Taking a Break


I’ll be taking a break from posting to this blog until sometime in January.


Thank you to everyone for reading and commenting. See you again next year!!

I was reading a review of Keith Taylor’s A History of the Vietnamese that appeared in the journal Sojourn (29.3 [2014]: 738-53) in which an historian argues that Taylor went too far in his book in deemphasizing the threat of “Chinese aggression” throughout “Vietnamese” history, and says “. . . when foreign aggression has occurred in Vietnamese history, it has most often come from the north, and the pantheon of Vietnamese heroes and heroines before the French colonial period is largely composed of those who fought Chinese enemies.”


Taylor has a response to this same journal in which he note that “‘the pantheon of Vietnamese heroes and heroines’ is the object of a national cult constructed over time, an ideology, not a representation of history.”


It is also a topic that desperately needs to be researched, because I keep coming across references to “the pantheon” as if it is something so obvious and common sense that it requires no further discussion.

However, Taylor is correct. “The pantheon” is an ideological construction. What is more, most of that “constructing” took place in the twentieth century, a topic which Benoît de Tréglodé has examined in detail.


What existed before the twentieth century? Many people today look to works like the Việt điện u linh tập, a fourteenth-century collection of “biographies” of spirits that were given official titles by the Trần Dynasty.

In the twentieth century the Việt điện u linh tập was translated from classical Chinese into vernacular Vietnamese and published. Prior to that time, however, it never appears to have been published, and today there are only a few manuscript versions of the text.

So if the figures discussed in the Việt điện u linh tập represent a “pantheon,” then how did people learn about it? How does some information that is in a manuscript in some scholar’s or government official’s home or office make it into the minds of “the people,” or even into the minds of his colleagues?


Perhaps the clearest evidence for a pantheon prior to the twentieth century might be a temple that was built by the Nguyễn Dynasty to honor “emperors of succeeding generations” (Lịch đại đế vương miếu).

The list of “emperors” that were honored there began with the following: Fu Xi, Shen Nong, Huang Di, Yao, Shun, Xia Yu, Shang Tang, Zhou Wen Wang, Wu Wang, Kinh Dương Vương, Lạc Long Quân, Hùng Vương, Sĩ Vương (i.e., Shi Xie), Đinh Tiên Hoàng, etc.

This was clearly an “ideological construction.” It was also very different from “the pantheon” that people today assume has always existed.


So where was “the pantheon” prior to the twentieth century? Perhaps it was in “the villages.” If it was, then how can we find it?

I think one good way would be to examine which deities were worshipped in villages prior to the twentieth century. There are texts that record such information, but I don’t know of anyone who has systematically attempted to determine exactly which spirits were worshipped where and when.

However, it is obvious that there was no “pantheon” that was recognized in temples and shrines across the land. Instead, while you might have some deities that were worshipped in a few places, for the most part, each village worshipped a distinct spirit.


So it’s clear that “the pantheon” that is so common sense today did not exist prior to the twentieth century. Determining what exactly did exist and how it was transformed into something resembling a pantheon is a fascinating topic that deserves to be researched and written about.

I recently came across a report that the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) prepared during World War II on “Selected Industrial Sites in Indo-China.” In seeing this title, I assumed that this document must have identified potential bombing targets.

I therefore also assumed that it would be about places like oil refineries, fuel storage tanks, etc., but much to my surprise, the main “industrial sites” mentioned were distilleries.

At first I couldn’t understand why bombing distilleries would be so important. Can eliminating an enemy’s alcohol supplies really lead to a military victory?


As I read the report, however, I quickly came to see the connection, as during the war the Japanese had converted distilleries in French Indochina so that they could produce fuel.

Actually, the French had started to produce alcohol as a substitute for motor fuel in the 1930s, but had still relied heavily on imported fuel. After the Japanese occupied French Indochina, those imports were cut off, and the Japanese and Vichy French officials then expanded the capacity of distilleries produce alcohol for fuel purposes.

Further, by the middle of the war there were some distilleries that were producing butanol for aviation fuel.


The biggest distilleries were clustered in two areas: the Nam Định-Hà Nội-Hải Dương area and the Sài Gòn-Phnom Penh area. Of these two areas, the OSS deemed the distilleries in the Sài Gòn-Phnom Penh area to be the more important to bomb as that is where butanol was being produced.


David Marr’s Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power has information about which industrial sites were bombed when. He obtained this information from OSS reports that are held in the US National Archives. What that information shows is that these distilleries were indeed bombed.

I was looking at a report that the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) compiled during World War II about Filipinos who were collaborating with the Japanese. One of the people discussed was a man by the name of Dr. Francisco Africa.

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, Africa had served as the dean of the Institute of Arts and Sciences at the Far Eastern University in Manila. After the Japanese occupied the Philippines, Dr. Africa was appointed to serve on a committee to select Filipinos to study in Japan.


Later, in 1944, Dr. Francisco Africa became a consultant for the Foreign Ministry. In that capacity he then took on a very interesting job.

This is what the OSS report says,

“In connection with his work as consultant, he was also appointed Chairman of the Philippines Inter-ministry Joint Committee whose chief function it has been to assist the Burmese Research Mission in its extensive study of conditions in the Philippines which began 13 July 1944.


“Of greatest use to the Burmese Commission is a 338 [or 358?] page book entitled ‘What Burma (word missing in original report) about the Wartime Philippines,’ prepared by Dr. Africa. This report which was completed in July 1944 is a compilation of answers of the different ministries and offices of the Republic of the Philippines to questions of the Burmese Commission.

“‘It is intended to serve as a guide and source of information to researchers and students of Philippine economics, finances, technical education, sociology and public administration. . . Divided into 12 chapters, it gives a general picture of the structural activities and problems of the present independent Republic.’”


The report goes on to say that,

“In addition, the volume contains the proceedings of the round-table conference held July 21 among members of the Burmese Mission and the Inter-ministry Joint Committee.

“It is conceivable that such a report would be sued for propaganda purposes to convince other governments, in this case Burma, of the success and efficiency of the Japanese administration.”


I had never heard of the Burmese Mission, nor did I know that there were people from Burma who visited the Philippines in the middle of World War II ostensibly in order to learn about how the Philippines was administered and how its society and economy functioned.

I also had no idea that there were people in the government of a Japanese-occupied country like the Philippines who put together extensive reports like the one mentioned here.

Ultimately there is a lot that we still do not know about the day-to-day activities of governments and societies in Japanese-controlled Southeast Asia during World War II. However, from the brief mention of the Burmese Mission and the report that was drafted for its visit to the Philippines by Dr. Francisco Africa’s committee, we can see that in many ways, life apparently went on as usual.

One topic about the Vietnamese past that I find is poorly understood is the issue of the “Three Teachings” (Tam giáo) of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism.

I just did a Google search for “tam giáo Việt Nam” and randomly chose one of the pages that came up. It was a university web page that contained an essay that had been copied from an academic journal, and this is how it began:

“Researchers have acknowledged that our nation originally established a democratic spirit and began to live at ease from the time that the Three Teachings entered Vietnam. Our forefathers knew to open the doors themselves and to accept the essence of that thought system, to choose, and to absorb and transform [it] into something of our own, that accords with our conditions and living environment, and which serves us.”

(Các nhà nghiên cứu đã thừa nhận dân tộc ta vốn có tinh thần dân chủ và sống phóng khoáng nên từ khi Tam giáo vào Việt Nam, cha ông ta đã biết tự mở cửa đón nhận những tinh hoa của hệ tư tưởng ấy, chọn lọc, dung hợp và biến chúng thành cái của mình, phù hợp với điều kiện và hoàn cảnh sống của mình, phục vụ cho mình.)


These comments are similar to many others that I have read. The ideas here are based on several problematic assumptions: 1) that there were three distinct bodies of thought (Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism), 2) that these three distinct bodies of thought existed outside of Vietnam first and then had to “enter” (vào), 3) that there was a coherent “nation” (dân tộc) that existed at that time and that people at that time made choices for the benefit of the nation, and 4) that the form that the Three Teachings took in Vietnam was somehow distinct.

The teachings that we call Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism developed over the centuries in East Asia in interaction with each other. As a result, Buddhists monks in East Asia encouraged children to be filial just as much as Confucian scholars did, as this concept came to be upheld by everyone as an essential moral value.

While it is perhaps acceptable to say that the main developments in the history of Confucian thought occurred within the boundaries of “China,” in at least the first millennium AD the Red River Delta was part of a larger Buddhist and Daoist world, and therefore, it is difficult to say that those teachings “entered Vietnam” when “Vietnam” was part of the world where they developed.

Meanwhile, the idea that people can “choose” (chọn lọc) aspects of cultural traditions (and reject others) is a modern myth. This has been said about the ruling elite in Meiji Japan and the monarchy in nineteenth-century Siam. However, I have yet to see anyone provide any evidence that demonstrates this process. What, for instance, did any of these people choose, and what did they reject? And who exactly did the choosing, and how do we know this?

Then there is the issue of the form that the Three Teachings took in Vietnam. Was it really distinct? In other words, is it correct to call it “ours”? Or was it similar to the form that the Three Teachings took in other places?

The best place to seek an answer to these questions is in historical sources that actually show us the intermixture of the Three Teachings.


Morality books (thiện thư 善書) are a great source for this. The term “morality books” refers to a genre of texts that became popular in “China” during the period of the Song Dynasty. They were texts that were supposedly revealed by spirits (and contacting spirits was something that “Daoists” did), and they encouraged people to follow “Confucian” moral virtues, but they used the logic of karmic retribution/reward (因果報應, 祸福報應, etc.) in encouraging people to do so (“If you do good things, good things will happen to you”).

However, there was an important distinction that was made in morality books about the role of karmic retribution/reward in these books, and that distinction was pointed out by both Chinese and Vietnamese scholars. One Vietnamese scholar who talked about this issue was a man by the name of Đăng Hy Long, a man who wrote a preface to a collection of (Chinese) morality books that was published in Vietnam in 1884, called the Precious Book for Creating Good Fortune (Tạo phúc bao thư 造福寶書).

In his preface, Đăng Hy Long explained that the idea of retribution/reward that one finds discussed in morality books was distinct from that found in the writings of Daoists and Buddhists. As was the case throughout those parts of Asia that employed classical Chinese at that time, Đăng Hy Long did not use terms which were the exact equivalents of terms such as “Buddhism,” “Daoism” and “Confucianism” that are used in vernacular languages today. Instead, he referred to the “Dao” (Đạo 道) and “Sakya” (Thích釋) “clans” (thị 氏), as well as to “Scholars” (Nho giả 儒者), terms which had different connotations (or what we could call a different semantic range), but which nonetheless referred to three basic repertoires of ideas and practices.


Ths is what Đăng Hy Long wrote:

“Talk of calamity, good fortune and retribution/reward emerged first among the Dao and Sakya[muni] clans. [Confucian] scholars did not venerate [these ideas]. However the Classic of Changes [i.e., Yijing 易經] states that ‘Those who accumulate good deeds will have much to rejoice, whereas those who accumulate evil deeds will encounter many calamities.’ The Classic of Documents [i.e., Shangshu 尚書] states that ‘On those who do good are sent down a hundred blessings, and on those who do evil are sent down a hundred calamities.’ This is what the texts of [Confucian] scholars say about retribution/reward.

What the texts of [Confucian] scholars thus say about retribution is that people should recognize goodness as that which they should carry out. When they make efforts to carry out good deeds, Heaven responds by granting good fortune. It is not the case that they first desire good fortune and then carry out good deeds, or that they first fear calamity and then do not engage in evil acts.”

3 teachings

Đăng Hy Long argues here that what we would today call the Three Teachings of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism all talk about a similar issue – reward/retribution. However, he clearly thinks that the Confucian approach to this issue is superior, and that Confucian scholars are morally superior to the people who follow other teachings.

Why is this the case? Because, according to Đăng Hy Long, Confucian scholars do good because it is the right thing to do, whereas Buddhists and Daoists first think of something that will bring benefit to them, and then they carry out the acts of goodness necessary to be rewarded with the desired benefit.

In other words, from the perspective of Đăng Hy Long, Buddhists and Daoists are calculating, whereas Confucian scholars are simply morally upright.

This is one view of the Three Teachings. In Buddhist texts one can find a different view, one that emphasizes the superiority of Buddhism. What these views show, however, is that the Three Teachings did not blend into some harmonious whole. Instead, while there were ideas that were shared by everyone in society – such as the importance of filial piety and the concept of reward/retribution – people still differentiated themselves from others, and thought that their own approach to the shared aspects of society were superior.

Such an approach to life is very common. Indeed, thinking that one’s self is better than one’s neighbors or other people in society is a very common human trait. Most people throughout history have not made choices for “our nation,” but instead, have repeatedly emphasized their own perceived self-importance.

When one looks at the Three Teachings through that perspective, we obtain a different picture of the past, but one which is much more closely reflected in the historical record, and which is likely much closer to reality that much of what has been written to date.

It is well known that after the Japanese occupied Southeast Asia in World War II, Indian nationalists formed something known as the “Indian National Army,” a military force that had the ultimate goal of freeing India from British rule.

The formation of this army was a sign that there were plenty of Indians in the region who were opposed to the British.

At the same time, there were other Indians who identified with the British.

In looking through the digitized materials in the Australian National Archives, I came across an account by an English officer by the name of Hayward Thomas Richards about a certain Jemadar Guptha (“jemadar” is a term for a military officer) who was encouraged by the Japanese in Kuching, Sarawak on the island of Borneo to join the Indian National Army.


This is what Richards wrote:

“In mid 1943 the Japanese in Kuching were endeavoring to form a kind of ‘INDEPENDENT INDIAN’ force in Kuching, and to this end [they] organized a demonstration of Independent Indians.

To this demonstration they asked Jemadar Guptha, who was in charge of a party of about 50 Indians at the aerodrome, to bring his men. He refused, saying that neither he nor his men wished to attend the ceremony.

He was then brought to Kuching and interrogated by civilian officer KUBO, in the presence of N.C.O. KOGO and lieut. NAKATA. I was present during part of this interview which was roughly as follows:


Question: Why do you not wish to attend the demonstration?

Answer: Because I am a loyal subject of H. M. King George, and a British P.O.W. My only connection with the Japanese is that I have been unfortunate enough to be captured by them in action.

Q: Why do you think so much of the British?

A: Because they have provided me with land and a livelihood, are looking after my wife and family while I am away, and will provide me with a pension.

Q: What do you think of the Japanese as compared with the English?

A: (Shrugging his shoulders) We can only judge people by their treatment.

Q: There is no need to be afraid of the two British N.C.O.’s who are present.

A: I am not afraid of anyone.


At this juncture the Jemadar was taken out and I heard and saw no more but on talking with him later I understood that he was taken to KEMPEITAI H.Q. where he was so severely ill-treated that he lost control of his natural functions and he use of his legs.


Then he was brought back to Kuching P.O.W. Camp Guard Room where he was further ill-treated. Eventually after several months he was returned to the Indian P.O.W. Camp in a very weak, emaciated and crippled condition.

Now I am glad to say, he is well on the road to recovery.”


Was Jemadar Guptha a fool who had been mentally colonized? Or was he a hero for standing up for what he believed in and for being willing to endure torture rather than to compromise his beliefs? Were the Indians who joined the Indian National Army heroes for wanting to free India from British control? Or were they opportunists who were willing to collaborate with the Japanese military, an organization that clearly demonstrated to the peoples of Southeast Asia during World War II that it could engage in acts of brutality and inhumanity?

These are tough questions to answer, but I’m glad to see that Jemadar Guptha was on the road to recovery when the war ended.

In looking around in the materials digitized by the Australian National Archives I came across a file called “Landing Permits Dayang Muda of Sarawak.”

Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, was a kingdom ruled over by a British family, the Brooke family. The king was referred to as the “Rajah,” and the heir apparent was referred to as the “Tuan Muda.” The “Dayang Muda,” meanwhile, was the official title of the wife of the Tuan Muda.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the Tuan Muda of Sarawak was Bertram Willes Dayrell Brooke, and the Dayang Muda was his wife, Gladys Milton Palmer.


The Dayang Muda was a colorful character. She interacted with high society in Europe and got involved in the movie industry, all the while capitalizing on her connection to the “exotic” world of Sarawak.

The file that I just came across in the Australian National Archives, however, revealed to me something that I didn’t know about the Dayang Muda – that she lived through World War II in Bombay, India. . . in the Ritz Hotel!!


In October of 1945 the Dayang Muda contacted Australian authorities to indicate that she wished to travel to Australia together with her personal secretary of 15 years, a Russian gentleman by the name of Captain Paltov.

The Dayang Muda had apparently sought to travel to Australia in 1941, but when she was passing through India on the way from her villa in Greece she learned that Malaya and Sarawak had fallen to the Japanese, and she feared that travel to Australia would be impossible. What is more, Paris, where she also had a home, had fallen to the Germans.

With no place to go, there was no choice left for the Dayang Muda but to remain in India, and she apparently did so, by taking up residence at the Ritz Hotel in Bombay.

One would think that spending four years in a high-class hotel would be quite comfortable, but the Dayang Muda stated in 1945 that “My prolonged stay in India has affected my health and I am most anxious to find a home.”

Indeed, I’m sure that years of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” must have taken its toll.

As the field of Southeast Asian Studies developed (particularly in North America and Australia) in the second half of the twentieth century, one of the ideas that came to be established as a defining feature of Southeast Asia as a region was the idea that traditionally women in Southeast Asia were “better off” or “more autonomous” than women in other parts of the world, particularly in East and South Asia.

A Google search for “women in Southeast Asia,” easily brings up information which is representative of that interpretation:

“The 11 countries of Southeast Asia include over 550 million people. Despite great linguistic and cultural diversity, the region is characterized by the relatively favorable position of women in comparison with neighboring East or South Asia.

“This has been explained by several factors: traditionally, kinship was traced though both maternal and paternal lines; a daughter was not a financial burden because of the widespread practice of bride price; a married couple often lived with or near the wife’s parents; women had prominent roles in indigenous ritual; their labor was essential in agricultural [work], and they dominated local markets.

“Over time, however, the rise of centralized states and the spread of imported philosophies and religions (Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity) increasingly privileged males and stressed female subordination. Although such influences were most noticeable among the elite, the strength of local traditions was always a moderating force.”


This characterization of Southeast Asia was created largely by scholars from outside the region, and by using sources that were written by people from outside the region. In particular, scholars who have tried to characterize “traditional” Southeast Asia have relied heavily on the writings of European travelers to the region, and there is a good reason for doing so.

As Anthony Reid points out in the opening passages of Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, Europeans wrote about things that people in the region did not record (like how they ate). Such things were too obvious to local people to need to write about. However, to Europeans they were interesting because they were different from what existed in their own societies.

In talking about places that were different from their own societies, early European travelers to Southeast Asia of course viewed what they saw with a certain degree of bias, and that is something which scholars in the second half of the twentieth century sought to ignore, or to “read through the lines” in order to see something closer to “the truth.”

But how do we know what is a bias and what is not?


I was thinking about this characterization of the status of women in traditional Southeast Asia and the kinds of sources that were used to create that characterization recently as I was reading a book entitled China Pictorial, Descriptive, and Historical, with some account of Ava and the Burmese, Siam and Anam. Published in 1853, this book was largely written by a certain Julia Corner, but the parts at the end about Burma, Siam and Annam were attributed to “a gentleman who was devoted much time to the study of China and the Indo-Chinese nations.”

This is what this gentleman had to say about women in Annam:

“. . . the women of Annam are treated with very little respect or tenderness. Provided he do not kill her outright, her husband may inflict the severest corporal punishment upon his wife without being called to any account, and without forfeiting the good opinion of his neighbors.

“The gentlemen of our mission were constantly annoyed by the cries of poor women, and by the sight of husbands publicly bambooing their wives.

“An Annamese boatman told an American trader that wives require a great deal of caning, – that nothing but the bamboo could keep them in proper discipline and order.” (327)


As far as I know, none of the “imported philosophies” of Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism that were part of the cultural mix of Annam/Vietnam at that time have much to say about the importance of beating women, but perhaps one could make an argument that Buddhism and Confucianism do privilege men.

However, do they do so to the extent that they could transform a society from one in which men did not beat their wives to one in which they did beat their wives?

Or perhaps no one was getting beaten, and this information about women getting caned and bambooed was simply this author’s invention and represents his bias? If that is the case, then how can we know that?


This same author also talked about the work that women did in Annam and Siam. This is what he said about Annam:

“. . . a large amount of the male population is absorbed by the army and other services of government, the women of the poorer classes have an uncommon share of hard work.

“It is, indeed, often said, that in this country the labor of the women supports the men. They plough, harrow, reap, and carry heaven burdens; and they are also shopkeepers, pedlers, brokers, and money-changers.” (328)

And this is what the author wrote about Siam:

“Like the women of the poor in Cochin-China, the poor females in Siam perform all manner of hard labor, and for the same reason – so many of the men are taken from their own work by the heavy military conscription. They row the boats, carry burdens, plough, sow, and harrow.” (387)


From these passages it is clear that women’s labor was “essential” for agriculture, and we can get a sense that they “dominated” the markets, but this author did not describe that fact in positive terms.

Instead, from his perspective the fact that women were working in the fields and trying to make money in the market was connected to the fact that they were living in a society where their husbands were being exploited by the state, and could not support their families.

So from that perspective, can we say that the centralized states of Siam and Annam were privileging men and suppressing women? Or would it be more accurate to say that these states suppressed poor men and left poor women to find their own means to survive?


To be fair, many scholars today (particularly those who have long studied this matter) realize that the lives of women in premodern Southeast Asia were not as rosy as they were originally depicted by scholars in the second half of the twentieth century.

However, when I read passages like the ones above, I continue to feel that the way we write about the past today is still much too “favorable.”

Many societies in the past (all over the world) were oppressive and exploitative. That, however, is a point which, scholars in the second half of the twentieth century downplayed. Writing in the immediate post-colonial era, scholars were eager to return some dignity to people in Southeast Asia by characterizing Southeast Asian societies differently from the ways that some colonial-era scholars had done – that is, by emphasizing the “strengths” of Southeast Asian societies, rather than their “weaknesses.”

Women were seen as one of the strengths of Southeast Asian societies. But perhaps in reality their “favorable position” had a lot to do with the weaknesses of Southeast Asian states.

Whatever the case may be, it’s always good to go back to the sources that scholars base their arguments on and rethink the issues that they talked about.


Late afternoon in Hanoi in July. A day after going to the Trưng sisters’ temple in Mê Linh to pray for rain, it still hasn’t rained. In fact, today was just as hot as yesterday was.

Then. . . late in the afternoon, this happened.

[rain scene]

As if someone gave some kind of order, the heavens suddenly opened up and let down torrential rainfall. And that made me start to think. . .

In the twelfth century there was a drought. Emperor Lý Anh Tông ordered a Buddhist monk to pray for rain, and then after it did rain, he had a dream in which the Trưng sisters appeared and declared that they had brought the rain on orders from the Jade Emperor.

In 2014, I had a dream of a strange man with a vacuum cleaner. I then went to pray for rain at the Trưng sisters’ temple, and it rained.

Are these two events connected? I guess that’s really hard to know, but I’d like to believe that they are.


In the twelfth century, after the Trưng sisters brought rain, the historical record says that cool air blew over the people.

This evening in Hanoi, after the rain that just fell, there is also cool air blowing over the people. People are coming out from their homes, walking about the city. Everyone seems a little more relaxed. Everyone seems a little bit happier.

For that, I suppose we can thank the Trưng sisters, and enjoy a wonderful evening in Hanoi in July.

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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