Le Minh Khai's SEAsian History Blog

Always rethinking the Southeast Asian past

Minh Mạng and Nôm

Alexander Woodside’s Vietnam and the Chinese Model (1971) is a pioneering work of scholarship that remains today an important study of nineteenth-century Vietnam and the Nguyễn Dynasty. Woodside was the first scholar in the English-speaking world to make extensive use of Nguyễn Dynasty sources and no scholar since has produced a work of scholarship that ranges so broadly over the nineteenth-century Vietnamese historical record.

Like any pioneering study, however, Vietnam and the Chinese Model can still of course be improved upon, and we can see this with regards to one issue that Woodside discusses in this work, the role of Nôm, or the demotic script, in early nineteenth century Vietnam.

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Modern Southeast Asian History Seminar: Colonizing Animals (Week 4)

This week in the seminar we read some of the scholarship of Jonathan Saha, an historian at the University of Leeds in the UK.

While I discuss his scholarship in the video, it is also important to note that Jonathan maintains a wonderful “online presence” through his blog, Colonizing Animals.


Here are the articles that we read:

Continue reading “Modern Southeast Asian History Seminar: Colonizing Animals (Week 4)”

South Vietnamese Soldiers, American Bodies and Racism

I found the first episode of The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick to be so simplistic that I wanted to stop watching, but in the end I did keep watching, and I’m glad that I did, as the second episode gets better, and I’m now watching the third.

The most valuable part of this documentary are the interviews, as the people interviewed say things that are more complex and revealing than the narrative in the documentary.

For instance, through some of the interviews we can learn about the presence of racism in the interactions between Americans and South Vietnamese soldiers, a topic that the narrative of the documentary does not directly address.

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Engaging in Vietnam in An Giang

Engaging With Vietnam is going to An Giang!! Our original plan for the upcoming 9th Engaging With Vietnam conference was to have the conference in HCM City and Phú Yên. We are now dividing it between HCM City and An Giang.

For more information see the following video:

And for more information about the conference, please consult the conference website:

Seminar in Modern Southeast Asian History: Thinking Big (Week 3)

This week in the seminar we looked at “big history,” that is, history that is large in scope, be that temporal (i.e., looking at a society over the longue durée) or spatial (looking comparatively at a topic across a large geographic area).

The most famous work on Southeast Asian history that falls into this category is undoubtedly Victor Lieberman’s, Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830, a work that examines the trend toward state centralization in Southeast Asia over a long period of time, and then places that history in a global context.

Strange Parallels, is thus “big” in its examination of the past at both the temporal and spatial levels.

I’ve assigned Strange Parallels in seminars before, but this time we decided to look at a series of articles that take a “big” approach to the past in various ways by another scholar, historian Eric Tagliacozzo of Cornell University. My intent here was to try to give students a sense of not only what different forms of “big” history can look like, but to also give a sense of what “big” scholarly output looks like as well, as Tagliacozzo has been extremely productive, and in the academic world that is important.

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The First Vietnamese Killed by Americans in Vietnam

I just tried to watch the first episode of The Vietnam War, a new multi-episode documentary by American filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novik. I didn’t expect this documentary be good, but I am actually surprised now at how bad it really is.

The core of the problem of (at least the first episode of) this documentary is that it is entirely America-centric. It is based on a fantasy that the American government can determine the fate of world affairs, and that individual Americans can influence US government policy.

The “lesson” that the documentary seeks to teach is then that there are times when world affairs do not follow the standards of American ideals, and that this is because the US government does not listen to the good ideas of individual Americans.

Let’s call this the “Americans are so stupid” self-loathing narrative.

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6. Going Backwards: An Addendum

In a conclusion that I wrote to a series of posts on Ben Kiernan’s new Việt Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present I noted that the book begins with the sentence, “‘The mountains are like the bones of the earth. Water is its blood,’ wrote a Vietnamese geographer in 1820” (1), and I stated that this “sentence is the perfect sentence to open this book, as it perfectly symbolizes how flawed the scholarship in the pages that follow is.”

My argument was that Kiernan had produced an inaccurate translation of a bad French translation of a classical Chinese text, and that this example of the uncritical use of a flawed source was typical of Kiernan’s own flawed scholarship in this book.

Continue reading “6. Going Backwards: An Addendum”

The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War

There is a major new documentary about the Vietnam War that is about to be broadcast on TV in the US. It is called The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick.

Burns and Novick have made some very successful documentaries together, but they are not experts on Vietnamese history, and while experts were consulted during the making of this documentary, I think it will be safe to assume that this documentary will essentially be a documentary about “what the Vietnam War means to a certain segment of the American population.”

That is fine. As long as educated viewers understand what this documentary is, and what its perspective is, then they can appreciate it for what it is.

Continue reading “The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War”

Modern Southeast Asian History Seminar: Water (Week 2)

This is a video summary of a weekly seminar that I am teaching (Fall 2017) on modern Southeast Asian History.

The readings from this week are listed below.

Peter Boomgaard, ed., A World of Water: Rain, Rivers and Seas in Southeast Asian Histories (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2007).

Jonathan Rigg, ed., The Gift of Water: Water Management, Cosmology and the State in South East Asia (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1992).

Lindsay Lloyd-Smith, Eric Tagliacozzo, “Water in Southeast Asia: Navigating Contradictions,” Trans –Regional and –National Studies of Southeast Asia Vol. 4, No. 2 (2016): 229-238.

Continue reading “Modern Southeast Asian History Seminar: Water (Week 2)”

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Always rethinking the Southeast Asian past

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