I was looking through a book called An Illustrated Guide to the Federated Malay States. This book was published at least three times (in 1910, 1911 and 1920), and is a kind of guidebook/travel guide for the Malay Peninsula at that time.


This book provides a lot of interesting information, such as the following comments about the main mental institution in Malaya (in a chapter entitled “Notes for Travellers”):

“The Central Lunatic Asylum for the Federated Malay States is at Tanjong Rambutan, not far from Ipoh, in Perak. The most prevalent form of lunacy in Malaya is melancholia, a quiet form of insanity which permits the patients being kept together in association and employed in useful spade labour, either in or near the hospital, an occupation to which to which they have all been accustomed before their mental powers failed. Many a madman has had to thank this daily round and common task of digging for his recovery.”


I’m not sure why a traveler to Malaya in the early twentieth century would need to know about the local lunatic asylum. . . but it is amazing to see how successful it apparently was, and to learn how simple the key to that success was – getting prisoners to spend their days shoveling.

I would be interested to learn what exactly it is that the inmates at the lunatic asylum were shoveling. Were they digging dirt in order to complete some building project? Or were they just sent off somewhere and told to “Start digging!”?

Unfortunately, the author of this work does not provide any more details, so I decided to look around in other sources of information to see what I could learn about the Central Lunatic Asylum at Tanjong Rambutan.


As luck would have it, I found some information in the Singaporean newspaper, The Straits Times, but some of the information that I found indicated that the “shovel treatment” at the Central Lunatic Asylum was apparently not always successful.

On 26 November 1939, The Straits Times carried an article entitled “Madman Kills Host: Thought He Was A Goat” that was about a Malay man who escaped from the asylum and killed an Indian man named Peeee.

The Malay “madman” claimed that Peeee had turned into a goat, so he had killed him, and when a rubber tapper passed by Peeee’s house the next morning, the Malay man offered the man some of the meat. . .

When the police later arrived, they found Peeee buried in a shallow grave, with his leg protruding from the earth.


The murder of an innocent person is of course nothing to laugh about, but I do find the naïveté (or the colonial condescension) in the passage in An Illustrated Guide to the Federated Malay States to be funny (to the degree to which it is ridiculous).

So in response to the lunacy of the colonial past, I created a soundscape of “Shoveling Lunatics.” May Peeee rest in peace, and may lunatics no longer have to be treated by the “shovel treatment”. . . unless of course they enjoy doing it.

In the 1890s, the British government commissioned a report on the use of cannabis (i.e., marijuana) in British India, which at that time included Burma. The report that this “Indian Hemp Drugs Commission” produced was more than 3,000 pages long.


I have just begun to read through this report. What I can see already though is that ganja (another name for marijuana) was apparently prohibited in British-controlled Lower Burma in 1873, but that with the British annexation of Upper Burma in 1885, large numbers of Indian troops and workers started to arrive in Burma, and since ganja was apparently still legal in India, these men wanted ganja, and they found ways to get it.

So it was possible to obtain ganja in the 1890s in British Burma, and Indians were apparently the main consumers of this drug.


This got me thinking. . . I’m aware that there were many Indians who worked for the British in Burma. If they were smoking ganja while they worked. . . then what would that have been like?

To help imagine what that would have been like, I created a kind of “soundscape.”

Let’s imagine a time a bit later than the 1890s, like perhaps the 1930s. And let’s also imagine that we are at a bus station in Burma. And let’s imagine that we are an Indian guard who is in charge of inspecting the station and making sure that everything is in order. And finally, let’s imagine that we are high on ganja.

What would things have sounded like to us? I suspect that they would have sounded like this.

Periodically there are articles that appear in the Vietnamese press about the “ancient Việt script” (chữ Việt cổ). There are people in Vietnam who are determined to show that there was a “Việt” script that was used in antiquity before classical Chinese (Hán) was adopted by people in the Red River Delta, and whenever someone publishes a book about this, there are articles in the press about this topic.

chu Viet co

I never pay much attention to this topic because I have never seen any convincing evidence that there was ever an “ancient Việt script.”

However, what I find interesting is that the people who try to make this claim keep pointing to a certain script and claiming that it represents the “ancient Việt script.” The script that I am referring to is the Tai Dam, or “Black Tai,” script.


There was a Vietnamese scholar in the nineteenth century, Vương Duy Trinh, who made an initial effort to document this script in a text about songs from the area of Thanh Hóa (Thanh Hóa quan phong).

His rendering of this script is probably not very accurate, but it is easy to see from what he wrote that the script he was looking at was likely a Tai Dam script. Vương Duy Trinh said that this script could be found in the “Ten Châu” (Thập Châu 十州), a reference to administrative districts in the mountains stretching along the current Laos-Vietnam border to the north of Thanh Hóa.

Vương Duy Trinh noted that “People often say that our country does not have writing. I do not think that is correct. The Ten Châu are in the territory of our country. Up in the Ten Châu there is still this writing, but for some reason down in the markets [of the lowlands] there is not. The writing of the Châu is the writing of our country.”

(Người ta thường nói rằng nước ta không có chữ. Tôi nghĩ rằng không phải. Thập Châu vốn là đất nước ta. Trên Châu còn có chữ, lẽ nào dưới chợ lại không. Lối chữ Châu là lối chữ nước ta đó.)


Later in the nineteenth century, Gustave Dumoutier wrote an article about the Black River (Sông Đà) in which he included a very interesting document about that region that was written in Latin by a Vietnamese Catholic by the name of Nguyen Minh Dang.

In this document, Nguyen Minh Dang notes that up in this mountainous region only the Lao and the Chao (a Tai term for a king) had writing, and that this script consisted of 36 letters and 25 diacritical marks (36 chữ, 25 dâu). I am not sure how Nguyen Minh Dang came up with these numbers, but Tai scripts contain consonants, vowels and diacritical marks, and this is what Nguyen Minh Dang was probably referring to.

Nguyen Minh Dang then goes on to talk in his document about how the mountain regions came to be conquered by the Annamites (the Việt), and how there were some people in the mountains who could speak some Vietnamese and who followed the customs of the “Hoa dân” (華人), a term which was used to refer to the educated elite in the Việt and Chinese worlds at that time.

Latin 1

So did Nguyen Minh Dang think that the script that some people in the mountains used was an “ancient Việt script”? He does not say anything about that, but he does connect the people in the mountains to the ancient Việt past.

Nguyen Minh Dang begins his document by talking about how “once upon a time” the Hùng king ruled over all the mountain regions, but that the mountains were divided into many parts. Overseeing this divided world were two influential polities.

The supreme polity was called Muong Pha and was ruled over by the Chao Pha, a powerful being who created the four seasons and brought life to the world, while the inferior polity was called Muong Din and was ruled over by the Hùng King.

Latin 2

“Muong” is a Tai word for a “polity” or “kingdom.” “Pha” means “sky” or “heaven” and “din” means “land.”

What is interesting about this passage is that it demonstrates a view of the world in which a Tai ruler is represented as more powerful than a Việt counterpart, but at the same time, this is all presented in a “Việt” context, as the Chao Pha ruled at a time when the Hùng King governed over all the mountains.

According to Vietnamese tradition, the Hùng Kings’ supposedly ruled during the first millennium BC. So does this mean that this document in Latin that a Vietnamese Catholic wrote in the late nineteenth century about the worldview of Tai-language speakers in the mountains along the Black River contains information that these people “preserved” for some 2,000 years?

Certainly not, as linguists argue that Tai-language-speaking peoples only migrated into this region in large numbers about 1,000 years ago.


So why do we have Việt and Tai worldviews intermixed in a document like this? I think it is there for the same reason that there are Vietnamese scholars today who try to argue that the Tai Dam script is an “ancient Việt script.”

Tai and Việt peoples were rivals for centuries. Over time, however, the Việt have come to dominate the Tai. In the process, the Việt have also come to dominate what is said and known about the Tai.

In the nineteenth century, Vương Duy Trinh claimed that the Tai Dam script was a script that was from “our country” (nước ta) and Nguyen Minh Dang claimed that the Hùng Kings had ruled over the mountains. These were statements that “appropriated” the Tai into the Việt world, and this process continues today each time a Vietnamese scholar claims that the Tai Dam script is an “ancient Việt script.”

I’ve seen several articles and events recently about the publication of a new book in Vietnam – a Vietnamese translation of Le Thanh Khoi’s Histoire du Vietnam: Des origines à 1858.

Many of the recent reports that I’ve read indicate that this book was first published in 1982, but I just got a copy out of the library that was published in 1981. Further, on one of the opening pages of the book, the author indicates that he completed this survey of Vietnamese history in 1971.


So why then, one might ask, would anyone want to translate a general history of a country over 40 years after it was written? I guess it would make sense to me to do so if the book contained new insights, or employed new sources or changed the way we think about the past (although I’m not sure how any of this could remain “unknown/hidden” for so long).

However, I cannot find much of anything that is new in Le Thanh Khoi’s Histoire du Vietnam: Des origines à 1858. It is not new today, and in 1971 it wasn’t really new either as it largely repeated ideas that had already been presented in specialized studies.

Hence, in the footnotes we can see cited studies by scholars like Madeline Colani, Henri Mansuy and Henri Maspero. . . studies that were all well-known by 1971.


Further, if we look at the opening passage of the section that deals with recorded history, we will find that it is not all that different in terms of the information that it presents and in the way that it presents that information from the opening passage on recorded history in a work like Pétrus Trương Vĩnh Ký’s Cours d’histoire Annamite, published almost a century earlier in 1875.


Perhaps this explains why it has only been checked out of the library here four times since 1981. . .


So why translate this book now? And why hold events to talk about this book?

Ultimately I think all of this says more about the field of historical scholarship in Vietnam than about this book.

There is always something “happening” in the field of historical scholarship in Vietnam. . . but ideas never change.

New books get published and celebrated. Debates take place about obscure topics. But the general information about the past, and the way of viewing the past, never change.


Le Thanh Khoi’s Histoire du Vietnam: Des origines à 1858 will not change any existing ideas about the past in Vietnam. That is why it has been translated, and that is why its publication is being celebrated.

For several years now I’ve come across articles on the Internet that mention a book called Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia by Stephen Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer argues in this book that there were floods that affected the ancient world, and that in the case of Southeast Asia, this led to a dispersal of peoples out into the Pacific and westward towards the Middle East that can be traced in terms of “scientific” evidence, such as DNA, as well as in terms of “un-scientific” information like folklore. Accordingly, one half of the book looks at scientific information and the other half examines myths and creation stories.

This is how the book is summarized on Amazon.com:

“This book completely changes the established and conventional view of prehistory by relocating the Lost Eden – the world’s first civilization – to Southeast Asia. At the end of the Ice Age, Southeast Asia formed a continent twice the size of India, which included Indochina, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Borneo. In Eden in the East, Stephen Oppenheimer puts forward the astonishing argument that here in southeast Asia – rather than in Mesopotamia where it is usually placed – was the lost civilization that fertilized the Great cultures of the Middle East 6,000 years ago. He produces evidence from ethnography, archaeology, oceanography, creation stories, myths, linguistics, and DNA analysis to argue that this founding civilization was destroyed by a catastrophic flood, caused by a rapid rise in the sea level at the end of the last ice age.”


Yesterday I finally started to read this book, and the first thing that struck me was the extent to which concepts from the Judeo-Christian tradition inform the way that information in this book is presented. Beyond the term “Eden” in the title of the book, individual chapter titles contain terms like “floods,” “Babel,” “Eve,” and “Cain and Abel.”

While one might view this as a mere literary technique, I would argue that it points to deeper flaws in this book. Oppenheimer’s main inspiration for connecting “myths” to history are the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century works of Sir James Frazer, a Scottish anthropologist who pioneered the comparative study of myths and religions through books like The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion and Folk-Lore in the Old Testament: Studies in Comparative Religion, Legend and Law.

Frazer’s overall goal in his writings was to demonstrate that human thought passed through three main phases of development – from the magical to the religious to the scientific. He did this by providing evidence for these different stages from different societies around the world, however there was a Judeo-Christian focus to his approach.


We can see this straight away in the opening lines of Folk-Lore in the Old Testament where Fazer says the following:

“Modern researches into the early history of man, conducted on different lines, have converged with almost irresistible force on the conclusion, that all civilized races have at some period emerged from a state of savagery resembling more or less closely the state in which many backward races have continued to the present time.”

He then goes on to say that “Despite the high moral and religious development of the ancient Hebrews, there is no reason to suppose that they formed an exception to this general law. They, too, had probably passed through a stage of barbarism and even of savagery; and this probability, based on the analogy of other races, is confirmed by an examination of their literature” (i.e., the Old Testament). [vii]


Frazer took for granted that Christians (or followers of the Judeo-Christian tradition) were civilized. That was so obvious to him (and undoubtedly to many of his readers as well) that it did not need to be demonstrated. What his readers would have had a harder time believing, and what he tried to demonstrate, was that Christians had passed through an earlier stage of savagery.

To demonstrate this point, Frazer looked for similarities between information in the Old Testament with stories from some of the “backward races” of his time. One such topic that he looked at comparatively were “flood stories.”

In Folk-Lore in the Old Testament, Frazer looked at flood stories from all over the world.


One example that he mentioned came from the Bahnar people of what is now the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The information that Frazer obtained about a Bahnar flood story came from an article that a French missionary by the name of Father Jean Guerlach published in 1887 in the journal Les Missions Catholiques on “the mores and superstitions of the savage Bahnar” (copies of the journal can be found here).

In this article, Father Guerlach included a section on “the flood” (le déluge), which Frazer later summarized in English as follows:

“The Bahnars, a primitive tribe of Cochin China, tell how once on a time the kite [i.e., a kind of bird] quarreled with the crab, and pecked the crab’s skull so hard that he made a hole in it, which may be seen down to this very day. To avenge this injury to his skull, the crab caused the sea and the rivers to swell till the waters reached the sky, and all living beings perished except two, a brother and a sister, who were saved in a huge chest. They took with them into the chest a pair of every sort of animal, shut the lid tight, and floated on the waters for seven days and seven nights. Then the brother heard a cock crowing outside, for the bird had been sent by the spirits to let our ancestors know that the flood had abated, and that they could come forth from the chest. So the brother let all the birds fly away, then he let loose the animals, and last of all he and his sister walked out on the dry land. They did not know how they were to live, for they had eaten up all the rice that was stored in the chest. However, a black ant brought them two grains of rice: the brother planted them, and next morning the plain was covered with a rich crop. So the brother and sister were saved.” (209-210)


There are indeed remarkable similarities between this story and the story of the flood and Noah’s ark in the Bible. Perhaps this is why in his original article, Father Guerlach referred to the brother in this story as “the Bahnar Noah” (le Noë bahnar).

Or perhaps Father Guerlach wrote this way because he was viewing the Bahnar world through a Judeo-Christian lens. . .

What makes me wonder about this is the fact that even though Guerlach placed this story in a section called “the flood,” the story ultimately seems to be about something else, as there was more to the story, and Frazer provided an English summary of the rest of the story in another work, The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead:

“The Bahnars of eastern Cochinchina say that in the beginning when people died they used to be buried at the foot of a tree called Lông Blô, and that after a time they always rose from the dead, not as infants but as full-grown men and women. So the earth was peopled very fast, and all the inhabitants formed but one great town under the presidency of our first parents [i.e., the brother and sister]. In time men multiplied to such an extent that a certain lizard could not take his walks abroad without somebody treading on his tail. This vexed him, and the wily creature gave an insidious hint to the gravediggers. ‘Why bury the dead at the foot of the Lông Blô tree?’ said he; ‘bury them at the foot of Lông Khung, and they will not come to life again. Let them die outright and be done with it.’ The hint was taken, and from that day the dead have not come to life again.” (74)


Father Guerlach included all of this information in the section of his article that he called “the flood.” Does all of this information taken together constitute a flood story? It doesn’t look that way to me. Instead, it appears to me to be a story about the proper way to treat the dead (albeit a story with a long beginning that does include mention of a flood).

As Oscar Salemink pointed out years ago in his The Ethnography of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders: A Historical Contextualization, 1850-1990, Father Guerlach’s main objective in writing such articles was to demonstrate that the Bahnar were “superstitious” and therefore in need of conversion to Christianity.

Taking a story that was ultimately a lesson about how to treat the dead and presenting it as a rather absurd “savage version” of the Flood/Noah’s ark story would surely be one way of showing how “uncivilized” the Bahnar were.

That said, perhaps what this really shows us is how limited Guerlach’s worldview was. He could only see what he knew. He knew the Bible, and he saw (imperfect) parts of the Bible in the Bahnar.


Similarly, Frazer saw (imperfect) parts of the Bible in the stories of “backward races.” And similarly, I argue, Oppenheimer has seen parts of the Bible in Southeast Asian prehistory.

In his Eden in the East, Oppenheimer cites Frazer’s summary of “the flood” part of the Bahnar story that Guerlach recorded in order to support his argument about how floods in the past led to a dispersal of peoples from Southeast Asia, but he ignores the rest of that story which talks about how to bury the dead. And it is that part of the story that I would guess was the most meaningful part for the Bahnar.

Where Oppenheimer differs from Guerlach and Frazer, however, is that he sees “perfection” in Southeast Asian prehistory, and imperfect parts of that perfection in the Bible.

In the end, however, they are all engaged in the same project – they are all using the Judeo-Christian tradition to view parts of the world that were not part of that tradition.

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. . ..

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