I was reading this journal that I mentioned below, the Du học bao, that was published by an organization in the late 1920s and early 1930s that sent Vietnamese students to France to study. In one of the early issues, one of the students, Phạm Đình Ái, has article about part of the journey by ship from Vietnam to France.

dhb cover

The ship that Phạm Đình Ái traveled on was called the Amazone and was operated by the Messageries Maritimes Company. It looks to me like this must be the ship. This ship was also known as the Laos, and it appears to have replaced an earlier ship that was called the Amazone, and perhaps because of that reason, it was also known as the Amazone.

Amazone in Singapore

In 1927, as he headed to France to study, Phạm Đình Ái purchased a third-class ticket on the Amazone. However, for some reason he was allowed to sleep in a first-class cabin. The conditions there were much nicer, as nine people had to share each third-class cabin, whereas in the first-class cabins there were only three beds.

What is more, there was a “boy” from Martinique who served the passengers in first class.


Not long after setting off on the journey, Phạm Đình Ái and his traveling companion asked this boy to go get them some water to wash with, but the boy refused, saying that he only served first-class passengers. The boy obviously understood that even though Phạm Đình Ái and his friend were sleeping in a first-class cabin, they were in all other ways third-class passengers.

Phạm Đình Ái and his friend kept asking, but the boy kept refusing. Eventually Phạm Đình Ái decided to pay the boy some money, and from that point onward the boy did whatever they asked him to do.

Phạm Đình Ái then has a line in quotes that he concluded from this episode that “When black blood smells cash, it also gets excited/infatuated” (máu đen mà thấy hơi đồng cũng mê).


While reading a line like that today might sound a bit racist to us, I find the information in this brief passage to be fascinating for the light that it shines on a little known aspect of the past.

People have long talked about how significant it was for colonized peoples to spend time in the metropole. Much, therefore, has been written about José Rizal’s time in Madrid or Saloth Sar’s (i.e., Pol Pot’s) time in Paris, etc. However, many of these people also spent a lot of time on boats in between the colony and the metropole, and boats were unique spaces, where as Phạm Đình Ái’s experience shows, “first class” and “third class” could interact in unexpected ways.

So what kind of experiences did people actually have while they were traveling? Did those experiences in any way affect the way that they thought? Or can those experiences show us anything about the way people thought at that time?

This brief passage suggests to me that this would be a fascinating subject to research – the sociability of colonial-era passenger ships.

A recent comment about the “Bình Ngô đại cáo,” a document that was written at the end of the Ming occupation of the Red River Delta in the early fifteenth century, got me thinking about the genre of “resistance literature” or “national identity literature” that many people today see this document as belonging to.

One of the first places that I ever encountered this document was in a collection of English-language translations of documents produced by Vietnamese over the centuries called Patterns of Vietnamese Response to Foreign Intervention: 1858-1900. The documents in this collection were all translated and expertly annotated by scholar Trương Bửu Lâm, and published in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam/American War.

pat cov

While this collection focused on the period from 1858 to 1900, when the French were establishing their rule over Vietnam, Trương Bửu Lâm included some earlier documents to place the nineteenth century “response to foreign intervention” in a larger historical context.

These earlier documents are today all very famous, namely the “Nam quốc sơn hà” poem that some people attribute to Lý Thường Kiệt, Trần Hưng Đạo’s appeal to his soldiers (commonly known as the “Hịch tướng sĩ”), Nguyễn Trãi’s “Bình Ngô đại cáo,” and Nguyễn Huệ’s appeal to his army.

pat toc

Indeed, many works in Vietnam today refer to the first and third of the above documents as “declarations of independence,” and all of these documents are repeatedly pointed to as evidence of an enduring “national consciousness” and of an equally long tradition of “resistance to foreign aggression/intervention.”

How, however, do we know that this is how these documents have always been understood and what they mean?


A little over a decade before Trương Bửu Lâm produced his English-language translation of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo,” Ưng-Quả published a French-language translation of the same document in the Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient (46.1 [1952]: 279-95).

In the introduction to his translation, Ưng-Quả noted that the original text of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” had appeared in the past in such historical texts as the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư and the Khâm định Việt sử Thông giám cương mục, and in literary collections such as the Hoàng Việt văn tuyển and the Ức Trai [thi] tập.

Further, Ưng-Quả also claims that the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” had been maintained orally among the scholar elite who studied for the civil service examinations in the past as they saw it as a “model of the genre.”


If that is the case, then what “genre” did it fit into? Was there a section in the civil service examinations on “resistance literature” or “declarations of independence”? A look at how the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” appears in the late-eighteenth-century literary collection, the Hoàng Việt văn tuyển, can help answer these questions.

The “Bình Ngô đại cáo” can be found in the fifth chapter of the Hoàng Việt văn tuyển, a chapter devoted to proclamations (誥), decrees (制) and patents (冊). This is because the purpose of the Hoàng Việt văn tuyển was not to demonstrate any kind of theme or main idea, but instead, to provide examples of high-quality writings in various genres.


Chapter One is therefore devoted to classical rhyme-prose (古賦). Chapter Two contains records (記), such as records of journeys to various places. Chapter Three is a collection of epitaphs (銘), and Chapter Four contains elegies (祭文).

There are all genres of writing that the educated elite at that time needed to master, and the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” was included in this collection of writings as one example of one genre of writing that aspiring scholars needed to learn.


So how did the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” get transformed from an example of a genre of writing that scholars needed to learn to an example of “resistance literature”? For that to happen, many other things had to happen. In particular, an entire world view had to change, and that is precisely what happened in Vietnam in the twentieth century.

We can see the results of these changes in works like Phạm Văn Sơn’s Việt Nam tranh đấu sử (A History of Vietnam’s Fights and Struggles). Published in 1949 at the height of the resistance war against the French, the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” is not discussed in this book as a good example of a literary genre that scholars need to learn, because scholars did not need to learn how to write “proclamations” anymore. That world had come to an end.

Instead, the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” is presented in this book (together with Trần Hưng Đạo’s earlier appeal to his soldiers) as a work which was meant to inspire people to fight.

pvs bndc

What were they to fight for? The nation, of course, for as Ưng-Quả explained three years later, this was the great significance of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” – it demonstrated the existence of a national sentiment.


Earlier works like the Hoàng Việt văn tuyển and the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư had not explained the importance of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” like this. In fact, they did not say anything about this document. When, however, we see the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” in the Hoàng Việt văn tuyển next to other writings that have nothing to do with “national sentiment,” we can nonetheless get a sense of the different way in which that document was viewed in the past.

Similarly, when we see how it is presented in a modern work like Phạm Văn Sơn’s Việt Nam tranh đấu sử, we can also see where the current view of that document came from.

I came across a file in the National Archives of Australia that contained a translation of a captured Japanese document that recorded information about crimes committed by Japanese during the early occupation of the Philippines.

The translation was made by the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section, a joint Australian-American intelligence agency that was given the responsibility of translating captured Japanese documents.


What the document shows is that there was an effort on the part of the Japanese military authorities to discipline soldiers for crimes in an effort to prevent other soldiers and Japanese civilians in the Philippines from doing the same thing so that the Filipinos would not become resentful of the presence of the Japanese.


As for the crimes, there were several men convicted of rape, such as the following case:

“Defendant took part in the PHILIPPINE campaign and saw action in several place. Subsequently during a long halt in TARURAKKU [Tarlac], he went out with a party of 14 under the leadership of a certain sgt [sergeant] to requisition food. This was on 11 Jan ’43 [I think this is a typo and should be 1942, as the other crimes in this document were committed in the first half of 1942].

“As he was passing alone through an inhabited locality he noticed a woman of about 23 years of age hiding in a sugar cane plantation. Prompted by his lower instincts, [the] defendant pursued the girl, knocked her down in the middle of the plantation and there committed the office.”


There were also cases of looting and plundering, such as this case which involved a Japanese civilian who was living in Manila when the war broke out:

“The accused had a hair-dressing establishment in the city of MANILA; but at the outbreak of the war he was interned and his household effects were stolen. When the Japanese Army occupied MANILA, the accused partly through a desire for revenge, and partly in order to support himself decided to take advantage of the resultant panic of the inhabitants to relive some of them of their money and belongings.

“On Mar 3 and Mar 4 ’42, he entered native houses in the disguise of a Japanese soldier ordering the occupants to surrender firearms, money and other articles. In this way, he obtained five pistols, ten clocks, seven rings, ¥ 160 in cash and one camera.”


Finally, there was one case of desertion.

“The accused took part in the PHILIPPINE campaign, landing with his unit at Ringaen [Lingayen] Bay in LUZON Island. After taking part in various engagements, during a long halt at BIGAA in the province of BURAKAN [Bulacan], LUZON, he was upbraided by a certain sgt [sergeant] for slackness in the performance of his duties and for his unsatisfactory attitude. The sgt went so far as to strike him.

“This took place on 5 Jan ’42, but on several previous occasions the same sgt had assaulted him on similar grounds with the result that Army life had become distasteful to him and he felt it would be better to desert.

“Thereupon, at a time when he was not under supervision he seized the opportunity to make off and having left his unit he wandered about in various localities until finally, at about 6 pm on 16 Jan, he was arrested by the military police while hiding in a native house at PURARUDE [?] in the said province of BURAKAN.”


Each of the reports about these crimes is followed by a section called “observations relative to the prevention of this crime.” In the case of the deserter, the observation is that “The accused seems to have been incapable of carrying out his tasks to perfection owing to congenital stupidity,” but that the crime could have been prevented it the sergeant had managed the situation better.

Nonetheless, the sergeant was not penalized. Instead, the deserter was imprisoned for six months. The looter, meanwhile, received a sentence of 1 year and 8 months of hard labor, while the man convicted of rape was sentenced to 2 years of hard labor.

I wonder how many more documents like this still exist? Although this document only contains information about a few cases, it nonetheless provides a view of some aspects of the Japanese occupation that people have certainly talked about, but which are at times difficult to document.

I recently read a fascinating article by Nguyễn Nam about a Vietnamese journal that I had never heard of before, the Du học báo 遊學報 (Bulletin Bimensuel de la Société d’Encouragement aux Études Occidentales). This was a journal that was published in the late 1920s and early 1930s by an organization called the An Nam như Tây du học bảo trợ hội 安南如西遊學保助會 (Société d’encouragement aux études occidentales), or more literally, “the society for the support of Annamese [students] going to the West to study.”

du hoc bao qn

The An Nam như Tây du học bảo trợ hội was established by the Nguyễn Dynasty court in 1926, during the first year of Emperor Bảo Đại’s reign. It offered scholarships to students so that they could study in France.

While only 37 or so students were supported by this scholarship, many of them became prominent figures in intellectual or cultural worlds after they returned, such as the following: Phạm Đình Ái, Nguyễn Xiển, Hoàng Xuân Hãn, Tạ Quang Bửu, Nguyễn Tường Tam (a.k.a. Nhất Linh), Ngụy Như Kontum, Phan Nhuận, Thái Can, Lê Viết Hường, and Hoàng Xuân Nhị.

du hoc bao han

As Nguyễn Nam explains in his article, the hope of the court was that these students would bring back technological knowledge from France that would help modernize the kingdom, but that they would stay away from radical ideas that challenged the political status quo.

This overall message was repeatedly made explicit in the journal, the Du học báo, as virtually every issue contained at least one article that promoted traditional Confucian values, such as the importance of loyalty to the monarch for officials, and filial piety for sons.

East Asia

Nguyễn Nam’s article is entitled “A Local History of Vietnamese Sinology in Early Twentieth Century Annam—the Case of the Bulletin Du học báo 遊學報 and was included in a special issue of the journal East Asia: An International Quarterly on “Understanding China from Southeast Asia.”

His main purpose in this article is to demonstrate how the essays about Confucian morality in the Du học báo are part of a larger intellectual transformation that took place in East Asia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In particular, the “challenge” of the West led Japanese, Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese to question their own societies and the ideas that they were based upon.

While some people concluded from this process of self-questioning that everything “old” needed to be discarded and everything “new” (i.e., Western) needed to be adopted, others argued that there was still a place for Confucian morality. In making this argument for the continued importance of Confucian values, however, scholars put forth new arguments by engaging in a kind of discussion about Confucian values and (their understanding of) Western ideas.

This “discussion” took a specific form. As Nguyễn Nam notes, “although starting their discussion with new Western philosophical or moral concepts, Vietnamese Confucian scholars always concluded by discussing preexisting Confucian values, thereby showing their compatibility and adjustability with Western thought and consequently preventing any radical changes that might challenge the status quo of society.” (pg. 148)

New Confucianism

Nguyễn Nam’s article is very important. Much of what has been written to date about the history of Vietnam in the early twentieth century focuses on the people who were trying to bring about change, particularly radical change. There has therefore been a great deal written about revolutionaries, but very little has been written about the more conservative members of society.

While the more radical members of society brought about faster political changes, many of the values that the more conservative members of society promoted in the past continue to exert a strong influence in the present. This is something that has long confused people because it is difficult to see how “traditional” ideas could have endured through times of revolutionary change.

In this respect, the articles about morality in the Du học báo serve as a kind of “missing link.” They give us a sense of how “traditional” morals continued to be upheld (albeit in this “modernized” discussion with Western ideas) and promoted after the “traditional” world of the civil service examination system came to an end. What is more, it is obvious that there are clear connections between the “traditional” world that we see in the Du học báo and certain organizations that existed in the South in the 1950s and 1960s as well.


That said, just as the scholars who wrote for the Du học báo in the late 1920s and 1930s did so in a “modern” way by comparing and contrasting Western and Confucian ideas, the conservative scholars of South Vietnam were also very “modern” in that they engaged in a later stage of this modern discourse about Confucian morality, something that by the 1950s came to be referred to as “New Confucianism,” and which united members of the conservative elite from Hong Kong to Taiwan to Singapore, Hue and Saigon.

I’ve heard that someone is researching that topic at the moment. It will be wonderful to have that world of “modern conservatism” revealed to us as well.

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

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

Southeast Asia

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

les cultes annamites

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

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

man quan trang

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


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



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

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

thoat trung

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

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

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

SG May 1948

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

old map

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


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


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

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

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

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

Tan Vien chan kinh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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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