Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows that words in one language do not always have exact equivalents in another, and that therefore much can get “lost in translation.” One term which is particularly problematic in Vietnamese and Chinese is dân tộc/民族. This term was coined by Japanese in the late nineteenth century (and then adopted by Chinese and Vietnamese) to translate “nationality” and “nation,” terms which have subsequently changed their meanings in Western languages. The result is that today there is a great deal of incommensurability between the meanings of terms like “nation” and “dân tộc.”

While I have long struggled with the problem of the incommensurability of the terms nation and dân tộc, I’ve come to realize that another term in Vietnamese, one which is often paired with the term dân tộc, is also problematic. That term is bản sắc.

Bản sắc is a term which Vietnamese have come to use in the past few decades to translate the term “identity.” This usage apparently began as Vietnamese intellectuals came more into contact with scholarship from the West in the years since Doi Moi, and apparently there was debate in the past about how to translate this term. I haven’t read any of these actual discussions, so I’m not sure what alternatives were offered (perhaps căn cước). In any case, at present bản sắc is used very widely.

According to a Vietnamese dictionary which I have from 1996, the basic meaning of bản sắc is “color,” but it also means “a separate property which produces a main characteristic.” And then it gives as an example, bản sắc dân tộc. (Bản sắc d. Màu sắc, tính chất riêng tạo thành đặc điểm chính. Bản sắc dân tộc.)

This is NOT the same as identity. In some ways it’s actually close to the opposite of what Western scholars are referring to when they talk about identity.

Bản sắc refers to something real and identifiable by anyone. “Identity,” on the other hand, is something which people THINK or IMAGINE is real ABOUT THEMSELVES. It does not exist on its own, but is constructed, imagined and/or invented.

For example, Americans THINK that they are a people who uphold and promote freedom. They are taught this in school when they are young, and their government makes this point regularly as well. In some cases this is true, but in other cases it is not.

In the 1980s, the US was a strong supporter of Iraq which was ruled by Saddam Hussein. There wasn’t much of any freedom in Iraq at that time, and the US didn’t do anything to promote freedom in Iraq at that time. The US government was happy to support the dictator, Saddam Hussein, because he was fighting against a country which was considered an enemy of the US, Iran. So the behavior of the US government at that time did not fit with its national identity. At that same time, the US had thousands of troops in South Korea to protect its freedom, and that did fit with the national identity.

So an identity is something which is constructed and imagined. If Americans were not taught in elementary and high school and reminded by their government that as a people they promote freedom, would they actually think that way? Most likely not.

To be fair, for an identity to be believable there has to be some truth to it, and the thousands of US troops in South Korea provide such proof in the case of the American belief that they are a people who promote freedom. However, because it is something which is constructed and imagined, there is also much about it which is not true, and that was evident in Iraq in the 1980s, when the US was happy to provide a dictator with weapons so that he could fight Iran, as well as to prevent his own people from being free.

When Western scholars write about national identity they focus on this fact that it is something which is “constructed” or “imagined.” They try to understand who or what forces are behind this effort to construct this identity, and why they are doing this, or why people feel the need to imagine themselves to be a certain way.

In Vietnam today, the government is working very hard, as it has for decades now, to get people to think and live in ways which it approves of. In recent years it has used this term, bản sắc dân tộc, in doing so. As this term is used by the government in Vietnam, it does not refer to an “identity” as Western scholars understand and use that term, but as “the true characteristics of the nation,” which is what these words literally mean. The Vietnamese government wants people to believe (and people in the government probably do actually believe this themselves) that there are real characteristics which exist and which can be identified which make up the bản sắc dân tộc.

In promoting the idea of bản sắc dân tộc, the Vietnamese government is actually helping to create a national identity, just as every time the US government talks about promoting freedom it does the same. There are people in Vietnam who BELIEVE that the Vietnamese as a people share certain “true characteristics,” just as there are Americans who BELIEVE that Americans as a people promote freedom. However, if Vietnamese scholars examined this issue closely, as American scholars have done for their own society, they would find that like every effort to construct a national identity around the world, these “true characteristics” are filled with contradictions and are not actually “real.”

The problem, however, is that I don’t see how Vietnamese scholars can ever do this when they do not have a term to refer to the concept of “identity.” Bản sắc dân tộc does not mean “identity.” It attempts to refer to something “real.” An identity is merely something which people “think.” A better term in Vietnamese would be “khái niệm bản sắc dân tộc” because an identity is a belief or a perception.

I know that the way the Chinese express the concept of identity is as “the recognition of/identification with ones status/position” (身份認同). That’s awkward, but it makes much more sense than bản sắc because identity involves recognition/identification. The term for national identity is then “the recognition of/identification with the status/position of the nation” (國家身份認同), which is even more awkward, but again it’s understandable.

With these expressions, Chinese can convey the concepts of “identity” and “national identity.” Vietnamese cannot do that with bản sắc dân tộc. They also can’t possibly understand what Western scholars have talked about for decades if they think that “identity” is bản sắc dân tộc.

Actually, I find this whole issue fascinating and emblematic of much that has gone on in Vietnam in the past two decades. One of the main reasons why the Vietnamese government is promoting the idea of bản sắc dân tộc is because they fear the forces of globalization. Meanwhile, Vietnamese intellectuals can’t find an effective way to translate the Western concept of an “identity.” As such, I think it’s the intellectuals who should be worrying, not the government.