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Le Minh Khai's SEAsian History Blog

Always rethinking the Southeast Asian past

Engaging With Vietnam Conference #9 Program

Engaging With Vietnam, the only annual Vietnam-focused multidisciplinary conference in the world will hold its ninth conference in Hồ Chí Minh City/Bình Dương/An Giang from 27 December 2017 to 4 January 2018.

Please see the program below for details.

9th Engaging With Vietnam Program

Snakes and Clothing in the Ancient Red River Delta

I was reading the Annotated Classic of Waterways (Shuijing zhu 水經注), a sixth century text that contains information about the Red River Delta region and came across a passage about snakes.

The text mentions a kind of snake called a “ranshe” 髯蛇 (literally, a “whiskered snake”) that was very large and could eat boars and deer.

The text then says that when people confront one, they throw women’s clothing on it (搏之以婦人衣投之).

Continue reading “Snakes and Clothing in the Ancient Red River Delta”

6. Going Backwards: An (Updated) Addendum

[12/11/2017. Note: Professor Kiernan has responded to this post and has graciously pointed out that a comment I made is incorrect. There is one character that is discussed in this post that is very important, and in my original post, I stated that in the “two” versions of the text that is discussed below that I consulted the character in question appears as “xuyên 川” meaning “river.” In fact, it is true that in “one” of the texts I consulted the character in question appears as “xuyên 川” but in the other it appears as “thủy 水” which in its most basic sense means “water” but which is also used (including in the context of this text) to mean “river.”

My apologies to readers for not including an image from the version of this text that does use the character “xuyên 川.” Here it is:

Continue reading “6. Going Backwards: An (Updated) Addendum”

Cung Đình Thanh – The Most Influential Vietnamese Historian of the 21st Century (so far)

There are certain ideas about early Vietnamese history that one can easily find expressed on the Internet, such as the ideas that 1) Hòa Bình was one the site of one of the earliest agricultural societies on the planet, and that wet rice was grown there as early as 10,000 years ago, and 2) people of this Hòa Bình culture brought their knowledge of rice cultivation northward and introduced it to the place that we now refer to as “China.”

As evidence for the first point, on web page after web page (and in numerous books) we find a statement that American archaeologist Wilhelm Solheim made in 1971 that “the first domestication of plants in the world was done by people of the Hoabinhian culture, somewhere in Southeast Asia. It would not surprise me if this had begun as early as 15,000 B.C.” [Wilhelm G. Solheim, “New Light on a Forgotten Past,” National Geographic Vol. 139, No. 3 (March 1971): 339.]

As evidence of the second statement, we find that a 1998 article by a group of genetic scientists led by J. Y. Chu is repeatedly cited. [J. Y. Chu, et al., “Genetic Relationship of Populations in China,” PNAS Vol. 95 (1998): 11763-11768.]

The person who introduced this perspective on the past and who first used the articles by Solheim and Chu to support his argument has now largely been forgotten. His name was Cung Đình Thanh, and although he passed away in 2006, the ideas that he introduced before he died are today widely discussed and reproduced on Vietnamese-language web pages.

Continue reading “Cung Đình Thanh – The Most Influential Vietnamese Historian of the 21st Century (so far)”

Trịnh Hoài Đức, Gabriel Aubaret and the Production of Knowledge about the Mekong Delta

In the early nineteenth century, Trịnh Hoài Đức, a Vietnamese scholar-official of Chinese descent, compiled a geographical gazetteer of the Mekong Delta region entitled the Comprehensive Gazetteer of Gia Định Citadel (Gia Định thành thông chí 嘉定城通志).

In 1863, Gabriel Aubaret, a French Naval officer who knew Chinese, published a translation of this work as The History and Description of Lower Cochinchina (Country of Gia-dinh) (Histoire et description de la Basse Cochinchine [pays de Gia-dinh]).

Trịnh Hoài Đức compiled his text not long after the Nguyễn Dynasty had consolidated its control over the Mekong Delta region, and Gabriel Aubaret produced his translation as the French were gaining control over the area around Gia Định.

As such, both of these men were the first to produce knowledge about this region for their respective readers/governments. In reading what they wrote, it is fascinating to see the way in which each man’s worldview influenced how he wrote or translated.

Educated on classical (Chinese) texts, Trịnh Hoài Đức viewed and described the region in East Asian geomantic terms (what we now call phong thủy/fengshui). Unfamiliar with that worldview, Aubaret unwittingly omitted the geomantic information in Trịnh Hoài Đức’s text in his translation, and reorganized the text so that the information could be presented in a way that was more comprehensible to European readers. By doing this, Aubaret made it impossible for readers of his translation to access Trịnh Hoài Đức’s ideas.

Continue reading “Trịnh Hoài Đức, Gabriel Aubaret and the Production of Knowledge about the Mekong Delta”

President Trump’s Opinion of Le Minh Khai

At the recent APEC meeting in Vietnam, President Donald Trump of the USA was apparently asked what he thought of Le Minh Khai by two reporters from The Guardian.

I’m amazed that reporters from such a respectable newspaper would even know about me, and I’m pleased to see that President Trump’s assessment of my work is pretty accurate. I didn’t expect that.

Popular Music in Twentieth Century Southeast Asia: A New Book!!

One topic that has received very little attention by historians is twentieth-century Southeast Asian popular culture, especially popular culture in the 1950s-1980s. There is a new publication, however, that seeks to at least partially remedy this situation by providing an overview of popular music in Southeast Asia in the twentieth century.

The book is called Popular Music in Southeast Asia: Banal Beats, Muted Histories (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017) and was written by Bart Barendregt, Peter Keppy and Henk Schulte Nordholt. Further, there is an open access version of the book that is free to download and read.

Continue reading “Popular Music in Twentieth Century Southeast Asia: A New Book!!”

A Conversation With Nhà Sàn Collective (Parts 1 and 2/of 7)

The eighth Engaging With Vietnam conference, held in Honolulu in October 2016, focused on the theme of “Engaging With Vietnam through Scholarship and the Arts.”

Our inspiration for that conference came from our realization that many people in the arts world in Vietnam are asking a lot of the same questions that academics ask, and are doing so in very sophisticated ways. We therefore wished to highlight this intersection between the arts and scholarship.

In preparation for the conference, Engaging With Vietnam conference founder Phan Lê Hà and I met in the summer of 2016 with Nguyễn Quốc Thành and Trương Quế Chi, two artists and curators from Nhà Sàn Collective, an art space in Hanoi.

Our conversation went on for well over an hour and it covered numerous topics, from discussing some of Nhà Sàn Collective’s projects to highly philosophical discussions about the contradictions between activism and the arts, and the difficulty over overcoming the limitations of discourse.

Continue reading “A Conversation With Nhà Sàn Collective (Parts 1 and 2/of 7)”

A 20th-Century Vietnamese Origin Story (Part 1)

In the summer of 2016 I gave a talk at Nhà Sàn Collective, an art space in Hanoi, on some of the historical ideas that the South Vietnamese philosopher/historian, Lương Kim Định, produced in the 1960s.

This was the abstract for that talk:

“Virtually every human society today has a story about where it came from, or what we can call an ‘origin story.’ In the case of Vietnam, one could say that the story about Thần Nông, Kinh Dương Vương, Lạc Long Quân and the Hùng Kings is a kind of origin story. However, there was a new origin story that emerged in the 20th century that argued that the ancestors of the Vietnamese were agriculturalists (người nông nghiệp) who migrated into the region to get away from pastoralists (người du mục) to the north. This talk will examine how and why this ‘alternative origin story’ emerged in the 20th century.”

Continue reading “A 20th-Century Vietnamese Origin Story (Part 1)”

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