A few years ago the EFEO published the late-nineteenth century geography, the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí. They published two massive tomes which included the original classical Chinese text, as well as Vietnamese and (I think) English and French translations, as well as a third volume which contained the maps from the original text. I believe that they also produced a CD ROM as well. It is a wonderful resource. Unfortunately, the biases of contemporary Vietnamese have left their mark on this magnificent work.

I was reading the section on Hưng Hóa. This more or less corresponds to the area which is now referred to as the Northwest (Tây Bắc). In the nineteenth century, Hưng Hóa was home to people of many different ethnicities, such as Tai, Chinese and Vietnamese.

In referring to non-Vietnamese peoples, the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí is a bit vague in that it tends to refer to many such peoples as “thổ” (“locals”), whereas today we would probably be more specific and designate these peoples by such terms as Tày, Thái or Mường.

In a footnote in the Vietnamese translation to this text, the Vietnamese contributors to this project stated that “Formerly, the field of ethnography had yet to develop. The practice of recording the names of minorities just followed custom, such as [using terms like] Mán and Lạo, etc. It was also common to call people Thổ.”

They then go on to note that when the original text uses the term “thổ,” they will place in parentheses the name of the specific ethnic group which they think was likely living in the area which the text was discussing, such as “Thổ (Tày)” or “Thổ (Mường).”

As for the Chinese, in the Vietnamese translation of this text, they are referred to as “người Thanh,” which corresponds with how they were referred to in the classical Chinese version of the text, 清人, a term which refers to the fact that these people came from the area under the control of the Qing (i.e., Thanh) Dynasty.

The Vietnamese translation of this text then refers to the “Vietnamese” who lived in Hưng Hóa in the nineteenth century as “Kinh.” I found this strange as, having read many premodern Vietnamese texts, I do not recall ever having come across this term. As far as I know, this term has only been in popular use for the past 20-30 years or so. Therefore, I decided to take a look to see what term was used in the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí. And when I saw what it was, I lost all respect for the Vietnamese who worked on this wonderful project of reproducing the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí.

The way in which “Vietnamese” were referred to in the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí was as “Hán” (i.e., the same “Han” that we find in “Han Chinese”). For a scholar to render this term in a modern Vietnamese translation as “Kinh” is disgraceful. By doing so the views of the people who compiled the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí are completely erased. Obviously it must be embarrassing to a Vietnamese today, having been mentally enslaved by nationalism, to find that some of his predecessors referred to “Vietnamese” as “Hán,” but this is an historical fact. Attempting to erase this fact proves nothing other than that contemporary scholars in Vietnam are unwilling to engage in scholarship which is “khoa học,” and that quốc ngữ translations destroy the past.