I came across a syllabus for a course on Vietnamese culture at one of the major universities in Vietnam. I was looking through the materials which this professor had the students reading, and came across Phan Ngọc’s Bản sắc văn hoá việt nam. I’m not sure how to translate this title. To me “bản sắc” (literally, 本色 “original color” or “basic color”) means something like the “basic characteristics” of something. Therefore I would translate this title as The Basic Characteristics of Vietnamese Culture. However, I see Vietnamese today translating “bản sắc” as “identity,” so the title could be Vietnamese Cultural Identity.

In any case, I decided to take a look at Phan Ngọc’s Bản sắc văn hoá việt nam, and as I flipped through it, I came across a passage where he states that the content of the opening passage of the Bình Ngô đại cáo accords with Stalin’s definition of a nation, and that as a result, the Bình Ngô đại cáo is the “first declaration of the self-determination of a nation” (Bản tuyên ngôn đầu tiên về quyền tự quyết dân tộc) and the “first definition of a nation-state” (định nghĩa đầu tiên của nhà nước dân tộc) to appear in the world. [pg. 41]

Phan Ngọc then goes on to demonstrate the connection between the Bình Ngô đại cáo with Stalin’s definition of a nation by stating the following:

“Nguyễn Trãi . . . 465 years before Stalin, realized that a nation is a unified entity which includes the four elements of geography (“The borders of the mountains and rivers are divided [off]”), customs (“The customs of North and South are also different”), history (“From the Triệu, Đinh, Lý, Trần, so many generations have established a foundation of independence”), and unified political authority (“Together with the Han, Tang, Song and Yuan, each side powerfully occupied one area”).” [pg. 41]

“Nguyễn Trãi . . . trước Stalin 465 năm đã thấy dân tộc là một thể thống nhất gồm bốn yếu tố là địa lý (“Núi song bờ cõi đã chia”), phong tục (“Phong tục Bắc Nam cũng khác”), lịch sử (“Từ Triệu, Đinh, Lý, Trần bao đời xây nền độc lập”), chính quyền thống nhất (“Cùng Hán, Đường, Tống, Nguyên mỗi bên hùng cứ một phương”).” [pg. 41]

What Phan Ngọc reveals in this single sentence is that he does not understand the Bình Ngô đại cáo, he hasn’t thought seriously about Vietnamese history, and he does not know Stalin’s definition of a nation.

Let us begin with this final point first. Stalin’s definition of a nation is as follows:

“A nation is a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological makeup manifested in a community of culture.”

“Dân tộc là một khối cộng đồng người ổn định được thành lập trong lịch sử, dựa trên cơ sở cộng đồng về tiếng nói, lãnh thổ, sinh hoạt kinh tế và tâm lý biểu hiện trong cộng đồng văn hoá.”

From what Phan Ngọc says, we are to understand that Stalin defined a nation as a “a unified entity which includes the four elements of geography. . . customs. . . history. . . and unified political authority. (một thể thống nhất gồm bốn yếu tố là địa lý. . . phong tục. . . lịch sử. . . [va] chính quyền thống nhất)

This is not the same as what Stalin stated. Stalin’s definition is about people. It attempts to define a nation as a community of people who live in an area, speak the same language, and share the same economy and psychological outlook, all of which is reflected in culture. Phan Ngọc says nothing about language, economy or psychological makeup.

Instead, he mentions history, customs and unified political authority. Yes, Stalin did mention culture, but customs and culture are not the same. Stalin also stated that a nation had to be “historically evolved,” but that is not the same as “history.” And of course Stalin did not say anything about political authority.

So Phan Ngọc’s attempt to relate Stalin’s definition of a nation to the Bình Ngô đại cáo fails because he doesn’t really know Stalin’s definition of a nation. It also fails because Phan Ngọc relies on a terrible translation of the Bình Ngô đại cáo. This translation is actually very popular, and can be found in countless books in Vietnam, but, as we will see below, it doesn’t come close to faithfully rendering the original text into modern Vietnamese. Further, it is also very nationalistic, and unhistorical in that it uses words which indicate concepts which did not exist in the 15th century when the Bình Ngô đại cáo was written.

For instance, there are no words in the original which can be translated as “divided” (chia), “so many generations” (bao đời), “established a foundation of independence” (xây nền độc lập), or “powerfully occupied” (hùng cứ). Indeed, the word “independence” (độc lập) did not even exist at that time. It only entered the Vietnamese language in the early 20th century, close to 500 years after this text was written.

Well if the phrase, “established a foundation of independence,” is not in the Bình Ngô đại cáo, then what is there that has been mistranslated in this manner? The Bình Ngô đại cáo states the following:

山川之封域既殊,南北之風俗亦異。

自趙丁李陳之肇造我國,與漢唐宋元而各帝一方。

“Just as the limits of its mountains and rivers are distinct, so are the customs from north to south also different.

From [the times of] the establishments of our kingdom by the Triệu, Đinh, Lý and Trần, together with the Han, Tang, Song and Yuan [we] have each empired over a region.”

The phrase, “established a foundation of independence,” which Phan Ngọc employed, is 肇造我國, or what I have translated as “establishments of our kingdom.” In this phrase, the term which means “to establish” is 肇造, a term which actually means to “first establish.” It is used to describe the establishment of a dynasty.

To get back to Stalin, even though he did not talk about unified political authority, if one hears that “From the Triệu, Đinh, Lý, Trần, so many generations have established a foundation of independence,” one can easily get the sense of an “historically evolved” unified political authority. As long as a reader doesn’t actually know what Stalin said, that sentence could lead someone to see the existence of a nation. However, not only is this not what Stalin said, it is also not what the Bình Ngô đại cáo said either.

So Phan Ngọc demonstrates that he does not know Stalin’s definition of a nation, and that he does not understand the Bình Ngô đại cáo. He also demonstrates that he has not thought seriously about Vietnamese history.

As Nguyễn Trãi looked to the past, he saw multiple “establishments” of “our kingdom.” Why would he write in this manner? Maybe because it represents how disjointed the historical reality had actually been.

The first kingdom to be established was that of the Triệu. Actually, it would be more accurate to refer to this kingdom as that of the Zhao, because its founder was Chinese, Zhao Tuo. Established at the end of the third century BC, it covered the area of what is today Guangdong and Guangxi provinces in China, as well as northern Vietnam.

Zhao Tuo’s kingdom lasted for less than a century. Then the area of northern Vietnam was incorporated into the Han Dynasty’s empire. Approximately 1,000 years later, a family from the Red River delta known as the Đinh ruled briefly in the 10th century. Given how short-lived this dynasty was, and the fact that it was proceeded by a period when the region was divided between warlord families, it is hard to believe that this was really a time of “unified political authority.” Further, given that a thousand years had passed since Zhao Tuo’s kingdom had come to an end, and given the fact that Zhao Tuo was Chinese and his kingdom had included Guangdong and Guangxi, it is extremely difficult to see any meaningful “historical evolution” here either.

It is also difficult to find “historical evolution” in the realm of “unified political authority” for subsequent centuries. Yes the Lý and Trần, ruled for a long time, but the Trần were from Fujian and grabbed power from the Lý. That is an “historical evolution” of sorts, but I would call it the “usurpation of political authority by a Chinese family.” It does not fit well with the idea that this was part of an “historically evolving” nation.

Then add to this the fact that in these centuries from the Triệu to the Trần it is unlikely that there was a common language. In the Red River delta you had Viet, Tai, Muong and Chinese people all living there. What language did they all share in common? What was their shared psychological makeup? And what evidence do we have in this period of a shared economic life?

I’ve already written pages about this one sentence, and I could write pages more. What is clear to me is that Phan Ngọc’s Bản sắc văn hoá việt nam is a horribly flawed book.