I was reading an article which Trần Huy Liệu published in the journal, Văn sử địa, in 1956 – “Bàn thêm về vấn đề hình thành dân tộc Việt Nam” [Discussing further the question of the formation of the nation of Vietnam]. This article was part of a debate that was taking place at that time between scholars in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on the issue of when exactly the Viet(namese) nation had formed. These scholars debated among themselves in journals and in academic meetings. They were also in contact with scholars dealing with similar issues in the Soviet Union (Trần Huy Liệu mentions receiving letters from Soviet scholars, for instance), and they read the works of their Chinese contemporaries in the PRC.

Theoretically all of these scholars were informed by Marxist perspectives, and particularly Stalin’s definition of a nation. Đào Duy Anh said that the nation started to formed in the tenth-fourteenth centuries within the framework of feudalism and through the struggles against feudal China to protect sovereignty (quyền tự chủ). With the defeat of the Ming, he argued, the nation came into full form.

In contrast to Đào Duy Anh, Hoàng Xuân Nhị argued that 1930 marked the first point when the nation started to form. It was then that workers and peasants started to unite around the Party, and with the August Revolution in 1945, the nation finally came into full existence. Trần Huy Liệu agreed with this statement about 1945, however he however he argued that the nation essentially formed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Reading this debate today, at a time when Marxist explanations of the development of nations have lost much of their influence in the West, it is quaint to see the intensity with which these scholars went about discussing issues which are now obsolete. That someone would argue that the Vietnamese nation only started to form in 1930 and reached its completion in 1945, for example, is inconceivable today, even though politics still exert a strong hold on academics in Vietnam.

Nonetheless, what is truly impressive is that Vietnamese in the early 1950s actually debated the issue of the formation of the Vietnamese nation. What is more, they also came up with radically different answers. This is impressive because this does not happen anymore, and has not happened for decades. By the early 1970s this issue was “settled” with the conclusion that the Vietnamese nation had existed since the BC period. Today the “facts” of this conclusion are so taken for granted, and this topic is so important for the Vietnamese state, that no one discusses it anymore.

This is unfortunate for scholarship in Vietnam, as the early 1970s was an inopportune time to close the debate on this issue. In the following decades, the topic of the formation of nations received an enormous amount of attention in the Western academy. Today the way scholars in the West think about nations and their formation is radically different from what it was in the early 1970s. In general, Western scholars now see nations (or at the very least, many aspects of nations) as modern and constructed, or “imagined” as Benedict Anderson famously put it.

Indeed, today simply by using the word “imagine” or “imagined” in a work on the formation of a nation, a scholar in the West can be confident that readers will know exactly what the author is referring to. In Vietnam, however, that would not be the case. Vietnamese scholars have missed out on 50 years of scholarship, and their understanding of the formation of the Vietnamese nation is frozen in time.

While everyone has the right to chose how they will depict their history, the problem in Vietnam today is that academics wish to engage in “scholarly exchange” with foreign scholars, and are eager to hold international conferences and to invite foreign academics to give talks for this purpose. At the same time, they are often unreceptive to views which differ from their own, are unwilling to reconsider any of their positions on Vietnamese history, and as far as I can tell, make little effort to try to understand why it is that foreign scholars can come to such radically different conclusions.

The answer lies in the decades during which Vietnamese scholars closed their eyes and minds to the world. Now Vietnam has “opened” to the world, but scholars have yet to look closely at all that they have missed. Until they do so, their eyes and minds will never really open.

There was a time when Vietnamese eyes and minds were open, or at least more open than they subsequently have been. In the early 1950s, Vietnamese scholars in both the North and the South did engage in “scholarly exchanges” with scholars from around the world, and their scholarship was on the same level with the scholars they interacted with. The debate on the question of the formation of the Vietnamese nation is a perfect example of this. Today when we look back at it, the details strike us as simplistic and outdated, but the same would apply to the works of the Chinese and Western scholars they interacted with. What is important is that the Vietnamese were actually engaged with the international world of scholarship. Unfortunately, in subsequent decades they became disengaged, and now they are decades behind.