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The question of “what is Southeast Asia” is one that garnered a lot of attention in “the West” in the years following World War II.
In the end, after years of debate and discussion, a kind of paradox emerged.
On the one hand, the idea that there is a place called Southeast Asia has become more firmly established (particularly among people who live in the region). On the other hand, scholars have found it increasingly difficult to determine what exactly it is (if anything) that makes the Southeast Asian region a “region.”
I made the above video in an effort to revisit this question, particularly so that younger people who are not aware of this earlier debate can learn about it.
Finally, a caveat as well: This is my first attempt at making what I would call a “popular academic” video (an “aca-pop” video maybe?). I still don’t have the right sound equipment working, and I’m still using very basic software (Microsoft’s Movie Maker), and most importantly, I have not yet figured out what “model” will work the best.
In some ways there already is a model for “aca-pop” videos in the “Crash Course in. . .” series that John Green has developed. The videos in that series are all fast-paced and witty (although I also find them obnoxious). They are also very professional, as John Green has plenty of money and resources to make those videos.
The “aca-pop” videos that I will try to make and post on the Le Minh Khai Southeast Asian History Blog YouTube Channel will not be as professional, nor as witty. . . but they will contain some kind of core academic information, and hopefully someone will like them (although I’m sure that others will find them obnoxious as well).
So if you watch the video, please keep all this in mind, and. . . please, please be merciful.
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An importance source for the early history of the Red River Delta is a text known as the Báo cực truyện 報極傳. This text dates perhaps from the late eleventh century, and it is no longer extant, but it is quoted in other later works that still survive.
While people are aware that the Báo cực truyện is an early text, I have never seen anyone clearly place this work in any known or recognizable literary genre.
This is difficult to do, as we only find excerpts cited from this work. Nonetheless, the word “báo” 報 in its title was an extremely important term for Buddhists who used it to refer to karmic retribution or reward.
Hence, this title could be translated as Tales of the Extreme Reach of Karmic Retribution/Reward. Such a title would fit this work into the East Asian genre of Buddhist miracle tales, stories which were particularly popular in the Chinese world between the third and seventh centuries, with perhaps the most famous collection of such tales being the seventh-century Records of Miraculous Karmic Retribution/Reward (Mingbao ji 冥報記).
Buddhist miracle tales appear to have been influenced both by Buddhist avadana tales from India and by the Chinese genre of anomaly accounts.
Avadana tales related events which occurred in a person’s life to deeds performed in a previous life, and one of the earliest translators of such tales was a third-century Sogdian monk who was active in the Red River Delta, Kang Senghui.
Anomaly accounts, on the other hand, dealt with supernatural and other unexplained phenomena. Chinese Buddhist miracles at times combined these two genres, taking a seemingly supernatural phenomenon and explaining it in terms of karmic reward or retribution.
While we cannot say for sure that the Báo cực truyện was a collection of Buddhist miracle tales, the information cited from it in a later source, the fourteenth-century Collected [Records] of the Departed Spirits from the Việt Realm (Việt điện u linh tập 越甸幽靈集), suggests that this was the case.
The quotation appears in a story about the Chinese administrator who served in the Red River Delta in the early third century CE by the name of Shi Xie.
After providing information about Shi Xie’s activities in the Red River Delta, much of which comes from the Treatise on the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo zhi 三國志), the Collected [Records] of the Departed Spirits from the Việt Realm cites the Báo cực truyện for the following information:
“The king [i.e., Shi Xie] was adept at preserving and nourishing life. After the king passed away, over 160 years later at the end of the Jin [dynasty], Linyi [people] raided. They excavated the king’s tomb and saw that the king’s body had not deteriorated and that his complexion looked as though he were still alive. They became terrified and reburied him. Local people saw him as a spirit, erected a shrine, and made sacrifices to him.”
This would seem to represent a local tradition, and yet there are historical problems with it. First of all, people from Linyi did not attack during these years. Instead, it was Chinese officials in the region who led attacks against Linyi.
One such person was a regional inspector by the name of Wen Fangzhi who attacked Linyi in 359. Not long after this, a legend emerged concerning Wen Fangzhi and Shi Xie’s tomb. However, that legend had nothing to do with Linyi.
This legend about Wen Fangzhi and Shi Xie’s tomb was recorded in a fifth century Chinese collection of anomaly accounts entitled the Garden of Marvels (Yiyuan 異苑).
The Garden of Marvels records that Shi Xie died in Jiaozhi during the final years of the Han and that he was buried in the “southern border region” (nanjing 南境).
It states that his tomb was often covered in mist and that it manifested supernatural potency at indeterminate times. The region then experienced years of unrest. However, the tomb was never excavated by robbers even during this time of turmoil.
When in the Jin Dynasty’s Xingning era (363–365), Wen Fangzhi was appointed regional inspector of Jiao Region, he personally rode off on his horse to open the tomb.
The Garden of Marvels does not report what he found. Instead, it relates that on his return, he fell off his horse and died.
In considering the historical information about Wen Fangzhi’s attack on Linyi, along with the legend of his search for Shi Xie’s tomb, it appears that this account of Shi Xie in the Báo cực truyện is likely a later creation inspired by these other accounts of Wen Fangzhi.
Surely local people did not “remember” a story about a raid by people from Linyi when such an attack had never occurred. Instead, it is much more likely that a Buddhist scholar in later years created this story.
In doing so, he altered some relevant historical information, changing Wen Fangzhi’s attack on Linyi to a raid on the Red River Delta region by people from Linyi and adapted a legend from the Garden of Marvels.
The fact that Shi Xie’s body did not decompose was meant to teach readers something.
The account in the Garden of Marvels is intended to show the miraculous potency of Shi Xie’s spirit. The Báo cực truyện may have sought to make the same point.
However, if it were a collection of Buddhist miracle tales, then perhaps it also emphasized the presence of Buddhists in the region during his time. This appears to be the case since the Báo cực truyện is also cited in a medieval Buddhist work (Cổ Châu Pháp Vân Phật bản hạnh lục) and there it does provide detailed information about the Buddhist community in the Red River Delta during Shi Xie’s time.
Therefore, in the Báo cực truyện, the miracle of Shi Xie’s non-decomposing corpse may have been presented as a miraculous sign of karmic reward for his support of the Buddhist religion during his lifetime.
Although we still cannot say for certain, nonetheless given the above evidence, I would argue that the Báo cực truyện was likely a collection of Buddhist miracle tales and that we can translate the title as Tales of the Extreme Reach of Karmic Retribution/Reward.
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A few months ago I wrote a post about an Irishman who became a Buddhist monk in Burma in the early twentieth century, and who was known as U Dhammaloka. Recently I posted about a documentary that is being made about this man.
One of the things that is fascinating about the story of U Dhammaloka is the fact that he was more or less unknown by scholars until recently. Another thing that is interesting, however, is that it has now become quite easy to find (some of the limited) information about this person given that so many books and newspapers have been digitized.
Today I realized that there are probably other figures that are as fascinating as U Dhammaloka that many of us are not aware of, such as Gerald MacBryan.
MacBryan was born in Somerset, England. He joined the civil service in Sarawak in 1920, converted to Islam, married a Malay woman and made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
By the time World War II broke out, MacBryan had become a personal secretary for the Rajah of Sarawak, Vyner Brooke. MacBryan fled to Australia with Brooke when the Japanese occupied Sarawak, but then he tried to return, and this caused problems for him.
I came across a file about MacBryan in the Australian National Archives. This file contains a letter from Vyner Brooke in which Brooke pleads with the Australian authorities to clear MacBryan’s name.
The same file also contains a sort of biography of MacBryan in which it states that “He is described as tall, thin, shifty and unscrupulous, unwilling to look a person in the eye, and is said to be of such unstable character that it would not be fantastic to assume that he might have designs on being appointed by the Japanese as a quisling Rajah of Sarawak.”
It is difficult to determine if this is true, but several authors have claimed that MacBryan did want to create a caliphate based at Sarawak, with himself as caliph.
Meanwhile, The Straits Times (from Singapore) carried an article in 1937 about MacBryan’s Malay wife when she arrived in Singapore after spending a year in England. Apparently there was a novel that was published in 1937 about MacBryan’s pilgrimage to Mecca called Triumphant Pilgrimage: An English Muslim’s Journey from Sarawak to Mecca, so MacBryan and his wife were “famous” at that time, and The Straits Times referred to MacBryan’s wife by the name she was known by in the novel – “Munirah.”
The article claimed that “‘Munirah’s’ former shyness has disappeared. During the interview she spoke freely of her impressions, and without hesitation posed for the cameraman.
“Hair bobbed, wearing a two-peace costume, a white crepe-de-chine blouse, a small gold kris brooch, its only decoration, and a grey tweed skirt. Mrs. MacBryan declared enthusiastically, ‘I like England much better than Sarawak.’”
Ok, so in the 1930s there was an Englishman in Sarawak who converted to Islam, made the pilgrimage to Mecca and had dreams of creating a caliphate in the region, while his Muslim Malay wife got the latest British hairstyle and preferred England over Sarawak. . . that’s beautiful!!
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I was reading an essay that is included in a collection of writings by the late Trần Quốc Vượng in which he encourages people to study about what he refers to as “the issue of the Hùng Kings” (vấn đề Hùng Vương).
The purpose of studying this issue, Trần Quốc Vượng states, is not to attempt to find out something concrete about a specific Hùng king, but instead is to focus on “people, society and our nation during the time of the Hùng Kings, to research the ancient culture of Vietnam of the time of the Hùng Kings – the period in the history of Vietnam of the establishment of the country.”
Trần Quốc Vượng goes on in this essay to argue that the best way to do this is to employ a “comprehensive applied approach” (phương pháp vận dụng tổng hợp) which combines information and insights from history and other disciplines.
On the surface, this is a good idea, however the way that Trần Quốc Vượng actually employs this comprehensive applied approach in this essay is selective and flawed.
Trần Quốc Vượng argues in this essay that there were 15 “tribes” (bộ lạc) before and during the Hùng Vương period. In actuality, there is only one historical text (the 14th-century [Đại] Việt sử lược) that mentions tribes. Other historical texts (such as the 15th-century Đại Việt sử kỳ toàn thư) mention 15 “regions” (bộ).
However, there is a bigger problem, and that is that these historical texts recorded this information about tribes/regions over 1,500 years after the time when they supposedly existed, and all of the names of these tribes/regions are written in classical Chinese, with some terms dating from the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).
Trần Quốc Vượng notes that scholars had argued about this issue before, but he states that we can reach a conclusion about this matter, and he cites a statement that historian Đào Duy Anh made in 1964 to indicate what we can conclude:
“. . . we can guess that when historians of our country wanted to give concrete substance to the country of Văn Lang in legends, they took place names from the time of the Tang and earlier, selected a few of them; first in order to have one for each of the 15 regions in the legend, and second in order to find a way to cover the entire area where our ancestors lived during the time of the Hùng Kings.”
This statement that Đào Duy Anh made is based on various assumptions which Đào Duy Anh did not provide evidence to support. In order to argue that medieval historians tried to give concrete substance (nội dung cụ thể) to legends from the first millennium BC, Đào Duy Anh would need to provide evidence that those legends do actually date from the first millennium BC. He would also need to show that it was possible to transmit that information (apparently orally) for more than 1,000 years. However, Đào Duy Anh does not do this.
Trần Quốc Vượng, meanwhile, avoids addressing the fact that one medieval history refers to 15 “tribes” (bộ lạc) while another refers to 15 “regions” (bộ). Which one of these statements is historically accurate? How do we know?
Finally, Trần Quốc Vượng begins his essay with even bigger assumptions by assuming that “our nation” existed during “the time of the Hùng Kings” and that therefore the culture of that time was “the ancient culture of Vietnam.”
So the “historical” information in this essay is built on a large number of assumptions that are not supported by historical evidence, and from these assumptions, Trần Quốc Vượng then goes on to produce some of his own ideas. In particular, he takes some of the names of the supposed “15 tribes” and makes the argument that we can read through the Chinese characters that were used to write these names (some 1,500 years after they reportedly existed) to see the names of birds (Mling, Bling, Kling Klang, Blang) which Trần Quốc Vượng claims were the totems of some of the tribes during the time of the Hùng kings.
What is wrong with this approach? The problem is that Trần Quốc Vượng takes information that has not been verified in any way (be it through historical texts or archaeological evidence) – such as the idea that there were 15 “tribes” in the Red River Delta in the first millennium BC – and then he develops ideas based on this unverified information, which he then believes can help prove that the unverified information is true.
In this essay, for instance, Trần Quốc Vượng believes that the linguistic ideas that he puts forth help to prove the existence of the 15 tribes that are mentioned in “legends.” However, this is not true because his ideas do not answer any of the questions that surround the existing unverified information.
Saying that “Mê Linh” was actually the name of a bird, Mling, does not show us how this information could have been passed on orally for 1,000 years. It also does not explain why one medieval text refers to 15 “tribes” while another refers to 15 “regions.” And it doesn’t explain why some of those “tribes/regions” were named after place names that only came into existence during the Tang Dynasty.
Instead, Trần Quốc Vượng avoids all of these important issues, and develops his own ideas based on ungrounded assumptions.
This is thus not a “comprehensive applied approach” to studying the past. It is a “SELECTIVE applied approach” to studying the past (phương pháp vận dụng lựa chọn). Trần Quốc Vượng selects information that he wants to use, and then develops his ideas from that information.
What is a better way to look at these issues? First of all, it is necessary to demonstrate that an oral tradition can get passed down through time for 1,500 years before it is recorded. Such evidence does not exist for the Red River Delta, so a scholar would have to find evidence from some other part of the world to show that this is actually possible, and then use that evidence to say “while we don’t have evidence from the Red River Delta that these ‘legends’ were passed down orally for 1,500 years before they were recorded in writing, we do know that this happened in XXX, and therefore, it is theoretically possible that this could have happened in the Red River Delta as well.”
As for the “15 tribes,” modern Vietnamese scholars have pointed out how important archaeology is for understanding the past. This looks like a perfect issue for archaeology to explain. Have archaeologists found 15 different cultural complexes in the Red River Delta? Have they found evidence of 15 different totems in the Red River Delta?
If there is evidence from somewhere in the world that it is possible for a legend to get passed down for 1,500 years before it is written down, and if there is evidence from the archaeological record in the Red River Delta that there were 15 distinct groups in the first millennium BC, then we can definitely argue that the “legends” like the one Trần Quốc Vượng works with in this essay are based on some historical reality.
However, this is not what Trần Quốc Vượng does. Instead, he takes numerous assumptions – that there was a nation in the first millennium BC in the Red River Delta, that it contained 15 tribes, etc. – and then he creates his own ideas to “prove” that these assumed ideas are true.
This is not valid historical scholarship, because the ideas that Trần Quốc Vượng creates do not resolve any of the existing problems surrounding the ideas that he bases his own ideas upon. He simply ignores the true historical issues, and then makes up his own ideas.
This is the essay I’m referring to: Tu Truyen Thuyet, Ngu Ngon Den Lich Su.
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The post I wrote below about a new and exciting history documentary that is being made has inspired me to move ahead with a project that I have long been thinking about – taking Le Minh Khai’s SEAsian History Blog to YouTube.
Increasingly I find that I turn to YouTube for materials to supplement my teaching. And while I can regularly find more and more historical footage from twentieth-century Southeast Asia that people have uploaded, there is very little academic information, or scholarly interpretations, on YouTube.
That’s not good, because YouTube is becoming as important to many people as a source of information as Wikipedia already is, so it is essential that scholars/academics have their voices heard on YouTube.
With that in my, in the weeks ahead (hopefully it won’t take months) I plan on launching a YouTube channel for Le Minh Khai’s SEAsian History Blog so that some of the views that get expressed on this blog can find a space to be heard on YouTube.
To give a taste of what’s to come. . . here is a “teaser.”
They call me Le Minh Khai and I love history,
I write it on a blog and read it on the screen,
But my eyes get so tired from reading those lines,
Sometimes I wish I could just recline,
Sit back and feel the groove,
And get my history from YouTube.
Filed under: Southeast Asia | 6 Comments
I usually refrain from “advertising” on this blog, but a project came to my attention today that I feel, for various reasons, that I simply have to “advertise.”
A few months ago I wrote about an Irishman (Laurence Carroll) who became a Buddhist monk in Burma (U Dhammaloka) in the early twentieth century. I wrote that piece based on the scholarship of a group of scholars.
One of those scholars pointed out to me today that there is an Irish filmmaker, Ian Lawton, who is attempting to make a documentary about this man (in collaboration with the scholars who have researched about U Dhammaloka).
How, however, can someone make a documentary about someone for whom there is very little documentary evidence, and absolutely no film footage? Ian Lawton is attempting to do this by combining animation (which he wants to employ someone to create) with footage of “talking heads” (i.e., experts).
From looking at the brief footage that Ian Lawton has already filmed, it’s clear to me that this man is creative, and has ideas about how an “historical documentary” can be presented in new and engaging ways.
So I’m really happy to learn about this project, and I have made a meager contribution to assist it. I do so because I believe that film/video is the future of knowledge.
This project on U Dhammaloka is one in which a professional filmmaker is working with a professional animator and academics. That is great, and we will always need works that are the product of such collaborations.
However, we also need to find a way for academics to produce their own videos on their own. Academics absolutely must enter the world of film/video, because that is the media of the future.
In the not too distant future, I hope to launch a video version of Le Minh Khai’s SEAsian History Blog. But I also encourage everyone to spread the news about this (more professional) U Dhammaloka documentary, and to contribute financially to it, if they have the means to do so.
Erin go Bragh, and let’s work together to move academia into the (HD) 21st century.
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There was a theory that emerged in the early twentieth century which argued that at the end of the first millennium BC, Vietnamese migrated to the Red River delta from an original homeland in what is today southeastern China.
This idea was suggested first by Edouard Chavannes in 1901, and was then developed further by Leonard Aurousseau in 1923. Today this theory is no longer upheld, although one can still find it mentioned. Nonetheless, I don’t think that many people are aware of why this theory does not make sense.
In postcolonial Vietnam this theory came to be rejected as “colonial,” I guess because of its claim that the Vietnamese come from a place outside of Vietnam. However, I don’t find that saying that scholarship is “colonial” explains much.
Yes, there were problems with the scholarship of Chavannes and Aurousseau, but I don’t attribute those problems to a “colonial” outlook. Instead, the problems were due at times to careless scholarship, but also to what I would call a flawed methodology that we can perhaps call the “hidden network approach” to viewing the past.
In a footnote in the fourth volume of his 5-volume translation of Sima Qian’s Historical Records (Shiji 史記), Edouard Chavannes put forth the theory that the “Annamite race” is descended from the people of the ancient kingdom of Yue (Việt). That kingdom occupied the area of what is today the northern part of Zhejiang Province, and it was destroyed in the fourth century BC by the kingdom of Chu.
After that, according to Chavannes, there were multiple polities that formed from “the debris” of the kingdom of Yue, such as Nanyue in the area of what is now Guangdong Province, Minyue in present-day Fujian Province, and Yuedonghai in what is now Zhejiang Province.
Chavannes argues that “these principalities certainly relate to the Annamite race,” and he offers two pieces of evidence to support this claim.
First, he cites Trương Vĩnh Ký’s 1875 Cours d’histoire annamite to claim that Annamite historians regarded the “princes of Nanyue/Nam Việt” as forming the third dynasty of “Annam.”
Second he notes that the capital of the kingdom of Yuedonghai was Dong’ou/Đông Âu (literally, “Eastern Ou/Âu”), and then he cites Gustave Dumoutier’s Étude historique et archéologique sur Co-Loa, capitale de l’ancien royaume de Âu Lạc (255-207 av. J.-C.) (Paris, E. Leroux, 1893), to note that Annamite historians say that there was an Annamite kingdom called Xi Ou/Tây Âu (literally, “Western Ou/Âu) which had as its capital, Cổ Loa, in the Red River delta.
Based on the above information, Chavannes concludes that Dong’ou/Đông Âu, Nanyue/Nam Việt and Xi Ou/Tây Âu were all part of a single Annamite race.
There are numerous problems with Chavannes’s ideas here. First, the “princes of Nanyue/Nam Việt” that Chavanne refers to were Zhao Tuo and his descendents, men who were at least originally what we would call ethnic Han today, that is, people from areas to the north (Zhao Tuo was from Hebei), and not members of the indigenous population of the region, or related to peoples from the ancient kingdom of Yue. So the fact that this kingdom became part of the Vietnamese historical tradition does not mean that it was “racially” the same,
Second, in his 1893 study of the ancient city of Cổ Loa, Gustave Dumoutier stated that “the geography of Gu Xifeng says that under the Zhou dynasty the country occupied by Giao Chỉ was called Lạc Việt, and under the following Qin Dynasty it took the name of Tây Âu or Âu Lạc.” (pg. 8)
Gu Xifeng is Gu Yewang 顧野王, the author of a sixth-century work called the Territorial Treatise (Yudi zhi 輿地志), and the passage that Dumoutier refers to is mentioned in an eighth century annotation to Sima Qian’s Historical Records. This is what it says:
“The Territorial Treatise states that ‘Jiaozhi/Giao Chỉ during the Zhou was Luoyue/Lạc Việt. During the Qin it was Xi’ou/Tây Âu. They tattoo their bodies and cut their hair to avoid serpents. Xi Ouyue/Tây Âu Lạc was to the southwest of Panyu. Yue/Việt and Oulue/Âu Lạc are all surnamed ‘Mi/Mị.’”
This passage is not very clear in that it contains numerous names. However, we can see that Dumoutier “simplified” it by saying that the area of what is now the Red River delta during the time of the Qin Dynasty was called Tây Âu or Âu Lạc.
Dumoutier did not actually say that Cổ Loa was the capital of Xi’ou/Tây Âu. And he did not say that Annamite historians said that either. However, that is what Chavannes said in his book (by citing page 8 of Dumoutier’s book).
So there is definitely some careless scholarship here. Beyond that, however, the ideas that Chavannes expressed are also problematic. First, he equates geographic names (or the names of kingdoms) with race. If, however, we are going to use the idea of race to look at the past, we know that Zhao Tuo was of a different “race” (I think Chavannes was using the term “race” to mean something closer to what we would today call an “ethnic group”) than many of the peoples he ruled over in his kingdom of Nanyue, so it doesn’t really make sense to equate geographic names with single races.
In addition, there is only one source that we can use to make the claim that the Red River delta during the time of the Qin Dynasty was referred to as Xi’ou/Tây Âu (Gu Yewang’s Territorial Treatise), but 1) that text was compiled centuries later, and 2) given that this text contains so many different names, it’s difficult to see that the term “Xi’ou/Tây Âu” is really significant.
However, for Chavannes, the term “Xi’ou/Tây Âu” (Western Ou/Âu) was very important, as it served as a counterpart to another term Dong’ou/Đông Âu (Eastern Ou/Âu).
This then brings us to what I call the “hidden network approach” to studying the past. If we look at the way that Chavannes presented his ideas, it is as if he was discovering a hidden network of nodes and links in the historical record.
The polities – Yue, Nanyue/Nam Việt, and Xi’ou/Tây Âu – as well as the city, Dong’ou/Đông Âu, all served as nodes which Chavannes then discovered the links connecting them.
Dong’ou/Đông Âu and Xi’ou/Tây Âu were linked by the common term “ou/âu,” as well as by the pairing of “east” and “west.”
Xi’ou/Tây Âu and Nanyue/Nam Việt were linked by the fact that Vietnamese historians saw Nanyue/Nam Việt as the third dynasty in their history.
And then since Nanyue/Nam Việt was connected to Xi’ou/Tây Âu and Xi’ou/Tây Âu was connected to Dong’ou/Đông Âu, then it seemed obvious to Chavannes that Yue must be part of this link as well.
I’ve found that scholars like Henri Maspero examined the past in a similar way. To me this approach is overly complex, and it falls apart once people start pointing out problems with some of the links in the network.
So this theory that Chavannes put forth in 1901 had at least three problems with it:
1) It contains some careless mistakes,
2) It is problematic in equating race with place names,
3) It employs an approach to examining the past that is not effective for interpreting the past.
While this theory that Chavannes put forth had these limitations, as I mentioned above, in 1923 Leonard Aurousseau developed it further. In the process, however, Aurousseau did not correct these problems in Chavannes’s theory. I’ll try to write about Aurousseau’s work sometime soon.
Filed under: Vietnam and China | 24 Comments
One of the reasons why I decided to start writing this blog back in 2010 was in order to share some of the things that I knew and thought, but which I realized I would never include in my academic writings.
Scholars/professors acquire a lot of knowledge and insights over the years from engaging in research and teaching that never make it into their academic writings. What is more, in the past there were very few ways for scholars/professors to share that information so that it could end up educating more people.
A scholar/professor might share some of those ideas in talking to a graduate student who came to her/his office, and that graduate student might then go on to build on them in her/his dissertation. Or alternately, a scholar/professor might mention something to a colleague at a conference over drinks at a bar, and that colleague might then go on to include that information in her/his own academic writing.
Other than those limited means of sharing information, much of what professors/scholars knew, stayed in their brains.
In 2010 it dawned on me that the Internet could be like one enormous professor’s office, or an always-open conference bar, where anyone at any time can find out what it is that a scholar/professor knows or thinks, but hasn’t written (or never will write) about.
At the same time, I was also aware that “common people” had already discovered the power of the Internet for spreading knowledge, and the success of Wikipedia was the clearest sign of that. Nonetheless, this was creating “problems,” as many of the people who were contributing to Wikipedia (and still are) were not experts on the topics they were writing about.
So another reason for writing the blog was to put ideas out there on the Internet that were not well-represented (including on sites like Wikipedia, which I confess, I’m too lazy to contribute to), but which I felt were academically valid.
Today I was reminded of all of this when I saw that a blog entry that I wrote was referenced on the Wikipedia page for Hồ Chí Minh, to refute the claim that Hồ Chí Minh once said “I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.”
I actually noticed this a few weeks ago (as I saw that someone had linked to the blog from that Wikipedia page). At that time, whoever included that information had simply said something on the “talk” page for the Hồ Chí Minh Wikipedia page about how someone on a blog had provided a lot of information that questioned the claim that Hồ Chí Minh had made that statement.
Today, however, I noticed that a lot more information has been provided in an effort to demonstrate that this blog is “scholarly,” and therefore (theoretically) reliable.
I’m assuming that the editors at Wikipedia must have contacted the person who wrote that information, and that that person then provided the information about me to add “weight” to its believability.
I find this all very interesting for what it says about how knowledge is produced in the digital age.
I am not an expert on Hồ Chí Minh, and I am not an expert on the period of history when Hồ Chí Minh allegedly made that statement. There are, meanwhile, plenty of scholars in the world who are experts on one or both of these topics.
At the same time, the ideas that I presented in that blog article are ones that I have come to think after reading and teaching about Vietnamese (and Southeast Asian, and East Asian and world) history, and they are the type of ideas that if there were no Internet, I would mention to a graduate student in my office, or to a colleague over drinks at a conference bar.
However, before the time of the Internet, I never would have written those ideas down, as I don’t write about that period. And finally, who knows how long it would take before one of the experts on that period were to talk about that quote? And if someone did (such as the graduate student in my office or the colleague at the conference bar), how much longer would it take for something written in a single academic writing to reach a general audience?
Wikipedia aspires to create “crowd-sourced” knowledge that is nonetheless scholarly valid. Are the ideas of a “scholar” who is not an expert on Hồ Chí Minh or the 1940s-1950s on a “sometimes/somewhat scholarly blog” valid?
I guess they are until the time comes when a true expert comes along and offers another interpretation, which is what Wikipedia is designed to enable. Or maybe I just saved that person the need to do so? ;)
I’m not sure, but in teaching about this period recently I remembered that there is another comment related to this topic.
In a documentary entitled “Pacific Century: From the Barrel of a Gun,” a former OSS officer by the name of Allison K. Thomas says that in a conversation that he had with Hồ Chí Minh (in I’m guessing 1945), Hồ Chí Minh said the following regarding his desire to gain the support for Vietnamese independence from the US: “He told me privately that he would welcome one million American soldiers, but not one French soldier.” (The quote starts at 3:42 in this video.)
So Thomas was “privately” told by Hồ Chí Minh that he would rather have American soldiers in Vietnam than French ones, and Paul Mus heard from “a good source” that Hồ Chí Minh would “prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of [his] life.”
This is difficult information to verify. I certainly can’t “prove” that none of this was ever said, but I do think that drawing attention to the fact that these quotes are problematic is better than having people unquestioningly believe them.
So thank you to whoever added that information to Wikipedia. Spreading the ideas that get expressed in my office and at conference bars is one of the reasons why I started this blog.
At the same time, it also feels a bit odd. I always feel that what I write on this blog is “unfinished.” These posts, like conversations in offices and bars, all contain ideas that can be developed further.
Then again, I guess that’s what Wikipedia is too – a place where knowledge can get developed and transformed further – and that it is through this open and continuous process of interactions between “lay people,” “semi-professionals” and “professionals,” as well as between “academic,” “semi-academic” and “ungrounded” ideas, that knowledge is being created before our eyes in the digital age.
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