Phan Huy Lê, Trần Quốc Vương, Hà Văn Tấn and Lương Ninh published an official textbook in the 1980s for use in universities in Vietnam entitled the History of Vietnam [Lịch sử Việt Nam].

Phan Huy Lê wrote the chapter on early history. In this chapter, Phan Huy Lê notes that one of the main accomplishments of scholarship in the 1960s and 1970s was to establish “a foundation of scientific materials about the period of the Hùng kings.” Here he argues that the most reliable type of information is that produced by archaeology.

He then makes the following comments about the time period when the Hùng kings supposedly ruled over their kingdom of Văn Lang:

As for the time period of “the county of Văn Lang,” its end point can be determined around the time of the third century B.C. when the country of Âu Lạc was established and replaced the county of Văn Lang, however the starting point is very obscure. Legends and ancient texts place “the county of Văn Lang” in a legendary period called “the era of the Hồng Bàng clan,” which includes the periods of King Kinh Dương, Lạc Long Quan and the Hùng kings, and in the fifteenth century when Ngô Sĩ Liên wrote the Outer Annals of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, he set as a starting date the Nhâm tuất year, that is 2879 B.C. And in the “forward,” Ngô Sĩ Liên said, “the writing of the Outer Annals is based on unofficial histories,” and “for the time before the Hùng kings there is no annual chronology.” The initial year for “the era of the Hồng Bàng clan” is one which the author inferred: “King Kinh Dương . . . was contemporaneous with Di Yi, therefore one should record his first year together with Di Yi’s first year.” The perspective of the people (dân gian) in general is to view the period from the Hùng kings to the present as one of about 4,000 years and there are the common sayings that: “a country for 4,000 years,” “a country established for 4,000 years,” “4,000 years of civilization (văn hiến)”. . . One can see this as a legendary time period which serves as the basis for establishing a timeframe of what needs to be researched about the period of the Hùng kings.

Về thời gian tồn tại của “nước Văn Lang” thì giới hạn sau có thể xác định vào khoảng thế kỷ III tr. CN khi nước Âu Lạc thành lạp thay thế cho nước Văn Lang, nhưng giới hạn mở đầu thì rất mơ hồ. Truyền thuyết và thư tịch cổ đặt “nước Văn Lang” trong một thời đại truyền thuyết gọi là “kỷ họ Hồng Bàng” gồm các đời Kinh Dương Vương, Lạc Long Quan và Hùng Vương, mà đến thế kỷ XV, Ngô Sĩ Liên khi viết phần Ngoại kỷ của bộ Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư đặt cho một niên đại mở đầu là năm Nhâm tuất tức năm 2879 tr. CN. Như trong phần “phàm lệ,” Ngô Sĩ Liên đã nói: “việc chẽp trong Ngoại kỷ là gốc ở dã sử,” và “từ Hùng Vương trở về trước không có niên biểu.” Niên đại mở đầu “kỷ họ Hồng Bàng” là một niên đại do tác giả suy đoán: “King Dương Vương. . . cũng với Đế Nghi dồng thời, cho nên chép năm đầu với năm đầu của Đế Nghi.” Quan niệm dân gian phổ biến coi thời Hùng Vương đến nay khoảng 4,000 năm với cách nói quen thuộc như: “bốn nghìn năm mở nước,” “bốn nghìn năm dựng nước,” “bốn nghìn năm văn hiến”. . .Có thể coi đó là một niên đại truyền thuyết làm cơ sở cho việc giới hạn phạm vì thời gian cần nghiên cứu về thời đại Hùng Vương.

Does anything here make any sense? What was Phan Huy Lê trying to say?

He notes that people today talk about “4,000 years of history,” but what did people in the past say? 1,000 years ago, did Vietnamese talk about “3,000 years of history”? 500 years ago, did they talk about “3,500 years of history”? If so, where is the evidence for this? If not, why is it important to note that people today talk about “4,000 years of history”? Why should this information have anything to do with our understanding of early history if this is a perspective which is recent?

And what about Kinh Dương Vương and Lạc Long Quan? If they are legendary, then why talk about them? What are the “scientific materials” which demonstrate their existence?

Also, what is “scientific” about using a “legendary time period” to serve “as the basis for establishing a timeframe of what needs to be researched about the period of the Hùng kings”? Shouldn’t scholars be using “scientific materials,” like archaeological evidence, to determine the timeframe of the period of the Hùng kings?

Finally, Phan Huy Lê puts terms like “the country of Văn Lang” (nước Văn Lang) and “the era of the Hồng Bàng clan” (kỷ họ Hồng Bàng) in scare quotes as if to indicate that we can’t be sure that they were real, but by the end of the paragraph the reader is left with no evidence to counter the idea that Vietnamese history must be 4,000 years long and must therefore encompass this entire “legendary period.”

I would argue that this passage is a wonderful example of what happens when an intelligent scholar is forced to write a nationalist piece of writing for a government. The result is information which is beautifully incoherent. It sounds nice, but if you think about it, it doesn’t make any sense.