In 1969 Trần Huy Liệu wrote an article in Nghiên cứu lịch sử in which he defended the importance of patriotism and differentiated it from what he called (chủ nghĩa dân tộc hẹp hòi). Ultimately what he argued was that unlike nationalism, true patriotism would not contradict the tenets of international communism, and therefore it was acceptable and good.

Trần Huy Liệu essentially argues that prior to the 20th century it was the scholars who led the people to protect the country, and the scholars were conservative and xenophobic. This is what made their nationalism “narrow.”

In the 20th century, however, a capitalist society then emerged. Subsequently, the Party began to lead the workers to protect the country. Because the Party was dedicated to creating a socialist society, and was thus part of an international community, the sentiment which they instilled in the workers was not a conservative and xenophobic “narrow nationalism,” but a true patriotism which encompassed a love for socialism. This patriotism therefore did not contradict the tenets of international communism which theoretically frowned on national distinctions.

While this is the main argument of Trần Huy Liệu’s article, there are other aspects of this article which are interesting. For instance, Trần Huy Liệu spends a good deal of time talking about the history of nationalism in Vietnam. What follows is an example:

Vì ở một vị trí luôn luôn bị đê dọa và xâm lược, chủ nghĩa dân tộc đã sớm nảy sinh và phát triển trên đất nước ta. Nhưng từ tình cảm yêu quê hương, yêu đất nước, yêu những người cùng nòi giống với mình đến ý chí bảo vệ chủ quyền và lãnh thổ, kiên quyết chống giặc ngoại xâm, làm cho nước được độc lập, dân tộc được tự do là cả một quá trình lịch sử trên cơ sở của dân tộc thành hình, quốc gia được xây dựng. Điểm lại, những cuộc kháng chiến chống phong kiến ngoại tộc Hán, Đường, Nguyên, Minh, Thanh của dân tộc ta hàng nhìn năm trước đều sáng ngời chính nghĩa với tính chất tự vệ của nó.

“Because it was in a position constantly under threat and invaded, nationalism emerged and developed early in our country. From the sentiments of love for one’s home village (quê hương), love for the country, and love for the people of the same race, to the will to protect the sovereignty and territory, to resolutely resist foreign invaders so that the country can be independent and the nationality can be free, this is all an historical process [which took place] on the foundation of the formation of the nationality (dân tộc) and the establishment of the nation (quốc gia). In sum, our nationality’s resistance wars from the previous millennia against the feudal outsiders (ngoại tộc) of the Han, Tang, Yuan, Ming and Qing were all gloriously righteous in their character of self defense.”

In this passage, Trần Huy Liệu is talking about the period before the 20th century. However, he uses numerous terms which only entered the Vietnamese language in the 20th century. At the turn of the 20th century there were many new terms which entered the Vietnamese language. These terms were all Western in origin and had been coined largely by Japanese when they translated Western books in the late 19th century. These Japanese translations of Western works were then translated into classical Chinese by Chinese scholars, and these works then made their way to Vietnam by the early years of the 20th century.

Some of these new terms were made by creating totally new expressions, whereas for others, existing words were used, but were given a new meaning or connotation. In terms of Trần Huy Liệu’s article, the passage cited above uses the following terms which a scholar in the 19th century either would not have known, or would not have used in the manner in which Trần Huy Liệu did:

xâm lược = invade (premodern texts sometimes say lai xâm, but not xâm lược)

chủ nghĩa = -ism

dân tộc = nationality/nation

phát triển = develop

nòi giống = race

chủ quyền = sovereignty

lãnh thổ = territory (this term existed prior to the 20th century, but was not commonly used)

giặc ngoại xâm = foreign invader

độc lập = independent

tự do = free

quá trình = process

quá trình lịch sử = historical process

quốc gia = nation (this term existed, but it took on a new meaning in the 20th century)

kháng chiến = resistance war

phong kiến = feudal

ngoại tộc = outsider (In premodern texts, this refers to people of a different clan than one’s own. Here it has racial overtones. Race is a Western concept.)

Put differently, if a literate Vietnamese in the 19th century could have read Trần Huy Liệu’s article, the bold terms below are all terms which that person would either not understand or find strange:

Vì ở một vị trí luôn luôn bị đê dọa và xâm lược, chủ nghĩa dân tộc đã sớm nảy sinh và phát triển trên đất nước ta. Nhưng từ tình cảm yêu quê hương, yêu đất nước, yêu những người cùng nòi giống với mình đến ý chí bảo vệ chủ quyền lãnh thổ, kiên quyết chống giặc ngoại xâm, làm cho nước được độc lập, dân tộc được tự do là cả một quá trình lịch sử trên cơ sở của dân tộc thành hình, quốc gia được xây dựng. Điểm lại, những cuộc kháng chiến chống phong kiến ngoại tộc Hán, Đường, Nguyên, Minh, Thanh của dân tộc ta hàng nhìn năm trước đều sáng ngời chính nghĩa với tính chất tự vệ của nó.

Because it was in a position constantly under threat and invaded, nationalism emerged and developed early in our country. From the sentiments of love for one’s home village (quê hương), love for the country, and love for the people of the same race, to the will to protect the sovereignty and territory, to resolutely resist foreign invaders so that the country can be independent and the nationality can be free, this is all an historical process [which took place] on the foundation of the formation of the nationality (dân tộc) and the establishment of the nation (quốc gia). In sum, our nationality’s resistance wars from the previous millennia against the feudal outsiders (ngoại tộc) of the Han, Tang, Yuan, Ming and Qing were all gloriously righteous in their character of self defense.

What should be evident here is that basically everything which Trần Huy Liệu says here employs language which did not exist in the period he is talking about. So this then leads to some obvious questions:

1) If terms for certain concepts did not exist in the past and new words had to be created for them when these concepts were eventually introduced from the outside, how do we know that people understood and thought these same concepts before they were introduced?

2) If terms for certain concepts did not exist in the past, how can we use those terms and concepts to understand and describe the past?

3) If, when we examine the past, we use terms and concepts which did not exist in the past, then to what degree do we misinterpret or misunderstand the past in doing so?

Trần Huy Liệu, “Phân biệt chủ nghĩa yêu nước với chủ nghĩa dân tộc hẹp hòi” [Differentiating patriotism from narrow nationalism] Nghiên cứu lịch sử 121 (1969): 1-2 and 40.