I love the past because it is filled with fascinating complexity. I dislike nationalism because it destroys the past by draining it of its complexity and puts forth in its place a simplistic interpretation for political purposes.

Today, nationalist impulses push people to claim primordial differences between “Chinese” and “Vietnamese.” In the early twentieth century, on the other hand, reformist intellectuals in Vietnam argued something very different.

We can see this in a book entitled the Summary of Việt History for Secondary Schools [中學越史撮要, Trung học Việt sử toát yếu], which was compiled in 1911 by Ngô Giáp Đậu 吳甲豆. This was a history textbook, and its main compiler, Ngô Giáp Đậu, was a member of one of the most illustrious literati families in Vietnam, and was a direct descendent of the famous eighteenth-century scholar and historian, Ngô Thì Sĩ.

The early twentieth century in Vietnam was a time when a reform movement got underway in which traditionally-trained scholars started to break their ties with the past and to create new forms of knowledge. Inspired by the writings of reformist scholars in Japan and China, Vietnamese scholars at the turn of the century attempted to introduce new concepts from the West, such as the ideas of Social Darwinism and nationalism.

Some of the writings at this time were more radical than others. I need to study this text more, but from what I can tell so far, the Summary of Việt History for Secondary Schools appears to inhabit a kind of “middle ground.” It does introduce new ideas, but it relies heavily on traditional concepts to explain and justify those new ideas. As such, it makes a slightly less radical break with the past than some of the other works of that period, but in some ways this means that its ideas are even more unique, because rather than simply employing new ideas from the West, it combines Western ideas with traditional ideas from Vietnam and East Asia to create a unique intellectual fusion.

For instance it contains a passage entitled “lineage-types” (族類, tộc loài). What is a “lineage-type”? That is difficult to answer. This is a term which appears in the ancient text, the Zuozhuan, where there is a line which states, “[He] is not of my lineage-type. [His] mind must be different” (非我族類,其心必異). “Lineage-type” is an awkward term, but I prefer to use such an awkward term because I don’t think that any of the alternatives are entirely adequate. People have translated this term variously as “race,” “clan,” “lineage” and “my people,” but I do not feel that any of these terms really fit. “Race” is too modern. “Clan” and “lineage” seem a bit too narrow, and “my people” is too broad and vague. So I will stick with the awkward “lineage-type” so that we will constantly be reminded that this term appears to refer to a way of categorizing people which we do not employ today.

Categorizing humans, however, is something which we do today, and it is the inclusion of a section on categories of people which makes the Summary of Việt History for Secondary Schools modern, for no Vietnamese text had ever done this before. However, the use of the term “lineage-type” to do this is a sign of the traditional ideas that were employed to engage in this modern task. The content of this passage follows this pattern of using traditional information or terminology to put forth new ideas.

Let us now examine the passage on “lineage-types” from the Summary of Việt History for Secondary Schools. I will present the entire passage first, and then will go on to discuss it section by section.

The passage in its entirety:

“The people are my siblings.” Confucian (儒, nho) scholars of the Orient say that “all within the four seas are brothers.” What lineage-type is not mine?

[7b] The land of Our Việtis in the temperate zone, right in an area of fertile growth. Originally the formation of types of people here took place mainly through the merging of the various nationalities (民族, dân tộc) who lived on the land by the rivers on the right and left of the source of the Nhĩ River [i.e., the Red River].

Before Kinh Dương had come southward, the so-called Lạc people, although part of the Yellow race, were by and large savages and [thai lam??]. Then from the time that the 100 sons of Lạc Long divided and returned to the mountains and sea where they became 1,000 more sons and 10,000 grandsons, many people began to establish households.

The Qin and Han carried out their colonization plan in Lingnan. Zhao Tuo/Triệu Đà exiled 50,000 convicts to garrison [the area south of] the Five Passes. Emperor Wu [of the Han Dynasty] moved people from the Middle Kingdom to settle dispersed about the nine commanderies. At the end of the Han, scholars fled unrest and came southward. In the protectorates of the successive dynasties of the Jin, Song, Sui and Tang, officials, soldiers and people all came from the North, and over time they established families.

At the end of the Ming, Yang Yandi/Dương Ngạn Địch, Chen Shengcai/Trần Thắng Tài and 3,000 of their followers came and settled in Đông Phố. Mo Jiu/Mạc Cửu recruited men of Tang to settle in An Giang, Hà Tiên, Thanh Hà and Minh Hương (hương [i.e.,  “incense”] later became hương [i.e., “village”]); they were all over the place.

Shi Xie/Sĩ Nhiếp of Guangxin, Du Yuan/Đỗ Viện of Chu Diên, Li Bi/Lý Bí of Thái Bình, and Chen Cheng/Trần Thừa of Tức Mặc all had ancestors who came from the North. With the passage of time and the changing of generations they became Southern people.

Ma’s remainders only numbered ten or so families in the early Han, but at the end of the Sui there were more than 300. The population of Hua people living in the Southern Land expanded daily, and gradually filled to capacity. Many of the descendents of the original Việt Thường of Giao Chỉ moved under the pressure of force to remote areas. The tribes increased to perhaps as may as 45 types (detailed in the “Treatise on Geography”). They are commonly called “locals” (土人, thổ nhân).

The lineages of farmers, artisans and merchants in the provincial capitals and villages of the three regions are too numerous to enumerate. As for the descendents of the Confucian scholar lineages, the local powers lineages, the government officials lineages, and the emperors and nobility lineages, they tend to occupy superior positions. In examining those who have the ability to demonstrate their greatness in the kingdom by means of literary matters and martial achievements, [9b] they are generally those of Hoa/Hua descent.

 

Discussion of the passage:

– “The people are my siblings.” Confucian (儒, nho) scholars of the Orient say that “all within the four seas are brothers.” What lineage-type is not mine?

“The people are my siblings” is a line from a famous writing, the “Western Inscription,” by the early Neo-Confucian scholar, Zhang Zai張載. Zhang wrote what is essentially an inspirational piece about how he felt that he was one with all living beings, and placed it on the western wall of his study, hence it’s name. What I have translated as “siblings” is 同胞 (đồng bào), a term which literally means “same womb.” Right around the time that this text was compiled, this term came to be used to translate the Western concept of “compatriot.” However, in citing this entire phrase from Zhang Zai’s text, that is clearly not what Ngô Giáp Đậu had in mind here.

I’m not sure if there is an actual locus classicus for “all within the four seas are brothers,” but its point is self-explanatory. Ngô Giáp Đậu then ends these opening lines with a question which plays on the line on the Zuozhuan about lingeage-types. Instead of “[He] is not of my lineage-type,” Ngô Giáp Đậu asks, “What lineage-type is not mine?” Hence, what was in Ngô Giáp Đậu’s mind was not “races” or “clans,” but something else. Let us continue on.

– [7b] The land of Our Việtis in the temperate zone, right in an area of fertile growth. Originally the formation of types of people here took place mainly through the merging of the various nationalities (民族, dân tộc) who lived on the land by the rivers on the right and left of the source of the Nhĩ River [i.e., the Red River].

In the previous section I translated 亞東 (Á Đông) as “the Orient.” This term consists of the characters for “Asia” and “east,” however the term for “East Asia” is today written in the reverse order, i.e., 東亞 (Đông Á). The concept of “East Asia” is of Western origin. What 亞東 (Á Đông) represents is an early attempt by a Vietnamese at employing this Western geographical concept. Since 亞東 (Á Đông) now sounds outdated, I chose to translate it as “the Orient” since that is a term which has now fallen out of use as well.

In the above passage, the term “Our Việt” (我越, Ngã Việt) is a Vietnamese concept which had long been in use. It is difficult to grasp what exactly it referred to, but it clearly pointed to the existence of a dynastic enterprise. When premodern Vietnamese scholars made use of this term, they seem to have been referring to elements which are different from those which come to our minds when we think of a nation today, such as ideas of a defined territory and a citizenry.

Further, the term and concept of a “temperate zone” (溫帶) was of Western origin and first came to be used in Vietnam in the early twentieth century. And finally, 民族 (dân tộc) was a new term which had been coined in Japan to translate the Western concept of a “nation” (in the sense of a people) or “nationality.”

– Before Kinh Dương had come southward, the so-called Lạc people, although part of the Yellow race, were by and large savages and [thai lam??]. Then from the time that the 100 sons of Lạc Long divided and returned to the mountains and sea where they became 1,000 more sons and 10,000 grandsons, many people began to establish households.

The idea of a “Yellow race” was new, and came from Western racial discourse.

There is one term in this section which I do not understand: 台藍 thai/đài/đày and lam/chàm? Is it referring to Tai-speaking peoples and the Cham??

What I have translated as “establish households” literally means to “compile household [registers]” or to “be recorded in household [registers].” The implication is not only that people are settled, but that some form of government is attempting to record their existence.

– The Qin and Han carried out their colonization plan in Lingnan. Zhao Tuo/Triệu Đà exiled 50,000 convicts to garrison [the area south of] the Five Passes. Emperor Wu [of the Han Dynasty] moved people from the Middle Kingdom to settle dispersed about the nine commanderies. At the end of the Han, scholars fled unrest and came southward. In the protectorates of the successive dynasties of the Jin, Song, Sui and Tang, officials, soldiers and people all came from the North, and over time they established families.

Zhao Tuo/Triệu Đà established a kingdom in the area of what is today northern Vietnam, Guangdong and Guangxi in the second century B.C.

“Colonization plan” is a new term for this period. The term, “to colonize” (植民, thực dân), was a translation of the Western term. The Japanese coined this term and used the characters that are in this text. In Chinese the first term in this compound was eventually changed from 植 to 殖. These two characters are pronounced the same and have the same meaning, “to plant.”

In addition to the new word, “colonization,” premodern scholars would not have referred to the protectorates of several dynasties, because traditional scholars were experts on the history of administrative units and they all knew that it was only during the Tang that an administrative unit known as a “protectorate” (都護府, đô hộ phủ) had been established in the area of Vietnam. Perhaps the author was influenced by the fact that the French had established protectorates over Tonkin and Annam. In any case, since the idea of colonization did not exist prior to this period, premodern scholars had never used any such concept to refer to the thousand years when the area of what is today northern and parts of central Vietnam were incorporated into various Chinese dynasties.

– At the end of the Ming, Yang Yandi/Dương Ngạn Địch, Chen Shengcai/Trần Thắng Tài and 3,000 of their followers came and settled in Đông Phố. Mo Jiu/Mạc Cửu recruited men of Tang to settle in An Giang, Hà Tiên, Thanh Hà and Minh Hương (hương [i.e.,  “incense”] later became hương [i.e., “village”]); they were all over the place.

This passage is talking about the various people who left China at the end of the Ming Dynasty and fled to Vietnam. Yang Yandi/Dương Ngạn Địch and Chen Shengcai/Trần Thắng Tài had been part of Zheng Chenggong’s (i.e., Koxinga) Ming-loyalist forces, which eventually came to be based on Taiwan. When Zheng Chenggong was defeated they fled to the Mekong delta where they were allowed to settle in the area of what is today greater Saigon. Mo Jiu/Mạc Cửu came south on his own and headed towards what is today the area of the Cambodia-Vietnam border where he established a settlement at Hà Tiên. “Men of Tang” here likely refers to “Cantonese.” Finally, there were other Ming loyalists who were allowed to settled in the center of what is today Vietnam in the villages of Thanh Hà and Minh Hương.

– Shi Xie/Sĩ Nhiếp of Guangxin, Du Yuan/Đỗ Viện of Chu Diên, Li Bi/Lý Bí of Thái Bình, and Chen Cheng/Trần Thừa of Tức Mặc all had ancestors who came from the North. With the passage of time and the changing of generations they became Southern people.

Shi Xie/Sĩ Nhiếp and Du Yuan/Đỗ Viện were both administrators during the period when the area of what is today northern and parts of central Vietnam were part of the Chinese empire. Li Bi/Lý Bí was of Chinese descent, but his family had lived in the region for generations by the time he was born. Li Bi/Lý Bí served the Liang Dynasty, and then led a rebellion against its authorities in the region. Trần Thừa was the father of the founder of the Trần Dynasty. The Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư records that this family was originally from Fujian (Mân).

– Ma’s remainders only numbered ten or so families in the early Han, but at the end of the Sui there were more than 300. The population of Hoa/Hua people living in the Southern Land expanded daily, and gradually filled to capacity. Many of the descendents of the original Việt Thường of Giao Chỉ moved under the pressure of force to remote areas. The tribes increased to perhaps as may as 45 types (detailed in the “Treatise on Geography”). They are commonly called “locals” (土人, thổ nhân).

“Ma’s remainders” refers to people left behind by Ma Yuan/Mã Viện, the general who put down the Trưng sister’s rebellion in the first century A.D. “Southern Land” (南土, Nam Thổ) is referring to the area of what is today Vietnam.

“Gradually filled to capacity” (漸有人滿之勢) is a very interesting expression. The words literally state that “gradually there was a position of the people-fullness.” What was full? Is the author saying that “Vietnam” eventually became “full” with “Chinese people”? That seems to be the implication, because this fullness appears to have provided the “pressure of force” which sent the original inhabitants of the area, “the original Việt Thường of Giao Chỉ,” to peripheral remote areas. “Giao Chỉ” and “Việt Thường” are terms which appear in ancient Chinese sources which refer to a place and a people, respectively, in the far south of the known world at that time. The Chinese eventually came to specifically use the term “Jiaozhi/Giao Chỉ” as the name of an administrative unit in the area of what is today northern Vietnam, whereas when Vietnamese crafted a history of their land after it had become autonomous of Chinese rule, they used the mention of the “Việt Thường” in ancient Chinese sources to bolster their claim that the “Việt” had long lived in the region.

– The lineages of farmers, artisans and merchants in the provincial capitals and villages of the three regions are too numerous to enumerate. As for the descendents of the Confucian scholar lineages, the local powers lineages, the government officials lineages, and the emperors and nobility lineages, they tend to occupy superior positions. In examining those who have the ability to demonstrate their greatness in the kingdom by means of literary matters and martial achievements, [9b] they are generally those of Hoa/Hua descent.

This final passage is the first place where Ngô Giáp Dậu seems to talk about the people who we would today label the “ethnic Vietnamese” or “Kinh.” Up to this point he has mentioned that the original inhabitants of the Red River delta were pushed to remote areas as descendents of Chinese “filled up” the area. Here, however Ngô Giáp Đậu makes reference to people who are not the “tribes” in remote areas and who are also not people of “Hoa/Hua descent.” In particular, he mentions that there are many “lineages of farmers, artisans and merchants in the provincial capitals and villages of the three regions” (i.e., the north, center and south). These were presumably the people who we would today refer to as the “Vietnamese.” What is interesting, however, is that Ngô Giáp Đậu doesn’t single this group out for any special notice. They do not appear to be the same as the original inhabitants, and they do not demonstrate the same level of greatness in the literary and martial realms as people of Hoa/Hua (i.e., “Chinese”) descent do. They are just there.

Concluding thoughts:

Although I have already written pages about this short passage, there is so much more that one could discuss. Ultimately, it is fascinating to observe the thought process which Ngô Giáp Đậu was going through. He essentially attempted to make sense of the people in “Vietnamese” history. In observing the past, he concluded that people of what we would today call “Chinese” descent played a very important role throughout “Vietnamese” history. At the same time, he did not have in his mind the same categories which the terms “Vietnamese” and “Chinese” inhabit in our brains today. Indeed, there was no “Vietnamese” category in his head at all. That’s fascinating.

Today the concepts of “Vietnamese” and “Chinese” are very clearly demarcated in the minds of Vietnamese, and people in Vietnam believe that these demarcations have a long history. That is the result of nationalism’s simplification of the past. Ngô Giáp Đậu wrote his textbook 99 years ago, and he clearly had no such ideas.

Today we could argue that Ngô Giáp Đậu felt that “Vietnam” could not have existed without the “Chinese.” However, his argument was more complex than that, because he did not think in terms of “Vietnam” and “China.” His mind contained terms like the North, Hoa/Hua, the Southern Land, and Our Việt, and he felt that Hoa/Hua had historically been very important for Our Việt. That is a much more complex concept to grasp than the nationalist argument that the “Vietnamese” have always had a distinct identity and have always resisted “Chinese” aggression.