I just came across the following article: Hồ Hữu Tường, “Đi tìm nguồn gốc của dân tộc” [Searching for the origins of the nation(ality)], Bách Khoa 206 (165): 42-45.

This article was originally published in Hanoi in a journal called Tiếng Việt in 1948. It is a fascinating article for what it reveals about the thought processes of a Vietnamese intellectual in the 1940s, right as the process of decolonization was beginning.

I will provide some of the basic information in this article for those who cannot read the Vietnamese original. There is so much that one can say about this short piece, but I don’t have the time to write my interpretation of this piece. I should note, however, that I use the term “nation(ality)” below to translate dân tộc because that term can combine both the sense of “nationality” and “nation(-state).” Rather than choosing one English term depending on which one seems more appropriate for the context, I think it is better to create a new term – nation(ality) – to capture the ambiguity of dân tộc.

Hồ Hữu Tường notes that in 1946 Đào Duy Anh’s Nguồn gốc của dân tộc Việt Nam [Origins of the Vietnamese nation(ality)] was completed and printed, but the First Indochina War then broke out and the text was never distributed. Hồ Hữu Tường states that he wanted to read this book, because he says that there is a need for people to have a clear understanding of the origins of the Vietnamese nation(ality).

The late 1940s, according to Hồ Hữu Tường, was a difficult time. As the Vietnamese were struggling to create a brighter future for themselves free of French control, there were some who argued that the land should be divided as the differences between people were too great. Although Hồ Hữu Tường does not make this point directly, he implies that he hoped that Đào Duy Anh’s work would provide historical evidence for the existence of a unified Vietnamese nation, and thereby strengthen the positions of those who wished to see such a nation emerge in the postcolonial era. In fact, Đào Duy Anh’s book did not provide the support for this position, so it is probably all for the better that Hồ Hữu Tường had not read it.

In this article, Hồ Hữu Tường states that in the 1940s there were two theories in circulation about the origins of the Vietnamese. One argued that they had migrated down from the Tibetan plateau and then followed the Red River, while the other contended that the Vietnamese were one of the Hundred Việt/Yue who had inhabited the area of southern China in antiquity and had migrated from that region to the area of Vietnam.

Hồ Hữu Tường dismisses these two theories for not being “scientific” (khoa học). He argues that they are based on legends which are used by people who are close to China to make a racial (chủng tộc) argument about the connections between the Vietnamese and the Chinese. However, race, Hồ Hữu Tường notes, is a concept which social scientists have demonstrated is extremely problematic, such that “even Hitler did not dare to fully defend it.” And as for the Vietnamese, Hồ Hữu Tường argues that it clear that there is no pure Vietnamese race. Instead, in the north one can see characteristics in the population of Chinese, whereas in the center there is Cham influence and Khmer in the south. The Vietnamese race, therefore, is one which is not pure but which is a mixture of various types of people (giống người).

Hồ Hữu Tường then provides further evidence that the Vietnamese could not have migrated southward from China by contrasting the thought patterns of Chinese and Vietnamese. If a Chinese sees a white horse, the first thought which the Chinese has is that it is white, and then comes the thought that it is a horse. Therefore, they call it a “white horse” (bạch mã/bai ma). Hồ Hữu Tường explains this progression as moving from a subjective thought (“white”) to an objective one (“horse”). Vietnamese, on the other hand, conceive of the same object in the opposite way. They first make note of an objective thought, that there is a horse, and then follow this with a subjective observation, that it is white. They therefore call it a “horse [which is] white” (ngựa trắng).

There is more information like this about music and language which I am skipping for lack of time.

Hồ Hữu Tường says that historians will say that between the Trần and the Nguyễn the Vietnamese “annihilated the Cham nationality (dân tộc) and drove out the Khmer as they made their Southern Advance.” Hồ Hữu Tường argues, however, that this was only part of the picture. He notes that each nationality encounters a similar experience as it passes through the feudal period, namely that there is an effort to unify the nationality which necessitates that groups fight against one another. Vietnam, Hồ Hữu Tường contends, was not an exception to this rule. He notes that in the past the Vietnamese and the Cham had spoken different languages and had different national institutions, a situation not unlike that between the ancient kingdoms of Wu and Yue during the Spring and Autumn Period in China, and even similar to France where in the past, he notes, people had spoken many different languages.

The Vietnamese therefore did not annihilate (tiêu diệt) the Cham. They destroyed the Cham kingdom, but the Cham were then assimilated (đồng hóa), just as the Khmer were later, to create what Hồ Hữu Tường termed “our nationality” (dân tộc ta). Therefore the history of the Vietnamese is not one of the “southern expansion” (Nam Tiến).

Hồ Hữu Tường then comes up with a theory for the creation of the Vietnamese nation. He argues that originally there were what he calls “local people” (thổ dân) living in the area of Vietnam. All of these local people were then conquered by outsiders. The Lạc Việt tribe conquered the north, the Cham the center, and the Khmer the south. Nonetheless, all of these people were assimilated by the local people, such that the Lạc Việt, for instance, came to speak of “horses [that are] white,” rather than “white horses.” As such, the Lạc Việt, Cham and Khmer did not annihilate the basic substance (bẩn chất) of the local people.

Following this initial phase in which outsiders conquered the region but were then assimilated by the locals came a second phase in which unification took place. Again, this is a process which Hồ Hữu Tường argues is common to all societies in their respective feudal periods. In the case of Vietnam, Hồ Hữu Tường states that the unification process was completed in the late eighteenth century by the Tây Sơn, but that at the time he wrote this article in 1948, it was still being carried out, albeit in a “new form” (hình thức mới).

He then concludes by noting that a history which takes into account these processes will be appropriate because it will demonstrate how the Vietnamese nation(ality) was created (cấu tạo) and grew to maturity (trưởng thành).

Hồ Hữu Tường does not present his ideas in a “logical” manner. It takes some effort to figure out what exactly he was saying and why, but the effort is worth it. For those who can read Vietnamese, I’ve attached images of the text below.