Đinh Gia Khánh (1924-2003) was a scholar who was instrumental in establishing the field of folk culture (văn hoá dân gian) in Vietnam. He wrote extensively on this topic. Later in his career he made an effort to place Vietnamese folk culture in a larger context in a work which he published in 1993, Văn hoá dân gian Việt Nam trong bối cảnh Đông Nam Á [Vietnamese folk culture in the context of Southeast Asia]. Đinh Gia Khánh is a respected figure amongst scholars in Vietnam, and his ideas are taken seriously, as far as I know. So I was curious to see how it is that he characterized Southeast Asia, as Đinh Gia Khánh’s monograph was one of the first works in Vietnamese to discuss Vietnam’s place in the Southeast Asian region.

            There is a lot in this book which has caught my attention, so I’ll post more about this book later. One of the first points which I would like to make, however, is that it is extremely Vietnam-centric, and that Đinh Gia Khánh demonstrated that he knew very little about what scholars in the West had written on the topic of Southeast Asia, even though he repeatedly indicated to his readers that the points he was making had been affirmed by “the world of international scientists” (giới khoa học quốc tế). Vietnamese scholars use the words “science/scientist” in the sense that people in the West use the terms “scholarship/scholar.” However, I would argue that this is not merely a case of different people using different terms for the same concept, because there is definitely a sense among Vietnamese scholars that things like historical information can be “proven” and that in this sense even history is “scientific.” In other words, the language, and to some extent the beliefs, of Marxist history persist in Vietnam.

            To get back to Đinh Gia Khánh’s book, he states that in “the world of international scientists” three technical terms are used for discussing prehistory in Southeast Asia. Those terms are: “Hoabinhian culture” (to refer to Paleolithic culture), “Bacsonian culture” (to refer to Neolithic culture) and “Dong Son culture” (to refer to Bronze Age culture). These terms of course come from places in Vietnam were Paleolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze Age objects have been found. Đinh Gia Khánh then goes on to say that he is not sure if this is coincidence or not, but the fact that objects found in places in Vietnam are taken as the standard for these three periods corresponds with the fact that Vietnam is right in the center of Southeast Asia (if you define Southeast Asia, as Đinh Gia Khánh does, as extending from the Yangzi River in China to Indonesia, and from Burma to the Philippines – that’s fine with me).

            This is simply false. Scholars of prehistory in Southeast Asia divide it up into the Paleolithic, the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, and they use those terms. The reason why Đinh Gia Khánh came up with this idea is because he only read a few books by Western scholars, and one of them was the 1962 work by French scholar George Cœdès, Les peuples de la péninsule indochinoise: histoire — civilizations. As the title of this text indicates, this was a work on the Indochinese peninsula, not Southeast Asia. Cœdès did use terms like “Bacsonian” to describe prehistoric culture because in 1962 the archaeological work which the French had done in Vietnam was the most familiar to Cœdès, and the most famous in the region at that time. However, archaeological work in places like Ban Chiang, Thailand in the late 1960s and 1970s revealed to “international scientists” a more complex picture of prehistory in the region, such that by the 1990s, when Đinh Gia Khánh published his book, terms like “Bacsonian” were not used by “international scientists” to indicate anything other than a Neolithic culture in Vietnam. Further, the findings in places like Ban Chiang demonstrated that there was nothing central about Vietnam in the prehistory of the Indochinese peninsula, let alone all of Southeast Asia. (See pages 44-46 of Văn hoá dân gian Việt Nam trong bối cảnh Đông Nam Á [1993 KHXH edition].)