In 1982, linguist Phạm Đức Dương wrote a very important article on the role of Tai speakers in early Vietnamese history called “The Origin of the Wet Rice Socio-Cultural Model of the Việt People from Linguistic Evidence.” [Phạm Đức Dương, “Cội nguồn mô hình văn hóa – xã hội lúa nước của người Việt qua cứ liệu ngôn ngữ,” Nghiên cứu lịch sử 206 (1982): 43-52.]
In this article, Phạm Đức Dương discovers that there is a large amount of shared vocabulary between what Vietnamese call Tày Thái (i.e., Tai) and Việt Mường (the linguistic predecessor of the modern Vietnamese and Mường languages) pertaining to wet rice agriculture and the cultural, social, economic and political practices associated with the cultivation of wet rice. Further, all of these terms originated in Tày Thái, which has to mean that the Việt Mường learned about wet rice agriculture from the Tày Thái.
Phạm Đức Dương provides a significant amount of linguistic evidence to support his claim. He points out that words for everything from rice, gạo/khẩu, to irrigation canals, mương phai (the same in Tày Thái), to waterwheels, guồng/cuống, are all shared by Việt Mường and Tày Thái.
While Phạm Đức Dương thus provides solid evidence of shared vocabulary between the Tày Thái and Việt Mường concerning wet rice agriculture, his efforts to explain the nature of the interactions between these two peoples in the past is much more problematic.
At times he states that the Việt Mường learned about wet rice agriculture and Tày Thái socio-political structures in the foothills, and then moved out into the Red River delta where they then developed separately. At other times, he talks about the Tày Thái and Việt Mường living together in the Red River delta in a context in which the Tày Thái possess more sophisticated knowledge than the Việt Mường.
For instance, Phạm Đức Dương notes the importance of dykes for the Việt Mường in their effort to control the Red River, and argues that the building of dykes grew out of the practice of constructing either irrigation canals or citadels, both of which he says were developed first by Tày Thái.
Finally, he argues that the first Chinese to write about the Red River delta described a world of Tai political institutions (i.e., the baan muang system), but in actuality this was “a political structure in the style of the ancient Tày Thái society which the Việt Mường were already using” (tổ chức chính trị kiểu xã hội Tày Thái cổ mà người Việt Mường đã áp dụng).
Phạm Đức Dương’s article is a perfect example of why nationalism and scholarship do not mix. His linguistic research was extremely insightful, but his attempt to explain what he found was hampered by his effort to find an acceptable explanation for Vietnamese, a people mentally enslaved by nationalism.
What Phạm Đức Dương found was that in antiquity the Tai were technically superior to the Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese learned everything from wet rice agriculture to citadel construction from the Tai. That is clear.
What is also clear is that eventually the Vietnamese came to dominate the Tai. If you read the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư for the years of the Lý Dynasty, for instance, you find the Vietnamese repeatedly fighting Tai groups.
The history of Tai-Vietnamese relations in the Red River delta is therefore not a peaceful or happy story. The contradictions in Phạm Đức Dương’s depiction of the past stem from his inability to face these facts. In a society dominated by nationalism, history has to support the harmonious unity of the nation, while the dominant ethnic group has to stand at the center of history. None of this is evident in what we can see of the history of interactions between Vietnamese and Tai, so it should not appear in an article which purports to be “scientific” (khoa học).
Sadly, in the end Phạm Đức Dương’s article, despite the solid linguistic insights it provides, just ends up being more shallow nationalistic scholarship.