To understand history, you have to understand discourses. A discourse can be defined as all of the knowledge and information about a certain topic. There is a discourse today, for example, on how to live a healthy life. There are medical reports, TV shows, newspaper articles and countless other sources of information which all talk about this, and together this information creates the discourse on this topic. Further, since a discourse constititutes all of the knowledge and all that has been said about a certain topic, it also determines how we think and talk about that topic.

The reason why it is important for historians to know about discourses is because discourses change over time. So to understand an issue in a given historical period, as well as the limits within which people could think about that issue in that period, you have to understand the discourse about that issue at that time as well. Today women do not smoke cigarettes when they are pregnant because the discourse on pregnancy has made it common knowledge that this is bad for an infant. However, in the 1950s and 1960s pregnant women (in Europe and the US) did smoke, as there was nothing against this in the discourse on pregnancy at that time.

So if an historian wants to study about pregnancy and motherhood in 1950s-America, s/he can’t just use today’s ideas to examine that topic, because in doing so s/he would probably conclude that women were “stupid” then to smoke while they were pregnant. Instead, the historian needs to understand what the discourse on these issues was at that time, and then s/he would understand that pregnant women smoked because the concept that smoking while pregnant is bad didn’t exist yet and therefore wasn’t part of the discourse on pregnancy which set the limits for what women could think about this topic.

Most Vietnamese today do not realize this, but the Sino-Vietnamese relationship is a topic for which there has been more than one discourse over the course of history. The current discourse – that the Chinese have always wanted to “invade” Vietnam and that the Vietnamese have been “resisting Chinese aggression” for centuries – has only been around since the beginning of the 20th century. It emerged after the tributary relationship was severed in the Sino-French War of 1884-1885, and after Vietnamese intellectuals were exposed to the Western concepts of nationalism and Social Darwinism at the turn of the century.

Prior to this point there had been a very different discourse on Sino-Vietnamese relations. Today Vietnamese know virtually nothing about this older discourse. What they do know, they simply dismiss as the misguided ideas of the Confucianized elite. To do so, however, is to entirely misunderstand the degree to which educated Vietnamese radically changed their ideas in the early twentieth century.

That said, this radical change took a long time to fully develop. One could argue that while the foundation of the modern nationalist discourse on Sino-Vietnamese relations was established during the colonial period, it was in the 1960s (during the American War) and in the early 1980s (after the border war with China) that this discourse became fully developed.

What this shows is that discourses change more slowly than the issues they purport to possess knowledge about. The tributary relationship with China came to an end in 1885, but it took many more years for a new discourse to emerge. If you look at writings from the early twentieth century, for instance, you find that Vietnamese intellectuals continued to refer to their land as the Nam Quốc, the Southern Kingdom, a term which only made sense in a world in which the most important land outside of “Vietnam” was the Northern Kingdom (Bắc Quốc), or “China.” After 1885 that was no longer the case, but it took Vietnamese intellectuals a long time to realize this, and to start talking about “Vietnam.”

Today in reading articles in the Vietnamese blogosphere, I have the same sense that this is a time when the world is changing faster than are the discourses which people resort to in order to talk about the world. The relationship between Vietnam and China, for instance, is still discussed in the terms of the 20th-century nationalist discourse. However, we are now living in the 21st-century globalized world, and that discourse does not fit the current reality anymore.

Over and over I find Vietnamese talking about Vietnam’s “sovereignty” (chủ quyền) and fearing that it will be lost to China, which has “always desired to deny Vietnam its sovereignty.” These are twentieth-century nationalist ideas. The term “sovereignty” itself only came into use in Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Vietnamese (and Chinese and Japanese and Koreans) learned of this concept from the West. This concept did not exist in the region prior to that point.

“Sovereignty” is also a concept which is changing. When banks in the US recently gave out a lot of bad loans to home buyers, it affected the economy in the US, but Iceland’s entire economy crashed and the country had to be bailed out by the European Union. Does this mean that Iceland has “lost its sovereignty”?

In the same vein, right now the US wants to punish BP for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but it has to be careful not to go too far, because so many other people around the world have invested in BP and rely on its continued profitability, that if it were to go bankrupt, there would be tremendous repercussions around the globe, and some of these might come back to negatively affect the US.

So does that mean that the US has “lost its sovereignty”? You could easily argue that this disaster has violated (environmentally and economically) America’s “territorial integrity,” and yet the US can’t fully respond. That certainly looks like a loss of sovereignty, but only if you think of “sovereignty” in 20th-century nationalist terms of one country supposedly being completely independent of others. Today the world is different.

If you read the writings of Vietnamese intellectuals from the early 20th century, you can clearly feel a sense of anguish in their writings. They were living in a world which was changing, and they needed to create new ways to think and talk about the world. They did not know at the time what these new ways would be, but they tried their hardest to find them. This was a very difficult task, but over time they succeeded. In fact, I would argue that they succeeded “too well,” because today their descendents are in the same situation again. The world is changing, and yet Vietnamese intellectuals continue to rely on the same discourses. The modern nationalist discourse on the Sino-Vietnamese relationship, for instance, has just as strong a hold on Vietnamese intellectuals today in the new globalized world as the discourse on the tributary relationship still had on the educated elite just over a century ago in what was then the new world of nation-states.

Thus, like over a century ago, today people have in their heads a mental framework created by discourses which they then use to think and talk about a world which no longer matches that mental framework or those discourses. Further, the more they talk about issues by using the terms of existing discourses, the more they strengthen those same outdated discourses. To break this cycle, people have to start thinking and talking in new ways in order to create new discourses which better matche reality.

A hundred years ago, Vietnamse intellectuals did this without realizing what they were doing. I think this is one reason why you can sense so much anguish in their writings, because they had no map to follow. Today, however, there is theoretically a kind of map, because all of the issues involved (such as the topic of discourses and how they affect the way people think, the role of nationalism, etc.) have been studied and talked about extensively. The only problem is that these issues have all been studied by people outside of Vietnam. So while all of this is common sense to scholars from Tokyo to Frankfurt, it is still terra incognita for many of their counterparts in Vietnam.

It seems obvious to me that Vietnamese intellectuals should study about how current discourses came into existence. If they understood how differently their distant ancestors thought from the way that they think today, and how radically intellectuals broke with the past and transformed their ideas in the 20th century to fit the realities of a changing world, then they would realize the need to again discover new ways to think and speak for the new age we are now living in.

A major problem, however, is that one of the key elements of nationalism is that it relies on an invented history in order to support its claims. Therefore, it is very difficult for someone who lives in a world dominated by a nationalist discourse to understand what life was like before that discourse took hold because the nationalist discourse itself argues that its ideas have been upheld since antiquity. If, however, one examines the past on its own terms (without looking at it through the lens of modern nationalism), and then examines the ways in which ideas changed in the 20th century (again, without looking at this period through the lens of modern nationalism), then the degree to which the way people currently think is a 20th-century development becomes obvious.

Again, that is a topic which Vietnamese scholars have really yet to begin to research. As such, I suspect that we are enterring a period much like that of a century ago. The world is changing, and Vietnamese intellectuals are clinging to discourses from the previous age. One can only wonder how long it will take them to change this time, and what something like a new discourse about the Sino-Vietnamese relationship will eventually look like.