A question came up with regard to the entry “On (Not) Discussing the Nation” which made me realize that I don’t know of any study which has examined the Westernization of what we might call “mundane” or “everyday” thought in Vietnam. People have talked about how various Western ideas took hold in Vietnam, from individualism to communism, but I don’t know of any study which examines how more mundane ways of thinking, ways of thought which we take for granted, became Westernized as well. Clearly, however, this happened, and you can see the transition in historical sources.

What follows is a translation of the opening passage of a text which was first published in 1908 called the Tân đính Nam quốc địa dư (新訂南 國 地 輿, Newly updated geography of the Southern Kingdom):

“Our country is in the south of the continent of Asia [亞細亞]. In the north it presses against China’s [支那] Yunnan and Guangxi [Provinces]. To the west it meets Ai Lao and Cao Miên. To the south it comes up against the China Sea. To the east it borders the China Sea and China’s Guangdong [Province]. It has been established as a country here for 4,767 years. The total area of the country is 311,000 square kilometers [箕臚蔑] (119, 2000 in Bắc kỳ, 135,000 in Trung kỳ, 56,900 in Nam kỳ). Its territory is not insignificant [lit., “not small”].”

This text was written by Lương Văn Liệu (under the name Lương Trúc Đàm). Lương Văn Liệu was the son of Lương Văn Can, who was a reformer and one of the founders of the short-lived but very influential Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục, a school in Hanoi in the early twentieth century which tried to provide a “modern” education. It is evident from this passage that Lương Văn Liệu was, like his father, starting to think in new ways.

Describing the location of the kingdom by discussing what is to its north, south, east and west was not new, as we can find similar information (including the same verbs – to press against 夾, to meet 接, and to come up against 抵) in the fifteenth-century Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, which described the extent of the kingdom of the Hùng kings by stating that it “pressed against the Southern Sea to the east, and came up against Ba Shu to the west. To the north it reached Lake Dongting, and to the south it met the Kingdom of Hồ Tôn, that is, the Kingdom of Champa.”

What was new was that this text gave an exact date for the age of the kingdom, whereas prior to this, texts would usually just say that the kingdom had existed for thousands of years. Providing precise information about the area of the kingdom was also new, although I need to check this as this might be a practice which began in the late 19th century.

Finally, the most strikingly new elements in this passage are the terms “Asia,” “China,” and “kilometer.” Each one of these terms was transliterated directly from a Western language (French or English) into Chinese characters.

“Asia” was a new concept to many people in Asia at that time. The Japanese were the first to render this new concept into Chinese characters, and they still use this word today, although they now tend to write it in Katagana (アジア). Some Chinese intellectuals adopted the usage of 亞細亞 at the turn of the twentieth century, but eventually settled on Yazhou (亞洲), the “A-sian continent,” with the “A” still coming from the Western term “Asia.” Vietnamese did the same, employing the Chinese Á châu at first, but now I think the more common expression in spoken Vietnamese is châu Á, the same term but in Vietnamese word order, although we can still see Á châu in more formal writings.

The use of 支那 (chi na) for China also came from Japan, where intellectuals used it extensively in the Meiji area. It wasn’t a direct transliteration of a Western term, as these two characters had been used for centuries in East Asian Buddhist texts where they were used to render into characters the Sanskrit term for China. Nonetheless, the similarity of this term with the English “China” or French “Chine” that Japanese intellectuals found in the Western texts that they started to read in the second half of the nineteenth century led to an expansion of the use of this term beyond Buddhist circles. Chinese reformers and revolutionaries who read Japanese writings, like Liang Qichao and Sun Yat-sen, also made use of this term, and it is likely that Lương Văn Liệu learned of these terms from the works of such Chinese. Eventually, particularly during World War II, Chinese would come to see this term as derogatory, and now it is rarely used.

As for the direct transliteration of the term “kilometer” (箕臚蔑, ky lự miệt [?]), I’m assuming that this also appeared in Japanese and Chinese writings at that time, but I don’t know for sure. In any case, today this Western unit of length (cây số) is fundamental to the way in which Vietnamese envision space and distance.

Concepts of space and distance are not part of any “-ism.” There is no “geographism.” However, Western concepts of geography have arguably had a greater impact than any of the “isms” which people debated about in the twentieth century. Some Vietnamese in the 1930s feared the changes that individualism would bring, whereas in later decades some Vietnamese felt the same way about communism. These were foreign concepts which threatened to change the Vietnamese forever. As far as I know, however, no one seems to have feared “Asia” or the “kilometer,” and as such, unnoticed, they came to conquer the minds of Vietnamese and many others around the world.