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. . .

The study of nations and nationalism is a massive and complex field of study, but it’s possible to point to three main approaches that have been employed in the study of nations.

1) There is the perennialist perspective which argues that nations have more or less always existed (a view which is now largely discredited).

2) There is the modernist perspective which argues that nations emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries together with modernization.

3) And there is the ethno-symbolist perspective which agrees with the modernists that contemporary nations were forged in the modern era, but argues further that one can find roots to many modern nations in the pre-modern period in the form of ethnic communities or “ethnies.”


Today one of the main proponents of this ethno-symbolist approach is Anthony Smith. Smith has written extensively on this topic, and it is easy to see that the history of the Vietnamese nation fits nicely with his ideas.

In his recent work, Ethno-Symbolism and Nationalism: A Cultural Approach (2009), Smith defines an ethnie as follows:

“. . . a named and self-defined human community whose members possess a myth of common ancestry, shared memories, one or more elements of common culture, including a link with territory, and a measure of solidarity, at least among the upper strata.” (27)

ES&N quote

So for Smith, an ethnic community can exist at “the upper strata,” among members of the elite. He calls this type of ethnie a “lateral ethnie” (an ethnic community that is spread across the top of a society).

The way that nations formed from such lateral ethnies was through the expansion of the bureaucratic state (which the lateral ethnie controlled).

Smith talked about how this happened in the case of various European nations in his 1991 work, National Identity, as follows:

“In England, France, Spain, Sweden and to some extent Poland and Russia, the dominant lateral ethnie, which formed the state’s ethnic core, was gradually able to incorporate middle strata and outlying regions into the dominant ethnic culture. The primary agency of such incorporation was the new bureaucratic state.

“Through its military, administrative, fiscal and judicial apparatus it was able to regulate and disseminate the fund of values, symbols, myths, traditions and memories that formed the cultural heritage of the dominant aristocratic core.” (55)


While much of Smith’s ideas have been developed through his study of European history, I would argue that Vietnam fits this model very well.

In the medieval period (~10th-15th centuries) there was an elite in the Red River Delta that upheld values that made them distinct from the rest of the population (Confucian values, for instance), that dressed differently from the rest of the population, that wrote in a foreign language (classical Chinese), and that created stories/myths about the past in that foreign language and in genres of writing that were not indigenous to the Red River Delta.

In other words, the medieval Việt elite were a classic example of a “lateral ethnie.” And it would be easy to document how the culture of this lateral ethnie gradually spread to the other members of the population over the following centuries as the reach of the bureaucratic state spread.


Finally, there are two more points about Smith’s ideas and the ethno-symbolist approach that are important in relation to Vietnam. First, while Smith does argue that modern nations have pre-modern roots, he only sees those roots extending back to the early-modern or medieval periods, NOT to antiquity. He does not argue, for instance, that modern Italy can be linked to an ethnie in the Roman empire.

Second, Smith accepts that some of the myths and beliefs that ethnies and nations use are invented. It is not a problem for him that a medieval lateral ethnie would create myths about the past or that those same myths would get transformed in the modern era.

In fact, this is one of main the contributions of the ethno-symbolist approach, as it shows how ideas get created/invented, spread and then get transformed in the modern period so that they come to seem like a “natural” part of a “natural” nation.


As such, the ethno-symbolist perspective is perfect for understanding how a medieval elite in the Red River Delta created ideas and beliefs that were gradually adopted by other members of the population, and that were later transformed and made central to the modern nation building process in the twentieth century.

I read an article that South Vietnamese historian Nguyễn Phương wrote in the 1960s on the Trưng sisters. I had never looked closely at the sources of information for their uprising, but Nguyễn Phương’s article made me realize that they are problematic.

trung sisters

What I can now see is that there were two early accounts about the Trưng sisters, and that one of these versions came to dominate the historical tradition (although it also changed over time), while the other did not. And as far as I can tell, the version that did not come to dominate is more accurate.

The first version appeared around 445 CE in Fan Ye’s History of the Later Han (Hou Hanshu 後漢書) and is as follows:

“In the 16th year, Giao Chỉ woman Trưng Trắc and her sister, Trưng Nhị, rebelled and attacked the [administrative center of] the commandery. Trưng Trắc was the daughter of a Lạc general from Mê Linh District. (Mê is pronounced ‘mê,’ and Linh is pronounced ‘linh.’) She married Thi Sách from Chu Diên as his wife, and was very powerful and brave. Giao Chỉ Governor Su Ding used the law to punish her. Trắc became angry, and therefore rebelled. After that, the savages in Cửu Chân, Nhật Nam and Hợp Phố all responded [to their call] and plundered 65 citadels. Trắc declared herself to be a monarch.”

至十六年,交阯女子徵側及其妹徵貳反,攻郡。徵側者,麊泠縣雒將之女也。(麊音莫支反,泠音零。) 嫁為朱䳒人詩索妻,甚雄勇。交阯太守蘇定以法繩之,側忿,故反。於是九眞、日南、合浦蠻里皆應之,凡略六十五城,自立為王。

Hou Hanshu 116

The second version appeared close to a century later (~515-24) in Li Daoyuan’s Annotated Classic of Waterways (Shuijing zhu 水經注), where it says the following:

“Later, a Chu Diên Lạc general’s son named Thi sought as his wife a Mê Linh Lạc general’s daughter named Trưng Trắc. Trắc was courageous. She led Thi to raise rebels (Note: ‘Thi’ has recently been carved erroneously as ‘wife’), attack the [administrative centers of] regions and commanderies, and subjugate the various Lạc generals, all of whom then entrusted Trưng Trắc to be monarch, and to establish an administrative center at Mê Linh.”

後朱䳒雒將子名詩索麊冷雒將女名徵側為妻。側為人有膽勇,將詩起賊 (案近刻訛為妻),攻破州郡,服諸雒將,皆屬徵側為王,治麊泠縣。

Shuijing zhu

The first difference that we see here is that in the Annotated Classic of Waterways the name of Trưng Trắc’s husband is Thi, rather than Thi Sách. This actually makes more sense.

In the eighteenth century there was a scholar by the name of Zhao Yiqing who pointed out this problem in an annotated version of the Annotated Classic of Waterways that he created – the Exegesis of the Annotated Classic of Waterways (Shuijing zhu shi 水經注釋).

The problem revolved around the character “sách” 索 which Fan Ye had understood as part of a name, and Li Daoyuan had understood as a verb meaning “to seek.” This is what Zhao Yiqing noted:

“‘to seek a wife’ (索妻) is the same as to say ‘to take as a wife’ (娶婦). The [passage in] ‘The Account of the Southern Savages and Southwestern Barbarians’ in Fan [Ye]’s history which states ‘married Thi Sách from Chu Diên as his wife’ is completely erroneous.



Shuijing zhu shi

This makes sense, because the sentence in the History of the Later Han is awkward (“She married Thi Sách from Chu Diên as his wife, and was very powerful and brave” – 嫁為朱䳒人詩索妻,甚雄勇), particularly the “married as. . . his wife” 嫁為. . . 妻 and the transition between “wife” 妻 and the next character, which means “very” 甚.

On the other hand, the sentence in the Annotated Classic of Waterways is smooth: “Later, a Chu Diên Lạc general’s son named Thi sought as his wife a Mê Linh Lạc general’s daughter named Trưng Trắc. Trắc was courageous” 後朱䳒雒將子名詩索麊冷雒將女名徵側為妻。側為人有膽勇.

Shuijing zhu shu

Then in the early twentieth century, Yang Shoujing and Xiong Huizhen produced yet another annotated version of the Annotated Classic of Waterways – the Commentary on the Annotated Classic of Waterways (Shuijing zhu shu 水經注疏) – in which they pointed out that there was a passage in a tenth-century encyclopedia, the Record of the World During the Taiping Era (Taiping huanyu ji 太平寰宇記) which demonstrated that this term, “sách” 索, was used in the area of the Red River delta (i.e., Giao Chỉ or Giao Châu) to mean “to seek [a wife].”

There is a passage in that work on customs in Giao Châu, which states that “for a man seeking a wife [索婦], before he gets married he sends a tray of betel nut. Once the girl has consumed it all they become a couple.”


Taiping huanyu ji

So it seems pretty clear to me that the passage about the Trưng sisters in the Annotated Classic of Waterways is more accurate on this point. However, the information that was eventually recorded by Vietnamese followed Fan Ye’s History of the Later Han. There are other ways in which Vietnamese sources followed the History of the Later Han as well.

I wonder why that was the case? Didn’t people remember the name of Trưng Trắc’s husband?

I’m attaching the Nguyễn Phương article that I mentioned here (Nguyen Phuong on Trung sisters).

There is a very famous Vietnamese song from the 1960s written by Y Vân called “Saigon is Beautiful” (Sài Gòn đẹp lắm). I remember being in Bangkok a few years ago and hearing a Thai version of this song when I was in a restaurant or a taxi or someplace like that (and a reader wrote a while ago that her heard the Thai version once on Internet radio).

At the time I thought it was interesting that a Vietnamese song had been recorded by someone outside of Vietnam.

Today I was listening to some clips of songs that are being digitized by The Cambodian Vintage Music Archive and there is one by the late great Cambodian singer, Sinn Sisamouth, called “Girls Today” (Srey Srey Elov) from 1970 that is clearly inspired by “Saigon is Beautiful.” However, Sinn Sisamouth gives it a distinctly Cambodian flavor.

Finally, I found that Hong Kong singer, Frances Yip (葉麗儀), recorded a version of “Saigon is Beautiful” in 1974. This version of the song was apparently used by Cathay Pacific Airlines for promotional purposes.

It’s fascinating to see the international life that this song had.

If anyone can locate the Thai version of this song, please let me know.

A Vietnamese translation of Edward Said’s Orientalism has apparently just been published. That book became very influential after it first appeared in 1978, becoming a foundational text for the field of post-colonial studies.

In his book, Said examines the way that Western writers have historically depicted “the Orient,” and he argues that Westerners created an image of the East as exotic and undeveloped, and by doing so they implicitly created a rationale for the colonization of the Orient.


Said’s main focus was on writings about the Middle East, but scholars who have been inspired by his work have examined writings about other regions in Asia and have found that his interpretive framework works there as well.

I recently came across an article what appeared in North American newspapers in 1922 which demonstrates this. The article was called “Scandal on a Postage Stamp! Why France Issued Certain Agitated Official Orders When it Learned that the Snappy Little Ladies on the Indo-Chinese Stamps were Notoriously Wicked Native Dancing Houris” and it appeared in The Morning Tulsa Daily World and the Richmond Times-Dispatch on 9 July 1922 and the Vancouver Daily World on 15 July 1922.


The article notes that there was an advisory body to the French government called “The Superior Council for the Colonies,” and claims that one of its members, a “certain dignified gentleman” by the name of Maitre Duchene,” made a tour of inspection in Indochina.

“Having completed his investigations of postal, railroad, industrial, political and sanitary affairs, he was courteously entertained by local princes and native potentates – and one of those entertainments included a formal visit to Hanoi’s foremost open-air ‘palace de jazz,’ where the celebrated dancing beauties of Annam, Cambodia and Tonking wiggled their shoulders to the music of drums in a manner for which the well-known Orient is justly famous. . .

“At first it cannot be said that the scene inspired Maitre Duchene with any emotion stronger than a deprecatory curiosity – but shortly after the appearance on the platform of a certain Annamite houri with marked features, lustrous eyes and raven hair, the French superior councilman was observed to adjust his monocle and lean forward in an attitude of tense surprise.”


Maitre Duchene realizes that the woman dancing on the stage looks the same as the woman on a stamp that he has seen, and he goes to visit Governor-General Maurice Long to protest about this.

Among other comments, Duchene says the following:

“Last year we had 1,583,672 buffalos. The buffalo is a noble animal. It looks well on postage stamps. I ask you to compare photographs of our buffalos and our dancers and tell me whether the buffalo has not the more dignified and moral countenance. . .

“Why, then, should be ornament our official government postage stamps with likenesses of dancing girls and unregenerate Annamite cuties from Hanoi?”

dance stamp

The governor-general encourages Duchene to take up the matter with Minister of Foreign Affairs Albert Sarraut, the man who was governor-general of Indochina when the stamps were first issued.

Sarraut states that he had been too busy with more important matters to notice the stamps, but agrees with Duchene and says, “Suppress these stamps by all means and get out a new issue. Ornament it with pictures of buffalos, Buddhist priests, Christian missionaries, canning factories or camels. Anything you like. But don’t blame me.”

con trau

At the end of the article it is noted that the “Journal Officiel” of French Indochina had recently published a notice in which people were encouraged to submit designs for new stamps. My guess would be that this article is a work of fiction that was created by someone who saw such an announcement in one of the official publications produced by the French colonial administration in Indochina.

What is significant, however, is the way that it reproduces the types of Orientalist depictions that Said discussed in Orientalism. Indeed, some of the language and imagery comes straight from the Middle East, such as the mention of a “houri” (a beautiful young woman), and local princes and potentates.


It is also fascinating that there is a picture of Evan-Burrows Fontaine accompanying this article about Indochina. Fontaine was a dancer who was famous at the time this article was written for performing various “Oriental style” dances, dances which probably had little to do with any actual dances in the Orient and more to do with American imaginings of an exotic Other.

There is a lot more that one could say about this article, but it is clearly a good example of the ideas and imagery that Edward Said talked about in his book. Since its publication in 1978 there has been a lot of scholarship that has emerged that challenges various aspects of Said’s argument. The West’s depiction of the East was not as simple as Said may have at times suggested, but when one looks at articles like this one, it is clear that much of what Said wrote was right on target.

[The article can be found at Chronicling America.]

For years I’ve been avoiding the topic of the islands in the Southeast Asian Sea, in part because I’ve been turned off by the way that many people have approached this topic. In article after article I’ve seen authors simply take current ideas about sovereignty and then project them into the past.

So, for instance, if a map from the early nineteenth century has a line around some islands, then someone will interpret this as proof that the islands were part of the “sovereign territory” of a nation.


The problem, of course, is that the concept of sovereignty did not exist in Asia at that time. Yes, of course kingdoms had territory and maps existed, but none of this was conceived in the exact same way that it is today.

Instead, people think the way they do today about their country’s land because they have adopted many ideas from the West (including the concept of sovereignty). This transformation is nicely documented for Siam in Thongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped, but the same transformation took place in all of the other areas of Asia as well.

Siam Mapped

Beyond that, there is the added level of complexity that comes from the fact that at the same time that ideas like sovereignty were introduced, a place like Vietnam went from being a premodern kingdom, to a part of the French colonial empire, to a part of the Japanese wartime empire, to an independent nation, all of which had an impact on actual territorial borders as well as the way that territory was conceived. (Christopher Goscha’s Going Indochinese: Contesting Concepts of Space and Place in French Indochina deals with some aspects of this topic.)

going indochinese

The question then becomes how do you determine sovereignty today in the aftermath of all of these intellectual and political changes?

As I said, what many people have been doing has just been to take our current understanding of sovereignty and to then look for evidence to support the idea that islands in the sea “belonged” to a “nation” in the past.

A loyal reader recently encouraged me to read Vô Long Tê’s 1974 work, Les Archipels de Hoàng-Sa et de Trường-Sa selon les Anciens Ouvrages Vietnamiens d’Histoire et de Géographie. The author did a wonderful job of collecting together information from pre-twentieth-century Vietnamese sources that make reference to the Paracels and the Spratlys. However, his analysis largely follows the same logic as that of many people today, i.e., the existence of references to these islands in Vietnamese sources demonstrates that they have long been part of the national territory.

What I find more interesting in this book is the information that Vô Long Tê included about the efforts of the French to demonstrate that the Paracels and Spratlys were part of their empire. In particular, the author cites public declarations that the French authorities made in the 1930s that clearly stipulated that those islands were part of French Indochina.


This led me to look for more information about that period. In the process I came across an interesting article from 1933 by Olivier A. Saix which talked about the efforts on the part of the French at that time to annex the Paracels.

In order to do this, the French did a couple of things: 1) they tried to prove that no one else had a valid claim to those islands, and 2) they sent someone to look through pre-twentieth-century Vietnamese sources to find evidence that the islands were historically part of the Vietnamese empire.

In this respect, what the French did was exactly what many Vietnamese are doing today. However, in addition to these activities, the French did much more. First, they made a public declaration of their claim to the islands (as detailed in Vô Long Tê’s book), and second, they sent people to peacefully establish a government presence on those islands.


I think these last two actions are important, as I was reading an article today by Hong Thao Nguyen entitled “Vietnam’s Position on the Sovereignty over the Paracels & the Spratlys: Its Maritime Claim” in which the author pointed out that in determining the sovereignty of contested areas, international law has in some cases relied on something known as the “principle of effectiveness” which essentially argues that a state can claim sovereignty over unclaimed (res nullius) and abandoned (res derelicta) territories through the “peaceful and continuous display of State authority.”

While the Nguyễn Dynasty exerted some authority over the Paracels and Spratlys, it looks to me like it was the French who were the first to demonstrate a “peaceful and continuous display of State authority” over the Paracels.

What is more, they did so at a time when the concept of sovereignty, and when international laws that recognized sovereignty, had become well established in Asia.


Now I’m sure that international law is much more complex than this, but it also seems to me that the key to demonstrating sovereignty in that region is not by showing “who was there first” and assuming that sovereignty is something eternal, but instead by demonstrating who established sovereignty over those islands through the means that international law can recognize.

If the French were the first to clearly do that, then the next question to consider would be how the authority of a colonial empire gets passed on to an independent state.

That topic is too complex for my simple mind, so it’s time for me to stop writing about this topic, but I think that the key to this topic is seeing where history and international law intersect, and as far as I can tell, that first happened in the 1930s (but there are undoubtedly people more knowledgeable about this topic than me who have other ideas).

In any case, trying to find sovereignty before there was sovereignty just doesn’t make sense to me.

For those who are interested, I’m attaching below a copy of Vô Long Tê’s book and the article by Saix.

Les Archipels

Saix article

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


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