I usually refrain from “advertising” on this blog, but a project came to my attention today that I feel, for various reasons, that I simply have to “advertise.”

A few months ago I wrote about an Irishman (Laurence Carroll) who became a Buddhist monk in Burma (U Dhammaloka) in the early twentieth century. I wrote that piece based on the scholarship of a group of scholars.

One of those scholars pointed out to me today that there is an Irish filmmaker, Ian Lawton, who is attempting to make a documentary about this man (in collaboration with the scholars who have researched about U Dhammaloka).

dhammloka dana

How, however, can someone make a documentary about someone for whom there is very little documentary evidence, and absolutely no film footage? Ian Lawton is attempting to do this by combining animation (which he wants to employ someone to create) with footage of “talking heads” (i.e., experts).

From looking at the brief footage that Ian Lawton has already filmed, it’s clear to me that this man is creative, and has ideas about how an “historical documentary” can be presented in new and engaging ways.


So I’m really happy to learn about this project, and I have made a meager contribution to assist it. I do so because I believe that film/video is the future of knowledge.

This project on U Dhammaloka is one in which a professional filmmaker is working with a professional animator and academics. That is great, and we will always need works that are the product of such collaborations.

However, we also need to find a way for academics to produce their own videos on their own. Academics absolutely must enter the world of film/video, because that is the media of the future.

In the not too distant future, I hope to launch a video version of Le Minh Khai’s SEAsian History Blog. But I also encourage everyone to spread the news about this (more professional) U Dhammaloka documentary, and to contribute financially to it, if they have the means to do so.

Erin go Bragh, and let’s work together to move academia into the (HD) 21st century.

There was a theory that emerged in the early twentieth century which argued that at the end of the first millennium BC, Vietnamese migrated to the Red River delta from an original homeland in what is today southeastern China.

This idea was suggested first by Edouard Chavannes in 1901, and was then developed further by Leonard Aurousseau in 1923. Today this theory is no longer upheld, although one can still find it mentioned. Nonetheless, I don’t think that many people are aware of why this theory does not make sense.

In postcolonial Vietnam this theory came to be rejected as “colonial,” I guess because of its claim that the Vietnamese come from a place outside of Vietnam. However, I don’t find that saying that scholarship is “colonial” explains much.

Yes, there were problems with the scholarship of Chavannes and Aurousseau, but I don’t attribute those problems to a “colonial” outlook. Instead, the problems were due at times to careless scholarship, but also to what I would call a flawed methodology that we can perhaps call the “hidden network approach” to viewing the past.


In a footnote in the fourth volume of his 5-volume translation of Sima Qian’s Historical Records (Shiji 史記), Edouard Chavannes put forth the theory that the “Annamite race” is descended from the people of the ancient kingdom of Yue (Việt). That kingdom occupied the area of what is today the northern part of Zhejiang Province, and it was destroyed in the fourth century BC by the kingdom of Chu.

After that, according to Chavannes, there were multiple polities that formed from “the debris” of the kingdom of Yue, such as Nanyue in the area of what is now Guangdong Province, Minyue in present-day Fujian Province, and Yuedonghai in what is now Zhejiang Province.

vol 4 page 418

Chavannes argues that “these principalities certainly relate to the Annamite race,” and he offers two pieces of evidence to support this claim.

First, he cites Trương Vĩnh Ký’s 1875 Cours d’histoire annamite to claim that Annamite historians regarded the “princes of Nanyue/Nam Việt” as forming the third dynasty of “Annam.”

Second he notes that the capital of the kingdom of Yuedonghai was Dong’ou/Đông Âu (literally, “Eastern Ou/Âu”), and then he cites Gustave Dumoutier’s Étude historique et archéologique sur Co-Loa, capitale de l’ancien royaume de Âu Lạc (255-207 av. J.-C.) (Paris, E. Leroux, 1893), to note that Annamite historians say that there was an Annamite kingdom called Xi Ou/Tây Âu (literally, “Western Ou/Âu) which had as its capital, Cổ Loa, in the Red River delta.

Based on the above information, Chavannes concludes that Dong’ou/Đông Âu, Nanyue/Nam Việt and Xi Ou/Tây Âu were all part of a single Annamite race.


There are numerous problems with Chavannes’s ideas here. First, the “princes of Nanyue/Nam Việt” that Chavanne refers to were Zhao Tuo and his descendents, men who were at least originally what we would call ethnic Han today, that is, people from areas to the north (Zhao Tuo was from Hebei), and not members of the indigenous population of the region, or related to peoples from the ancient kingdom of Yue. So the fact that this kingdom became part of the Vietnamese historical tradition does not mean that it was “racially” the same,

Second, in his 1893 study of the ancient city of Cổ Loa, Gustave Dumoutier stated that “the geography of Gu Xifeng says that under the Zhou dynasty the country occupied by Giao Chỉ was called Lạc Việt, and under the following Qin Dynasty it took the name of Tây Âu or Âu Lạc.” (pg. 8)

Gu Xifeng is Gu Yewang 顧野王, the author of a sixth-century work called the Territorial Treatise (Yudi zhi 輿地志), and the passage that Dumoutier refers to is mentioned in an eighth century annotation to Sima Qian’s Historical Records. This is what it says:

“The Territorial Treatise states that ‘Jiaozhi/Giao Chỉ during the Zhou was Luoyue/Lạc Việt. During the Qin it was Xi’ou/Tây Âu. They tattoo their bodies and cut their hair to avoid serpents. Xi Ouyue/Tây Âu Lạc was to the southwest of Panyu. Yue/Việt and Oulue/Âu Lạc are all surnamed ‘Mi/Mị.’”



This passage is not very clear in that it contains numerous names. However, we can see that Dumoutier “simplified” it by saying that the area of what is now the Red River delta during the time of the Qin Dynasty was called Tây Âu or Âu Lạc.

Dumoutier did not actually say that Cổ Loa was the capital of Xi’ou/Tây Âu. And he did not say that Annamite historians said that either. However, that is what Chavannes said in his book (by citing page 8 of Dumoutier’s book).

So there is definitely some careless scholarship here. Beyond that, however, the ideas that Chavannes expressed are also problematic. First, he equates geographic names (or the names of kingdoms) with race. If, however, we are going to use the idea of race to look at the past, we know that Zhao Tuo was of a different “race” (I think Chavannes was using the term “race” to mean something closer to what we would today call an “ethnic group”) than many of the peoples he ruled over in his kingdom of Nanyue, so it doesn’t really make sense to equate geographic names with single races.

In addition, there is only one source that we can use to make the claim that the Red River delta during the time of the Qin Dynasty was referred to as Xi’ou/Tây Âu (Gu Yewang’s Territorial Treatise), but 1) that text was compiled centuries later, and 2) given that this text contains so many different names, it’s difficult to see that the term “Xi’ou/Tây Âu” is really significant.

However, for Chavannes, the term “Xi’ou/Tây Âu” (Western Ou/Âu) was very important, as it served as a counterpart to another term Dong’ou/Đông Âu (Eastern Ou/Âu).

nodes and links

This then brings us to what I call the “hidden network approach” to studying the past. If we look at the way that Chavannes presented his ideas, it is as if he was discovering a hidden network of nodes and links in the historical record.

The polities – Yue, Nanyue/Nam Việt, and Xi’ou/Tây Âu – as well as the city, Dong’ou/Đông Âu, all served as nodes which Chavannes then discovered the links connecting them.

Dong’ou/Đông Âu and Xi’ou/Tây Âu were linked by the common term “ou/âu,” as well as by the pairing of “east” and “west.”

Xi’ou/Tây Âu and Nanyue/Nam Việt were linked by the fact that Vietnamese historians saw Nanyue/Nam Việt as the third dynasty in their history.

And then since Nanyue/Nam Việt was connected to Xi’ou/Tây Âu and Xi’ou/Tây Âu was connected to Dong’ou/Đông Âu, then it seemed obvious to Chavannes that Yue must be part of this link as well.


I’ve found that scholars like Henri Maspero examined the past in a similar way. To me this approach is overly complex, and it falls apart once people start pointing out problems with some of the links in the network.

So this theory that Chavannes put forth in 1901 had at least three problems with it:

1) It contains some careless mistakes,

2) It is problematic in equating race with place names,

3) It employs an approach to examining the past that is not effective for interpreting the past.

While this theory that Chavannes put forth had these limitations, as I mentioned above, in 1923 Leonard Aurousseau developed it further. In the process, however, Aurousseau did not correct these problems in Chavannes’s theory. I’ll try to write about Aurousseau’s work sometime soon.

One of the reasons why I decided to start writing this blog back in 2010 was in order to share some of the things that I knew and thought, but which I realized I would never include in my academic writings.

Scholars/professors acquire a lot of knowledge and insights over the years from engaging in research and teaching that never make it into their academic writings. What is more, in the past there were very few ways for scholars/professors to share that information so that it could end up educating more people.

A scholar/professor might share some of those ideas in talking to a graduate student who came to her/his office, and that graduate student might then go on to build on them in her/his dissertation. Or alternately, a scholar/professor might mention something to a colleague at a conference over drinks at a bar, and that colleague might then go on to include that information in her/his own academic writing.

Other than those limited means of sharing information, much of what professors/scholars knew, stayed in their brains.


In 2010 it dawned on me that the Internet could be like one enormous professor’s office, or an always-open conference bar, where anyone at any time can find out what it is that a scholar/professor knows or thinks, but hasn’t written (or never will write) about.

At the same time, I was also aware that “common people” had already discovered the power of the Internet for spreading knowledge, and the success of Wikipedia was the clearest sign of that. Nonetheless, this was creating “problems,” as many of the people who were contributing to Wikipedia (and still are) were not experts on the topics they were writing about.

So another reason for writing the blog was to put ideas out there on the Internet that were not well-represented (including on sites like Wikipedia, which I confess, I’m too lazy to contribute to), but which I felt were academically valid.


Today I was reminded of all of this when I saw that a blog entry that I wrote was referenced on the Wikipedia page for Hồ Chí Minh, to refute the claim that Hồ Chí Minh once said “I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.”

I actually noticed this a few weeks ago (as I saw that someone had linked to the blog from that Wikipedia page). At that time, whoever included that information had simply said something on the “talk” page for the Hồ Chí Minh Wikipedia page about how someone on a blog had provided a lot of information that questioned the claim that Hồ Chí Minh had made that statement.

Today, however, I noticed that a lot more information has been provided in an effort to demonstrate that this blog is “scholarly,” and therefore (theoretically) reliable.

I’m assuming that the editors at Wikipedia must have contacted the person who wrote that information, and that that person then provided the information about me to add “weight” to its believability.


I find this all very interesting for what it says about how knowledge is produced in the digital age.

I am not an expert on Hồ Chí Minh, and I am not an expert on the period of history when Hồ Chí Minh allegedly made that statement. There are, meanwhile, plenty of scholars in the world who are experts on one or both of these topics.

At the same time, the ideas that I presented in that blog article are ones that I have come to think after reading and teaching about Vietnamese (and Southeast Asian, and East Asian and world) history, and they are the type of ideas that if there were no Internet, I would mention to a graduate student in my office, or to a colleague over drinks at a conference bar.

However, before the time of the Internet, I never would have written those ideas down, as I don’t write about that period. And finally, who knows how long it would take before one of the experts on that period were to talk about that quote? And if someone did (such as the graduate student in my office or the colleague at the conference bar), how much longer would it take for something written in a single academic writing to reach a general audience?


Wikipedia aspires to create “crowd-sourced” knowledge that is nonetheless scholarly valid. Are the ideas of a “scholar” who is not an expert on Hồ Chí Minh or the 1940s-1950s on a “sometimes/somewhat scholarly blog” valid?

I guess they are until the time comes when a true expert comes along and offers another interpretation, which is what Wikipedia is designed to enable. Or maybe I just saved that person the need to do so? ;)

I’m not sure, but in teaching about this period recently I remembered that there is another comment related to this topic.


In a documentary entitled “Pacific Century: From the Barrel of a Gun,” a former OSS officer by the name of Allison K. Thomas says that in a conversation that he had with Hồ Chí Minh (in I’m guessing 1945), Hồ Chí Minh said the following regarding his desire to gain the support for Vietnamese independence from the US: “He told me privately that he would welcome one million American soldiers, but not one French soldier.” (The quote starts at 3:42 in this video.)

So Thomas was “privately” told by Hồ Chí Minh that he would rather have American soldiers in Vietnam than French ones, and Paul Mus heard from “a good source” that Hồ Chí Minh would “prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of [his] life.”

This is difficult information to verify. I certainly can’t “prove” that none of this was ever said, but I do think that drawing attention to the fact that these quotes are problematic is better than having people unquestioningly believe them.

So thank you to whoever added that information to Wikipedia. Spreading the ideas that get expressed in my office and at conference bars is one of the reasons why I started this blog.

At the same time, it also feels a bit odd. I always feel that what I write on this blog is “unfinished.” These posts, like conversations in offices and bars, all contain ideas that can be developed further.

Then again, I guess that’s what Wikipedia is too – a place where knowledge can get developed and transformed further – and that it is through this open and continuous process of interactions between “lay people,” “semi-professionals” and “professionals,” as well as between “academic,” “semi-academic” and “ungrounded” ideas, that knowledge is being created before our eyes in the digital age.

A reader asked where the idea that the millennium when the Red River Delta was part of various “Chinese” empires can be seen as something like “1000 years of Chinese domination.” It’s an interesting question, because in Vietnamese historical texts from before the twentieth century this period is simply referred to as the time of “belonging to the North” (Bắc thuộc), a term that did not have the connotations of “domination” or “colonization” that came to be associated with that period in the twentieth century.

So where did that way of viewing the past come from?


I’m still not sure, but I found the past presented that way in a book from 1910 called On & Off Duty in Annam by Gabrielle M. Vassal, the British wife of a French army doctor who worked in Indochina from 1907-1910.

It’s not easy to determine where exactly Vassal got her knowledge of Vietnamese history from. There are aspects of it that are no longer believed today but which had been written about by various French authors by that time – such as the theory that the Vietnamese were part of a race that was distinguished by their “separated toes” (Giao Chỉ), and the idea that there had been two groups in the Red River Delta in antiquity who had competed with each other (some French authors interpreted the story of Sơn Tinh and Thủy Tinh this way).

However, there are other ideas that Vassal has that seem to be either her own creations (such as her idea that the Hong Bang dynasty ruled over “Qui (foreign devils),” an interesting way of interpreting the meaning of the mythical kingdom of Xích Quỷ). In any case, let us look at what she wrote about the early history of the Vietnamese, or the “Annamese” as she referred to them.


“The Annamese are descended from the Giao-Chi, once established in the south of China. Giao-Chi means separated big toe; this is a peculiarity which the Annamese have not yet lost, and which enables them to use their big toe in a most skillful manner. The Giao-Chi may be traced back to the remotest antiquity. Nearly three thousand years before our era they occupied Yunnan, the Quan-Si, Quan Toung, and Tonking.

“A Chinese prince sent his son Loc Tuc to govern the Giao-Chi. It is the origin of the Hong Bang dynasty, which reigned over those Qui (foreign devils) for more than two thousand years. It is only in the third century B.C. that we can emerge from this legendary period.

“At that time intestine struggles divided the Giao-Chi country into two parts: the Van-Lang to the people of the plain and deltas, the Thai to those of the hill-country. China seized this opportunity of establishing a new Chinese dynasty. In the year in B.C. she conquered the country and kept it in subjection till A.D. 968. The Annamese were therefore governed by Chinese mandarins, who accustomed them to Chinese civilization during more than a millennium. The literature and moral code of Confucius gave a definite shape to Annamese thought and religion. That their national spirit was still alive is proved from time to time in the repeated insurrections and heroic rebellions against their conquerors. From 39-36 B.C. an Annamese woman, after proclaiming the independence of her country, expelled the Chinese for a time, and reigned under the name of Tru’ng Vu’ong.

“But it was not till the middle of the tenth century that the foreigner was driven out and the first national dynasty established.” (5-6)


Vassal then goes on to talk about the Cham and the minority peoples in the Central Highlands, or what she called the “Mois,” as follows:

“Placing himself at the head of an army of 260,000 men, [Lê Thánh Tông] attacked the Chams in their capital and exterminated them. For fifteen centuries the Chams had inhabited the larger part of Annam proper. As the representatives of Hindoo civilization, they have left remarkable monuments of their past glory. Only a few survivals now remain. This rapid extinction of a powerful and civilized race by the Annamese is a problem of the highest interest.

“The Mois, on the other hand, have survived the disturbances and revolutions of the country’s history. Faraway in the remote mountainous regions of Annam they have retained their primitive habits. An incongruous collection of wretched tribes may there be found who have sacrificed everything to their love of freedom. At all events, they have succeeded in occupying an immense hinterland, the possession of which their neighbors did not find it worth while to dispute with them.” (7)


The way that Vassal describes the past very much reflects the way that educated Europeans viewed the world at that time (the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), what we can call the age of high imperialism.

Talk of “nations” and “races” that fought for “freedom” or faced “extinction” or “domination,” and contrasting between “civilized” and “primitive” peoples, were all expressions that were part of the Social Darwinist worldview of that time.

We can’t find the past presented this way in texts written by Vietnamese before the twentieth century. However, in the Western world at that time, Chinese were often depicted in negative terms, and were seen as threatening to overrun various places outside of China, such as the Philippines, America, and Hawaii:

“The fear of an Asiatic invasion is neither a bugaboo nor a superstition. It is an ever present and menacing danger. The new era in China means an era of emigration on the part of her crowded millions. The Mongolian hive is swarming. We must shut them from America or they will ruin our civilization as locusts destroy a harvest.” (“Hawaii and the Chinese,” The San Francisco Call, October 24, 1897, page 6.)


Vassal doesn’t have such a negative view of the Chinese, but her more neutral comments still depict the Chinese as capable of overrunning a foreign land, like Vietnam:

“The Chinese are naturally very numerous in Indo-China; after many centuries they have acquired an exceptional position here, and gained the respectful title of “cai-chu” (uncles). In their dealings with the Annamese they are, as it best profits them, either discreetly or insolently superior. Except in Tonking, it is they who carry on all the small trade. They are unrivalled shopkeepers, devoted to their work, clever, honest, and very united among themselves. They do not cultivate rice-fields, but they monopolize the rice trade, building manufactories to shell the rice and chartering boats to export it. . . .They are perhaps Indo-China’s best colonists, and those who make the greatest profits. There can be no question of evicting them at present as the Americans have done in the Philippines (Chinese Exclusion Act). The French have simply tried to limit Chinese immigration by raising heavy taxes on the Celestials, so as to re-establish the equilibrium in favor of the Annamese.” (3)


In other words, according to Vassal, it was only thanks to French taxation of the Chinese (and Chinese reluctance to pay taxes. . .) that Indochina was not overrun by Chinese, thereby tipping the equilibrium against the Vietnamese.

What is more, Vassal does not give any indication that Vietnamese felt any animosity towards the Chinese. She gives examples later in her book (157-158) of how Chinese succeeded at that time in getting Vietnamese to gamble away their money, and she repeatedly shows throughout the book how dominant Chinese were in the economy, but she does not mention any resentment towards the Chinese for any of this.

Chinese merchant

Vassal’s perspective is of course just that – one perspective. However, I think it is easy to see how she came to view the past in the way she did. She was living in a world where lands were being conquered and colonized, and she spent three years in a French colony where she was surrounded by evidence of Chinese economic domination.

Add to that the fact that Social Darwinism was a popular way of viewing the world at that time, and I think it is easy to understand how someone like Vassal would see Chinese domination in the Vietnamese past.

As for how Vietnamese eventually came to see Chinese domination in their past, I am still not sure, as a year after Vassal published her book, Vietnamese scholar Ngô Giáp Đậu wrote about the role of Chinese in Vietnamese history very differently.

After getting distracted by certain issues in the opening passage of an essay by Trần Quốc Vượng on Vietnamese culture (see the last post below), today I read through the rest of this essay.

The argument that Trần Quốc Vượng makes in this essay is that Vietnamese scholars in the past (before the 20th century) were so infatuated with Chinese culture that they did not recognize the distinctness of Vietnamese culture. However, according to Trần Quốc Vượng, in the second half of the twentieth century Vietnamese Marxist scholars succeeded in bringing to light the fact that the roots of Vietnamese culture can be found in the first millennium BC (the Đông Sơn culture), before the area of the Red River Delta came under the control of the Han Dynasty, and this original culture persisted in the villages after the elite later adopted various aspects of Chinese culture.

Trần Quốc Vượng then goes on to make his own argument that this original culture can be traced back even earlier, to the Neolithic period (the Hòa Bình and Bắc Sơn cultures). In making this argument he cites the work of various Western scholars to demonstrate 1) that the Neolithic was a very important period and that 2) culture is influenced by the environment. He does this in order to make the point that the environment of Vietnam influenced the type of culture that was created during the Neolithic there, and that this cultural tradition persisted through the ages, up until at least the 18th and 19th centuries.

In doing so, however, Trần Quốc Vượng misrepresents what Western scholars actually wrote about.


In arguing for the importance of the Neolithic, Trần Quốc Vượng cites a passage in Tristes Tropiques, a famous work by French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, as follows:

“One of the most creative phases in human history took place with the onset of the neolithic era: agriculture and the domestication of animals are only two of the developments which may be traced to this period. It must have had behind it thousands of years during which small societies of human beings were noting, experimenting, and passing on to one another the fruits of their knowledge. The very success of this immense enterprise bears witness to the rigor and the continuity of its preparation, [at a time when writing was quite unknown].”

Trần Quốc Vượng then states, without providing any evidence or citing any source to support his claim, that “Every archaeologist, ethnographer and historian knows that the lifestyle of the Neolithic, in its basic form, continued to be maintained in the lifestyle of villages of humanity all the way until the 18th and 19th centuries.”


I put the phrase “at a time when writing was quite unknown” at the end of the above quote from Tristes Tropiques in brackets as Trần Quốc Vượng did not include that phrase in his quote. However it is important because in this passage Lévi-Strauss was talking about his theory of writing, not the Neolithic period. What Lévi-Strauss argued was that one would think that the invention of writing must have created massive changes because people could record more information than they could remember and that this could enable them to do things that they could not do before writing was invented, and yet a change as important as the Neolithic Revolution occurred before writing was invented.

So Lévi-Strauss starts looking at other ways in which writing was important.

He ultimately argues that what is really significant about writing is that it seems to have appeared around the world in connection with cities and empires. In these contexts, Lévi-Strauss argues, what was really significant about writing was that it enabled the exploitation of the common people.

To quote, Lévi-Strauss stated that, “This exploitation made it possible to assemble workpeople by the thousand and set them tasks that taxed them to the limits of their strength. . . If my hypothesis is correct, the primary function of writing, as a means of communication, is to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings.”


My point here is that Lévi-Strauss wrote about writing, not about the Neolithic period. So his book is therefore not a source to cite about the Neolithic period. It is a work to cite if you are researching about theories about the emergence of writing.

However, Trần Quốc Vượng cites this work to note that the Neolithic era was one of the most creative periods in human history, and then he makes an ungrounded claim that the lifestyle of the Neolithic continued in villages up until the 19th century.

Trần Quốc Vượng then goes on to cite Marx and Engels in the same way. He cites their works out of context to make his own argument, an argument that is not related to what Marx and Engels actually wrote about.


First Trần Quốc Vượng cites a passage from Marx’s Capital in which Marx was talking about the “social process of production” that takes place under the “capitalist process of production.” Here Marx states that the “social process of production” took place “under specific historical and economic production relations” and that “the aggregate of these relations, in which the agents of this production stand with respect to Nature and to one another, and in which they produce, is precisely society, considered from the standpoint of its economic structure.”

This is not easy to understand, but (as far as I can tell) Marx was essentially trying to explain how society is the product of the economic relations between people.


Trần Quốc Vượng then cites a letter by Engels in which he stated that “By economic relations, which we regard as the determining basis of the history of society, we understand the way in which human beings in a definite society produce their necessities of life and exchange the products among themselves (in so far as division of labor exists). Consequently the whole technique of production and transportation is therein included. . . Under economic relations are included further, the geographical foundations . . . and also, naturally, the external milieu surrounding this social form.”

Like Marx, Engels was talking here about economic relations, and he made the point that geography plays a role in the economic relations between people.

TQV conclusion

After quoting the comments by Marx and Engels on economic relations, Trần Quốc Vượng then states that “Therefore, when we talk about the special features of Vietnamese culture [!!!], we have to search for their roots in the Neolithic, the period when agriculture and villages emerged, and we must pay attention to the geographic foundation and the natural environment that produced those special characteristics of the culture. . .”

This conclusion that Trần Quốc Vượng comes to has nothing to do with what Lévi-Strauss, Marx and Engels talked about in the passages that Trần Quốc Vượng cited. Instead, Trần Quốc Vượng just takes the fact that Lévi-Strauss mentioned “the Neolithic,” that Marx mentioned “society,” and that Engels mentioned “geographic foundation,” to support his own un-documented idea that Vietnamese “culture” (a topic which none of these scholars talked about in the cited passages) formed during the Neolithic and was influenced by geography and the environment. And then he adds to this his own idea which “every archaeologist, ethnographer and historian knows” (and I guess that’s why there was no need to provide any evidence to support this idea. . .) that the lifestyle of the Neolithic was maintained in villages up until the 19th century.

On the surface, this essay looks good. Trần Quốc Vượng cites the work of famous Western scholars and makes an argument.

But if you actually look at what those scholars wrote about, and then compare that with what Trần Quốc Vượng argues, then his argument falls apart. It is not supported by the work of the scholars he cites. It is just an argument that he himself made up, without any serious documentation or evidence.


When you cite the works of scholars, you cite them for the ideas that those scholars put forth. Marx and Engels talked about economic relations in the passages that Trần Quốc Vượng cited, not about the role that geography and the environment might (or might not) play in shaping culture. Lévi-Strauss wrote about his ideas about the emergence of writing in the passage that Trần Quốc Vượng cited, ideas that had come to Lévi-Strauss while conducting anthropological research in South America. The Neolithic period is merely something that he mentioned in passing in this book. He did not put forth ideas about the Neolithic period, and was not an expert on the Neolithic period.

In citing the works of Western scholars for ideas that those scholars did not put forth, Trần Quốc Vượng produced an article that looks like it must be valid, but it’s not.

[The essay I’m referring to is attached to the post below.]

I was reading an essay by the late Trần Quốc Vượng in which he talked about Vietnamese and Chinese culture.

Trần Quốc Vượng states at the beginning of the essay that Vietnamese culture has been different from Chinese culture from the time of its origins. He then points out, however, that there were Vietnamese scholars in the past who were so infatuated with Chinese culture that they did not pay attention to Vietnamese culture.

At the same time, according to Trần Quốc Vượng, there were other people in the past who were aware of this distinction between Vietnamese culture and Chinese culture and who resisted the efforts of the scholarly elite who wanted to change Vietnamese culture so that it more resembled Chinese culture (muốn cải biến văn hóa Việt Nam theo văn hóa Trung Quốc).


One such person, again according to Trần Quốc Vượng, was the Trần Dynasty monarch, Trần Minh Tông. Trần Quốc Vượng cites a passage from the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư (ĐVSKTT) where Trần Minh Tông states that “Our country has its own established rules: what is more, the customs of the South and the North are different from each other.”

(Nước ta đã có phép tăc nhất định: vả lại Nam Bắc phong tục khác nhau.)


There are problems with Trần Quốc Vượng’s translation of this passage, so let’s first look at what the text actually says. Trần Minh Tông is quoted as saying “The kingdom has its own rules. The South and North are different. If I listen to the archaic strategies of you pale-faced scholars then there will be chaos.”


The ĐVSKTT simply mentions “the kingdom” (quốc gia 國家), not “our country” (nước ta). The ĐVSKTT also doesn’t mention “customs” (phong tục), but simply says that the South and North are different, without explaining in what way.

So Trần Quốc Vượng added information to this passage that is not in the text. At the same time, he did not explain the context for Trần Minh Tông’s comments.


The context is that there were some scholar-officials at Trần Minh Tông’s court who submitted a memorial which stated that “The people are idle and do not engage in work. The elderly are still not on (the tax) books. People do not pay their taxes or [fulfill their obligation to provide] corvée labor, and [the duty of] requisitioned services is not fulfilled.”


Trần Minh Tông reportedly responded to this by saying “If things are like this, then how else can one establish a peaceful age. Do you want me to punish them and see what disturbance that will create?”


The text then states that some scholars wanted to change “the system” (chế độ 制度), and in response, Trần Minh Tông reportedly declared that, “The kingdom has its own rules. The South and North are different. If I listen to the archaic strategies of you pale-faced scholars then there will be chaos.”


Let’s now return to Trần Quốc Vượng’s translation. Trần Quốc Vượng presents Trần Minh Tông’s comment as if it represented the voice of “us” (ta) the “real Vietnamese,” who have to remind “pale-faced scholars” who admire “China” that the “Vietnamese” have their own “customs” and that “Chinese” ways of doing things are not appropriate for “Vietnam.”

What, however, was Trần Minh Tông actually talking about? Trần Quốc Vượng says that his statement was meant to resist the ideas of people who wanted to change Vietnamese culture. But was he really talking about culture?


The “pale-faced scholars” had pointed out to Trần Minh Tông that the kingdom was a mess. Whatever “system” (chế độ 制度) was in place was not working. People who should have been providing taxes and services were not doing so.

However, Trần Minh Tông defended this “system.” Why would he do so? Well we know that the Trần, like countless other ruling families around the world at that time, essentially saw the kingdom as their own private (or family) territory (which is why Trần Minh Tông did not refer to it as “our country” because it was “HIS kingdom”).

We also know that the Trần family created massive private estates, and that they enslaved people who were not on the tax registers and forced them to work on those estates.

This was the “peaceful age” that the Trần had established. They had established a “system” where their family could benefit from the fact that the institutions of the kingdom did not actually work the way they were designed to.

What the “pale-faced scholars” were threatening to do, was to dismantle this parasitic system that benefited the Trần dynasty family at the expense of common people, and to try to put in place a more rational system (undoubtedly inspired by their study of similar efforts in China, such as perhaps the reforms of Wang Anshi) that would create better conditions for the common people and the kingdom as a whole.


So were Trần Minh Tông’s comments really about “Vietnamese culture”? If they were then it must mean that having a governmental system that doesn’t work, and refusing to change it, has been a central part of Vietnamese culture from the time of its origin, and that anyone who seeks to create a more rational system is not following Vietnamese culture, but instead, is infatuated with China. . .

That doesn’t make any sense, and nor does what Trần Quốc Vượng wrote in this essay make any sense either.


I recently read some comments on the Internet that I liked about the need for historians to respect the past. The past was different from the present, and we have to respect that, otherwise historians simply become propagandists.

In this essay, Trần Quốc Vượng does not respect the past. He takes a modern concept (“culture” – a Western concept which Vietnamese in the scholars in the past were unfamiliar with), and then uses that concept to look at the past so that he can fulfill a present political need (the need to promote Vietnamese nationalism).

In the process, he distorts the past.

Trần Minh Tông’s comments are very interesting. What they show us, however, has nothing to do with “Vietnamese culture.” Instead, they show us the actions of a parasitic monarch who sought to defend his own interests, as well as the actions of some well-intentioned people who tried to challenge that monarch.

We can find examples of similar interactions from around the world at that time including. . . in “China.”

[I was going to write about the entire essay, but I already wrote a lot in just talking about issues on the first couple of pages. . . Here is the essay: VN & TQ.]

In continuing to follow my interest in animals and animal-human relations in the Southeast Asian past, I was looking around the web site for the Imperial War Museums for information about mules in Burma during World War II.

Mules were used to transport weapons and goods for the Chindits, a British special forces group that entered Burma from India and fought the Japanese, and they are mentioned quite often in the oral interviews on the Imperial War Museums web site of soldiers who served in the Chindit expeditions.

chindits and mule

So it looks like one could use what humans have written and said in order to write a history of mules in World War II Burma. What one could not do, however, is to incorporate a “mule voice” for that history.

The reason why this would be impossible is not simply because mules don’t speak human languages, but because the mules that carried weapons and supplies for the Chindits were actually “de-voiced” in India before they headed off to Burma.


A doctor by the name of A. J. Moffett claims to have invented the technique for doing this. In an article that he published in the British Medical Journal in 1983, he recalled the following:

“Sometime in 1942-3 I was the ear and throat specialist to No 14 British General Hospital stationed in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, India. I was approached by Colonel Stewart of the Indian Army Veterinary Corps. He had a problem.

“A mule makes a loud braying noise that can be heard for two or three miles. The First Chindit Force – at that time a very hush hush operation – led by Colonel Orde Wingate used mules for transport. This braying of the mules alerted the enemy to the position of the force. Wingate wanted the mules silenced. Could I as a laryngologist suggest what could be done.”

mule and man sleeping

A. J. Moffett goes on in his article to explain that he developed a simple technique for cutting the vocal chords of a mule so that it could no longer make sounds. He did this after the mule had been put to sleep with general anesthetics, and laid on its side.

However, an animal transport officer with the Chindits by the name of Francis William Geoffrey Turner stated in an interview that the Imperial War Museums has digitized that when this technique was actually implemented, veterinarians just used a local anesthetic, and the operation only took about three minutes, during which time the mule remained standing.

crossing river

Turner then makes some interesting remarks about the consequences of this “de-voicing” of mules. In particular, he argues that this de-vocalization “messed up” the mules because it took away their ability to speak to each other “which in effect therefore had the undesired effect of a mule having to see before he would go as opposed to be able to talk before he went.”

As an example of this, Turner talks about a time when the men and mules that he was with needed to cross the Irrawaddy River at a place where it was about 800 meters wide. It was very difficult to do this, because the men had to force the mules to not turn their heads back when they entered the water, because when the swimming mules looked back and saw other mules on the shore, they automatically wanted to turn back.

He notes that, “The mule you see would [have] liked at that stage to be able to call out to his friend on the other side before he entered the water.”

However, by de-vocalizing the mules, that ability to “talk to each other” was taken away. It was only when mules got far enough out into the water so that they could mules that had already crossed and were on the other side, that they then were able to move forward on their own.

mules in river

So mules were literally silenced in World War II Burma. At the same time, mules and other animals have also been largely silenced in many of our accounts of the past. In listening to various interviews on the Imperial War Museums site, however, it’s clear that many aspects of the past were experienced together by animals and humans, and that many human experiences in the past are closely interconnected with animals.

I therefore think that it’s time then to “re-vocalize” the animals in history, so that we can gain a fuller understanding of the past.

I remember having a conversation on Facebook with some friends/readers in which we talked about the connections in the 1960s between Hawaii and Saigon. In particular, we were talking about how there were many engineers, architects, etc., who had been working in Hawaii in the 1950s and early 1960s, who then went to Saigon. Through their work they then created a connection between the “built environments” of Saigon and places in the Hawaiian islands like Honolulu.


So I started to think about what things would have looked like if that relationship had developed further. What, for instance, would Vietnam be like today if Hawaiian music had taken hold as well, and if there were Hawaiian bands and Hawaiian songs about Vietnam?

Well, to help imagine what that might have looked like, I created a song called “The Vietnam Hula,” and I also created an imaginary “soundscape” of an imaginary band, “Kavika Trần and the Thanh Hóa Tiki Torchers” playing in an imaginary place, the Saigon Hawaiian Palace, accompanied by the dancing of an imaginary woman, Melia Nguyễn.

Here is the song.

And here are the lyrics:

If you go to Vietnam,

No matter where you stay,

You’ll see that Vietnam hula,

Done in the Vietnam way.


Out on a boat in Ha Long Bay,

Under the sweet moonlight,

You’ll see those Ha Long beauties,

It’s an unforgettable sight.


Along the Perfume River,

In the old capital of Hue,

The girls sing and dance all night,

And eat bún bò all day.


Down on the streets of Saigon,

The ladies with their áo dàis,

Flowing in the tropical breeze,

It’s like a lullaby.


Up in the city of Hanoi,

The phở gà is a real treat,

And the ladies selling it,

Well they’re all so sweet.


That’s the Vietnam hula,

Done in the Vietnam way,

So if you go to Vietnam,

I’m sure you’re gonna stay.

I recently had an email exchange with a young scholar who, among other things, tried to define the concept of “the Vietnamese intellectual tradition.” That got me thinking about how difficult it is to describe something like a “Vietnamese intellectual tradition.” People in the past who have attempted to do so have used terms like “Confucianism,” and “Western ideas,” etc., but such terms are all so vague.

The way that Vietnamese intellectuals think today is the product of something more specific than such vague terms can describe. So how can we describe the way that Vietnamese intellectuals think?


I just read an essay that the late Vietnamese scholar Trần Quốc Vượng wrote in 1987 on “A Characteristic of Vietnamese Culture: The Ability to Improvise” (Một nét bản sắc của văn hóa Việt Nam: khả năng ứng biến), which I think can point us in the direction we need to go if we want to identify something that we can call “the Vietnamese intellectual tradition.”

On the one hand, Trần Quốc Vượng’s essay is creative and is enjoyable to read. On the other hand, it is also filled with numerous conceptual flaws.

However, the mixture of ideas that we can see that this essay contains and the way that they work together is what I find the most interesting, as they point to what it is that (I think) is circulating in the brains of many intellectuals in Vietnam today (sure, the younger generation is skeptical of these ideas, but many of the people in that generation don’t really understand what the problem with these ideas are and how one can move beyond them), and is what I would at least today refer to as “the Vietnamese intellectual tradition.”


In this short essay, Trần Quốc Vượng builds on an idea that intellectual historian Cao Xuân Huy had earlier put forth that water (nước) can serve as a symbol for Vietnamese philosophy, because like water, the way Vietnamese think transforms and is adaptable. According to Cao Xuân Huy, Vietnamese philosophy can therefore be characterized as a “philosophy of water” (triết lí nước) or the “Way of malleability” (Nhu đạo).

Trần Quốc Vượng builds on this idea by noting that the distinctive natural feature of Vietnam is that it is on a peninsula, and that therefore, it is a region that contains both land and water.

It is therefore not surprising, Trần Quốc Vượng argues, that the “cultural heroes” (anh hùng văn hóa) connect the water and land worlds together.

Nonetheless, to Trần Quốc Vượng, it is water that defines this world, and it is the character of water that therefore defines Vietnamese culture.

What is the character of water? To Trần Quốc Vượng it is the fact that water can change its shape but in doing so it never ceases to be water, and to demonstrate this point he cites a folk saying that goes: “in a gourd it is round, in a piece of bamboo it is long” (ở bầu thì tròn, ở ống thì dài).


How is Vietnamese culture like this? Trần Quốc Vượng looks at the clothing that Vietnamese have worn throughout history. He states that during the Đông Sơn period men wore loincloths, that during the medieval period they wore Chinese-style trousers and that in more recent times they have come to wear Western-style pants.

However, like water that can change its shape but never lose its essence as water, these changes in clothing do not reflect to Trần Quốc Vượng that any serious changes occurred in the past to the “basic characteristics” (bản sắc) of Vietnamese culture, because its most basic characteristic comes from an internalization of the property of water – the ability to improvise and adapt without ever ceasing to be water – and because in the case of clothing (and quoting another folk saying), “virtues defeat beauty” (cái nết đánh chết cái đẹp), which implies that there is something constant – virtue – that one can identify from the period of the Đông Sơn to the present.


There are numerous problems with Trần Quốc Vượng’s ideas and logic in this essay. First, he assumes, rather than demonstrates, that there was a community of people who shared a common culture from the Đông Sơn period to the present. Were the “virtues” of the people we see on the Đông Sơn bronze drums the same as those of Vietnamese today? If so, how do we know this? Trần Quốc Vượng assumes this, but he doesn’t demonstrate it. That is a problem.

Second, Trần Quốc Vượng inserts many French terms in his essay, such as identité, héros culturel, intériorisé, which (I would argue) are employed as a means to show his readers that he is up-to-date with what “Western” scholars think.

However, his ideas in this essay were not the same as what Western scholars thought at that time. For instance, in 1987 the idea that the environment had a significant impact on cultural communities was an idea that had certainly been rejected, at least in the Ango-speaking world, for decades by that time.


Third, Trần Quốc Vượng’s citation of folk sayings is related to a conservative tradition in Vietnam (and many other places in Asia) that goes back to the early twentieth century. By citing folk sayings, Trần Quốc Vượng attempts in this article to say that Vietnamese have something to contribute intellectually to the ideas of the modern world (in the first half of the twentieth century, conservative Vietnamese scholars tried to argue that Confucian morality could contribute to the modern world).

In reality, however, the “folk wisdom” that he offers, was being completely contradicted in the West at that time by the various theorists of nationalism (such as Anderson, Gellner, and even Smith) who argued that the idea that there were cultural communities (and values and ideas) that persisted through the ages is a modern myth/invention.

So in combining French terms and Vietnamese folk sayings, Trần Quốc Vượng attempted to say that Vietnamese knowledge has validity because it agrees with Western knowledge, but this was not true, as he did not actually engage (or “integrate,” to use a term that is popular these days) with Western knowledge.

Finally, there is a problem of comparison. Trần Quốc Vượng made these comments about the distinctness of Vietnamese culture without reference to any other parts of the world. Greece is also on a peninsula, as is Italy, so does that mean that Greece, Italy and Vietnam are all the same?


So what then is “the Vietnamese intellectual tradition”? Is it a “philosophy/culture of water”? If it is, then I guess the philosophy/culture of Socrates and Plato must also be a philosophy/culture of water.

But what does that mean?

Environments do not play such a profound role in shaping human societies as Trần Quốc Vượng claimed (just look at the impact of Buddhism/Islam/Christianity across the globe in different environmental settings). Human societies also do not remain unchanging through time, as Trần Quốc Vượng’s comments about the “virtues” of the Vietnamese likewise claimed. And there is no society on the planet that can be understood totally without reference to other societies.

Vietnam is not unique, but Trần Quốc Vượng tried hard to both make it unique and to connect his ideas to those of Westerners. And this effort worked as long as 1) Vietnamese didn’t know more about the West or the world than Trần Quốc Vượng did, and 2) people familiar with what Western scholars have written didn’t read what Trần Quốc Vượng wrote and point out the flaws in his ideas.

So if I had to define the “Vietnamese intellectual tradition,” I would try to find a way to explain 1) what it is that Trần Quốc Vượng was trying to do, and 2) the historical/cultural/intellectual conditions that led intellectuals like Trần Quốc Vượng to say the things that he did.

If we do that, then we will get closer to being able to define “the Vietnamese intellectual tradition.”

This is the essay that I’m referring to: Tran Quoc Vuong.

In reading issues of the Sarawak Gazette from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, I repeatedly come across references to Chinese either killing themselves or getting murdered. Life for Chinese laborers and merchants on Borneo at that time was clearly not easy, and many people’s lives were cut short for one reason or another.


Just looking at the year of 1900, for instance, we see that in January a Chinese shop owner in Sundar by the name of Ah Hai was murdered and his shop was burned to the ground.


In April an official reported the murder of another Chinese in Sibu. His report noted that “the dead body of a male Chinese was found in the river not half a mile below the station. It has since been identified as that of a Hokien of Sibu named Chan Ah Tong who was by profession a peripatetic trader. The body was covered with wounds inflicted without doubt by weapons.”


And then there was a notice offering a reward for the capture of eight Teochew men suspected of murdering pepper planter Liong Ten Chiow.

Sarawak and the rest of Borneo were like the “Wild West” in America had been not long before this point.

To capture that sense, I’ve created a soundscape called “Murder in 1900 Sarawak.”

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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