I was reading an article in Nhân dân that prime minister Phạm Văn Đồng wrote in 1969 on the occasion of the death anniversary of the Hùng kings, the supposed earliest known rulers in the Red River Delta.
This is how the article began:
“Among many beautiful traditions, our Vietnamese nationality (dân tộc Việt Nam ta) always upholds a tradition that is great and infinitely beautiful: remembering the ancestors, remembering the people who have great accomplishments in the task of establishing and maintaining the country/nation.
“Within the small collective of a village that encompasses many lineages and families, just as within the entire country, our Vietnamese nationality in our spiritual life, intellectual life and emotions always connect the present with the past, our little native village with the Fatherland and the nationality; from this we preserve and manifest beautiful traditional sentiments: love of country, the spirit of unity, a steadfast and indomitable will, and a deep and powerful belief in one’s ability.”
What I find interesting here is that the beautiful traditional sentiments that Phạm Văn Đồng mentions here are all expressed in terms that would have been unrecognizable to Vietnamese prior to the twentieth century.
1. Vietnamese texts prior to the twentieth century do not mention “love of country” (yêu nước).
2. “Unity” (đoàn kết) is also a twentieth century concept.
3. And “ability” (tài năng) is also a twentieth century concept.
In other words, all of the “beautiful traditions” that Phạm Văn Đồng mentions here are expressed in modern terms, and these are terms that were introduced into Asian languages to translate concepts in Western writings.
So if the “beautiful traditions” of “our Vietnamese nationality” can only be expressed in Western terms, then how can we believe that such traditions actually existed prior to contact with the West?
Filed under: Vietnam | 2 Comments
I came across this advertisement in a 1933 issue (August 25) of the Union Times, a Chinese newspaper from Singapore. It is for Milkmaid Brand Condensed Milk, and it praises this elderly woman because ever since she first became a mother she has been drinking a glass of Milkmaid Brand Condensed Milk every morning and every evening, and that is why she is so healthy.
What I find interesting about this advertisement is the way that this woman is dressed. She is wearing a kebaya and sarong, the form of dress for Straits Chinese women. The Straits Chinese were Chinese who emigrated to the area of Singapore and the Malay Peninsula and who intermarried with Malays and adopted some of their cultural practices.
By the 1930s, at least the more well-off Chinese in Singapore were starting to follow the fashions of places like Shanghai, where men were dressing in Western clothes and women were wearing the qipao, a “modernized” version of a traditional form of dress.
Grandma, however, still dressed the way that Straits Chinese women in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula had dressed for over a century. But that didn’t mean that she was completely “traditional.”
After all, she drank Milkmaid Brand Condensed Milk. Grandma was a modern woman too. . . in her own way.
Filed under: Singapore | 2 Comments
There was a brief article in VnExpress the other day called “What can you do if you study Hán Nôm?” “Hán” is the same as what other people call “classical Chinese” and “Nôm” is the name for a demotic script that was developed in the past to write the Vietnamese vernacular. It is based on Chinese characters.
In Vietnam, “Hán Nôm” is a field of its own. People who study in that field learn to read classical Chinese and Nôm and then they read texts and either translate them into modern Vietnamese if the original text was written in classical Chinese or transliterate them into the Romanized script that is used today in Vietnam if the original text was in Nôm.
Scholars who study Hán Nôm also write about various textual issues that they come across, such as the authenticity of certain texts or the accuracy of information in texts.
So what can you do if you study Hán Nôm? The VnExpress article lists various things, from teaching Hán Nôm to working as a translator, but I found it interesting that there is one profession that was not listed – historian.
I find this interesting because in history departments in Vietnam, students are not required to gain a solid knowledge of classical Chinese or Nôm in order to study the past, even though the vast majority of historical sources up until the early twentieth century are in that language.
In many other parts of the world, it is inconceivable that someone can become a professional historian without an ability to read primary sources in their original language. For some reason, however, this is acceptable in Vietnam, and I have never been able to understand why.
Meanwhile there are people who can read those documents – people who study Hán Nôm – but those people are not trained in history or historical methodology. And as the VnExpress article indicate, becoming an historian (or teaching history) is not really an option for people who study Hán Nôm.
Why is it the case that the people who learn to read primary sources in the original language are off in a field of their own? I think it has to do with the history of Vietnam’s engagement with the outside world. The field of Hán Nôm studies is a continuation of the field of philology, a field that was particularly strong in Europe and the Soviet Union, but which has become marginalized in the Anglo world over the past 60 years in favor of a broader approach to studying texts and the past, one that combines linguistic ability with knowledge of an academic discipline (or disciplines).
So there is a divide in academia in Vietnam that doesn’t exist in some other countries, and I would argue that it’s a very destructive divide as it means that no one is getting fully trained to be able to examine the past.
It would be wonderful if some institution in Vietnam would recognize this someday and make changes that would allow students to get equipped with the skills that they need to study history.
Filed under: Vietnam | 2 Comments
Archaeology garners a lot of respect in Vietnam. It is seen as being much more “scientific” (khoa học) than a field like history, as historical texts thought to be unreliable, whereas archaeological artifacts are seen to be more stable.
In reality, however, archaeology is only as good as the interpretations that are made of archaeological evidence, and those interpretations can easily be politicized.
This is exactly what happened in North Vietnam in the 1960s.
In 1967 on the occasion of the death anniversary of the Hùng kings (a practice that began in the early 20th century under French influence), the editorial board of the North Vietnamese academic journal, Historical Research [Nghiên cứu lịch sử] published a two-page call for historians to study what they labeled the “Hồng Bang period,” that is, the period of roughly much of the first millennium BC.
The authors of this article pointed out that in the effort to write a history of Vietnam from a new perspective the problem of the Hồng Bàng period still needed to be resolved. They then recounted the information from texts about this period (for an English translation of that information, see the section on “The Tale of the Hồng Bàng Clan” here).
After having done so, they noted that this information has a legendary or mythological quality to it. That is why, they noted further, French scholars had dismissed the Hồng Bàng period as legendary, a view that was upheld by historian Trần Trọng Kim in the late colonial period, and by scholars in South Vietnam in the post-colonial era.
In contrast to French and South Vietnamese scholars, the authors of this article stated that historians in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (i.e., North Vietnam) had researched for at least ten years the problems of the Hồng Bàng period and the Hùng kings. They claimed that with many materials as evidence, scholars such as Văn Tân, Trần Văn Giáp, Đào Duy Anh, Đào Tử Khai, Trần Quốc Vượng and Hà Văn Tấn had all demonstrated (chứng minh) that the individuals whom we call the Hùng kings are not legendary or mythical figures, but are individuals of flesh and bone who had actually lived in roughly the first millennium BC.
The authors then confessed, however, that “Although the conclusions of historians in the North have academic and intellectual value, they do not yet have the power to persuade everyone” (Kết luận của giới sử học miền Bắc mặc dầu vừa có giá trị khoa học, vừa có giá trị tư tưởng, nhưng chưa đủ sức thuyết phục tất cả mọi người). That is why there was a need for historians in the North to research this topic more deeply and more systematically.
The way that the authors suggested that historians should do this was first of all by looking at texts. Historians were asked to look first at Chinese and Vietnamese historical texts that were related to the Hồng Bàng period and the Hùng kings. In addition to that, they were to carefully examine legends and records about spirits that talk about the Hùng kings, and that in doing so they were to focus on the area of Vĩnh Phúc and Phú Thọ provinces, the region which historians had determined from their study of texts must be the heartland of the Hùng kings’ kingdom.
Finally, scholars were encouraged to carry out archaeological excavations in Vĩnh Phúc and Phú Thọ provinces “to see what was left behind from the period of the Hùng kings” (để xem thời kỳ các vua Hùng còn để lại những gì).
Why was it so important to resolve the “problem” of the Hồng Bàng period? On the one hand, scholars in North Vietnam wanted to know what had existed in the Red River Delta in the first millennium BC because they had been engaged in a big debate (following Marxist historical ideas) about how to periodize Vietnamese history, and for this they needed to know when a primitive communist society had existed, and when that had been replaced by a slave society.
By 1967, scholars in the North did not have enough evidence to resolve this question, so that was one reason why the editors of Historical Research wanted people to research the Hồng Bàng period in more depth.
At the same time, there was also a political reason why the editors of Historical Research wanted people to research the Hồng Bàng period in more depth, and they clearly stated in this article that “. . . resolving the problem of the Hông Bàng period will resolve a problem of political importance.”
The editors stated that if the ancestors of our nationality (nếu tổ tiên dân tộc chúng ta) started to develop strongly from the time of the first millennium BC with the purpose of marching towards become a “civilized society” (xã hội văn minh), then that says that from very early on the nationality of Viet-nam has been a nationality that with abundant vitality that established a unique culture in the area of what is now the Northern region of the country.
The editors then say that, “That is an honor for our ancestors, and it is also truly a source of pride for our nationality, a nationality that has established its country since a long time ago, that has its own culture, has that defeated foreign invaders numerous times in the course of history, and which will now certainly defeat the American empire and complete the enterprise of making the Fatherland independent and unified.”
This document reveals with 100% clarity the connection between scholarship and politics in North Vietnam in the 1960s. On a political level, someone decided that it was important for the war effort to show that the North had the most legitimate claim to rule over Vietnam, because the North was the heartland of the Vietnamese nation/ality (dân tộc).
The problem was that there wasn’t strong evidence that such a nation/ality had existed prior to the period of Chinese rule, so the order in 1967 was to “find that evidence”!!
Now when people truly engage in “scientific/academic” (khoa học) scholarship, the one thing that they are never supposed to do is to decide what it is that they want to say first, and then to try to find evidence to support their ideas. Instead, in “scientific/academic” (khoa học) scholarship, scholars are supposed to examine evidence without preconceived ideas or biases, and to then interpret that evidence.
What this document from 1967 shows, is that no such “scientific/academic” (khoa học) environment existed in North Vietnam at that time. To the contrary, this was a 100% political enterprise. Scholars were told what it is that they were supposed to find, and then told to go find it.
This was doubly tragic for archaeology, in that besides the fact that archaeologists were being told what to find (i.e., “thời kỳ các vua vua Hùng còn để lại những gì”), they were also being asked to interpret their findings based on information in historical texts.
To be truly “scientific/academic” (khoa học), archaeologists should just look at what they find and interpret it. They shouldn’t assume that historical texts are correct (because often they are not). But in 1967 North Vietnam that was not an option. The powers-that-be had decided that the texts were correct. They just needed more evidence in order convince everyone that what was written in texts was true (vì “chưa đủ sức thuyết phục tất cả mọi người”. . .).
What is so depressing about this is that in some ways it is true that archaeological evidence is more “scientific” than historical information, but once archaeological evidence has been politicized, I think that it becomes harder to reverse politicized interpretations of archaeological evidence than it is to re-interpret historical sources.
As long as historical sources are not destroyed, scholars can go back and relook at them. In the case of archaeological findings, however, if archaeologists do not make detailed records of their excavations and make those records and the artifacts that they dug up available to other scholars, then it becomes very difficult to re-interpret those findings.
In the 1960s, a great deal of archaeological work was conducted in North Vietnam, but 1) it was politically motivated, and 2) I can’t find the detailed records and the artifacts of many of the excavations from that time.
So in the end, archaeology, which is supposed to be more “scientific” than history, ends up being just as problematic.
Filed under: Vietnam | 1 Comment
I came across an article that Đào Duy Anh published in 1954 in the journal Văn Sử Địa. In this article, Đào Duy Anh argues against the ideas of European scholars who had said that the bronze-age Đông Sơn culture showed signs of influence coming from either the Hallstatt region of Europe (Janse and Geldern) or from China (Goloubew and Finot).
This reminded me of a conversation the other night that I had with an archaeologist. I asked what the latest theories about the spread of the use of bronze, and metallurgy in general, to Southeast Asia are.
The archaeologists told me that people now believe that knowledge of metallurgy in Southeast Asia came from the north, and that ultimately they see it coming from areas to the west of China. The debate among archaeologists who focus on Southeast Asia is whether knowledge about metallurgy came to Southeast Asia from Central Asia after developing for a while in China, or whether it came more directly from Central Asia (via the Gansu corridor and Yunnan).
[There are a couple of articles that are freely available on the Internet that cover these debates: “On the Metallurgy in Prehistoric Southeast Asia: The View from Thailand” and “The Transmission of Early Bronze Technology to Thailand: New Perspectives”]
It is interesting how these ideas have in some ways come back to the ideas of people like Janse and Geldern. This points to an important issue about the way in which people think about colonial-era scholarship.
In the post-colonial era, it became easy, and even fashionable, to dismiss the scholarship of colonial-era scholars. In reality, however, the problem sometimes was not with the ideas that scholars of that era came up with, but with the way that they explained what they saw.
If we take Henri Maspero and the Hùng kings, for instance, we see that he didn’t see evidence that any such kings had ever existed. The way that he then explained the mentioning of Hùng kings in medieval texts was by saying that Vietnamese scholars had mistakenly copied the character for “lạc” in early Chinese accounts of the Red River Delta as “hùng.”
So there are two points here: 1) one is the statement that there were no Hùng kings and 2) the other is the statement that the use of the term “hùng” was the result of a scribal error.
In challenging Maspero’s claims, Vietnamese scholars have refuted both of these points and have seen his ideas as “colonial” or “Euro-centric.”
As I see it, it’s only the second point that we can associate with a “colonial” mindset. Maspero could not see the Vietnamese as having agency, and as having created an invented tradition about their past.
To Maspero, Vietnamese did not have that kind of agency. They could not be inventive or creative. They could only copy. And in the case of the character for “hùng,” he argued that this was a case of the Vietnamese having copied something incorrectly.
As for the “Hùng kings,” no one since the time of Maspero has demonstrated that they existed. People have found archaeological artifacts in the Red River Delta, but no one has been able to clearly connect those artifacts with information in texts about the Hùng kings.
Someone was living in the Red River Delta in the first millennium BC, and Cổ Loa was a citadel that was constructed at that time, but that’s all we know. We haven’t found evidence of “Hùng kings,” just of “someone.”
So in that sense, Maspero was right. There were no Hùng kings. However, he was wrong in arguing that the mention of Hùng kings in historical texts was somehow the result of an early copying error. That was a very condescending (and “colonial”) way of looking at the Vietnamese and their past.
I don’t know all of the details that archaeologists are using to talk about their theories of how knowledge about metallurgy spread to Southeast Asia. I also can’t remember all of the details that Janse and Geldern used to argue that Đông Sơn culture had been influenced by the Hallstatt culture of Europe. However, my suspicion would be that this is a case similar to that of Maspero. What Janse and Geldern saw is not the problem. The problem is how they explained what they saw.
In colonial-era scholarship it was the explanations of some scholars that were sometimes “colonial.” Their ideas, on the other hand, were not necessarily “colonial,” and it has been the mistake of subsequent generations of scholars to dismiss them as such.
Filed under: Vietnam | Leave a Comment
I was trying to figure out when the idea of the “folk” (dân gian) started to be used by scholars in Vietnam. In looking at a book called Folk Literature (Văn học dân gian) that was published in 1972, I found that the authors noted that the term “folk” started to be used in the 1950s, and they cited an article by Vũ Ngọc Phan as an example.
I looked up that article. It was called “Vietnamese Farmers in Old Stories” (Người nông dân Việt Nam trong truyện cổ tích) and it was published in 1955 in the journal Văn Sử Địa, an academic journal in North Vietnam.
In the same issue was an article by Minh-Tranh called “Offering an Opinion on the Matter of Understanding the Literature of Our People” (Góp ý kiến vào việc tìm hiểu văn học nhân dân của ta).
I was surprised to find that both of these authors argued that when we read literature we need to look for signs of class contradictions (mâu thuẫn giai cấp) and class struggle (đấu tranh giai cấp).
I was surprised to see this because the 1972 volume did not talk about such matters.
I then found that in between the time of these two publications a conference was held in Hanoi in 1966 on the literature and arts of the folk of Vietnam. It is clear from the presentations from that conference that were published in a volume three years later in 1969 that scholars were being asked to put their scholarship in the service of the war effort.
Understandably, scholars stopped talking about class contradictions and class struggle.
And when the war ended, unity was declared, and as far as I can tell, scholars have never returned to the topic of class contradictions and class struggles in folk literature.
So I wonder what the silence on this topic means. Does it mean that Minh-Tranh and Vũ Ngọc Phan were right or that they were wrong? And how do we know?
Filed under: Vietnam | 4 Comments
I went to a talk last night by a very famous scholar who was talking about the Neolithic Revolution. This guy made the point that all of the early states in the world that he knows of (Mesopotamia, China, Greece, Rome, etc.) needed two things in order to form – a type of grain (wheat, rice, etc.) and slaves.
According to this scholar, wherever you see the earliest states forming you see a surplus of grains being produced, and an enslaved population who does a lot of the work.
This made me think about the earliest description we have of the Red River Delta – a few lines from a text called the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region [交州外域記, Jiaozhou waiyu ji] which is cited in Li Daoyuan’s sixth-century Annotated Classic of Waterways [水經注, Shuijing zhu]:
“The Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region states that ‘In the past, before Jiaozhi had commanderies and districts, the land had lạc fields. These fields followed the rising and falling of the tidal/flood waters. The people who opened these fields for cultivation were called lạc people. Lạc princes and lạc marquises were appointed to control the various commanderies and districts. Many of the districts had lạc generals. The lạc generals had bronze seals on green ribbons.’”
People have talked a lot about what 潮水 means. It’s most literal meaning is “tidal waters,” but I’ve seen definitions of 潮 that that simply mean something like “rising water,” and therefore it could mean “floodwaters.”
Regardless of how we want to translate it, it seems to indicate a kind of agriculture that relies on the natural movement of water. The speaker I listened to last night referred to this as “inundation agriculture.” Essentially the way this works is that when a river floods, people throw rice seeds in the water, and then when the water recedes, the rice grows.
This is one of the most simple ways of growing rice.
So this makes me wonder about Văn Lang – the kingdom that Vietnamese scholars said existed in the first millennium BC. If for a state to emerge it was essential to have grain/rice and slaves, then what evidence do we have that these two elements existed in the Red River Delta in the first millennium BC?
Inundation agriculture could produce a surplus of rice, but not a very large one, so if there was a state that was based on this type of agriculture, it probably was limited in size and wealth.
And then as for slaves, why is it that I’ve never heard anyone talk about slaves in the kingdom of Văn Lang? If this was the norm in early states, why doesn’t anyone talk about this in the case of Văn Lang? Were there no slaves in Văn Lang?
If there weren’t, then how can we explain why Văn Lang was different from all other early states on the planet?
Filed under: Vietnam | 2 Comments
Today I gained access to a database that contains historical English-language newspapers from China. These papers of course contain information about China, but they also contain reports on conditions and events from around the region as well, and are therefore valuable for anyone interested in studying about the modern history of Southeast Asia.
In searching for various terms that were used in the past, such as “Siamese” and “Annamite,” I came across an interesting report from 1919 entitled, “Two Persons Shot in Yalu Road: Suicide of Annamite Assailant.” This report was in The North-China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (March 1, 1919, pg. 558) and was about a Vietnamese policeman who was working in the French Concession in Shanghai.
In the early twentieth century, parts of Shanghai were under the control of foreigners. There was an area under British control, and one area under French control. Apparently there were Vietnamese policeman who were entrusted with keeping the peace in the French Concession, but in 1919 one Vietnamese policeman crossed the boundary into the British Concession and also crossed the boundary into lawlessness.
This is what the The North-China Herald reported:
“A remarkable tragedy of the sort that were more frequent in Hongkew [i.e., Hongkou] in former years, occurred in Yalu Road, near Miller Road, at 10.30 o’clock on Saturday morning as a result of which an Annamite policeman from the French Concession is dead by his own hand, a young Cantonese woman lies in a serious condition at St. Luke’s Hospital, while at the General Hospital an American marine engineer is hovering between life and death.”
“The Annamite policeman, No. 110, visited the house at 23 Yalu Road, a brothel, at 7.30 last Friday evening and asked for the girl he later shot. He did not see her and went away, returning at 8.30 o’clock on Saturday morning in full uniform, except for a civilian cap and overcoat, the latter completely covering the uniform.
“He was told the foreigner who was there had not yet departed, and announced his intention of waiting until he could see the girl with whom he was enamored.”
“The policeman seated himself on a bench in the hallway where he could see the entrance to the woman’s room, and remained there for two hours.
“When the American finally made his appearance the Annamite, it is alleged, fired, the engineer receiving the bullet in the neck whence it glanced downward and lodged in the back.
“The policeman entered the room immediately and is reported to have shot the girl, who was in bed, the metal-cased French service bullet passing through her abdomen.
“The determined man then locked the door, placed the barrel of his weapon in his mouth and pulled the trigger. The first cartridge missing fire, he tried it again, killing himself instantly.”
I have no idea what led Policeman No. 110 to do what he did, but it points to a topic that I think would be fascinating to learn about – the lives of Vietnamese in the French Concession in Shanghai.
In the 1990s, the history of Shanghai became a hot topic among historians of China in the English-speaking world. At the same time, historians of colonialism became interested in the complex relations and legal entanglements that extraterritorial laws in places like Shanghai engendered.
And while a lot of scholarship has been produced on these topics, I have never read anything about Vietnamese policemen in Shanghai. That’s an interesting topic waiting to be researched.
Filed under: Vietnam | Leave a Comment
As is well known, the US military began its conquest of the Philippines in 1898. Not long after the first soldiers landed, the supplies that they needed to survive in the Philippines followed.
For instance, the S.S. Knivsberg soon arrived with a load of chicken tamales, evaporated peaches and Eagle Brand condensed milk. . .
Is that really what soldiers wanted?
Probably not. . . Instead, my guess would be that this shipment of Cyrus Noble Whiskey, Schlitz Beer, Mumm’s Champagne and James Watson’s Scotch Whiskey was more to their liking.
And that’s why Pabst Beer didn’t forget the soldiers. . . Neither did a lot of businessmen. Within months of the American occupation of Manila, soldiers could go to a wide range of establishments where they could consume Pabst Beer: The Senate, Olympia Cafe, American Bar, Baltimore Bar, Pabst Cafe, Hotel Luneta, Restaurant de Paris. . .
The American Brewing Company of St. Louis, meanwhile, produced a kind of beer that was “brewed especially for the tropics.” It was supposed to be good because it was “pure, pale and sparkling.”
Yes, apparently “purity” was of particular importance, as you didn’t want to consume some contaminated product that would make you sick. That’s why “In the tropics PURE WHISKY is indispensable.”
While that is all probably true, in the end “San Miguel Beer is the best beer.” And apparently you could find it all over Manila.
So alcohol was readily available, but man can not live on alcohol alone. Occasionally he needs to eat. And on those rare occasions when the need for something other than alcohol arose, there were Oxford, Vienna and Bologna sausages, German pickles, California prunes, clam chowder and pie fruit in tin. . . What a cosmopolitan diet!
Filed under: Philippines | Leave a Comment
I have been reading accounts of the early history of the Red River Delta and am trying to see how historians (both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese) deal with the fact that the historical information that we have about much of the first millennium BC appears in sources that were compiled over 1,000 years later.
In reading the works of Vietnamese scholars I see a general pattern in the way that scholars justify their interpretation of the past, and I will use the above book as an example.
The above author first talks about the historical sources that say that there was a line of kings called the Hùng kings who ruled in the first millennium BC, and then says that premodern scholars had doubts about this information, but that they did not examine this information with a methodology enabled them to get to the truth.
Then in the twentieth century the French introduced new ways of looking at the past. Some of the French scholars were Sinologists (“người thông thạo Hán học” – and therefore not really knowledgeable about Vietnamese society), and in looking at early Vietnamese historical sources they concluded that information about early kings – the “Hùng kings” – was not historically accurate.
At the same time that French scholars dismissed information in Vietnamese historical sources, they introduce the practice of archaeology and found evidence of a sophisticated society in the Red River Delta in the first millennium BC – the Đơng Sôn society/culture.
The above author (like many other authors), goes on to say that because the French were “Euro-centric” and had a “colonialist” mindset, they did not interpret their findings correctly. In particular, they emphasized foreign influences on the region rather than talk about indigenous developments.
It was thus only in the late 1960s when scholars in North Vietnam examined the first millennium BC that a “correct” understanding of the past finally emerged.
What these scholars argued was that the developments that took place in the Red River Delta throughout much of the first millennium BC were indigenous.
That is fine, however in making this claim, scholars then make what we can call a “semantic slide.” They go from talking about archaeological artifacts (without making reference to historical texts) to saying that the “Hùng king period” (thời đại Hùng Vương) really existed.
This expression – the “Hùng king period” really existed – is extremely vague. In saying that the “Hùng king period” really existed, are scholars saying that we can rely on what is written in later historical sources? Or is this simply an expression that is used to “talk back” to the colonial French scholars, and what it really means is that there was a “sophisticated indigenous society” in the Red River Delta (which may have been completely unrelated to what was later written in texts)?
It’s very difficult to tell, and this is one aspect of the “semantic slide.” Scholars do not make it clear what they think, and therefore it is easy for “meaning” to “slide” from one point to another.
However, even if there are cases when scholars use the expression, the “Hùng king period,” to refer in general to a “sophisticated indigenous society” in the first millennium BC and do not argue that what was written later in texts was actually true, they nonetheless go ahead and use information from those later historical sources to talk about the first millennium BC.
This is another aspect of the “semantic slide.” Once a scholar has declared that Đông Sơn artifacts demonstrate that the “Hùng king period” really existed, then s/he will go ahead and use whatever information from historical sources s/he wants.
The problem is that archaeologists have not found evidence to support what is written in those later sources. No one has found the Hùng king’s capital. The border of the kingdom, as described in historical sources, does not match the area that archaeologists look at. The list of differences between what was written later and what archaeologists have dug up from the ground goes on and on. . .
So archaeologists have not found evidence of any actual Hùng kings. They have simply found evidence of a sophisticated indigenous society. However, when scholars declare that this archaeological evidence proves the existence of the “Hùng king period,” they blur the lines between these two points, and allow meaning to slide in the direction they want it to.
This “semantic slide” is extremely convenient. It enables scholars to avoid having to be precise, and gives them the freedom to use whatever information they want, however they want.
Filed under: Vietnam | 2 Comments