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.”

Partly because I’ve been spending a lot of time in a forest that is inhabited by wild boars, and partly because sometimes when I’m out there I think about some essays that Jonathan Saha posted on his blog this summer about animals, I’ve been thinking about animals and how viewing the past from an “animal perspective” might be an interesting way to think about history.

And while there are of course a variety of different animals that one could use to examine history, I’m curious these days about pigs.

boar tracks

So I made the (somewhat random) decision to look through the issues of the Sarawak Gazette for the years of 1920 and 1922 to see what it said about pigs.

Indeed, it had a lot to say about pigs. So much, in fact, that I was able to categorize the information into various times of human-pig relations.

borneo pig

First of all, there was the relationship that the indigenous Dayaks had with pigs.

It is clear from my superficial examination of two years of the Sarawak Gazette that pigs were essential for the Dayak way of life. Of course their meat was an important form of protein, but in terms of religion and culture, pigs played an equally important role in various events and rituals.

There was an article in 1922, for instance, on “native medicine” which noted that “Dayaks and other natives use all manner of charms and talismans for procuring invulnerability, such as the material of wild pigs’ nest which is slung around the waist.”

Then there was an article on “Religious Rites and Customs of the Iban or Dayaks of Sarawak” which detailed the process by which a couple could get married. It involved various stages, and there was the potential for bad omens to bring an end to the ceremony at different stages. If, however, after that had happened the two sides still wanted the marriage to proceed, “a pig is killed the liver of which is examined: if the omen is good the marriage may be proceeded with, if bad it must be relinquished.”

And then finally there were ways in which pigs played a role in Dayak deaths: “Should a death occur from accident, the body cannot be brought into the house until a pig has been killed and each inmate of the house has been smeared with the blood, otherwise a curse would fall upon the house and it would be unsafe to live in.”


So pigs were clearly important to the Dayaks, and they way that they traditionally captured them, apparently was by trapping them. I haven’t figured out yet what those traps looked like, but they contained some kind of “magic charm,” which the above figure is an example of, and which now sell in the international art market for significant sums of money.

In the early 1920s, however, the Sarawak Gazette carried numerous stories about the injuries that Dayak pig traps caused.

A February 1920 report from Simanggang stated that “Penghulu Nuga reported the death of one Ujoi by a pig trap set by Jebin of the same house.”

In April 1920 there was a follow-up to this report that “Jebin [was] sentenced to six months imprisonment for culpable homicide in causing the death of another Dayak by his pig trap, and to pay $100 pati nyawa to relatives of deceased.”

In 1922 “a Dayak living at Slanjan was pierced in the side by a pig trap supposed to have been set by himself” while a man in Sibu by the name of Nglambai “was fined 2 piculs for causing hurt to a small boy by setting a pig trap in his fruit grove. The boy had a narrow escape from death.”

And finally, “A Sarikei Dayak was fined a pikul for setting a pig trap and slightly wounding a Chinese woman.”


I have no idea what happened before the Brooke family gained control of Sarawak when someone was injured by pig trap. I would assume that it must have been resolved by people in the longhouse.

However, with the arrival of the Brookes, European forms of justice started to be employed, and Dayaks had to compensate for the harm that their traps (unintentionally) caused in terms that they did not define.


We can also see a similar process with regards to the Chinese in Sarawak and their relationship to pigs.

In the January 16, 1920 issue of the Sarawak Gazette there is a report from Sadong (for December 1919) that stated that some Chinese coolies demonstrated outside a shop in the market on “the eve of some Chinese feast day.” They demanded that the owner of the shop kill three pigs for the feast the next day. The shop owner agreed.

So pigs were important for the Chinese, and to some extent this was religious, although I think these coolies were more interested in getting the pigs into their bellies. . .

In any case, a month later, in a report from Upper Sarawak, an official noted that “pigs were being killed at Siniawan in a number of places in the bazaar,” so he arranged to have a slaughter house built “on an approved site” and to lease the right to slaughter and sell pork there “to a Chinese at a monthly rental as is done at Bau.”

So seeing that the Chinese were slaughtering pigs, an official for the Brooke administration decided to establish a monopoly for the slaughter and sale of pork (a “pork farm”) in Siniawan, and to lease that monopoly to the highest bidder, which in Sarawak, like the rest of Southeast Asia, ended up being a rich Chinese.


Once that happened, Dayaks figured out that beyond religious/ritual benefits, there were other benefits that one could get from pigs. . . namely, one could become rich by selling them to Chinese who wanted to eat them.

In March 1920, the official stationed in Upper Sarawak reported that “The pork farmer [and I assume that he is referring to the person in Bau] ceased to kill pigs on the 18th as he said that he could not sell at the controlled price owing to the high price of pigs.”

The Brooke government apparently wanted pork to stay at a set price, but Chinese farmers started to demand higher prices for their pigs.

The man who had the monopoly on the slaughter and sale of pigs then “tried to buy pigs from the Dayaks” but the Dayaks had heared that the Chinese were asking a high price for their live swine, so they refused to sell at anything but the same price that the Chinese were asking even though “their animals are far inferior beasts to those of the Chinese breeders.”


Some from animals that had ritual significance to the Dayaks, pigs in the 1920s were being transformed into commodities that the Dayaks could demand a high price for.

Perhaps this explains why violence started to emerge in relation to pigs.

It was reported from Upper Sarawak in February 1920 that there was a “Dayak shooting case” that occurred in the following manner: “a pig drive was in progress when Sejit shot a relative of his named Sanyas in the back killing him instantly. Sejit saw the long grass waving and simply fired without waiting to see what he was shooting at with this unfortunate result. The Court sentenced him to a year imprisonment.”

A month later it was reported from Upper Sarawak that: “On the night of the 16th, a gardener’s house at Seringgok was held up by two Chinese armed with thorny sticks, while two more proceeded to the piggery, and cut up and made off with a pig weighing some 90 catties. The gardener got out through the back of the house and raised the alarm, but the thieves managed to make good their escape in the darkness.”

Pigs had clearly become valuable. . .


What this very brief and superficial examination demonstrates to me is that there is great potential in looking at the past from an “animal perspective,” or more specifically, from looking at the past from the perspective of human-animal relations.

In the case of Sarawak, for instance, one can clearly see larger societal and economic transformations in the situations that pigs found themselves.

If historians were to examine the past from the perspective of those situations that pigs found themselves in, we might not learn a great deal that is new, but I think we’d see a lot that we already know from a novel and enlightening perspective.

So in any case, to honor the role of pigs in the history of Sarawak, I’ve created a soundscape that I’ve called “Peaceful Pigs.” It’s not about Dayak pig traps or Chinese slaughterhouses. But instead, is a soundscape which imagines a (more or less) peaceful co-existence between pigs and humans. This might not be what actually occurred in the past, but that is why this is the past “remixed.”

There is one episode in the history of modern Southeast Asia that I find endlessly fascinating, and that is the fall of the Burmese monarchy. Perhaps this is because Amitav Ghosh described it so captivatingly in his historical novel, The Glass Palace, or perhaps it is simply because it is a fascinating moment in history.

the glass palace

The gist of the story is that King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat were given an ultimatum in 1884 by the British to allow a British “resident” to be stationed at the palace and to take control of various functions, such as foreign affairs, or to face war.

Would the appointment of a British resident open the door to the gradual usurpation of all control by the British? Or was this the only way at that time of colonial conquest around the globe to maintain some form of autonomy?

The story goes that Queen Supayalat resisted the ultimatum as she was pregnant with what she believed must be a son, and she wanted to ensure that in the future her son would have a kingdom to rule over. From her perspective, the story goes, to let a British resident enter the palace would be the first step in losing the entire kingdom, and that therefore had to be resisted.

Thibaw and wives

So the British and the Burmese went to war. . . and King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat were exiled to India.

And until recently, that’s pretty much all we knew. A couple of years ago, however, an Indian author by the name of Suhda Shah published a book about what happened in the years that followed, The King in Exile: The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma.

I first learned of this book from the Internet, but I was doubtful about it because Suhda Shah is not a professional historian, and I’ve read many books by “amateur” historians that cover well-known territory and do not provide any new insights.

However, when I came across a copy of The King in Exile in a bookstore in Bangkok, I checked the endnotes, and saw that there were extensive citations of materials in the Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai and of interviews that Sudha Shah had conducted with descendants and friends of the royal family.


That convinced me that the book was worth reading, and now that I’ve read most it, I can confirm, that it is a wonderful read. First of all, Sudha Shad has done extensive research. She provides a detailed account (in clear and captivating prose) of the more than three decades that the royal family spent in Ratnagiri, India before the queen and her daughters were allowed to return to Burma after Thibaw had died.

Those years were clearly not enjoyable for the royal family. King Thibaw, for instance, spent an incredible amount of time and energy writing letters and petitions to the British authorities seeking money and permission so that he could perform various functions that were essential parts of his culture and position as a monarch, like sponsoring an ear-piercing ceremony for his daughters to make them eligible for marriage.


When after decades of this life of bureaucratic misery King Thibaw finally passed away, one of his daughter’s placed a sign on the gate of their compound that contained text in both Burmese and English.

The English message said: “The Great King of Righteousness has wearied of the world of men, and ascended to rule among the Gods.”

I have no way of knowing if King Thibaw truly ascended to rule among the gods, but from Sudha Shah’s account of his life in exile, I have no doubt but that he must have totally wearied of the world of men (pity the man who is a prisoner of the British colonial bureaucracy!!).


I have yet to finish the book, but I can see that it continues to follow the lives of King Thibaw’s queen and four daughters after their return to Burma. Their years in Ratnagiri also caused a great deal of weariness for King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat, however, I don’t want to reveal too much about this wonderful book.

It’s a great read, and it sheds light on an aspect of the colonial period that has long been overlooked. In the post-colonial period, “national histories” have been the most popular form of historical writing.

In national histories, exiles disappear when they leave the nation’s territory, as they cease to serve the nation. But in reality these people of course continued to live, and from Sudha Shah’s account of King Thibaw and his family, we can see that they also continued in various ways (from confrontation to passive resistance) to serve the interests of their nation, their culture, and their own dignity.

Certainly there were things that happened that were unsavory or embarrassing, but that happens everywhere (and that’s what makes life interesting). What I think is important is that the efforts that people like King Thibaw and his family took while in exile not be forgotten.

And now thanks to Sudha Shah’s thorough research and beautiful writing, in the case of the royal family of Burma, they won’t be.

I have started making “soundscapes” to accompany blog posts that I write about historical events or phenomena in Southeast Asian history. I am not sure why I started to do this, and I’m still not sure what exactly it is that I am doing, but the more I think about it, the more it seems to make some kind of sense.

napalm image

The above picture is an iconic image from the Vietnam war of children running from a village that had been napalmed.

The image below is a “reframing” of the same image by Polish artist, Zbigniew Libera.


Which image is more disturbing? Why? What is the point of the second image?

Clearly, this “reframing” of this iconic photograph can lead people to think about various things: the past, suffering, affluence, the presence, etc.

So I think I’m trying to find a way to do this with sound. This is more difficult as there are not many “iconic sounds” from the past. That is therefore somewhat of a limitation, but it can also leave more room to be creative.

In “remixing the past” in the previous post, I was attempting to represent in sound the lack of interest on the part of the Marine Court at Singapore that some of the survivors of the Angola wreck had resorted to cannibalism. By placing sounds of murder and cannibalism alongside a smooth trance groove, my idea was to create a sense of complacency in the face of horror.

While that remix is not as artistic as Zbigniew Libera’s reframed photograph, perhaps the idea is more or less the same?


I also find it interesting that less than a century earlier before the survivors of the Angola wreck engaged in cannibalism, the survivors of the wreck of a ship called the Medusa had also engaged in cannibalism.

This act was captured in a painting that now resides in the Louvre. That painting caused a scandal/sensation when it was created, in part because people were appalled at the time to learn of what the surviving sailors had done.

So why was the Marine Court at Singapore unfazed about what the survivors of the Angola wreck did? And why are we so unfazed by so much today?

Perhaps reframing and remixing the past is a way that we can think about these things.

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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