identifying Japanese who had committed war crimes against Allied soldiers and prisoners of war.

In order to do this, the same kind of information that is used in other court cases had to be collected. People needed to accuse certain Japanese of crimes and supporting evidence had to be found in order to convict the accused person.


One group of people who provided a great deal of such information were Allied soldiers who had been prisoners of war in the region. Many of these men witnessed crimes committed by Japanese officers and guards in prison camps.

However, the people who attempted to collect evidence from former Allied prisoners of war soon encountered a problem – many of the Allied soldiers only knew the Japanese by nicknames that the soldiers had themselves created for the Japanese, rather than by their real names.


In other words, former prisoners of war remembered the crimes that Betty Boop, Horseface, Mad Doctor and George Formby had committed, but who exactly were these people? That had to be determined in order to bring charges against them.


So the people in charge of collecting information about war crimes distributed pictures to former prisoners of war of Japanese officers and soldiers who had served in Southeast Asia during the war in an effort to link nicknames to faces. Meanwhile, the real names of these individuals were obtained through interrogation after they had been apprehended.

I find the period immediately following World War II to be fascinating. This effort to identify people only known as Betty Boop and Horseface in order to bring them to justice is just a small example of the many challenges that people faced in trying to restore some form of order to a region that had been seriously thrown into disorder.

The above images come from the following file in the National Archives of Australia that contains information about this effort to use photographs to identify Japanese war criminals: War Crimes [Investigations - General correspondence regarding photographic recognition of suspected Japanese war criminals, requests for interviews and affidavits by former POWs held various camps in Japan, Korea, Thailand (Siam), Singapore, Java, Thailand-Burma Railway and Italy.] NAA: D844, 167/1/1A.

I spent some time today looking through a journal that was published in Hanoi in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries called Revue Indo-Chinoise. This was a time when the French were attempting to firmly establish their control over the areas of what are today Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

To do so the French needed knowledge about these areas and the peoples who lived there, and many of the articles in Revue Indo-Chinoise served precisely that purpose.

Hence, in the early twentieth century one can find several articles by Auguste Bonifacy, a military officer and gifted linguist who wrote extensively about the minority peoples in the area of what is now northwestern Vietnam, and Gustave Dumoutier, a scholar who produced pioneering work on the religious beliefs and practices of the “Annamites,” or the people whom we today refer to as the ethnic Việt.

les cultes annamites

These two topics – ethnic minorities and the religious beliefs of an ethnic majority group – might seem unrelated, but today as I was looking through what these two men wrote, I realized that these two topics are very closely related, and that they are also relevant for a certain debate that is currently taking place.

In 1904, Bonifacy published an article in the Revue Indo-Chinoise about the “White-Trouser Savages” (Man Quần Trắng), a group of people whom we would today refer to as Dao/Yao. In talking about their religious ideas, Bonifacy noted that the key figures in their religious worldview included the Jade Emperor (Yu Di 玉帝), Pan Gu 盘古, Fu Xi 伏羲 and Shen Nong 神農, all of whom are individuals from what we might today call “Chinese” antiquity.

man quan trang

Similarly, in talking about the religious beliefs of the Việt, Dumoutier made reference to such figures as Confucius 孔子, Shi Xie/Sĩ Nhiếp 士爕, Shen Nong/Thần Nông 神農, Maitreya (Mile/Di Lạc 彌勒), Guanyin/Quan Âm, Ziwei/Tử Vi 紫微, Xuandan/Huyền Đàn 玄壇, etc. . .


. . . as well as to certain ritual ceremonies to mark the summer solstice (Duanwu/Đoan Ngọ 端午) and the mid-autumn moon (Zhongqiu/Trung Thu 中秋).



What all of the above people and events share is an origin in the place that we today refer to as “China.” They are all part of what we can refer to in general as the “Sinitic” cultural world.

And given how important religious beliefs are for human communities (particularly in the past), what all of this also shows is that the groups of people whom we today refer to as the Yao/Dao and the Việt would be very different peoples if they had never included in their religious worldviews all of those elements from the Sinitic cultural world.

thoat trung

The reason why this is important is because today there are people who are talking about the need to “escape” from the Sinitic cultural world. However, for people like the Yao/Dao and the Việt, that would be about as possible to do as it would be for Europeans to escape from the Christian and Roman cultural elements that their societies were created from. In other words, for all of these peoples it is impossible to “escape,” because to do so would be to become someone else, and people can’t do that. They are who they are.

In the early twentieth century, German sociologist Max Weber noted that one characteristic of modern societies was an increasing “disenchantment of the world.” By “disenchantment,” Weber meant that in modern societies people appeared to be moving away from believing in magic, spirits and gods (that is, powers that can “enchant” people), and moving instead towards adopting a more “rational” way of viewing the world.

These days scholars no longer believe that there is a direct line of development from “premodern” to “modern” worlds. Instead, many academic studies have been published that talk about the “enchantment” of the modern world, that is, they talk about how people in “modern” societies continue to follow certain “irrational” beliefs.

SG May 1948

Recently I was reading an issue of the Sarawak Gazette from 1948, and I came across some reports by a British Sarawak government official that clearly show evidence of the “enchantment” of society at that time.

There was, for instance, a report of an ailing Chinese man who was “spell-bound” by a Chinese medicine man and told to offer money to a spirit in order to cure his illness. The spirit accepted the money, but the Chinese man became even more ill.

Then there was a report of a conversation between this same government official and the Dayak head of a kampong, or village. The government official tried to convince the Dayak man that growing rice was more beneficial than raising pigs because one needed rice to survive whereas pigs tended to destroy the padi, or rice fields.

The Dayak man, however, responded that, “No. We must keep pigs to kill for our begawai (ceremonial feasts and offerings to the spirits); if we do not hold proper begawai the padi will be no good.”


In another report, the same official noted that in one area the rice fields had been badly damaged by pigs and rats. Nonetheless, the harvest was still better that year than it had been in the past.

The Dayak residents of that area attributed this to the fact that the government official had blessed the fields earlier in the year.


This government official was an Englishman, a man who undoubtedly agreed with Weber that modern societies were “disenchanted,” and his reports were in some ways meant to point out the degree to which certain people in Sarawak remained “enchanted,” and therefore were failing to become “modern.”

To be fair, there is much less enchantment in the world today than there was in the past, but it remains, even in “modern” countries like Great Britain.


[I haven’t written for a while, so I don’t feel like my thoughts below are expressed very clearly in this post, but I think the topic is an important one, so I hope readers will be able to get some sense of what I’m talking about.]


Mount Tản Viên (also known as Ba Vì Mountain) is a mountain range that rises up from the western edge of the Red River Delta. For centuries it was viewed by people in the region as possessing some form of numinous power (thiêng liêng) and the spirit of the mountain was worshipped.

However, the spirit there was worshipped in different ways at different times. Fifteenth-century works (Lĩnh Nam chích quái, Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư) contain a story about a spirit on the mountain called “Sơn Tinh” (山精), or the “mountain sprite.” Then by the nineteenth century the story of that spirit was incorporated into a long and elaborate tale about a man named Nguyễn Tùng 阮松 (later renamed Nguyễn Tuấn 阮俊) who, according to this tale, eventually became Sơn Tinh, the spirit of Mount Tản Viên.


Looking around on the Internet I see that there are some web pages that mention Nguyễn Tuấn, but I cannot find any evidence that anyone has ever looked closely at his story. When one does, however, one sees that it is deeply influenced by what I would call a Daoist worldview.

For instance, his mother magically conceives Nguyễn Tuấn without ever having sexual intercourse (a common theme in Daoist writings), and over the course of his life Nguyễn Tuấn encounters certain extraordinary individuals from whom he receives magical objects, such as a magic cane (or staff) and a magic book.


After obtaining the magic cane, Nguyễn Tuấn came across a boy who had killed a snake that had the Chinese character for “king” (王) on its head. Nguyễn Tuấn bought the dead snake from the boy and then used his magic cane to bring it back to life, after which point the snake thanked Nguyễn Tuấn and revealed that it was in fact something much more significant than a mere snake, it was a “dragon prince” (long vương tử 龍王子).


Today it is difficult to determine what details like this would have meant to people in the past, but they do give us a sense of how different their cultural world was from ours.

This magical/Daoist world is one aspect of the Nguyễn Tuấn story that needs to be examined further. Another aspect of this story that needs to be examined further is its origins in a non-ethnic-Vietnamese world.

In the late nineteenth century there was a temple dedicated to the spirit of Mount Tản Viên that was located on the actual mountain at a place called Thủ Pháp. Not far away, on opposite side of the Đà River (or Black River, Rivière Noire), a river that flows by Mount Tản Viên, was a temple that was dedicated to what we can call a Daoist cult dedicated to female spirits known as the Holy Mothers (Thánh Mẫu) at a place called Lăng Sương.

Lăng Sương is also where, according to the story, Nguyễn Tuấn’s mother was from.

old map

When the Nguyễn Dynasty created a geography of the kingdom in the late nineteenth century (Đồng Khánh địa dư chí), both Thủ Pháp and Lăng Sương were listed as “sách” (册) a term for a mountain village occupied by non-Vietnamese peoples, a term which was similar to an earlier term – “động” (峝), a term that is sometimes translated into English as “aboriginal settlement.” And in fact, in some versions of the story about Nguyễn Tuấn his mother is said to have come from Lăng Sương “động.”


In 1885, a French officer by the name of G. Baudens visited the area around Thủ Pháp and stated that it was inhabited by people known as Mường. Baudens claimed that the Mường had been the original inhabitants of this region, but had been defeated by the Vietnamese (Annamites). Nonetheless, Bauden had a high opinion of the Mường, arguing that they were “braver, stronger, and smarter” than the Vietnamese, and that they would be able to help the French to police the area of the Đà River. . .


While Frenchmen in the nineteenth century employed terms like “Mường,” it can be difficult today to determine what exact ethnic group they were referring to, in part because they could not distinguish clearly between groups, and part because the various peoples in the region shared many cultural practices and their languages also shared many terms (and there were plenty of people who were bi- or multi-lingual).

A few years after Bauden traveled through this region, a French scholar by the name of Gustave Dumoutier visited this same area and compiled a list of words that were spoken by the “Thổ [土] or Thai or Mường” on the Đà River, and while Dumoutier referred to different groups of peoples, the words that he compiled belonged mainly to the Tai language family.

That said, Dumoutier’s word list could have been compiled further up the Đà River, and the people around Mount Tản Viên at the time might have been people whom we today refer to as Mường (a people who are more closely related to the Vietnamese than Tai-language-speaking peoples, although their language has been influenced by Tai languages).

The point, however, is that the people who lived around Mount Tản Viên were not Vietnamese (as late as the late nineteenth century), and the therefore, the cult that developed for the worship of the spirit of Mount Tản Viên was not a “Vietnamese” cult. However, it also wasn’t distinctly “non-Vietnamese” either.

Tan Vien chan kinh

The information that we have about the story of Nguyễn Tuấn was written in classical Chinese (a language that educated Vietnamese used to record information) and it is what we can call a “Daoist story” (Daoism being a belief system that was part of the world of popular belief among ethnic Vietnamese too, but which was not officially approved of by the “official” world of the dynastic elite).

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Holy Mothers cult experienced a particularly prosperous period, as there were many texts of revelations (giáng bút 降筆) that were revealed at that time, and the spirit of Mount Tản Viên (i.e., Nguyễn Tuấn, Sơn Tinh) revealed many messages at that time.

What the story of Nguyễn Tuấn therefore represents is a space on “the edge of empire.” His story was part of a cult that emerged in the somewhat-Sinicized (or Việt-icized) world of the Mường on the periphery of the Nguyễn Dynasty empire. The Mường elite near Mount Tản Viên did not necessarily aspire to follow the Confucian norms that the court at Huế promoted, but they probably had faith in the magical powers of Daoist teachings and deities, and they viewed the power of Mount Tản Viên in such terms.

What is interesting is that today the spirit of Mount Tản Viên is considered a part of the common/collective heritage of “the Vietnamese nation” (dân tộc Việt). The reality, however, is more complex. Instead, what the spirit of Mount Tản Viên reveals is the complex process by which the diversity of the past (both ethnic and religious) gets erased and homogenized in order to create the common national culture of the present.

Summer is here. It is time for me to take a break from posting to this blog. So I will write this one last blog entry and then will take a break until August.

The past few weeks have been interesting. The PRC has aggressively moved into the “Southeast Asian Mediterranean,” and a debate has taken place over a book about Vietnamese origins. These two events should not be related, but in actuality they are, and that is a problem.

Recently an author by the name of Tạ Đức has written a book about Vietnamese origins that places the origins of the Vietnamese in China, and his book has been criticized by scholars as diverse as Trần Trọng Dương and Hà Văn Thùy, and has received a more politically motivated critique from Bùi Xuân Đính.


I agree with Tạ Đức’s criticisms of Hà Văn Thùy’s ideas, but I also agree with Trần Trọng Dương’s criticisms of Tạ Đức’s scholarship.

Ultimately, Tạ Đức and Hà Văn Thùy are two authors who 1) do not have the ability to read primary sources (in classical Chinese = Hán) and 2) also do not have the ability to understand sources in foreign languages – French, English, etc. And by “understand,” I mean that they cannot read sources in foreign languages and evaluate the degree to which those sources are reliable (Tạ Đức has pointed this out for Hà Văn Thùy and I think I have pointed this out for Tạ Đức).


There are therefore problems with the scholarship of both Tạ Đức and Hà Văn Thùy, but the real problem is that there is no serious alternative to their scholarship.

The “official” view of the Vietnamese past has not changed since the early 1970s. The interpretation of Vietnamese history that was produced at that time was produced during wartime and had the purpose of mobilizing people to unite together to defend and build the nation.

That was a very important task, and the historical interpretations from that time served that purpose exceptionally well.

The problem now is that Vietnam is no longer at war, and the nation has already been established. What is more, thousands of its citizens have now studied abroad and have been exposed to more complex ways of viewing the world and the past. As a result, the “same old story” doesn’t satisfy the younger generation.

More importantly, the orthodox version of the past is not sophisticated enough to deal with the complexities of the present.


The past is complex and the present is complex. When the past is presented in simplistic ways (as Tạ Đức and Hà Văn Thùy have done and as the official history does) then it makes it very difficult for people to be able to conceptualize effective ways to deal with the present.

Unfortunately for Vietnam, no one is attempting to conceptualize the past in complex ways. Unofficial historians like Tạ Đức and Hà Văn Thùy make their ideas known, but professional historians remain silent (as Nguyễn Hòa has noted), or simply repeat the same ideas that have existed since the early 1970s.

The problem is that it’s 2014 already, and the world is a lot more complex now than it was back then.


So having said that, I’m now going to celebrate 2014 by going to Borneo and getting a tattoo in order to “thoát Tàu” (escape China) and experience “real” Southeast Asian culture.

Thank you everyone for reading and commenting (either here or on fb). I hope you have learned as much from me as I have learned from you. And I look forward to continuing the conversation in August.

I mentioned in the post below that in the 1860s a Frenchman by the name of Théophile Marie Legrand de la Liraye published a book called Notes historiques sur la nation annamite (Historical Notes on the Annamite Nation).

Then in 1868, Legrand de la Liraye published a Vietnamese-French dictionary, and in that text, there was no word that he translated as “nation.” He found words in Vietnamese that he could translate as “kingdom” (quốc, nhà nước – royaume) and “homeland” (nước – la patrie), but nothing that he could translate as “nation.”

Why was that the case?


To answer that we need to look at the meaning of the French term “nation” over time (this web site helps with that).

Since at least the late seventeenth century, the word “nation” in French was used as a collective term to refer to “All of the people of the same state, of the same region, who live under the same laws and speak the same language.” (Tous les habitants d’un mesme Estat, d’un mesme pays, qui vivent sous mesmes loix, & usent de mesme langage &c.)

A problematic word in this definition is “pays,” which I’ve translated here as “region.” In fact, it also could mean “country,” and the term “nation” could therefore refer to people from the same country as well.

As such, there were multiple (but related) meanings of the term “nation” at that time.


Moving into the early nineteenth century, we find the following definition: “The totality of people born or naturalized in a country and living under the same government.” (La totalité des personnes nées ou naturalisées dans un pays, et vivant sous un même gouvernement.)

It is interesting to see that language is not mentioned in this definition. Instead, “nation” has more of a political meaning here.

However, this political meaning did not erase the sense that there was something else that tied certain peoples together, and this gets revealed in the following definition from the late nineteenth century:

“A collection of people living in the same territory, subject or not to the same government, and having long held quite common interests for which they are regarded as belonging to the same race.” (Réunion d’hommes habitant un même territoire, soumis ou non à un même gouvernement, ayant depuis longtemps des intérêts assez communs pour qu’on les regarde comme appartenant à la même race.)


There are two new concepts in this definition. First, there is the idea that ideas – common interests – are important for nations. Second, the concept of race was new as well.

How, one might ask, could the fact that certain people have common ideas make others view them as belonging to the same race?

That is difficult to answer, but it points to the complex and competing ideas that people in France (and Europe in general) in the late nineteenth century had about this concept. This is why a French scholar by the name of Ernest Renan wrote what is now considered to be a very influential article in which he sought to theorize the nation, an article called “What is a Nation?” (Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?)


What Renan attempted to show people was that things like language, race and geography are problematic when they are used to define a nation. For example, if language is of central importance for a nation, then multi-lingual Switzerland cannot be a nation, and yet it clearly is.

So what then is a nation, according to Renan? Renan argued that a nation is based on two things: “One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together.”

To Renan, a nation is a group of people who have shared memories about the past, and who consent to live together in the present.

There is one other point that Renan made that is important and which has been very influential. Regarding those memories about the past, Renan stated that “Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation.”

The people who “remember” the past, only “remember” aspects of the past that support their effort to unite people together in the present. Therefore, they “forget” that their ancestors conquered a neighboring people, and “remember” that their ancestors resisted an invasion, as such positive thoughts help create the emotional ties that bind the people of the nation together.


Why did the meaning of the term “nation” change over time? It changed because European society changed. When “nation” referred to a group of people from a region who spoke the same language, there were many monarchies in Europe that ruled over multilingual and multicultural populations. It was therefore a term that was used to identify groups within a kingdom.

The straightforward definition from the early nineteenth century of a nation as “the totality of people born or naturalized in a country and living under the same government” reflects the changes in society and the needs of the government in the aftermath of the French Revolution. With the monarch gone, now there was an effort to mobilize “the totality of people” in the country to support the government, and the meaning of the term “nation” changed to fit this new need.

And this change was very important as it is at this time that the core idea about a nation that people think of today – that it refers to all of the people in a country – became important.

Then with the emergence of the concept of race, and as countries in Europe became more democratic and promoted the idea that “citizens” or “the people” played a role in determining the destiny of the country, the meaning of the term “nation” changed yet again.


No developments like these, however, took place in Vietnam during this period. In the nineteenth century, when Legrand de la Liraye compiled his dictionary, the Nguyễn Dynasty was an absolute monarchy, like the monarchy in France had been before the Revolution. There was therefore no political need to appeal to “the totality of the people,” as started to take place in Europe after absolute monarchies were overthrown, and therefore, no need for such a concept either.

So it is not surprising that in 1868 Legrand de la Liraye could find Vietnamese words that referred to the “kingdom” (quốc, nhà nước) and “homeland” (nước) but no word that referred to “the totality of people” in the country, that is, the “nation.”

That word (dân tộc), however, eventually did come, but that is another complex story. . .

I’ve recently been reading a book that Théophile Marie Legrand de la Liraye published in (I think) 1865 called Notes historiques sur la nation annamite (Historical Notes on the Annamite Nation).

de la Liraye

Legrand de la Liraye was a missionary who was sent by the Missions Étrangères de Paris to the Red River Delta in 1843, where he worked until illness forced him to return to France in 1856. He recovered and returned to Asia to assist the French forces as an interpreter in their attack on the Nguyễn Dynasty starting in 1858.

The following year when the French captured Saigon, Legrand de la Liraye took up residence there to continue his religious vocation. However, a year later he resumed his work as an interpreter and continued to do so throughout the 1860s as the French established an administration in the Mekong Delta.


The book that he wrote is significant as I think it may very well be the earliest book to present “Vietnamese” history as the history of a “nation,” a term which in French at that time had the sense of “a people,” like the word “nationality” does in English.

Prior to 1865, Vietnamese scholars had written several historical accounts, but none of them had ever placed “the people” at the center of history.

Instead, they had written histories about monarchs and an orthodox political genealogy (chính thống 正統) that linked kingdoms together over time.

Liraye text

Legrand de la Liraye, on the other hand, began his work not by talking about monarchs or an orthodox political genealogy, but by trying to determine who the Annamite (i.e., “Vietnamese”) people were.

He notes that in Chinese and Vietnamese sources one can find many different names over the course of history for the political entities and administrative districts that existed in the Red River Delta, but that there is one ancient term that the Chinese used to refer to the far south that he argues is the most important – Giao Chỉ 交趾.

Although this term can literally mean “crossed toes,” Legrand de la Liraye says that it means that the big toe is “outspread” (écarté), and that this is a distinctive trait that one can find among the indigenous Annamites.

As such, Legrand de la Liraye argues that the term “Giao Chỉ” can refer to the Annamites in a racial sense.

Giao Chi

This was all very new. Vietnamese historians at that time were unaware of the concept of race, and they did not present their histories as histories of a people. However, by the early twentieth century there were Vietnamese scholars who started to write about the past in these (Western) ways.

I’m really getting tired of seeing people hold up premodern maps as documents that they believe can demonstrate sovereignty. They don’t, and therefore if people want to demonstrate an historical claim to sovereignty over a given area, premodern maps are not going to help them.


Take the above map, for instance, it shows the Paracels (Hoàng Sa) as a single island, and then above it there are two more “islands,” Liren/Lí Nhân (里仁 – as far as I can tell, this is a place on Hainan, am I wrong?) and Hainan/Hải Nam. Hainan is an actual island, and yet it is presented in the same way as the Paracels. What is more, there is nothing on the map (color, lines, etc.) that distinguishes Hainan from the Paracels.

So does this mean that the Nguyễn Dynasty had sovereignty over Hainan?

What about the western border of the Nguyễn realm? There is no western border on this map. So does that mean that the area of Laos was also the sovereign territory of the Nguyễn Dynasty?

No, what it means is that premodern mapmakers made maps without the idea in their heads that they needed to demarcate their kingdom’s “sovereign territory.” And because they didn’t have that idea in their heads, we can’t use what they produced to demonstrate sovereignty.


The above map likewise demonstrates this point. It shows Hainan island surrounded by blue, just as the coast of the Nguyễn empire was in blue and rivers were in blue. So that seems to indicate water, but where then are the lines that demarcate sovereignty? There aren’t any.


Here is a map of the “entire kingdom” of Đại Nam, and once again it has Hainan in it, and no clear western border.


Finally here we have yet another beautiful map with Hainan, and no borders to the west or to the north.

So how do these maps demonstrate sovereignty? The only way they can do so is if the viewers are selective and only pay attention to some parts of the maps while they ignore other parts of the maps.

Such selectivity, however, means that any effort to use these maps to “prove” sovereignty will ultimately fail, because all the “opposing side” has to do is to point to the other parts of the maps (like I did above) to undermine the logic of the claim that such maps can be used to prove sovereignty.

Sovereignty is demonstrated not by putting something on a map, but by putting a continuous government presence in an area. The Nguyễn Dynasty were the first to attempt to do this in the Paracels, and the French established a more enduring government presence there in the 1930s. That is the evidence that supports a claim to sovereignty.

Premodern mapmakers weren’t thinking about sovereignty when they made their maps. Their maps are beautiful, but they were based on a different way of viewing the world.

On 18 November 1973, The Straits Times ran an article on its front page announcing that the Liquor Licensing Board was cancelling the liquor licenses for 12 discotheques and nightclubs in Singapore.

Among the hotspots that lost the right to sell alcohol at that time were The Penthouse, Barbarella, Lost Horizon, Gino’s A Go-Go and the Pink Pussycat.

The judge who issued this order, Mr. T. S. Sinnathuray, stated that this action was taken as a way to deal with the poor reputation that discos had earned in Singapore.

pink pussycat

I have my doubts that this measure was sufficient to clean up the discos, because I found an advertisement for the Pink Pussycat from around this time that announced that the following two groups were performing: Diana Dawn and The Pakal♥l♥s and The Hi-Jacks.

“Pakalolo” is the Hawaiian word for marijuana (ganja), and when people smoke marijuana, they get “high,” like the “Hi”-Jacks. . .

And it looks like some people were indeed getting high, as The Straits Times carried a story from around this time (21 July 1972, pg. 6) about someone getting arrested outside the Pink Pussycat for possessing marijuana. To quote:

“A man was fined $400 today for having 21 kartoos of ganja outside the Pink Pussycat discotheque.

“Abu Hamid bin Jafar, 24, of Malaysia admitted having the drug at the entrance of the discotheque in Orchard Road at 10:30 p.m. yesterday.”


So it seems obvious that even without alcohol, people were probably still getting high at the Pink Pussycat in the early 1970s, if not from marijuana, then certainly from the music.

Although I have no idea what Diana Dawn and The Pakalolos performed, there is an advertisement in the same paper for a popular American movie from that time, Shaft’s Big Score, which started with one of the best disco grooves ever created.

If the Pakalolos could play anything even remotely close to this (and I suspect that they could), then there were good times to be had at the Pink Pussycat in those days. . .

mini myna

on knowing the past in Singapore


Albert Einstein — 'What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right.'


About Vietnamese Cultural History and Scholarship

Digital Southeast Asia

Ideas for employing digital humanities approaches to the study of Southeast Asian history


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 496 other followers