On a recent trip to Malaysia I visited an exhibition on Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu at the University of Malaya Art Gallery that really impressed me.

Pua kumbu are textiles that are woven by the Iban people on the island of Borneo. (“Pua” is the Iban word for “blanket,” and “kumbu” means to wrap.)

Pua kumbu were traditionally used by the Iban for various ritual purposes. That, of course, makes these textiles important, but what makes them even more significant is that each pua kumbu has a story woven into it that the weaver can “read” by viewing the cloth.


For those of us today who have no connection to the traditions of the Iban, however, “reading” pua kumbu and understanding the ideas that they contain is all but impossible.

However, the Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu exhibition made this possible by employing “polysensory and immersive digital media” to educate visitors to the exhibit about how pua kumbu are made, as well as about their significance and the tales they contain.


The exhibition opens with a video projected onto the floor. The beginning of the video takes viewers into the interior of Sarawak where many of the pua kumbu in the exhibit were produced.

To view the video, one has to walk right up to the edge of the area where the video is projected, and in doing so, one gets the sensation of actually entering the video and boarding the boats that take one upstream into the interior.


Upon “arriving,” the video on the floor goes blank, but the story continues on the adjacent wall where the image is so big that one has to take a few steps back in order to view it all. Here again, one gets the sense of being immersed in the video rather than simply viewing it.

This opening video provides historical information about the Iban and their tradition of weaving pua kumbu.

Once that video ends, visitors then proceed to another room where there is another video which shows a master weaver “reading,” in Iban, stories from pua kumbu.


Accompanying these readings are animated interpretations of the stories.

The animated figures in the stories are almost geometrical in shape. This at first may seem merely artistic, but then one quickly comes to realize that these geometric shapes match and mimic the geometric patterns on pua kumbu themselves.


After learning some of the stories that are on individual pua kumbu, visitors than proceed to another room where a large pua kumbu is laid out. This pua kumbu contains one of the stories that is “read” and animated in the previous room.


Further, next to the pua kumbu is a device, similar to an iPad, that viewers can slide alongside the pua kumbu. At certain points one can see on the screen a detail from the textile. If one then presses the screen, what is an abstract detail on the pua kumbu then gradually transforms on the screen into a more realistic image of what is represented there.


The exhibit then proceeds on to another room which contains information about the area where the pua kumbu in the exhibit were woven, and then on to another room with a video about how pua kumbu are made.

This video is projected onto a curved wall, and on either side of the screen are two large pua kumbu. In fact, however, viewers soon realize that those two textiles are part of the screen as well, as images from the pua kumbu “fly out” of the textiles into the screen, creating an interaction between the video and the pua kumbu on display.


There is much more that one could say about this exhibit, such as the fact that one can download an app to ones smartphone so that when one holds the phone up to a photograph on the wall, a video will start playing on the smartphone about the contents of the photograph, etc.

However, what should be clear is that this exhibit does an amazing job of using digital technology to enable one to gain a deep understanding of both tangible and intangible culture.


The cultural and historical information in the exhibit is the product of a couple of years of research on the part of Dr. Welyne Jeffrey Jehom of the Department of Gender Studies at the University of Malaya.

The digital presentation and enhancement of that information, meanwhile, is the product of the work of Professor Harold Thwaites, the director of The Center for Creative Content & Digital Innovation at the University of Malaya, along with members of his team from that Centre.


A press release about the exhibition that came with the brochure sums up nicely what impressed me the most:

“This exhibit showcases for the first time, via various forms of digital capture and innovative media communication methods, the intangible culture and heritage of creating this textile craft of East Malaysia.

“Professor Harold Thwaites explained, ‘this exhibition is a cutting edge knowledge mobilization from High Impact Research at UM that goes far beyond just journal articles.’

“All too often in University research projects, the culmination of the work is somewhat traditional, resulting in a number of journal articles, talks at conferences or academic publications of various kinds, shared with a special audience only.

“Here in Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu the goal is to take research beyond the academic sphere and bring it to the public sphere.

“Public interactives presented in the form of exhibitions, can serve to mobilize knowledge much faster than more traditional modes of ‘publication.’ It creates and presents to the public, a living, digital, cultural imaginary of intangible knowledge, that heretofore could only be experienced by a very few people.”


I couldn’t agree more with the need to move academic knowledge out of its restrictive and limiting world of specialists and journals, and to use digital technology to do so. This exhibition does a wonderful job of demonstrating one such way to do this.

For more information about the exhibition, consult the following facebook page: http:/fb.com/ttpk.um

And for more on pua kumbu, see: http://rhgareh.com/


Finally, I would like to thank Professor Thwaites and Dr. Jehom for taking the time to talk to me when I visited the gallery, as well as the kind graduate student who showed me around the exhibition.

At the end of his book, Việt Lý Tố Nguyên, Kim Định has a few short chapters that discuss certain political and social issues of his day that can help us understand what he was trying to accomplish through his writings in the 1960s and early 1970s.

In his writings, Kim Định argued that in antiquity there was a large group of people in the Far East (Viễn Đông), a term that he often used, that he called the “Viêm race.” The term “Viêm” comes from the name Viêm Đế/Yandi (“the Fiery Emperor”) which was another name for the mythical ancient figure, Thần Nông/Shennong (“the Divine Agriculturalist), a person who is associated with the development of agriculture.

Kim Định argued that the members of the Viêm race were agriculturalists and that they created a philosophy that he called “Việt Nho,” or what I will translate as “Authentic Việt Confucianism.” The basis of this philosophy were concepts like âm dương/yinyang and the five phases (ngũ hành/wuxing), concepts which Kim Định argued that Han Chinese, members of what he claimed was a pastoral group that migrated into China after the Viêm race was already prospering there as agriculturalists, later appropriated and made part of what Kim Định referred to as “Hán Nho” (Han Confucianism).

For the many centuries that followed, Han Confucianism was central to the cultures of Vietnam and China. However, in the twentieth century scholars of “new learning” (tân học), by which Kim Định meant “iconoclasts” who had learned new ways of thinking from the West, sought to discard Han Confucianism as an outdated and oppressive ideology.

Kim Định was more of a “traditionalist,” however he did not want to preserve the Han Confucianism that the iconoclasts rejected. Instead, he wanted to “preserve” the “Authentic Việt Confucianism,” which essentially was a philosophy that he was creating through his writings. What is more, the ideas that he expressed in his writings were clearly influenced by a broad range of Western thinkers at that time, from Sinologist Marcel Granet to structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

As such, Kim Định was perhaps what we could label an “eclectic traditionalist.”


So what was it about the times he lived in that led Kim Định to come up with and write about these ideas?

It is clear that Kim Định was not happy with the state of society in the Far East in the middle of the twentieth century. The rise to political power of Communist parties was one development that he did not like. However, he was even more unhappy with what he saw as the failure of Nationalist parties to offer a strong alternative to Communism, and here he felt that their greatest failing was that they did not offer a philosophical alternative that could provide a spiritual basis for society.

At the same time, Kim Định did not really think that Communism offered a meaningful philosophy either. Its success in the Far East, he argued, was not due to the ideas of Marxism-Leninism, but instead to certain deviations from the tenets of Marxism-Leninism that first Chinese and then later Vietnamese Communists had taken.

Those deviations brought those two groups closer to Kim Định’s idea of Authentic Việt Confucianism.


Citing Lucien Bianco’s 1966 study, Les Origines de la révolution chinoise 1915-1949, Kim Định argued that what had led to the success of the Communists in China was the fact that Mao Zedong had gone against some of the theories of Marxism-Leninism and had followed a path that fit better with China. In particular, he emphasized patriotism, the army and the peasantry.

Given the deep resentment in China at the actions of Westerners and the Japanese in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Kim Định says that the Communists were able to appeal to a deep sense of patriotism and to unify people in resisting foreign aggression. In the process, the Communists also trained a strong and disciplined army.

Meanwhile, rapid population growth, a lack of land, exploitation by landlords, the loss of small industry to Western competition, and spiritual decline brought on by the abandonment of traditional education all created hardship for the peasantry. Reforms were therefore needed, but according to Kim Định, the reforms that the Nationalist government implemented were superficial. The Communists, on the other hand, actually distributed land to poor peasants, and because of this they were supported.


This was significant, Kim Đinh, argues because theorists such as Marx, Engels, Trotsky and Stalin had all held peasants in contempt. Mao, however, saw “the existing potential of the people of the Viêm race and attained great success” (Chính vì Mao đã nhìn ra cái khả năng cố hữu của dân gian của Viêm tộc đó nên đã thành công một cách lớn lao. . .). Westerners, Kim Định notes, saw Mao’s reliance on the peasantry as “the Sinicization of Communism.”

The reality, Kim Đinh contends, was that the power of the Chinese peasants had been relied on by rulers many times before, and that there was therefore nothing new about Mao’s policy. The implication here was that anyone who relied on the power of the Viêm race could succeed, as long as their actions intersected with Authentic Việt Confucianism, the basic belief system of the Viêm race.


Thus, Kim Định felt that in seeking to help the peasants, the policies of the Chinese Communists had intersected with some of the basic beliefs of the Việm race, a people whose descendents still resided throughout China. Nonetheless, Kim Định felt that there was still a major flaw in Chinese Communists rule in that the Chinese Communists did not establish a new spiritual foundation (cơ sở tinh thần) in the form of a philosophy that could motivate the intellectual class.

The Nationalists, Kim Định felt, had also failed at this. He argued that there had been potential in Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People to build a spiritual foundation, but it needed to be developed into a philosophy. In the years after Sun’s death in 1925, however, the Nationalists promoted outdated Han Confucian ethics together with foreign concepts such as militarism, Puritanism and asceticism.

This resulted in Chiang Kai-shek’s New Life movement which promoted hygiene as much as proper behavior, all in the name of “Confucianism.” With such developments, Kim Định argues, Confucianism had become devoid of meaning and had no relevance for the people.


On the other hand, while Mao outwardly rejected Confucianism, in reality, Kim Định argues, his actions revealed characteristics that had long been part of Confucianism (since the time when Authentic Việt Confucianism first formed): getting close to the peasants, dividing property equally, establishing a strong army to resist invasion.

As for the Vietnamese Communists, Kim Định attributed their success to the same basic factors, such as their ability to mobilize people’s sense of patriotism.

At the same time, Kim Đinh was particularly critical of what he terms the “Nationalists” in Vietnam, meaning the South Vietnamese government.


The ultimate problem, according to Kim Định, was that the educated elite were doing nothing to create a spiritual foundation for the nation. Instead they argued over politics and society, but Kim Định states that this of course fails because there is no philosophical grounding to their actions.

He writes that other than a few translations of Bergson, Plato, Kant and Descartes, there was nothing for people to learn from, and at the same time, Confucianism had been discarded. As for the Nationalists, that is, the ruling elite, Kim Định expresses frustration and distain. He says that they are like the Romans having a great time while Mount Etna erupts. He characterizes them as a bunch of rich people who have good will for the fatherland but think in Western terms.

At a time when the world was at war on an ideological level, it was obvious, Kim Định states, that the Nationalists would lose to the Communists. To Kim Định however this was not because one ideology had defeated another, but because the Nationalists simply did not have an ideology, and that the Communists had made use of patriotism to motivate people. What is more, Kim Định argued, while the Communists are Marxists, in their writings they value the people of their nation more than the Nationalists do.


What was one to do in such a situation? Kim Định wanted intellectuals to act as idealistically as Confucian scholars supposedly did in the past.

To demonstrate how Confucian scholars supposedly acted, Kim Định cites the work of American Sinologist Herrlee Creel, who presented a very positive image of those men. Creel stated that the scholars of China “successfully governed one of the largest empires on the globe through a longer period than any other has persisted without fundamental change.”

“Time after time representatives of other systems have taken the reins in China, only to fail,” Creel wrote. Men like the founder of the Han dynasty, uneducated rustics who looked down on the Confucian scholars as impractical bookworms, have come to the throne.”

The rise to power of Confucian scholars in China marked a “revolution in governmental policy,” according to Creel, “but it came silently and without bloodshed. The manner of its coming is most interesting. The scholars who triumphed appeared to have everything against them, while the powerful rulers and military who opposed them seemed to hold all the trump cards.”


In citing information like this from Creel, was Kim Định attempting to document an historical fact, or to paint a glorified image of himself? It’s not easy to tell. There do not seem to have been many intellectuals who were ready to follow his ideal model.

From what Kim Định says, the intellectuals of his day appear to have been mainly interested in Wesern ideas, but Kim Định was also critical of the West. He felt that Western philosophers from Neitzsche to Hiedegger to Foucault had been gradually destroying Western philosophy by pushing spiritual and humanist concerns to the side.


As such, in Kim Định’s eyes, everyone was failing. The people of the Far East were thus at a crossroads (“Trước Ngã Ba Đường, “Before the Crossroads” is the name of his final chapter on this topic). They had to decide on a direction to take in order to be able to move forward.

Ultimately, however, the path that they needed to chose was clear to Kim Định. He felt that they needed to “rediscover” and promote Authentic Việt Confucianism, as that would provide them with the spiritual foundation that would enable them to prosper.

Why did it have to be Authentic Việt Confucianism (Việt Nho) rather than “regular/normal” Confucianism? Because it looks like this was part of an effort on the part of Kim Định to “de-Sinify” Confucianism so that Vietnamese could accept it as an essential part of their culture (in the nationalistic world of a mid-twentieth-century society going through a process of decolonization), as well as to distance it from the Confucianism of conservative elders in Vietnamese society, which clearly did not appeal to the young, more Westernized, generation.

In any case, what should be clear, is that Kim Định was a complex person. He is easy to dismiss if one just looks at his main conclusions, but if one traces what led him to come to those conclusions by looking at the intellectual issues mentioned in the post below and the political issues discussed here, then it is clear that he had a lot on his mind.

In reading the writings of South Vietnamese philosopher Kim Định, one point that I have found fascinating is seeing the degree to which Kim Định’s ideas were shaped by his awareness of some of the main intellectual debates in the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

At the broadest level was a debate about “primitive” peoples and cultures. This is a debate that emerged with the development of cultural anthropology as a field of study in the nineteenth century.


English anthropologist Edward B. Tyler, the “founder” of cultural anthropology, argued in works such as Primitive Culture (1871) that cultures evolve from a primitive state to a more complex state.

Tyler, therefore felt that people were basically all the same. The differences that exist were simply the result of different levels of societal evolution.


In the early twentieth century, French scholar Lucien Lévy-Bruhl put forth a contending argument. In his Les fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures (1910), later translated into English as How Natives Think (1926), Lévy-Bruhl argued that it was not the case that people were all the same, but that there were essential differences between Westerns and “primitive” peoples.

“Primitive” people were “mystical.” They did not differentiate between reality and the supernatural. They did not understand the concept of causation, etc. Westerners, in contrast, were “logical.”


Then in the 1960s, Claude Lévi-Strauss made a further contribution to this debate by arguing in works like La Pensée sauvage (1962), published later in English as The Savage Mind (1966) that if we examine the structure of meaning behind the thoughts of peoples from around the world, we can find that people are basically the same in the way they think.

Lévi-Strauss acknowledged that there were different types of thought, what he called mythical thought and scientific thought, but he argued that they were equally logical and that one (mythical thought) did not proceed the other (scientific thought). They were simply two equally valid ways of perceiving and thinking about reality.


This debate in the fields of anthropology and sociology about how primitives/natives/savages think intersected with scholarship in the field of Sinology.

Lévy-Bruhl supposedly first became interested in the topic of different human “mentalities” after his friend, Sinologist Édouard Chavannes, provided him with a copy of some translations of ancient Chinese writings. Lévy-Bruhl apparently found these writings incomprehensible and this supposedly led him to start examining how different peoples think.

Edouard Chavannes, meanwhile, is a French scholar who first came up with a theory in 1901 that the Việt in Vietnam were people who had migrated southwards from China, a theory that Leonard Aurousseau made more well known in 1923, and a theory that plays a part in Kim Định’s writings.


In any case, the Sinologist who was the most important for Kim Định was Marcel Granet. Granet was actually both a Sinologist and a sociologist, and his scholarship contributed to both of these fields.

In his La pensée Chinoise (Chinese Thought, 1934) one can clearly see the influence of Lévy-Bruhl. To Granet, the way Chinese thought was definitely different from the way that Westerners thought.

To demonstrate this point, Granet tried to explain in detail the concepts that informed the way that Chinese think, and here he discussed many issues that Kim Định later focused on, such as the concept of yin and yang (âm đương) and the five phases (ngũ hành).


Just as Claude Lévi-Strauss came to argue in the field of anthropology in the 1950s and 1960s that Westerners and non-Westerners are not all that different, so did a similar discussion emerge at that time in the field of Sinology.

One person who was deeply involved in that discussion was British Sinologist Joseph Needham. Needham began in the 1950s to research and publish a series of books (actually massive volumes) called Science and Civilization in China.

In these books, Needham and his many collaborators over the years, sought to examine Chinese knowledge from a comparative perspective in order to understand Chinese “science.” Granet’s writings were initially important for Needham, but over time he moved beyond Granet’s characterizations and came to find more similarities between Chinese and Western thought.


Needham, therefore, sought to offer his readers a more positive view of Chinese civilization than they had been aware of.

Another Sinologist who did the same was Herrlee Creel. A professor at the University of Chicago, Creel published works on China during this same time period that provided a very positive view of that land.

In the early twentieth century, Western scholars believed that the earliest periods of Chinese history, such as the time of the Shang Dynasty, were myth, but Creel introduced readers to the archaeological discovery of oracle bones at Anyang to argue for the historical validity of that period.

He also wrote a very sympathetic biography of Confucius in which he argued that Confucius was a democratic reformer. . .


Then there was Wolfram Eberhard. Eberhard was a German Sinologist who shattered the myth that China has historically been a homogenous society by demonstrating how multi-ethic China has always been (thus opening the door for Kim Định to argue that the Việt are more important historically than the Hoa, or Chinese).

Kim Định cites all of these scholars in his writings. And while he does not necessarily follow their exact ideas (Eberhard, for instance, does not argue that the Việt were in China before the Hoa, as Kim Định does), I would still argue that it is impossible to understand Kim Định’s ideas if one does not understand the ideas of the scholars whose work he read and thought about.

Kim Định read the works of Marcel Granet, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Joseph Needham and Wolfram Eberhard, but in order to understand what these scholars wrote about, one also needs to understand about what scholars like Edward Tyler and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl wrote about.

This can lead us to understand “the spirit” behind what all of these scholars were doing, and to think about “the spirit” behind what Kim Định sought to do.

I’ve said many times that the most important moment in Vietnamese history, in my opinion, is the early twentieth century, because it is the time when the Vietnamese world view changed 180 degrees. This intellectual transformation, however, has not been clearly documented and it does not get discussed much.

Instead, what gets discussed is a political transformation, that is, that the “traditional” world of the Nguyễn Dynasty came to an end and the “modern” world of revolutionaries arose to replace it.

In contrast to the field of Vietnamese history, this intellectual transformation that occurred at the turn of the kind of the twentieth century is a kind of “founding paradigm” for Western scholarship on Chinese history.

There were historians like John King Fairbank at Harvard who developed what is known as the “impact and response” view of modern Chinese history which basically saw China as a “sleeping giant” that was awoken by the “impact” of the Western presence.

This idea that the West is the main reason for change in China has subsequently been contested, and now there is a more “China-centric” understanding of the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but some of the scholarship of the “impact and response” approach still contains important insights, particularly the work of Joseph R. Levenson.

Levenson, a historian at Berkeley, gave a similar degree of agency to the West, but he focused more on intellectual issues than Fairbank did, and many of his insights are still valuable.


Take, for instance, this passage from the first volume in his trilogy (i.e., 3 book series), Confucian China and its Modern Fate:

“Modern Chinese intellectual history, the period of Western influence, may be summed up as two reciprocal processes, the progressive abandonment of tradition by iconoclasts and the petrifaction of tradition by traditionalists.

“But both of these processes – not only the traditionalistic, but the iconoclastic as well – show a Chinese concern to establish the equivalence of China and the West. Many different intellectual choices have been made in modern China, but the choosers’ considerations were not, nor could they have been, entirely intellectual; always, along with the search for right answers, or ideas acceptable to anyone, there continued a search for ideas that Chinese could accept.” (xvi)

These are brilliant comments. In these few lines Levenson was able to characterize virtually all of the ideas that Chinese came up with in the twentieth century. Those ideas were either 1) a way to break away from the past, or 2) a way to preserve the past, but 3) they were all done now with a conscious sense that they had to “meet the standard” of the West and be its equal.

If Levenson had written about Vietnam, he would have been able to write about this same intellectual transition. The one difference, however, is that he would have had to argue that a comparison with China has been more important for Vietnamese intellectuals than a comparison with the West.

Like this:

“Modern Vietnamese intellectual history, the period of Western influence, may be summed up as two reciprocal processes, the progressive abandonment of tradition by iconoclasts and the petrifaction of tradition by traditionalists.

“But both of these processes – not only the traditionalistic, but the iconoclastic as well – show a Vietnamese concern to establish the equivalence of Vietnam and China. Many different intellectual choices have been made in modern Vietnam, but the choosers’ considerations were not, nor could they have been, entirely intellectual; always, along with the search for right answers, or ideas acceptable to anyone, there continued a search for ideas that Vietnamese could accept.” (xvi)


Why is China so important in modern Vietnamese intellectual life?

It is because prior to the twentieth century, educated Vietnamese saw themselves as members of a world civilization that was centered in the part of the world that we now call “China.” They were “Hoa” (a term I translate as “efflorescents”) and people who were different from them were “Di” (barbarians).

Then through contact with the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, educated Vietnamese came to realize that this was not the only way to view the world. Instead, people in the Western world saw themselves as members of nations, each of which was supposed to have its own language and be culturally distinct.

The area of what is today “China,” is the area where the majority of the cultural practices that came to be identified as Hoa civilization emerged. Therefore, while educated Chinese went through the same dramatic transformation in the early twentieth century from seeing the world as being divided between Hoa and Di to seeing the world as made up of many distinct nations, the fact that the Hoa civilization was so closely identified with the area within their political borders meant that it was easier for the Chinese to transform that civilization their “national culture.”

They could then, as Levenson argued, focus on attempting to demonstrate the equivalence between China and the West.

For Vietnam, however, this transition was more difficult. That transformation created the idea that Vietnam is a nation. Being a nation, in turn, requires having a distinct culture. But before that time, Vietnam was part of a shared civilization. So how do you create a distinct nation out of a shared civilization?

That’s a problem, and as a result, if Levenson could have written “Confucian Vietnam and its Modern Fate,” he would have talked about iconoclasts and traditionalists, as he did with China, but he would have had to talk about their concern to establish the equivalence of Vietnam and China, that is, to search for ideas that Vietnamese [who had come to learn that the world was divided between nations rather than between Hoa and Di] could accept.


In recently reading writings from North and South Vietnam from the 1960s and 1970s, I’ve found it interesting to see that scholars on both sides of that divide engaged precisely with these issues.

Scholars in the North took what I would call a “classic” nationalist approach by arguing for a “pure Vietnamese-ness” that has always existed (as a equal counterpart to “Chinese-ness”). Essentially what they did was to say that the Vietnamese were a distinct group of Di, and that all of the Hoa civilization stuff came later, but that it didn’t change their Di essence.

By arguing that there had been a Vietnamese culture before any contact with the Chinese, and that this culture endured through the centuries all the way up to the present, these scholars could then make the presence of Hoa civilization an idea “that Vietnamese could accept,” as it could be seen as something that “the Vietnamese” had decided on their own to adopt. Vietnam was thus an equal of China.

However, this then raises various questions. What exactly is this Vietnamese culture that has endured through the centuries? And how do we deal with all of the Hoa civilization in the past? If it was “adopted,” should we see it as something superficial, and not really essential for “true Vietnamese” culture? If it wasn’t superficial then doesn’t its presence at some point change the original culture so much that we can’t argued for its continued existence anymore?


Scholars in the South differed from their counterparts in the North in that they viewed Hoa civilization as more central to Vietnamese culture. However they still struggled to find a way to make that an idea “that Vietnamese could accept,” that is, to make it acceptable to people who now viewed the world as divided between culturally distinct nations, rather than between Hoa and Di.

Historian Nguyễn Phương essentially argued that the people we today call the “Vietnamese” were migrants from “China,” and that therefore, of course Hoa civilization is essential for Vietnamese culture, because it’s all basically the same thing. In other words, Nguyễn Phương felt that the Vietnamese were Hoa. This created a form of equivalence with China, but ultimately it was an idea “that Vietnamese could [NOT] accept.”

Philosopher Kim Định, meanwhile, argued that the foundation of Hoa civilization was first created by the ancestors of the Vietnamese, and that therefore, of course it is essential for Vietnamese culture, because it’s basically all the same thing. At the same time, Kim Định argued that the Chinese were different in that they came later and appropriated those ideas and that through their dominance those ideas eventually came to be seen as Hoa civilization.

So from Kim Định’s perspective, the Vietnamese are the true Hoa, whereas the Chinese are originally Di who stole cultural practices from the Hoa Vietnamese. This is an idea “that Vietnamese could accept.” What is more, rather than creating equality between Vietnam and China, this interpretation actually made the case for Vietnamese superiority over China.

But such ideas, as Levenson noted, are not “entirely intellectual.”


As a result, none of these explanations are ultimately convincing. There is no evidence of any “cultural core” that has existed through the centuries. There is no evidence of a big enough migration southward that could lead to the creation of a new culture all on its own. And there is no evidence that the ancestors of the Vietnamese created the foundation of what many people now refer to as “Chinese” culture.

So all of these efforts to explain who the Vietnamese are and what constitutes their culture fail in one way or another. The important point, however, is that they have all failed for the same reason, and that reason was identified by Levenson years ago: they are not intellectual arguments, but arguments that aim to create an equivalence between Vietnam and China that Vietnamese can accept.

Further, the “two reciprocal processes” what Levenson mentioned (the progressive abandonment of tradition by iconoclasts and the petrifaction of tradition by traditionalists) is also present in Vietnam, although by the 1960s those two processes became more complex.

The “iconoclasts” in the North sought to reject the Hoa heritage of the past, and the “traditionalists” in the South sought to preserve the Hoa heritage of the past, but it would be difficult to argue that someone like Kim Định tried to “petrify” tradition, for he was very innovative in the way that he sought to preserve tradition, and as a result, the “tradition” that he sought to preserve ended up being quite different from the tradition of earlier generations of “traditionalists,” such as that of Nguyễn Dynasty officials in the first half of the twentieth century.


So why does the field of Vietnamese history need a Joseph Levenson? Because he showed people how this important transformation that followed the intense contact between “East” and “West” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries played out, and he showed how ideas in the twentieth century were transformed by the total change in world view that this encounter brought about.

For Vietnam, we don’t know this story. What has been told countless times is that the Nguyễn Dynasty and the traditional order “died” in the late nineteenth century, that the revolutionary world of the twentieth century then emerged, but “Vietnam” as a nation, endured through this transition, as it had endured through the centuries. . .

This, however, is a political story. Joseph Levenson told an intellectual story. And ultimately, one can’t understand the political story if one doesn’t understand the intellectual story, because it is through the changed ideas of that intellectual transformation that the political story has been told.

One of the things that makes reading the works of South Vietnamese philosopher Kim Định so interesting is that they are filled with ideas. Kim Định of course had his own ideas, but in order to understand those ideas, one also needs to know a lot about other people’s ideas and actions as well.

To get a sense of this, let’s take a look at what he wrote in two pages of his book Việt Lý Tố Nguyên. The first topic he touches on is archaeology.


The field of archaeology began in Vietnam with the work of amateur French archaeologists. While they deserve a great deal of credit for pioneering a new field, their techniques were by today’s standards at times quite rudimentary.

To put it bluntly, in the first half of the twentieth century scholars like Madeleine Colani and Henri Mansuy dug up bones from the ground, measured them, and then declared them to belong to a certain “race,” such as the “Indonesien” or “Mongoloid” race.


Such pronouncements contributed to a discussion that French historians and anthropologists had already been engaged in based on textual and ethnographic information. There were theories that the Vietnamese (Mongoloids) had migrated into the region from places to the north, and there were theories that the Vietnamese were the mixture of a group (Mongoloids) that migrated into the region from the north and then intermarried with an indigenous people (Indonesien).

Then there were people like Bình Nguyên Lộc in South Vietnam who argued that the Việt were “Mã Lai” who had migrated into the region in antiquity from the Himalayas. By “Mã Lai” he meant roughly the same thing as what French scholars referred to as “Indonesien” – that is, more or less the same as what we would today call “Austronesians,” a group of linguistically and culturally related peoples who live across a vast area of the globe from the Central Highlands of Vietnam to Taiwan and the islands of the Pacific.


Kim Định did not think highly of these archaeological findings and the conclusions that people like Bình Nguyên Lộc drew from them. In fact, he accused such scholars of being complicit in the colonial project.

As he explained in Việt Lý Tố Nguyên, French scholars like Henri Maspero had been influenced by a sense of cultural superiority and the colonial desire to dominate, and that when they wrote about Asia they thus depicted it in negative terms so that the colonized people would more willingly accept the domination of the colonizers (out of a sense of inferiority).

This is an argument that Edward Said would famously make about the complicity of academic (and other) writings and colonialism a few years later in his book, Orientalism.


According to Kim Đinh, the Vietnamese scholars who argued for the “Mã Lai” roots of the Vietnamese were complicit in the same act that scholars like Maspero had engaged in, as they depicted Vietnamese origins in negative and inferior terms.

“Mã Lai” culture, Kim Định argued, had contributed nothing to Vietnamese culture, and had particularly done nothing to contribute to the spirit of the Vietnamese (tâm hồn người Việt).

Kim Định actually uses the term “Mã Lai Á,” which refers to the country of Malaya/Malaysia, but it is clear that he was referring to “Mã Lai” in the sense of “Indonesien,” or as is more common now, “Austronesian.”

He argued further that if the roots of the Vietnamese were “Mã Lai,” then what were the centuries of writing in Vietnam a product of? They made no sense from the perspective of “Mã Lai” culture. Therefore, if one were to argue that the roots of Vietnamese culture were “Mã Lai,” then this would mean that the written heritage of Vietnam was “mere literature” (văn chương thuần túy) with no significant connection to the people.


It would also mean that the roots of Vietnamese civilization were unimpressive, and this is where Kim Định felt that scholars who argued for the “Mã Lai” origins of the Vietnamese were complicit in colonialism, for just as the colonizers had tried to argue that the Vietnamese were inferior and therefore in need of colonial rule, so were the people who argued that the origins of the Vietnamese were inferior, because from Kim Định’s perspective there was nothing sophisticated about “Mã Lai” culture.

To Kim Định, however, Vietnamese origins were definitely impressive, as he felt that they were reflected in such works as the five “Confucian” classics (Ngũ Kinh), which, he argued, represented the original culture of the Việt, the earliest civilized people in Asia.


The ideas that Kim Định expressed here were fascinating. Several years before the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism popularized the concept that scholarly writings about “the Orient” contributed to the creation of a discourse about that part of the world which lent justification to its conquest and colonization by “the West,” we see that Kim Định was already well aware of this concept.

Then alongside this clarity of vision, we can also see how a strong sense of nationalism and some ethnocentrism worked to distort his view of the past.

Nonetheless, he certainly provided his readers with a lot to think about.

I recently discovered that the French Archives nationales de outré-mer has digitized a treasure trove of historical photographs from France’s former colonial possessions and has made those images available online for public viewing.


For people who are familiar with photographs from French Indochina, some of the photographs that the Archives nationales de outré-mer has digitized will be familiar from their previous appearance in publications.


However, there are many many many others in this online archive that, as far as I know, have never been made public before.


Just to give an example, here are some photographs of what we might call “visions of modernity,” that is, photographs that were either directly meant to highlight the modern developments that were taking place in the colonies, or which, through things like the clothing that we see people wearing, we can tell that society was “modernizing.”


There are many other images in this archive about historical places, and there are a very large number of photographs of people from different ethnic groups.


It is easy to search through the collection by going here, selecting a “territoire,” clicking “lancer la recherche,” and then clicking “afficher.” In the upper-right-hand corner of the page you can then select 20 under “Résultats par page” for easier viewing.


For French Indochina one can find photographs under the following “territoires”: Annam, Cambodge, Cochinchine, Indochine, Laos, Siam (2 pictures of Thai pilots landing in Vietnam) Tonkin and Vietnam. With some effort, one can probably related pictures under other “territoires,” such as the picture above of a structure being built to house Vietnamese exiles in French Guiana.


The Archives nationales de outré-mer has done a great service by making these images available for public viewing.


The past is fascinating and these images make that fact amazingly clear.

In his book, The Philosophy of the Communal House (Triết Lý Cái Đình), Kim Định has a chapter entitled “The Three Strata of Communication” (Ba Giai Tầng Thông Giao) in which he begins by citing a sentence from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Structural Anthropology that says “In any society, communication operates on three different levels: communication of women, communication of goods and services, communication of messages.”

This first issue, the communication, or exchange, of women (trao đổi đàn bà) is a key concept that Lévi-Strauss developed concerning the origins of human society, and it is one that Kim Định demonstrates that he understands in his The Structure of Việt Confucianism (Cơ Cấu Việt Nho).


Lévi-Strauss discusses the concept of the exchange of women in his 1949 work, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (Structures élémentaires de la parenté). In this work, Lévi-Strauss sought to demonstrate that below the surface of the many different and intricate systems of kinship relations around the world were some basic and universal concepts that informed those relations, the most fundamental of which was the prohibition of incest (cấm loạn luân).

There is nothing in nature that stops relatives from having sexual intercourse with each other. The prohibition of incest is therefore a social construct, and to Lévi-Strauss it marked the origin of human societies, or a “transition from nature to culture.”

In addition to the fact that the prohibition of incest required people to marry outside of their immediate group, Lévi-Strauss adopted the idea from French sociologist Marcel Mauss that exchange was a fundamental technique for creating social cohesion to argue that not only did people start to marry out of their group by offering their daughters to another group but that they also came to expect that the other group should offer daughters of their own group in return, thereby establishing a foundation for social relations.

Mauss gift

While it is clear that Kim Định understood this concept, in The Philosophy of the Communal House he puts forth a different argument regarding the exchange of women. The gist of his argument is that we can find repeated examples in ancient texts of marriages between men from the central region of what is today China (the area around the Yellow River valley) and women from the periphery. The Yellow Emperor’s son, Changyi, for instance, married a woman from Shushan, or what is today Sichuan. Đế Minh, in the Việt annals, went to the south and married Vụ Tiên, King Mu of the Zhou went south (actually, I think it was west) and married Thịnh Cơ/Shengji, and Triệu Đà/Zhao Tuo married a Việt woman, etc.



To Kim Định, the first three examples belong to the realm of “obscure history” (huyền sử), which means that we can’t be sure if these events actually happened, but they nonetheless represent to him some kind of fact, and to Kim Định that fact is that the place that one marries a woman from is a place that has a higher culture (Theo huyền sử. . . lấy vợ đâu thì đấy kể là có văn minh cao hơn).

At the same time, another explanation for this process is that it is a step towards the conquest of these peripheral regions. However, Kim Định argues that this political process of conquest is still connected to culture in that the places that get conquered are perceived to be culturally superior by the conquerors.


Kim Định makes these points because he wants to demonstrate that the core area of “Chinese” culture, the Yellow River valley, was originally not as sophisticated as other areas, such as the area of Sichuan, where, be believes, people of the Viêm race (of which the Việt were a part) lived. However, there is no sociological/anthropological argument that “the place that one marries a woman from is a place that has a higher culture,” and Lévi-Strauss certainly did not make this argument.

In making these points, Kim Định cites Herold Wiens’s Han Chinese Expansion in South China (earlier published as China’s March Toward the Tropics) where Wiens does make the argument that Sichuan was a culturally developed area in antiquity, however Wiens does not make the claim that Sichuan was at a higher level of cultural development than the area around the Yellow River.


Wiens says, for instance that “The earliest cultural center of South China appears to be Sichuan at a time contemporary with or even preceding the first appearance of Han-Chinese culture in the Yellow River Valley,” and that if the information about marriage between the family of the Yellow Emperor and people in Sichuan is true, then there were “very intimate connections” between the area of Sichuan and the Yellow River civilization.

However, Wiens does not describe those relations as culturally hierarchical. If, on the other hand, we were to follow the ideas of Lévi-Strauss more faithfully than Kim Đinh does, we could come to the opposite conclusion that he does.


Lévi-Strauss felt that the most fundamental aspect of creating a society was the sending of daughters outward from the group, and that a more complex form of society required that the “receiving” group send back a daughter of their own.

In these stories about the early history of China, people from the Yellow River area marry women from outside that region, but women from the Yellow River are not granted in return. Wouldn’t it therefore be possible to argue the opposite point that Kim Định did, that is, that the Yellow River was culturally superior and that surrounding peoples were willing to grant their daughters to that world in order to build a connection to it, whereas the people of the Yellow River area felt no need to do the same?

As I stated in an earlier post, structural anthropologists like Claude Lévi-Strauss sought to employ a “synchronic” (hàng dọc) approach to the study of human societies. The synchronic approach required that one study a society at a given point of time (such as the present), rather than trying to understand a society’s evolution or development over time (that is, “diachronically” – ngang dọc).

The reason why this appealed to anthropologists was because some of the societies that they studied (such as “primitive” societies) did not possess detailed information about their pasts, except for some brief information in oral stories and myths. It was therefore very difficult, if not impossible, to determine how such societies had developed over time.

The synchronic approach of structural anthropology attempted to make up for this inability by trying to find a way to gain a deep understanding of a society without knowing its history. By attempting to discover an unconscious structure of meanings for the ideas and actions of people in the present, structural anthropologists sought to find a way to gain a more thorough understanding of the lives of people for whom information was limited.

mal 1

At the same time that there was limited information about the histories of the “primitive” peoples that some anthropologists studied in the twentieth century, scholars like Kim Định realized that there was likewise limited information about the early inhabitants of places like the Red River delta. Other than some comments in what he labeled “myths” (thần thoại), there was not much else to build an understanding of early societies on.

This is why the structural anthropological approach appealed to Kim Định, because whereas other scholars had determined that it was very difficult to link the information from myths to what was known from recorded history, Kim Định felt that one could examine the information from myths synchronically and still learn a great deal.

The only problem is that this is not what he actually did. Instead, his synchronic examinations were always created from a diachronic perspective. In particular, Kim Định had a very clear idea of what had happened in the past, and when he sought to explain the structure of meanings behind myths, rather than create a synchronic model of those meanings that fit together as a system of ideas (as Lévi-Strauss sought to do), Kim Định simply interpreted parts of myths according to his diachronic view of history.


We can see this in his examination of some basic information from The Tale of the Hồng Bàng Clan, mentioned in a blog post below, where he sees Đế Minh’s journey to the south, as indicating a move toward light, and away from an invading army (I don’t think this story is actually a “myth,” but that’s a topic for another post. . .).

Where does he get any idea about an invading army? Can that be determined by creating a model of the unconscious structure of meaning that this story is built upon? If so, how? Kim Định never explains.

However, it is clear from reading his work that ultimately he comes up with ideas like this because they reflect his view of the history of the region, and his view was unique.


In particular, Kim Định felt that originally the area of what is today China was inhabited by people who engaged in agriculture (nông nghiệp) and whom he refers to as the “Viêm race” (Viêm tộc). According to Kim Định, the people whom we now refer to as the Han Chinese, but whom Kim Định refers to in this early period as the “Hoa race” (Hoa tộc), then migrated into the region.

The people of the Hoa race, again according to Kim Định, were pastoralists (du mục). These people ultimately started to conquer the Viêm race, but in the process, they adopted many of the Viêm race’s cultural practices as well.


When one understands this diachronic view of history, then it becomes easy to see how in his “synchronic” examination of a “myth,” Kim Định would see signs of a move away from an invading army. The “invading army” is the pastoralist Hoa race coming to conquer the lands of the agriculturalist Viêm race.

There is nothing in the “myth” itself that can clearly lead to this conclusion, but if one views the myth through the diachronic view of the past that Kim Định created, then it is possible to come to such a conclusion.

This, however, leads to two fundamental problems. The first is that there is no evidence that the Hoa/Han migrated into the area of what is today China, and there is no evidence of pastoralists conquering agriculturalists.

The second is that by engaging in a synchronic examination of a “myth” by viewing the information in the “myth” through a diachronic lens, Kim Định undermined what he claimed to be doing. You cannot produce a synchronic understanding of a “myth” by looking at it diachronically. There is no such thing as a “diachronic synchronic approach,” but that is precisely what Kim Định’s interpretations represent.

As such, there were some fundamental contradictions in Kim Định’s approach to studying the past, and these contradictions ultimately undermined his scholarship. Nonetheless, those contradictions are there amidst a great deal of creativity, intelligence and even brilliance, and that is what still makes his work fascinating to read.

I’ve been thinking about several topics that I’ve written about before on this blog: the promotion of Vietnam’s integration into the global world of scholarship; the absence of engagement with historical and/or theoretical scholarship from outside of Vietnam on the part of historians within Vietnam for the past several decades; and the historical scholarship of South Vietnamese scholars Tạ Chí Đại Trường, Nguyễn Phương and Lương Kim Định.


In the second half of the twentieth century there were four scholars who were collectively credited with establishing the field of historical research in Vietnam, and who are thus known as the “four pillars” (tứ trụ) of historical scholarship. These four men all began their academic careers in North Vietnam, and then continued to work in the years after the North and South were united.

While their accomplishments are indeed deserving of praise, the more I read of the work of other historians from the time when Vietnam was divided, the more I realize that there are other historians who deserve a great deal of praise as well.

In fact, in addition to the current “four pillars,” I can think of at least four more: Tạ Chí Đại Trường, Nguyễn Phương, Lương Kim Định, Đào Duy Anh. The first three lived and worked in South Vietnam, while Đào Duy Anh lived and worked in the North.

These four men did not work together, and from what I can tell, some of them were certainly not friends. However, as I read their writings, I can’t escape wondering what the state of historical scholarship, particularly scholarship about early history, would be like today if these four had set the foundation for future generations of historians.


As colonial rule in Vietnam gradually came to an end in the years after World War II, historians across the country embarked on the task of writing a new history for the nation. As they did so, they had more than a half century of scholarship that had been produced during the colonial period that they could build upon. Not everyone, however, did.

In general, scholars in the North turned away from the scholarship of the colonial period and sought to find inspiration in Marxist historical models that they adopted from China and the Soviet Union. They thus tried to figure out when Vietnam became a nation following Stalin’s definition of a nation, and they sought to determine when there had been a slave society in Vietnam, a stage that Marxist historiography indicated all societies passed through.

These experiments, however, were short-lived, and by the 1960s this engagement with theory was abandoned.


As for the four other pillars of Vietnamese history, they continued to engage with scholarship from the colonial period. Indeed, Đào Duy Anh’s career as a scholar began in the late 1930s, so one could theoretically consider him to be a colonial-era scholar, but his work in the 1940s and 1950s did take him in new directions, particularly as he sought to “read through” early sources to find symbols of meaning that scholars had not considered before. What is more, Đào Duy Anh could come to the ideas that he did because he could read not only the sources (in classical Chinese) but ideas that scholars outside of Vietnam had produced as well on various topics (in French).

Tạ Chí Đại Trường, Nguyễn Phương and Lương Kim Định all produced scholarship in South Vietnam, and their works likewise built on the earlier studies of colonial-era scholars. Nonetheless, they all produced ideas that were original.


As should be clear from some of my recent posts, Lương Kim Định was the most theoretically engaged with Western scholarship. He lacked Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s strength in reading original sources critically and accurately, but he communicated on a broader level, which makes his scholarship more understandable to an international readership.

Nguyễn Phương’s writings on early Vietnamese history were in the 1960s the most radical in that he came to conclude that there essentially was no Vietnam until the tenth century AD. And while he attributed the emergence of Vietnam to the gradual southward migration of peoples from China, in the past few decades the writings that Tạ Chí Đại Trường has produced regarding the creation of stories about early Vietnam around the fourteenth century demonstrate that Vietnam is as young as Nguyên Phương argued in the 1960s. It’s just that its formation is not based on migration, as Nguyên Phương believed, but cultural and social developments.


Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s conclusions about the formation in the nation in Vietnamese history mirror what Western scholars started to say about many societies in the 1980s and 1990s as topics like ethnic identity and the formation of nations became popular. Lương Kim Định’s scholarship, meanwhile, was deeply engaged with a long line of theoretical scholarship in Europe from the fields of sociology, anthropology, linguistics and Sinology.

Đào Duy Anh’s scholarship is the product of an earlier, and less theoretical age, but it easily stood alongside the best scholarship at that timing coming out of places like Hong Kong and Taiwan where scholars were engaging original sources in similar ways. And finally, Nguyễn Phương rationally developed existing scholarship to its logical (at that time) conclusion.


While these four scholars are all different, the one thing that unites them is that they all engaged with existing ideas and then came up with new ideas about the past. The past, in their scholarship, is “alive,” because they show the past to their readers in new ways and get their readers to think about the past from different perspectives.

In all honesty, there are multiple “worlds” of scholarship in the world today. The goal of scholarship is not the same everywhere. However, in some scholarly worlds the goal is to find new ways to think about a topic so that we can understand it better, and in doing so, the engagement with theory and existing scholarship from around that world is the norm.

That is the world that the scholarship of Tạ Chí Đại Trường, Nguyễn Phương, Lương Kim Định and Đào Duy Anh integrates into. In that world, they can also definitely be considered “four pillars.”

In his 1973 work, Việt Nho Structure (Cơ Cấu Việt Nho), Kim Định introducted the theory of structuralism to his readers. Relying heavily on information in Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Structural Anthropology, Kim Định noted to his readers the importance for structuralism of the findings that Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure had produced in the early twentieth century.

In arguing that language consisted of linguistic “signs” that were comprised of a sound-image (the signifier) and a concept, or concepts, associated with it (the signified), and that the meanings of signifiers were established through their relations with other signifiers in the language, de Saussure argued that language must be studied as it exists at one point in time (synchronically) so as to understand how the entire system of relational linguistic signs functions, rather than to examine how individual signs had changed over time (diachronically) as linguists had done before his day.


Having thus introduced this concept of a synchronic approach to the study of language, Kim Định then goes on to explain how this approach can be applied to the study of history.

Kim Định introduces his readers to the distinction between synchronic history (sử hàng dọc) and diachronic history (sử ngang dọc), or what he also referred to as historicism (duy sử). This latter approach focuses on documenting observable changes over time, or what was termed in French historical scholarship in the twentieth century as “events” (événements). Synchronic history, Kim Đinh explains, is different as “it operates with the subconscious, does not need to manifest itself in an individual and therefore cannot be recorded in time or space, but it can still be called history because it is true although not real (vraie mais irréelle).” The way Kim Định writes this in Vietnamese is “thật tuy không thực (vraie mais irréelle).”


This idea of something that can be “true although not real” is one that Kim Định sees paralleled in the Zhuangzi where there is a line describing the universe that says, “That which exists but which has no location, is the universe” (有實而無乎處者, 宇也). Relating this concept to history, Kim Định states that “that which exists” is an effect (tác động) or principle (nguyên lý) that can guide, or an ideal (lý tưởng) that can assist, people, but the fact that it “has no location” means that it does not need to crystallize or take form in a particular individual. It is thus an archetype (sơ nguyên tượng) or a model (điển loại) that exists in a kind of paradise (thiên thai) that people desire to see become manifest.

To provide an example for these abstract concepts, Kim Định turns to the story in the Lĩnh Nam chích quái and the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư of Đế Minh, the third-generation descendent of Thần Long who went southward to the area of the Five Passes (Ngũ Linh) and married a woman by the name of Vụ Tiên.


Prior to the twentieth century, scholars in Vietnam suspected the veracity of that story, but they nonetheless valued it as a sign of a line of legitimate political descent (chính thống) which linked subsequent Vietnamese dynasties to an ancient source of political authority. By the early twentieth century, this story was interpreted by first French and then Vietnamese scholars to indicate actual migrations that could help explain who (in racial terms) the Vietnamese were.

In Việt Nho Structure, Kim Định offers a new interpretation of this story, one inspired by, but not strictly following, the ideas of structuralism. According to Kim Định, there is no reason to think that the people mentioned in this story ever existed. Instead, what this story reveals to him are the principles and archetypes that one finds in the structure of society.

First, Kim Định sees in this story a principle of moving towards light (“minh” in the name Đế Minh, means “brightness” or “light”), a reference to the south. Second, he argues that it reveals an effect of retreating before an invading army. And third, the reference to the Five Passes is an indication to Kim Định of the presence of a culture that follows the concept of the Five Phases (Ngũ Hành) in the Yijing.


How on earth did Kim Đinh come up with these ideas? In part it was by employing some of the concepts of structuralism. In particular, a structuralist reading of a story looks for concepts, particularly ones that are in binary opposition to each other, to try to find a general pattern for the information presented.

What are the binary oppositions in this story? Well, the opposite of light is darkness. Light is usually associated with things that are good, and darkness with things that are bad. The opposite of moving toward the south is moving toward the north.

How, however, do we get the Five Passes somehow indicating a culture based on the Five Phases? That is where Kim Định ran into trouble. . .


One of the main critiques of structuralism is that it grants too much power to the “structuralist” (i.e., the person producing the scholarship) to determine meaning. This definitely happened in the case of Kim Định. First of all, Kim Định did not approach the study of the past from a neutral standpoint. He had a clear agenda. He wanted to create a kind of moral/spiritual foundation for the Vietnamese people, and he wanted that foundation to be their own, not something that was “imported” from China or the West.

So the way that he did this was by declaring that “before China was China” there was already a culture there, and that that culture was “Việt.” To prove this, however, he needed evidence, and for the earliest periods of history in the region (i.e., the time of the mythical rulers such as Thần Nông/Shennong and the Yellow Emperor) there is very little information. Structuralism, however, provided Kim Định with “evidence” because it enabled him to interpret the limited information at his disposal in novel ways. And that is precisely what he did.

Was he correct in what he concluded? No. His conclusions are deeply flawed. However, if we view his work from the perspective of the time when he produced it, it is nonetheless extremely impressive. That he was able to master the abstruse concepts that people like Claude Lévi-Strauss were talking about, connect those concepts to passages from ancient Chinese texts, and come up with a novel explanation/interpretation of early Vietnamese history based (at least to some extent) on all of these ideas is extremely impressive.

Put differently, trying to understand what Kim Định sought to accomplish, and figuring out how and why he failed is simply fascinating.

Fifty Viss

a collection of thoughts and writings on Burma

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


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 723 other followers