I haven’t had much time to post to this blog recently. I still don’t have much time, but I’m putting up this article here for anyone who is interested. It is by Nguyễn Phương and appeared in the journal Bách khoa in 1965. Nguyễn Phương is largely forgotten these days, but he wrote a lot in the South in the 1960s. His ideas were controversial, as they definitely did not fit with the nationalist views which was coming to dominate scholarship in both the North and the South.

This article is a continuation of work which he earlier published in the journal Đại học from 1960-1964, and all of these articles were combined into his book, Việt Nam thời khai sinh [Vietnam at the Time of its Birth] (Huế: Phòng Nghiên Cứu Sử, Viện Đại Học Huế, 1965).

Nguyễn Phương starts by saying that he has stated many times already that the “masters” (chủ nhân) of the Đông Sơn culture were Indonesian (Anh-đô-nê), however, he has never explained why he thinks this way. That is what he proposes to do here. (Note: “Indonesian” was the term used at that time to refer to the peoples whom we would today refer to as “Austronesian.”)

Nguyễn Phương argues that there is archaeological evidence for Indonesian peoples in the area of Vietnam from both before and after the time of the Đông Sơn culture. In particular, he notes that French scholars who study prehistory have identified two early cultures in the region, one at Bắc Sơn and another at Hòa Bình, which they associate with Indonesian peoples based on the skeletal remains that have been unearthed at these two places. Further, Nguyễn Phương argues that today there are still Indonesian peoples living in the mountains of Vietnam, namely the Mường and especially the Mọi. (Note: today we would not consider the Mường to be Austronesian, but some of the minorities in the Central Highlands, “the Mọi,” are.)

Given that there is archaeological evidence for the presence of Indonesian peoples in Vietnam prior to the time of the Đông Sơn civilization, and that Indonesian peoples are still there today, Nguyễn Phương argues that the absence of any evidence which demonstrates that Indonesian peoples left and then came back indicates that they have been present all along. What he argues in detail in a later article is that the Indonesians who once originally lived in the deltas were displaced by Chinese who migrated into the region at the end of the B.C period and in the first few centuries A.D., and moved into the mountains, where they are still found today.

Finally, Nguyễn Phương also discusses the work of scholars like Olaf Janse and Victor Goloubew who saw connections between the Mọi and other Indonesian peoples like the Dayak in Borneo, and who noted that the similar cultural practices (from material culture to religion) of these peoples are reflected in the scenes on the bronze drums.

From all of this, Nguyễn Phương concludes that the masters of the Đông Sơn culture were Indonesian.

While this might not please the Vietnamese nationalists in our midst, before we dismiss Nguyễn Phương as a misguided scholar of a bygone age, we should note that a recent monograph on the bronze drums makes a similar argument.

In her The Distribution of Bronze Drums in Early Southeast Asia (Oxford: Archeopress, 2009), Ambra Calò argues that we presently have no way of determining what the ethnicity of the people who made the Đông Sơn bronze drums was. However, the similarities in the imagery on the bronze drums with the cultural practices of Austronesian peoples, like the Dayak on Borneo, and what we know of the ancient migrations of Austronesians and the spread of their languages, all lead Calò to argue that the Đông Sơn bronze drums at least represent cultural contact with Austronesian peoples.

A lot of scholars who wrote about Vietnamese history before nationalism hijacked it in the late 1960s were on the right track. There were problems with their ideas (Nguyễn Phương overemphasized the historical role of Chinese migrants to the region, for instance), but their instincts were right and they were pushing scholarship in a positive direction.

It is still difficult to say who “the masters of Đông Sơn culture” were. However, by picking up where Nguyễn Phương left off, and by critically dismissing much of the scholarship of the 1970s-1990s, I think Ambra Calò is again moving in the right direction.

Nguyễn Phương, “Lịch sử Lạc Việt” [History of the Lạc Việt], Bách Khoa 196 (1965): 29-37.