Michigan State University (MSU) recently announced a “soft launch” of a digital archive that some people at MSU are creating to document materials produced and collected by a technical assistance program for the Republic of Vietnam that MSU ran from 1955-1962.

In looking through some of the materials I came across a document entitled “The Vietnamese Historical Sources Project – A Proposal” which the Japanese-educated Taiwanese historian of Vietnam, Chen Jinghe (Ching-Ho Chen), had written while he was a visiting professor at the Center for Vietnamese Studies at Southern Illinois University in the early 1970s.

This proposal was to support the creation of printed, collated versions of Vietnamese historical sources and was to involve the cooperation of three universities: Southern Illinois University, Hue University and Keio University.


In his proposal, Chen Jinghe provided a detailed history of the modern efforts to index and categorize Vietnamese written sources. While the efforts by French scholars such as Cadiere, Pelliot and Gaspardone are well known, I was unaware of the efforts of Japanese scholars at that time to do the same (Matsumoto Nobuhiro, Yamamoto Tatsuro, Iwai Taikei, etc.)

He also talks about the efforts of French, Japanese and Vietnamese scholars to publish copies of certain historical sources in the twentieth century.

This then leads Chen Jinghe to the “problem” that his proposal sought to address.

To quote, he stated that, “From the above description on the work of introducing and publishing Vietnamese historical materials, we can see that the works done in Vietnam mainly concerned the translation and transcription into the Chu Quoc Ngu (Romanized characters) of the sources originally written in Chinese or Chu Nom. The reason is that the majority of contemporary Vietnamese scholars have difficulties in reading Chinese and Chu Nom.”

“However,” he notes, “the translators and transcribers of these works generally lack bibliographical training and experience in compiling and editing historical materials, so the translated or the transcribed editions published tend to be of minor importance.”


What made these works of minor importance to Chen Jinghe was that scholars had not always published the classical Chinese text of the works they translated, and they did not “revise” the sources, by which he meant they had not “collated” the sources.

If there are multiple manuscript versions of a text, what is considered by many scholars to be the best thing to do is to create a new version of the text in which one can see where the various manuscripts differ.

The way to do this is to use one text as the “main” text, and then to indicate when other versions differ from the main text.

Chen Jinghe did this in the early 1960s for one historical text, the An Nam chí lược. With The Vietnamese Historical Sources Project, however, he proposed to produce collated versions of many other texts.


First and foremost, Chen Jinghe proposed to collate and publish the chronicle, the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư (the ngoại kỷ, bản kỷ and tục biên). However, there were many other works that he proposed to publish.

From 1959-1962, Chen Jinghe was supported by the Harvard-Yenching institute to classify and arrange the 611 volumes of records (châu bản) in the Imperial Archives of the Nguyễn Dynasty, documents which in the early 1970s were being held in Dalat. As part of The Vietnamese Historical Sources Project, Chen Jinghe proposed “to extract the part of this group of materials which deal[s] with foreign relations, external trade and missionary activities during the four reigns of Gia-long, Minh-mang, Thieu-tri and Tu-duc (1802-1883). in order to compile them into a collected edition of historical materials on the foreign relations of the Nguyen, so as to promote the study of modern Vietnamese history.

Chen Jinghe also proposed publishing the geographical works, the Đại Nam nhất thống chí and the Gia Định thành thông chí, as well as Phan Huy Chú’s history of institutions, the Lịch triều hiến chương loại chí.

15 ph2

Once these works were collated and published, Chen Jinghe proposed to move on to “Phase II” and to do the same for some 15 more works.

What ultimately came of this proposal? Apparently it was funded around 1973 by the National Endowment for the Humanities. I’m not sure how long the funding lasted, but 1975 undoubtedly brought an end to collaboration between Southern Illinois University and Hue, etc.

Several years later, Chen Jinghe did publish in Japan a collated version of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư as well as a collated version of the Việt sử lược.

The Chen Jinghe version of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư does contain some errors, but it is by far the best version of that text to work with.


Until I came across this proposal, I had no idea that Chen Jinghe had planned to do so much more, and that at least initially, there was financial support for such a project.

Today it is extremely difficult to find funding for a project like this. Collating texts is something that funding agencies are not interested in supporting as it is an activity that scholars in many fields engaged in decades ago, and it is therefore something that is supposed to be “complete” by now.

Other than the three texts that Chen Jinghe collated, however, no other collated versions of Vietnamese historical texts exist, as far as I know.

The term “huyền sử,” which means something like “obscure history,” is a term that one can find in Vietnamese writings from the late twentieth century and from this century. While “huyền” and “sử” are both terms that can be written in Chinese (玄 and 史), the compound, “huyền sử” (玄史), does not exist in Chinese or Japanese or Korean, as far as I know. Instead, it appears to be a term that was created in Vietnam.

I have long wondered who created this term, and now it looks to me like it was the South Vietnamese philosopher, Kim Đinh, who did so. He used the term a lot in his writings, and at the beginning of a book that he published in 1970, Việt Lý Tố Nguyên, he has a clear explanation of what the term means.



To understand that explanation, however, we need to be aware of certain problems that Kim Đinh felt Vietnamese society and Vietnamese scholars at that time were facing. These problems were related to the past and how it was understood.

The essential idea is that Kim Đinh recognized that a way of looking at the past had developed in the West that was different from what had long prevailed in the East (and I am using the idea of an East-West dichotomy deliberately because that dichotomy played an important role in Kim Đinh’s thought). That way of viewing the past was to use logic or “science” to examine history and to discard information that could not be verified.

Kim Đinh refers to this approach as “historicism” (duy sử) and he argues that scholars in Asia had adopted this approach but had taken it too far, a phenomena that he says Westerners refer to as “the zeal of the neophytes” (le zèle des neophytes).

Hu Shi

As an example of this, Kim Đinh points to the fact that scholars like Naito Konan in Japan and Hu Shi in China had declared that the information in the ancient text, the Classic of Documents (Shujing 書經), was all a fabrication. In contrast, Western scholars like Herrlee Creel and Joseph Needham had determined that some of the information in that text was accurate by examining inscriptions on ancient bronzes and cross-referencing them with the text of the Classic of Documents.

So there were people in the East who were taking the Western science of historicism too far, and then at the other extreme, Kim Đinh noted, there were old-school scholars who unquestioningly believed what was written in ancient texts.

Kim Đinh then chose a third path – “huyền sử.”


Kim Đinh states in Việt Lý Tố Nguyên that the term “huyền” draws attention to a kind of numinous quality (tính chất u linh) while “sử,” a term which is usually translated as “history,” refers in this term to a kind of history that is vague and obscure (mung lung, i.e., mông lung).

Because huyền sử records information that is indistinct (lơ mơ), Kim Định argues that people who uphold historicism (duy sử) view such accounts as unreliable, whereas old-fashioned scholars take this same information too literally.

Therefore, the point of huyền sử, according to Kim Đinh, is to create a new path that will blend together the old and the new. “It will maintain the dreamlike spirit (hồn mơ mộng) of people in the past, but at the same time it will employ the appropriate amount of contemporary science: it will be a science that is fond of the poetic spirit (ưa thích hồn thơ), or that will day-dream but still follow the path of science (mơ mộng nhưng lại thẻo lối khoa học).

lo mo

In order to accomplish this, Kim Định felt that it was necessary to employ a “comprehensive approach” (lối toàn thể) where scholars would look at the findings of archaeology, history, culture, literature, myths from a comprehensive perspective in order to determine what points are confirmable, and then they would search for things that are vague and indistinct, in order to finally create from all of this a kind of philosophical history or a cultural history that is . . .

Further, Kim Định rejected efforts at that time in the West to examine myths as an empty intellectual enterprise and argued instead that in examining huyền sử one must proceed “with one’s entire heart in order to relive the virtues that lie embedded there [in the indistinct past] so that one can be moved by them” (với cả tâm hồn để sống lại những đức tính tiềm ẩn trong đó để được cảm hóa theo).

What were these virtues that lay in the past? One of them was a national spirit (tinh thần dân tộc). To make a long story short, Kim Định argues in Việt Lý Tố Nguyên that Western individualism was challenging Asian collectivism, and that the Vietnamese national spirit was being destroyed in the process, (Vậy đối với nước ta hiện nay thì trào lưu văn hóa cá nhân Tây Âu đang làm tan rã tinh thần dân tộc đến cùng tột.).


For Kim Định, huyền sử was thus a means to “save” the Vietnamese national spirit before it was completely destroyed by Western culture. And the way to do this, was to use Western science in a more sophisticated way than other people in the East were doing, but to combine it with the non-Western dreamlike, poetic spirit of the Vietnamese in order to discover the virtue of the spirit of national unity (tỉnh tinh thần đoàn kết quốc gia) that lay embedded in the distant past.

This idea that there was something “dreamlike” about Vietnamese culture fits well with what we would today refer to as the racist colonial discourse about Vietnamese from the first half of the twentieth century. At the same time, however, Kim Đinh defended his use of these non-scientific elements of Vietnamese culture by pointing out that many prominent scholars in the West were examining myths, instinct and the unconscious, from Nietzsche to Freud to Lévi-Strauss.

The idea that Bangkok is a center of sex tourism is something that is now widely known.

If I remember correctly, the first time I learned anything about this was through (the late) Spalding Gray’s 1987 film, “Swimming to Cambodia,” in which he talks about, among many other things, going to a sex show in Bangkok (probably on Patpong Road) and seeing a woman shoot ping pong balls out of her vagina.

More recently I found a soft-porn movie from 1976, “Emanuelle in Bangkok,” that included a scene of a visit to a similar sex show.


So the idea that Bangkok is a place where one can go to see people “cross certain boundaries,” or where one can oneself “cross certain boundaries,” is something that has existed since at least the 1970s. And my guess would be that this “awareness” is directly linked to the Vietnam War years and the fact that Bangkok was a place for American soldiers to go for “rest and relaxation.”

Honolulu, Hawaii was also one of the places that American soldiers could go to for “rest and relaxation” at that time (and it is one of the places were new recruits went first before heading off to Vietnam), and in looking at some newspapers from Hawaii from the early 1970s, I was struck at how “sex oriented” the entertainment in Honolulu at that time was.


For instance, as in Bangkok, there were live sex shows.

act of love

You had Troy and Danielle as “Eric and Eve” doing their “act of love” 4 times a night!!

live 3

Ira and Zelma did it 4 times a night too!!

live 2

And then you had “the 3rd sex ‘them’” – ½ man ½ woman – for “the very broadminded.”

live 4

And then there was “Marilyn and her dog”. . . Really??? Is this sh#t for real??!!!


Then there were movies. Of course, “deep throat [was] it.”


As it was “the very best porn film ever made.”


But certainly “Fornicon: Pattern of Evil,” must have had some merit to it.


And “Mona the Virgin Nymph” must have been educational.


Then there was Japanese porn, like “Felonious Sensuality.”


“Fire of Lust.”


“Co-Ed Pirhanas”. . .


And, of course, “Backside of 17.”


So there was a lot to watch. But there was no need to keep one’s hands entirely to oneself in Honolulu in the early 1970s, because if you were lonely, you could find a “date.”


And if you were stressed out, there were ways to “relax.”


And best of all, if you had to fly from Honolulu to Bangkok, or from Bangkok to Honolulu, there was no need to repress your horniness for even a minute. . .


Because TWA offered two films – “one for general audiences, one for mature.”


And when the film ended, there were hostesses in new uniforms, and that “helped.”

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